Headwall Peak

Summit Elevation (m): 3021
Elevation Gain (m): 1200
Round Trip Time (hr): 5.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 16
Quick ‘n Easy Rating: Class 3 – You fall you break something or worse
Difficulty Notes: No major difficulties but there is some exposure right near the summit. Caution is also advised if there’s snow on route, especially for the steep SE slabs.
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (3rd)
GPS Track: Gaia
MapGoogle Maps

I remember reading about Headwall Peak back in 2016 when Andrew Nugara first posted it and thinking that it seemed like a nice trip. Then I promptly forgot about it for the next 5 years until recently when I was looking through Nugara’s More Scrambles (3rd Edition) and noticed it again. With a few days off towards the end of September I figured this would be a great solo objective a couple of days after a fairly big outing on Haiduk Peak. I was right. I parked at the Sawmill parking lot along the Spray Lakes road and started up the confusing network of trails, thankful that I’d mapped out the route on Gaia beforehand. The last time I was up here was a snowy ascent of Mount James Walker in 2012 – almost a decade already! Time flies by.

Headwall Peak Route Map. NOTE: I have labelled “Chesmill Peak” incorrectly. This is actually the South Peak of Headwall. Mount Chesmill is located south of where I’ve marked it and lower down the ridge.

Eventually I rounded a few corners, avoided a few confusing intersections and found myself hiking up James Walker Creek on a narrow single track. The trail was in excellent condition and the day was slightly cloudier than forecast but still lovely for the 2nd day of fall. I knew there was a small larch forest along the creek and was delighted to see the bright yellow needles as I hiked through the interesting little forest among some huge boulders. Soon after the larches the trail steepened dramatically as it worked to gain a headwall before treeline. 

Entering the small patch of larches on route to the upper James Walker valley. The south outlier of James Walker in the distance.
The trail gets steeper past the larch forest as it negotiates a headwall below treeline.

I continued along the well maintained trail as it gained lovely alpine meadows towards the south outlier of Mount James Walker. It was a gorgeous fall day and I was enjoying myself immensely despite being on a silly intermittent fast which has me unable to consume any calories before noon. This is fine on office days but a giant PITA on mountain days as you might imagine! I left the trail, heading for the SE face of Headwall Peak, aiming for an obvious scree bench leading to some steeper looking slabs.

Upper James Walker Creek alpine meadows. Headwall Peak at left, James Walker at center and Mount Inflexible at right.

My ascent line worked perfectly. Soon I was trudging up grassy slopes as they transitioned to rubble. I crossed the rubble, aiming for slabs lower down on the face rather than getting too aggressive with my line. I knew that the summit was further north than what I could see so there was no harm in ascending the most reasonable terrain rather than cutting left up steep exposed slabs. 

The route up the SE slopes of Headwall at center left with Mount James Walker at right.

The next 45 minutes or so was very delightful scrambling on a mix of slabs and rubble – but mostly slabs. I couldn’t believe how quickly the valley dropped off behind me as my approach shoes gripped the slabs perfectly. On Haiduk I was glad for the boots but for Headwall Peak, approach shoes are definitely the way to go!

Eventually the terrain forced me to start trending slightly left to the summit ridge. The views were awesome in every direction as I popped out on the south ridge and looking up some steep slabs to a false high point. I easily scrambled up the slab before tackling a narrow, semi-exposed, short ridge to the cairned summit.

Summit views were awesome from this 3000m peak. Many familiar Kananaskis peaks were visible from Sir Douglas to Joffre, Galatea, Chester, Sparrowhawk, Bogart, Wedge, Smuts, Birdwood, Inflexible and many, many others. The summit register was from the FRA in 1981 and pretty neat to see. This is not a popular peak although it certainly should be!

L to R, Upper Headwall Lake, Galatea, Gusty, Fortress, Sparrowhawk, Bogart, Kidd, Old Baldy, Wedge, McDougall, James Walker.
Views over the lovely Headwall Lakes to Mount Chester and Fortress.
Looking down the SE face to the upper James Walker Creek. Mount James Walker at left with Inflexible and North Kent Ridge to the right.
L to R, Inflexible, Kent North, Chesmill, Smith Dorrien, French, Robertson, Sir Douglas, Murray, Burstall, Birdwood, Commonwealth, Smuts, Assiniboine, Chester, Galatea.

After snapping a myriad of summit photos it was time to head down, out of the stiff, cool wind. I was wondering what the slabs would be like on descent but I shouldn’t have worried – there was a very handy little scree run that appeared instead. This is the perfect scramble IMHO. Slabs on ascent, scree on descent. Hard to beat. Near the bottom of the scree ledges I veered left to get off the face and onto the lower rubble slopes.

I spent some time eating (finally!!) lunch at the small upper James Walker Creek before wandering slowly down valley towards the approach trail. I meditated once again how lucky I was to be enjoying such a wonderful day all by myself with no crowds of people, no chalets, no barking dogs. Just the wonderful wild silence of the mountains with some rockfall from a sheep or a goat echoing off the cliffs around me and the happy gurgling of a nearby creek to keep me company.

The lovely James Walker alpine meadows offer some sweet hiking and views to James Walker (L), Inflexible and North Kent.
James Walker Creek.

Hiking down the James Walker trail was pure magic with the sun playing tag with the clouds and the feel of a warm sun intermingled with a cool breeze on my skin. I took another break in the larches before continuing down the trail. The network of snowshoe trails leading down to the parking lot was easier to follow on descent. The views across the Spray Valley to soaring peaks and small larch forests kept me distracted. I was surprised to return to the truck within 5.5 hours of leaving it – I never felt rushed all day and yet this was a very short outing to a relatively untraveled 3000m+ peak. I highly recommend Headwall Peak to the scrambling community. It is the perfect fall outing but would be good any time of year as long as the SE face is snowfree and dry. 

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