Summit Elevations (m): 2755 (Mount White), 2760 (Grouse Peak)
Trip Date: Friday, June 19, 2020
Elevation Gain (m): 2050
Round Trip Time (hrs): 15
Total Trip Distance (km): 73 (41 on foot, 32 on bike)
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain something.
Difficulty Notes: This is a long day with creek crossings, bike approach and fairly easy navigation. The difficulty is putting one foot in front of the other for 15 hours straight and enjoying oneself the entire time.
Technical Rating: SC5; RE5
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
Phil and I sat silently in his SUV as the rain pounded down on the roof over our heads. We’d just driven up hwy 940 for 1.5 hours in a steady rain and now found ourselves 2km from our destination parking lot in front of a closed gate. In pouring rain. This was not what was supposed to happen today! After a delightful early season 52km bike ‘n hike up Haunted Peak we had quickly made plans for another long day trip. Earlier in the year I came up with the idea of doing Mount White in a day from the Bighorn Campground parking lot just east of the Ya Ha Tinda ranch. Mount White is not a difficult mountain by any stretch – it’s mostly a class 2 hike. What makes Mount White a big day is its location – buried in the Bare Range on the eastern edge of Banff National Park between the Panther and Red Deer Rivers with no nearby roads or parking lots. Most people, including the only 2 that I know who’ve done White bivied nearby in order to complete it.
When planning the trip I became a little concerned when the numbers popped up – over 65km of travel! Now that we’d done a 52km trip in 13.5 hours I was more confident that it could be done. Breaking it down, we had a 28km bike ride (return) from the parking lot with another ~37km of hiking. (Of course we tentatively added a 2nd peak to the itinerary that was 5m higher than Mount White, but nobody thought we’d actually be attempting that idiotic plan…) It was doable. The question smacking us in the face as we sat in the car was, could we do another 4km and did we have the will power to start such a big day in pouring rain and 10 degree temperatures?
Trust me. It wasn’t easy to drag our butts out of the car and start getting ready (while being rained on) in the muddy parking spot. I was feeling extra dejected for some reason – SpotWX had showed clouds over Mount White in the morning with clearing in the afternoon. I was not at all convinced that I was in the mood to be wet and cold for a 70+km trip! The problem with our Spot forecast was simply that Mount White was 30km away from the parking spot where it was raining. We were experiencing an upslope rainstorm and could clearly see blue skies towards Mount White through the Warden Rock / Wapiti gap. This sealed the deal. We would make a best effort attempt at our plan and see what happened. We were here now. The skies looked good further away towards our destination. What could go wrong?! (Oh yeah – we also didn’t have rain pants since we were packed super light – I was genuinely concerned about getting hypothermia if the weather didn’t improve…) We very reluctantly got on our bikes and started up (yes – UP) the muddy road towards the Bighorn Campground and Tinda ranch.
Long before getting the first 2km into the Bighorn Campground parking area we were soaked and covered in mud. This was a great start! We pushed on in light rain, entering the Tinda ranch area and a familiar combination of muddy tracks, a wide crossing of Skeleton Creek and finally back on a firm gravel road towards the Outpost at Warden Rock and the Banff National Park boundary. The bike ride went much better than expected – we were recovered enough from Haunted Peak to enjoy the bikes rather than suffer too much on them. The muddiest section proved to be fairly dry and before long we weren’t even being rained on anymore – despite very dreary skies all around us. A kilometre or so after the outpost and its plethora of quirky signs we arrived at the bison fence on the park boundary and the end of our bike ride under a cloudy sky. Our moods were cautiously optimistic at this point, despite the clouds moving further into the Red Deer Valley in front of us to the west. I was especially delighted to put on a dry set of approach shoes at the bike drop – congratulating myself for carrying them in for dry feet on the hike. It’s always a neat feeling to push through the bison gate and enter Banff from the east along the decommissioned Cascade Fire Road and today was no different. For whatever reason it always feels like an adventure coming all the way into this special area of the Rockies.
That “special” feeling didn’t last long! It never does – does it?! Within 2km of leaving the bikes we were back in light rain, my main camera was in the pack and we were staring dejectedly at 1-2 feet of water on the trail in front of us! Dang it. Why couldn’t we catch a damn break today?! This was starting to feel like my previous scramble up North Glasgow and Garriochmill Peak when my day just never really got off to a comfortable start – despite turning out fantastic in the end. There really was no choice but to wade into the cold water. This is why we can cover so much terrain in a day – we rarely stop for obstacles like water on the trail and we rarely fuss around with trying to find a way around it. Sigh. My spare pair of “dry” shoes were now a running joke for the rest of the day – I was happy to provide the entertainment. The best part of the water-on-trail experience was doing it a second and even a third bloody time. The day was a gift that just kept giving at this point and I was pretty much giving up on reaching any summits. And then something very special occurred and marked a dramatic turning point in our adventure. As the skies once again dried up we got to chatting about how cool it would be to see the bison – we knew they were around the base of Mount White a few weeks previous. As we rounded a corner in the trail I mused aloud to Phil;
You mean like those dark spots way over there?
