Trip Dates: Friday, June 10 to Sunday, June 12 2022
Total Elevation Gain (m): 3550
Total Trip Distance (km): 125.5
Peaks Ascended: Whimper Peak, Mount Malloch
Water Crossed: Cutoff Creek, Forbidden Creek, Clearwater River, Rum Punch Creek, Lost Guide Creek, Indianhead Creek, Malloch Creek, Martin Creek, Roaring Creek
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain something.
Difficulty Notes: A long bike, hike and scramble trip way up the Clearwater River to the eastern Banff border and beyond to Trident Lake and Martin Lake.
Technical Rating: TL4, OT4, SC5; RE5
GPS Track: Gaia
Map: Google Maps
It wasn’t the dead rabbit – laying on the trail near camp with an “oh sh_t” look on its face – that gave Phil and I pause. It was the dead mouse lying neatly in front of it that was strangely off putting. Both of these corpses were not there 12 hours earlier when we wandered into our lovely camp high above Trident Lake located way off grid in Banff National Park. During the night, while we slept comfortably on a bed of moss in the forest, something killed and purposefully placed two dead animals nearby. I had a feeling the next night might not be quite as comfortable as the first one… But of course I am getting way ahead of myself here. Long before creepy dead stuff started appearing near our camp we found ourselves once again starting out on bikes from the Cutoff Creek staging area with heavy packs. A year previous we’d made our first excursion up the Clearwater River to nab a very rare ascent of Lost Guide Peak and an equally rare ascent of Sentry Peak. Despite suffering a great deal on that trip we somehow ended up craving another one in the same area as Spring 2022 slowly rolled into town. Phil and I haven’t been out much since early last summer and both of us were really looking forward to getting after something interesting. After throwing a bunch of ideas around and having to cancel plans due to bad weekend weather forecasts we finally settled on another trip up the Clearwater River. This time, however, we’d be traveling even further upriver – choosing to camp at the remote Trident Lake in Banff National Park (with the requisite permits of course).
We weren’t 100% sure which peaks to chase from a basecamp at Trident Lake but we knew we’d need an extra day over the 2021 trip in order to make the distance and off trail terrain work. Peaks on our radar included Snarl, Whimper and Mount Malloch. With a higher-than-normal snowpack in the Rockies this year we knew that we were pushing things a bit but the latest Sentinel satellite images were encouraging for these three peaks. The big unknown and the most likely to burst our bubble on this trip was the water levels in the Clearwater River. We checked nearby river levels and flows and noticed that they were spiking dramatically. Despite this risk, we mapped out route lines and Phil called in for camping permits before agreeing to meet and drive together to the trailhead early on Friday morning. The weather forecast was calling for mixed conditions with no rain on Friday, some rain on Saturday and lots of rain on Sunday afternoon. We were happy to unload our bikes under a blue sky at the Cutoff Creek staging area. We were slightly less happy to mount them with our heavier-than-usual packs threatening damage to our poor lower extremities as we started a long ride ahead.
Day 1 – Cutoff Creek North Trail – Clearwater Trail – Trident Lake Camp
I can’t stress enough how difficult biking up the series of OHV, horse trails and roads from Cutoff Creek up the Clearwater River is. I know everyone can do everything but this is next level suffering – especially with an overnight pack on your back. You might wonder about using paniers instead of a pack, but good luck hoisting your bike onto your shoulders with this option. Or bushwhacking. Put it this way – this trip is among the hardest on this site and there’s a few doozies available to choose from! Don’t get me wrong. The bike ride is a spectacular, wild approach along pristine valleys, soaring peaks and vast alpine meadows brimming with wildflowers. It is also, however, a tough, painful grind along rough horse trails, muddy OHV tracks and unbridged water crossings. My GoPro smoothes out the bumps but I think you can get a good sense of the effort by watching the movie I put together on our explor8ion.
It helped immensely that we knew roughly (pun intended) what to expect from the ride based on our 2021 experience. That ride was made even worse by overnight snow and rain, turning long sections of trail into a slick, almost unrideable mess. We weren’t expecting much better from this trip but with blue skies above and a dry road to the trailhead things were looking up. That lasted about 2 minutes. The muddiest, nastiest section of “trail” happens to be a relatively short section from the staging area leading north to a long SW trending cutline. We struggled through this section before making good time along the cutline. Roughly 30 minutes from the start, we were already trending south, off the cutline and along a wide, muddy road that stays well east of the Clearwater River. Thankfully the mud was mostly dried but this presented another problem that we knew would arise. Dried horse tracks do not make for smooth riding… The muddy road section from the cutline to the first outfitter camp took approximately 45 minutes to ride. The first outfitter camp is located near a peaceful meadow along a small oxbow of the Clearwater River. This is a good place to get a drink of fresh water and realize how bloody far you still have to ride!
