Summit Elevations (m): 2778, 2640
Trip Date: Friday, September 03, 2021
Elevation Gain (m): 2100
Round Trip Time (hr): 11.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 35
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3 – you fall, you sprain or break something
Difficulty Notes: The majority of the day is on class 2 terrain with some very short section of moderate scrambling. The main difficulties are the remoteness, lack of trails and the manky exit from the upper stretches of Sheep Creek.
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (3rd)
Map: Google Maps
Otuskwan Peak is one of those peaks that I first heard about in 2013 when Steven, Ben and Eric made a late season ascent. Steven mentioned that they were the first to sign the register since Rick Collier in 1991 and of course that got my attention right away! Ever since then, Otuskwan has been on my radar every single year, usually getting planned at least once or twice and then dumped for other objectives. It’s simply that kind of peak. Both of these peaks sit on the eastern boundary of Banff National Park and are not popular due to their remote locations. A close reading of the adventure isn’t all that inspiring actually. I’m surprised I was that keen on it after getting home and reading Steven’s report again. If you’re thinking about scrambling just Otuskwan Peak you should either ignore that itch or take the alternate (difficult) NE ridge route that Cornelius Rott figured out in 2017 in order to avoid the worst sections of Sheep Creek. I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here since obviously I scrambled Zombie Peak first, but Otuskwan was the primary one on my radar 8 years ago. Brandon Boulier led a trip up a class 2 route on Zombie Peak before Steven’s group did Otuskwan but it didn’t get the same attention for some reason.
Eventually more people were led to these two peaks and a few hardy folks completed the “walking dead traverse“. I have no idea where this traverse came from – I think Alex Privalov started it – but it supposedly includes 13 summits from Zombie to “False Balfour Outlier”. I find the naming of every single highpoint along the ridge from Zombie to Otuskwan to Winchester Ridge to be a bit overdone. This is just my humble opinion but I have to ask, what’s the point of summit stats if they include so many meaningless bumps such as “Otuskwan West”, “Otuskwan NE” and “False Balfour Outlier”? It just seems a bit overdone but then again I’m old and grumpy. I’ve named more than a few questionable highpoints myself over the years so I very likely have little to no rights to complain about others doing it. I actually kind of like “Chupacabra Peak” as a name and even “Grimes Peak” sounds cool but again – why bother naming so many high points along a continuous ridge? (Update: I contacted Alex and he confirmed that he named this traverse and the outlier peaks based on his love of the “Walking Dead” TV show.) As the years ticked by and I never got to Otuskwan and read a few more trips from Zombie Peak it got added to the list and I started wondering about combining the two peaks into one long day trip from YYC. The stats weren’t horrible at around 35km and 2100m gain. With a shared bike approach I figured I’d drop the bike, scramble Zombie, return to the bike and scramble Otuskwan. Apparently I hadn’t read Steven’s report from the upper stretches of Sheep Creek closely enough, but this was my plan for the last 4-5 years for these two peaks.
Finally, in early September 2021 it was time to put my long held plans into action. Due to a multiday trip being canceled last minute over the labor day long weekend I found myself with some time off and nobody available to share it with me on Friday, September 3rd. I decided that it was time to head up Sheep Creek and see what all the fuss was about and I also decided it was a good idea to do this solo. The day started out beautiful – the kind of late summer day that you dream about. No smoke, blue skies and cool morning air greeted me as I parked along the Panther Road and started preparing for my day at the Sheep Creek trailhead just past a large compressor station. The last time I’d driven past here was in mid July on route to a fun scramble up Mount Oliver with Sara Mclean in thick smoke. The last time I’d been up Sheep Creek was back 2019 in with Phil Richards when we ascended Winchester Ridge in March. The trail descends steeply from the Panther Road before traveling along the creek for around 8kms. I have done a TON of bike approaches this year so I am probably a bit more hardened to them than the average person and you should take my assessment with a large grain of salt. I found the bike approach pretty easy for the first ~5kms before the trail enters the creekbed and sections are washed out and hard to peddle. Overall it’s a much easier bike than what I did on Mount Burns (after the easy first 5.5kms) but mankier than something like the Baril Creek trail to the Fording River Pass. There is a few confusing variations along the end of the trail as well – at one point I thought I was done biking and then the trail continued on the other side. Near the end of the ride I was pushing my bike steeply uphill, wondering why I was so high above the creek when the trail simply ran out. I returned to a small camp along the trail and decided to abandon my bike there and descend to the creek.