Yep. We finally stumbled on the infamous Banff bison herd, wallowing on the Red Deer River flats right along the main trail. We were stunned. This was entirely unexpected and we stopped to consider our next move. Firstly, how the heck were we going to get around the herd? We knew they had calves with them and we knew they would aggressively protect them if needed. Secondly, we really didn’t want to disturb them unnecessarily – for their sake. We agreed to very quietly and cautiously approach and see if we could sneak around the herd. We failed in spectacular fashion. I had the telephoto lens on my camera and managed some pretty cool shots before I sensed the herd mentality shift to alertness. Remember – we were at least 500 meters off at this point and moving slowly and cautiously on the trail with trees blocking us most of the time. Somehow the herd sensed our presence and it didn’t take long for the whole shebang to trot up a steep embankment north of the trail and vanish as if they were never there at all. Huh. That was unexpected!
Our day was continuing on a much better note now that we had this special moment in our memory banks. With smiles on our faces and renewed faith in the power of positive thinking (yeah right) we continued past the smelly wallowing hole and up the Red Deer River. (The smell of the bison made me think how the prairies must have smelled like one big cow farm back in the day when millions of bison were wallowing and pooing everywhere. Not something I’d considered before. And on the topic of bison poo, it is very distinct and interesting in its own right.) An interesting note about Mount White and Grouse Peak is that both of these mountains are clearly visible already from the gap between Warden Rock and Wapiti. We were looking at them pretty much all the way in and they only get bigger very slowly at first! We chatted and planned future trips and within about 3.5 hours from the parking area we were at the junction of the Cascade Road / Red Deer River trail and the exit point of our 3 passes trip the year previous.
My mood was improving drastically as we marched down the road towards the bridge over the Red Deer River for a couple of additional reasons now. The sun was out in full force – nobody was sure exactly when or how that happened! Also, we were now hiking through an area that I’d never been before and that always notches my mood a few points. We continued hiking for a few minutes before the bridge appeared. I’m not sure how long this bridge will continue to be maintained or if it even is maintained anymore, but without it the Cascade Fire Road will lose a lot of its character. It’s only one bridge, but it’s a pretty major crossing and the Red Deer River is gorgeous here! My mood ratcheted up another few notches as I took in the unique natural channel on the upstream side of the bridge and the rapids on the downstream side. We spent a few moments here, soaking up the view and the warm sunshine and marveling how much we’d already experienced this day.
Reluctantly we tore ourselves away from the peaceful scene at the Red Deer River and focused on our mountain objective looming over us to the south. My original chances of summiting Mount White were about 10% 4 hours previous at the truck. Now I was at an 85% and eager to finish the approach to the NW ridge and our ascent line. We were planning to follow the same line that Cornelius and Richard took back in July of 2017. We continued up the fire road from the bridge, passing a curious meadow / camp area in the forest before crossing some beaver dams (!) and continuing up a pretty overgrown track on the old road bed. For the next few kms the road was a mix of overgrown willows and open hiking. We chatted happily in warm sunshine with chirping birds keeping us company and encouraging us on and up – we were finally going UP after 4 hours of steady movement which also felt great.
It was around 12:30 as we finally looked to our left and decided this was the spot we’d start our ascent to the false summit of Mount White. There’s really not much to say about this ascent other than it’s majorly foreshortened with stunning views up the Red Deer River and back over Divide Pass to keep you distracted. Initially when looking up this slope we thought it wouldn’t take too long to ascend but after an hour it was clear it would be a bit longer than planned… No matter. It continued to be a much nicer day than how it began and the views were keeping us entertained. I loved the “highlands” views over green grasses and copious amounts of low alpine flowers to the false summit. We passed over carpets of these flowers before struggling up steep scree on an old sheep trail and by 14:00 we were finally approaching our first high point of the day.
