Summit Elevations (m): 2640, 2545
Trip Date: Saturday, May 15 2021
Elevation Gain (m): 2300
Round Trip Time (hr): 13.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 53
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you fell asleep while biking back along the road!
Difficulty Notes: A straightforward bike ride (if dry) followed by easy hiking and scrambling. Obviously a very long and tiring day when the numbers are tallied. Most folks will want to plan a two-day trip for this set of objectives.
Technical Rating: SC5, OT4
Map: Google Maps
Scalp Peak and Skeleton Mountain sat on my to-do list for a while before finally getting direct attention late last year after Wietse and I hiked two nearby peaks – Well Site and Hat Mountain. Cornelius Rott elevated Scalp’s status in the scrambling community with a late season trip of his own back in November 2016 and put Skeleton on the map in November 2020. There are different approaches for Scalp – you can either approach it from the north via the Cutoff Creek / Clearwater trails or via the south from the Tinda ranch via the Scalp Creek / Skeleton Creek / Clearwater trail. A quick note about the trails and their names. The trail / old road running up the east side of Scalp Creek from Ya Ha Tinda before cresting a pass and running down Skeleton Creek towards the Clearwater River is given various titles on various maps. This map calls the trail “Scalp Creek Trail”, then “Skeleton Creek Trail” which is what I prefer. This map calls it the “Clearwater Trail” which also makes sense but conflicts a bit with the first map that logically has a “Clearwater Trail” running up the Clearwater River. I’ve decided to name the trails in my report as referenced on the route map below for clarity.
The weather forecast for the 3rd weekend of May 2021 was looking pretty darn fine indeed. The fly in the ointment was the copious amounts of snow still visible all over the Rockies front ranges, putting a damper on big plans other than those involving glaciers and high places deeper into the mountains. Ironically (or not) Phil Richards was planning a multi-day trip in the Scalp Peak area and this got me thinking about a possible 1.5 day trip involving Scalp Peak and Skeleton Mountain – a summit just north of Well Site. When I mapped out the routes and did the calculations I was tempted to try these two as a day trip with Wietse but we both agreed that given the unknown amounts of snow along the route we’d better go in with overnight packs and count on a one night stay in between peaks. Phil sent me some updates on conditions throughout his day on Friday with mentions of “wallowing” and exhausting snow between The Hat and Scalp Peak. This only firmed up our intention to take 1.5 days and we agreed to leave my house at the relatively late hour of 06:00 on Saturday morning. The birds were already up and chirping as we loaded my bike onto Wietse’s SUV before pointing our noses north and starting the 2.5 hour drive to the Bighorn Campground and Tinda ranch. Seeing at least 50-75 wild horses along the way was pretty cool. Just before 09:00 we mounted our 2-wheel steeds and biked across Bighorn Creek, starting a slow uphill ride along the “Old Forestry Road” on its west side.
Considering this was my first time on the bike for 2021 I didn’t do too bad on approach. I have no idea why I don’t do more biking in nearby Fish Creek Provincial Park but after struggling a bit I will be committing a bit of time to biking there in the future. Thankfully I have a solid granny gear that gets a lot of usage. We biked up the mostly grassy, rutted “Old Forestry Road” (more of a track) before turning left along the “Scalp Creek Trail Connector”. The connector was an old gravel-base road and excellent for biking. It was also very slightly downhill for a while which was a nice break after a surprising amount of uphill already. Once turning onto the Scalp Creek Trail things stayed relatively good for biking. Put it this way – compared to what Cornelius had when he rode up here we felt pretty fortunate. We rode along with some enormous grizzly prints on the road which wasn’t so bad until we noticed much smaller prints too. As usual for this area once we were a few kilometers up the Scalp Creek Trail we started feeling like we were “out there”. After crossing a huge dip and washout in the road we wondered what the biking would be like but it continued going well until we finally came to the pass between Scalp Creek and the headwaters of Skeleton Creek where Cornelius shortcut back from Skeleton Mountain (green line on his map). We should have left the bikes here but stubbornly kept going another 500m or so before too much snow and ice on the trail made us give up. No matter! We were delighted with the over 13kms of approach we’d just managed to ride in around 2hrs. At this point we could only see a south outlier of Scalp Peak and were still planning an overnight trip. After locking up the bikes we continued on foot down the Skeleton Creek Trail.
