Summit Elevations (m): 2955
Trip Date: Saturday, June 25, 2022
Elevation Gain (m): 1800
Round Trip Time (hrs): 30
Total Trip Distance (km): 84
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain something.
Difficulty Notes: A long bike ‘n hike to a remote eastern Banff peak. No technical difficulties.
Technical Rating: SC5; RE5
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
According to Bivouac.com, Melanin Peak is named according to the “panther” theme of the area. Melanin is the pigment that hides the traditional markings of a panther, and gives them a black color. A litter can be born where only some of the cats have this condition. In cats that hunt at night, this condition is not detrimental. Apparently it was also visited in skis in 1975 when it was given the somewhat obscure name. I have to wonder why not just call it something more obvious like “cat” or “big cat” or “scary cat”? Anything with the word “cat” would fit nicely with a “panther” theme – no? Upon further reflection the name fits perfectly with the mountain. It’s so obscure and remote that it needs a long explanation to make sense of it. So here goes mine…
Melanin Peak first came onto my radar around the time Phil Richards and I started making somewhat lengthy trips into the Panther and Dormer river areas of the Bare Range on the extreme eastern edge of Banff National Park. Ascending peaks such as Winchester Ridge, Dormer, Panther, Flints, White and Prow all gave us front row seats to this large peak that kept showing up in our summit panoramas. We made plans to ascend this peak more than once and had a route mapped out that seemed to be fairly straightforward. On hindsight we should have prioritized this ascent a bit more than we did – not realizing that it could be a rare FRA on a relatively accessible peak. On our possible 3rd ascent of Prow Mountain in early July 2021 we seriously thought about adding Melanin Peak to the agenda but an exhaustingly hot day on Mount Tyrrell had us feeling too lethargic to tackle it. Cornelius Rott was supposed to join us on that trip and had to cancel the morning of thanks to a gear malfunction. He was so disappointed in missing out that he more than made up for it a week later by nabbing 2 possible FRA’s of Melanin and “Snowflake” and 2 rare ascents of “Grouse” and Prow Mountain in a 3-day peakbagging fest! Even though I was a bit bummed to miss out on an FRA of Melanin, I was happy to have confirmation that our planned route worked perfectly as an easy ascent from Grouse Lake.
June 2022 has been a bit of a sh_t show when it comes to the Alberta Rockies and spring hiking or scrambling. Winter simply refuses to let go and snow kept creeping into the forecasts and onto the peaks – even front range stuff that should have been accessible in May! Phil Richards and I managed to sneak up a few very remote summits buried deep in the Banff backcountry in early June. By the time the last weekend of the month was rolling around there was fresh snow once again coating most of the interesting peaks on my list and Wietse and I were left scratching our heads about what might be in shape. A late Spring runoff and massive dump of rain had both the Hummingbird and Bighorn (Tinda) campgrounds closed and there was even rumours that the roads were washed out. After contacting the FOESA they assured me that Tinda was still accessible, just the campground was affected by a flooding Bighorn Creek. Still not knowing if we could reasonably access the area, we decided to give Melanin Peak a shot. At least there was no scary water crossings for this one, but we worried that fresh snow on the NW slopes could kibosh our success. There was nothing left to do but give it a go and hope for the best. Wietse picked me up at 06:30 and by 09:00 we were biking across the Tinda ranch towards the eastern Banff boundary and bison gate. It was Wietse’s first time on this approach and it felt like my 100th (but was only around my 8th). The ride was delightfully smooth compared to some of my others already this year.
