Trip Date: Thursday, July 15 2021
Elevation Gain (m): 1800
Trip Time (hr): 10
Trip Distance (km): 35.5
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.
Technical Rating: SC6+
Map: Google Maps
First Ascent: Unknown, named in 1928
Mount Oliver is yet another eastern Banff peak that I have been interested in for a few years after reading Rick Collier’s trip report from 1991 on bivouac. I thought it sounded like an interesting option that would not see much attention considering its location on the eastern edge of Banff National Park over the headwaters of the Ghost River. Naturally Cornelius Rott was also interested in this peak and managed to get to it before I could find the time. I was thankful for the beta but it didn’t sound like a very easy or even very pleasant trip at first read. On second read however, there were some mitigating factors making Cornelius’ trip more difficult than usual including recent snowfall and an unknown route up North Burnt Timber Creek. The fact that they found a trail along the creek on some of their approach and most of their return would be a huge assistance to anyone following their route. Due to an unplanned availability for the first two weeks in July I found myself with some time to finally get after some of the longstanding peaks on my summit list. After communicating with another person who’s been getting after similar peaks to myself, Sara McLean suggested Oliver as a peak to try together and I readily agreed. We set a date over a week into the future which is never guaranteed but surprisingly a solid weather pattern moved in. Unsurprisingly for such a dry start to the summer in 2021, forest fire smoke also decided to move in. We kept our plans and agreed to leave the trailhead early to avoid possible afternoon tstorms.
I was surprised to drive through a thunderstorm on my approach to the trailhead the evening before our scramble but this only affirmed our choice to leave at 05:30 the next day. The Panther River road was in great shape all the way along to the large sign warning against vehicles driving further. The sign was disingenuous however, as the road continued to be in great condition as it rose steeply past the trailhead for Winchester Ridge and continued undulating towards North Burnt Timber Creek. Put it this way – it was a much better ride than a few days previous on the Dutch Creek road in Kananaskis. Just before the road crosses North Burnt Timber Creek it plunges very steeply down a partially rainwashed road with deeper runnels towards a fairly used looking bridge. This was the only section that gave both Sara and I some pause but we both made it down (and back up again!) so there were no issues there either. Shortly after crossing the creek I turned right, driving past a gas plant to the trailhead. There is a nice campsite in the trees at a large grassy clearing near the trailhead but I chose to sleep in the back of my truck instead. Sara was already there and remarked on the tstorms that had just passed over. We were both glad the light show was over and settled into our respective tents for a restless night’s sleep (something was munching grass until midnight keeping us both alert).
After what seemed like only around 4 hours of sleep I was awake with the local bird population around 05:00 on Thursday morning ready to tackle the long day ahead. I’ve learned over the years that I need very little sleep for long adventures in the mountains. If I’m sleeping out more than 1 night I always get a pretty decent sleep on night 2 anyway. Sara commented that she wasn’t used to leaving this early but she was ready before I was. There’s always a sense of the unknown when scrambling with someone for the first time. I very rarely do lengthy or difficult trips with folks that I haven’t gone out with before on something slightly less involved but I’d been communicating with Sara for a few years already and knew from her blog that she has tackled some pretty impressive solo adventures. Being an athlete helps her achieve some damn impressive stats too! See her time for Mist Ridge / Gibraltar Mountain for reference… To be honest I was slightly worried that I would slow her down significantly this day and even though I’m sure I did she was polite enough not to mention it out loud. 😉 We got on our bikes in the smoky early morning light and proceeded past a locked gate and two large warning signs – neither of them telling us we weren’t allowed to proceed.
Cornelius mentions a good approach road for the bikes and he’s correct. What he fails to mention is the dramatic height loss along this road as it drops to North Burnt Timber Creek shortly after leaving the trailhead. Ah well, it was a surprise for us both on approach and all over again on egress when we had to push our way back up it in the heat of the day! Sara’s bike was stuck in a low gear which helped me keep up with her especially on the climbs. She wasn’t so sure about my strategy that doesn’t count bike approaches as part of the actual approach but I’m sure this is mostly due to being stuck in low gear… My new bike setup continued to work well for me. Joshua Mousaev is a local (SW Calgary) mobile bike mechanic and he did a wonderful job procuring bike parts for me and then installing them. I went from a 20 gear setup to a Shimano SLX 11 gear one. I really like only having the rear derailleur. It’s simple, much quieter (no front rattling) and the granny gear is ENORMOUS. Apparently (according to Sara’s mom) I sound like an “old person” due to my name so obviously I must need as much granny gear as I can get. 😉 She also told Sara that she hoped I wouldn’t be too annoying. This was all very good to hear first thing in the morning. LOL. Finally, after almost exactly 5km of riding we arrived at a large camp and the end of our “non approach” approach. We checked out the camp which was the first one I’ve seen that included a solar charged electric fence, presumably to keep bears out and animals / kids in? We left the bikes and proceeded up a faint trail leading across the mangled creek (likely from the 2013 flood event).
From the flood damaged creek at the large electrified camp we can confirm that there is indeed a trail up North Burnt Timber Creek all the way past Mount Oliver’s ascent slopes. Now, just because there’s a “trail” doesn’t mean it’s a highway. We pretty much knew where it was the entire time and still lost it a few times on ascent. The creek is messed up in a few areas and the trail can be hard to follow through some of the willows and open areas in the forest where it’s not very tracked out. We continued to follow the rudimentary trail for the next few hours, up and down through light forest and through some fairly bushy sections where the trail didn’t seem to help much – but of course it did.
