Summit Elevations (m): 3235, 3225, 3100
Trip Dates: August 5-6 2022
Elevation Gain (m): 3200
Round Trip Time (hr): 32 hours
Total Trip Distance (km): 70
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something
Difficulty Notes: Mostly easy to moderate scrambling on steep, loose rubble. Some routefinding and minimal, easy glacier travel to Bonnet Peak.
Technical Rating: MN6; SC6; RE4/5
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
Bonnet Peak is one of those mountains that seems to be on every Alberta Rockies peakbagger’s desired summit list, whether they admit they have one or not. Why? There are a number of reasons. It’s bloody big at over 3235m (10,614 feet). It’s situated along a classic backcountry ski traverse. It’s remote, elusive and hard to spot from other peaks. Despite being a non-technical ascent there is a lack of beta available from Google that belies its popularity. After tagging a number of surrounding peaks over the past few years such as Pulsatilla, Flints and Block Mountain, 2022 seemed like a good year for me to finally check it out for myself. Hickson Peak lies just to the west of Bonnet and seems like a logical twin objective as indicated by any trip reports you might find. There are only a few first hand accounts that I could find from Hickson, one from the prolific Rockies peakbagger Rick Collier in 1993 and another brief mention from Klaus Haring in the early 1990’s. The third is from the same Ramblers trip as Bonnet Peak.
Originally I was planning to attempt Hickson using the same lines as Rick and the Ramblers which sounded dicey at best. Then, while perusing David Jones’ Rockies Central and after reading Klaus’s comment, I realized there was another route that sounded much easier. In 1930 the original ascent party of Joseph WA Hickson and Edward Feuz Jr ascended SW slopes and rated the climb at F 3rd. Klaus didn’t even go that far, calling it simply – “easy”. I tempered my expectations based on Klaus’s vast mountaineering background and the notorious ambiguity of all the “F 3rd” ratings from early days of Rockies alpinism which simply meant the ascent party didn’t rope up.
As I planned out the trip it quickly became obvious that there were only two reasonable options for approaching these peaks. The first was to use the same approach that Rick used, up Baker Creek and over Pulsatilla Pass. The trail up Baker Creek is decommissioned but rumored to be in decent shape. The other option was to hike up Johnston Creek past Luellen Lake. Both options would involve an overnight camp at campground Jo29. Mapping out the routes proved that the Johnston Creek option was the least amount of effort at 22 kms with 800m of gain and 200m of loss. (Baker Creek was 24 kms with 1050m gain and 475m loss.) Obviously neither of these options was exactly “short” or “easy”! The trip would likely require 2 to 3 days and I decided that even with a major summer cold and rib injury I was ready to go for it.
All that was remaining now was to find a sucker, er I mean a friend, to join me on this summer sufferfest. Who other than Wietse to fit this description? I texted him and he was in. It’s nice to have friends who don’t hesitate with a solid “yes” to your on-the-lesser-side-of-sane ideas. I booked us two nights at the Jo29 campground for Friday and Saturday night and we made plans to leave YYC at noon on Friday to give us time to hike into camp. Saturday would be all three summits and Sunday would be another half day hike out.
Everything started out according to plan and by 14:00 we were shrugging into our packs at the Johnston Creek trailhead, ready to avoid the Johnston Canyon crowds up this alternate route to the Ink Pots. Within 10 minutes of the parking lot I wondered if we’d underestimated the mosquito problem of summer 2022. They were HORRIBLE – and this was in light forest on a good trail! Uh oh. We stopped to put spray on and I tried not to worry about it as I watched a dozen bugs land on Wietse’s shirt ahead of me…
The ink pots looked their usual tired selves as we hiked past the few remaining tourists on a Friday afternoon. What can I say about the hike up Johnston Creek from the ink pots? It’s meditative. It’s long. It’s both scenic and not very scenic depending on your definition. It’s in great shape or rough shape depending on your expectations. Obviously, being one of the more popular trails in Banff, it is maintained quite well and even has bridges over most moving water. Long sections of the trek are in the forest with tree roots, loose rocks and many more height gains and losses than you’d think necessary. If that sounds negative, it both is and isn’t. Confused? So were we.
