Trip Dates: Friday, June 11 to Saturday, June 12 2021
Total Elevation Gain (m): 2700
Total Trip Time (hr): 33
Total Trip Distance (km): 72
Peaks Ascended: Wingnut, Canary, Whelk
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3 – you fall, you sprain or break something.
Difficulty Notes: A long bike, hike and scramble trip up the Ram River near the South Ram Patrol Cabin.
Technical Rating: TL4, OT4, SC6
Map: Google Maps
Wietse and I were looking to take advantage of a great two day forecast from Friday June 11 to Saturday June 12 2021. There was a tiny fly in the ointment however. The weekend before and the week leading up to Friday had seen up to 75mm (3 inches) of rain in the Upper Clearwater / Ram PLUZ area according to my constant monitoring of spotwx over the week. This was a lot of rain and despite the flow rates and monitoring stations looking pretty normal (although at the upper range) I was nervous about water levels along the Ram River basin. We decided to be smart about it and planned a set of backup objectives in the same area that didn’t involve large flowing streams or rivers and started planning the details. As you can probably tell by now, I’ve started to fall in love with yet another area of the Rockies this year. So far in 2021 I’ve made quite a few trips to the northern Tinda / Clearwater / Ram PLUZ areas in the front ranges and was planning to do so again for this trip. Why so many trips into this area? There’s a few reasons, including the fact that it’s new for me but the primary reason is that as front range peaks they should, in theory, dry out much quicker than peaks further in towards the inner ranges. Another reason is that until July 1st these areas are closed to OHV traffic, making them very quiet in May and June and perfect early season targets.
It was Wietse’s turn to make the long 3.5 hour drive to the Hummingbird staging area – although this time we got to park a few kms sooner at the junction of the Ram River and Hummingbird Creek near an outfitter’s camp at a large designated parking area. On our drive up hwy 734 we’d spotted what looked like fresh snow beside the road in the forest. This was very improbable for so late in the season and we started convincing ourselves that this must be a remnant of winter that we hadn’t noticed here on previous trips. Yeah right. As we drove to the parking area the situation became glaringly and blindingly clear. Instead of 3 inches of rain as SpotWX had indicated, the entire Upper Clearwater / Ram PLUZ had gotten 1mm of rain and what looked to be at least a foot of fresh snow up high down to several inches down low. Yikes. This was going to seriously compromise our plans as everything slows down and complicates in spring snow. Sure! I love a good snow slope for a quick ascent or glissade on the way down but several inches of crusty snow on the approach trail was going to seriously impact our biking and hiking pace.
Since even our backup objectives were plastered in snow and since the Ram River looked reasonable to cross, we decided to stubbornly stick with our original plan and see what happened. The forecast was for plenty of blue sky and warm sunshine and in June the snowpack melts quickly – especially fresh stuff.
Day 1 – South Ram River Trail – Wingnut Peak & Canary Peak – Camp
Somewhat apprehensive we started on the bikes from the parking lot down to our first unbridged crossing of the day through a lively Hummingbird Creek. Thankfully the crossing went easily with low flow and knee deep water. From here we found the Ram River Trail back and proceeded to bike up it. Soon we started running into fresh, crusty snow on the trail. Within a few kms our lives were made much more difficult than we were expecting thanks to this uninvited and pesky guest of nature that has been plaguing my June trips way too often in 2021! There wasn’t much to do except try to enjoy the blue skies and shift down a few gears to get our tires to punch through the crust and up to several inches of snow.
