Wandering up McConnell Creek

Trip Dates: Friday, July 10 2020 to Sunday, July 12 2020 
Total Elevation Gain (m): 4100
Total Trip Time (hr): 58 
Total Trip Distance (km): 118
Peaks Ascended: Boar Station, Bellow, Howl
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3- you fall, you break something.  
Difficulty Notes: One of Banff National Park’s most remote valleys and series of peaks. This is a fairly serious off-the-grid trek and you should come prepared for swift creek crossings, fickle weather, trackless Rockies landscapes and very loose and unstable slopes.
Technical Rating: TL2, OT4, SC6; RE5
GPS Track: Gaia
Map: Google Maps

In July of 2017 Phil and I ascended Cataract Peak and paid close attention to a few remote valleys located to the east of this lofty, lonely perch of snow and rock. Partly due to these views, in August of 2018 Phil and I did a 2 day trip into Mount McConnell, becoming the 6th or 7th ascent party on one of Banff’s more remote summits. In late June 2019 I joined Phil and Jo on a fantastic 3 day trip over 3 passes in the eastern Banff front ranges of the Rockies just west of the Ya Ha Tinda ranch and north of the Red Deer River. In September 2019 I joined Mike and Cornelius on a remote hiking and scrambling adventure into the “Heart of Banff” up more obscure Banff summits such as Deluc, Dip Slope and Clearwater Mountain. Earlier this year Phil and I completed our biggest day trip to date – a 73km bike ‘n scramble up Mount White and Grouse Peak. All of these trips and the many kilometers traveled between them contributed towards Phil and my latest adventure up one of Banff National Park’s most remote and inaccessible valleys. Early in 2020 with the mountains still coated in winter coats of snow Phil put together a comprehensive plan involving the upper NW corner of the McConnell Creek basin. It ticked all the boxes for us. Remote? Check. Tarns? Check. No official trails? Check. Wild creeks? Check. Rarely ascended peaks? Check. Big peaks? Check. We put it on our list and concentrated on other things until it made sense to bring it to the table again.

Left is looking north down the Roaring Creek Valley lined by very obscure summits such as Deluc, Dip Slope and Smoky Mountain. At center is the McConnell Creek Valley which is lined by beauties such as Snort, Bleat, McConnell and Boar Station. At right is the Drummond Icefield and Mount Drummond itself.
Views back down the NW shoulder over the Red Deer River from our 2020 ascent of Mount White. Boar Station looming large at distant left. Divide Pass at center, McConnell Creek at left, Mount Tyrell at right.

Planning for McConnell Creek started again in earnest when Boar Station Peak became highly visible and firmly planted in our minds after seeing it repeatedly from Mount White. We noticed that conditions were pretty good considering how snowy many other big peaks in the Rockies are this year. When the weather forecast cooperated for almost an entire weekend we decided to do the trip sooner rather than later. We agreed to a three day / two night plan that involved accessing a bivy in the upper NW McConnell Creek drainage and ascending some pretty obscure peaks that may or may not have recorded ascents. We agreed to meet at the Bighorn Campground parking area near Ya Ha Tinda on Friday morning at 08:00. 

McConnell Creek Overall Trip Map

Day 1 – Tinda – Red Deer River – McConnell Creek – Boar Station Peak – Bivy

We’ve done this part before. More than once. The distance required to reach McConnell Creek from the Bighorn Campground at Ya Ha Tinda requires 14km of biking and approximately 17km of hiking. The first 14km hardly count anymore. At least mentally we write it off as a prelude to any trips into this area of the Rockies. There are some uphill sections but overall it’s a pretty simple bike ride. Making things interesting is a crossing of Scalp Creek near the start of the ride that gets the feet and legs soaking wet right from the start. At least this time the weather was gorgeous as we biked through the ranch with big packs. I don’t enjoy biking with an overnight pack but at least we’ve done a lot of bike approaches this year so I was in better shape than a year previous on the 3-passes trip. It took us only an hour or so and we were locking up the bikes and preparing for a long walk ahead.

