Summit Elevation (m): 2980
Elevation Gain (m): 1600
Trip Date: Friday, June 18 2021
Round Trip Time (hr): 10
Total Trip Distance (km): 31
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something
Difficulty Notes: Steep loose scrambling to the summit and a good bit of careful routefinding make this a solid moderate “plus”.
Technical Rating: SC6+, RE5
Map: Google Maps
GPS Track: Download
First Recorded Ascent: 1992; John Martin (solo)
Spectral Peak first came onto my radar many years ago when naming peaks from Mount Aylmer. Since 2009 I’ve done more than a few Rockies summits and for some reason Spectral just didn’t make the cut. Then for some even stranger reason after years of no documented ascents, two parties made the summit in 2020 and both documented it. Sara Mclean put in a good effort via the SW ridge in September 2020 and the illustrious Paul Zizka documented an ascent from the SW valley in June of 2020 on a popular Facebook scrambles page. Although I was slightly bummed about being beat to the summit, it was nice to have some beta. Paul’s trip report was brief and focused more on a lovely lake in the upper valley but he used the word highway which left the impression that his route was a fair bit easier than Sara’s which she described as the “hardest scramble” she’d ever done. I’ve followed Paul’s footsteps before and he is an advanced Rockies traveller who tends to find things slightly easier than I do. I was always planning to use the same approach that Paul did for Spectral so it was nice to see him describe the bushwhack as “slightly better than average” for Rockies untracked drainages. With the mountains quickly drying out in mid June, Wietse and I decided to finally tackle Spectral on Friday June 18 and see what we could see.
We arrived at the small pull-out parking spot along the Lake Minnewanka road at 07:00. I’ve always biked the extra 1km (each way) from the large lake parking lot but this time I was determined to try parking at the pull-out which doesn’t have any “no parking” signs. The bike ride was an absolute dream compared to the mess we endured a week previous up the Ram River and within 40 minutes of the parking lot we were already locking our bikes to a tree beside the approach creek. The very pleasant and fast bike ride combined with a perfect spring morning had our moods elevated pretty high as we started tramping up the approach creek on climber’s left (NW) through moderate bush right from the road. I’m not sure if it was the fresh spring air, the idea of finally doing Spectral Peak or the rush of a quick bike ride but for some reason we both enjoyed the ascent of the approach creek – for the most part. We knew it was bushy and our expectations were low so that helped. We slowed down and took our time hiking up 4″ of soft moss, over deadfall and beside the running creek.
As we ascended the SW valley I commented more than once that it reminded me of Inglismaldie’s approach. With the benefit of a strange exit (details to follow) and hindsight I now realize that although the approach isn’t horrible by mountain bushwhacking standards, it’s not an open hike either. You should be aware that when Paul and I say that it’s not “horrible” this is compared to truly nightmarish stuff like 8 foot high Devil’s club, avalanche debris and truly nasty bush. Wietse and I aren’t slow in 2021 and it took us over two hours to march ~4km from the Cascade fire road to the upper lake – that’s slightly less than 2km/h which isn’t very quick compared to our 4.3km/h pace up the fire road on Ram Mountain. BUT. For some very strange reason we both felt very relaxed and energized as we slowly wound our way up and over and under and through the bush and avalanche debris fields in the creek. I think we both enjoyed a slower pace for once. Trying to go any quicker would have been very frustrating to say the least. This was a good example of becoming one with the bush and relaxing into things. We never crossed the approach creek – always choosing to side-hill either up and around obstacles or directly along the creek bed on its NW (left) side. By the time we reached the upper stretches of thicker forest the creek was a small, beautiful little stream. After two hours of steady, but slow hiking, we finally arrived at the gem of a lake I’m dubbing Solstice Lake for the peak next to Spectral (Spectral Lakes are located under Revenant Peak).
Solstice Lake was gorgeous and we walked around it’s north shore through some surprisingly stubborn trees before taking a break on its NE end. All was good – very good! We were expecting way more snow than we had (Zizka had way more snow a week later in 2020) and were still thinking of the words highway to the summit at this point. I’d mapped out a route using Google satellite maps and was fairly confident it would be straightforward despite some lingering doubts about cliff bands in this range of peaks. We shrugged back into our packs and proceeded up the valley just as Paul had, aiming for south scree slopes coming off Spectral Peak.
