Summit Elevation (m): 2495
Trip Date: Thursday, November 11 2021
Elevation Gain (m): 1125
Round Trip Time (hr): 6
Total Trip Distance (km): 22.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain something – i.e. your ego
Difficulty Notes: The two main difficulties on this trip are crossing the Red Deer River and not getting lost on the vast number of trails in the area.
Technical Rating: OT3, TL2; RE3
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
Wietse has a Remembrance Day tradition going back more than a few years where he spends November 11th tagging a new (to him) summit. I’ve taken part in a few of these ventures including trips such as The Sibbald Five, Ghost and Fallen Peak and Mount Howard. For 2021 we weren’t sure what we were in the mood for or what was in condition that we hadn’t already done in some previous off-season hike or scramble. Fall 2021 has been pretty dry, especially in the front ranges so it was becoming a matter of which peaks or hills we hadn’t done that we still felt like doing. We’ve been up to our old Prairie Mountain tricks again this fall so it’s not like we weren’t in physical condition to do something other than a meaningless front range bump but again – what was in shape that held our interest? After throwing around some mediocre ideas we landed on Jap Mountain, located just south of the Red Deer River and Ya Ha Tinda ranch in the Panther Corners PLUZ within the wild reaches of Bighorn Backcountry. Of course, we weren’t the first with this idea and used Cornelius Rott’s trip report while planning our own hike. Both Cornelius and Matt Clay mention a myriad of trails in the area but despite their warnings and even some careful Google Earth planning ahead of time we still managed to get off trail in a few spots. Maybe you can do better? 😉
The wx for the area was surprisingly calm – so much so that we didn’t trust it completely. The Ya Ha Tinda ranch and the ridges and peaks around it are known for hosting some fierce winds blowing over the Rockies on their journey from the west to the plains beyond to the east. I can count on 2 or 3 fingers the number of times I haven’t had pretty stiff winds while hiking this area – and I’ve done a few hikes here over the years. To be honest I thought I was pretty much finished unofficial / official / locally named summits here until finding reference to “Jap Mountain” in the excellent Bighorn Wildland book and of course Cornelius’ trip report. Apparently there is a history of coal exploration in this area and many of the exploration roads have been reclaimed into horse and hiking trails. I’ve hiked through the Panther Corners PLUZ before and it’s a gorgeous little corner of the Rockies front ranges with wagon trails and horse camps dotting a landscape of grassy hills, rocky peaks and wild streams and rivers. Jap didn’t sound like a particularly hard or long objective but I was really looking forward to some nice windless hiking views over the Tinda area and this is pretty much exactly what we got.
We were hoping to cross the Red Deer River in a pair of huge rubber boots that Wietse had lying around in his car (don’t ask) but we were turned back by knee-deep water. As we returned to the shore to go don the waders I’d brought, a young gentleman simply bashed his way through the freezing cold water in runners before towelling off his feet on the far side and continuing confidently upriver without much more than a sideways glance at the old guys farting around with boots and waders. Pretty amusing stuff! I commented to Wietse that this could be one of two fast young guys I know from social media. I was wrong but didn’t know it yet. Both Matt and Cornelius mention a myriad of trails confusing the issue somewhat on approach to Jap Mountain and they aren’t lying. I should have read Matt’s report a bit closer but alas, we ended up pretty much exactly on Cornelius’ track line which starts off on a series of faint trails but not on the main Sheep Cliffs trail. We didn’t go even close to 1.5kms upriver and therefore also didn’t see the antler or regular signage to Sheep Cliffs. We also didn’t see tracks in the skiffs of snow along the various trails we were ascending so we assumed the ‘speedy guy’ had found another route or wasn’t going for Jap Mountain after all. Eventually after I got a bit annoyed and grumbly we realized we were on the wrong side of a major drainage to find a major trail. To rectify this situation we descended and crossed the drainage (more grumbling from Mr. Dewit) before finding a major horse trail on the west side.
