Summit Elevation (m): 3268
Trip Date: Saturday, August 15 2020
Elevation Gain (m): 1850
Round Trip Time (hr): 9
Total Trip Distance (km): 23
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain your thumb or your ego
Difficulty Notes: A pretty easy scramble via our route. The crux is very likely the 6 hour drive from YYC!
Technical Rating: SC5; RE4
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
For years now I’ve wanted to scramble Mount Abruzzi located right on the border of Height of the Rockies Provincial Park and Elk Lakes Provincial Park in British Columbia. At 3268m (10,722′) it is the highest peak in Elk Lakes Provincial Park and one of the highest in the area. The biggest issue I had with Abruzzi was the astounding lack of beta, especially on any other route than the longest one via Forsyth Creek that many of my friends have done. At almost 60km and 2000m height gain, that route takes at least 1 night, most folks take 2. I knew there were much shorter routes but it was tough finding any beta relative to them. Over the years I put together three other viable routes, all from near the end of the White River FSR – driving from Canal Flats past Whiteswan Lake roughly 72km off hwy 93/95. The first was a route from the Maiyuk Pass trailhead, past Goat Lake down to Deep Lake and up a huge west gully to the summit. The second was via Maiyuk Pass down to Connor Lakes and then up the easy SE glacier to the summit. The third, and the one we took was via the Middle Fork Trail and Deep Lake, up a huge west gully below the false summit and from there to the top. (We knew the gully was relatively easy thanks to an old trip report on Bivouac that is very short on any other details.) Thanks to updated road access reports from Greg Jones on bivouac.com (updated this year) I was able to drive 6km up the west side of the White River to an official trailhead for Middle Fork Trail. This trailhead is not mentioned in any guide books or online trip reports that I could find – all of these mention hiking up the White River the whole extra 6km (each way), adding an unnecessary 12km and around 200m height gain to the trip. This is the trailhead for Pass in the Clouds, Driftwood Lake and Deep Lake. Sylvan Pass and Limestone Lakes can also be accessed from here.
We made the 6 hour drive from Calgary on Friday afternoon / evening, having no idea which route we’d end up taking. We were prepared for both an overnight and a 1-day trip. The drive through Radium was slow thanks to construction and the weekend traffic but eventually we made it down hwy 93/95, through Canal Flats where we turned off on the Lussier Hot Springs / Whiteswan Forest Service Road (FSR). The hot springs were closed due to Covid-19 so the road was quiet. We saw a recently flipped SUV only 2km along it, reminding us that washboard gravel + speed = accident and slowing me down a wee bit. The road was in fantastic condition – much better than the Spray Lakes road has been the last few times I’ve taken it. As usual the FSR was very narrow in spots and meeting a loaded logging truck would be pretty scary but other than that I drove between 50 and 80 km/h most of the way. Whiteswan Lake was very nice with some narrow road along it and once past there we didn’t meet any other vehicles. Two of the many bridges we crossed looked new, likely replaced after the 2013 floods. As we approached the 70km mark and the Maiyuk Creek Recreation Area we looked for the Middle White-Sylvan Pass Road branching to the left (north) of the main road. Thanks to the gpx track I’d downloaded from bivouac, courtesy of Greg Jones, it wasn’t hard to find. Driving the final 2km along the spur road was rough but dry. I was happy to have a high clearance truck but never used 4-wheel drive. We parked by an official trailhead sign marked “Middle Fork Trailhead” near one other vehicle – also from Alberta.
We set up my large 4-person tent on the road at the trailhead and had a lovely evening fire before turning in for the night. We were 90% sure we’d be attempting a day trip on Saturday, the only reason for doubt was if there was a lot of low cloud cover in the morning. In case of bad weather on Saturday, we planned to camp at Deep Lake and either ascend in the afternoon if the weather cleared or even Sunday morning if we absolutely had to. Wietse preferred coming home earlier on Sunday. At this point we were still expecting at least a 12 hour day and likely one more night camped at the trailhead. There were clouds overhead as we turned in and we even woke up to light rain around 04:00 before getting up at 05:30. It was pretty cloudy and quite warm as we struggled out of our sleeping bags. We decided to gamble a bit and forego the large overnight packs for day packs since the clouds were fairly high and the weather was supposed to clear. We figured worse case scenario we’d either come back late (wait for clearing) or have to repeat the approach early on Sunday if the weather really crapped out. It turns out we simply should have slept another 45 minutes and we would have had the best summit conditions but obviously that is the benefit of 20/20 hindsight…
The first 3km of the Middle Fork trail to the horse camp was obvious and easy to follow. Thank goodness this trail is maintained or it would be a nightmare to get in here! With the logging and the 2003 fire the forest is young and very thick on either side of the trail. Once at the huge and obvious horse camp we immediately spotted a trail going towards the river and followed it. It went past a half biffy before crossing a shallow, but swift flowing White River. Wietse took the time to take his shoes off, hoping to continue hiking with dry feet the rest of the day. Within 1 minute of resuming our hike along the trail it went through two muddy, knee deep beaver ponds! After the ponds the guidebooks indicate a tough trail to pick up, but we followed an obvious track with ribbons marking the way across the valley towards the treed ridge that leads 500+ vertical meters to Deep and Driftwood Lakes and Pass in the Clouds beyond. It took us just over an hour and was 4.2km from the trailhead to the bottom of the ridge.
