Summit Elevations (m): 2600, 2525
Trip Date: Monday, May 23 2022
Elevation Gain (m): 1500
Round Trip Time (hr): 9.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 28.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3 – you fall, you are not paying enough attention to your feet.
Difficulty Notes: A fairly rough bike ride followed by early season conditions both on (mud, snow) and off (snow) trail.
Technical Rating: SC5; RE3/4
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
Standing on Sufi Peak a week ago, I was struck by the amount of fresh snow still sitting on peaks to the west. Heck! Nevermind other peaks, I had plenty enough snow to endure on Sufi – a very front range summit that should be among the first to melt off every year along the Rockies front ranges. Originally my plan was to stay overnight and attempt either Canaria or Finch Peak with a bike approach up Canary Creek but they both had so much snow I didn’t trust that I’d be able to bike very far, making the trip much more work than I was in the mood for. As I made the long 3.5 hour drive back to my house in Calgary from the Hummingbird staging area I mused that if things didn’t melt out very quickly this will be a very slow start to the hiking and scrambling season for me.
Only days later I was trying to recruit other suckers – er, I mean friends – to return to the Upper Clearwater / Ram PLUZ for some quality suffering. Er, I mean fun. Alas, I didn’t do a great job of selling it and after working out on Prairie Mountain Friday (1 lap), Saturday (3 laps) and Sunday (2 laps), I was ready for something a little different on the holiday Monday. Interestingly, my two laps on Sunday felt off. More than just feeling tired, I felt strange and wondered if I was getting whatever my son and his friends had been sick with the past week…
In case you’re asking, on such a gorgeous long weekend was there really NOTHING else I could have done except for these two front range, unofficial summits? Perhaps – but with snow levels way too high for most of the remaining interesting objectives that I haven’t done, I decided to be smart and wait for another few weeks of melting to tackle those. Looking at my social media feed showed friends bagging many other worthy objectives that I’ve already done on weekends like this in previous years. Believe it or not but I’m running low on local peaks that I care about enough to spend a whole weekend on!
I drove the 3.5 hours from YYC to Hummingbird Creek for the 2nd time in a week before stepping out of the truck at the Canary Creek trailhead on a beautiful bluebird day. The creek was happy, the birds were happy and I was happy as I gazed across Hummingbird Creek to the one valley in the area that I hadn’t traveled yet. I’d been up the Onion Lake Trail to access Mount Bramwell and the Ram River Trail to access Canary Peak. I’ve hiking down a good portion of the Hummingbird Trail while returning from our traverse of Hummingbird Ridge. All of those trails were early season conditions and were a delightful mix of easy travel, horrid muck, soft snow and long rough sections. Canary had the reputation of being the worst trail in the area – especially in early season. Oh goody! Apparently someone else wasn’t phased by the trail’s reputation as a small SUV was parked at the trailhead when I arrived. I followed fresh bootprints to Hummingbird Creek and made short work of the crossing. It’s always interesting to start the day with wet feet. Today I was loaded for every condition with boots and snowshoes on my back – I wasn’t taking any chances. My preparedness cost me a heavier-than-usual day pack.
The bike ride started pretty rough. And I mean literally rough, not metaphorically. The spiritual experience was as good as it always is out there but the literal trail was not for the faint of heart – at least not on a bike! The GoPro video is sickeningly smooth compared to the actual experience – don’t say I didn’t warn you. I’m not sure if this was among the roughest trails I’ve ridden because there’s been many of them over the past few years, but this one is for sure in the runner-up category. I could see that in drier conditions it would be much better with smoother options to the sides, but in my case those smoother options were sticky, slippery muck. I was forced to ride on the roughest middle areas or bail to either muck on one side or rough hilly grass on the other. I was mentally prepared for a hard ride and I mostly enjoyed it despite the effort. The way I saw it, the longer I could bike the less I’d have to walk. With a 32-33km day ahead of me, even biking 4km of the approach would knock a lot of time off my route. Surprisingly I made it over 5kms on the bike – way past my first inclination to stop pedaling. This is SOP for bike approaches. Always, always always bike further than you want to. Future you will be very grateful even while current you curses and swears “it’s not worth it”.
As I continued on foot up a snowy and heavily damaged Canary Creek trail, I started wondering if the recent footprints I was following could be Cornelius Rott. I knew he drove a small SUV and who the heck else would be up here on a long weekend with these conditions? I wondered if he might even be going for the exact same peaks as me but dismissed that thought as improbable. Speaking of improbable. It’s very improbable that the Canary Creek Trail will be winning any awards lately. It’s not very scenic. It’s destroyed in many places by both water and I assume OHV’s. It’s muddy – very muddy. Sticky, heavy mud that doesn’t drop off your tires or your shoes. There’s camps along the way but they are pretty heavily used and also tired looking. IMHO this trail works well as a direct(ish) way to other, more scenic places but not as a destination in itself. Despite all the aforementioned negatives, I was enjoying a beautiful sunny morning. All alone in the middle of nowhere with birds serenading me from the surrounding willows and the creek adding it’s melodies to the soundtrack. As I hiked along an increasingly snowy trail I noticed a gentle (albeit bushy) line up Finch Peak’s NE ridge. I had the snowshoes and boots, so why not use them? I left my approach shoes in a bunch of willows, donned the boots and strapped on the ‘shoes before heading up.
