Summit Elevation (m): 2948
Trip Date: Saturday, February 18, 2023
Elevation Gain (m): 1500
Round Trip Time (hr): 11
Total Trip Distance (km): 18
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 / 4 – you fall, you break your leg or worse
Difficulty Notes: In off season conditions this is an alpine scramble. No guarantees that it’s much easier when dry, but it probably is. This is a remote peak with a convoluted canyon approach.
Technical Rating: SC7
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
I was surprised to realize on February 16th that it had been four months since my last new summit in the Rockies – the entertaining Barrier to Gable mountain traverse. That would explain my melancholy mood lately. When Jason Wilcox contact me about a scramble somewhere in the Ghost I was surprised and immediately intrigued. Long time readers might know, but unless you’ve browsed my scrambles from quite a few years ago, or happened across some of my Columbia Icefields trips, Jay and I used to get out together more often. Other than a ski tour up Haig Ridge in 2021, it’s been a long time since we’ve scrambled or climbed something together. Obviously we’ve remained friends and I’m always impressed with JW’s dedicated alpine and ice climbing training and subsequent skills. He takes hardcore to whole new level – far distant from anywhere I’m ever going to get! So imagine my surprise when he texted;
Hey what’s up this weekend? Other than 22 laps on Prairie hahaha. There’s basically no snow in the Ghost. I could be convinced to go do a scramble out there. But you’ve probably done them all. Have you done Poltergeist? It is a scramble? I can drive us to Malamute Valley.
I was immediately very, very interested. I think Jay was a little surprised when I immediately replied;
Love to try it! It’s on my list. Collier rates it at F 3rd but warns about difficulties if not dry. Might be a fun adventure if you can drive us in that far. I think I’m game to try.
(When I got home I realized that despite Collier making it sound “moderate”, David Jones rates their route at 5.0. Good thing I didn’t know that ahead of time!) From here the conversation delved into details – what day, what gear, what time etc. I knew that Sara would be interested and texted her. She was extremely interested (she loves the Ghost area) but wouldn’t you know it? She had firm plans for the Family Day long weekend and couldn’t make it. We agreed to meet in Cochrane at 06:30 for the lengthy and complicated winter drive far up the Ghost River.
We were both very excited. I couldn’t believe that I was chasing this obscure and remote peak in mid-winter. I’d been very interested in Poltergeist for many years since reading about Rick Collier and David Jones September 1 2010 ascent in less than ideal conditions. The peak was first ascended in June 1970 by M Benn and T Swaddle (pg. 433 in Rocky Mountains South). They also had less than ideal conditions. I’ve seen Swaddle’s name in more registers in the area including Oliver, Revenant and Apparition. Both ascent parties mentioned an “icy chimney” high up at the summit block. Both took more than a day, Rick spent two nights at the base of the mountain and Swaddle camped nearby as well. Of course, neither party did it in winter either. Considering how remote and obscure this peak is, there was a good chance we could be only the 3rd ascent. I gave us a 50/50 chance at most, but figured the drive alone would be worth it. Jay is the only friend I know that has a custom built 1997 Toyota Land Cruiser that is built very specifically to handle whatever the Don Getty / Ghost area can throw at you. I wasn’t going to get more chances like this!
(I should give a huge shout out to Cornelius Rott and Trevor Boyce who contributed to my familiarity with this peak and the the Malamute Valley area. They completed what could be the first ascent of the nearby Astral Peak (I used their beta for my own ascent in 2018) and invited me along for a rare ascent of the highest peak in the group of three – Castle Rock.)
I must have been excited because I awoke before my alarm at 05:15 and immediately noticed a text from Sara. What the heck? She texted me at 04:04;
Is your ghost shenanigans still on today?
I was impressed by two things. First, she was up at 04:00. Second, she managed to spell “shenanigans” correctly at 04:00. She obviously knows me too well, but in this case it worked out perfectly. I asked if she was in and she obviously was. I couldn’t even manage to spell “Cochrane” correctly, but she got the gist of where were meeting up. An hour later we were packing our gear into Jay’s truck and making our way up Hwy 1A. Sometimes a plan just comes together very last minute! Shortly after passing through Waiparous Village we turned up the TransAlta road, continuing easily to the “Big Hill” and the start of the drive up the Ghost River. There were more trucks out and about and as daylight started to break we were following a Toyota FJ, cruising through fresh snow drifts on the river flats. Jay mentioned that it seemed like there was more snow than a week earlier.
