Peaks Ascended: Bramwell, Hummingbird
Summit Elevations: (m): 2758, 2594
Trip Dates: Friday, June 04 to Saturday June 05 2021
Elevation Gain (m): 1700
Round Trip Time (hr): 24
Total Trip Distance (km): 50
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3 – you fall, you could break something (or worse on our alt descent from Bramwell)
Difficulty Notes: A pretty aggressive 24 hour hike ‘n scramble in early season conditions, scrambling to moderate or difficult depending on route.
Technical Rating: TL3, OT4, SC6
Map: Google Maps
I’ve developed a full blown obsession with the Upper Clearwater / Ram PLUZ in the Spring of 2021. I’m not sure exactly how it happened but ever since completing a day trip of Scalp and Skeleton Peak with Wietse I’ve moved further and further north towards the Clearwater and Ram rivers between Ya Ha Tinda and David Thompson Country. There’s something special about the “Bighorn Backcountry”. Whether it’s the many creeks and rivers flowing out of the Rockies to the west, the open alpine meadows or the soaring 3,000m peaks, this is a unique and special landscape. Being outside of formal parks and a truly multiuse area it is dotted with Snowmobile, OHV, horse and hiking trails. There aren’t many bridges across its myriad creeks and waterways. Infrastructure is present where needed but kept to a bare minimum – just the way I like it.
When Cornelius Rott (of Spectacular Mountains fame) and I realized that we were essentially chasing the same objectives we decided to team up for a 2-day trip from June 4th to 5th in the Onion Creek / Hummingbird Creek area. The weather forecast was looking great for Friday and so-so for Saturday. Sunday was downright miserable. We decided on a full day on Friday with Mount Bramwell as our primary objective and some on-sight options we’d settle on later. Saturday would be considered a bonus day depending on the weather.
Onion Creek Trail – Onion Lake – Mount Bramwell
I picked Cornelius up at the relatively late hour of 06:30 just north of YYC and we proceeded with the long drive to the Hummingbird Creek staging area / campground via the now-familiar hwy 752 / 734 combo. It was almost 10:00 as we started hiking up the Onion Creek Trail with our overnight packs. Because of our planned loop route we didn’t bother with bikes – otherwise they’re a no-brainer here. We marveled at how much drier the surrounding peaks were than the week previous, thanks to a heat wave in between visits.
It’s been a while since Cornelius and I hiked together and time slipped by quickly as we talked ‘n walked briskly up the wide, easy Onion Creek Trail. As we worked our way past the “Sufi” turnoff and “Totem Camp” the trail slowly became more and more worn and muddy. The open valley housing Onion Creek to our left narrowed considerably and as we turned up towards Onion Lake our tracks mingled with those of a decent sized grizzly who was also slipping and sliding in the mud.
It took us about 3 hours to hike the 15km to Onion Lake at the “H4” campsite. We spent some time at the lake, taking in the lovely, quiet atmosphere and brilliant, warm sunshine. Sitting there, high above the lake with views towards Bramwell and Mumford I wondered, not for the first time, why not just spend the afternoon right here? Why bother with yet another peak? Why not pull out a book or a podcast or a notebook and just whittle away a perfect afternoon in the middle of nowhere with nothing else on the agenda?
I must be getting old with silly thoughts such as those previously expressed. 😉 Somewhat reluctantly we tore ourselves away from warm sunshine, soft grasses and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and shrugged back into our overnight packs before setting off down the trail towards more unknown country ahead. The next 4km were spent on a mix of good trail, sort-of-good trail, slick, muddy trail and snow-covered trail. We crossed an unbridged stream soon after Onion Lake and followed the grizzly as it slipped and slid hilariously on the strangely slick mud that seems to permeate Bighorn Country. The question we had was why the bruin insisted on sticking to the trail?! Why not simply hike in the grass beside it? As intelligent apes we felt fully justified in sticking to the trail but surely a freaking bear would rather pad along on soft grasses than slide around on all fours for kilometers on end? Obviously we know nothing about what a bear thinks or prefers… Eventually we crested a rise and saw Torpor Peak (a bivouac.com name) and Mount Bramwell rising in front of us.
We continued up the OHV track as it wound it’s way above the small stream to our left in a pristine little valley still awakening from a long winter nap. As the trail curved around the NW end of what we were calling “Hummingbird Ridge”, we kept an eye out for possible open ascent lines. Our optimistic plan had us finishing our day with a long traverse of this gorgeous ridge – Cornelius was REALLY into this ridge – trust me! He was catcalling it all day and I knew there was very little chance of dissuading him of its charms. Finally we arrived at the approach valley to the NE end of Bramwell where we dropped our overnight packs and started out with day packs across an open, boggy meadow. We were approximately 19-20km and 4 hours into our day at this point.
