Summit Elevation (m): 2936
Trip Date: Sunday June 27 2021
Elevation Gain (m): 1400
Round Trip Time (hr): 8.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 32
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you sprain or break something
Difficulty Notes: Moderate slab and ridge scrambling depending on the line you take. Lower SW ridge proper is likely difficult scrambling or more.
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (3rd)
Map: Google Maps
Even though I’ve done dozens, if not hundreds of solo days in the Rockies, every once in a while I feel hesitant about it for some reason or another. Maybe it’s the two local bear encounter fatalities already this year or maybe it’s just that I was feeling a bit bagged from the heat and a long day on Psychic / NE1 two days previous. Whatever the case, when I was planning a solo venture for Sunday June 27 I was leaning towards something low key and easy. But then I thought, “why?”. Why should I make that kind of compromise on such a beautiful summer day? Why not just suck it up and ignore my hesitancy and go out and have a good adventure as I’ve clearly done so many times before? Mount Burns has been nagging me for more years than I can remember. Even before I did East Peak of Burns in 2015, Mount Burns was somewhere on my mountain agenda. Last year when Wietse and I did a trip up Gibraltar Mountain, Mount Burns was in our face for a good part of the day and escalated in priority. So why hadn’t I done it yet? There were a few reasons. Firstly, there was a rumored closure due to private land up the Sheep River Trail. The land is owned by the Burns family and from signs at the trailhead (which still exist) to strongly worded conditions updates, the Sheep River Trail seemed closed to bikers, hikers and scramblers at the property line. Secondly, I knew of one party that went in to do Burns despite all the warnings and closures and they took 9 hours to the summit despite using bikes for the first 5.5kms! That’s a bloody long day trip. Third, I couldn’t figure out where the heck the scrambling route actually went. So I waited.
For many years the peak sat there without knowing that I was coming for it. But of course eventually I was. When I read a trip report from Brandon Boulier on peakbagger.com in late 2020 I knew it was time to give it a shot sooner than later. When Derek Ryder approached me for permission to use a photo in an update on the Burns private property in April 2021 the peak went to the top of my list for this year. Friends of Kananaskis Country published a story on the Burns Property and interviewed Dennis Burns for it. Dennis gave the following statement on the question of hikers crossing his land;
Really no protocol exists for visiting the property, other than to go at your own risk. Especially, since the 2013 flood washed out most of the paths, which haven’t been repaired except on Crown Lands. It is Private Property, so people should not be cutting down trees, camping, leaving waste or lighting fires. If someone sees activities like this, helicopter landings from the tour company at the junction of Hwy 40 and the Trans Canada, or other activities that are dangerous, causing destruction or damage, we always appreciate being told.
This is really great news for the hiking and scrambling community as long as we remember what Dennis very clearly is saying. Go at your own risk and don’t leave any trace that you were there. I could do that. So I decided that despite my strange fears for the day I was going to give Mount Burns a solo effort on a very hot summer day in late June 2021. Brandon took 11.5 hours round trip without a bike so I figured 9.5-10 hours was reasonable to expect with a 5.5km bike approach up the Sheep River Trail. After a strange drive to the trailhead which involved hitting a raven (killed it) and a fawn (in the town of Turner Valley ffs, no damage to either of us), I nervously left the parking lot at 06:30. Killing a raven didn’t seem like a good omen and the deer incident was just bizarre. I don’t believe in “omens” or “bad things come in 3’s” but I still found myself wondering what item number 3 was going to be. I didn’t know it at the time, but thing #3 was waiting for me in thick bush about 9kms up the Sheep River Trail.
It was already hot enough for a t-shirt right from the parking lot. Of course I knew that the Sheep River Trail ascends steeply right from the lot before undulating 3 or 4 kms to the first and only bridged crossing of the Sheep River. I’d been up this trail for Shunga-la-she way back in 2011 with Wietse. I had my head on a swivel for bears as I chugged along up the quiet trail, over the bridge, up more hills and through some pretty damaged sections at stream crossings. Apparently nobody is going to bother fixing this trail after the 2013 floods. With the whole private property access confusion I can see why – most folks assume it’s a trail to pretty much nowhere after the bridge. After approximately 5.5kms of steady(ish) biking I came to my first unbridged crossing of the Sheep River.
With the scorching hot weather the water was not tame today! Over knee deep with a strong current and balancing a bike over my head it wasn’t as easy as later in the season. Oh yes! I did not leave my bike behind at this point like everyone else seems to. I am on a bike approach tear this year and 5.5kms wasn’t going to cut it. I saw a good trail continuing after the ford so I decided to try biking as far as humanly and humanely (to myself) possible. That turned out to be MUCH further than expected. After the Sheep River crossing I almost immediately left the bike behind at a huge washout along the old roadbed. When I spotted a horse track going through the forest beside the washout I followed it and decided that from this point onwards, if a horse could get through so can a bike! With this new principal firmly in place I was like a bull moose for the next ~5kms. Nothing was going to stop me from continuing on the bike. Despite some really manky sections of wiped out trail, submerged trail and no trail whatsoever, I also experienced hundreds of meters of great riding in between the messes. My overall time was proving that it was worth continuing with the bike.