I was slightly bummed as I lost height into the creek from my bike drop but also pretty psyched. It was a gorgeous day and I was alone doing what I love doing most – exploring a remote valley towards a pretty obscure set of peaks. I had zero expectations for Zombie Peak and as usual that resulted in much more enjoyment than expected. The approach creek was a bit bushy at first (I was above it on climber’s right) but soon the terrain opened up and the landscape was wild and desert-like. I was surprised that the creek was still running at a pretty good flow despite a complete lack of visible water sources.
The landscape continued to be unexpectedly interesting as I turned up valley into the NE bowl under Zombie’s summit. Fall colors were starting to show in some of the foliage and small waterfalls echoed off the cliffs around me as I ascended. This is a lonely place – it felt much more “out there” than I expected for some reason. I don’t think too many humans come through as I could see no signs of camps or human trails.
As I slowly gained height into the NE bowl I noticed a cliff band blocked easy progress ahead. This was unexpected but as I ascended towards it I also noticed an easy option on my right to get up and over the obstacle. As I hiked up some steep slabs and easy cliffs I ended up on a scree shoulder with views of the rest of my route to the summit – it looked a bit harder than “class 2” but I figured it must be easier on closer inspection.
Indeed, as I finished my scree traverse (approach shoes sucked on all the scree traversing I did this day), I could see that the angle to the summit ridge eased off considerably as I got under it. I decided to ascend some nice slabs directly towards the summit.
As I ascended a mix of slab, scree and boulders various route options opened up. I took the easier options when they presented themselves, angling up and slightly right before finally hitting the upper west ridge to the summit around four hours after leaving the truck. From here it was a short walk to the small summit – a pile of rocks sitting on a tilted slab – with wonderful views in every direction.
Oddly, there was no register in the small cairn (Cornelius placed one when he did it) so I have no idea how busy this summit is. I suspect that few folks know about it – much less bother coming all the way in here. The views and the lovely NE valley approach make Zombie Peak a very worthwhile objective IMHO. The fall colors in the valleys towards Puma Mountain were especially impressive on this particular day. It was time to turn my attention towards the exit and the 2nd peak of the day – Otuskwan. And this is where experience and luck played an important role in the rest of my day…
Originally when planning to combine Zombie and Ostuskwan Peak into a day trip, I’d planned on doing them as separate peaks from the bike drop where the south tributary of Sheep Creek merges into the main channel. When I first heard of the “walking dead traverse” I thought about it but it sounded difficult and most of the “peaks” along it were very unofficial so I wasn’t that interested despite the cool sounding name. However, from the summit of Zombie Peak I devised a third option for linking the two remote summits into one trip. As I sat there looking towards “Grimes” and “Grimes Jr” from Zombie’s summit I spotted what looked like an easy scree traverse to their col. Looking at my topo I thought there was a good chance that I could then descend into a valley under “Chupacabra Peak” towards the upper stretches of Sheep Creek and from there easily to the summit of Otuskwan. Sure! This was a bit of a risk considering I had no idea if the route would actually go or not, but I could always bail back to the NE valley under Zombie and try my original plan. (I had no idea at the time but my original plan of returning to the split in the creek before going back up Sheep Creek to Otuskwan was a non-starter for combining the two peaks into a day trip. More on this later.)
Spotting this scree traverse and carrying it out was where experience was helpful. This year I’ve done many of these types of sneaky routes. Scree slopes tend to look impossibly steep from a direct view but if they’re holding scree than they likely aren’t that steep at all – and this was certainly the case here. Many folks avoid scree traverses like the plague – they can be hellish on the feet and knees – but with hiking poles and good technique they aren’t so bad. Finding the occasional sheep track along them is always nice too. As I traversed the route looked easier until just under the “Grimes” / “Jr” col where easy slabs led upwards from my line.
I popped out at the low col and immediately whooped aloud. The route would go and not only would it go, it looked easy and fun! (This is where “luck” plays a role – there was no guarantees the route would continue over the col.) I immediately spotted a long ridge descending under “Chupacabra Peak” to valley bottom and started traversing scree and boulders left towards it.
The traverse was a bit of a PITA thanks to boulders and my approach shoes (my ankles were getting pretty beat up at this point already) but it was easy enough and soon I was ogling a lovely alpine valley under “Chupacabra Peak” leading down to a tributary of Sheep Creek far below. Unfortunately the ridge wasn’t quite the grassy hike I was hoping for but the scree / boulders were fairly easy to hike down on the ridge crest and the views kept me distracted from any pain.
