Summit Elevation (m): 2532
Trip Date: Saturday, December 05 2020
Elevation Gain (m): 1470
Round Trip Time (hr): 9
Total Trip Distance (km): 30
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain something – i.e. your ego
Difficulty Notes: The most difficulty on this trip is the descent from Well Site to Scalp Creek and ascending the NW end of Hat Mountain with snow.
Technical Rating: OT3; YDS (Hiking)
Map: Google Maps
I’ve biked past Well Site and Hat (Sheep) Mountain many times on route to other “more exciting” adventures in the eastern Banff Ranges along the western borders of Ya Ha Tinda such as Warden Rock, Wapiti and Tomahawk Mountain. Just in 2020 I biked past these two rather simple bumps on my way towards a 73km day trip of Mount White and Grouse Peak and then again to a ramble up McConnell Creek with ascents of Boar Station and Bellow and Howl Peaks. I have to be honest that I’m pretty sure Phil and I joked more than once, something along the lines of;
Why would anyone ever bother with those two “peaks”?! Driving 5-6 hours round trip from YYC just to hike up a bump with no clear summit and likely very muted views? Meh.
Ah yes. Irony is a concept I’m extremely familiar with in this bizarre and strange year of the Covid. 😐 As it turns out, with my ankle still healing after a bad sprain at the end of September and an unseasonably warm November and December Well Site Mountain somehow ended up on the agenda for Wietse and I on Saturday, December 5th – Sinterklaas for all the Dutchies out there. I have fond memories of celebrating the opening of gifts on Sinterklaas as a young lad back in Manitoba. Christmas was a religious ceremony when I grew up – it had nothing to do with gifts or trees or lights or anything of that sort. We attended church and listened to choirs singing Joy to the World. We didn’t actually enjoy Christmas – it was Sinterklaas that I really looked forward to until I became an adult and started celebrating Christmas with my own family the way I think it deserves to be done. But I digress. Today was Sinterklaas and I was slogging up a front range bump that never really inspired me, even after reading others’ trip reports on it.
As we walked up a very dry Tinda ranch road I was far from happy. I knew that I should be biking this road rather than walking it and despite expecting a dry road, I still left the bike at home in my garage for some reason. Funny how such a simple task seems like too much on a Friday night but a few hours later I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why the heck we didn’t just throw the bikes in the back of my truck. If you’re only planning to hike Well Site Mountain I would highly recommend bringing your bike no matter what time of the year you go. The road is often dry even in winter and a bike will shorten the distance hiked by at least 11 or 12km (5-6km each way). As we walked along on a beautiful late fall morning with me grumbling about not bringing bikes, Wietse wryly pointed out that Hat Mountain looked fairly close to Well Site. He was joking / not joking, the way he usually does when he says things like this out loud around me. He knows that I’m way too easy when it comes to multi-peak days and once again his strategy worked. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the only legitimate way to make up for leaving the bikes at home was to lengthen our total distance for the day and make a long loop up and over not only Well Site but also Hat Mountain.
The only issue with adding Hat Mountain, other than the extra ~500m of height gain and distance was our departure time of 09:30 from the Bighorn parking lot. We should have left 2 hours earlier in the day and used headlamps to approach along the roads to Well Site rather than descend in the dark as we were almost guaranteed to do now. It was Wietse’s turn to grumble now – something about “I’m only 35% in for Hat Mountain”. I ignored him, as I usually do in these situations and kept planning our traverse to Hat Mountain as we hiked along the expansive Ya Ha Tinda ranch on good roads. I knew he’d come around eventually – after all it was his darn idea in the first place!
We continued to follow the dry roads and tracks towards Well Site Mountain until we arrived at a clear-cut with burnt tree stumps (likely part of the Hat Mountain controlled burn in 2011). Here we finally encountered some ankle deep snow but it didn’t slow us down as we aimed for the far NW corner of the clearing, hoping for a trail leading to the upper SE cutline road leading to the south slopes of Well Site. Thankfully the route worked perfectly and soon we were following a fairly recent set of tracks in the snow leading up to the SE cutline road above. The cutline road was covered in trampled snow – likely the result of Brandon Boulier’s trip a week previous. We followed this road along the south slopes of Well Site until the slopes above were dry enough to start ascending.
Wietse set a pace that I couldn’t keep up with up the steep open slopes of Well Site Mountain. I’ve been fasting for the past 4 weeks and I blamed the lack of food for my lethargic appendages. It was annoying that my cardio was totally ok with picking up the pace but my legs simply refused to move as quickly as I thought they should! Wietse quickly became a tiny dot high above me and I slowly settled into a pace that I could maintain. It only took around 45 minutes to ascend the steepest SE slopes until things started leveling off a bit. As we topped out we still couldn’t see the summit but we knew it was still a few kilometers further along, up a very gentle incline that never seemed to end or top out.
