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“HH89” (Totem, GR831-380) Peak

Summit Elevation (m): 3020
Trip Date: Trip Date: July 08, 2023
Elevation Gain (m): 1900
Round Trip Time (hr): 12.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 68
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2, you fall you sprain something.
Difficulty Notes: A very long day trip for fit parties willing to bike as far as possible on relatively rough horse tracks. The main difficulties are the sheer numbers involved – many folks would prefer an overnight at Forbidden Lake.
Technical Rating: TL4, OT5, SC5; RE5
GPS Track: Download
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The first thing I noticed while standing on the 2904m summit of the remote and rarely ascended Forbidden Peak was its loftier neighbor lying immediately to the SE. What was this larger unnamed peak and could I ascend it? For some reason the idea obsessed me and for the next week I did some research to find out more. Bivouac gives it a very technical and drab sounding moniker, “HH89” or it could be known by its coordinates, “GR831380”. It turns out someone else named it too, but I wouldn’t find that out until later. I thought the Bivouac name actually suited this peak just perfectly. It’s obscure and meaningless except to the half-dozen or so folks who might know about it. It’s not visible from any road that I know of and not even from most trails. In my research I also realized something else. I found a source claiming that this peak was first ascended in 1919 by Morrison P. Bridgland as part of the topographical survey but after researching a bit I now think, likely not. Looking at the Mountain Legacy Project I can find two stations from that expedition, 249 and 259 located on Forbidden and Forbidden SW2 peaks and none on HH89.

A screenshot from the Mountain Legacy Project showing where the two stations were in 1919 – clearly on Forbidden Peak, not HH89. Moreover, note the photo of HH89 that is displayed showing a pocket glacier just below the summit that has now disappeared.

This leads to two obvious questions. Firstly, did Morrison’s team actually name “Forbidden” or not? All the information I can find indicates that it is an unofficial name. Forbidden Creek and Forbidden Lake are official but the peak is not. And this leads me to the second question. Why is the higher peak that has more of its length along the creek, not to mention actually holds the lake, named for both of these features? Why is “HH89” not the mountain with the “Forbidden” label? My theory is that HH89 is likely the original “Forbidden Peak” but over time the name shifted to the more visible mountain that looms over the Clearwater River valley. But of course I have no proof of this, only armchair musings. All these musings and research only made me more and more obsessed with HH89 for some dang reason.

HH89 Route Map showing my route past Forbidden Lake to the summit and then down the north ridge.

Looking at the satellite map I also got intrigued by Forbidden Lake. It looked like one of those alpine gems that very few people bother with. Despite an approach from Ya Ha Tinda via the Scalp Creek Trail looking shorter and likely easier than from Cutoff Creek to Forbidden Creek, I really wanted to visit the lake. The smart thing to do would have been to combine HH89 with Forbidden Peak but quite simply, I wasn’t interested in it at the time and did Cutoff Peak instead. I couldn’t quite believe it but I was so excited to try the route I discovered from the north, I started planning a trip up the same exact trails only a week after suffering them the first time! I tried pushing the excitement down because I knew part of me would be disheartened to bike all the way back in there only a few days after already doing the whole thing, nevermind the 3 hour drive from YYC to the Cutoff Creek staging area.

As the weekend approached I gave up fighting the urge and planned for a long day trip. I decided to drive up on Friday evening, sleep in the back of the truck and make an early start on Saturday. I knew from the weekend before that Forbidden Peak could be done as a day trip and with similar distances and gains HH89 should also work as one. The difference with HH89 was the bushwhacking. Forbidden had zero bushwhacking while the north approach for HH89 would definitely have some. The only question was how much and how bad it would be. There was one way to find out and I set about making it happen.

After a very restless sleep of maybe 4 or 5 hours, I groggily drank my black coffee for breakfast before pedaling off down the North Cutoff Creek Trail at around 04:50 on Saturday, July 8th. The trail was a bit drier than a week previous but unfortunately just as long. I felt more tired than the week before, likely due to slightly less excitement about the ride. I was very excited about the adventure but the 20km approach ride was a little familiar. I will NOT be biking this trail a 3rd time in 2023 – that I promise you (and myself)! Sooner than expected I was at CC4 and outfitter camp. I didn’t stop for water, choosing instead to keep riding. My biking muscles were still a bit sore from the week previous and I just wanted to keep going. I stopped for a photo of my destination peak while biking the meadows just past CC4.

As I turned up the Skeleton Creek Trail I decided that I’d leave the bike at a high point along it, rather than ride all the way down past CC6 at Forbidden Creek. I remembered being a little grumpy about pushing my bike all the way back up a series of steep hills at the end of my Forbidden Peak hike and decided to forgo that bit of unpleasantness today. After grunting along Skeleton Creek for a few kilometers, I ditched the bike along the road in plain sight thinking nobody else would be in here today. I continued on foot, morning breaking around me in a cachaphony of bird calls, rushing streams and the smell of wildflowers and fresh forest growth in the burn. My day was slowly improving and as I descended to the Skeleton Creek crossing I got a great view of HH89 towering over the small waterfall in the creek. I was most definitely in my happy place now.

