Summit Elevations (m): 2605, 2305, 2400
Trip Date: September 10, 2022
Elevation Gain (m): 2250
Round Trip Time (hr): 11.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 49
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain your wrist
Difficulty Notes: This is a long bike, hike ‘n scramble up the West Castle River along the GDT from the Castle Mountain Ski Resort. The main difficulties are the total gains and losses along the various ridges and some routefinding on Scarpe Mountain.
Technical Rating: SC5; RE4/5
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
As the second weekend of September 2022 approached I was feeling a little bit worn out. I’m no longer in my 20’s or even my 30’s so the last 6 or 7 weeks have taken a toll on me. The “problem” was that the weather continued to look perfect for an overnight trip or a long day trip and I couldn’t force myself to take the weekend off. I know that winter is coming and I know how I’d feel in December knowing that I’d blown opportunities to go out in perfect weather back in September. That’s part of my love / hate relationship with this country. I love winter activities such as skiing but I don’t love the long, cold, dark days of December through February. As I get older I find it harder and harder to endure this time period. During those months I find myself going back and looking at the trips I’ve done the last season and dreaming of new trips for the next one. It was in the winter of 2021/22 that I went nuts and planned out hundreds of remaining trips for myself. My personal Gaia account has so many lines running through the Rockies it looks like a piece of modern art. One such trip came about courtesy Brandon Boulier on peakbagger.com regarding a peak that I first considered 4 years ago with Phil Richards in 2018 – Scarpe Mountain.
Back in 2018, Phil and I made a long day trip into the upper Middlepass Creek valley to the scenic Rainy Ridge and Three Lakes Ridge area of Middle Kootenay Pass. At the time, as we traversed from Three Lakes Ridge to Jake Smith Peak and the Red Agrellite peaks, we wondered when we’d ever be back for the remaining peak on the eastern edge of the Middlepass Creek valley – Scarpe Mountain. We were back in 2019 for peaks on the other side of the valley including Middle Kootenay, Miles and Krowicki peaks. Once again we found ourselves wondering when Scarpe Mountain would be in our sights. It was so far back there – it just didn’t make sense to go all the way over Middle Kootenay Pass and down Middlepass Creek only to reverse all that work and distance. Then I stumbled on Brandon’s trip where he backpacked much further up the West Castle River along the Great Divide Trail (GDT) and ascended Scarpe Mountain and La Coulotte Peak over 2 days. With easy 2nd class ratings this sounded like a “reasonable” 1 day trip with bikes for approach and light packs for speed and efficiency. Despite some larches in the area, Wietse and I decided to give this trip a shot in early September saving other more larchy hikes for later in the month.
We left YYC around 05:30 and just before 08:00 we were biking across the West Castle River at the Castle Mountain Ski Resort. I had no idea how far we could bike – I was recalling my two previous trips up this trail. Within only 15 minutes and less than 3 kms from the parking lot we were already deviating off my previous route – taking a smaller left hand track up from the one branching to Middle Kootenay Pass. I like it when trips are different than I planned them in my head but I was a little concerned as this was already quite different! Oh well. We continued to bike up a good track that levelled out for a few kilometers before slowly gaining height on a narrowing roadbed. By the time we finally passed the 10 kilometer mark the trail was starting to get pretty willowed in from both sides but was still OK to ride. By the 12 kilometer mark it was a willow-whack on bikes! I can’t seem to escape those darn willows this year! The good news was that the roadbed under the willows was very smooth with no rocks to trip us up. A few trees across the trail would be tricky to avoid on descent but there wasn’t many. As we continued uphill it was clear that soon the trail would break through a lot of contours on the map – we decided to leave the bikes just before this section. After a short steep section we rode a level traverse before parking the bikes for good – around the 14 kilometer mark.
I was very surprised to see that according to Gaia we’d ascended over 400 meters from the trailhead on the bikes as we started our trek. Secretly I didn’t believe it, but I supposed it was possible. It sure didn’t feel like it. We dropped our bikes at the perfect spot – the trail got too steep and loose to bother with the bikes after the short traverse. We made short work of the steep boring treed section before coming out of the forest with views to La Coulotte and the SE end of the ridge that would take us to Scarpe Mountain. We decided rather than follow the GDT all the way to the Sunkist Ridge col, we would start our ascent right up the open end of this SE ridge. It worked beautifully and within a short period of time we were getting our first decent views from a high point at the east end of the ridge – Scarpe looking a long way off yet!
Once on the east ridge leading to Scarpe Mountain there was no rocket science involved in getting there. One foot in front of the other over more than a few intervening bumps and summits and avoiding some low cliffs and blocky terrain along the way. We traversed a few rubble slopes to avoid unnecessary height gains but for the most part we stuck to the ridge wherever possible. We underestimated just how much undulation there was along this ridge – it took time to navigate all the terrain. Thankfully it was scenic and the weather was pretty much perfect for this area. Near windless and cool. This was a good thing because I didn’t have enough water along. We’d assumed the GDT would hit a small lake before the Sunkist Ridge col but it hadn’t. Good thing I’d put 400ml in my bottle at the car but this wasn’t enough for a 2000+m, 48km day! By some small miracle we came across lingering snow and ice pellets on the ridge in some bushes and I quickly filled my bottle with this most welcome gift. Phew.