The weather was cloudy but very pleasant as we slowly trudged along the immense summit plateau of Well Site Mountain. It was almost impossible to figure out exactly where the highest point was. I was delighted when I snagged my left approach shoe on a sharp protruding rock and literally ripped it in half. (I was not actually delighted whatsoever with this development and have contacted La Sportiva with my thoughts.) Somehow the bottom part stayed attached, but for the rest of the day this issue would plague me – especially in snow. 🙁 Eventually we passed a cairn and I took some photos from there before we continued north to where Brandon and Cornelius both ended their summit walks. From the north end the cairn looked higher, so again – I’m not 100% sure where exactly the high point in this silly mountain is. The views to the eastern Banff ranges were surprisingly good. I recalled some great memories of Warden Rock, Wapiti and Tomahawk Mountain. Other peaks such as Barrier, Forbidden, Skeleton and Scalp had me interested in other excursions and to the east peaks such as Willson, Evangeline, Rum Ridge, Eagle, Wildhorse Ridge, Maze and others were clearly visible rising over the dry Tinda ranch below.
As we trudged back, past the summit cairn Wietse suddenly asked why we couldn’t descend the broad east slopes of Well Site towards Scalp Creek and from there access Hat Mountain from the NW. I had thought of this earlier, but wasn’t sure how the forest would be on the lower sections of the mountain – or how deep the snow might be. We hummed and hawed a bit before deciding to go for it. It would certainly save some messing around with distances and retracing our south slope approach route on Well Site. We decided on the northerly arm of a huge horseshoe splitting Well Site’s east slopes and proceeded down towards Scalp Creek far below.
The first few hundred meters of elevation loss were fantastic along the gentle ridge. We passed by a few confused sheep before encountering some rock hard snow, necessitating our icers. Once down the hard snow slope we continued on a mix of grass, hard dirt and snow (keeping the icers on) until hitting more gently angled forested slopes below. Here we got a very welcome surprise – the forest was open, mossy and almost entirely snow free. Finally, as we neared Scalp Creek we bailed out of the forest and waded down a feeder creek for a few hundred meters in loose, knee deep snow before finally crossing a mostly frozen Scalp Creek to its dry east bank.
Despite my wrecked shoe filling with snow, we were in decent spirits as we slowly started towards the more northerly slopes of Hat Mountain from Scalp Creek. I was a bit concerned about ascending the north end of the mountain, especially given Cornelius’ horrid experience descending this side with snow. So far any snow amounts had been pretty limited so we took our chances and kept going. Wietse originally tried to access the Clearwater Trail high above Scalp Creek to the east while I followed a small sheep trail much nearer to the creekbed. Eventually Wietse descended to me and we both started up light forested slopes on the west / northwest shoulder of Hat Mountain. I won’t get into too many details other than to say that despite a short stint along a road the going got a bit rough higher up on the shoulder, just below the dry summit bump. The snow had drifted up to knee deep here and the hours kept ticking by until we found ourselves racing sunset to the peak of the “hat”.
The late afternoon lighting was gorgeous as we finally crested the summit and plopped down for a much needed 10 minute break and some food and water. The last bit of my Starbucks coffee sure hit the spot, I can assure you! We snapped some photos in the soft light before noticing how chilly the westerly breeze had become and deciding it was probably time to race sunset down as much of Hat Mountain as possible before darkness caught us.
The sun sets awful quick in December and long before we reached the dry approach roads below we realized we’d need our headlamps to continue. Of course I only had my small emergency one along and the battery quickly died. I figured out a way to use my iPhone flashlight while hiking by tucking it into the front of my hiking pants – handsfree baby! I’m not sure how much the phone enjoyed the experience but it worked pretty darn good for me.
The highlight of our day was the wild sunset over the ranges and as darkness settled in, the sight of Jupiter and Saturn over Warden Rock. Apparently these two planets are very close in the night sky this year and haven’t been this aligned since the middle ages.
Wietse set a furious pace back down the dry dirt track to Bighorn Falls. We stopped several times to peer up at the incredible night sky. The moon was hidden and a billion stars popped out of the dark skies above. It felt good to complete a 9 hour day at this time of the year and still tag two (lowly) summits with some great views. I can’t say I highly recommend either of these bumps as a highlight trip but they suffice when the choice is to sit at home in the concrete jungle or come out for some fresh air in a real one. I would combine the two peaks if you don’t have too much snow – otherwise use bikes to approach and make them easy half day objectives.