I’ve written about the Cascade fire road trail many times before and it was no different than a few weeks previous on our Mount White trip – other than the bison had moved on. The sun was out and a cool west breeze kept the bugs and sweat at bay and made for extremely pleasant hiking. At the Tyrell Creek crossing we met another couple with a dog who’d just come over Elkhorn Pass from the Panther River. They spoke of a scary, chest deep crossing – no thanks for me! The man really wanted to know exactly where we were heading for some reason. I mumbled something about “Divide Pass” and avoided the need for accuracy. Sometimes you have to just keep things a bit tighter to the chest – especially when you’re going seriously off grid and don’t need everyone to know exactly what’s what. After the easy Tyrell Creek crossing we continued our long march to McConnell Creek, passing the intersection of the Cascade fire road and Red Deer River trail near the bridge leading to Mount White and Snow Creek Summit.

Hiking along the Red Deer River trail. Prow Mountain at center.

Soon we passed the faint trail leading north towards Divide Pass and Chirp Peak and I was officially hiking on a section of trail that was new to me – my favorite kind of explor8ion. For the next hour or so we continued up the Red Deer River, slowly catching up to Prow Mountain. This section of trail was surprisingly unmaintained and led me to muse what the official status of the Red Deer River trail is nowadays? The very fact that I couldn’t find an updated trail conditions report says more than anything else. The trail isn’t horrible but you should expect blow down, willows and at least a few fierce stream crossings at McConnell and Drummond Creek.

By 13:30 we were finally arriving at the feisty, noisy confluence of the Red Deer River and McConnell Creek. I was very happy that we were not planning a crossing here – although an easier option for wading does exist just upstream of the confluence. We were planning to hike up the eastern side of the drainage, hoping to find the old outfitter trail that Rick Collier’s team found in 2000 but not counting on it. There were some strange details in Rick’s report that confused us when planning and reading what he’d done. Firstly there was the timing. Their split times for the hike didn’t seem that slow but it took them 3 full days just to approach and scramble Boar Station. We were planning to approach and ascend Boar Station on day 1! Secondly was their route choices. They tried to shortcut the approach to Boar Station from the Red Deer River trail but ended up in a horrid bushwhack. We could not figure out why they didn’t simply walk the trail to the confluence and go up the creek instead – navigation would be easier if nothing else. Rick also wasn’t positive about the outfitter trail, mentioning something about a “loop” and going the wrong direction. All-in-all it wasn’t a pleasant sounding expedition to be honest. Good thing we were adding two peaks and much more off-trail travel in the same time frame!

Turning up McConnell Creek off the Red Deer River trail. Boar Station barely visible through trees at right.

I have to admit that I was feeling a bit tired already at this point of the day. I was mentally psyched for the explor8ion ahead, but physically I have been putting my body through some pretty tough trips this year and it was starting to catch up with me. Biking and hiking over 31km with a “heavy” pack (compared to usual) was making some body parts complain more than usual. I dealt with the pain and tiredness the way I always do – ignoring it and moving on. It was a gorgeous afternoon as Phil led the way up the open banks of the wild, untamed McConnell Creek drainage towards a very distant looking Boar Station.

The openness didn’t last long. Within about 7.5 minutes we were staring at a pile of dead trees thinking, “now what?!”. Again – you can either get depressed and fight the bush or you can shrug your shoulders and settle into things. Phil and I have experience with valleys like this and despite their beauty and remoteness, there’s a reason very few people bother with them. They’re a crap-ton of work! Just as on our Mount McConnell trip, we had to tell ourselves to slow down and enjoy the little things. Every 100 meters of progress is progress and adds up after a few hours. We were hoping to learn from the McConnell trip that these side valleys from the Red Deer River are MUCH bigger than they appear while planning them. Moving 5-10 kilometers up these untamed tracts of mountain wilderness can take much longer than we’re used to from on-trail and easy off-trail travels. Thankfully the blow-down didn’t last and soon we were back in fairly open forest, following bits of animal trails here and there. And then the miracle happened. We stumbled on very old, cut logs with corresponding blaze marks cut into trees indicating a human-built trail! YES!! The infamous outfitter trail that was already old 20 years ago was live and well, being kept open by animals and the odd human wandering up the creek. This was a huge game changer for our trip and a giant energy boost for tired minds and bodies.