From the first outfitter camp there is a newer section of trail that resembles a road more than a simple trail. This road goes up and over a small rise before descending over a bridge and exiting to the always-dry Forbidden Creek drainage. After crossing this drainage the trail deteriorates somewhat along an old cutline (muddy, rough) before finally leading to the halfway point of the bike ride at another large horse camp and the Forty Mile ranger cabin. It took us just under 2 hours to this point and we took another small break at the 40-mile meadows under a warm sun and clear blue skies. From the 40-mile meadows we were not guaranteed anything. We knew water levels would be higher than earlier in the year in 2021 but we had no idea how high or if it would turn us back. Fingers crossed we mounted back up and peddled for the first water crossing just after the meadow. This crossing isn’t the Clearwater River and was no issue for us. We crossed the cool water (knee deep) and continued biking up the river flats towards our first crossing of the Clearwater River. The river flats are a pretty quick ride and before long we were nervously pedaling towards the sound of a fast-flowing river.
At first glance the river looked similar to the year before. On second, third and fourth glances, however, it looked faster and deeper than ~350 days previous. Hmmm. We hadn’t come this far not to try stuff, so we plunged into the cold water and started sussing out a route through the many braided channels at this spot. The water was faster in some channels than others but generally we stayed around knee deep and managed to cross without issue. This was a good thing but we knew we weren’t out of the woods just yet. The next crossing was the narrow, deep and fastest channel with no easy detour. After a quick break we continued up the flats, running into a problem almost right away in the form of a river flowing down the Clearwater Trail! I managed to bike a long way up the flowing channel but eventually we pushed our bikes though an ankle to shin deep stream before coming on the main river again. We knew instantly that this was a “no-go” situation. We either had to find a detour or turn back. Thankfully Phil remembered this section and pointed to an escarpment high above the river. “That’s where we should bypass the next two crossings”, was his only comment on the situation. All right. Let’s go.
We thrashed through stubborn willows before finding a very steep trail up the escarpment. Pushing the bikes up this loose slope under a warm spring sun I wondered at our stubbornness. What the heck makes us do these things and seemingly never turn back? It’s not like the next 30 minutes were FUN or anything! Once atop the escarpment we followed bits of trail along the edge along with bits of bushwhacking where the edge had collapsed along with the trail. I had an especially delightful time in my shorts – I was trying to mitigate mid-body bike seat induced injuries by wearing bike shorts on approach.
After wandering along for a bit we happened on a good horse trail. What the heck?! It was good fun riding the single-track before we descended down to a large horse camp along the Clearwater Trail. This was a very fortuitous discovery and we vowed to follow the trail on return – hoping it would be a complete non-bushy bypass of two of the three river crossings. From the horse camp our next milestone was Harrison Flats. We pedaled across the expansive meadow – two wild horses grazing in the distance – before tackling the horrible cutline under Lost Guide Peak that marks the near end of the torturous ride.
After suffering our way up the cutline section we crossed the gravel flats south of Lost Guide Peak and descended the trail until reaching a small side trail cutting off into the forest. There is the option to ride a wee bit further down the wide trail but this only means more ascent on return. We gladly hitched our 2-wheel steeds to a nearby tree and dumped our bike repair kits beside them. No use carrying unnecessary weight all the way to Trident Lake! (And yes – you should have a couple of spare tubes and a chain repair tool at the very least if riding 31+ kilometers up a wilderness trail with no people around for many kilometers.) We were familiar with most of the trek ahead. Phil had done the entire trail to Trident Lake before (and beyond of course) but I had only hiked to the Indianhead Pass Trail when we hiked Sentry Peak the year before. It always feels good to get off the bike and today was no different. Despite moving much slower we could now enjoy the warm sunshine and the views that came and went as we dipped in and out of the light forest that lines the Clearwater River.
Roughly 2 hours and 8kms after abandoning our bikes we were hiking through the familiar grounds of the oddly monikored Indianhead Lodge. This patrol cabin is built more like a house than a cabin and the grounds are always in pristine condition. I wonder how often there’s a warden positioned here? Apparently during hunting season they patrol the borders of the park which are located nearby. From the lodge we crossed Indianhead Creek before continuing up the trail and past the Indianhead Pass junction. From here the trail was unknown to me and things became just that little bit more exciting – the explor8ion juice was flowing a wee bit faster now! Something unique to me on this trip was passing by more than one Grizzly rub tree. Once you’ve spotted one it becomes quite easy to spot others. Simply look for a worn grizzly track and when it goes towards a bare tree check if there’s two planted wear marks beneath it where the bear stands on its hind legs.
It took another 1.5 hours to hike from Indianhead Creek over Malloch Creek and into the lovely, open Malloch Meadows. This is a gorgeous, wild landscape that included thousands upon thousands of small wildflowers including Three-Flowered Avens and Shooting Stars among many others. As we hiked past an old looking pile of rocks Phil commented that it might be an old fire pit or something. I walked over to it and was surprised to see a very old survey marker from the 1919 geographical survey team. The coolest part of this find was realizing that the very same team that placed the survey marker with its ominous 7 year imprisonment warning was the one that first ascended Mount Malloch, looming over it in the distance.
From the Malloch Meadows we made our way steadily towards Trident Lake. Our destination peaks were now featuring prominently on the horizon and Mount Harris was especially spectacular looming high over the whole area. We reminisced on that trip which was another big venture into the headwaters of Martin Creek. On this trip we’d be wading through the tail end of them.