In theory we didn’t have to cross the Ram River at all on our approach to Sick Man’s Camp but could wait until much further upstream. There is an alternate trail (called “Ranger Creek” on Gaia) that avoids the crossings by going around hills north of Sick Man’s Camp on their west side rather than on the east where the Ram River runs. This trail is not well documented and we had no idea what to expect from it. As we peddled past the intersection I wasn’t that impressed – it looked much smaller than the Ram River Trail and not nearly as bike friendly either. I should point out that the Ram River Trail is also not very bike friendly as far as trails in this area goes. For example the Onion Creek Trail to Onion Lake is much more bikeable than this one. Even the rough track up Cutoff Creek and the Clearwater River is much more bike friendly than the Ram River Trail. The main issue with bikes on the Ram River Trail is how bloody rough it is. Large rocks permeate the track (think 2-5 inches in diameter) – there’s boulders and even small tree stumps that are right in the middle of the path and very hard to see until you’re basically flipping over your handlebars! As a shared use trail with horses, OHV’s and the odd hiker the track definitely doesn’t cater to the 2-wheel steed. Unless you are comfortable with technical cross country riding and have a full-suspension mountain bike I’m not sure it’s worth your efforts to be honest. YMMV of course. By avoiding the by-pass trail we ended up with two fairly deep and swift Ram River crossings. The first was a little trickier than the second but neither one was particularly scary and I would take that route again provided the river wasn’t too angry.
Wietse was voting vigorously to drop the bikes long before I finally gave up and indignantly threw mine into a small tree beside the snow-covered track we were busy pushing the bikes along. I was frustrated at this point. I felt like we did all our homework on creek levels, rain amounts and all the regular trip planning stuff and yet here we were, struggling along in way too much fresh snow and giving up on the bikes after only 7.5kms (and it felt like we should have given up at least 2.5kms earlier). Even with all our experience somehow the mountains had bested us before even getting to them. I wasn’t impressed. Ah well. C’est la vie. We all know that the mountain gods are fickle entities and the only way to deal with them is to shrug and either give up and go home or move on. We weren’t about to give up just yet, so we moved on. On foot. Even walking in the fresh snow was slow and cumbersome. We were now facing at least 13km more walking than expected to our camp and progress felt sluggish compared to how we normally like to move – especially while on a good trail. We detoured around so-called, “Sick Man’s Camp” (on Gaia) before entering a winter wonderland through some expansive alpine meadows running between the Ram River and “Finch Peak”. The meadows were even more spread out than they first appeared. After staggering and stumbling across the meadows on slick snow we were greeted by a series of cutlines with trails connecting them running through delightful little glades, low willow stands and past some impressive campsites in the forest to the sides. Fresh snow did not improve our pace on these rougher, narrow tracks through the forest but the deep blue sky overhead with soaring peaks and green meadows below did make us pause more than once and consider how much better this was than the office despite the difficulties we were facing.
As we hiked further and further into the backcountry our moods steadily rose along with our step counts. The snow started to melt beneath our feet and the sky was a brilliant spring blue overhead with green valleys and trees below. Whelk Peak started out looking very distant but slowly we crept up on it and started contouring around its north aspect as it grew larger in our field of view. Birds were chirping on every side as we hiked along river flats, through silent forests and across cheerful streams. Despite Whelk, Wingnut and Canary looking shockingly white, the views and the atmosphere of the Ram River valley was sublime. Being out here all by ourselves on such a gorgeous day made us feel spoiled and very fortunate. Not being at work just made it all even better. Finally, 4 hours after leaving the trailhead we realized that we should be continuing on the Ram River Trail to our left rather than towards the Pleasant Valley trail between points “H7” and “H6” and the Canary Creek Trail. We went offroad briefly along an embankment before picking up the trail again along the river flats.
The sun was oriented just right to continue melting the fresh snow off our trail as we followed it up another cutline towards a distant Aries Peak and Wingnut Peak. The sun was genuinely warm overhead now and we dared hope that our fortunes were turning. At this point we still had the forecast of two bluebird days in a row in our minds and this was shaping up to match that prediction rather nicely.
Finally, 4.5 hours from the parking lot and after exactly 21kms of travel we arrived at the perfect little campsite along the Ram River Trail, sitting off to the side under Wingnut Peak with spectacular views to Whelk and Aries Peak. Save for the lack of a nearby water source you’d be hard pressed to find a better backcountry site than this one! It offered some protection from the wind and had a pile of fresh wood cut and ready to burn at a campfire later that night. We didn’t set up camp just yet, however, choosing to scramble Wingnut and Canary first and then see if we should move further upriver or not.
