Summit Elevation (m): 2998
Trip Date: Sunday, June 21, 2020
Elevation Gain (m): 1730
Round Trip Time (hrs): 10
Total Trip Distance (km): 32
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something (or worse).
Difficulty Notes: This peak involves 400m of height gain along a mix of good trail and rough horse mud on a bike before a bushwhack approach and several unbridged stream crossings. The summit block can be a bit tricky and exposed with snow, probably easier when dry.
Technical Rating: SC6; RE3/4
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
After a fairly lengthy day on Friday, Phil Richards and I weren’t entirely convinced that anything would be happening for us on Sunday, June 21 2020. As we slowly recovered on Saturday however, the stoke started up again and somehow we both got excited to head back into the Fording Pass area and attempt a few peaks in the High Rock Range that have long been on our radar. Almost exactly one year ago we’d completed a fantastic trip into the area and up Mount Armstrong and Bolton. The wildflowers, meadows and remoteness of the Fording Pass area was certainly going to call us back again – we knew that right away. After staring at the four lofty peaks just south of us all day, we also knew we were going to attempt them sooner than later. The weather forecast kept improving until it showed an almost clear sky over our objectives and we could no longer deny ourselves the chance. Plans were made to meet at the Baril Creek trailhead at 08:00 – yes that’s fairly late but we were still recovering from a 73km day trip 48 hours previous so I think we deserved that “late” start.
As I started the drive to the trailhead on Sunday morning I got a text from the Filibuster. Apparently there are cops awake and engaged early in the morning on hwy 1 and he’d be a few minutes later than planned. I slowed down a bit and let my thoughts drift over some of the trips I’d done already in 2020 which was shaping up to be a pretty darn good year despite all of its obvious challenges. I turned off at Highwood House and drove up to the trailhead where I saw a smiling Phil getting his bike ready. Phew. At least he was still smiling. Nobody wants to hike with “grumpy Phil” – trust me… We both commented how good our bodies were feeling and how excited we were for the day ahead. Despite some lingering soreness from the biking, I found I was more than ready to start the challenging bike ride towards Fording Pass. We pushed our bikes up the first small hill from the parking lot and got into things.
The Baril Creek approach to Fording Pass is straightforward and very bikeable but it does have its quirks. The first quirk of the Baril Creek trail is the fact that it is a shared use trail – and it’s shared with horses. If you’re a long time reader of my blog you’ll know that I have a love/hate relationship with horses and trails in the Rockies. I totally understand the need to have shared use trails and I get that horses and the Rockies have a long and valued history. Many of the places I get to are only trailed thanks to horses. BUT. Horses also wreck the heck out of a perfectly good single track, making it almost impossible for the rest of us (i.e. hikers, bikers, runners) to enjoy. It didn’t take long before we discovered that some horse traffic on the Baril Creek trail had chewed it up pretty good in spots. We were covered in water and mud within 2km from the parking spot but thankfully the trail is mostly a firm base and the destroyed sections were limited. Another quirk of the trail is that it has very solid bridges over Baril Creek as it winds its way back and forth over the trail, but then it also has unbridged crossings and deep, muddy puddles in between. You’re going to have wet feet and you’re going to get muddy on this approach. Deal with it.
Biking down a steep hill and across a beautiful open meadow about an hour into our day was a nice moment. For some reason the biking from there wasn’t quite as “nice”. Fairly soon after the meadow we made the exact same error as a year previous. In order to avoid crossing an unbridged Baril Creek on the snow mobile track, we deviated left along the GDT that leads to a small lake and camping spot. We realized our error and turned back but then had to cross a deep and fast creek. From there the trail started climbing steeply towards Fording Pass and we had to do a lot of pushing. My legs did not love this new development! I felt really good considering the efforts of Friday but mentally I wanted to start hiking and stop biking for some reason. We kept reminding each other that “the payoff is at the end of the day” but it was still challenging to keep pushing (literally) forward. When we came to the lookout over Baril Creek I was surprised to see heavy cloud cover over the pass to the west. This was not in the latest forecasts and had me worried about our plans which involved a pretty high level traverse.
Finally we ran into a fallen tree just before the trail to Fording Pass gets really steep. We had planned to start hiking here rather than push the bikes all the way up to the scree / shale shoulder that we’d biked to in 2019. If you’re a biker I still recommend you take the bikes that far, but we were tired of biking and knew that mentally it was better that we start hiking than push the two-wheel steeds up steep hills from this point. It was also at this point that I started musing aloud that perhaps we should change our objectives for the day. This highlights why Phil and I get along so well. When one person throws out a new idea or even a silly one, the other person generally agrees to at least think about it. My reasoning for changing our objective to Baril Peak was quite simple. Baril was still in the sun and our original objective was already clouding over. I figured that with a weather system obviously moving in we’d be better off on the summit quicker and further from the divide. We promptly turned off the Baril Creek / Fording Pass trail and started bushwhacking towards Baril Peak’s NW shoulder where we could see a break through its lower cliffs.
Thankfully Phil has a good memory and had done research on Baril previously and knew there was “likely” a way up the NW shoulder and NE ridge to the summit from the north side. The bush wasn’t horrible and we found ourselves wading across a lively Baril Creek before ascending steep banks towards a second and much smaller creek draining the bowl between Baril and its western outlier towards Mount Cornwell. A short and very pleasant hike through open forest on a carpet of green moss completed the first part of our approach. At this point the weather was good and we agreed to try the traverse towards Cornwell from the summit of Baril if conditions allowed.