The trail up the ridge was also recently maintained with fresh saw cuts on many of the fallen burned trees laying across it. We only had to step across one tree on ascent with another falling before we came back down. I’m surprised there’s no warning about hiking through this burn, such as there is on the Simpson River trail which has much less standing burned trees. Be aware that these trees do and are falling all the time. If one landed on you, it would not be a great day. We weren’t dawdling as we ascended this bloody steep trail and I was happy to not be carrying an overnight pack here! It took us another hour to ascend and hike the 2.5km of ridge before the trail starting trending down to a barely visible Deep Lake on our right. Driftwood Lake was visible to our left – but all the standing trees made it hard to see clearly. We did note that the main trail goes to Deep Lake – if there’s a trail continuing on to Driftwood and the Pass in the Clouds beyond, it’s quite a bit fainter than the one we stayed on. Approximately 2.5 hours after starting and 7.3km from the truck we arrived at the tranquil and scenic Deep Lake.
We could spot tents at the one campsite at the lake on its SW shore which made us happy that we didn’t bring our overnight gear. This tent site is rumored to be quite small, although after our trip Wietse told me he saw at least 3 tents and two dogs with his telephoto lens so there is some room there! We wanted to traverse the eastern shoreline and after starting at the lake edge we quickly deviated up the slopes on our left on an old trail that gained some height in the burned forest before descending to the shore just before the huge west gully. A bald eagle perched in a tree high above us as we hiked around the lake, completing a nice scene. Soon it was time to start gaining serious height again and we turned our attention up to the huge gully descending to the tiny lake below – thankful to note lots of water running down it.
The gully wasn’t rocket science – just go UP! I used some small pockets of snow to save some scree bashing but Wietse mostly stuck to scree and boulders, not loving the feeling of hard snow under his approach shoes. I’m getting pretty used to snow and approach shoes this year! Of course we had crampons and axes but didn’t bother with them here. There were some low cliffs and slabs that were all easy and completely avoidable. We were thankful for the clouds as we grunted our way up 900 vertical meters in this gully as it slowly turned left near the top and the col between the false summit and the impressive Mount Lancaster. Deep Lake was no longer visible as we topped out at a windy, cold col.
From the col we started up the false summit with great views back down the Abruzzi Glacier, Abruzzi and Cordona Creeks and peaks such as Connor, Lancaster and Riverside. We avoided the scrambling over the false summit by stick on scree and easy snow slopes to the left (west) and finally the true summit block was in front of us.
It was pretty cool to ascend the final 100m or so up the easy summit block. I’d waited a long time to ascend this mountain – almost as long as Mount Harris. Unfortunately for me, Abruzzi wasn’t quite as clear or warm at the summit and although we ended up with some stellar views, I was a bit disappointed that the highest peaks (i.e. King George, Joffre) were covered in clouds. We spent about 30 minutes at the summit, trying to wait for the clouds to clear but the wind was so biting that we soon had number fingers and toes and simply couldn’t wait longer. C’est la vie! Not every summit can be warm and windless with perfectly clear views I suppose.
As we descended the south ridge and then past the false summit to the top of the ascent gully the clouds frustratingly cleared off and the views opened up completely. The hike down the huge gully was fairly quick, I took advantage of the snow slopes which had softened just enough to boot ski carefully down. As it was there was plenty of bumbling and stumbling down scree, small rocks and hardpan dirt slopes to the tiny lake far below. When we finally arrived at the lake the campsite was empty and we had the place all to ourselves. It was bloody HOT too!
We circled the lake on the trail we’d discovered that morning before joining with the main approach trail leading approximately 100 vertical meters to the top of the treed ridge. The hiking down from the ridge to the White River valley was very quick but also very hot in 30 degree temperatures – pretty much the opposite of our approach! I’d much rather have the warm temps on return than approach!
Crossing the White River valley was even warmer than descending the treed ridge thanks to a brilliant, cloudless sky and no wind. Crossing the beaver ponds and then the White River felt 100x better than the morning crossing and we both took our time in the water – not wanting to exit too quickly. After hiking back through the horse camp we plodded the 3km back to the trailhead, overheating with each step.
We were back at the trailhead with plenty of time to drive home on Saturday yet – no need to keep the families waiting another night if we didn’t have to. On hindsight we could have planned another ascent in the area considering how far the drive is, but we honestly thought the whole weekend would be spent on just ascending Mount Abruzzi so we didn’t. Mount Abruzzi should be on every Rockies scrambler’s list. It’s a large, prominent, beautiful peak that is very easy to attain in a day from a trailhead. There are many different routes, all are pretty simple and all have their pluses and minuses.