Finally we surmounted our last intermediate summit and found ourselves under the east face of Scarpe Mountain in some interesting, moonscape terrain. From here the traverse between Jake Smith Peak and Scarpe looked rather difficult but we knew this was the worst angle – other angles looked much more reasonable. The east face was broken by our ridge, ascending NW up to the summit via a fun, easy and solid(ish) rib of rock with a cool design.
Within 4.5 hours of the trailhead we were on the summit of Scarpe Mountain in a cool breeze with great views to nearby peaks. We could see thick smoke in every direction but thankfully it didn’t seem to impact our vantage too much. It was neat to see all the Middlepass Creek and Middle Kootenay Pass peaks that I’d spent so much time on over the last 4 years.
We spent some time eating breakfast and hydrating at the summit before descending back to the SE ridge and starting the long traverse back to the Sunkist Ridge col and the GDT. Arg. That’s about all I can say about this traverse! It was actually pretty decent. We took our time and just enjoyed the beautiful weather and conditions rather than try to rush it too much. There was some easy scrambling depending on the lines we took. We managed to avoid the final two bumps with a traverse on rubble but I’m not sure that saved much time or energy to be honest.
Finally we arrived at the Sunkist Ridge col. Originally while planning the trip I thought we’d have to traverse Sunkist Ridge in order to reach its high point but now it was obvious that we’d be going right over it along the GDT. A free summit is never a bad thing so we started up our second objective with renewed energy. For the rest of our day we knew we’d be on some sort of trail on the GDT which also gave us an extra boost. I felt like I already needed something extra as we ground our way up a smattering of trails to the summit of Sunkist Ridge.
The summit of Sunkist had some decent views considering it wasn’t much higher than treeline. The view towards Scarpe Mountain showed how far it was but the view towards La Coulotte was a bit disconcerting. It not only looked far, it was obvious that we’d be losing a lot of height TWICE towards it, necessitating a lot of gain on return.
The hours were slowly slipping by as we started our descent on a braided GDT towards a striking red peak sitting between Sunkist Ridge and La Coulotte Peak. The best route hugged the edge of the trees alongside some impressive cliffs but there was also a faint trail in the forest from folks who presumably don’t love the exposure. We mused how most folks hiking the GDT are doing this section early in the year, likely with snow. Some of this route would be interesting with slopes covered in snow and ice. As we slowly ascended the SW ridge of the red peak the afternoon heat ramped up, not helping our energy levels. The fact that the red peak was higher than Sunkist Ridge didn’t escape us either but the terrain was interesting and fun hiking so that was good.
We calculated the height loss to the La Coulotte col at around 150 vertical meters with about a 200 meter gain to the summit beyond. Of course all these undulations had to be reversed immediately after getting our final peak. We slowly descended to the col – again on a pretty obvious trail that had some deviations along cliffs. The ascent to La Coulotte hurt. By the time we finally reached the summit it was 4 hours from Scarpe Mountain and we could feel it.
We once again took a break at the summit, rationing what little water we had left for the two big uphill sections facing us on return. Views to Jutland and Matkin were very cool as were our views of some of the Castle Wildernesses more distinctive peaks including Castle, Windsor and Victoria.
Reluctantly we turned to descending the slopes we’d just ascended back to the summit between La Coulotte and Sunkist Ridge. I didn’t have much energy and my body was hurting at this point but I put all that aside and just slowly moved on. Wietse was clearly feeling no better than myself at this point. We were over 8 hours into our day at this point, not terrible but we had kept moving for most of it. We were just trying to beat darkness to the parking lot at this point – the sun sets early at this time of year.
Finally at around 17:30 we were back at the Sunkist col on the GDT and started hiking back down to the West Castle River Trail and our bikes below. The sun was setting quickly but we were confident we could beat darkness now.
The steep trail to the bikes was painful but quick and by just past 18:00 we were getting ready for the ride out. At first we were worried about the tight willows and the few downed trees buried along the trail but soon we were forgetting the pain in our bodies and enjoying the rush that comes with a fast bike ride. The first few kms were steep and cautious but soon we could open up the throttles a bit more and start increasing our average pace for the day again. As the kilometers slipped by I realized that we’d easily gained 400 meters on approach – I think it was actually more than that.
We swooped onto the main trail before biking quickly through the last few fairly flat kilometers to the parking lot. Wietse and I were shocked that our total time for this trip was only 11.5 hours with an average pace of 4.2 km/h for the day! Despite being painful we agreed that this is a pretty good outing for hikers and scramblers who don’t mind a long bike approach and a bit of work. Instead of carrying a much heavier overnight pack you can squeeze 2 days into 1, bag three summits and get some pretty sweet views for all your efforts. There is very little (i.e. none) water along the route once you leave the West Castle River lower down, so you should budget your water carefully and think about how much you might need. I highly recommend this trip for larch season – looking back on my photos from Jake Smith Peak I realize how many there are along the ridge between La Coulotte and Scarpe Mountain.