Summit Elevation (m): 3140
Trip Date: Tuesday, July 21 2020
Elevation Gain (m): 2515
Round Trip Time (hr): 12.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 36.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3 – you fall, you sprain or break something
Difficulty Notes: There are no technical difficulties if you follow our lines. This is a long hike up a creek and over two passes and an easy scramble up steep, loose scree slopes.
Technical Rating: SC5; RE4/5
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
About 5 years ago I read Rick Collier’s report of Hangman Peak on Bivouac.com. Ever since then I’ve been trying to recruit partners and / or find time to get it done myself. In 2017 I traveled up Whitegoat Creek with Mike Mitchell to scramble Mount Stelfox and attempt Bright Star Peak and Hangman taunted me even more after that trip. I realized after hiking up Whitegoat Creek that the peak could be done in a day, whereas previously I expected it to be a two day affair with a camp in the Littlehorn meadows. Despite my best efforts, I just couldn’t get people interested enough in this rather obscure First Range peak despite what I was convinced was going to be a gorgeous outing. I knew there was a winter OHV trail that looped over Littlehorn Pass that would assist with the hiking and I knew that many folks do a loop in the summer called “Littlehorn Meadows” that looked pretty nice. Finally, in 2019 I was contacted by someone else who’d noticed Hangman – Doug Lutz and Eric Coulthard. BUT. I went on a two week canoe trip in Ontario with KC and ended up missing out on their 19 hour fun-filled day. Arg. Two things came out of their experience that made me slightly less jealous than I otherwise could have been. Firstly, I learned not to bother with a bike – they had nothing but woes on this factor. 😉 Secondly, Phil Richards saw the photos and decided that Hangman was definitely a worthy objective and agreed to join me on my journey when and if I went for it.
With no canoe trip plans for 2020 and Covid-19 busy screwing up any thoughts of travel outside Canada and even the province, I was left with 2 weeks of vacation and plenty of local hiking and scrambling options to consume my time. The first thing I did was a 2-day getaway with Hanneke in Banff over the weekend before driving to David Thompson Country for a couple days of working off all that good food! On Monday I biked and scrambled the lesser known Mount William Booth and spent Monday evening enjoying a wonderful random camp in my favorite DTC spot. Tuesday was to finally be my Hangman Peak day and I was super excited for it. Phil and I agreed to meet at the parking area at around 07:30 (he was driving from Canmore) pretty much no matter what the weather did last minute. The weather looked good but there was enough afternoon clouds to have me a bit concerned about this obviously long outing.
I woke up Tuesday morning and noticed clouds. Lots of clouds! CRAP. This summer has been anything but predictable in the weather department. Just like 2019, in 2020 you pretty much have to throw out the forecasts and just play it smart. Hike and climb until the weather looks really bad and then call it a day. There really is no other play or you end up staying home and driving yourself nuts all the time. Despite telling myself that the weather could easily change again, I was quite disappointed that my day on Hangman could potentially be cloudy and even rainy and stormy. I drove into the parking lot and soon Phil joined me. We both commented on the clouds but both agreed that “we’re here now” and finalized our preparations for the day ahead.
I thought I was prepared for the first section of trail that goes up an old roadbed towards Whitegoat Creek but I had forgotten about how mysteriously wet this section is. It’s strange because the surface of the trail is quite gravelly but somehow still manages to get really muddy in short sections. Our theory is that water must run down the southwest slopes of Vision Quest Ridge and pool on the trail in spots. Whatever the case, we managed to avoid most of the muck with some bushwhacking and hopping around but our style is more of a “run and gun” nature and soon my brand new La Sportiva TX3’s weren’t so “new” anymore… As we hiked the clouds thickened until we put our rain jackets on and really started getting depressed. This was NOT the forecast and was NOT what Hangman Peak was supposed to be all about! I was very close to pulling the plug but honestly didn’t know what else to do at this point but keep hiking. Early on we both noticed a very strange bear scat pile on the trail. It was full of candy bar wrappers – I’ve never seen that before!
I was surprised with how quickly we seemed to be through the lower Whitegoat Creek section and moving on towards and past the turnoff to Whitegoat Pass and Mount Stelfox. I was also surprised by how many darn campsites were cleared along Whitegoat Creek as we continued up it! There were at least 4 or 5 clearings, some of them complete with tarp houses, pans left hanging on trees and many tent pads. Apparently the Littlehorn Meadows loop is much more popular than I thought! It also might explain the candy bar bear poo on the trail – we were now coming across more piles of this curious scat phenomenon. Suddenly I noticed a patch of blue sky ahead. We dared not hope but 30 minutes later and the sky was basically blue with lazy puffy clouds floating overhead. WOW! Emotions ran high as we celebrated the very unexpected win and hoped desperately that it wasn’t a brief sucker hole. The rain jackets came off, the good camera came out and we proceeded up the creek, following ribbons as they guided us through some of the more flooded sections. The biggest campsite before the first pass was located near some running water (the creek had dried out for about 3km beforehand) and we drank from the delicious cold source – I wasn’t carrying any water to save on weight. From the campsite we followed the creek bed until we noticed the trees thinning out and the views back to Abraham Lake opening up.
