Summit Elevation (m): 3023
Trip Date: Saturday, June 12 2021
Elevation Gain (m): 1000 (from camp), 1400 (from Ram River Trailhead)
Round Trip Time (hr): 7.0 (from camp)
Total Trip Distance (km): 15.5 (from camp)
Reference Trip: 33 Hours up the Ram River
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain something
Difficulty Notes: Easy scrambling made trickier for us with fresh snow and cold, windy weather.
Technical Rating: SC5, RE5
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
Wietse and I spent a nice night under the clouds and stars in the upper Ram River area of our beloved Rockies after a tough approach and even tougher ascent of Wingnut and Canary Peak thanks to less-than-ideal conditions. I awoke at around 04:30, early as usual for me after a night in a tent and set about making a small warming fire and boiling some water for breakfast. Our plans for June 12th were to attempt a very snowy Whelk Peak via an unknown approach up a NW valley and shallow west ridge. If all went swimmingly there was talk of Aries Peak as an afternoon add-on before a long exit but I think we both knew already at this point that this wasn’t going to be a priority. The fact that we were very likely going to tag three peaks in the conditions we had was surprising enough – there was no use overdoing things.
We took our time with breakfast and getting ready, giving our bodies some time to warm up before striding out of camp at the early hour of 05:40 with sunrise already done and over with. Compared with the day before I was feeling great and full of energy for some reason. Today was Wietse’s turn to let me take the “energy lead” after he broke trail and had all the extra energy the day before. It’s nice when a partnership works this well, we often take turns having the energy and pissing the other guy off with it. Originally our plan was to do Whelk Peak on day 1 and Canary on day 2. For various reasons we had swapped these plans and I was really hoping to have clear skies on the higher peak. The morning was cloudy but was hinting at clearing as we strode up the Ram River Trail towards Aries Peak. It was nice to start the day on a trail.
After a short approach of around 2.5km we found ourselves at the obvious entrance to a large NW valley leading towards a distant Whelk Peak, past an impressive outlier. A small waterfall coming out of the valley beckoned us onwards and we slowly started up steep, grassy banks on climber’s left (north) of the outlet stream.
The best part of Whelk turned out to be this NW valley. I love routes like this! There was a lot to love about this remote, untouched landscape including the soaring cliffs across the creek on its south side, the ungulate highway that wound its way along slabby cliffs and across boulder slopes and the views back to Aries Peak and ahead to a soaring, snowy Whelk.
We continued up the NW valley, marvelling at the scenery around us and revelling in the special early morning atmosphere that Rockies exploration entails. Every time I start thinking that all the little nooks and crannies of the Alberta Rockies have been pretty much overrun by popularity I come through areas like this and remember that for most people this is simply not the case. There are thousands upon thousands of these hanging, hidden, obscure valleys tucked under almost every peak and the vast majority don’t see more than half a dozen humans per year at most. I’m sure this valley sees far fewer than that – but obviously the ungulates make up for it with their own treks in here.
As we approached the far end of the NW valley Whelk Peak grew bigger and bigger and unfortunately also much more snowy than we first suspected. The sky first cleared and then grew more cloudy again but we were back here now and nothing short of thunder and lightning would turn us around at this point! We dumped our bear spray near the start of substantial snow and proceeded tip-toeing along snow fields towards our objective. Also unfortunately for us the snow hadn’t really frozen up from the night before and we were once again stuck with variable consistency, including the shin-busting ice crust that we’d suffered the day before on Wingnut and Canary Peak. As the one with more energy this day, I took over most of the step forming duties as we broke through a low set of cliffs on climber’s right and started contouring around the bottom of a shallow west ridge that I suspected led directly up to the summit. It was hard to know exactly where the summit was but I decided to go with my gut and started breaking slow steps up the loose, rocky west ridge.
It took us around 2 hours from camp to reach the bottom of the west ridge and from here the going got slow and tedious just as it had the day before when we hit fresh snow on Wingnut Peak’s south ridge. The snow wasn’t supportive like a winter snowpack and the crust wasn’t frozen hard enough to be helpful – just enough to be hurtful. Today we brought our icers along and these seemed to help with slipping and sliding around a bit at least. As we slowly inched our way higher and higher up the west ridge we both voiced hope that the stubborn snow would freeze up. Short sections had us hopeful but inevitably the stability would break down and soon we were back to ankle or even knee deep, wet, cold snow. The ridge was very foreshortened but I warned Wietse that at over 3,000 meters Whelk should not be underestimated. We had to go higher than a lot of the visible peaks so that kept our optimism in check.
The views were wild and I was enjoying the fact that I was on my way up the distinctive and beautiful Whelk Peak after first seeing it from Tomahawk Mountain in 2019. I was not enjoying the turn in weather, however. Despite SpotWX promising nothing but blue skies all weekend, for the second day in a row we found ourselves in thick, low, gray clouds. Thank goodness we weren’t on Canary as originally planned as it was buried in clouds. I had a sneaking suspicion that this was an early morning “blip” (I was proved right later) but there’s not a lot you can do about these things so we kept ascending until finally I popped out on the summit ridge and breathed a huge sigh of relief that the summit was an easy walk to our left. It had taken us almost two full hours to ascend the easy west ridge simply due to a challenging snowpack. Conditions sure can throw a wrench into your pace! Summit views were very moody and much more limited than I’d have prefered from this vantage.
There was a small summit cairn with a strange tube register that had 3 signatures from 2020 proving that Whelk Peak is likely a bit more popular than I first suspected. There is an individual focusing on this area for geocaching and this was the same person who left the register on Canary Peak three years previous. As an easy ascent with lofty views, energetic folks who come all the way out here should certainly take the time to enjoy it’s summit! After enjoying the wild scene as long as we could stand the cold wind (our feet were literally going numb from being cold and wet), we started our descent. As expected the way down was much quicker than the ascent had been – although our poor lower legs suffered from the sharp surface crust! At some point I just ignored anything below my knees and gave up even feeling pain anymore. Of course as soon as we got back under the west ridge the skies started clearing out and the by the time we exited the NW valley to the Ram River Trail the sun was shining. Meh. Fucking weather. Someday I’ll be back I think, this peak is worth a repeat if any peak is.
We briefly looked at Aries Peak before shrugging and hiking back downriver towards our camp. The sky was clearing overhead but the distant views weren’t really much better than earlier and Aries was plastered in snow just like everything else. Another 700 vertical meters of shin-bashing and frozen feet just didn’t feel like fun anymore so we decided to come back another day for more peaks in this lovely valley. Having an excuse to come back here was not a bad thing!
We enjoyed a very warm walk back to camp where we brewed up another coffee and slowly prepared for the long walk out. Whelk Peak has pretty much everything you want out of a remote, un-beta’d summit. It is a LONG way from nowhere, has an untamed, wild approach valley and views of some of the Rockies hardest-to-spot peaks with Alice in Wonderland themes. Compared to the forecast, we certainly felt like we’d fallen down the rabbit hole more than a few times but in the end I have some pretty sweet memories and find myself strangely longing to visit that remote valley again sooner than later.