We were moving fairly quick (Sara is a runner and doesn’t take many photos) and it took us just under 3 hours to approach the ~13kms up North Burnt Timber Creek. As we neared the NE ridge leading to the east ridge of Oliver the landscapes in and around the creek improved dramatically. (I almost considered labeling this trip something to do with “North Burnt Timber Creek” since I felt it provided us with the most entertainment on this smoky summer day.)
Finally at around 08:30 (yes, it was only 08:30!) we arrived at the ascent slopes to the NE ridge leading eventually to Mount Oliver which we still couldn’t actually see at this point. We weren’t exactly sure what we were looking at but figured it would make sense once we got a bit higher on this outlier ridge and we were correct. The east slopes were steep with small cliffs, loose rock and some handy vegetation which allowed easier steps. We each picked a line and motored up this first major ascent of the day quite quickly. By the time we stepped onto the ridge proper the route started making sense again with Mount Oliver and its east ridge clearly visible ahead.
We were quite happy with the conditions as we hiked the NE ridge to the sidewalk ridge east of Oliver. The smoke was pretty bad but not REALLY bad. I didn’t realize until Sara told me, but this was her second try at Oliver after turning back due to smoke a few years previous. That time she had approached from the Ghost River – an approach I was considering after seeing it from Psychic NE earlier this year. The scrambling along the NE ridge was pretty straightforward, we bailed around difficulties as needed and soon we were on the infamous sidewalk ridge leading towards Mount Oliver. Cornelius and Richard had terrible conditions on this ridge leading them to label it as “difficult”. Sara and I both thought it was actually quite easy when dry. There’s some slab and obviously exposure but honestly I can hardly rate it as “moderate”. The only real difficulty we encountered along this ridge was an unnecessary and very loose and exposed downclimb over the north face that we simply hiked around the south side on return. As we slowly lost height towards the east ridge / race under Mount Oliver we wondered if there were any difficulties still ahead.
For the most part the scrambling up the east ridge / face of Mount Oliver is once again no more than moderate SC6 scrambling. There’s plenty of loose rock, steep slab and low cliffs to keep you entertained and looking for the best route but there is no difficult terrain here if you want to avoid it. Nothing compared to what I encountered on Gould Dome or Prow Mountain earlier in my holiday.
We were happy to negotiate the last few steps to the summit of Oliver just as the air temperature started to rise around 10:30 in the morning. Early starts have their advantages! Views were limited but nearby valleys and peaks were visible including Revenant, Psychic and Stoney. Stony Pass and the headwaters of the Dormer River were very green with summer growth as were the upper Ghost River and North Burnt Timber Creek valleys around us. The summit register was almost 40 years old! I couldn’t find a FA record either online or in my “Rocky Mountains South” book so I’m not sure if Ted Sorensen and Tom Swaddle got the FA in 1982 or not. I suspect not as the mountain was named way back in 1928 but that doesn’t always mean it was ascended then. Being the 5th recorded ascent party in 40 years was pretty cool and Sara was happy that even waiting 3 years hadn’t changed her position. As Cornelius wryly quips in his report, this peak isn’t exactly popular…
Our views were limited and the flies were terrible at the summit. Sara felt like her skin was crawling they were so bad! Thankfully the bugs weren’t the biting kind but it was still kind of gross so we bailed on any summit lounging and escaped the bug apocalypse down the east ridge / face of the mountain. The descent went quickly to the sidewalk east ridge down Oliver’s east slopes. It was loose with some slabs and small cliffs but again felt mostly moderate to us. Ascending the sidewalk east ridge was just good fun with stunning views over North Burnt Timber Creek and down the impressive north face to the valley below. Walking back along the ridge was the most entertaining part of the trip for me, it felt like a stroll in the sky!
For descent back down to North Burnt Timber Creek we decided to follow Cornelius’ line down a NE valley situated off the NE abutment ridge we’d ascended on approach. The initial slopes were delightful scree and we ran down them quickly before slowing in the hanging valley below. We temporarily cliffed out by following the small creek directly but soon found a bypass to the south (north also would have worked).
A delightful walk along the edge of a small plateau meadow brought us back to the main creek and valley where we turned left and hiked north along the faint trail.
The hike back down NBT Creek was quite pleasant despite the sun’s gaining strength. Bugs were manageable as long as we kept moving and stayed out of the creek where they became ferocious and downright mean. The bush tried it’s best to be equally as nasty as the bugs but the faint trail prevented serious damage.
By around 15:00 we were back at the bikes and peddling our way back to the trailhead. Sara had a heckuva time with her stuck lower gear but she gamely continued peddling long after I would have been crying or at the very least walking. The steep road leading back up from NBT Creek back to the trailhead was a bear in the mid afternoon heat but we made our way up it without too much swearing and way too much sweating. We were back at the cars by 15:23 for a round trip time of just under 10 hours. Obviously dry conditions and knowing there’s a trail and roughly where to find it is key to keeping Mount Oliver to a reasonable day trip. I would not recommend doing it with too much lingering snow but that’s true for most moderate to difficult scrambles. I really enjoyed this front range scramble (apparently the highest front range peak in Banff) and would highly recommend it to anyone looking to get off the beaten path and onto a much more rudimentary one. The highlights of the trip for me weren’t even the mountain but rather the upper stretches of North Burnt Timber Creek, the sidewalk east ridge and the remote and very quiet nature of the area.