Trip Dates: Tues, July 06 to Wed, July 07 2021
Total Elevation Gain (m): 3300
Total Trip Time (hr): 28
Total Trip Distance (km): 46
Peaks Ascended: Brocks, Revenant, Apparition
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3+ – you fall, you break something or worse.
Difficulty Notes: Moderate to difficult scrambling on a variety of terrain from simple scree to steep rubble covered slabs, routefinding.
Technical Rating: TL2, OT4, SC6, SC7
Map: Google Maps
I first glimpsed the relatively diminutive Brocks Peak from the summit of Mount Aylmer in 2009. Soon I was researching peaks in the area and even though I obviously didn’t get into the Spectral Lakes for another dozen years it was always on my yearly summit list. Over the past few years my desire to summit Revenant Mountain and Apparition Mountain escalated as I stood on more obscure peaks in the vicinity such as Haunted Peak. In late June of this year Wietse and I scrambled up nearby Spectral Peak in order to suss out conditions on Revenant’s east face and noted that the snow was melting quickly in the Spectral Lakes area. We made plans for a few weeks later and saw Revenant again from nearby Stoney Peak. I couldn’t believe my eyes when an email popped up on my phone on July 4th letting me know that Sara McLean had recently bagged both Revenant and Apparition!! Arg. After a dozen years I was beat to this remote area by about 7 days as far as recorded and published ascents go. But that’s the game nowadays! Ironically it was partly my photos of the area from Spectral Peak that encouraged Sara’s trip so I didn’t feel too bad asking her for some beta when planning a solo trip of my own only a week later. I’ve read Rick Collier’s report on this area many times over the years and was super psyched to get in there myself despite some very minor disappointment that I was going to be literally following in someone else’s footsteps.
There are a few issues with accessing Spectral Lakes which is why I assume it’s not a very popular destination. Firstly the shortest and most sensible access is via a restricted hiking area around Aylmer Pass. Starting on July 10 and lasting to September 15, only groups of 4 tightly grouped hikers are allowed. Equally painful, bikes are not allowed along Lake Minnewanka during this same time frame. At over 3000m in elevation both Revenant and Apparition are usually holding snow until early to mid July and usually have fresh snow after mid September so the timing has to be just right for soloists such as myself. Also making Spectral Lakes inconvenient for access is its location. Sure! There’s “trails” in the area but they don’t extend to the lakes and as I found out on return, they are no longer where the map says they are and have fallen into a serious state of disrepair. Over the last ~30 years since Rick first reported from here, willows have moved into the valleys around Spectral Creek and have put in a formidable defense. If they were there when Rick was I’m sure he would have mentioned them as they are fierce. With these barriers in place I decided to make a solo venture to check it all out on my summer holidays. Note: I’ve been told that there is a trail up to Aylmer Pass somewhere – I must have missed it somehow. It’s certainly not where the topo puts it…
Day 1 – Lake Minnewanka – Aylmer Pass – Brocks Peak – Spectral Lakes – Revenant Mountain – Apparition Mountain
I left the Lake Minnewanka parking lot at 07:15 on July 6th, peddling my trusty bike around the outlet bay for the Cascade River and up the big hill following the bridge. Clouds and mist hung over the lake forming a spooky mood for my first overnight solo trip of 2021. My bear calls echoed off the mountain walls along the lake as I continued up and along the exciting singletrack. It had been over a decade since I last peddled here and I forgot how much fun this little trail is! It was hard to keep the smile off my face as I swooped up and around tight corners and dipped through small hills and chattered over roots and rocks. This is not a good trail to bring aunt Edna for a relaxed Sunday ride – not if you want to be in that will of hers that is! 😉