The snow on the Skeleton Creek Trail was surprisingly supportive thanks to old snowmobile tracks. There is a random sledding area in the headwaters of Scalp Creek and the access is via the Cutoff Creek and Clearwater Trails to the north and then up the Skeleton Creek Trail. We took full advantage of the packed trail until finally the snow ran out again and we were back to dry road hiking. Another week or so and we could have biked all the way to the base of Scalp Peak’s south access slopes. We dropped our overnight packs along the trail where we thought we might follow Cornelius’ route to Skeleton Mountain. “CC9” was looking a little snowy for our tastes but that was a future Vern and Wietse problem. From the old sign where we dropped our packs we could see dry slopes leading up to the south aspect of Scalp and started hiking towards it with light day packs.
We were about 3 hours into our day at this point and a LONG way from nowhere. The weather was gorgeous as forecast and the sun felt more “summer” than “spring” as we started up very steep slopes into a recent burn on west slopes leading to the south aspect of Scalp Peak. (This area burned in August 2018 in what was called the “Skeleton Creek Wildfire“.) For the next 1.5 hours we ground our way up the seemingly never ending south slopes of Scalp. First through two small burn areas and a patch of unburned forest (controlled burns?) and then up a mix of grasses and snowdrifts to the upper ridge. The weather continued to cooperate with very light winds (unusual for this area) and wicked views back to the west towards the impressive east faces of Wapiti and Tomahawk Mountain.
Finally Wietse led the way up a snowy south ridge to what I’m calling the “sub sub peak” just to be annoying. Speaking of “snow”, there was a lot more than we were expecting but Phil’s messages to me the day before started making more sense now. We could see his tracks leading faithfully up and over the sub sub peak towards a distant SE summit and much more distant north summit. Speaking of the “SE” summit, Phil had also texted me the day before regarding this outlier. He didn’t tag it on his way past since he was already on a long traverse from Hat Mountain with an overnight pack but he swore it looked higher than the north summit and suggested we tag it and find out. For some reason folks seem to bypass the SE summit despite it only being an extra 50 or 75m height gain from the west traverse line to the north summit. Scalp Peak itself is an unofficial summit so if the SE peak was indeed higher than the north one this would make our day somewhat shorter and easier.
From the sub sub peak the traverse to the SE summit was good fun. We lost some height before continuing along Phil’s tracks. At first we weren’t looking forward to the extra height gain but soon it became obvious that the extra gains over the normal traverse line to the north summit were minimal. Wietse was a speedy Dutchman on this particular day and broke trail up ankle deep snow to the summit of the SE peak. The north peak looked to be very similar in height and we quickly realized we’d be doing that traverse to ensure we stood on the highest point – we also took measurements to compare the two summits. The views from the SE peak were very respectable in every direction.
We snapped a bunch of photos before starting a snowy descent towards the north summit. In a common theme for this trip everything took a wee bit longer than originally planned due to the snowy conditions but soon enough we were ascending the final snowy ridge to the north summit.
The views from the north summit were incredible – especially up the Clearwater River towards mysterious sounding peaks such as “Forbidden”, “Lost Guide” and “Mamen”. It was neat to see the east face of Mount Harris knowing that I stood there a year previous looking down this valley. In case you’re curious the measurements that we took indicate that the SE and north summit are essentially the same height. If I had to pick the highest based purely on how it seemed from the other it would be the SE summit. IMHO if you tag that peak you’ve done Scalp Peak but others may have a different opinion. Apparently there is a register at the north summit (and soon to be a bright pink one too) but we didn’t find it due to snow over the cairn.
It took us just over 5.5 hours from the parking lot to the north summit of Scalp. This was moving steadily and quickly – I was following the speedy Dutchman all day except for a few times on the bikes. Every time I stopped to take a photo or movie he would open the gap between us. I think he’s done too many Prairie Mountains this year and now everything is nothing more than a variant… We started the long trek back down south slopes to Skeleton Creek. Traversing around the west bowl under the SE summit proved tedious but soon we were over the sub sub peak and descending the open south slopes in light winds and very warm temperatures to the forest below.