As I hiked down the connector trail from Skeleton Creek to CC6 and the Forbidden Creek Trail I was doing my usual bear calls when something huge crashed in the bushes about 15 to 20 feet to my right. Holy shitballs. My heart flopped around on the ground in front of me as I desperately searched the burnt forest for whatever manner of terrifying beast this was. Sure enough – it was a large grizzly and thank everything holy he was racing downhill away from me. I think I scared him as bad as he scared me! Here he was at 05:30 just enjoying a pleasant munch in the forest when this silly human yells right in his damn ear!! I have honestly never seen a creature run so bloody fast in my life. If a bear ever charges at you, you have zero chance of outrunning it. Trust me. So now here I was, in the middle of nowhere with a slight problem ahead of me in the form of a freaked out grizzly bear. Yes, unfortunately in his terror to escape the yelling human, the bruin decided to run right where my trail went! Many folks would make the understandable decision to turn back at this point and call it a day. I’ve run into many bears over the years and this one didn’t seem to love humans so I decided to proceed carefully down the trail and hope that the dislike stayed defensive on the bears part. Yelling and talking loudly, I proceeded without incident past CC6 and continued up Forbidden Creek. (The really funny thing is that originally I was going to solo camp at the CC6 campsite overnight. I would have had a nice large grizzly munching outside my tent which would have led to interesting and involuntary bodily functions on my part…)

After that bit of excitement I yelled a little more than normal up the ruined creek trail. Although it was familiar, everything had a different shine on it since running into the bear. There’s something about solo wilderness travel that it more primal than when you’re walking and chatting with a buddy or two. Everything feels much more uncivilized when you’re 25 kms from nowhere all alone. It’s not like anyone else was going to be on this trail today either – I have a feeling more snowmobiles come in here than self propelled humans. The trail is also likely a bit to rustic for most horse riders. There is evidence of horse traffic but not much since the floods. I would think that the rocks and boulders in the creek where the trail has been washed out would be tricky for horses to navigate without injury – it’s tough enough for humans with only 2 feet to worry about.

Finally, 3 hours and 27 kilometers into my day I started slowly angling off trail into the heavily mossed forest, trending to the north drainage of HH89. Unfortunately despite a lake draining into Forbidden Creek, there is no way to avoid the bush from this direction. It was moderately dense in places but I took my time with it and enjoyed the early morning vibes. It was still only 08:00 but I could tell it was going to be a warm summer day today. The sky was brilliantly blue overhead with a slight haze in the distance from either forest fires or humidity or both. After 35 minutes or so in the bush I arrived at the base of a more open drainage leading steeply upward along my planned route to the lake. It felt very good to be ascending more open terrain with a fresh breeze blowing gently over me. What a day! What a place to be alive.

Breaking out of the moderate bushwhack to rubble slopes.

As I crested the open slope I realized that I had three choices ahead of me. I could descend into a lovely alpine valley below, I could stay on the line I was on, slowly gaining along a slope under a ridge to my left or I could ascend to the ridge crest. I was feeling a bit lazy so I stuck to my current trajectory, following a faint goat path through light forest to my left. As I walked along this remote slice of heaven I mused, not for the first time, how darn lucky I was to be here on this most perfect of summer days. And my day just kept getting better and better. Soon I could see that the ridge extended directly into the north ridge of my destination peak and would provide the perfect access to Forbidden Lake too! I wondered if I might be able to descend this ridge right from the summit, but for now I just wanted to get to the lake.

Forbidden Peak in the distance as I hike the incredible north ridge, following it up to the left here.

The next hour or so was pure hiking magic. I wandered the ridge crest on alpine vegetation with birds chirping in the trees to my left and a brilliant blue summer sky overhead. A green valley below me had me wondering if anyone had camped there before and towering rock walls slowly grew closer and larger. I traversed rubble slopes above a headwall at the end of the valley below me and was soon walking around the shores of Forbidden Lake – a wonderful alpine gem.

The north ridge of HH89 stretches out in front of me, the summit out of sight at mid upper left. I will stay lower, hiking above the headwall visible in the distance.
Forbidden Lake comes into view over the headwall.

The lake was everything I expected and more. The towering cliffs of an outlier added to the dramatic feeling of the place. It isn’t a huge lake by any means, but it is a very special place. I slowly ambled the shoreline before continuing up valley to my planned ascent route, looking more and more viable. on steep scree slopes under more towering rock cliffs. I was happy to be here after the spring melt or rockfall from above could have been an issue. As it was, there was no rockfall as I slowly made my way up the screen cone and transitioned to the rubble traverse to the still distant summit. The scree wasn’t quite as bad as I was expecting – a nice bonus.

There were a few cliffs that looked problematic to my left as I continued my scree ascent, but I knew that if I went high enough I could likely walk above them. Sure enough! As I ascended a route opened up to my left and I trended towards it.

The lovely north alpine bowl below with my route to the summit stretching out to the right.