I couldn’t believe it when only around 50 minutes from the parking lot I was already done with the 8km bike ride and looking at a series of signs warning me that in just a few days what I was doing would be punishable with dire consequences from the law. I stashed my bike just off the trail and shrugged back into my overnight pack before starting off up the Aylmer Pass trail into more clouds and eerie mist. As I ascended the well worn track I thought to myself how strange the human body is. At least mine. The day before and even during the drive to the trailhead, my lower back was complaining in the form of constant pain through my butt and into my right leg. I knew from experience that ignoring it was the best way for it to eventually calm down but there was no way for me to explain how a rough 8km bike ride with an overnight pack could make back pain go away! Shouldn’t that make it worse? But here we were and the back was quiet once again. For the most part that is. For the first time in a long time my pack just wouldn’t sit comfortably on my shoulder blades for some dang reason. I stopped 5 times in the first kilometer to shuffle things around in there before it finally got the message and behaved properly. I breathed a sigh of relief and got into the familiar mode of solo backpackers everywhere. One foot in front of the other with thoughts swirling in and out randomly to the song of the morning birds and chattering squirrels in the forest beside me. I don’t know why but I’m very rarely cautious or worried when hiking solo anymore. I don’t always love sleeping alone in the middle of nowhere, but hiking and scrambling by myself is something I actually look forward to most days and this one was no different. I could go my own pace, think my own thoughts and just focus on pretty much everything or nothing as I saw fit. The Aylmer Pass trail is not to be underestimated! It climbs over 800 vertical meters to the pass and I was feeling it by the time I hiked through the last of the swirling early morning mist and the sky slowly broke into deep summer blue overhead.
I’d never been all the way up to Aylmer Pass before and as the trail descended to the creek draining it I was excited by the landscape ahead. Blue sky flirted with floating white clouds above me as marmots let each other know that the humans were coming through. The creek provided me with refreshing, cold water before I continued slowly up the trail to the pass, rounding Mount Aylmer which rose impressively to my right. Once I rounded the SW shoulder of Aylmer I was gobsmacked by the views north towards my destination peaks rising high over green meadows below. It was the perfect moment as I strode confidently along the trail past the Banff park boundary (signed) and continued down towards Brocks peak. I couldn’t really see much of Revenant Mountain but Brocks and Apparition looked pretty much bone dry and the conditions seemed perfect.
I knew that I had to contour left off trail towards a small unnamed creek which is fed by a small tarn tucked under Solstice Peak and merges downstream with Spectral Creek before draining into the Ghost River. Years before I’d mapped a route that descended the same trail Rick used, down from Aylmer Pass towards the Ghost River. My original plan was to follow Spectral Creek upstream to the lakes. My exit would be around Brocks Peak, bagging it from the pass just above the unnamed tarn. From Sara’s beta I knew that she went in roughly along my planned exit route so I reversed things just for fun, figuring the worst of the bushwhacking would be down Spectral Creek instead of up it. I had another thought loosely in my head that possibly I could ascend most of Brocks Peak with my overnight pack before dropping down the north side of the ridge to re-join Sara’s route but I didn’t know if this would work until I saw the route. I slowly dropped into the drainage towards Brocks before deciding that there was definitely an easy gully I could use to not only ascend Brocks but shortcut Sara’s route a bit. But there was a price to pay for all this efficiency and it was waiting for me in the lush green valley just ahead.
The price of admission to Brocks Peak on approach was bushwhacking across two valley floors on either side through willows up to 8 feet high! There was also some running streams to negotiate in the thick of it and of course stubborn Krumholtz on either end too. As I struggled through the thick willows with my line of sight completely obliterated and thoughts of a grizzly probably taking a morning nap in the middle of the mess, I wondered about some of my more recent life choices. Of course 10 minutes later I was hiking through a carpet of yellow Columbine and blue Larkspur and wondering why I don’t do more of these solo trips. These are the ups and downs of solo adventuring I suppose. The hike to the high col just under the summit of Brocks Peak went about as good as it could. My views improved as I ascended including stunning imprints of Mount Aylmer rising thousands of feet over a glowing green Aylmer Pass below. The unnamed tarn under Solstice Peak glowed a different shade of green but was no less impressive.