I could tell you that my choice of route was interesting and made for a nice loop rather than the boring west ridge up-and-back that I was planning. And that’s mostly true. What’s also true is that the NE ridge was a giant PITA. As we discovered on Hummingbird Ridge, innocent looking forest in this area should be treated with deep suspicion. Put it this way – it was a struggle. My legs bear bruises and my arms bear cuts as evidence. Without the ‘shoes it would have been a complete nonstarter. The snow was deep and ready to collapse even with the snowshoes. By some miracle I made it to treeline before giving a huge sigh of relief and a few rueful chuckles. Explor8ion can be a bitch sometimes. I ‘shoed straight up a large snow slope along the ridge before ditching them for good. Extra weight training for the rest of the day!
One advantage of ascending the NE ridge was the great views I got to Canaria’s SE ridge and upper horseshoe. Instead of an up-and-back from the “H6” junction at the Canary Creek / Pleasant Valley intersection, I was now sure that I could do a nice horseshoe loop from the south end of Canaria up to the summit and back down to the Canary Creek Trail below.
It was comical when I finally topped out on the broad NW ridge only to once again be following two sets of boot prints. Now I was 97.8% sure it was Cornelius and a trip partner. I reserved some wiggle room for the Ephraim Roberts’ of the world but I know Cornelius and his footprints are quite a bit larger than mine. Plus Ephraim is usually with a dog rather than a human…
The ridge felt endless but the day was gorgeous even as clouds were building around me. I enjoyed views up the Ram River towards distant giants such as Whelk, Mamen, Icefall, Dodo and Cheshire. Aries, Wingnut and Canary Peak also stood prominently across “Pleasant Valley”. Despite looking snow-free there were still long sections of ankle to knee deep snow and I gratefully used the tracks ahead of me to save some energy. Just as on Prairie Mountain the day before, I was feeling strangely off today. Cardio was there but my stomach wasn’t happy and my legs felt stiffer than they should have considering the easy terrain so far. Already from afar I could see that despite the topo saying otherwise, a further peak to the east was looking mighty close to being higher than my originally planned one. I resolved I’d likely have to trudge over there unless by some miracle there was a register on the closer summit.
A fun, easy scramble led up the first summit block. I followed the tracks faithfully as they found a great line. It took longer than expected but eventually I was approaching a low summit cairn – the east summit sported a large rock cairn as well. The moment of truth arrived as I spotted a register that appeared very much like something Cornelius would leave! Sure enough. Cornelius and Wen had been up here the day before and left both the tracks for me to follow and a lovely summit register for me to sign. I knew the east peak was of very similar height and decided that it this one was good enough for Cornelius to label the high point, it was good enough for me. Thanks bud. You saved me 45 minutes of extra work!
Despite the washed out cloud cover, summit views were respectable and I spent some time taking photos of unfamiliar and familiar peaks. It’s hard to get angles on stuff like Wampum and Lost Guide. Cheshire Peak is almost impossible to capture as it’s hidden behind Dodo from many vantages. The false summit is easy enough to photograph so I did that. Icefall Mountain looked fierce. I was surprised to see that Finch is similar or even higher than Aries. I’ll have to confirm that another time when I get the chance. I still had another peak to bag so I made the long return hike down the NW ridge to the west ridge, following Cornelius and Wen’s tracks the whole way down to the “H6” junction.
At this point I knew for almost 100% that Cornelius had likely camped up here and was tackling Canaria Peak today. Their tracks continued west along the connector trail to Hummingbird Creek but I had another route planned up the open south slopes of Canaria that I wanted to try.
I walked briefly down the Canary Creek Trail past another camp before struggling mightily with intervening willows to gain the melted, open south slopes of Canaria. I had to briefly cross another snowy gully before coming to a series of sheep highways up a board scree gully leading up to a false summit high above. I continued to feel weird ascending this slope – even stopping for food before my fast ended to see if that would help. It helped slightly but not as much as I’d hoped. Oh well. Up I trudged. At least the sky was clearing and now there wasn’t a breath of wind – a gorgeous afternoon in a very quiet corner of the Rockies on a May long weekend.
Sure enough! Just as I suspected. As soon as I reached the upper horseshoe I once again found myself following two sets of very fresh tracks. There was no return track this time so I knew that they were likely doing the exact same loop I’d onsighted from Finch’s NE ridge earlier in the day. What a small world. The horseshoe ahead promised to be delightful hiking and it lived up to its promise.
Despite some predictable ups and downs, much of the elevation changes were avoided by following obvious sheep highways. Apparently sheep are just as lazy as peakbaggers. Despite the map showing otherwise, I agreed with Cornelius’ choice to place the register at the far north end of the horseshoe. This time I was signing it mere hours after they did. I wonder when the third person will sign?! Monday evening on the 23rd?! Just as I thought, they planned to continue down the SE ridge to Canary Creek and I planned to follow them there.
The descent was pleasant, easy and quick. Some semi-exposed hiking was easily avoidable if desired. Obviously the SE ridge would be a nice ascent route too. Soon I was plunge-stepping soft scee before a short-but-severe willow-whack to the Canary Creek Trail.
The return down the trail to my bike was pleasant in warm sunshine. Half the snow from the morning was gone in exposed places while sheltered areas will likely keep snow for a couple of weeks yet, I think. I set a furious pace on the two-wheel steed as usual, my butt and my clothing paying the price for my aggressive ride. It was easier than expected riding back to Hummingbird Creek but it was still very rough and extremely slick and muddy. Totally worth the bike but not without its occasional challenge. Despite feeling off all day I still managed a 9.5 hour round trip without feeling rushed. As I type up this report 3 days later, I am suffering what I assume is Covid symptoms – or the worst flu/cold that I’ve had in a long while. I highly recommend this loop in any of its many various forms as an early or late season trip. Views are excellent and the hiking easy. What more do you need to get you off the proverbial couch?