Summit Elevations (m): 2397, 2410, 2353, 2565
Trip Date: September 25, 2022
Elevation Gain (m): 2800
Round Trip Time (hr): 19.5 (2 days)
Total Trip Distance (km): 60
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2+ – you fall, you sprain your wrist or worse
Difficulty Notes: This is a 2 day bike, hike ‘n scramble up the South Castle Valley trail and along the GDT. The main difficulties are the total gains and losses along the various ridges and summits and carrying an overnight pack most of the way.
Technical Rating: TL2; OT4; SC5; RE4/5
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
Photo Album: verndewit.com
The end of September was approaching like a freight train as my last stretch of holidays for 2022 loomed large in my calendar. Most years, in Alberta, we’ve already had our fair warning of impending winter doom by the last week of the 9th month of the year, but 2022 has been quite the summer and early fall for us. Other than a very light dusting of snow in mid-September, we’ve been enjoying warm, sunny, dry weather pretty much province and Rockies wide. This is a wonderful thing but it produces angst in those of us who know full well that despite appearances it will all come crashing to a jarring halt one of these days and we’d best take advantage while we can! It’s the good ol’ end of season hiking and scrambling rush that I’ve become accustomed to over the past 20 years. I love it. Seeing a huge and extended ridge of high pressure building over the Rockies and having some spare cycles at work, I decided to book the entire last week of September off and try to get out on a few long planned fall trips.
I have done a lot of fall trips to the southern Alberta Rockies over the years. It’s an area that remains dry when others have a fresh white coat and it’s an area replete with lovely yellow larches and aspens among other trees and bushes. Despite loving this area, I’m slowly running out of new objectives there as I continue to slowly chip away at them! Back in July of 2020, Cornelius Rott completed a 2-day traverse from Jutland Mountain over Mount Matkin, Font Mountain and Sage Mountain which got my attention. More recently in mid September 2022, Brandon Boulier did the same traverse and provided me with some more detailed beta, especially regarding water and viable camp locations. Given the fact that this trip involves carrying overnight gear over 3 out of 4 of the summits and along many kilometers of trail and off-trail travel it was the perfect test for my new lightweight backpacking setup. I’ve been a longtime proponent of Hyperlite Mountain Gear and their lightweight gear including the Ultamid 2 Pyramid tent and their versatile backpacks and organization systems.
Over the past few years I’ve noticed that there is even lighter gear out there which is arguably more versatile and more suited for the hiking and backpacking that so many of my recent adventures seem to consist of. When I switched to HMG from my older MEC systems I cut at least half the weight off some main items such as tent, backpack and sleep systems. In order to justify spending as much as I did, I would have to do that again with any switch from HMG to another system. So that’s what I did. I ended up with the Plex Solo tent from Zpacks along with the Zpacks Nero 38 liter DCF backpack. Weighing in at 395 grams the tent is much lighter than my Ultamid 2 with solo insert (530+408 grams), packs much smaller and ironically ended up being much roomier for solo sleeping. The pack is also much smaller than my 55 liter ice pack, weighs much less and carries nicer as long as I keep the total weight less than 15 pounds. I can also access my water bottle while hiking now and can store the tent in the front pocket – handy when wet from rain or frost. The size and weight reduction of my overnight pack for 1 to 3 night trips can not be overstated. Put it this way. Sara now says that nobody is going to want to do overnight trips with me – my pack looks that ridiculously small. I’ll take that as a win. In case you care about such things my base pack weight can now be as low as 9 lbs depending on items such as extra socks or warm layers for cooler weather. On this trip my total pack weight including food, water and fuel was around 14 lbs.
Sara McLean agreed to join me on yet another adventure and by sunrise on September 24th we were driving in my Tacoma to the trailhead along the South Castle Road. The last time I drove here was in 2016 with Phil Richards while scrambling and hiking West Castle Mountain and Lys Ridge. Despite becoming a provincial park since then, not much has changed in regards to this road – it is still full of puddles and a high clearance vehicle is recommended. We parked at a concrete barrier along with a bunch of trucks and horse trailers before unloading our bikes and starting yet another lengthy bike approach with overnight packs. Over the past few years bike approaches are more common than not for me. I really enjoy biking but some approaches are rougher than others and therefore more painful. Thankfully this was a pretty pain free ride, the South Castle Trail remains a road for the entire 12 kilometer approach and is reasonably smooth too. The only fly in the ointment was the many downhill sections on approach – implying uphill riding on return. As I find myself saying more and more often these days – future Vern problem.