We watched as the FJ crossed a particularly deep section of the river on an ice bridge, noting that one of their rear wheels dropped suddenly through a hole just as they exited the bridge. Not wanting to fuss with a potentially weakend bridge we looked for another crossing but ice shelves made it harder than it looked. Fine. Jay decided to give the bridge a “go”. Part way across we realized to our dismay that it wasn’t going to hold. Holy shit balls! Our day was about to get a whole lot more interesting…
As we started across, suddenly the front passenger wheel plunged through the bridge into the icy water below. Soon the whole truck was tilted at a severe angle into the river, water was seeping into my door and I could see straight down into 3 feet of icy water below my window! Obviously we were in a pickle now! First priority was getting out. We were leaning so much that Jay and Sara had to push hard to open the drivers side doors and we all clambered out, at this point just happy not to be sideways in the river.
The next hour or so was spent figuring out what to do. Two other vehicles drove up and a guide and his client very generously donated an hour of their day helping us out. After an initial assessment, the guide drove across another bridge located downstream and him and Jay tried pulling the truck straight out. Thanks to the depth of the river and a couple of ice shelves this wasn’t going to work. We threw a whole bunch of rocks near the front passenger side wheel and after a few back and forths and tow assists, Jay was ready to try turning into the river and drive out. Thank goodness that worked! In the end he made it look fairly easy, but there were some stressful moments in there. Thankfully he was super prepared with boots, waterproof insulated gloves and a plethora of towing gear. Unfortunately for me, I slipped on ice while gathering rocks and something in my right side pulled fiercely. Dammit! It felt similar to the injury I had on my Bonnet / Hickson adventure in 2022.
Amazingly, the truck seemed no worse for the experience and we all decided that we might as well continue with our plans. Can’t let a near-drowning stop a summit attempt! It was a bit later than expected but quite soon after the faulty bridge incident we were driving past the Malamute Valley and up a narrow tree lined road to marker “50” and the end of the drive. I didn’t realize it at the time but this is not the Banff boundary, but rather the boundary between the Don Getty Wildland and Ghost River Wilderness Area (see map above). We donned our packs and set off up the trail which quickly became the flood ravaged Ghost River flats. My injury hurt like the devil with a heavy (for me) pack digging into it. I felt a little like vomiting every time I planted a hiking pole or took a big step. Today was going to be an HTFU day for me. It was 2.5-3kms of hiking up river before we were looking up the obvious south drainage. At this point we were feeling excited and positive about our day. It was much sunnier than forecast and only 10:00.
I have no idea why we thought we could get the peak in so much less time than the indefatigable Collier and Jones who took 10-12 hours return to the their camp, despite the fact that we had similar if not worse conditions than they did. Call it winter optimism I suppose? I was so happy to be out, I didn’t much care at this point if I’m honest. I still didn’t think we’d make it but the day was turning out beautiful. We continued up the south drainage on a mix of sugary, slick snow, water ice from the creek (which was still flowing in spots) and fun ledges. It didn’t take long for the drainage to become more of a canyon and our navigation to get more creative. We scrambled and traversed steep snow slopes avoiding scenic, frozen waterfalls in the canyon. There were a few “no slip” zones and some tricky little maneuverings on rock hard snow that made me wish I’d donned crampons here. I decided I’d do that on return. The landscape was stunning and we were all greatly enjoying the much-better-than-expected weather as we continued up the canyon.
Finally we rounded a bend and spotted what looked like a nice rising scree and rubble ridge abutting easy SW scree slopes to the SE ridge above. Even the summit block was now visible – extremely foreshortened at this point. But we had one last obstacle in the canyon to contend with – another very scenic stretch of frozen water that had us putting on the crampons and walking up the narrow creek bed with soaring rocky cliffs on either side. I am not sure if Collier and Jones ascended here – I suspect they were out of the canyon already at this point on climber’s right but it’s hard to know for sure. After another bypass to avoid a small waterfall (JW simply climbed up it LOL), we finally started up the ridge leading left out of the canyon to slopes above.
The next few hours were tough – for me at least. JW and Sara were not traveling slow and between dealing with my bruised rib – or whatever it was – from the early morning mishap and taking photographs and video I had a bit of a rough time trying to keep up. The day was gorgeous but it was slowly becoming more and more obvious that this mountain was not quite as simple as it first appeared. After scrambling steep frozen scree and knee deep snow to the ridge crest, we followed it to a high point that abutted the SW scree slopes. From here the rest of the route looked straightforward to the summit block, but there were some obstacles. The first one was a few hundred meters of knee to crotch deep snow. Jay pulled off a nice “moose move” to wade through most of it but it was hard work! I managed about 50m before giving out. From the deep snow section we groveled up icy, half frozen scree, sharing the slopes with some magnificent mountain goats. Instead of going all the way to the SE ridge, we started a rising contour, working our way to a high point along the ridge towards the summit block.