Our mixed experience up the creek was the fact that we tackled the trail as an “approach” rather than a “backpack” and this makes a big difference. To judge the trail fairly, it’s a great backpacking route with water along the way, more than a few campgrounds to stay at and plenty of open places to enjoy the tranquility of the Rockies. It’s a valley trail and expectations should be set accordingly. It’s not the Skyline or Iceline Trail and you shouldn’t expect it to be either. As an approach trail to simply get somewhere else (nicer) it’s not much more than a long grind. As much as I love walking I would prefer if at least half the distance could be biked on this one.
A factor that didn’t make things more enjoyable for me was my relentless cough and bruised rib. The rib issue was especially problematic with an overnight pack that was much heavier than I prefered with two night’s food, ice ax and crampons. I tried not to think about my injury but with every step the camera around my neck bumped into it, reminding me of its presence. It took us 5 hours but finally at around 7 pm we crossed a boggy meadow and walked into camp Jo29. This is where the situation deteriorated. The mosquitoes at the boggy camp were predictably horrid. They were so, so bad. I’ve done my share of trips with bugs, including canoe trips to northern areas of Canada where you expect the mossies to be terrible. This was even worse than that! We choked down some supper and tried to enjoy a warm bevvy but the bugs were so bad we bailed into the tent by 8 o’clock.
Wietse promptly fell asleep but dreamland avoided me for at least another 2 hours. My rib hurt to lie on and I struggled not to cough, only making things worse. The tight confines of my sleeping bag didn’t help any of my physical ailments. A mouse ran up the side of our tent and I had to flick it off which I found kind of gross. At around 8:30 it started pouring small ice pellets which piled up around the tent at least an inch deep. This camp was not proving very friendly! A miserable evening was followed by an even worse night. I finally fell asleep sometime around 11 pm. At 03:00 I was wakened by a freezing cold Wietse trying to don some additional clothing. On waking, my cough started up again. Oh joy. After tossing and turning for an hour I gave up and told Wietse I was getting up. There was no point trying to sleep anymore and we might was well start our day by headlamp. What a flustercluck! Not every trip is rainbows and unicorns folks!
Bonnet Peak & Bonnet South Peak
After a morning brew we readied our day packs and headed out of camp by headlamp at 05:00. The ground was wet and slick with some of the previous evening’s ice pellets still unmelted as we started back along the Johnston Creek Trail to the Badger Pass Trail junction.
It felt good to be hiking and moving – for some reason my cough died down whenever I walked. The day packs were light and the sky above was full of stars indicating a clear day ahead. As the sun rose on Pulsatilla Mountain’s east face behind us, we slowly made our way up the Badger Pass Trail, arriving at the pass just under 2 hours from camp. From the pass the route was very obvious. We could clearly see the south peak of Bonnet and the high col that granted access to the hidden glacier beyond. After circumventing a rock hard patch of snow just below the pass, we made our way up the moonscape valley towards an obvious path in scree to the col high above.
The hike to the col was quick and easy with great views of Block Mountain opening up behind us, downvalley from Badger Pass. One of the days many highlights was our first views of the Bonnet Glacier from the col, a small icefield stretching out below us towards the distant Trifid Glacier, Mount Lychnis and always impressive bulk of Mount St. Bride. The route to our main objective looked very straightforward from the col, bringing our tired spirits up another notch. Today was certainly shaping up much better than it had any right to!
One of the things we’d debated about before the trip was whether or not to bring a rope for the glacier travel. Obviously YMMV, but we decided not to. Given it was August, we assumed that the crevasses would be obvious and the snowpack on the glacier should be minimal. Thankfully, we were proved right as we hiked across the short section of the upper Bonnet Glacier towards the west face of Bonnet Peak. As we approached the west face of Bonnet Peak it looked steeper and looser the closer we got. The glacier gently abutted the face which was a nice bonus, but as we stepped off the stable icefield any doubts of the work ahead disappeared quickly – this was going to be a bit of a grind. To be honest, it wasn’t as bad as we were first expecting. Despite being in only approach shoes, Wietse and I slowly ascended the west face, trying to find bits of stability in the rubble mess that it’s made of.
