Summit Elevation (m): 2936
Trip Date: Wednesday, August 19 2020
Elevation Gain (m): 2000
Round Trip Time (hr): 13.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 49 (~9km on bike)
Quick ‘n Easy Rating: Class 2 – You fall you break your ego
Difficulty Notes: An easy scramble with a helluva approach! A good trail leads to bushwhacking for kilometers up an untracked stream followed by a delightful ramble through alpine meadows up very easy rubble slopes to the summit.
Technical Rating: SC5; RE5
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
After a big day with Grant Meyers on Tuesday, ascending both Jellicoe and Prairie Lookout, I wasn’t sure what kind of energy levels I would have for a planned 2-day excursion with Phil Richards on Wednesday and Thursday. We texted back and forth for a bit before Phil called me and we discussed our options. The weather on Thursday wasn’t ideal for our chosen objectives so we decided instead on a long day trip for Wednesday. The question was, which mountain adventure should we tackle? 2020 has been the year for us to knock off some long-standing peaks and when the dust settled we were going to chase yet another rather obscure Banff peak and one I’ve had on my mind for many years – Block Mountain. I’m not sure where I first heard of Block Mountain, but it was likely the same place as everyone else – Rick Collier’s report on bivouac.com. Back around 2017 I first realized how many other people had this mountain in their sights when a trip report detailing an attempt appeared on ClubTread. Quickly people started responding that this peak was also on their lists and soon the deed was accomplished by Taras (a 17 hour slog) and I felt some let down at missing an opportunity to nab this one before it became “popular”. It was silly to think that such a remote peak with a reported horrid creek thrash on approach would ever be truly “popular” but I’m weird that way. Block Mountain dropped off my radar until slowly creeping back up my list in late 2019 and finally getting the nod in 2020. I was excited to see what this adventure would hold for us!
When Rick did the peak in 1991, he did it as a 40km day trip from Johnston Canyon via the Ink Pots and Mystic Pass trail. Phil and I would do the same, except we had some additional challenges. Firstly, it was obvious that the access creek was much more damaged and choked than when Rick did it. Secondly, we had a Covid-19 related issue to deal with that nobody else has had (yet) – the highway to Johnston Canyon was closed to traffic. We’d have to bike an additional 4.5km each way for a total of 9 additional kms on top of the ~40 we’d be walking! After my previous days efforts I wasn’t sure about this aggressive plan, but you only live once and the conditions were perfect for an attempt so I was committed to giving it my best efforts. I joined Phil at his house at a reasonable time on Wednesday at around 07:30 which gave me 5 or 6 hours of sleep to recover (!!). We arrived at the parking spot at the Castle Resort junction near hwy 1A and proceeded to prepare ourselves for the long day ahead. We agreed on light packs – no ax or ‘pons, no carrying water. We’d literally be in a creek for a good part of the day and weight savings were key to keeping this day reasonable and enjoyable. After many similar trips already in 2020 including the very first one of the year, 52km up Haunted Peak, we felt that we were very prepared. We started from the parking lot on our bikes, heading quickly up hwy 1a past the watchful eyes of the park attendants guarding the closure.
The bike ride was very easy and quick and soon we were marching up the trail to Johnston Canyon and the Ink Pots from Hillsdale Meadows. Phil had run this trail earlier in the year and was fairly certain of a shortcut route, which we took successfully – cutting almost 1km off the approach. Where the main trail does a huge curve right there is a sign showing a hiker following it. There is another smaller trail going straight with no sign. Taking the straight trail is much nicer than sticking to the road and much quicker too. Once hooking up with the well traveled Johnston Canyon trail (totally empty thanks to Covid-19) we continued on to the Ink Pots. They looked old and tired as we strolled past – I wasn’t even tempted to take photos despite them being completely devoid of other humanoids. This prompted an interesting discussion on Parks Canada, the current state of things in the parks and how bad humans are for the environment, literally loving it to death. The usual discussions that we end up having time and time again, recognizing full well that we are part of the problem too… 10km into our day we crossed Johnston Creek on a good bridge and continued along the trail towards Larry’s Camp and the Mystic Pass trail junction. The camp was empty and we soon reached the junction, turning right up to Mystic Pass and our access creek. If I’m perfectly honest about it at this point I was a little concerned about my body. My knees were bothering me a bit after the long hard day the day previous and I really hoped they’d hold up for the remainder of the day!
Less than 1km up the Mystic Pass trail we continued straight while the trail curved right and crossed our access drainage. We’d made pretty good time so far, taking 2 hrs to reach the infamously overgrown and tangled mess of a creek. The small stream started on the right note with a pretty clear left hand bank and even a very faint intermittent trail. This obviously didn’t last long! Soon the creek starting living up to its reputation.