At the col I dropped my large pack and shouldered a light day pack to what I really hoped was the summit just above. I was 95% sure it was the high point but you never know ’til you get there, especially with these unbeta’d peaks. I also knew that if it wasn’t the highest point I’d have an interesting downclimb to continue further up the ridge. Moderate terrain led quickly upward on a mix of slabs, small cliffs and of course loose rubble. Views off the ascent were absolutely gorgeous in every direction and my camera started getting warmer than I was in the morning sun.
With a sigh of relief I reached the summit of Brocks Peak / Ridge within only 15-20 minutes after dropping the large pack, making my decision to tag the peak on the way look a little less silly than I was thinking it might be an hour or so earlier in the thick willow-whack. Summit views were very respectable for such a minor peak including of course my next two objectives, Revenant and Apparition mountains.
I took my time on the summit in a refreshing summer breeze before reluctantly deciding that I should likely continue my approach to Spectral Lakes. At this point I was not sure which peak I would do yet today or if I’d even be doing another one. The weather forecast had called for possible tstorms in the afternoon originally and only that morning it had pretty much cleared off for the whole day. I decided to make those kind of choices a bit later and descended quickly to my waiting pack at the col. From the col there was a delightful scree run down to the suspiciously green valley just north of Brocks that connected back with Sara’s approach line to the lakes. Just as I thought, when I got to valley bottom I was once again wallowing through horrendous willows, thankfully only for a short time.
The willows I was expecting, but as I tried to link up with Sara’s route above me I was surprised to run into a rocky rib running down my approach that simply would not let me pass easily! These are the unexpected obstacles that solo adventures are made of so I tried not to get to flustered or annoyed with the terrain. First I tried descending along the rib but soon I realized I’d be losing almost all my hard-won height gain back to valley floor and nixed that idea. Ascending wasn’t a perfect option either but eventually I found my way to a sheep trail and navigated into the upper alpine meadows that led to Spectral Lakes.
I wandered through the hanging valley high above the valley floor feeling very good about my day so far. I large herd of rams blocked my path and I didn’t want to scare them off their grazing so I slowly approached with soothing tones. It worked. Other than a few larger more skittish fellas, the rest just eyeballed me curiously before continuing with brunch. A few of the larger rams had electronic collars which I found interesting. Who is studying this group and why? There was a few dozen in the herd – not a small number. I continued along the meadows through massive and numerous grizzly diggings before cresting another low col and seeing my destination at the lower Spectral Lake. I wandered over to the lower Spectral Lake where I found an excellent spot for my tent near its SW end. I spent the next hour or so setting up camp and enjoying the quiet atmosphere under the imposing east and west faces of Revenant and Apparition mountain glaring down at me from above. What to do next? It was only around 14:00 when I arrived at the lakes and the weather was rather perfect. You know what I did next…
Naturally I decided to go for the largest of my remaining targets – Revenant Mountain. I was assuming that Apparition was the easier and faster of the two and could be done the following morning. By 14:30 I was slowly picking my way up the complex east face of Revenant Mountain above my camp and the two Spectral Lakes. Only three hours after leaving for an ascent of Revenant Mountain I was back at my camp at the lower Spectral Lake. This was much quicker than I expected, thanks in most part to Sara’s excellent beta that allowed me to both ascend and descend the lower east face rather than fool around with the lower south ridge. I settled in for supper and relaxation. Then I got to thinking. Why not ascend Apparition Mountain today too? The weather was still gorgeous, not too sunny and not too hot. I didn’t have to go quickly with tons of daylight remaining. The route should be a bit easier than Revenant and I would have no pressure the following day other than hiking out.
Dammit Vern! Ok fine. Somehow I found myself shuffling up on loose boulders and scree at 18:00, heading towards a break in the lower west cliffs on Apparition Mountain. Once again it only took around 3 hours and I was back at camp, successfully ascending 3 peaks and almost 3,000 meters of elevation in one long day from the parking lot. Thankfully there was literally no other peaks for me to bag at this point so I finally settled into a good podcast and drifted off to sleep in the afterglow of a very fun and fulfilling day in the mountains.
