Summit Elevation (m): 2472
Trip Date: May 14 2022
Elevation Gain (m): 800
Round Trip Time (hr): 6
Total Trip Distance (km): 28
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3 – you fall, you are overthinking this one.
Difficulty Notes: Easy biking, hiking and scrambling up a scenic valley and ridge. The only difficulty is timing it so that the east face can be traversed safely with or without snow.
Technical Rating: SC5; RE3/4
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
As I looked over the peaceful Onion Creek valley towards snowy peaks to the west I glanced to my left and noticed a large cow grazing under the shade of a tree beside the Onion Lake Trail. I had been furiously biking back along the trail after an unexpected successful early season ascent of Sufi Peak. I only stopped when I noticed the lovely views and thought I should snap a quick photo. Wait a minute. There’s no cows in the Upper Clearwater / Ram PLUZ! I looked again to my left. Damn son – that’s a giant Grizzly bear! Hmmm. I’d been biking in various sized grizzly tracks all day on the Onion Lake Trail and some of them were among the biggest I’d ever seen. Apparently the owner of those tracks was now less than 50 yards from me and completely oblivious to my presence. And he was blocking my exit. On hindsight I should have grabbed my camera out of my pack and taken a photo or two but in the moment I wasn’t sure what was going to happen when he did spot me. I prepared my bear spray before yelling loudly. The large bear stopped grazing and looked in the wrong direction before I yelled again. Thankfully he bolted off the trail and vanished into a drainage below. I mused how fortunate my unplanned stop had been, normally I would have biked right into the bruin and who knows how that would’ve turned out? Believe it or not, this was the 2nd lucky thing to happen to me this beautiful spring day.
When Cornelius and I were hiking the Onion Lake Trail in 2021 on route to an ascent of Bramwell and Hummingbird Ridge he casually pointed out the trail branching off towards Sufi Peak. I didn’t realize there was a route from the south and logged the idea in the back of my mind for a possible early season ascent. With a beautiful mid-May weekend shaping up I knew I had to take advantage somehow. With many of the “worthwhile” front range bumps and small peaks on my list completed I was thinking of simply car camping somewhere or day tripping to check out new sights. Then I remembered Sufi and some of the other low peaks in the Upper Clearwater / Ram PLUZ and decided to head up there to check out conditions. My expectations were extremely low for actually standing on any summits but I packed for it anyway. Sometimes you get lucky…
After the long 3.5 hour drive on perfect roads from YYC I finally rolled into the Hummingbird Creek staging area. It was completely empty with no signs of people anywhere – perfect! I was planning to bike at least 5 or 6 kilometers of the Onion Lake Trail but within about 200m of the truck I was rethinking this strategy already! Copious amounts of snow remained on the snowmobile packed trail in the trees and biking it was almost impossible. Thankfully I stuck with it and once the trail exited the forest it was almost snow free and the pace of the ride increased. A few years ago I barely knew this place existed but after several fantastic trips in 2021 I was now familiar with the beautiful valley views and enjoyed being back. There were human tracks in the mud on the trail but many more grizzly ones besides. One set of tracks in particular made me pause – they were the largest bear tracks I’ve seen in quite a while. There’s no point leaving the parking lot in the front range Rockies in spring if you’re going to be antsy about a few giant bear tracks so I kept yelling warning calls and biking furiously up the trail.
Despite some horribly clingy muck I managed to bike 7.25kms to the faint track branching north off the Onion Lake Trail. There was enough snow on Hummingbird Ridge and Bramwell that I knew I’d be dealing with it on Sufi – the question was how much and how much would it impact my day? Despite all the snow up high, the valley seemed quite melted out and I hadn’t bothered with snowshoes on my pack. I continued up the faint track on foot. It didn’t take long before I started to run into snow on the trail – frozen solid and easy to walk on this early in the day.