It took us only an hour to arrive at the eastern Banff park boundary and the start of our ~25 kilometer hike to Grouse Lake. After ditching our extra bike gear at the border camp that sits right on the edge of the park we shrugged into our overnight packs and started trudging up the Cascade fire road through familiar low forest. It didn’t take long for Wietse to ask, “Why aren’t we on bikes here?!”. Of course, I totally agreed that bikes should be allowed on this old road bed. There is no way that we’d be doing any damage on the hard surface but I suspect with the introduction of the bison herd there is zero chance of this happening. I know folks who have violated the biking ban here but is it really worth the few hours saved to get a $25k fine? Not for me it isn’t. And believe me – if you’re going to run into Banff wardens in the eastern park it’s going to be on this section of the road. I’ve detailed the hike from the east boundary to the bridge before, so I won’t go into it here. We were delighted to spot the bison herd and managed to spend about 3 minutes watching them from a far distance while they ambled along the edge of a willowy meadow near the river. The area felt like it hadn’t seen too many humans yet this year – we spotted more wildlife than usual in the main corridor.
After a couple hours of steady hiking on the hard road surface we finally approached the impressive bridge over the Red Deer River. I’ve spent many relaxing hours near this bridge including last year while on our Tyrrell and Prow Mountain trip.
As we hiked past Scotch camp up the deteriorating road, I warned Wietse that our work for the day was just starting. I knew from past experience that not only does the road ascend relentlessly around the NW end of Mount White, but it seems to very rarely be protected from the sun. Indeed. The next two hours were a hot uphill grind from the bridge to Snow Creek Summit sitting between Grouse Peak to the east and Snowflake Peak to the west.
As we approached Snow Creek Summit I could feel the excitement building. I’ve known about this area for a few years now and always wondered what it looked like and to finally be hiking towards it on such a gorgeous day felt great. As we crested the pass and headwater area of Snow Creek the views and atmosphere was even more incredible than I expected it to be.
Willowy meadows drape the pass area with incredible views south to Melanin, Panther and Puma Mountain. Snowflake Peak rises impressively to the west with an old sign indicating “Snowflake Lake” but showing no hints of a trail to get you there. We spent the next 20 minutes or so hiking down the trail from the pass towards our still-distant route to Grouse Lake. The views kept us highly entertained and our cameras warm as we walked under a blue sky and white, puffy clouds.
After passing a distinctive pointy hill west of the lake, we turned left and started up willowy slopes through a burnt forest towards the still unseen Grouse Lake. After 7 hours of steady travel it started feeling like we were really out there at this point, and I suppose we were.
Thankfully the ascent from the fire road to the lake wasn’t long and soon we were hiking along the shores of the surprisingly large and colorful Grouse Lake. I have to wonder how many folks have bothered coming in here over the years? There was no sign of previous parties or camps – a pretty rare thing nowadays pretty much anywhere in the Rockies, nevermind less than 8 hours from a trailhead. We were frankly, shocked at the lack of snow at the lake. Both of us had looked at the latest Sentinel images but this was almost a summer vibe – something we dared not hope for while planning the trip.
After finding a place to camp we decided that with perfect weather and plenty of time remaining it was only logical to start up our destination peak for a late afternoon ascent. The stats told us that we had already done over half the height gain for our peak – over 800 meters of ascent from the parking lot to the lake. With “only” a Prairie Mountain left, we only wondered how much snow was remaining on our route and if it would cause issues. We got lucky. As we rounded the corner our first views of the NW bowl were extremely promising! Sure – there was snow, but it was confined to the gully bottom and there was an obvious shallow slab and rubble ridge above the snow to climber’s left that was too tempting to pass up. The ridge was an excellent choice and we rapidly gained height in warm sunshine on dry rock. It felt great to be on a big remote peak with dry feet for once. As we gained height we realized that the peak is a bit foreshortened but the views back over Grouse Lake were stunning and kept us distracted from our long day.
From the upper ridge we quickly realized that we weren’t quite done with Melanin just yet. Another NW ridge led upward to a very nice summit block with great views south over the Panther River up Wigmore Creek. Cliffs dropped steeply down on the east face to Elkhorn Pass and summit.
We exclaimed more than once how lucky we were with the conditions and lack of snow on this almost 3000m peak as we ascended the final few vertical meters to a small cairn placed by Cornelius a year previous. It was no surprise that we were the only other entries. We drank in the summit views – it was incredible to look north to David Thompson Country and south past Mount Assiniboine from the same summit. Views consisted of some of Banff’s more remote peaks including Zombie, Oliver, Revenant, Elaphus, Flints, Cuthead, Halstead, Noetic, Block, Bonnet, McConnell, Cataract, Smoky, Boar Station, Harris, Snowflake, Prow, Grouse, White, Tyrrell, Wapiti and others.