After almost exactly 12 kilometers on the bike we were more than ready to start walking at the junction of a trail heading up Scarpe Creek. We passed through a campsite before finding the trail and following it easily up through light forest in very warm late September sun. Cornelius had followed the cutline all the way to Jutland’s NW ridge but mentioned a trail to South Scarpe Lake as a better option. Brandon had used this option and so would we. After 3.5 kms on the cutline a much smaller trail started up forested slopes to the left – we marched right past it the first time so a GPS track certainly helps here. The trail was extremely steep but easy to follow all the way up to the lake. And what a lake! Compared to the mud hole that Wietse and I hiked above on our Scarpe Mountain trip, this is a proper alpine lake with a nice campsite located in the forest along its shore. We stopped here for a break and watched 3 mountain goats make their way slowly up the north face of Jutland Mountain above the calm ripples below.
Reluctantly we tore ourselves from the peaceful lakeshore and started hiking up a mix of grass and rubble on the NE ridge of Jutland. Views back over the gem of a lake helped pass the time as we slowly ascended the easy slope with our overnight packs on our backs. It didn’t take long before we were on the NE ridge looking at the summit through a wonderful larch forest. Despite the larches turning late this year, these ones were 90% turned and their yellow and fluorescent green clashed nicely with the red and greenish gray hues of the rock.
The next few minutes were pure hiking magic as we progressed slowly through the larch forest high on Jutland’s NE ridge. I won’t soon forget this little stroll – I’m sure it’ll get me through more than a few nasty winter days this year. The morning lighting combined with the yellow, green and orange hues and the blue skies above was absolutely stunning.
All too soon the magical larch forest came to an end and in typical Castle Wilderness style we found ourselves thrashing through stubborn wind-hammered, stunted trees just under the summit block. All good things come to an end I suppose! A short hike up scree brought us to the summit of our first peak of the trip roughly 19 kms from the trailhead and 4.5 hours into our day. The wind was cool but the sun was warm as we soaked in the views. It was neat to find a laminated 2011 register from Rick Collier.
After a break on the summit we started down the long, easy looking SE ridge of Jutland, hoping to intersect the Great Divide Trail towards Mount Matkin. It was one of those mornings that makes you happier than normal that you got out of bed early and biked 12 kms up a road before hiking to get here. The breeze was just cool enough to wear my UL Patagonia Houdini jacket (no, I’m sadly not a brand ambassador). The reason I mention the jacket is that it’s another example of what it takes to go ultralight. This jacket weighs only 105 grams and is almost 100% windproof. It is NOT, however, 100% waterproof so you have to be pretty confident in the weather forecast if it’s replacing a proper hard-shell in the pack. It also packs extremely small – I love this jacket.
The SE ridge took a while to hike with some ups and downs along the way. Finally about 3 kms and over an hour from the summit of Jutland we intersected the GDT. It’s hilarious how often I’ve ended up on various bits of the GDT this year. Give me enough time and I’ll finish the dang thing by accident. The next 2.5 kms were easy and delightful hiking along a remote section of the GDT that most through hikers don’t see at this time of year. By 15:00 we were ready to start our ascent of Mount Matkin. This would be our only summit carrying light(er) packs, we emptied most of our gear before starting the out-and-back route in glorious mid afternoon sun and warm temperatures.
Just as on Jutland, Cornelius and Brandon used different approaches from the same starting point. Sara and I were keeping things easy on this trip so we decided to follow the same route as Brandon, traversing around western cliffs before ascending a huge NW gully to the summit of Matkin. After a very brief bushwhack up a low ridge south of Matkin we traversed rubble slopes under impressive cliffs to a goat highway along their base. I love routes like this! We followed the trail easily to the NW gully and started up it on easy ground.
There isn’t much else to say regarding an ascent of Mount Matkin – it’s pretty bloody straightforward and easy. The NW bowl was a mix of grass and firm rubble until the last hundred vertical meters to the summit ridge. Here the rock got horribly loose and we struggled slowly up before walking to the summit under a stunning blue sky.
It was already 16:30 as we started back down the NW bowl to the cliff traverse below. This was quickly becoming one of those days that linger in the memory banks. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect as we packed our gear back up and started towards our campsite for the night between Matkin and Font Mountain. We hadn’t seen a drop of water since South Scarpe Lake and were really hoping that the bit of H2O that Brandon had found was still around a few weeks later. It was. A small stream runs down between Matkin and Font and despite the stream not flowing there were a few puddles still forming along solid bits of streambed. The pools were not exactly flowing but they also weren’t stagnant. I was happy to have a filtered water bottle though!
We still had plenty of daylight to bag Font Mountain but it didn’t make much sense at this point. If we did bag it, we’d have to hike the GDT all the way around it anyway. Sara figured 45 minutes of hiking and we’d be on the summit the following day so we relaxed with podcasts and books instead. The sun slowly set over our cozy little camp and we even had a small fire for a few hours once it set. I lay on my back beside the warmth and contemplated life and the universe as stars and satellites twinkled overhead.
After a wonderful first day on our Jutland to Sage Mountain traverse, Sara and I packed up camp and started up easy north slopes on Font Mountain at around 07:30 on a clear, cool morning on September 25 2022. The frost covered vegetation was slick but we managed the scenic hike to the upper col in a matter of 30 minutes or so. Views back to Mount Matkin with the sun rising on it’s impressive east cliffs were stunning.