The next hour or so was fairly pleasant hiking on rubble and scree. It wasn’t the highlight of my day, but it was better than the scree on Forbidden the week previous. Whenever things got a bit tedious I had the views to keep my jazzed, plus there were tons of fossils to look for underfoot.

Finally I found myself grunting up final scree slopes to the upper summit ridge. Looking around, I could see I was higher than Forbidden and gaining height on the false summit. I was excited as I walked the summit ridge to an obvious rock cairn – would it contain anything from the 1919 commission who I still thought might be the only other ascent party? No. As I walked around the obviously old cairn (lichen and undisturbed for the most part) I could see a glass jar inside. I knew what that meant. Cornelius Rott ascended what he dubbed “Totem Peak” only a year previous in August 2022. I have to admit to some disappointment but I also have to admit that I’ve done my fair share of obscure ascents ahead of other people and likely disappointed them. I’m also learning that many peaks in the Rockies have many more ascents than I sometimes want to admit. People wander up and down stuff all the time and like me, most of them don’t bother carrying and depositing records of their ascents. Who knows? Maybe HH89 sees ascents every year? Cornelius approached the peak from Ya Ha Tinda and the Scalp Creek Trail – a much shorter and faster approach than I’d done. He didn’t however, get to walk the shores of Forbidden Lake and I wasn’t at all disappointed by my route choice.

An incredible summit panorama with views over the Clearwater River (L), Forbidden Creek (C) and Scalp Creek (R). Summits visible include Forbidden (L), Lost Guide, Cutoff, Scalp, Skeleton, Wellsite and Tomahawk (R).
Views to the west include Cataract, Willingdon, Harris, Augusta and many other remote Banff peaks.
Views over Forbidden Lake to the lower and ill-named (IMHO) Forbidden Peak. The peak I’m on is higher, stands directly over Forbidden Lake and shares borders with Forbidden Creek. My approach at right, up Forbidden Creek.
Wild landscapes to Elch, Wapiti and Tomahawk across the upper reaches of Scalp Creek. Cornelius used the Scalp Creek Trail to access the south ridge of HH89 from Ya Ha Tinda – a shorter and arguably easier approach but with no access to Forbidden Lake.

There were hordes of bugs at the summit and no wind so after 20 minutes or so I decided to start my long exit. At this point I was feeling pretty pumped about descending the north ridge to my approach line above the lake. I couldn’t see any issues except for possibly a low cliff band or two. It worked better than I expected. Stunning views across the east face to the green rolling hills of Ya Ha Tinda kept me entertained as I slowly made my way down the ridge. There were no major difficulties, it was all just hiking or easy scrambling at most.

Looking back up the straightforward and scenic north ridge. Wellsite Peak at left.
Descending the easy lower north ridge with views to Forbidden Peak over its namesake lake.
Summer greens in this view towards a distant Ya Ha Tinda including Scalp (L), Skeleton, Hat and Wellsite Mountain (R).

As I passed by Forbidden Lake one last time, I meditated on how lucky I was to be out here all alone on such a gorgeous summer day enjoying a landscape with very little known beta. There are positives about enjoying well-known and traveled routes such as the Assiniboine area or Skoki or places like that, but I prefer this. For me it’s extra special to wander a ridge with no signs of humans and no beta to guide me other than my sense of direction and onsite decision making.

One last incredible view over Forbidden Lake to an impressive outlier looming over it. What a wild place!
A lovely alpine meadow along the north ridge where grizzlies come to enjoy peace and quiet – evidenced by many fresh diggings. HH89 at upper left here.

I glanced back for one last unobstructed view of the north ridge and walls of HH89 before plunging back down my ascent slopes into the forest below. On return I didn’t bother angling to the Forbidden Creek Trail, choosing instead to take a direct line through forest to the creek. This worked reasonably well although I prefer my ascent line for the approach – it was a bit less of a thrash.

A last glance back to Forbidden (R) and the lower north ridge of HH89 at left as I reunite with the Forbidden Creek Trail.

It felt great to be back on the trail – ruined as it is, it’s still easier than thrashing around in the bush! The next few hours were that meditative state distance hikers and runners will recognize. It takes me 8 hours of steady movement to get into it and I call it “robot mode”. My mind shuts off and all there is in my universe is the trail and the sounds of wilderness around me. I don’t have many other thoughts as I am full immersed. I don’t look at my GPS to see how far I have to go and I don’t worry about it either. It is what it is. The distance isn’t going to change because I look at the map every 10 minutes. 

As the hours slowly ticked on, I hiked carefully past CC6 and the site of my grizzly encounter 11 hours previous. It was surreal to hike past the Skeleton Creek crossing and come across a dozen horse riders enjoying the afternoon sun. They asked if that bike up the road was mine and I responded “hopefully it’s still there”. They were wondering who dumped it at the top of a hill and figured whoever it was had given up. I rejoined my own 2-wheeled steed and rode it somewhat painfully for the next 1.5 hours to the staging area. I was surprised by my round trip time of only 12.5 hours considering how relaxed the day had felt. All in all this was another incredible front range Rockies adventure that filled my soul with exactly what it needed.

 

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