After crossing the boggy meadow we headed up into pretty dense forest. It wasn’t nice and open like we’d hoped, but was that nasty, grabby, stubborn, depressed and grumpy type of forest that has gone through many hardships and doesn’t let a little human get by that easily. Eventually we broke out of the forest’s grip only to be faced with 4ft of snow! We mostly floated over the dense snow before finally setting foot on dry ground and starting a steep grind to the upper east ridge leading to the summit. Thankfully at this point our views were opening up, especially behind us. The east ridge led easily to the north summit ridge, granting us incredible views to “Torpor Peak” (bivouac name) and some interesting looking cornices in our path.
Our beta indicated that Bramwell was nothing more than a class II hike, therefore we left our brain buckets at home. As we ascended the north ridge with loose rocks, cornices, steep snow and some exposure we were regretting this decision! As usual, snow on route makes everything a bit more complicated and I would have to rate the scrambling we did as easy SC6.
Once on the north ridge there was some semi-exposed walking to the summit cairn where a red Nalgene bottle was clearly visible. Strong winds made this traverse a bit more interesting than it would otherwise be. Summit views were, naturally, very respectable from this well situated peak. I was still surprised (for some reason) that we could see peaks like Normandy (Ex Coelis), Murchison, Corona Ridge and a distant Cline and even Hangman Peak. Mount William Booth was staring at us from just across the extreme upper stretches of the North Ram River along with the bivouac-named, “Soldier” and “Homeless” peaks. I barely spotted Farley Lake – the headwaters lake for the North Ram River far below as a brightly colored sliver in the forest. For some reason it took me until the summit of Bramwell to fully understand the Upper Clearwater / Ram PLUZ in the context of the Siffleur and DTC areas that surround it. It’s truly remarkable how many rivers and streams flow out of the Rockies towards the prairies here!
The winds at the summit were brutally strong. After signing the register that was left in 2016 by Steven Noel (2nd party since then) we decided to retrace our steps down the north ridge and exit our approach route to the valley below – possibly going down east slopes instead of the thick, nasty bush on the NE ones. As we left the summit cairn and started down the ridge Cornelius shouted above the wind, “are we sure that’s the summit?”. Wait – WTF?! I’d noticed a potentially higher point along the ridge a few hundred meters past the cairn but didn’t really give it much thought. The register was sitting comfortable where it was and with the winds and sharp ridge I honestly didn’t feel like walking any further than I had to up there. Plus I’ve learned over many hundreds of peaks that there’s ALWAYS a damn point that looks similar or higher. Plus I could see over the next high point, almost guaranteeing it was no higher than the cairned one. I yelled back that I was perfectly satisfied with our summit. Cornelius went 1.5 more steps before turning back. “It’s right there”, was his reply.
We turned around in the whipping winds (dark clouds were also forming to the west at this point) and I reluctantly followed Cornelius past the cairn, towards the next high point. We grabbed the register on our way past – just in case. The only reason I followed Cornelius was that my Gaia base map put the summit on the next point over – otherwise I think I wouldn’t have bothered. Sure enough! After a 5-10 minute walk I verified (with my Altimeter app) that the more southern summit was indeed about 12 inches higher. 😉 Feeling fully justified, we erected a simple cairn and deposited the register before continuing south along the summit ridge. Wait – what?! South? Wasn’t our ascent route the north ridge? Yeah, I’m glad you caught that too. In a silly twist of fate, the act of going back to gain the extra 12 inches to the “true summit” also led us down an alternate route. We both agreed that the south and SE slope looked much quicker than the north ridge and NE one. Of course we couldn’t actually see most of it from the summit – a misstep that didn’t quite register until it was too late…
We enjoyed a supportive snow slope before hiking down easy rubble towards the lovely valley tucked in between Torpor and Bramwell. It was only now that we started to get nervous, noticing a line of stubborn cliffs skirting the mountain below. CRAP. I’ll admit it. I was feeling a wee bit grumpy at this point. I have a code that has served me very well over the years I’ve spent rambling around the Rockies. As a general rule of thumb I NEVER EVER EVER descend terrain that either I didn’t ascend or that is unknown to me (i.e. no beta, no study beforehand etc.). And the situation we were now in was exactly the reason why I follow this code very stubbornly – often to the annoyance of my scrambling partners. To make a long story short, we did manage to find a sneaky line through the curtain cliffs. We were wishing for helmets as we searched for it, but it was fairly easy once we snuck through. We were, however, mentally and physically tired out from some frantic searching and route finding and were still a long way from our waiting overnight packs and even further from our next objective!
Finally we stumbled down an open east slope to the wet valley below and started back towards the trail connecting Onion Lake to Hummingbird Creek and our waiting overnight packs. By now it was already after 5pm and the weather to the SW was looking undecided. The winds had picked up considerably. We decided to hike to the packs and decide from there what our plans would be – but we both knew Hummingbird Ridge / Peak was next on the agenda! The valley was lovely but the stream was high and there was water everywhere.