Hiking high up above McConnell Creek.

The outfitter trail took the most logical lines high above deep canyons where the creek roared through far below. At first it was tough to follow the old, overgrown path but soon our minds and eyes adjusted for this new mode of travel and instead of looking for a defined trail we looked for blazes (some looked surprisingly fresh) and more significant – cut logs and tree stumps. Over the next few days we found out that “blazes” exist everywhere in nature (mostly from fallen trees rubbing the bark of other trees) but cut trees do not. Every other time we thought we were on a (human built) “trail”, other than the outfitters, we were not. I cannot state enough how much this trail assisted our minds and bodies for the next few kilometers. Stunning views over McConnell Creek lifted my spirits even more and soon I was thinking I just might have the energy to tackle Boar Station this day. And then we lost the trail – or rather it lost us.

ASIDE – The “Warden Range”

After returning from our trip, Phil did some digging into trails up McConnell Creek and came up with something pretty darn interesting. On the 3rd or 4th page of a Google search he discovered an article from 1985, detailing a trip into the area by a group of park wardens to commemorate 6 wardens who’d lost their lives in the line of duty in the 100 years of the parks system. What really made this trip very interesting was the method of their commemoration – naming 6 previously unclimbed and unnamed summits after them as in the following map.

The McConnell Creek Warden Range

The interesting thing is that the proposed names never seem to have taken hold, despite all the summits being climbed and registers being placed. Rick Collier even found one of these registers on “Snort Peak” – Mount Goodiar and didn’t mention the name or reference the wardens. Phil asked around and tried to drum up some interest in the story but it never took hold which is too bad. It would be pretty neat for the wardens to have the honor of these mountains named after them – so much better than random Internet names that don’t mean much.

On the old outfitters trail along McConnell Creek.

As we crossed the large south drainage that Rick used to ascend Boar Station (we were ascending west slopes much further to the north) we noticed that the trail didn’t take the line we needed it to – further up valley. On return we realized that the trail likely cuts down to McConnell Creek at this drainage and proceeds up the main west branch towards a distant Roaring Creek rather than up the large NW branch that we explored. Bummer. Ah well, there was nothing to do but continue traversing the NW branch of the creek in open forest towards our distant ascent drainage.

We reach the drainage that Rick used to climb Boar Station. We also left the trail at this point – it doesn’t go into our valley but likely follows the main McConnell Creek valley.

For the next hour we looked for signs of a human-built trail and probably wasted too much energy on this venture. Finally we realized that we were following bits of animal trails, which also worked surprisingly well. The best strategy (and one we used for the rest of the trip) was traversing high out of the creek / drainage and as far away as possible from the willows below. It took energy to traverse high slopes, but much less energy than willow-whacking in deadfall would have! Finally, as 17:00 rolled around we found ourselves in the west ascent gully to Boar Station with a trickle of water cascading down it and the peak almost a vertical kilometre above us still. It took everything I had to slowly pack my day pack and prepare myself for the ascent ahead. I was pretty darn tired and honestly didn’t know how I was going to do it – but we did and it was fantastic!

Views from the summit of Boar Station looking north to Bellow Peak with Chirp and Divide Pass lit up in green to the right. Condor, Forbidden and Tomahawk to the right.