I gave it my best for some reason but it was tough to stay grumpy as we made our way along a forest trail as it wound its way upward through deep carpets of green moss in dappled morning sunlight. It certainly didn’t feel like mid-November! We weren’t on the same line as Cornelius but with the major trail we didn’t really feel like abandoning it either so we simply followed it up until we hit an open grassy rib leading up towards Sheep Cliffs.
Continuing up open meadows to the top of the cliffs, we were treated to sublime views back over Tinda ranch and to an outlier of Jap Mountain with a giant sundog above. We were delighted with the lack of wind above treeline but even a light breeze was enough to freeze our faces in the cool fall air.
We took in the views towards Barrier Mountain, Warden Rock and Wapiti Mountain looming ominously like guardians of the gap over the Red Deer River as it escapes the eastern Banff Boundary towards the Tinda ranch and prairies to the east.
We turned from atop Sheep Cliffs and started grinding our way up the NW ridge of Jap Mountain on a trail just below the ridge proper. Hiking directly into the brilliant morning sun was blinding but the views to our left over the Ya Ha Tinda ranch helped assuage any discomfort from either our planets life-star or the opposing bitterly cold breath caressing exposed skin with biting kisses from distant lands to the west. (With that kind of prose you can tell that I’ve been missing the mountains since my last venture up the Fortress South Outlier over a month ago!)
There were no difficulties hiking up the NW ridge on a trail beaten into the scree and soon we were near a false summit with a short jaunt up a NE ridge to the high point on Jap Mountain. And surprise! There was the young guy from earlier! Somehow we’d taken completely different routes to the summit and arrived within minutes of each other.
As we approached the small summit cairn there was no sign of “fast guy”! What the heck?! Where did he vanish to so darn quickly? Then I spotted him crouched just past the summit opening a container of some sort. I went over and we started chatting. Soon it was resolved that his name was “Brendan Clark” and we actually knew each other from previous email conversations and shared a good friend in Ian Hunt. I’ve done some fun ski trips with Ian and it was nice to finally meet Brendan who’d last made an impression while I attempted to follow his track up Running Rain Peak – unsuccessfully I might add. Summit views from Jap were very respectable for such a lowly objective. The brilliant weather certainly didn’t hurt either.
After snapping photos it was time to continue our separate ways. Except we soon realized that we were both planning to traverse to the distant SE (lower) summit of Jap. We agreed to continue hiking together and chatted our way towards the SE peak, continuing to marvel at the wonderful views and great weather. As usual, meeting and talking about our various adventures passed the time quickly and before long (~1hr) we were at the SE summit, taking in more views including distant giants such as Puma Mountain and Mount Aylmer.
Since we were all planning to exit from the SE summit, Brendan joined us for an exploratory trip to find a mythical system of trails leading back to our crossing of the Red Deer River far below. The venture started out very positive and ended pretty good too. Some of the middle parts weren’t so successful as far as trails go…
We knew that blindly following Cornelius’ descent track, or even Matt’s directions would result in bushwhacking so we tried sticking to obvious horse trails on descent. Even when the track veered off to the SE away from our start point, we doggedly followed it. Until Wietse decided his feet were getting too sore in his boots to keep adding kilometers to our day and started bushwhacking back north. 😉 There was some disagreement from other parties (not Brendan) but we managed to compromise by finding some animal trails and eventually even another major horse trail leading in more amenable directions to our cause.
Just under 6 hours from the start of our day we arrived back at the river. All our river crossing gear was frozen solid – there was no way we were squeezing back into our sandals or shoes! Oh well. Brendan charged back across the river with familiar brevity while Wietse and I tip-toed across in our waterproof waders – trying desperately not to puncture the integrated socks on sharp rocks in the riverbed. We all made it across without drowning – a success by any standard. Jap Mountain won’t go down as a major objective in anyone’s books but as a late season objective in a gorgeous area of the front ranges it delivered exactly what I needed this particular Remembrance Day. Meeting Brendan was nice too – it’s always great to run into folks that I’ve had contact with over the years, at least when we get along and start planning future adventures. 😉