The 2013 floods choked the access drainage with trees and debris rather than flushing it out. To make matters worse, the creekbed itself (the rocks under water) was slick as ice despite the cold water, making the dozens of crossings much more delicate than usual. More than once we came close to crashing down after slipping on the incredibly slippery rocks and boulders! We knew that our secret weapon was going to assist us greatly with this section of the day. Our ability and willingness to simply wade in and out of the creek at will, without worrying about wet feet was absolutely key in keeping us moving and sane over the next few hours. Sticking to any one side of the creek, or being forced to take off boots for every crossing would have slowed us down to unmanageable levels. At the very least make sure you bring water crossing shoes for this section if you need boots for the rest of it.
We chatted and wandered our way upstream slowly but steadily and we both commented more than once that this section of the creek wasn’t nearly as bad as we were expecting from the reports. This sort of approach has been our “normal” this year on many of our more remote trips. On Haunted Peak we started our year with a long untracked creek access. On both McConnell Creek and Hangman Mountain we’d wandered up lengthy creek beds with sections of challenging terrain. The Martin Creek trip involved many creek crossings and consistently wet feet. Given the trip reports from this area, we expected to be 6 feet off the deck, struggling through dense foliage and toppled trees but this (thankfully) wasn’t the case. As happens on longer trips, the time slowly leaked by and after 2 hours we noticed that we were getting out of the lower creek and approaching the alpine and looking to the still distant 2500m access col. At this point we were still nowhere near Block Mountain and wouldn’t even see the bloody mountain for another hour! The distance from the upper creek to the col was much further than I expected but the terrain was pretty neat and distracted us from any pain. The creekbed narrowed considerably until we were literally stemming over sections of deep water with a foot propped against either side of the running water! We also found patches of hard snow which assisted our efforts. Finally, almost 5.5 hours after leaving the parking lot we were at the 2500m col, looking across a high alpine scree bowl to the still distant Block Mountain – our first look at the peak. Thankfully it looked bone dry and super easy. Despite a height loss towards it, I was pumped to finally be within shouting distance of this stubborn objective.
Despite my elation at being near the mountain, I was feeling a bit tired and sore as we started the traverse, but as soon as we got near the south ridge I was distracted by some wicked views over three of the Block Lakes. I’m not sure how many of the lakes dotting the landscape around this area are officially considered “Block”, but there’s 5 or 6 lakes and ponds of various sizes here and they’re all gorgeous. The explor8ion juices were flowing now and we started eagerly up the easy south slopes of the mountain on hard-pack scree. My knees were holding up and I was finally convinced that I might actually make the summit. I decided quite early on to take the south ridge – there were small slabs interrupting the scree making things a bit easier. There isn’t much else to say about the mountain itself – it’s about as easy a scramble as they get once you finally arrive there.
It only took about an hour for us to ascend the south end of Block and soon we were traversing the summit ridge over the incredible east face plunging hundreds of meters down to the Cascade River valley far below. This reminded us of Mount Harris where we also traversed easy west slopes above an impressive east face. At the summit we were surprised not only by the incredible views but also by the summit register. We were the first to sign since 2016 but for such a small, remote, hard-to-access peak this one was busy! There was the original 1981 entry and Rick’s 10 years later. Than a flood of folks started making this objective a priority. I think Rick’s “marathon report” must have triggered many folks explor8ion juices for some reason or another.
We spent around 30 minutes on the summit, enjoying the register and the views, including some summits that have been creeping up our lists over the summer as we continue to get views of them from every side. The best view by far was of the incredible north face of Noetic Peak with two brightly colored block lakes underneath. Reluctantly we decided that with almost 25kms still ahead of us we should likely start our journey back. We descended the southwest face to another col before following a good sheep track towards the nice traverse over the three largest Block Lakes. From here we gained ~100m back to the 2500m access col and found ourselves looking over the approach valley with some options. Immediately we noticed a possible high-line traverse on the left (east) side that would keep us out of the manky creek for almost half of it if we could go far enough. We knew the traverse would involve some height gains and losses but this seemed worth a try so we set off to see how it would go.
The high-line traverse worked perfectly. I would recommend this as an approach line too. It does undulate a bit, but compared to the energy required in the manky creek bottom I’m sure it’s less overall energy expenditure. Another bonus is lovely views of Noetic Peak and the other unnamed peaks lining this valley and much earlier views of Block Mountain too. The only fly in the ointment was the descent back into the creek when we followed some flagging up a trail that quickly disappeared and was not worth it. Once in the creek it’s best just to stay there and suffer it out. It’s the cost of admission and it’s not even as bad as advertised if you’re willing to get wet feet.
The creek exit went by fairly quick compared to the approach. It was very nice to get back onto the Mystic Pass trail and walk normally again! The hike back out to the Ink Pots and from there to the bikes was feeling a bit long as my knees started reacting to a few large days in the hills. I love the hours of hiking though, and I loved Block Mountain much more than I was expecting to. The bushwhacking and thrashing up the creek wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting and the views once over the 2500m col were even better than advertised. A highly recommended remote and easy peak for those folks willing to brave a slick, cold, obviously wet creek on approach.