Panther Mountain

Summit Elevation (m): 2945 
Trip Date: Wednesday, August 26, 2020 
Elevation Gain (m): 1800 
Trip Time (hr): 13.5 (to camp)
Total Trip Distance (km): 55 (to a camp along the Cascade River)
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain something
Difficulty Notes: Panther Mountain is a remote peak requiring at least 2 days to approach, ascend and exit unless you have enough gas in the tank for a ~74km day. Other than it’s remoteness, it is an easy scramble to the main (middle) summit. 
Technical Rating: SC5; RE5
GPS Track: Gaia
Map: Google Maps

Phil Richards and I had a plan. It was a good plan. It was a plan that had been ready for execution at least once or twice already this summer and as I watched my phone light up with a call from the good doctor I knew that yet again this plan was doomed. I was right. You see, Phil and I almost never call each other, choosing instead to text or message. When either of us calls the other, we know it’s not going to be good. Especially when it’s 21:00 the night before leaving on an adventure. It wasn’t as bad as I first expected. Yes, our planned trip would have to be delayed yet again thanks to a road closure, but Phil was still able to get out on something. We just had to think of what we were going to do – with only around 8 hours before my alarm went off to start this as-yet unknown explor8ion! It didn’t take long. We’ve been knocking off many of our long-desired trips this summer but there’s still a few more left unexplored. Ever since researching and completing Dormer Mountain back in the spring of 2019 we’ve had Panther Mountain on our minds. Rick’s report of his 1993 ascent made it sound pretty easy and also pretty darn remote. Phil’s recent long distance runs up the Cascade Fire Road to Badger Pass and other areas gave him some ideas of what we could expect and after a brief discussion we decided that it made perfect sense to give this peak a try while it was still off most folks radars. We also planned a second peak for Thursday – an unnamed “Stoney Creek Peak” at over 3000m that Phil had previously come close to bagging before running into a tricky snow traverse. That plan would obviously change at some point.

I picked Phil up at his house in Canmore at 06:30 and soon we were parking in the familiar Lake Minnewanka parking lot, preparing for yet another bike ride up the Cascade Fire Road trail. There’s a small gravel pullout near the start of the trail but it’s unclear if parking here overnight is a good idea so we didn’t. It only adds an extra 1km each way on pavement to park in the much larger parking lot near the lake. Plus there’s trailhead washrooms which is always handy! After a very familiar 14-15km ride up the road we arrived at Stoney Creek only to be pleasantly surprised by a new bridge that replaced the previous one we’d seen washed away on our trip into Haunted Peak earlier in the year. This was extremely welcome news as my feet were freezing cold from the bike ride and I wasn’t looking forward to getting them wet just yet. While we were still riding the approach I asked Phil why we shouldn’t try for Flints Peak as our second day objective. He couldn’t think of any good reason why we shouldn’t switch to this official peak from the unofficial one, so we decided that’s what we’d do! I love it when trip partners are as flexible as this. Of course we had no beta on Flints Peak with us as it wasn’t on the original plan but Phil’s excellent memory of Rick Collier’s 1991 trip report would come in very handy the next day. 

As we hiked up the main trail past the turnoff leading up Stoney Creek and eventually to Dormer Pass I noticed the heavier overnight pack compared to the light day pack I’m used to carrying around the Rockies nowadays. The “big” pack was still fairly small as we were going minimal with a good weather forecast and only one night under the stars. We chatted and enjoyed the beautiful morning as we quickly completed the first 9.2km from Stoney Creek to the Flints Park junction on a very wide and well maintained road / trail. Phil pointed out several interesting things along the way, including a mysterious side trail that apparently the horse outfitters use to access Flints Park (“River Trail”) and the presence of old insulators on trees lining the road. Presumably these insulators were used for wiring when the whole area was full of warden cabins and a warden college and was accessed by motor vehicles. This led to a long discussion where I advanced my personal theory that the 3rd age of wilderness explor8ion of relatively unknown landscapes is coming to a rapid and inevitable end in the Canadian Rockies just as it has already over most of the planet. For someone like me who lives to explore unknown (to me at least) areas of the Rockies it is a little depressing and has me wondering what my future holds as far as trips like this one goes. I don’t think they’re long for the making for any of us, unfortunately. There’s simply too many people wanting the same thing and too little isolated wilderness to accomodate us all. Everyone has the same right to march out of their front door and into these beautiful, silent areas, there’s just too many of “us” and too little of “it”. As we marched down the old fire road through Banff’s beautiful eastern ranges these were the thoughts that were running through my head. 

When we got to the Flints Park trail junction the Cascade Fire Road trail became dramatically smaller ahead. We decided to drop our overnight packs here and continue to Panther Mountain with our small day packs. This decision would force us to hike at least another 30km and up and down the mountain to get back to our packs. We figured we should be able to do this before dark but packed the headlamps just in case. After sorting our gear and storing our larger packs we continued down the much smaller trail with much lighter and smaller packs. This was when Phil starting talking about the possibility of seeing something at the old Cuthead College site along the road. Wait – what? Phil doesn’t forget things that he reads which is very nice for folks like myself who get to hear all about things we’d normally never know about. Apparently when the road was still open to vehicles in the early to mid 1900’s there was a warden college of some sort along it. And sure enough! Before long we came to an open meadow with a small, tired looking plaque on a leaning pole stuck in a pile of rocks. Reading the plaque was fascinating and made me want to know much more about this “Cuthead College”. It was more than just a training camp for wardens too. There was an ominous reference to “Conscientious Objectors” being forced to live here during the 2nd world war in some kind of work camp. Since coming back from the trip I’ve had a hard time finding out more about this. Apparently this isn’t the history we want to remember – for obvious reasons. We poked around the site for a few minutes, finding only some old bottles and very decayed foundations near the creek.

