Summit Elevation (m): 2891
Trip Date: Sunday, June 26, 2020
Elevation Gain (m): 1400
Round Trip Time (hrs): 6
Total Trip Distance (km): 15
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3/4 – you fall, you break something – or worse.
Difficulty Notes: Just as on Soderholm, the main difficulty with Red Man is accessing the peak. If you follow our route up and down the headwall it is class 3 (ascent gully) or 4 (descent face). I’d suggest looking for Matt Clay’s class 2 route just to be smart about things – although our route was fun.
Technical Rating: SC7; RE4/5
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
Ever since our awesome day trip of Mount Currie and Cross Ridge in 2018, Red Man Mountain has been on Phil Richards and my mountain lists. At the time we’d even considered adding it to our ascent but concluded that would be sheer idiocy. Ironically we’d find ourselves in exactly the same boat almost exactly 2 years later from the opposite side of White Man Pass but for almost the exact same reason. After spending 4 hours driving from Calgary to the trailhead for Mount Soderholm and completing that objective much quicker than planned, we wondered why not check out the White Man Pass / Cross Lake trail? And naturally, if we were going to be on the trail anyway, why not at least check out Red Man Mountain too? It’s these thought processes that can produce idiotic results, but you can’t always be practical about every life decision either or things get boring. Another factor playing into it all – at least for myself – is the simple fact that I am not like a lot of other folks in the mountain community. I have two kids in college, two vehicles, a mortgage and a dog. That shit ain’t free folks, I work a full-time job in my other life! I have to take advantage of my days in the hills. Any opportunity to have a multi-summit day is not to be ignored.
Clouds were building quickly as we drove down the Miller Pass Road back to the Cross River Road from our far-better-than-expected ascent of Mount Soderholm. We chatted briefly with a man and woman who were driving very cautiously down the rough road in a vehicle that shouldn’t have been there – and they knew it. He was very laid back and was keen on following me up the Cross River Road to the trailhead for White Man Pass. I passed him and stayed well ahead for the rest of the ~30 minute drive. The Cross River Road was good for the most part but a washed out section about 2kms from the trailhead turned the other vehicle back. We waved and continued on through the deep runnels to the better road surface on the far end. I wondered if a heavy rain would impact our ability to exit, but that was a “future Vern problem” so I shoved the thought back down. At this point you have to realize that both Phil and I were secretly hoping that something would happen to ensure we couldn’t actually bag Red Man Mountain. I know it sounds weird but it’s true. I was hoping the weather would deteriorate and Phil was hoping I would deteriorate. Unfortunately for both of us neither of these things happened.
We weren’t planning Red Man for this trip so neither of us had Matt Clay’s trip report on hand. All we had was Phil’s memory of Matt’s report and a vague notion of the route. To be fair, Phil has a very good memory and was amazingly on point with it on hindsight. My memory is crap at the best of times and I had no idea of the route. None, whatsoever. Phil guided us expertly up the Cross River Road to the trailhead along the Cross River and we parked at a wide area on the road. Now it was time to decide if we were truly going to make an effort on Red Man Mountain or not. Obviously the decision had been made already while high up on Soderholm and we both knew it. Some deep sighs emanated from the passenger seat as we opened our doors and started prepping for the second mountain of the day.
After drinking all the water we had on hand at the truck and stuffing our faces with some much needed calories, we set off up a faint, but obvious trail from the Cross River Road. (Interestingly our GPS base maps had the trail on the other side of the river for the first few kms but obviously a new one had been forged and so we followed the obvious one.) At first the trail had a firm gravel base and was fairly open. As we approached the lively Cross River we entered deeper forest and the trail deteriorated a bit. Although it never got really bad, there were dozens of trees fallen across the trail as it wound its way through the forest and up beside the river. The grumbling from the front of our “group” got a bit louder as the river also upped the decibels a few notches and the trees continued to prostrate themselves across our trail. I did my best to ignore all three of these things and on we went.
Some brief history on the ill-named “White Man” Pass and Cross Lake follows (mostly gleaned from Wikipedia). Note that I don’t love the name “Red Man Mountain” either but it is called that on every map and for now that’s the name I’ll respect (but not really).
- 1841 – James Sinclair – 17 families are guided up the Spray River Valley from Banff towards British Columbia across the Great Divide at White Man Pass by a Cree chief named Maskepetoon. The pass likely took its name from the few Maritimers in the group (the others were all Metis).
- 1845 – Father Pierre-Jean De Smet – Comes east from Windermere Lake up to the pass where he erects his infamous wooden “Cross of Peace” near the pass which is where the river and its source lake get their names from. Rumors indicate that he met Vavasour and Warre here as well, remarkable considering how isolated this area is and how few other explorers were roaming it at the time.
- 1845 – Henry James Warre and Mervin Vavasour – Commissioned by the Hudson’s Bay Company to determine if British troops could realistically use the pass for passage to defend British interests in the Columbia District of the time (British Columbia). They reported back that essentially this idea was ludicrous thank to the remoteness and untamed nature of the terrain.
After about 2km of hiking steadily uphill the trail crossed the river and continued more steeply up the other side. Phil’s memory of Matt’s trip report recalled something about a “meadow or open area” and a flagged trail leaving the main trail to the left. This unofficial trail was apparently built by the Skyline Hikers in 2016 in order to reach the false summit of Red Man Mountain, creatively dubbed “Little Red Man Mountain”. This trail also apparently passed easily through a mysterious “headwall” that still made no sense to me, as I didn’t have a hot clue as to the route or the terrain ahead and above. Based on this information we started scanning the forest to our left almost immediately upon crossing the river. No trail. No ribbons. Just the obvious trail rising steeply into the forest ahead.