It took awhile but in much less than an hour from the base we were topping out from the west face ramp onto the north ridge of Bonnet Peak. Views in every direction were already stunning in the clear, cold air at well over 10,000 feet. We were both feeling pretty darn good about our efforts so far as we slowly made our way up the much easier north ridge. Views down the incredible east face of Bonnet stole the show as we hiked the last few meters to the lofty summit.
Views from the summit of Bonnet Peak were excellent in the clear morning air – as expected. Some morning clouds lingering on distant giants only added to the atmosphere. Situated as it is, surrounded by many unnamed peaks, Bonnet isn’t like many other peaks in the Rockies over 10, 500 feet. The only easily recognizable peaks nearby are still somewhat obscure such as Lychnis, St. Bride, Noetic, Block and Pulsatilla. You need a pretty big zoom lens to start picking out peaks such as Assiniboine, Ball, Temple, Victoria, Carnarvon and many others.
The early morning wind was cool – it was only around 09:00 when we summited – and we soon started wandering back down the north ridge. The rubble on the west face proved easier and quicker than expected. By 10:00 we were already at the west end of the west ridge of Bonnet Peak South.
We left our gear at the col and started the ~375m gain up the easy west ridge of the south summit. This ascent was pure pleasure compared to the steep, loose west face of Bonnet. The views over the Bonnet Glacier and Badger Pass were also stunning.
It only took us around 45 minutes to ascend the easy west ridge of the south peak, topping out at one of the largest summit cairns I’ve ever seen. Arguably the views from the south peak are no worse than from the slightly higher main one, except maybe towards the Valley of Hidden Lakes which is blocked by the main summit.
Once again, there was no summit register that we could find which was slightly disappointing but not unexpected. Many parties summit Bonnet in the winter and I’m sure the cairns are frozen solid at this time of the year. We took a break out of the cold winds before descending back down the west ridge. I encouraged Wietse to wander a little further south on the ridge from the summit in order to take in stunning views of green valleys, unnamed tarns and spectacular peaks towards Noetic and Block Mountain.
The descent to the high col was quick and pleasant and we took another break there, trying to warm up. Ironic that on a hot summer day we were spending most of it in toques and gloves and trying to garner some heat! That’s the cost of leaving camp so bloody early. It was only 11:30 as we started the traverse back to Badger Pass from the Bonnet col.
After ascending a short way to Badger Pass we started descending the trail we’d come up only hours previous. I had mapped out a rough route into a valley south of the Hickson col from the Badger Pass Trail but we were hoping to find a more efficient line that avoided unnecessary height loss and bushwhacking.
Thankfully we found the perfect line into the south valley off the trail, avoiding all bush and using slabs and alpine meadows to traverse into a little slice of Rockies heaven. Waterfalls plunged down lush meadows while Pikas and Marmots let each other know of our presence.
We finally started to warm up as we traversed the lovely south valley to an obvious col ahead. Hickson Peak didn’t look easy from this vantage – we could spot some troublesome drop-offs on the skyline ridge as it rose impressively above the col. No matter. In the Rockies you never know how difficult something is from afar. You gotta get your nose right into it first. Wietse led the way up a mix of dirt and scree and soon we were at the col, staring up at the SW ridge.
We could see already from the col that the lower SW ridge / face of Hickson was fairly straightforward. It was a slabby section about half way up that looked interesting. We also knew from our earlier vantage on Bonnet Peak that Hickson was a bloody big peak and that any views from below would be horribly foreshortened. We shrugged and started up.
The first drop-off was nothing – as expected. The next one was a bit more work and Wietse confidently stated that the terrain ahead was going to be an issue. I wasn’t convinced. Firstly, there was the “class III” rating, which admittedly didn’t mean much. Secondly, and more important, I’ve seen my share of this type of terrain, especially on nearby Flints Peak and it’s not as terrifying up close as from a distance. The key with the slabs ahead was to find little ledges and lines that weren’t nearly as exposed or dangerous as they first appeared.
Picking our way carefully up the slabs proved me correct. We ascended easy to moderate scrambling terrain with some limited exposure until topping off on yet more rubble slopes under the summit. As on Bonnet, the rubble seemed to never end and as we were now pushing 2000 meters of height gain on the day (with 4 hours of crappy sleep mind you) our minds and bodies started slowing down a wee bit. We followed a narrow ridge to the summit cairn where we finally saw our first register of the day, sitting pretty as you please 15 years after it was last touched by the Ramblers.