Finally, after 9.5 hours of steady travel from the Cutoff Creek staging area we arrived at a beautiful random camp above Trident Lake with spectacular views to Snarl and Whimper Peak and the mouth of Roaring Creek. We could easily hear the “roar” of the creek as it spilled over a waterfall that we were hoping to explore the following day. Many of the peaks around this area are unnamed but they are spectacular nonetheless.
We settled in for the evening with plenty of time to rest up and prepare our bodies for another punishing day ascending largely unknown and rarely visited peaks. As we munched on supper we observed local wildlife on the lake including a gaggle of ducks, loons and a few beavers busy with whatever they do on a casual Friday evening. My tent was set up on 4 inches of soft moss and I crawled into it rather early – very happy to put on a podcast and drift off into a deep sleep that such days produce. The evening air was warm and we were excited to see what the next day would bring.
Day 2 – Whimper Peak – Mount Malloch
The next day brought rain, that’s what the next day brought! Ah well. SpotWX, our go to weather app, had predicted this. We were expecting light rain and clouds Saturday morning and a gradual clearing to evening. So what to do now? There was 3 choices. As I lay in my tent with the patter of light rain in my ears I was leaning towards option 1 – stay in bed. Option 2 was to get ready for the day and start slowly making our way towards one of the lower peaks on our list – either Snarl or Whimper Peak. Option 3 was go big. Mount Malloch was the primary objective for the trip and maybe we’d get lucky with clearing clouds by the time we got close to the summit. We chose option 2 and made plans to ascend Whimper Peak via a sneaky line up the lower NW ridge that I spotted already from camp to shortcut the west face. Snarl Peak was also on our radar but we weren’t convinced our chosen line on that peak would be the actual high point. A gnarly looking outcrop of limestone to the north of the easy summit looked to be higher and would logically be higher as well (less erosion). Future Vern and Phil problem… After finishing our morning brews we packed up for the day and wandered out of camp, wondering what adventures were waiting for us in the low clouds and mists ahead.
After changing our minds at least 3 times while scrambling Whimper Peak, we finally settled on Mount Malloch for our 2nd summit of the day. This choice proved the correct one as we managed to summit under a mostly clear sky with views of some of Banff National Park’s most obscure and hardest-to-photograph peaks.
We ended a very successful day with a late supper at camp over Trident Lake, going to bed early in hopes of a restful night before the big exit on Sunday.
Day 3 – Trident Lake – Clearwater Trail – Cutoff Creek North Trail
Phil and I awoke at 04:45 at our deluxe random campsite overlooking Trident Lake. Why so early? Weather was forecast to move in for the afternoon and we wanted to avoid as much of the Clearwater and North Cutoff Creek trails under rain as possible. A Bald Eagle perched nearby revised our theories on the dead rabbit and mouse near camp and is the best explanation we’ve come up with (so far). We left camp at 05:57 and made our way steadily down the Clearwater Trail, hiking into the rising sun.
Hour after hour ticked by as we came on now-familiar sights on the trail. Frost clung to the tiny wildflowers dotting the Malloch Meadows and soon we were crossing Malloch Creek and heading for Indianhead Creek and Lodge. After passing through the Indianhead Lodge grounds, we quickly exited Banff National Park and hiked back through a large horse camp towards our bikes.
After roughly 4.5-5 hours of steady hiking we were finally back at the bikes. We could see clouds building all around and didn’t waste any time mounting our trusty 2-wheel steeds and continuing up and then down the rough Lost Guide cutline track. Harrison Flats was pure pleasure under a warm morning sun, but we could see at this point already that we would have to be incredibly fortunate to avoid rain or tstorms to the parking lot.
We finally arrived at the river by-pass section just past the old cabin and gladly pushed our bikes up the trail we’d found on approach. Soon we were riding some fun single-track past the point where we’d first found the trail. And wouldn’t you know it? The dang trail went nowhere close to where we wanted (or expected) it to. On hindsight it must go to some hunting grounds or something because it veered off away from the Clearwater and never seemed to come back. Oh well. We got lucky with an old return trail to the top of the escarpment and simply thrashed our way down our ascent line to the river flats below.
Once at the river flats we made good time to the Clearwater River crossing. The river was a bit deeper and faster than 2 days previous but we found channels that worked. From here we biked quickly to the 40-mile meadows where once again ominous clouds continued to threaten but not deliver.
Somehow we got lucky the rest of the ride and managed to ride into the Cutoff Creek staging area without getting hit by any of the storms hovering all around. Talk about good timing! When we got back to cell service we realized just how lucky we’d gotten with the weather. SpotWX was calling for over 115 cm of fresh snow on Lost Guide Peak for the following few days. Yikes. The next few days proved vicious for the front ranges and while not on 2013 levels of moisture, all the rivers and streams that we’d crossed days earlier would have been uncrossable. This trip was yet another wild adventure in Bighorn Country in the eastern Rockies. I’ve said it before and I’m sure it’s not the last time, that this area is a gem for the adventurer who doesn’t mind suffering a bit for unique views, wild trails and solitude in an increasingly busy Rockies landscape.