As we ascended past carpets of Glacier Lilies without finding the side trail or the meadow I commented that we’d soon be all the way at White Man Pass. What would we do if we couldn’t find the trail? At first we decided that we’d turn back and hike down if we had to do our own route finding but as we approached the pass we realized the headwall was off to our left and there was very little reason not to check it out at least. This is how you ascend a mountain reluctantly – one section at a time! Sure enough. Just as we suspected, we arrived at an obvious meadow just below the pass without finding a trail or any ribbons. Huh. Ah well. More grumbling – this time from both the front and the back of the group – and we started bushwhacking to the base of the headwall above. When we hit snow patches the grumbling went from a low hum to a louder buzz. When we saw the headwall above, with no easy route through it and no hint of a trail the grumbling turned towards outright mutiny. Why were we doing this?!
I suggested we look for a break in the cliffs ahead and if we couldn’t find anything manageable we’d turn back. Dr. Phil agreed and up we went. Of course we didn’t have our helmets along because Red Man was supposed to be class 2. We found our break but we should have had brain buckets on for it. An upper class 3 gully with a silly ice/snow blockage worked OK to break the headwall but was certainly not simple hiking anymore. From the top of the headwall our route up along the SE ridge looked endless with lots of snow and dark clouds hovering above and pouring in from the west. This is where my lack of knowledge on the route kind of bit me in the attitude department. I had no clue where the freaking peak was and no idea where the route went to access it. The only peak we could see from the lower SE ridge was a false summit. Phil kept talking about a “low col” and possibly losing height and traversing and I did NOT like the sounds of that.
Reluctantly we continued on and up – side hilling the SE ridge and wishing we were on top of it. At some point we had a choice between snow to our left and scree above and chose to just go up and lose the height later if need be. The sky continued to darken but rain and thunder refused to appear (those were our turnaround criteria). Finally we stood just under the false summit and I could see the true summit. O. M. G. It looked high, it looked far, it looked snowy and it looked like a lot of height loss and gain. This was my low point – I’m not gonna lie. We traversed to a large snow slope and I stepped onto it tentatively to see what the snow was like. It was supportive but very steep, leading down to scree and rocks below. A slip wouldn’t be fatal but would suck. Without crampons or axes we had no choice but to descend 75-100 meters and traverse the slope where it was less steep. I avoided direct eye contact with Phil as we debated things. I knew that he was 101% ready to turn back at this point – he was basically begging me to turn around, and I really wanted to. But. I also really didn’t want to ‘waste’ the energy that I’d dumped into this peak and I knew if we didn’t tag it now I was likely not coming back. Driving over 4 hours for such an easy peak that is likely done multiple times per year (unlike the more seldom ascended Currie or Soderholm) isn’t something I was too interested in.
For some reason, as I stared out at the distant summit of Red Man Mountain and the height gain and loss involved in getting there I felt confident that we could make it despite also feeling like we wouldn’t. It’s hard to explain but the drive was deep within me somewhere to forge ahead. The weather was holding off but we couldn’t linger long to make our “go / no go” decision. I started down towards the lower snow field and Phil followed. We were both determined to keep going despite our brains yelling at us to stop the lunacy and return already. The snow was remarkably supportive and before long we were finished with the traverse and looking up at the main summit. We both felt slightly boosted by the easy snow traverse but I was still wondering at this point how the weather could hold off and how my legs could grind the final few hundred vertical meters to the summit.
I was pretty bagged by the time we gained our height back and found ourselves looking up at the summit block. It didn’t look as intimidating now that we were under it. I was initially concerned about the snow slopes near the top, but now I could see they weren’t as steep as they first appeared. There wasn’t much else to do but head up at this point, so we did just that. Nobody was running at this point anymore but we did make short work of the last few hundred meters. Phil kicked steps across the snow to the final summit ridge and we ascended it as quickly as possible, making sideways glances west and north to obvious incoming storms. Our summit views were certainly different than hours earlier on nearby Soderholm but they were still pretty spectacular. The incoming weather made for some dramatic scenes as we quickly finished our panoramas and bailed back down to the SE ridge below.
Our return back to the meadows was quick and fairly easy. We were a bit smarter about our route choices and forgot all about finding the upper scrambling trail. I followed a neat goat route down the headwall which was definitely SC7 terrain but other than that it was all pretty easy. We bushwhacked down from the headwall to the White Man Pass trail which we followed out to the truck. Although it looked like it was going to start raining any second we never did get anything substantial and remained pretty much dry right out to the truck.
Red Man Mountain was an interesting trip for me. On the one hand it felt a bit rushed and that’s not the way I prefer to climb mountains, but on the other hand it was that sort of afternoon. We managed to ascend both Soderholm and Red Man in 12 hours including the driving time between them. That’s not something you do every day and it’s not something that I’ve heard of anyone doing before, which makes me feel like we used the long drive very effectively. Sure! It would have been much nicer to have a beautiful evening summit on Red Man with lots of time to take photos and an hour at the top to hydrate and eat something but this just wasn’t that sort of evening. Maybe that’s our next peak. Sometimes you have to test your limits and that is never going to be comfortable. We learned something about our ability to push ourselves on this particular adventure and learning things about yourself is never a bad thing IMHO.