Trip Date: Saturday, July 11 2020
Reference Trip: Wandering up McConnell Creek
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you sprain or break something.
Difficulty Notes: A pair of moderate and very remote scrambles located up the NW branch of McConnell Creek.
Technical Rating: SC6; RE5
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
After a long and tiring day on July 10, 2020 spent approaching our bivy and scrambling Boar Station Peak, Phil Richards and I slept in until 07:00. The day dawned beautiful and after a quick breakfast we set off for two more remote, unofficial and mostly unknown peaks located in the far northern reaches of the upper NW McConnell meadows. Originally we were planning to move our camp under Smoky Peak for an ascent but due to snow cover and the amount of time traversing this untracked wilderness was taking we changed our minds towards Bellow and Howl peaks. The only source of any information on these mountains was Bivouac and it had no recorded ascents, not even from the indefatigable Rick Collier who only briefly mentioned Bellow Peak in his Boar Station report. We weren’t assuming any FA’s but finding an old register might be fun.
We set off from camp, following a planned high-line traverse along the western edge of the valley above the willows and bushes below. The next few hours were among the best hiking I’ve done in the Rockies. We were blown away at almost every turn by the sheer number and brilliance of the wildflowers and views off the traverse over the green valley and rushing streams below. The morning sun angled perfectly off the rolling terrain and made everything look exotic and lush.
As we neared the end of our traverse we looked for an easy way off to the valley below and scrambled down a moderately exposed cliff. On return we simply avoided this by going directly up the north end of the bench instead.
Despite the beauty of the valley when seen from a hundred meters off the deck, once we started across it, it quickly became apparent that it was choked with willows and shrubs and would be problematic to hike in many places. We wound our way north and east towards Bellow Peak’s access valley, we could no longer even see the peak. I was surprised when we encountered a unique moonscape filled with small ponds and tarns that we’d already been on the move for almost 3 hours!
The rock garden that we spent half an hour navigating through was obviously part of the broken, slabby ridge running between Boar Station and Bellow Peak and was very impressive. Finally we rounded the largest and highest tarn and felt like we were just finished approaching our first summit still at least 600 meters above us. The main question I was concerned with wasn’t whether or not our ascent slope would go – it looked pretty easy. My question was whether or not our chosen ascent slope actually hit the true summit or not! Already from afar, earlier in the day while on the traverse, I’d started fretting a bit that another high point to the right of ours might be higher and didn’t look to be connected easily. The topo maps didn’t help as they didn’t show the separate summits at all.
There wasn’t much to do but start up and hope we were picking the right line, so that’s what we did. Once again Phil kicked steps up steep snow slopes, I wished we’d brought our crampons for some of the hard snow but we managed to ascend it in our light approach shoes. Once we reached the col with Howl Peak our views past Snarl Peak to the north opened up, including a stunning tarn just north of Smoky Peak. From the col we ascended steep scree to the summit ridge where we were delighted to not only see we were on the highest point but that there was no evidence of a cairn either. We were likely a first ascent and for sure a FRA for Bellow Peak.
The views from the summit of the 3060m Bellow Peak were excellent in crisp, clear summer morning lighting. We spent quite some time ogling some of Banff’s and the upper Clearwater / Ram Rivers more remote and obscure summits including Harris, Recondite, Simpson, Icefall, Mamen, Cheshire and Whelk. Looking over Chirp Peak to Divide and Shale Passes brought back some great memories from our likely 2nd ascend of Condor Peak in 2019. The wind was cold and we had another peak to bag so after a few more photos (!!) we started the descent towards Howl Peak.
As we traversed back out of Bellow Peak’s access valley towards Howl Peak’s parallel one, Phil and I both commented how enjoyable Bellow Peak had been. The snow ascent with a perfect scree descent, the FA, the special views (likely not seen be anyone else – or at least very few from that angle) and the feel of the place all combined for a pretty special moment. We never questioned our subsequent ascent of Howl Peak but I think we were both wondering how the heck it could possibly top Bellow! One of the main drivers to continue up another summit was the allure that it might be a 2nd FA of a 10,000 foot peak on the same day – not something that happens all the time.
The traverse was gorgeous, especially when we entered above the main NW meadows where clouds and sun and blue skies combined with sparkling tarns, gray rock and green growth playing off each other as only nature can do. We turned north up the approach towards Howl Peak and I immediately felt a familiar feeling. Was our chosen ramp going to lead to the highest point?! Again, the topo maps didn’t show separate summits but our eyes certainly did! Once again, just as on Bellow Peak, we didn’t have much choice but to pick the most likely ramp and head up.
We approached the bottom of the very steep ascent ramp and started up on vegetated slopes which soon started petering out. Once the vegetation ran out we realized we were on a tilted table of rocks – each one threatening to come down when we did so much as breathe on it, nevermind step on them! It was a delicate dance to the summit slopes from this point – not my favorite type of terrain. I always think that ascending large blocks of loose rock is like playing the lotto. All it takes is one to come down on your ankle or leg and you’re done. Thankfully we survived this nasty slope and soon were taking advantage of some slabs leading to the top – or what we hoped was the top. As I scrambled a loose and moderately exposed ridge towards the summit I was relieved to see that we were once again on the right line. PHEW!
The views from the summit of Howl were very similar to those on Bellow. Clouds and humidity had built up and took some of the crispness out of the photos. One other fly in the ointment was the sight of a cairn on the crumbling summit – this was not going to be an FA. Even more disappointingly we didn’t find a register either so we have no idea who beat us up this remote unofficial summit. Maybe someday we’ll find out.
After taking in the views we started our descent towards a long, steep snow slope clinging to the west edge of the ramp against a cliff band guarding it. The snow was too steep at first but after a bit we got onto it and enjoyed a fast descent almost right back into the valley below. On our way down Phil spotted something in a lingering snow bank in the valley far below. It was a bear den! We agreed to hike past it – any residents would be long gone at this time of year.
Traversing the meadows back to our high-line route was another magical experience. The flowers were out and the clouds lent a mystical quality to the landscape. We agreed that we had to ascend the high-line despite low energy levels and set off towards it, hoping to use a series of obvious animal trails that were visible from afar.
The high-line traverse was almost as good on return as approach much earlier in the day. The sun was higher now and the tarns were lit up brilliantly. We went even higher than that morning – I was getting seriously bagged by the time we finally started descending to the last lake before our bivy.
Finally, almost 12 hours after leaving that morning we were back at our bivy. We knew right away on arrival that we would have to do something to deal with the horrendous bugs but for now we needed supper and a rest!
It’s hard to put this day into a trite summary. There was simply way too much going on to do it justice. There was exhaustion, bugs and willows but there was also wildflowers, soaring summit views and exhilarating hiking through a special hidden place that very few have trod before. Let’s just leave it at that.