While bushwhacking and swearing my way through a submerged section of trail the “3rd bad thing” happened to me. (Remember the raven and the fawn from earlier?) An f’ing ant bit me hard in the neck if you can believe it! Where did that little _ucker even come from?! I was literally in knee deep water just doing my thing and this vicious, stupid little bug crawled off a branch and took a chunk outta my jugular as a tasty after breakfast snack. Seriously?! Is that really what was needed just at that moment in my life? I highly doubt it. I thought the mountain gods were playing with me at this point and I was having none of it. For the next few hours I could still feel the bite, reminding me that today was slightly “off” somehow. But I pushed on. Just over 9.5kms up the trail I came to a huge washed out section where the creek cut into the riverbank and obliterated any signs of the old trail. A new trail was hacked through the forest on my left (south) and I stubbornly pushed the bike along it – suspecting strongly that this was the point at which I should abandon the 2-wheeled steed.
My suspicions were correct. Despite biking for a short distance after the forest bypass, the trail really took a turn for the worse. After two desperate (and fairly deep) crossings of the river I found myself in thick bush where my map indicated a road should be. It was time to admit that the bike ride was officially kuput. I marked the spot in my GPS (the bush was thick enough here that I still missed it on return) and continued up the Sheep River which was now running down a neat channel in the forest rather than a gravel streambed like mountain rivers usually do. I suspect this is a new channel that very likely used to be a road – the one indicated on old topo maps. I was in a strangely good mood as I followed a faint animal trail along the river. I’d biked much further than expected and the morning was still cool. Birds were chirping and soon the forest opened up around me and I stumbled on an obvious trail. Nice! I’m not sure this was a human trail but it led perfectly to my ascent drainage and the SW ridge so I wasn’t complaining. Obviously since the “3 bad things” were done, I was now getting my karmic due. Yeah right. Once I hit the obvious drainage leading to the SW ridge I ascended light forest steeply upward, noting that I wasn’t even 3 hours into my day yet.
The lower SW ridge was easy and quick to ascend. I kept telling myself I’d take a break under a tree at the 3 hour mark but when that point finally came I was above treeline already! Dang it. Hate it when that happens. 😉 From treeline the ridge continued up to a false summit high above – and it looked tough. I knew that Jose and Marta had ascended a lot of the ridge proper (hence their long ascent time) but Brandon had side-hilled the bottom half on moderately tilted slabs and rock. With the forecast heat I decided to go Brandon’s route with the added benefit of staying in the shade just a bit longer.
The side-hilling was tedious but pretty straightforward and quick. Soon enough I was back near the ridge proper, hoping the route would appear soon as it looked gnarly from a distance. As usual in the Rockies, a route opened up through the broken cliffbands on the SW ridge. I put up a few cairns to guide myself back down the trickier ones but in general they were pretty obvious once I was nearby.
Soon I found myself on the false summit with wonderful views in every direction, including towards the summit with a huge cairn. One thing that confused me was another peak just north of the summit, connected by a moderate looking ridge. This peak looked to be the same height as Burns and I still think it is. Maps don’t show this very clearly, neither does FatMap.
I made my way between the false and true summit without much issue. One narrow and very loose / exposed section could have been avoided on climber’s left but I didn’t feel like it so I just tackled it headon. Probably not a great idea considering it was definitely ready to collapse but I was now on a karmic tear so what could possibly go wrong right?! :eyeroll: The summit was warm and windless, so much so that there were millions of little flies and bugs attaching themselves to every part of me as soon as I approached. Apparently this was “bug day” and nobody told me about it. The register was hard to read but I could make out that Rick Collier placed it in 1990. A surprising number of people seem to do this peak considering the almost complete lack of beta on it.
After saying hello to many familiar peaks and valleys and enjoying the company of billions of tiny summit bugs for as long as possible I turned my attention to the descent. The sun was really scorching the earthlings now! This earthling retraced his steps carefully past unsteady cairns and back across the slabs. Soon I was back on the lower SW ridge again, headed for the valley below. Seeing Harry Denning’s old cabin from the SW ridge was pretty neat.
I made short work of the trail and bushwhack to my bike, which was harder to find than it should have been. I chuckled at myself for the first 1km “ride” back on the Sheep River “trail”. There wasn’t a lot of riding and there wasn’t a lot of trail either! Apparently I can be stubborn when it comes to admitting the bike approach is over… 😉 In one hilarious instance I found myself and my bike tangled up in a fallen tree, trying not to slide into a raging Sheep River below. I made a mental note to avoid this situation in the future. I doubt it’ll help.
After a few gnarly sections the trail calmed down again and before long I was back at the Sheep River crossing where two guys were abandoning their bikes. I crossed the river which was pretty strong at this point in the day and they asked about biking further upstream. I wasn’t sure what to tell them. I told them that I went another 5.5kms but that I couldn’t recommend going quite that far. I also commented that sections of the other bits would also have them questioning my sanity. They decided to continue on foot.
The last 5.5kms to the trailhead were very easy and fun biking compared to the previous 5.5 and I thought my stubborn approach attitude was more than justified by my total trip time of 8 hours, 21 minutes. (Not that it’s a race and not that I’m saying it should be of course. But I still win. ;-)) Despite early misgivings on tackling such a long day and large, remote objective solo, I ended up loving my Mount Burns trip. Even a dead raven, pesky fawn and nasty little ant couldn’t distract me from getting it done this particular day. Sometimes it doesn’t feel good to go out of your comfort zone but sometimes it’s the kick in the pants you needed. This was just the kick for me! I’m not sure I can wholeheartedly recommend biking 11kms up the Sheep River Trail, but maybe go as far as you feel comfortable and then maybe 1/3 further. That is likely a good place to start hiking.