A wide scree ramp led up to the south aspect of Spectral on our left, lined with cliff bands above. The skyline ridge (SE) looked to have some pretty serious cliffs along it too, but at this point we were still following my planned route and didn’t worry too much about it. 30-40 minutes later we were officially growing more worried. Re-reading Paul’s report with fresh eyes we could clearly determine that his route wasn’t quite as straightforward as a “highway”. Paul spent time traversing steep snow slopes and cliffs, looking for a route up this complex face before finally finding a route to the summit from the west. As we ascended roughly along my planned route line we could clearly see many cliff bands running through it above, including some very steep snow with harsh runouts. Of course we were in our approach shoes, albeit with axes and icers in case we ran into snow, but this still isn’t exactly full on mountaineering gear either. There wasn’t much to do but try the SE ridge direct at this point, which really felt like a hail Mary to me. We hiked up steep scree to the ridge, took in the great views of Revenant and Apparition Peak and then turned our attention up towards the summit. Arg. Our helmets came out of the packs and we proceeded up the ridge.
I’ve tried finding sneaky south ridge routes before in the Rockies and they very rarely work out for some or another reason. The strata is usually tilted west to east and usually ends in very steep cliffs on south ridges before dropping off the planet to the east. West and north ridges tend to be much more friendly and shallow. But here we were so we simply poked our noses into the impossible looking terrain, leaving small cairns to guide us back down as we went up. What can I say? We got extremely lucky and had some fun times scrambling moderate to low-difficult terrain up a series of cliffs, overhangs, loose gullies and scree before finding ourselves, somehow, just off the summit with only a short snow traverse remaining! I’m still not sure how this happened but I’ll take it.
After donning icers and taking out our axes we made the short traverse and stood on the summit of Spectral Peak. It had taken us much longer than expected with all the fooling around route-finding up the SE ridge but here we were on a gorgeously clear day, more than making up for a dismal summit on Whelk Peak a week previous. I had to chuckle at Sara’s “South Ghost Peak” summit register (read her blog to find out more about that) before correcting it and signing our names beneath hers. There is no way this summit is ever getting popular with the amount of work it entails relative to its neighbors such as Cascade, Aylmer or even Astley but that just makes it all the more special to me.
After snacking and snapping way too many photos at the summit it was time to work our way slowly down the SE ridge, following our breadcrumb cairns along the way. As usual the descent went much smoother and quicker than expected now that we knew what to expect and soon we were off the tricky stuff and descending broken scree and loose rock to the valley far below. The only reason I’m not classifying any of the terrain we navigated as “difficult, SC7” is because I never felt the exposure to be deadly. A slip or fall might break something here but likely wouldn’t kill unless you somehow went off the east face. Then you’d definitely be permanently lights out.
The lower valley exit was very pleasant to the lake, including an interesting little slot canyon that we walked right through. We took another long break at the lake, enjoying our success and the sublime atmosphere below imposing cliffs.
After a nice siesta at the lake it was time to re-engage with the bush to the fire road 4km below. This is where things got interesting. Normally with bushwhacking the ascent is much harder and more uncomfortable than the descent. Not in this case. For some reason both Wietse and I struggled to find our pleasant rhythm from the morning ascent and found ourselves annoyed with the bushwhacking and the slow travel down the creek. More than once we found ourselves saying, “where was all this nastiness this morning?!”. It made no sense but there it is. I think we underestimated the bushwhack simply because we assumed it would be easy, quick and pleasant on descent and it wasn’t.
When we finally stumbled out of the bush back to our waiting bikes we were more than happy to be done with it. Solstice Creek is pretty choked up compared to Haunted Creek and for this reason I think it’s slightly worse – assuming you don’t mind hiking up a running creek. If you avoid wet feet than Solstice and Haunted Creek are very comparable but Haunted is much longer with no lovely lake to reward all your efforts! The bike ride back to the truck went blazingly fast – 25 minutes for the ~8km. There is something wonderful about an easy bike approach that gives you wings even better than a Red Bull. I enjoyed Spectral Peak despite the challenges it presented, as a matter of fact that’s probably why I liked it so much. Rather than a “highway”, we encountered a “no way” but managed to find a route through it “anyway”. These are the best sort of adventures, IMHO. There’s the army guarding the treasure (Solstice Creek), the treasure itself (Solstice Lake) and the dragon looming above it all (Spectral Peak). Experiencing all three of these in a 10 hour explor8ion was about the best use of a Friday off that I can think of.