Summit Elevation (m): 2835, 2612
Trip Date: Saturday, August 01 2020
Elevation Gain (m): 1350
Round Trip Time (hr): 8.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 23
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3 – you fall, you sprain or break something
Difficulty Notes: Easy to moderate scrambling with loose terrain and some exposure depending on the route chosen.
Technical Rating: SC5; YDS (3rd)
Map: Google Maps
How do you follow up a trip like Upper Martin Creek without feeling disappointment? Easy. I never understand when my friends tell me that they’re feeling “burnt out” on mountains from a mental point of view. Physically I feel burnt out on every trip (LOL), but mentally it usually only takes me around 24 hours and I’m itching to get back. I guess I have a disease like “Mountain OCD” or something! I try not to overthink it. Summer in Alberta is so short, I try to take advantage of nice weather as much as I can. With one more weekend before heading back to work I knew I wanted to get out on Saturday and possibly Tuesday if conditions allowed. Wietse agreed to join me on the first day of August 2020 for a shot at Mount Jellico.
Well, obviously that didn’t happen! On the drive to the Rockies we noticed a huge tstorm building over the front range mountains already at 07:00 which made us nervous. The air was humid and heavy and we didn’t trust that we’d have clear or stable conditions on the Haig Icefield for a shot at Jellico. So we started thinking of alternatives. Top of list for me was Wind Mountain. I’ve been trying to finish Lougheed’s fourth peak for a long time now but we didn’t have our bikes. Eventually Wietse threw out a strange sounding name – “Mount Schlee”. I remembered reading about this peak a few months ago while planning stuff and was intrigued enough by the online reports that we found to give it a shot.
It’s always a bit strange doing a last minute trip change. After thinking we’d be on an icefield most of the day with its views, we were now going to be in a completely different landscape. The online trip reports didn’t all make Schlee sound easy either – the Ramblers took 10 hours and Nugara took over 9. The stats didn’t seem bad at under 1000 meters of height gain and less than 22km of travel. We figured that we’d likely get it done in 7-8 hours and set off from an already busy Elbow Lake parking lot along hwy 40. I hadn’t been up the steep trail to Elbow Lake and the Elbow Pass trail beyond since 2007 when I scrambled Tombstone Mountain with Kevin Papke. There were so many fish jumping in Elbow Lake that we could hear them in the morning silence. We were reminded of the popularity of this campground by the sound of children crying too! We quickly moved on to the well-trodden Elbow Pass trail.
As we looked across the meadows north of the trail leading up Piper Creek and past Tombstone Mountain we wondered why we shouldn’t follow a shortcut line on our downloaded GPS base maps. We crossed the Elbow River and soon discovered why the “shortcut” really isn’t. The vegetation along the bottom of the valley was not only much thicker than it first appeared – it was so soaked from morning dew that soon we were as wet as if we’d jumped in the lake on our way past it! We finally stumbled out of the bush and onto the Piper Pass trail, dripping with dew and swearing that we wouldn’t do that again (yeah right). Although the trail was in great shape and easy to follow, it was also fairly narrow and we continued to get soaked as we followed it up the valley towards Mount Schlee. As we neared tree line the wildflower scene exploded and soon we were across from the SE ascent slopes. Wietse led the way across Piper Creek and we started up towards a waterfall and obvious bench above.
To be honest, the route up Schlee was pretty easy scrambling and pretty darn obvious compared to what we were expecting based on available trip reports. The only trick is NOT to cross too far west – staying climber’s right of a cliff that runs up the face. We stayed off steep slabs which can be deceivingly tricky and tried to find the more solid scree and low angle slabs near the center of the route. Near the top of the route we angled to climber’s right on a mix of loose scree and slabs, popping out on the summit much quicker than I was expecting – only 3.5 hours into our day. Views from the summit were very respectable – not surprising for a peak in the Opal Range.
From the summit we decided that the day was way too nice to be back in the parking lot so soon – the round trip time for Mount Schlee would be only around 6.5 hours if we returned already. Piper Pass looked like a lovely hike and there was even a nice small hill overlooking it – the chance for another small peak added some motivation to the idea of hiking further up valley.
Descent was very quick and soon we were crossing Piper Creek and reconnecting with the Piper Pass trail. We weren’t the only ones on the trail at this point either – at least half a dozen other folks were out enjoying this lovely valley. Hiking to the pass was gorgeous! The morning humidity was finally burning off and the wildflowers were really popping. Views of the Cats Ears and Tombstone filled our vision and marmots cried out as we approached.
The final grunt to the pass was steep, but on a good trail and soon we were standing on top of the small brown pile of scree to the west of the pass – “Piper Pass Peak”. The extra 400m of height gain was totally worth it as we took in views of the Piper Creek valley to the beautiful valley east of the Opal Range to the north.
For descent back to the Piper Creek valley we chose a line down the SW side of the small peak, sliding down interesting brown scree next to a line of white scree. Snow also assisted with a quick descent as we hit valley bottom and hiked out to the trail past a herd of sheep.
The hike back out to the Elbow Pass trail was a mix of gorgeous wildflowers, tight trees (still on trail) and some annoying ups and downs before finally crossing the Elbow River and ascending to the trail. It was marginally better than our “shortcut” hours earlier but neither section was the highlight of our day.
Elbow Lake was predictably very busy on this hot summer afternoon. The hike back to the parking lot was a mix of babies, people with floaties and even the odd cooler being lugged up or down the steep road! Mount Schlee is never going to be at the top of anyone’s list but combined with Piper Pass and the small hill next to it on a beautiful summer day, it’s a respectable day trip that is worthy of anyone’s time and effort. The peak on its own is a perfect half-day affair from Elbow Lake or the parking lot. As far as I’m concerned one can never go wrong with a peak in the Opal Range, no matter how small or lofty it might be.