After spending some time at the summit identifying way too many familiar peaks it was time to descend to camp and enjoy the Grouse Lake environs for a while. We decided to try the snow in the NW gully instead of our ascent slabs since we’d lugged the crampons and axes all the way in here anyway. It worked but the snow was getting annoyingly soft and pliable by the time we finally exited the last of it in the lower NW gully. The hike back to Grouse Lake in evening light was sublime.
The ascent of Melanin had taken us less than 3.5 hours round trip from camp so we were left with hours of daylight to enjoy the peaceful lake and we did just that. There was a few moments of consternation when we realized that we were set up on razor sharp rocks and Wietse’s sleeping mat picked up a large tear from one of them! Good thing he carried a patch kit but despite trying to remove all the sharp rocks we couldn’t get them all. We decided the best course of action was to move the tent uphill onto a more grassy area with less rocks. This worked out perfectly and we settled in for a good (short) nights sleep – dark doesn’t last long at this time of year.
We planned an early wake-up at our camp at Grouse Lake to give Wietse plenty of time to ascend Grouse Peak while I would explore off trail to Snowflake Lake. Thanks to a clear night we awoke to frost on the ground and lining the tent. Much more concerning was our scrambling shoes which were so frozen there was no way to put them on! We thawed the shoes very slightly in our jackets while we packed up camp and brewed a coffee. With both of us on fasts there was no messing around with eating. Walking away from the lake on half-frozen shoes, I felt deeply satisfied with our previous days efforts and was looking forward to a fairly relaxed day of wandering around off trail, hiking and biking.
After hiking back up the Cascade fire road to Snow Creek Summit, I bid adieu to Wietse and turned left, off trail towards a hidden Snowflake Lake under its impressive namesake peak (unofficial). We agreed to meet back up at the bridge over the Red Deer River since I could be an hour or more ahead of Wietse and prefered to wait there and hopefully dry off the tent. The hike to Snowflake Lake was mostly easy once I figured out that I should be hugging the left hand (south) side of the access meadows rather than the one holding the exit stream. After hiking through TONS of fresh grizzly sign I was surprised to see the lake was still half-frozen. This year has been ridiculous from that perspective. Even more surprising, however, was an aluminium fishing boat sitting on the lakeshore. Two very weather-worn oars sat off to the side. What a weird thing to be there. It’s not like there was a road or trail to the lake so how the heck did whoever get it there?! The best idea we came up with was that the wardens flew it in for family picnics back when the road was drivable. But still – how did they get to the lake from the road? It’s not exactly an easy walk and neither Cornelius or I found any sort of trail in the area. (It turns out that this boat and likely a few others throughout the Rockies were part of Dr. David Schindler’s environmental studies over the years.)
After admiring Snowflake Peak high above the lake (Cornelius made a likely first ascent and it didn’t sound easy) and enjoying the peaceful meadows I hiked over gorgeous alpine meadows back towards the road. The next two hours or so were perfect solo hiking. With the sun still hidden behind Grouse and White, I found myself downright chilly. Eventually I turned the corner around Mount White and quickly warmed up in the strong summer sun. A lone bull bison surprised me on the trail here – wandering out of the forest and immediately dashing off down the trail as soon as he saw me. This trip was quickly turning into a pretty neat wildlife experience compared to usual.
There were no more surprises as I passed by Scotch Camp and set up a large yard sale in the warm sun at the bridge, drying out my frost-soaked gear. I managed to get some neat photos of the bridge and the river flowing underneath from various vantage points above and along green colored rapids and deep blue skies. After an hour or so Wietse showed up and we chilled for another 30 minutes or so before reluctantly realizing we should likely start the death march to our distant bikes.