As the clock rolled around to 13:00 hours we finally stood atop the SE ridge with great views to the summit block above and Astral, Castle Rock and Devils Head off to the right. At this point we still had plenty of time and were planning to try ascending one of several gullies that looked to break the obvious cliffs encircling the summit. It took longer than I thought to traverse the rest of the way along the SE ridge but the incredible views distracted from the slog.
It was around 13:30 when Jay first tried the shallow groove directly up the lower summit block above the SE ridge. It was steeper than it first appeared and I knew that I could not get up something like that in these conditions and with my injury making even just walking a painful experience. We decided to descend and try another option. That one was also a “no go”. JW ended up on some fairly exposed terrain and again, there was no guarantee anything above it would go either. We descending even further to another break. This one was tempting but still a bit exposed with slick rock, a left leaning flare and unknown terrain above. Very graciously both Jay and Sara agreed to try one last option. If this one looked too sketchy I told them I was out but they could go nab this thing – they were both looking much stronger than me at this point. Sure enough! This last option – which required at least a few hundred meters of height loss from the SE ridge along the summit block – finally looked reasonable. It still had a steep snow slope to negotiate and even a couple of moves over some water ice, but it laid back nicely to the upper mountain, looking very promising.
Jay led carefully up the gully – this year the snowpack in the Rockies is very touchy and the thin patches we were on weren’t going to win awards in any season. After negotiating a short ice step JW kept ascending, letting us know to follow him up. Go time! Fingers crossed, I started up the steep gully in his tracks.
The rest of the ascent took much longer than expected – there always seemed to be more mountain above us! Once up the south gully we started a rising traverse to the NE, ascending a mix of fresh snow, icy rock and loose rubble before finally running out of mountain. There was nothing above us anymore as we traversed the last few meters to a dilapidated summit cairn, buried in windblown snow. It was cold at the top but we were psyched to be standing there!
After taking summit photos and donning as much warm clothing as possible, I spent a few minutes hunting furiously for Rick’s register. After almost giving up, I found it. Unfortunately it fell apart while trying to open, so I decided to bring it down with me. We were the first to sign since Collier and Jones 13 years previous. We couldn’t linger as it was now almost 15:30 and we knew daylight was going to disappear on us at some point on our exit.
Descent was mostly quick but for some reason it hurt like hell on my injured side, slowing me down a tad. At least I had some summit highs to keep me going! I still couldn’t believe we’d actually made it as we negotiated the steep south snow gully back over the short ice section. I couldn’t descend the ice and rock, my ribs just hurt too much to concentrate. Thankfully I found a walkoff snow slope around it. As light continued to slowly fade, we made our way back up along the summit block cliffs to rejoin our approach line on the SE ridge. It wasn’t worth fooling around with cliffs and avalanche terrain below our upper south gully – especially given the lateness of the hour. Better the devil you know…
I’m not gonna lie. I was feeling a wee bit spent as we finally topped out back on the SE ridge and began the tedious descent on frozen rubble. The sun kept setting to the west, giving some nice lighting but also encouraging us to keep going. I wanted to get to a series of exposed snow traverses before complete darkness but we didn’t quite make it.
After a very steep descent back into the drainage – it felt much steeper than we remembered – we put on headlamps and continued our exit. The traverses were a bit spicy in the dark – I was happy to have my ‘pons on for them but wasn’t so happy about clanging around on the rubble slopes in between! My feet were getting a bit banged up from all the crampons-on-rock activity for the day, I’m not used to that.
Finally we were done with any difficulties and rambled our way back out of the drainage, silent in the complete darkness other than the narrow beams of our headlamps. I put on my icers for this section and wondered why I didn’t do that on the approach, they worked perfectly on the semi-slick terrain. The walk back to the truck was long but with the sweet success of a winter summit – and a very obscure one at that, kept our feet going. We finally got back to the truck for a round trip time of just under 11 hours at 20:00. Thankfully the drive back was very uneventful, we found the alternate crossing to our failed bridge and crossed it easily.
What a day! Thanks to Jay and Sara for putting up with a “less-than-100-percent” me and thanks to Jay for toughing it out of a nasty little situation in the river. Many folks would have called it a day at that point, but that’s not the way JW is wired. This was a great suggestion for a dry(ish) winter ascent and I’m glad that I was part of it.