Day 2 – Spectral Lakes – Aylmer Pass – Lake Minnewanka
After bagging everything in sight the day previous, all I was left with on Wednesday July 7 was hiking out to Lake Minnewanka from my Spectral Lakes camp and then biking to the parking lot from there. Sounds easy enough, no? I woke up pretty early from some major rockfall coming down the east face of Revenant Mountain somewhere above my tent. I couldn’t get back to sleep thanks to the morning light and by 05:45 I was all packed up and started my journey down Spectral Creek. Remember – I was planning to exit around Brock Peak’s east end rather than the west which I’d approached from. Sunrise was gorgeous over the peaks and I snapped photos as I walked down open alpine meadows towards the creek.
The first part of my hike was through delightful open alpine meadows but soon (as expected) I was in the thick of things alongside Spectral Creek. I knew from experience to stay out of the creekbed but the question was, “which side” and “how high out of the creek”? I picked the right (SW) side and honestly, it worked out much better than I expected. I was thankful to be in my boots for this trip (protecting a slightly sprained ankle) as I side-hilled almost the entire way down Spectral Creek on a mix of soft and hardpan dirt and rock. I was also thankful to avoid most bushwhacking until near the intersection with the south / west branch of the creek and the supposed trail coming down from Aylmer Pass.
The final half to full km to the south / west branch of Spectral Creek was a bit bushy. For some reason I was OK with it though. The weather was awesome, the morning sun was just coming through the trees and the moss was deep and soft as I listened to the morning calls of local wildlife wake up around me. It was serene despite being a bit manky. Of course I was assuming that there was a decent trail waiting for me “just ahead”. Alas. This was most definitely NOT the case! Rick says in his 1994 report;
Once over the pass, there followed three gentle km through meadows and forest to the Spectral lakes stream branching off the W drainage of the North Ghost.
I had no reason to believe that I couldn’t also follow the same “three gentle kms” of trail back up through meadows and forest to Aylmer Pass on return. But I could not find the trail that is apparently still there somewhere (according to someone who hiked it fairly recently). I managed to find smatterings of old trail here and there amongst the stream crossings, thick willows and other typical Rockies landscape detritus but nothing that made me very happy I can assure you of that. Oh well. This is another ‘perk’ of exploring areas without much beta and without many humans. This lack of a trail reminded me of what Wietse and I discovered while hiking out from our ascent of Psychic and Psychic NE a few weeks previous. For the life of us we couldn’t find the supposed Stony Pass trail that is indicated on various maps.
Eventually the old trail became more and more distinct and soon I was out of the worst of the bush and hiking through the magical Aylmer Pass landscape again.
I hiked down the Aylmer Pass trail to Lake Minnewanka in blistering heat before meeting my two-wheel steed near the lake shore and campsite “LM9”. The bike ride back along the lake was HOT in late morning sun. I loved most of it but the severe uphill section leading back up and around to the bridge over the Cascade River was a bit much for my tired mind and legs. I arrived back at a very busy Lake Minnewanka parking lot at 11:30 in the morning – quite early for a backcountry trip.
I am thoroughly delighted to have finally completed a successful solo adventure into the Spectral Lakes area. I’m also happy that I waited for perfect conditions even though it means that someone “beat” me up some pretty rarely ascended peaks. It’s not so bad to be the second ascent in 15 years on a peak rather than the first. 😉 I know that people wander up summits and don’t write their names in the registers but as far as recorded ascents go, being the 5th and 4th ascent in 27 years on Revenant and Apparition respectively is a nice feeling. Having firsthand and recent beta on peaks that are far off the beaten path is also kind of nice. I highly recommend this trip for those who like some adventure with their cornflakes and I use that word literally here. You might not get all the peaks on day 1 or even day 3 but you are guaranteed to have some adventure while trying!