Summit Elevation (m): 2850
Trip Date: Sunday, October 03 2021
Elevation Gain (m): 1400
Round Trip Time (hr): 6.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 16.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2+ – you fall, you sprain something
Difficulty Notes: Easy scrambling with some route finding to keep it easy. Some very loose terrain and some slabs which some folks really don’t appreciate.
Technical Rating: SC5; YDS (3rd)
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
I’ve ascended many of the mountains around Highwood Peak including Gibraltar, Junction and Pyriform, Shunga-la-she and Picklejar and Lineham Ridge. Despite this I’ve never quite been able to pinpoint exactly where it was for some reason. I wanted to ascend it for two reasons. Firstly, I wanted to know just where the darn mountain was and secondly with such a prominent name (belonging to a whole range) and rumored to be the highest in its range, it begged to be scrambled. I knew from Cornelius Rott’s trip report up the south ridge that this was a difficult peak that had even turned the famous Andrew Nugara around in 2007 and gave some of the Ramblers fits back in 2010. As I was poking around, wondering what to do on a lovely day in early October I came across Geoff Hardy’s recent ascent of Highwood using an easy approach from the easy-to-access and very popular Picklejar Lakes. Some more digging led me to the realization that this route has become more popular in recent years since the publication of David Jones “Rockies South” guidebook with Allan Schierman’s 1996 class 2 route getting attention. Allan’s round trip time of 6.5 hours is no slouch either, especially considering he was pioneering the route. (As a side note, Cornelius gets his own FRA for his route in the guidebook as well – rated at PD+ low-5th 100m.) Even more digging led me to Brandon Boulier’s report from 2020 which had a handy GPS track to help navigate the somewhat convoluted route.
Wietse agreed to join me and picked me up before driving us to the Lantern Creek parking lot. It’s much nicer leaving south Calgary with the new section of the SWCRR complete. We were only the 2nd car in the lot, which surprised me for this normally very busy area. By 07:50 we were marching up the trail to the Picklejar Lakes in cool autumn air. Within an hour of the parking lot we were heading down to the first Picklejar Lake with views to our access col in the distance. I’ve always had mixed feelings about the Picklejar Lakes as a hiking destination on their own. They are lovely little lakes to be sure, but there’s no larches, the colors of the lakes are muted and the surrounding peaks aren’t that spectacular IMHO. Another thing I don’t love about the lakes is that they always seem to be in the shade – photographing them is tough and hanging around them is cold. But I’m splitting hairs here – they are still lovely lakes to be sure. We passed the first two lakes on their west shores before hiking the east shore of the third lake almost to the fourth.
From the NE end of the third lake we turned left and hiked up rubble and boulders towards steep ascent slopes granting access to the rest of our route. From the bottom of these slopes the route wasn’t immediately obvious but we figured we’d ascend the one right under a sharp line of cliffs. I remembered Geoff telling me that several gullies would work here so we weren’t too stressed about it. What we were pretty quickly stressed about however, was the terribly loose ascent gully itself! Thankfully we had taken the reports of side-hilling and scree to heart and were both wearing boots instead of our usual approach shoes on this slope. I would not want to be here with a large group – we sent several pretty good size chunks of stone down towards the Picklejar valley.
The ascent slope wasn’t as terrible for the top half and it didn’t take too long to ascend it. From the upper col beneath a sharp cliff we could see that one gully to the north also would have worked out ok. From our vantage we were a bit confused about where exactly to go. We thought Brandon’s line went to a high shoulder and I knew from Geoff’s report that he took a “lower line to avoid unnecessary height gains” on return so I focused immediately on a lower shoulder with an pretty straightforward approach. Wietse agreed to give that one a go.
On our traverse to the low shoulder we encountered a short trail in the scree and what looked like an old wooden sign along it. We wondered if there used to be a route in here from Junction Creek to Picklejar Lakes. I led the way up a series of slabs which got a bit steep for the stiff boots but worked pretty good and gave us quick access to the lower shoulder. (On return we went below these slabs and that was even easier.) In a pretty funny twist it turns out that we were almost exactly on Brandon’s line – which goes to show that even with a track to follow you still have to think about your route once in a while. We were very close to going to the high shoulder, thinking for sure that was his route.
From the low shoulder the rest of the route was pretty obvious. I decided to try to be as efficient as possible, sticking right under slabs and cliffs on rubble in a long traverse to the scree and slab benches leading to the summit.
My route worked pretty well – it would be hard to be more direct without getting onto the slabs or losing more height. The rubble was a PITA but not an abnormally high PITA – this is pretty typical Rockies scree and boulder traversing. If you hate this terrain you should likely avoid scrambling here and stick to Picklejar Lakes for your fresh air. Especially this year, I seem to be using a lot of scree and rubble traverses to make my ascents easier and more straightforward. The ascent ledge itself was also much easier than it first appeared. One foot in front of the other with an eye out for more stable lines and before long I was getting higher than many of the surrounding peaks – always a good sign. I topped out of the ascent shelf and found myself just below the summit to the west. A short, easy scramble (exposure) brought me to the top within 3.5 hours of the parking lot at a steady, but not ridiculous pace. After snapping photos of many familiar peaks Wietse joined me on a short scramble to the nearby NE summit to see if it was worth it.
The scramble to the NE summit was ironically the hardest stuff of the day but we both enjoyed it. I ended up on some very loose, exposed terrain that was avoidable on the right (south) but c’est la vie. Leave it to me to find a difficult line on an easy scramble. The views to the Junction Lakes and to Junction and Pyriform were slightly better from the lower NE summit but not really worth it IMHO. It’s so close you might as well check it out but there’s no real need other than good old curiosity.
Our descent back to the lower traverse, over the col to the first access gully and down to Picklejar Lakes was quick and even easier than expected. There were minimal height gains and the weather continued to be sublime. It was windier in the alpine valleys than at the summits for some strange reason. Once again, I was happy there was only two of us descending the horribly loose access gully above the Picklejar Lakes. Tons of rocks and boulders crashed down the slope below us as we descended it.
The hike out from the lakes was pleasant and very warm. The jackets came off and we started encountering the hiking crowds again. Actually there weren’t that many considering it was Sunday with clear skies. I guess people are back in their fall routines already, despite the mountains being as dry as July right now. We completed the trip in just over 6.5 hours of steady movement and good route choices. I enjoyed Highwood Peak about as much as I expected to. It’s not the world’s most attractive mountain and definitely not the easiest or most straightforward to approach either. Unlike a peak such as Haiduk, which is also quite an involved approach, Highwood doesn’t have larches or really stunning scenery surrounding it. But it’s close to Calgary, has a great approach trail that includes 4 lakes, is a quick trip and has great views to the Divide including giants like Harrison and Abruzzi. I recommend this as a late season objective when larger and more mid-range peaks might be out of scramble condition.