Summit Elevation (m): 2720
Trip Date: Sunday, September 27, 2020
Round Trip Time (hr): 11.5
Elevation Gain (m): 1800
Total Trip Distance (km): 38.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something
Difficulty Notes: A long day, complicated by fresh snow. The crux is a very short glacier ascent to the north ridge – ax and crampons recommended.
Technical Rating: SC6
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
Last year when I completed a beautiful scramble up Scarab Peak in the Egypt Lakes area, I thought I was pretty much done with peaks in that special place – at least ones accessed via Healy Pass as long day trips. In 2016 I’d scrambled up Greater Pharaoh Peak to stunning scenery in a snow squall. In 2017 I was back with Phil Richards, this time on Lesser Pharaoh and The Sphinx (Sugarloaf). In 2019 I returned on a long solo trip up Scarab Peak to more stunning scenery of Mummy Lake. While spending quality time with Scarab Peak I kept glancing across Mummy Lake towards the impressive peak rising over it to the SE. I knew the peak wasn’t officially named, but wondered if there was a reasonable line up it. On arriving home I asked Phil about it and he mentioned it was known as “Natalko”. Hmmm. Time for some research! Dave Jones refers to this peak in his “Rockies Central” guide and describes an “F 4th 50m” route up the SW face. Even more interesting to me, was a route that Robb Schnell outlined on GravSports up the east face – no more than easy to moderate scrambling according to him. Because Scarab was such a great scramble, also first described by Robb, I trusted his description and added it to my list for Fall 2020.
I woke up cold for some reason and hit “snooze” on the alarm for an extra 45 minutes before dragging my sorry ass outta bed. Some days start easier than others and today was definitely an “other”. The drive went well and I arrived at the Sunshine parking lot just before 07:00 only to see a barricade near the start of the huge parking lot preventing entry to the base facilities. Arg. People were parked near the barriers so obviously we could walk the extra 500 meters but WHY?! Ah well. Of much more concern to me was the layer of white on surrounding peaks including a good dump on Bourgeau. Considering I was in approach shoes all day and the left one already has a pretty big hole in the sidewall, I wasn’t too keen on snow just yet. Again – I was here now. Might as well check things out. I figured I’d likely run into snow near Healy Pass and again above tree line. Little did I know that I was being very optimistic. The hike to Healy Meadows went as it usually does – for the most part. I’ve done it enough now that I’ve broken it down into sections. There’s the first bridge, then the second one. Then there’s the camp and shortly after the branch to Simpson Pass. The last section gains the most height to the meadows and this section had a surprise for me in the form of snow and ice. I was encountering snow already much lower than expected but the icy trail really made me apprehensive for the rest of my day. This was going to be almost 40 km of hiking and scrambling and an icy track would slow me down – not to mention isn’t very fun to walk down! I decided to push up to the pass and see how things were going from there.
Thankfully the trail was mere frozen mud instead of ice from the start of the Healy Meadows to the pass. The larches were gorgeous despite being very slightly past their prime. The fresh snow only made the colors pop even more – the combination of puffy white clouds, blue sky, yellow larches and brilliant white snow made for some pretty sweet views. Within 2 hrs of the parking lot I was cresting Healy Pass and taking in the views towards a very snowy looking Egypt Lakes area. I couldn’t quite see Natalko right from the pass, but I knew that I was in for some deeper snow to the summit. I wasn’t 100% sure I was OK with this yet, but decided that since the weather was so nice I’d continue on down to Pharoah Creek and worst case scenario I’d try to bag The Sphinx from Talc Lake considering last time I did it I had some clouds on the lakes. (It seems like every time I head into the Egypt Lakes area I get some clouds over the surround lakes and peaks.) I was feeling a bit more tired than I’d prefer on such a lengthy day as I headed down from Healy Pass to Pharaoh Creek. My cardio felt fine but my legs were tired. It might have something to do with the fact that this was my 100th unique peak this year (plus 53 Prairie Mountains!!). It didn’t take too long and I was down at Pharaoh Creek. The air was still very crisp and I was still cold – I hadn’t really warmed up since getting out of my warm bed hours earlier!
I made my way over to the bridge over the creek leading to the core Egypt Lakes area and instead of crossing it this time, I continued up the left hand side of the creek on a faint trail. This part of my day was a real mixed bag to be honest. I LOVED the views. The fresh snow on the foliage and landscape was stunning in the early morning light BUT it was also soaking wet when I brushed against it. My camera lens got pretty soaked which meant I had to keep cleaning the front element. The views kept me going but the 2-3″ of fresh snow quickly soaked my feet and caked the bottom of my pants. Remember – it was still freezing at this point and I remained pretty chilled as I slowly wandered up the lovely Pharaoh Creek valley towards Redeath Pass and the branch to Talc Lake. The valley is very small – you don’t want to run into a grizzly in here! The trail was indistinct in places but stuck to the left hand side of the creek until the creek pretty much vanished upstream of the Egypt Lakes area as I passed by the east side of The Sphinx. Finally the valley opened up a bit and I arrived at the signed junction for Talc Lake. The trail continuing to Redearth Pass was extremely muted – I don’t think many folks go up there anymore after the Verdant Creek wildfire of 2017. (I always thought that the fire burned the Talc Lake area too, but it did not – just stopping short of it at Redearth Pass.)
The trail up to Talc Lake was in excellent condition considering the comparative lack of visitation over the other Egypt Lakes. It does a huge switchback before ascending along the outflow and past a small waterfall. Arriving at the sparkling alpine lake with everything covered in a fresh coat of snow was a pretty special moment. I still wasn’t delighted with all the snow I was trudging through but at this point I decided to continue up the peak. I could clearly see an old road / trail running up the east ridge south of the lake and started up towards it. I knew from Robb’s beta that;
This is the interesting part! Iconic banff figure Bill Peyto once had a claim on the talc deposit at talc lake. He wasn’t allowed to proceed with it, so sold his claim to the NAtional TALc COmpany (hence the name of the mtn!) The company built some cabins here and started a few mines, the remnants of which are both still evident at Talc Lake.