From the col the scrambling wasn’t nearly as fierce as it first looked. Sara ascended an east outlier via a 4th class line while I simply strolled up to the proper summit. I guess she woke up with a lot of energy or something.
The views from the summit were growing a little familiar by now, but it was nice to see peaks such as Kenow and Starvation with the sun to the east for once. Usually by the time I spot these summits they’re washed out in late day lighting.
We enjoyed the morning views before starting back to the col and from there down easy south slopes hoping to once again intersect with the GDT towards Sage Mountain this time. We were surprised to see a Canadian flag fluttering in the morning breeze as we hiked south of Font Mountain. It was placed here by the GDT society despite being nowhere close to the actual trail. It was a nice touch though.
I have to say that the next few hours of hiking were some of the nicest I’ve had all year and I’ve had more than a few hiking moments. The sun was low in the sky and the lighting was warm already early in the day. Fall colors were popping all around us and the brilliantly colored rocks of the Castle Wilderness reflected back at us from all directions. Just as I thought the morning couldn’t be better it got better. We found ourselves walking into a moonscape of gray rock and narrow, winding canyons directly into the rising sun. What a day!
After exiting the canyon section we slowly made our way up the GDT until we were south of our last objective of the trip – Sage Mountain. I’ll admit that neither Sara or I were really “feeling it” for Sage. It was a no-brainer as a 4th peak option simply because we had to get back to the South Castle Valley Trail somehow but it just didn’t seem that worthwhile at first. As we ascended a bump off the GDT, south of Sage the sun grew warmer and warmer until we were on top, looking at the next few hours of our day. The view was spectacular, including over the remnants of the Kenow wildfire that destroyed 38% of Waterton Lakes National Park in 2017.
As we hiked through a few larches that somehow escaped the intense wildfire, I was somehow convinced that we only had one more bump in front of us to the summit of Sage. I was wrong, there were two nearly identical bumps along the south ridge and despite being relatively small they didn’t feel it after a while! Thankfully the views were great and the weather was perfect. I even found myself enjoying the hike after a while and decided that Sage was indeed a worthy summit. I’m sure it’s forever grateful for that assessment.
Descending from the 2nd bump to the third we deviated briefly onto the east face to avoid cliffs or bushwhacking to the north and west. The route soon returned to the broad ridge and we found ourselves slowly hiking back uphill again. From the top of the 3rd bump there were a few more small height losses but nothing too dramatic until we were finally starting up our last summit block for the trip.
Despite the views being somewhat familiar by now, peaks to the east such as Castle, Windsor, Victoria and Loaf were much closer than a day earlier on Jutland and Matkin. The day was even warmer than the previous one and the sky was even bluer. I couldn’t believe how gorgeous it was and was psyched for my next trip already – a 3-day excursion with Wietse into the Mount Assiniboine area.
Originally we were planning to follow Brandon’s descent from the summit of Sage down east and SE slopes to the South Castle Valley Trail below. This would entail bushwhacking and a long 11 km trudge back along the road to our bikes. Cornelius’ route down west slopes to Font Creek didn’t sound that pleasurable. Then Sara read Ephraim Roberts entry in the summit register and wondered if we should try part of his ascent route along the NW ridge as our descent line. I was game, so we started down that way – a much more direct line to the valley below. The route was easy until forest lower down where we had a decision to make. Bushwhack directly to the valley trail or try to find the Sage Pass Trail that Cornelius eventually ended up on? We decided on the Sage Pass Trail option.
We briefly regretted our decision after bushwhacking to an old road and finding it completely overgrown with willows and other bushes. Shrugging off our disappointment we kept on through “reasonable” forest before finally stumbling out on a well-defined and maintained Sage Pass Trail. We followed this trail a few kms before crossing a very anemic Castle River and finally joining back to the South Castle Valley Trail.
It was hot under the sun but we also enjoyed long stretches of shade as we hiked to the bikes along the obvious South Castle Valley Trail. It wasn’t a huge surprise to run into a few horse riders on the way – this is horse riding heaven! (There’s a neat route running from the South Drywood Canyon to Bovin Lake and into this valley that Rick Collier used in 2011.) The bike ride to the parking area was less than 10 minutes quicker than the approach ride – there’s that much height gain on return. Obviously our average pace still far exceeded a hiking pace and bikes are a no-brainer for this trip. As we drove slowly back to the hwy Sara and I agreed that this was one of our more relaxing multi-day outings of 2022, actually it was by far the most relaxing one. With the first day only coming in at 9 hours 1650 meters of ascent and the second at less than 8 hours and only just over 1000 meters ascent we didn’t feel too stressed. I’m sure that for me the ultra lightweight backpacking system had a lot to do with it – I decided to test it on a 2 night trip immediately after this one. A highly recommended late summer or fall trip for fit parties wanting to experience some of the Castle Wildernesses more remote peaks and valleys.