We both agreed that the views from Hickson rivaled those of Bonnet despite being a few hundred feet shorter. I am not at all convinced that Hickson Peak is “only” 3080m. I think it’s over 3150. Whatever the case, we greatly enjoyed being only the 2nd signing party since Rick in 1993 and the wonderful views.
After enjoying the wonderful views and accomplishment of the day with three very remote and obviously somewhat rarely ascended in the case of Hickson peaks, we started making our way slowly down. The slabs were no problem on descent and the hike out of the south valley back to the Badger Pass Trail was very pleasant in warm afternoon sunshine.
What wasn’t so pleasant was the idea that had already been percolating among us the entire day. We were debating hiking back out already today, rather than spending another uncomfortable night at Jo29. The issue of course, was that the numbers were a bit ridiculous, especially considering my cough and rib issues and the fact that neither of us had slept very well or very long. Hiking out on Saturday would mean a 48km day with 2200 meters of height gain. This would be longest on foot day either of us ever had in the mountains, and I’ve had a few doozies over the years.
We decided to hike back to camp and make a final decision there but I think we both knew what was coming already at this point. As we hiked into camp all doubts vanished. The hordes of mosquitoes that greeted us like long lost friends drove us instantly mad and made our decision easy. Forget sticking around another 4 to 5 hours until dark just to sleep like crap! We could almost be at the parking lot by that time. I brewed some afternoon coffee while we hurriedly packed up camp. The biting insects were stupid, honestly. There weren’t only mossies either – huge horse flies were taking chunks out of us even with tons of spray on! Wietse’s back looked like a battlefield after only 20 minutes of packing up. This wasn’t what either of us pictured when planning a few relaxed hours at a backcountry camp before a cool sleep and leisure hike out on Sunday.
Fuck this. We’re outta here. And so we went.
I’m not sure how to describe the next 4.5-5 hours. It wasn’t ALL bad. We were hiking through the Rockies – that’s always a decent thing to be doing on a Saturday afternoon. But it hurt. As the minutes and hours ticked by agonizingly slow, it started to hurt worse and worse. Wietse wasn’t sure he had foot pads anymore and I wanted to throw up from the pain in my ribs – especially when I started coughing every time we stopped. I’ve done quite a few of these types of death marches in the Rockies and they’re quite interesting when you disconnect yourself from the minute-to-minute suffering and focus deeply inwards. I find pain fascinating and try to study it every time I experience it. Rather than avoid the pain, I embrace it and try to feed on it. Sounds psycho, I realize, but it’s what I do! Another interesting thing about long hikes at the end of a long day is that it becomes about the time rather than the distance. We knew we had to hike ~22 kms on an undulating trail with overnight packs. The physics of it told us this would take between 4.5 and 5 hours. There was no way to avoid it and no way around it. That’s what the math said and that’s what it took in the end. Looking at the map and GPS didn’t matter, it was the watch that became the cruel master of our march. I was very thankful when my iWatch finally died with about an hour and a half left to go. I was finally completely free to focus on nothing at all. I could now assume nothing about how much longer we still had to go. It didn’t matter anymore. We would be done when we were done and not a moment sooner or later than that.
The climb up from the Ink Pots sucked big time as darkness closed in on us. We donned headlamps, Wietse’s decided it didn’t feel like actually working so he limped on in the dark, silent ahead of me. As we hiked the Johnston Creek Trail to the trailhead, time seemed to stand still and the mossies took full advantage, coming at us out of the dark woods like Satan’s little messengers of irk. I hated those little bloodsuckers to the point of melancholy at this point. Eventually the math won as we stumbled into the parking lot and started the long drive home. I proved my exhaustion by hallucinating a few animals in the road that I thought for sure Wietse was going to hit. This isn’t the first time I’ve finished a day in the hills with hallucinations on the drive home. Probably not a great habit to get into. This was a trip that will not soon be forgotten for all the right reasons and a few of the ‘wrong’ ones. I suggest taking a little more time than we did to enjoy the long trek in and out and pick a season with fewer biting insects than we had at camp. Bonnet and Hickson make a wonderful duo of peaks that deserve much more attention from the summer and fall hiking and scrambling community. Get after ’em!