After a few kms my peak’s south ridge finally appeared and it looked to be in great early season condition. I was psyched but also getting more and more concerned as I approached a campsite and the landmark before a side valley leading to my peak. My concern was the amount of snow clinging to the willows and grasses at valley bottom – more and more the further I traveled. It continued to easily hold my weight as I head up the smaller side valley from the camp but how long would this last? I’ve hiked many spring trails and with snow on top of willows and grasses there is usually very little base to the snowpack and with a strong sun hitting the valley I wondered if I should continue or turn back. Turn back already? Yup. I seriously considered it. The side-valley was a few kms long and the further I went up it the deeper the snowpack under my feet. On return I would likely by floundering in 2 to 3 feet of snow and could be flirting with an epic if I wasn’t careful. I obviously continued but I tried to be realistic about a horrid return trip.
As I struggled up forested south slopes to the dry(ish) south ridge I got my first hint of what was likely waiting for me on return. Knee to crotch deep snow collapsed under me as I grunted and swore me way up steep slopes. Thankfully this section was extremely short or I would’ve continued to question my choices for the day. Breaking out of the trees onto dry rock was a relief and I took a moment to suck in the views from the bottom of the south ridge.
It felt wonderful to be on dry rock in my approach shoes again and it didn’t take long before I was traversing the ridge towards a snowy looking false summit. I knew from other trip reports that there was a cliff band between the false and true summit and could see from the track that I had that I would have to traverse the east face in order to get to the col between summits. I was prepared for that with an ax and crampons.
Sure enough. As I approached the false summit I could see cliffs down the slope to the col below. The east face looked snowy but not dangerously so – at least not with the snow locked up tight. I started down towards the col, not even needing the crampons as the snow was just soft enough to kick shallow steps.
After traversing to the col it was an easy grunt to the low summit with a pink ammo register a la Ephraim Roberts and views to distant peaks in every direction. The register wasn’t exactly busy for such an easy and accessible peak but that is the nature of this area. The wind was cool but I was delighted that I’d actually made it. It had only taken me ~3.5 hours to ascend from the staging area – Sufi isn’t much more than a Prairie Mountain with a much longer approach (and drive!!). Doug Lutz did a traverse from Falls Lookout over to Onion Peak and all the way to Sufi which would be a nice long day trip.
Being very nervous about the snowy return valley, I didn’t linger long and was soon marching quickly back down the summit ridge to the east face snow traverse. The snow was already softening rapidly on the east face and I quickly hiked across and up to the false summit before continuing rapidly down to the approach valley. The forest was a slush fest – actually much easier to hike in then the collapsible frozen crust I’d struggled up an hour or so earlier. It didn’t bode well for the valley below…
Then my first lucky thing happened. As I broke out of the trees and into the approach valley the snow continued to hold my weight! Somehow – despite a very strong and warm spring sun – the snowpack was so frozen that it refused to break down easily. I tiptoed at a furious pace to beat the inevitable collapse and almost made it all the way back to the camp before it finally happened. By the time the snow finally lost its support it was only a foot or so deep and I breathed a sigh of relief as I set off to the bike on the main track from the camp.
I greatly enjoyed the walk through the valley to my bike. Birds were chirping, water was gurgling all around me and the spring sun was warm on my face. It felt like winter might actually be almost over. The ride back was fast and fairly easy despite some snow issues in treed areas. The near-incident with the bear was a 2nd lucky occurrence and I didn’t feel like pushing my luck any further this weekend. Instead of snowshoeing a low peak on Sunday in questionable conditions, I spent a very relaxing Saturday afternoon and evening at Ram Falls. There was nobody else around this early in the season and it felt great to relax instead of rushing home right away.
Despite driving 7 hours to hike for under 6, I enjoyed my day out to the Hummingbird Creek area. As usual for this time of year it was very quiet and I enjoyed spending a few extra hours at Ram Falls taking in the views and the atmosphere of the Rockies front ranges. A nice spring trip would be ascents of Onion, Falls Lookout and Sufi over two days with a car camp at one of the many available sites in the area. Just make sure you keep a clean site as there are many bears that frequent the area – especially in spring with the deeper valleys still choked with snow.