The clouds had moved back in as we approached the cairned false summit of Mount White. Corresponding to the gloomy sky was the gloomy dip between the two summits! We knew there was some height loss between them, but after almost 6 hours of steady movement and over 30km of distance, seeing 150 vertical meters of height loss / regain was a bit mentally challenging. We were also realizing that the 1200m of height gain that Gaia had promised us when planning the trip was not accurate – it was going to be much more. Despite all of these negative things, can you guess what we were discussing as we lost height towards our peak? Our heads were swiveling to the right and we were busy planning the 2nd one of course! The weather was a mixed bag but views were far reaching and storms seemed to be staying to the east. It was one of the longest days of the year and we had a chance at a rare ascent of a higher peak – possibly even an FRA. We decided that we’d at least explore to the col between “Grouse Peak” and the false summit of White and decide from there what to do. But first we had to ascend peak #1…
As we approached the summit of Mount White I had to smile. A giant, bright pink register glowed through the cairn – an obvious marker from Ephraim Roberts who is definitely leaving his mark all over the Rockies. I’ve signed at least 4 or 5 of these cheerful registers over the past year and every time I see one it lifts my mood a bit. In 2019 Ephraim hiked Chirp Peak before coming back to this area and bagging Mount White on his way back out to the Tinda ranch. He must carry more weight in summit registers than my whole pack weighs when he does backpacking trips! We took in the stunning views in every direction. As with most peaks located centrally and surrounded by river valleys, Mount White sports a pretty amazing set of panoramas. Many familiar peaks were visible such as Wapiti, Tomahawk, Chirp, McConnell, Drummond, Warden Rock and Dormer. Many other peaks were also familiar to our eyes and minds, but not to our feet. The Prow Mountain massive to the west has 5 named summits on Bivouac but only one is official and it’s the lowest one to the north. Other peaks such as Boar Station, Snort and Bleat Peak are a mix of official and unofficial but definitely remote and wild places to explore.
After taking in the wild views from the summit of Mount White, we turned our attention to the slightly higher peak to the south – what we eventually agreed to call “Grouse Peak” after the lake located at its south ridge. Our day was going to be long at this point already – there was no doubt about that. It was after 15:00 and we were over 30km from the car making this a 60km day already. But the north ridge and slopes of Grouse looked fairly straightforward and we knew we had the energy and likely the weather to make a successful ascent so we started down the SE bowl between White and it’s outlier on a mix of dinner plate scree, scree and snow.
The descent went easily and the snow made for some very pleasant plunge stepping. The green valley below with the shades of rock and snow above made for some stunning scenery as we completed a short bushwhack to the col with White’s false summit and stared up at our next objective. There wasn’t much to do at this point but start up, so that’s exactly what we did! The views back to White and to the distant gap to the Tinda ranch kept us distracted as we ascended.
Before long we were at the north end of the summit ridge, looking towards the high point which did not look to have a cairn. We walked the ridge with views of Melanin, Prow, White and Gable nearby and dozens of giant peaks in every direction. Sure enough! There wasn’t even a hint of a cairn and we realized we might have finally nabbed a true FA or at least FRA. Of an unnamed peak. To nab an FRA of an unnamed peak seemed totally on point with the nature of a most of our trips and we relished in it. The fact that Grouse was clearly higher than White only added icing to the cake. We had ascended our second peak of the day pretty quickly and decided to take 30 minutes to enjoy the days accomplishments before turning our attention to the very long egress ahead. My GPS was reading around 37km traveled at this point meaning we’d be over 70km and 2,000 meters height gain on the day.
With shadows growing long it was time to tear ourselves from the summit of Grouse Peak. The time was now 17:30 and we’d be exiting in the dark. Phil just hoped his headlamp batteries were charged this time… No matter! We had tons of daylight and interesting hiking ahead and were excited for it. We easily descended steep snow and scree slopes back to the col and then bushwhacked light forest down to meet with the Cascade Fire road. The next few hours of hiking were magical in late afternoon sun, very little wind and masterful views. The green spring grasses and flowers combined with lingering snow patches and wild unnamed creeks added an atmosphere of tranquility that is hard to define unless you’ve experienced it. The dozens of kilometres under our feet and brutal start to the day added a sense of scale to our day that was something we didn’t want to focus on just yet.
Finally we found ourselves around the western flanks of Mount White and descending back to the Red Deer River. It was 19:30 as we walked silently past the quiet forest meadow (where a deer was grazing) and crossed back over the river on the old bridge. The weather and early evening calm was so gorgeous we simply had to stop one last time on egress for a 15 minute break to take it all in. Sitting there on the bridge with my feet hanging over the edge was a special moment that I won’t soon forget. My year was already made at that simple moment as far as I’m concerned.
The rest of our exit was much more enjoyable and felt much quicker than it had any right to. With about 3 hours of daylight left we simply put one foot in front of the other and kept enjoying the long walk to the bikes. Periods of chattiness were combined with long periods of comfortable silence, each of us locked in our own minds after an incredible day. Phil opened the bison gate back to the Tinda ranch just past 22:00 and we set about preparing for a bike ride out in partial darkness.
The bike ride was fast and fun for the most part. There were moments of sticky mud and nearly falling but whizzing down the trail in near darkness with shadows and trees whipping by and the wind in my face made me feel very alive. The final 2km back to where we parked were a bit manky with a muddy road and some elevation gains, but at that point we were still buzzing from the days unexpected successes. Nothing could really ruin our day at this point. We arrived back at the car at 23:10 – almost 15 hours to the minute after leaving it. The numbers don’t really matter but in the end this was a day that will not soon be matched in either statistics or pleasure, I am quite sure of that.