So far my day was going about as good as these things can. I was out in the mountains exploring a new (to me) route on some remote Rockies landscapes in perfect late summer weather. Fall colors were starting to pop in the valley foliage below and waterfalls echoed off cliff faces all around me. When I stopped moving and listened there was almost complete silence other than the sound of running water. It was pure hiking and explor8ion magic – the kind that fills your soul with longing for more of this. Eventually I slowly wandered my way down the nose of the ridge and into more landscape heaven. Tiered ledges led down to more waterfalls below me with bursting yellow and red vegetation beneath my feet to a brilliant blue sky high above.
I wandered down valley, sticking to skier’s left above the stream to avoid getting cliffed out. This was my first inkling of what lay ahead for my long exit out of Sheep Creek but that was a “future Vern” problem and “current Vern” was enjoying himself so much I didn’t really think about it. The fact that Otuskwan Peak was now just ahead of me increased my pace a little and soon I was nearing Sheep Creek.
As soon as I hit Sheep Creek I left it again. Usually I will take the creekbed every time, especially when the other choice is a scree traverse and the creek is above tree line. But this time was different. I could sense right away that sticking in the creek would be exceedingly slow and tedious and I didn’t have the energy to deal with that at this point anymore. I just wanted a straightforward slog to the summit. I got exactly what I wished for… 😉 After traversing neverending scree to some far off slabs and cliffs I finally rounded a corner and spotted the rest of my route up the SW gully of Otuskwan. It looked kind of loose and tiring and indeed, it was exactly that! Oh well. The best thing to do on this type of terrain is simply settle into a steady pace and forget about everything else.
I felt like I was pushing to the top of Mount Everest for some reason as I finally gained the SW summit ridge of Otuskwan Peak. I think the hot weather and possibly overdoing my running routine over the past week had something to do with it but at least the summit was now in sight. I hiked up easy terrain to the apex of my 2nd peak of the day, admiring stunning views in every direction.
After enjoying the last of my PB&J sandwiches I reluctantly turned my attention to the long exit. I knew the most enjoyable part of my day was now definitely behind me but I wasn’t quite expecting what was ahead at this point yet. I descended the loose SW gully quickly and retraced my scree traverse back down to Sheep Creek near where I joined it from the tributary creek earlier in the afternoon. And this is where things got “interesting”.
Of course, by “interesting” I mean completely, unabashedly, unreservedly, totally, f____d. Ok, maybe not quite that serious but all I can say about the upper stretches of Sheep Creek from the Zombie tributary upstream is that you should carefully read Steven’s report and then consider that he usually understates things by quite a bit. I was expecting to wander out of a creek with some detours along the banks to avoid waterfalls and the like. What I got was much more than that. The upper stretches of Sheep Creek are hard to navigate due to high water flows, deep pools, waterfalls, tight canyon sections and washouts.
I avoided the first section on skier’s left of the creek – sticking high above on an obvious bench. But eventually my luck ran out at a huge washout from slopes above and tight terrain on either side of the creek. From here I descended into the creekbed but that didn’t last long either. Soon I was forced out of both sides of the creek at various points thanks to deep pools of water, waterfalls with minor cliffbands and other forms of unnavigable creek “fun” items. I’d already had a big day and this was very unexpected. I knew instantly that if I’d done my original plan and tried to hike up this section immediately after returning from Zombie Peak I’d have given up. And I’m not convinced I’d have been in any rush to come back either!
I don’t want to overstate the mankiness of upper Sheep Creek but suffice it to say that I am exceedingly happy that I never have to go there again! I would revisit the creek towards Zombie Peak any day but not the branch towards Otuskwan. If you can handle difficult scrambling I encourage you to take Cornelius’ route up the east ridge instead. Finally I stumbled out of the creek and back up to my bike. The 8km ride back to my truck was largely uneventful and obviously a lot more fun than walking this stretch would be.
Despite the nasty experience of upper Sheep Creek I recommend my route for anyone interested in these two peaks. It’s a fun, mostly easy scramble with some incredible scenery. Exiting Sheep Creek from Otuskwan is better than both approaching and exiting it would be. If you only need one peak I would recommend Zombie over Otuskwan for a host of reasons including a much better approach, it’s quite a bit higher (better views) and it has nicer landscapes as well. I am very happy to finally have done both of these summits – doing something 8 years after first planning it is very rewarding.