It was almost 20:30 by the time Phil and I returned to our waiting over night packs and reluctantly started down the Boar Station ascent gully towards the NW branch of McConnell Creek below. If I didn’t have energy to ascend the peak 3.5 hours previous, I certainly didn’t have any extra energy now either! I was bagged. Completely done. It was a gorgeous evening and I was trying to enjoy it all but it was getting tough. We crossed a fast, knee deep creek before struggling up very steep slopes leading into our planned bivy valley. From Boar Station we’d scoped a nice tarn as our target, now we just had to get there. The bushwhacking started out intense and I let Phil know exactly what I thought of it all. He wisely forged ahead, ignoring my whine. This is what friends do for friends – ignore their suffering and pain and push them onward and upward.

After crossing an open(ish) meadow consisting of both bog and willows we finally came to our little corner of paradise. The tarn was as beautiful as we suspected it was but the lack of immediately obvious bivy sites was concerning. It was nearing 21:30 and the bugs were terrible as I spotted a potential site at the far end of the lake, slightly elevated off the shoreline and protected from wind by forest. We made our way around the lake which we soon realized we were sharing with a pair of loons. It took a few minutes of poking around but soon we found the perfect spot and while Phil descended back to the lake for water, I set up the mid and we settled in for our first night. The mosquitoes were absolutely terrible – the worst I’ve experienced in the Rockies – and soon after choking down some calories we called it a night and settled in. (Thank goodness we decided to carry the bug netting insert for the mid!!)

Beautiful views to Boar Station peak from our bivy site. Too bad the mosquitoes liked it even more than we did…

Day 2 – Upper NW McConnell Creek – Bellow Peak – Howl Peak – Bivy

I slept much better than I usually do on the first night – we even slept in a bit until 07:00! This was likely due to my exhaustion from the previous day’s efforts and the cumulative tiredness I’ve been accumulating after several large weekends of scrambling and hiking lately. Very strong winds overnight validated our choice for a protected camp despite the bug issues. It was a lovely morning above the lake as we prepared for the day ahead. Once again we had to be somewhat flexible with our plans. We had noted from Boar Station that Smoky Peak was very snowy and our planned ascent line might be tricky in approach shoes, even with crampons and axes. So we changed plans slightly. Originally we were going to pack up camp and move it deeper into the NW valley but this didn’t make a lot of sense if we weren’t going for Smoky. We decided light packs were in order and settled on an itinerary of Bellow and Howl Peak, returning to our bivy later in the day.

Traversing high above the McConnell meadows we came across this tarn with two loons swimming peaceful beneath a line of cliffs.

What followed for the next few hours was some of the most magical off trail hiking I’ve ever experienced. Phil had a high-line traverse mapped out to avoid the willowy valley bottom and despite the extra height gains and losses, the views and lack of ‘whacking made it 100% worthwhile. We found ourselves wandering through thick carpets of wildflowers – way too many to identify – and past some lovely alpine tarns and ponds. Time seemed to stand still as every 100 meters we’d be on our knees taking another flower picture or exclaiming out loud how “amazing” this was. It was the perfect start to our day and validated the struggles of the day before to get in here.

After ascending both Bellow (FRA) and Howl Peak it was time to return to camp. Again, we had to make the tough choice to traverse high above the valley – tough because this meant more height gain and side-hilling. There was so much beauty all around that we were mostly distracted from our tired bodies and made short work of the gains. The tarns and lakes were even more gorgeous than earlier due to direct sunlight shimmering off their cold, aqua-colored surfaces. Soaring, unnamed peaks, wildflowers, rushing streams and dappled light dancing off the water made for some pretty special moments despite the tired legs.

Hiking McConnell meadows back to camp.
A lovely alpine tarn on return to camp.
Our bivy tarn with Bleat Peak rising above at right.

We arrived back at camp around 19:00 after a much longer-than-expected excursion and thought we could enjoy the evening, maybe even with a few hours of reading by our lake. It was not to be! The mossies were even worse than the previous evening. They were relentless, swarming our faces when we sprayed the rest of our exposed skin with bug spray. I’m sure there were a few hundred around each of us as we tried to eat supper while swatting them away. Reluctantly we decided to wander further up the valley behind our bivy – only reluctant due to tired minds and bodies.