It didn’t take long from the bikes and we were on open slopes traversing towards an obvious gully breaking through low cliffs on the NW side of the mountain. We stuck to climber’s left of the gully, scrambling up easy angled slabs and scree until we could easily bail over the gully and start ascending to the NW shoulder above. This part of the ascent was foreshortened but the scenery kept us distracted from loose scree for the most part. Clouds were building to the north and west and we could even see spotty showers to the east so our decision to change objectives was looking like the right one. Now we just needed any storms to wait for us to bag this peak!
After a bit of a grunt we finally came up to a surprising landscape under the NE ridge to the summit of Baril. A huge upper scree and snow plateau appeared before us! I enjoyed this section quite a bit – even though the summit block looming 400m above us was looking more and more intimidating.
We started the steep grunt up the NE ridge, giving slightly nervous glances to the north at the obvious weather approaching and wondering if we could break the steep cliff bands coming in to clearer view above us. I stuck on the NE ridge and was impressed with the view across the east face towards the foothills. About 50-75 vertical meters under the summit our route choices constricted and the day got a bit more serious. I was slightly ahead of Phil at this point and discovered a very nice scree ledge traversing up to the first low cliffband. I followed it up and scrambled up the steep band – pulling an acrobatic move that almost stymied Phil since his legs are shorter than mine! Above this things didn’t look so straightforward.
As we approached the next steep cliff band it was obviously not scrambling terrain. We could have forced our way up but wanted to look for something a bit more reasonable first. Remembering the earlier sidewalk ledge, I suggested we look around the steep east face and see if anything showed up there. Sure enough! Another reasonable scree ledge led us over the east face (lots of exposure here!) and towards another reasonable looking line up to the summit ridge. I led up this line which was definitely difficult and exposed (and LOOSE) which ended in a small but very steep and exposed snow bank over the edge.
We were racing the weather to the summit at this point and Phil quickly followed me up to the easy summit slopes and we dashed up to the cairned summit. We hurriedly snapped photos and signed the register which hadn’t been signed since 2015 and only by the same party that signed the first entry in 2013.
With possible tstorms coming in from the west we had a decision to make at this point. Should we retrace our steps down the NE ridge back to the plateau and down from there or try traversing to the outlier between Cornwell and Baril and see what happened with the weather? We chose the latter – not something I would have done a few years ago but I’m trying not to be too paranoid about a few clouds and some rain. We didn’t hear thunder and the weather was spotty – it would rain and sleet for a few minutes and then get sunny again.
The west ridge traverse towards Mount Cornwell was a lot of fun. Easy to moderate scrambling with some exposure and narrow sections but never anything too extreme. It took longer than expected, as usual, and by the time we finally balanced our way up to the intermittent peak between Baril and Cornwell there were more threatening clouds approaching again. The rest of the ridge up Cornwell looked doable but not without some fussing around to overcome lingering snow patches among obvious cliff bands. For once we made the decision to descend after ‘only’ one peak. Having done the outlier peak, we could come back for Cornwell, Aldridge and Courcelette another day.
The rest of our day would be a relaxing explor8ion of an unknown route (to us) back to Baril Creek and our bikes. We slowly ambled down shale and large scree to obvious scree meadows below the outlier to the north before taking a nice long break in sunshine and cool winds. I really enjoyed that break!
From the north shoulder of the outlier we descended a westerly line down very steep and loose scree to a hanging valley below. There were TONS of fossils in this valley and I enjoyed photographing them as we exited north for unknown terrain leading back down to Baril Creek.
It was a good feeling to be exploring down unknown terrain as we followed the creek out of the hanging valley. It was also a bit tedious – I generally avoid these situations if I can! The sun was out, the creeks were gurgling happily and we felt great after nabbing a long sought peak. Of course this is when we ran into an impasse – cliffed out high above both feeder creeks leading down to Baril Creek further below. After looking around a bit and weighing different escape options, we decided to backtrack and traverse a bit further to the north to get onto more favorable terrain and the second feeder creek below. And this is where the true magic of “off the grid” exploring came into play. As Phil scrambled down a moderate rock step to the creek below he became silent and then exclaimed;
You’re not going to believe what you’re on top of right now!
Sure enough. As soon as I scrambled down to meet him I couldn’t believe my eyes. The creek passed through an ice cave through holes carved into solid rock! It was amazing to ‘discover’ this landmark (at the time we didn’t realize that others have – of course – discovered it too). For the next 30 minutes or so we felt like old time explorers – discovering new natural treasures for the first time. This was one of the coolest things I’ve stumbled across in 20 years of hiking and scrambling.
Phil mused aloud as we reluctantly continued down creek how unlikely it was that we’d stumbled across the cave. If we’d gone for Cornwell or taken one of a half dozen other routes out of the hanging valley we’d never have come across it. After the excitement of our “discovery” we spent the next hour or so navigating through the bush back to Baril Creek and from there to the Baril Creek Trail and our bikes. As usual, the bike ride was surprisingly fun and fast and within 10 hours of leaving the parking spot we were done. Baril Peak far exceeded my expectations both for the scrambling and for the remote feel and “discovery” of the ice cave. I highly recommend intrepid explorers and scramblers undertake this adventure for themselves and discover that feeling of explor8ion and wilderness that so many of us enjoy.