The old Cuthead College site is pretty much an empty little meadow. It’s impressive how little of the old structures exists considering how long it was here and how many people must have stayed here over the years.

From the old Cuthead College site the road / trail wound its way up an unnamed creek through a lovely valley to a muted pass just south of Wigmore Lake. On the way we passed another side trail that apparently heads up to a “Bighorn Lake” tucked under the huge north face of Puma Mountain. The trail had an old sign and a ribbon showing the way from the road but not much else. Once again, Phil knew all about it already. The greens of the valley combined with the blue sky and puffy white clouds added a magical atmosphere over our small corner of the world, lifting my spirits a little after my earlier thoughts on disappearing wilderness. As we approached Wigmore Lake we wondered what it would be like. The reigning theory between us was that it would be a muddy swamp with hardly any water in it. We’re such positive souls aren’t we?! It wasn’t that. It was the opposite of that, thanks to the world’s highest altitude beaver family. As we approached and started hiking along the west side of the lake we quickly realized we would be wading along the shoreline, it was that full! We laughed at ourselves and our luck as we waded through knee deep water with a muddy base. On the bright side the high water made for a much nicer body of water. Another old sign laying on the ground informed us that this was, indeed, “Wigmore Lake” and it was at an elevation of 6500 feet. Good to know. It was now finally time to start ascending our mountain – 35kms and 6 hours into our day.

In case you thought hiking along an old road was all boring forest, the valley on route to Wigmore Lake is open and beautiful.
Hiking along Wigmore Lake. Panther Mountain’s intervening ridge at upper center left with the access col at center. The main peak lies just beyond the ridge / col.

The ascent of Panther Mountain was pretty straightforward after the lengthy approach. We bashed our way easily up a side drainage from Wigmore Lake to a high col and intervening ridge which guards the SW aspect of the mountain. From the col we had to lose height down the intervening ridge to the west slopes of Panther, we chose a descending traverse to save ourselves some of the loss. From here it was a quick bite to eat and then a slow slog to the west summit.

On the easy summit ridge.

I was very excited to see a large cairn and register as we approached. I was significantly less excited to see almost immediately that the next summit looked to be slightly higher than the one we were on. It’s always incredibly exciting to open a summit register on a remote peak like Panther and sure enough, when I twisted off the cap and looked in the slightly damp booklet I realized that Phil and I were the first to stand here in 27 years since Rick placed it in 1993! The long approach was certainly feeling worth it now! In his trip report Rick says;

There was, however, a summit to the E that, as so often happens in the Rockies, looked to be perhaps higher than the one I was on; so, it still being early in the day and the traverse of no remarkable difficulty, I went and had a climb over the intervening arete to that parallel apex. Once I reached that most easterly of summits and looked back W, it was clear that both were of almost identical elevation.

We decided that we should go check it out for ourselves as the summit east of us certainly looked higher than the one we were on. We took the register with us just in case it was higher, and I took elevation readings on my phone in order to compare them. The traverse was fairly easy and quick but was scrambling – not just hiking. Our views of Puma Peak to the south were stunning, including a small gem of a tarn sparkling in the intermittent sunshine. As we ascended the middle peak it was obvious that it was, indeed, higher than the west one. I measured it at 5m higher – not a lot, but certainly noticeable. Interestingly, there was yet another summit further east and thankfully this one did appear the same height as the one we were on. We were seriously running out of time and daylight and the ~1km traverse to yet another summit would certainly put us in the dark on return. We decided to place the register on the middle summit and call it a day. After taking many photos of familiar peaks from an unfamiliar angle we started the long journey back.

Summit views from the middle summit looking north (L) and east (R). Snow Creek Summit is the lush green col at distant left with peaks such as Cataract, McConnell, Boar Station and Smoky Mountain at far distant left. Melanin Peak, Gable and Barrier Mountain lie at center and right in the distance.
Looking north down Wigmore Creek to a distant Panther River valley. Peaks visible include a distant Cataract Peak (L), Boar Station (C) and Melanin (R).
Puma Peak with its small north glacier at left. Note the small tarn at center? The slightly lower west peak of Panther Mountain at right.
Summit views west include Cuthead Peak (L), Bonnet, Lychnis, St. Bride, Douglas, Drummond, McConnell, Cataract and others.

Hiking over the west summit we decided to descend the west ridge under the summit and stay a bit higher over the crest of the intervening ridge rather than sidehill to our approach col. This worked well and gave us some great views over the distant Snow Creek Summit (pass) and had us wondering about the trail through the Panther River valley just north of our position. Adventures for another day! Hiking (or more accurately, wading) back along Wigmore Lake we were treated to at least two of the local resident dam builders swimming peacefully through their little slice of heaven, enjoying the evening with us.

Phil descends the west ridge of Panther Mountain to the intervening ridge below. Flints Peak and Cuthead Peak in the distance.

The long walk back to our packs actually went by quickly for some reason. Both of us commented that it really didn’t feel that long. Maybe we’re getting too used to these long days, I’m not sure. As darkness settled in we made camp and enjoyed a late cup of tea with supper. The bugs were much less than earlier in the year up McConnell Creek, thank goodness. It was hard not to enjoy life as we sat in silence and listened to the night life start up around us in the forest. Reflecting back on our special trip up Panther Mountain as I fell asleep was just about the perfect way to end a perfect summer day.

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