The evening excursion was pretty neat. The stream above our camp was coming out of a cliff face beneath a tarn and spilling over the edge. The brightly colored tarns contrasted with the soaring cliffs and gray rocks above and water seemed to be coming from everywhere.

A partially hidden tarn sits beneath Bleat Peak (R).

As we slowly hiked up to the largest tarn near the head of the valley under Bleat and Snort peaks Phil suddenly backed up and gestured urgently at me. What was going on? “A freshly killed goat just ahead”, he whispered back. Hmmm. There wasn’t much to do but yell loudly and go check out this strange sight. And it was strange! I still have no idea if the goat died naturally but I highly doubt he wedged himself in the bushes upside down before passing! I’m reasonably sure that a Grizzly must have stashed the body for later snacking and I’m just glad that we all avoided running into each other here.

We quickly checked out the impressive upper tarn before return past the dead mountain goat and bailing down the valley to our camp. We decided not to overthink the kill site but were secretly glad it was over 2km upstream of our bivy and no closer. We’d have had to move camp if it was anywhere near our chosen camp.

The large upper tarn sits beneath Bleat (L) and Snort (R) Peaks.

We stumbled back into camp around 22:00 and agreed it was definitely time to hit the sack. I was very tired again after another full day of exploring, hiking and scrambling all off trail. My mind was full of the sights and smells of the day and when Phil asked if “that was rain” on the tent I dismissed it as likely being bugs hitting the outside of the tent. Ten minutes later I changed my mind – it was definitely raining! The rest of the night was a little more restless than the first, with intermittent heavy rain dousing our little corner of the Rockies.

Day 3 – Bivy – McConnell Creek – Red Deer River – Tinda

Our exit day dawned mostly dry – at least there was no water coming from the sky anymore. We were glad to pack up camp without active rain and by 07:00 we were preparing to leave our little paradise. Dressed head to toe in rain gear for the anticipated soaking wet willow bashing ahead, we slowly picked our way down to the lake and made our way towards a distant Boar Station and McConnell Creek below.

As expected, the willows were indeed soaked and soon, so were we. The air temperature was warm enough that we sweated inside the rain gear and soon it was almost pointless to be wearing it but we pushed on. As usual, exit proved much easier and more straightforward than the approach. We ascended the west drainage on Boar Station to our traverse point and basically followed our GPS track and an assortment of animal trails back towards the open drainage and the outfitters trail. We were surprised to be on animal trails almost the whole way back to the south drainage – we also avoided bushier sections by staying slightly higher on return than we were on approach.

It was a delight to get back onto the trail again but it didn’t take long before we were in the suck just before the Red Deer River trail. I didn’t remember that section being so manky, but it was. The blow downs and flooding have eradicated the trail lower down and it was impossible to find or follow it for more than a few steps at a time. We suffered through it and by 11:15 (4 hours after leaving our bivy) we were delighted to be back on the Red Deer River trail.

The next 4.5 hours and 17km of hiking were spent under a mix of sun and cloud with rain threatening but never really hitting us. We continued to move quickly, hoping to beat any storms that were obviously busy hammering the valley we’d just come from and further west. Thunder rumbled over Ya Ha Tinda ahead of us too and we wondered if we were going to continue to stay dry.

The hike back was tiring but rewarding too. The weather was pretty stellar in our valley and we even stopped along the way to brew up a cup of coffee and enjoy our surroundings a little longer. Flowers were lining the trail in bright colors and the dancing shadows of passing clouds provided a dynamic landscape of light and shadow.

We arrived at the bikes just before 16:00 and Phil set a furious pace across the Tinda ranch – desperately outrunning storm clouds pouring through the Warden Rock gap behind us! We almost made it too! Despite a few showers and some strong winds we managed to beat any major storms and biked into the Bighorn parking lot only around 45 minutes from the Banff border. Despite being a bit tired and sore on this trip, it was certainly a highlight trip for 2020 and beyond. The wild landscape, unclimbed peaks and beautiful vistas in every direction provided an overload of sensations that I’m still working through as I type this report. 

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