I still can’t figure out why the peak is spelled with a “k” and not a “c” – i.e. Natalco, but such are the mysteries of unofficial peak names, I suppose… I spotted some old ruins from above but didn’t have the energy to explore them – I’ll likely revisit this lovely quiet lake at some point in the future and do some more looking around for old mineworks. I was very focused on simply getting to the peak and back down before my feet – and rest of me for that matter – froze completely.
The views back over Talc Lake were sublime, as expected. The views up the east ridge to the east face above weren’t quite as encouraging but I forged upward anyway. I could see an easy break in the small cliffs ahead and waded through ankle to calf deep snow up and through it. The views towards The Monarch and Citadel Pass area were mind-blowing from here already! I followed Robb’s beta and my own route track that I’d put together so navigate the east face to the north ridge of Natalko from above the east ridge. None of it was particularly tough but there was plenty of room to get into serious terrain. I got a bit lucky with finding the first ramp under a cliff that saved some slippery scrambling that likely would have turned me back. After that I could see easier lines a la Robb’s photos / route description. Amazingly I felt pretty darn good as I ascended. I’m sure the views helped but I really should have felt like crap. I was now in permanent snow up to calf deep in runners that were FILLED with the icy coldness. A bitter wind was whipping over me now and despite warm views, the air temperature was decidedly NOT warm. I guess I was enjoying myself or something. Weird.
As I ascended a dark pile of scree I rounded a corner and saw the final few hundred vertical meters to the north ridge and summit. GULP. It looked ok, but didn’t look “easy” with fresh snow piling up in drifts and even a small soft slab forming on the steeper bits of slope. I knew there was a glacier under here and could see a small crevasse so there was that too. I hiked part way up the snowy slope before donning crampons and taking out the ax for the final steep ascent to the north ridge. I was getting seriously chilled at this point too – the wind was blowing snow around pretty good. It’s hard to explain but as I heaved myself up the final steep steps to the ridge I felt awesome. Here I was, out in the middle of nowhere all by myself on a beautiful mountain in typical mountain weather. I was being challenged by a good route and had views to die for in every direction. Life was good! I took off the ‘pons and left them atop the crux before continuing south along the north ridge to the summit.
Robb mentions a cliff almost right away on the ridge and he’s right. The cliff was heavily encased in ice and snow so I dipped down around the worst of it before scrambling up slick rock and scree to regain the ridge. I dropped slightly one more time along the ridge before squeezing myself up an easy crack and arriving at the summit. The views were so good from the top that I didn’t realize I couldn’t see Mummy Lake until the descent. For some reason I thought I’d see the lake from here but it’s out of view from the main summit. On hindsight I should have visited the highpoint just north of where I topped out on the north ridge for views but I was cold and it didn’t happen. Next time. The Monarch and Citadel Pass area stole the show with Mount Shanks and Hawk Ridge a close second when it finally came out of the clouds across Verdant Creek. Obviously peaks such as Brett, Pilot and Bourgeau over the Healy Pass and Redearth creek areas were also stunning – as they always are in the fall from this vantage. I dug around for a summit register and almost gave up before spotting a bright blue Nalgene bottle just sitting there in the open. Sure enough – Robb’s register was dry and his original entry from 2016 was the only one. I added my name and made sure to tuck the bottle under some rocks to ensure it would stay on the summit a bit longer before starting my slippery descent.
The snow made the descent easier in some spots but more frustrating in most. Loose boulders and rocks combined with my light approach shoes made for a few non-repeatable phrases and exclamations down to Talc Lake. Put it this way – there’s a local grizzly with a whole new appreciation of the english language living around there now… For the most part I simply retraced my ascent track. Other than the steep snow / glacier crux under the north ridge it was all pretty straightforward. On hindsight and with slightly better conditions I should have checked out the views over Mummy Lake from the high point just north of where I topped out on the north ridge but oh well. Maybe another time! I’ll name it “Natalko Junior” just to piss Robb off. That’s always kinda fun. The lake was gorgeous with some late afternoon lighting and I took my time getting back down the slick grassy east ridge towards it. It felt great to be back in the quiet forest and on a proper trail again as I dragged my tired body back down the Pharaoh Creek valley. Soon enough the warm sunshine and beautiful landscape energized me and I stopped limping and starting walking briskly again.
From the bridge over Pharaoh Creek it was a familiar if somewhat numbing hike back up to Healy Pass and then down Healy Creek to the parking lot. Eohippus Lake was like a sparkling green gem in front of The Monarch and finally Mount Assiniboine decided to show too. I ran into quite a few other folks returning from Healy Pass on my way back. There was an interesting incident occurring just under the pass where a park warden who’d landed in a chopper seemed to be handing out giant fines to a group of three backpackers. All I heard when I walked past was “this is going to hurt” and “court date in December”… Random camping in very remote off-the-grid areas is one thing, but choosing to do so in one of the busiest areas in Banff National Park is not the wisest thing in the world.
As I hiked along the giant, empty parking lot at Sunshine Village I reflected on my day. I greatly enjoyed Natalko as a slightly more involved and challenging day than some of the easier Egypt Lake peaks. The snow made things much more challenging but also more interesting climbing to the summit which I found myself enjoying more than I should have. Once again the Healy / Pharaoh fall hike delivered stunning vistas of larch trees, lakes, blue skies and towering peaks. There is very little not to love about this yearly tradition. I guess in 2021 I will have to start repeating things…