We stuck in the creek despite some evidence of the track going uphill over a slightly washed out section. This worked well and as we approached the 11km mark we crested the first pass just before Littlehorn Pass (I’m not 100% sure where the Littlehorn Pass is – but I think it’s the 2nd pass – or maybe it’s both). The Littlehorn Meadows are tucked between the two passes and the main trail goes down between Littlehorn Peak and the north end of Vision Quest Ridge following an obvious OHV road.
As we crested the first pass we were delighted to see lush green meadows below, complete with dozens of grazing sheep. Littlehorn Peak rose nicely over Littlehorn Pass and Hangman Peak looked surprisingly snow free – much less snow than Eric and Doug had a year previous at a similar time of the year. Energized with the view we descended to the meadows before hiking up to Littlehorn Pass, passing the sheep who really didn’t seem to care at all that we were there! We were making good time to this point and the weather had cleared completely out. When we looked out over the second pass towards Hangman Peak we got really excited – it was beautiful back there!
Despite the amazing views ahead we knew we were still only on approach at this point. We had to lose hundreds of meters of height into the valley north of Littlehorn Pass, so we got on with it and started down steep dirt and shale slopes to the green pastures below. We took a well deserved break near a stream under the 2nd pass before cutting across the NW shoulder of Littlehorn Peak and crossing the north branch of Littlehorn Creek near a fantastic waterfall.
We managed to avoid almost all the willows in the valley, following a faint animal trail as it wound its way into the south bowl of Hangman Peak. The scree slopes we planned to ascend looked pretty steep but we were confident that they would be much quicker and easier than trying any of the ridges that Doug and Eric contemplated and used on their ascent. We gathered some water for the ascent ahead and set about getting up the giant peak in front of us.
The scree was much better than expected. You might not believe it but wearing approach shoes actually speeds up most of my scree ascents. With the lighter shoes we kick less rocks down and can more easily find more solid footing and larger rocks in the slope to hike swiftly over. I resolved to wait until we crested the upper slopes to look at my GPS and was shocked that we only had 200 vertical meters to the summit when I finally did glance at it.
I got onto the south ridge proper from the scree slopes as quickly as I could and enjoyed some fantastic views to the east summit. The 360 degree panorama was stunning with many unfamiliar and unnamed peaks visible in every direction. This was Phil’s first real DTC summit (other than Tuff Puff) and he was enthralled with all the lofty peaks over 3,000 meters – many of them unnamed and likely very rarely ascended.
Of course we had to traverse to the west summit, just to make sure it wasn’t higher. It isn’t. We took some more photos before returning over the east summit and signing the register which had one entry from 2011 in addition to Doug and Eric. We still had a long way to return and were now planning an ascent of Littlehorn Peak on exit so we soon turned our attention to the descent. Going down was pretty darn quick! We used the scree and some snow lower down to rapidly exit the south bowl. I managed to grab a sublime photo of the “Littlehorn Falls” before hiking to the base of Littlehorn Pass. I was feeling pretty bagged as we started up the 200m.
I’m not gonna lie. After the previous days efforts on Mount William Booth, I was feeling pretty bagged as Phil danced up Littlehorn Pass and started up Littlehorn Peak. I knew he was also pretty tired but it was a little depressing how easily he ascended the slope ahead of me. I was left gasping over my poles a few times and took some flower pictures to slow myself down a little. That’s a little trick I use more often – flowers 💐 give me an excuse to slow down a little.
The summit ridge on Littlehorn Peak offered some fun, easy scrambling and great views over the meadows towards Bright Star, Allstones and Vision Quest. Obviously Hangman Peak and its meadows also featured prominently. It didn’t take more than 30 minutes from the pass and we were enjoying terrific views from the 2nd summit of the day.
The day was moving on as we descended the easy slopes of Littlehorn Peak to the pass and continued down to the meadows leading to the first pass. There were even more sheep than on approach! We watched half a dozen kids play around on a little slope for a few minutes. It was fascinating to watch them play around in a game that only they could understand. For some reason they were climbing up a steep little ridge and then pushing each other off of it. We moved on past the sheep, I didn’t drink the water from this valley either! Soon we were grunting up the last large elevation gain of the day and cresting the first pass leading down to Whitegoat Creek.
We used snow for a very speedy descent into Whitegoat Creek, sneaking past a group of backpackers who were sticking to the OHV track above the creek. We’ve used snow a lot this year to speed up travel in the alpine – it’s so much quicker than balancing over rocks and boulders.
The return along Whitegoat Creek was pretty quick and pleasant – other than some very annoying uphill sections, especially a grind out of the creek back over towards the parking lot.
I loved this trip. It was a highlight outing for 2020 for sure. I’ve been planning and dreaming of Hangman Peak and the Littlehorn meadows for years now and it feels really good to have experienced it on a perfect summer day in great conditions. With wildflowers blooming everywhere, sheep grazing peacefully and views of new peaks and lush valleys this is a tough trip to beat!