The whole trip already, Wietse and I had been yelling for bears very consistently. We always do this and Wietse has never run into a grizzly before, likely due to this basic hiking practice. I’ve run into quite a few bears over the years and usually it’s when I stop yelling for whatever reason. My closest encounter to this point was a bluff-charge by a grizzly while solo hiking in Assiniboine Provincial Park. I stopped yelling because I saw people taking photos by the lodge and two minutes later I ran straight into a feeding bear! A photographer got a great shot of the two of us before I even noticed the bruin. Stefan thought I was done for when the bear charged me, but thankfully it was only a bluff and I walked away unharmed.
I’ve run into many other bears over the years – it’s bound to happen when you spend as much time in the Rockies as I do, especially while solo. I’ve lost most of my fear of these animals after seeing almost all of them simply tuck tail and run the second they spotted me or my group. Only around a month ago while on a solo trip up Sufi Peak, I saw an enormous grizzly while biking back along Onion Creek. This thing was the size of a damned bison! When I yelled at him he took off – having absolutely no interest in mauling me like the media or Hollywood would have you believe. I’ve only had to deal with problem bears near campsites where they are used to humans and our food. In my experience a wild bear wants nothing to do with a human unless you’re directly threatening it or its offspring. Put it this way. I’ve been attacked by way more ptarmigans in the backcountry than bears, and those silly things still manage to scare me way more than bears do!
You already know what happened next by the turn this tome has gone.
As we left the bridge we were still in that early stage of starting a hike – adjusting packs and poles and getting our legs back into regular motion. In other words – not yelling. I looked up from a pack adjustment and stared into the eyes of a large grizzly coming quickly towards us just uphill of the bridge! I stopped and whispered urgently to Wietse that there was a bear dead ahead around the corner. We didn’t immediately start yelling or bailing off the trail for two reasons. I knew the bear had seen us – he looked right in my eyes and quickly halted before both parties retreated. I didn’t want to overdo the aggression and I didn’t want to panic off trail just to run into a worried bear. I decided the right thing to do was to let the bear figure out what to do in this case. We slowly walked back up the trail making low noises before a big brown head popped over an embankment above the trail to our right, staring right at us and seeming positively underwhelmed at our presence. Uh oh…
The next 60 seconds or so were a bit tense. The bear didn’t love the fact that he had to go up and around us and growled loudly to let us know what he thought of the whole situation. We acknowledged the reality of our nuisance by taking lots of photos as it ambled slowly by. On hindsight we probably treated the situation a little to casual but c’est la vie. I talked calmly to the bear, encouraging it to pass us by and behave himself and by jove, he did. Before we even really knew what was happening the whole encounter was over. We didn’t freak out and I personally never felt afraid or panicked. Next time I’ll get my spray out and leave the camera down but that’s 20/20 hindsight on a situation that happened very, very fast. As we continued on our hike we mused about how quickly the bear could have charged us with dire consequence. I also mused that for the previous hour or so, I’d been casually lounging around the bridge without the bear spray. All alone with gear scattered all over the place. Hmmm. Some days you just get lucky I guess…
The rest of the hike to the bikes was uneventful (thank goodness). It was hot-as-heck and the trail had little-to-no shade along its entire length. The bikes were a sight for sore legs and once the shock of riding with an overnight pack wore off (i.e. butt numbed) the ride was quick and very enjoyable. The Tinda ranch zipped by on either side of the road until reaching the short rougher section before Skeleton Creek. Here we were treated to yet more wildlife, this time a large herd of wild elk grazing under Jap Mountain.
We zipped into a busy Bighorn Creek parking lot at around 15:00 for a total trip time of around 30 hours in perfect early summer conditions. Another great adventure up the Cascade fire road! There were many highlights to put this trip into a top category. Wildlife galore, including deer, dogs, elk, bison and grizzlies. Warm temperatures and clear skies. Not too much snow and easy scrambling conditions on a rarely ascended peak with views forever. A wonderful campsite at a brilliant backcountry lake that hardly anyone has heard about. Hours and hours of pleasant hiking with a good friend and a (relatively) healthy body. What’s not to love about all that? Indeed.