Once on the trail, it was a bit of a muddy mess but we managed to get through it without falling. It wasn’t graceful, I can assure you! It was amusing to encounter two bridges on the trail after all the unbridged crossings in between but I guess that’s the nature of these trails. The smaller streams that were running for us are likely dry by the time OHV engines echo off these valley walls. Finally at around 18:00 we arrived back at our packs and prepared for the next stage of our day.
Hummingbird Ridge / Peak – Hummingbird Creek
I was feeling the effects of a long drive, over 30km of hiking and 8 hours of rapid movement – not to mention a bloody mountain ascent – as Cornelius and I donned heavier overnight packs and turned up towards the NW end of a striking ridge we dubbed, “Hummingbird” after a nearby creek. (We found out later that Bivouac calls it “Hummingbird Peak” – whatever floats your boat when it comes to labelling officially unnamed peaks.) When looking at the lower slopes of the ridge they looked pretty darn innocent. We should have known better after doing brief but focused battle with the forest on Bramwell’s lower SE slopes but today just wasn’t that sorta day I guess. We fought through a pretty bad section of trees before coming on an open meadow with a lovely little pond. We could clearly see much more forest above this meadow and we started getting concerned that daylight was going to die on us with too many more obstacles slowing our progress.
At this point in my tale I’m going to take liberty (as the author) to gloss over the very worst part of our trip. It was bad. The bush was thick, we were tired, our packs were heavy and our minds were shot to hell. We wanted a simply walk in the sky on an open ridge and we weren’t going to get that. We almost turned back down to camp below but when Cornelius pointed out that we’d be back in the bush re-ascending the next morning I decided that wasn’t an option! The decision was made to push through and hopefully get struck by lightning or eaten by a bear just to end the suffering. Sadly neither of those things happened and the suffering had to be endured – this time at least. 😉 After what seemed an eternity we were on open slopes and battling our next enemy – horrendous winds from the SW.
For the next hour or so we battled the wind and our minds as the weather continued to look very threatening. Angry, dark clouds raced towards the front ranges and then just vanished before hitting us! It was a strange and powerful dance of the weather gods – battling it out directly above our ridge. Several times I blew over and I noticed the same happen to Cornelius. The views were stunning with the late day lighting but of course it was harder to enjoy them while wondering why you’re pushing things so hard and if the suffering is worth the goal. (Of course it is BTW.) We set a good pace despite the winds and kept on keeping on up the wonderful ridge as it stretched out before us.
Finally, at around 20:30 and roughly 35km in to our day we could see the summit ahead. Views of Whelk, Canary and distantly to Lost Guide and Condor kept us entertained for the last few steps to the summit where we arrived at 21:00, still in strong winds. At this point the good weather god had beaten back to the bad one and we were in the clear for the evening. We took summit photos and even left a hastily scrawled summit register before turning our attention to descent and finding a camp for the night.
Our original descent route was via a south ridge directly from the summit but we spotted a more attractive option one ridge further east and headed down towards it. There were some interesting (SC6) scrambling moves along the way but nothing terrible. The wind increased as we descended, which was more than a little strange! The sun setting on “Canaria” and Canary Peak kept us pleasantly distracted from our tired minds and bodies as we slowly descended rubble slopes to Hummingbird Creek far below.
Finally, at around 22:00 we found ourselves on the wrong side of a raging Hummingbird Creek, desperately searching for a safe crossing. We managed to find one eventually and it wasn’t too scary. BUT. We weren’t done yet! We still had to find a viable camp, so we set off down the Hummingbird Creek Trail, hoping to find one along the way. Eventually we managed to find a decent spot right at another unbridged crossing of Hummingbird Creek and at 22:40 we set up a little camp under the stars. June 5th dawned gray and cool. I awoke before Cornelius and prepared for the oncoming drizzle which looked imminent. It never came. As we packed up camp I noticed blue sky to the south and by the time we were hiking out along Hummingbird Creek it was another beautiful morning in the Rockies. All was good and we easily hiked the 9km back to the parking lot where we decided we couldn’t let such a nice day go to “waste” and planned some easy hikes on the way home.
As you can tell, I’ve fallen in love with a new area of the Rockies. The Bighorn Backcountry from Tinda to David Thompson Country is a very special place. Sure! There are horses everywhere and OHV’s can be loud and annoying but there are many quieter areas too. There are more bears than people in the off season, outside of July and August. There are open valleys with grasses gently swaying in the winds coming off the high ranges to the west. There are bubbling brooks and gushing streams. There are waterfalls and little tarns, sparkling like gems in the vast landscape. There are open ridges, small hills and towering peaks. We are privileged beyond telling to be able to enjoy such a pristine, beautiful and wild area.