At this point we were still counting on staying overnight but our thoughts definitely turned towards bagging Skeleton Mountain on day 1 instead of waiting until Sunday morning. One of the main reasons to tag it on the first day was snow conditions. We didn’t have crampons or snowshoes along and early morning snow could be very hard and icy thanks to the furious melt going on. We’d rather deal with slurpee snow than rock hard ice with no grip in approach shoes. Also, I agreed with Wietse’s suggestion to forgo Cornelius’ route for Skeleton and tackle it directly from the Skeleton Creek Trail instead. This would save us some time and distance and more important, some serious snow wallowing as well.
As we made our descent down to Skeleton Creek we calculated distances and height gains remaining for our next peak. Approximately another 6km and 600-700 meters of height gain faced us. It was around 16:30 and we gave ourselves 4 hours return for the trip. It was at this point that I started privately wondering if we should just bike back today already and call it a “day trip” rather than bother with the fuss of an overnight camp in a popular grizzly corridor. There isn’t much to say about our east approach to the east ridge of Skeleton Mountain. It was a bit manky – I’m not gonna lie. Firstly it was east facing, therefore holding much more snow than the west and south aspect of Scalp Peak had. Secondly the bush hadn’t burned here for the most part and was more of a bushwhack. Thirdly, we were tired and the route wasn’t totally straightforward – we had to check the GPS every few minutes to ensure we didn’t get suckered off route. After about an hour we were finally looking ahead to a mostly dry upper east ridge to the summit – still at least 300 vertical meters above us but easy scrambling.
I enjoyed the views back to Scalp Peak from the east ridge immensely. The late day lighting and the vastness of its south and west slopes was very picturesque. Well Site Mountain to the south also looked very cool and the upper Scalp Creek valley with Wapiti Mountain and Tomahawk Mountain looming overhead looked like a wild and peaceful place. A short stretch of snow proved no match for the fast ‘n fit Dutchman and after kicking steps up that we ascended a rock step (easy) and finally popped onto the summit of Skeleton Mountain. It was around 18:30 as we stood in the cool evening breezes and snapped photos of the surrounding peaks, valleys and creeks. The late day lighting was gorgeous.
As we descended from our second summit of the day we began discussing the “day trip option” more seriously. At first Wietse wasn’t convinced but when I pointed out the comfort of his own bed instead of freezing next to a creek he started coming around to my POV. I’ve slept in enough tents to know that sometimes it’s worth it and sometimes it just isn’t. I thought it would also be kinda neat to bag these two remote peaks as a day trip considering most folks who do them wouldn’t think of that as an option. The descent went much quicker than ascent and we knew that we’d be back at the bikes before 21:00. With sunset at 21:30 and light until almost 22:00 we would hardly even need our headlamps to get back to the Bighorn parking lot. The decision was made. We were day tripping it!
We found a slightly less annoying route down the east slopes of Skeleton to the creek and willow/alder whacked back across the creek to the trail. We marched up the trail to our waiting overnight packs (!!) and strapped them on before continuing back to our waiting bikes. Now that we were exiting we were racing against the dark a bit. With hindsight we should have left YYC an hour or so earlier and of course not bothered with the “heavy” overnight packs at all. Oh well. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve lugged an overnight pack into a day trip and I’m sure it won’t be the last either.
The bike ride back to the Tinda ranch went about as well as could be expected considering how many miles we’d put on our legs already. There was 2 or 3 more challenging uphill sections that were unexpected (they always seem to be forgotten from the ride in) but even they weren’t that bad. I love biking in fading light for some reason. It reminds me of biking late at night with childhood friends on warm summer nights back in Carman, Manitoba. We cruised the downhill sections and found we didn’t need our headlamps until just about back at the last section – the “Old Forestry Road” down to the parking lot. I enjoyed cruising down the rutted track in the dark – my headlamp barely offering assistance as the grass and rocks rushed up out of the inky blackness to meet my tires. We rolled into the quiet and empty parking lot at around 22:30 – almost exactly 13.5 hours after leaving it. I highly recommend combining Scalp Peak and Skeleton Mountain into a single trip. The only question left to you is how many days you’ll set aside for it.