After spending a good deal more time and effort on our first two objectives we chose to spend the night here and had a delightful evening with the local owls and a deer that wandered into our little meadow and grazed peacefully nearby.
Day 2 – Camp – South Ram River Trail – Whelk Peak – South Ram River Trail
After waking up at 04:30 and scrambling a very snowy Whelk Peak under a dreary sky Wietse and I returned to a sunny camp and brewed up a warm cup of coffee while leisurely packing up camp. It was very nice to be in the warm sunshine again and we weren’t in a huge hurry despite having a long exit in front of us. We suspected that the copious amounts of snow we struggled through 24 hours earlier were going to be largely melted off in the warm spring sunshine and the longer we waited to leave, the more of the pesky white stuff would be gone forever.
By 13:00 we were finally ready to exit our little corner of paradise and with a few longing glances back towards Aries Peak we turned our attention NE down the rapidly drying Ram River Trail. The exit hike was everything the approach hike wasn’t. Warm sunshine overhead with barely any snow remaining on the trail made for a distinctly “Spring” feel. We both commented more than once on the strong smell of life coming off the wakening land around us – something we did not sense the day before!
We pretty much followed our approach track except for a short section where we exited the river flats (old trail) to join with the newer trail ending at H7 (Pleasant Valley junction) and a large camp before a sign warning that OHV’s were not permitted to continue down the Ram River Trail. From here we followed our tracks along with fresh grizzly and deer footprints along cutlines and through alpine meadows beneath snowy peaks.
The cutline trails were rapidly drying out and by the time we reached the open meadows before Sick Man’s Camp the day was feeling much more “summer” than “winter” – thank goodness for small miracles I suppose. We often found ourselves looking back at the now distant summit of Whelk Peak, rising majestically into the clear blue sky and wondering at how far we seem to travel in only a few hours. I followed a small trail around the south end of Sick Man’s Camp while Wietse retraced our steps around the north end. The views over the Ram River back over expansive alpine meadows to Whelk Peak were stunning. A horse outfitter riding slowly down the river banks made me feel like I’d stepped back in time a hundred years. I slowly exited through the large silent camp and back down to the river flats. I spoke briefly with the outfitter as he rode past me, he seemed a bit confused when I told him we’d come in the day before and were exiting after ascending three peaks around the South Ram Patrol Cabin. “You must be tired”, was his only comment. I agreed wholeheartedly and we parted ways.
It took us about 3 hours to reach the bikes from our camp. On hindsight even though it’s possible to bike much further up the Ram River Trail, it would not be easy or fast riding. I’m still not sure if I’ll bike further next time but likely I’ll try to at least get across the expansive meadows on the two-wheel steeds before giving up next time. (Assuming there isn’t fresh snow of course.) The ride back to Hummingbird Creek was a mix of fast and fun and slow and loose. Our two crossings of the Ram River were up to knee deep in swift water but very manageable.
As made the final river crossing of Hummingbird Creek and rode into the parking lot we closed the chapter on yet another wild Rockies adventure! It felt like so much more than a mere 33 hours, just as my previous 33 hour trip up the Clearwater River a few weeks earlier. There is little doubt that we could have had better conditions than we did – and those conditions would have been preferable to what we ended up enduring. On the other hand if every outing was under blue skies with perfect conditions more people would do these sorts of marathons wouldn’t they? The very fact that we looked at all the shitty snow and gray cloud on day one and said, “sure – we can handle this” is the thing that will make this particular trip extra special in the memory banks. Travelling over 72 kilometers in just over 1.5 days including 3 peaks in less-than-ideal conditions leaves an impression. I’m not saying it’s all a unicorns and fresh roses impression, but it’s a wild ride that won’t fade as quickly as some others I have stored in there somewhere! As of my writing this report a week later my toes are still recovering from the harsh beating but the rest of me wants to go back up the Ram River sooner than later.