Elch Peak (Stud, GR851-335)

Summit Elevation (m): 2975
Trip Date: Trip Date: July 26, 2023
Elevation Gain (m): 2000
Round Trip Time (hr): 12
Total Trip Distance (km): 58
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 with a lot of elevation gain. The main difficulties are the sheer numbers involved – many folks would prefer an overnight in the lovely upper Scalp Creek meadows.
Technical Rating: TL4, OT5, SC5; RE5
GPS Track: Download
MapGoogle Maps
First Recorded Ascent: Alistair Des Moulins, Gail Des Moulins, Richard Jull. July 2, 1995

It’s funny how my hiking and scrambling seasons go in reality compared to how I plan them over the winter. I have a rather large list of priority peaks and I can promise you that at the beginning of the 2023 season peaks like “HH89” and “Elch” were nowhere near the head of that list. I can go even further than that – they weren’t even ON the dang list! The reason peaks like these get added is very simple. I go on a planned trip such as Forbidden Peak and I see all these new (for me) and wonderful summits and I start wondering what it would be like to go bag them. This happened when I stood on Forbidden and looked over at HH89 and it happened again from HH89 when I looked over towards Elch. I suppose this makes sense – the explor8ion bug goes into overtime as I gaze over remote lush valleys with huge cliffs looming over wild creeks and alpine plataueas. It’s the exact reason I will never try to complete any sort of published list again – I want the freedom to pick and choose where my adventures happen. There is nothing more enjoyable to me than pointing my feet towards a distant summit that I know very little, or nothing about.

Before getting into more details on the trip, I’ll briefly delve into the name. I don’t like it any better than “HH89” or “Totem” as Cornelius labeled it. I also don’t love the name “Elch” which is the German word for “Elk” according to bivouac.com which was the first place that I know of to give this remote front range peak a name. Once again, Cornelius Rott beat me to this summit and once again, I didn’t know about it until seeing the register but I strongly suspected it after seeing his name on HH89 as Elch is approached via the same network of trails up Scalp Creek. Cornelius doesn’t usually go with bivouac names and in this case dubbed the peak, “Stud Mountain”. I really didn’t love this name for obvious reasons, but realized on return that he named it after a relatively nearby trail called “Stud Creek Trail” on a local map. But this trail name is very confusing. Stud Creek is located near North Timber Creek and nowhere near Elch Peak. I could (should) go with the grid reference in which case I actually bagged two peaks, GR851-335 and its slightly lower NE neighbor GR857-343. All this said, I will continue to honor the bivouac name since it got there first. I’ll nod at Cornelius’ name since it’s in the register. Grid references are boring but accurate and unambiguous so I’ll use them too.

Phew. That wasn’t very brief was it? Obscure peaks need a lot of explaining. It’s not as easy as saying, “just Google it” or pointing at a guidebook or government topographical map. Now that I’ve put you to sleep with the boring details of what to call this silly thing, let me wake you up again with how freaking wonderful it was!

Elch Peak Route Map. Some campsites are marked as is the worst of the swamp area. The “P” is where I left my bike. I ascended GR857-343 first, before traversing over the main summit and down west slopes under Tomahawk Mountain.

I woke up almost an hour before my alarm went off and decided that I was too awake to bother falling back asleep. It was only 03:50 as I literally rolled out of bed and gathered my gear into the truck. (There’s a reason I pack everything the night before – I’d forget half of it otherwise.) The long drive to Ya Ha Tinda was a bummer after driving all the way home from a family vacation in Vernon the day before but the cool temperatures were more than welcome after 10 days in 35+ degrees. With the weather on Thu and Fri looking very subpar, I knew I had to get out today. I was the only one (sort of) awake as I started my ride at 07:00 from the Bighorn Falls parking lot over a busy horse camp below. The ride was a lot tougher than I remembered from Wietse and my approach in mid-May 2021 when we did Scalp and Skeleton in a day. The horse tracks were very deep and the uphill grind was relentless! Things improved slightly at the Scalp Creek Trail but the uphill sure didn’t. I knew I had to ascend almost 600 meters on the bike but it still surprised me for some reason.

Looking towards a distant HH89 at left over the Scalp Creek valley from the approach ride. I’ll bike another 2 kms from here to junction CC8.

Finally I found myself on the last few kms to the end of the Scalp Creek Trail, descending more than I wanted to (knowing that I’d have to regain the height on return) but loving the faster riding. It took me just under 2 hours to ride the 14 kms to junction CC8 and the start of my 30 km hike. Considering I’ve ridden the same distance in less than half the time along the Cascade Fire Road to Stoney Creek you realize how much height gain there is on this dang approach. I could have kept biking to junction “CC7” along the Skeleton Creek Trail but I knew that would be more height losses and gains and was ready to start hiking. It felt great to be walking, other than the fact that I was descending towards Scalp Creek and would have to gain this height back later. Are you sensing a theme yet?

Descending to Scalp Creek from CC8. I’ll turn right at the bottom of this hill on a good trail. There’s a campsite below, near the creek.

I wasn’t sure what to expect along Scalp Creek but thankfully a willow-free experience was waiting for me along a very obvious cutline trail. I’m not sure how, but the willows aren’t growing in the track and the next few hours were mostly blissful hiking under a brilliant blue summer sky. This was a bonus – I was half expecting smokey skies today. Despite some serious soggy sections, the cutline trail stayed reasonable. Within an hour I was at the CC9 junction and another cutline, this one marching straight up valley towards my objective.

At the CC9 junction. My approach at left and my trail continuing at right, left of the sign.

The next few hours were a mix of gorgeous hiking and sloggy bog ballet. Thankfully there was much more of the former but the sections of bog had me wondering how bad it would be in a wetter year. I didn’t know it at the time but Cornelius was here in September which was likely much drier than what I had in July. As I walked through the silent wilderness my thoughts wandered freely and I felt alive and happy to be solo and isolated in this paradise. Puffy white clouds floated overhead in a deep blue sky over a green landscape. Birds flitted around me in the forest and several deer watched me pass as they returned to a tasty brunch. I am a lucky person to enjoy these moments – don’t think I don’t know it. It won’t last, but I’ll take it while it does.

Wonderful views of GR857-343 at left and outliers of HH8 at right. The trail gets a bit swampy through the more open sections.

Finally, 4 hours and 22 kms into my day I left the trail and started towards a NE outlier of GR857-343 (the false summit) along Scalp Creek. In a very ironic twist the creek was bone dry and I almost got worried about finding a water source before my ascent. I don’t carry water when I’m near creeks unless I know they’re dry and this one wasn’t until I needed it to be wet! Thankfully I found water before starting up. 

The first bump was pretty horrid scree bashing but once I got onto the ridge crest my views opened up and the footing got much better. I was pretty darn happy as I took in the wild scenes over Scalp Creek towards Tomahawk Mountain and HH89. This is not a place oft-visited by humans anymore and it shows.

Incredible views back over the NE outlier ridge down Scalp Creek and my approach. HH89 at left and Scalp Peak in the far distance.
The summit of GR857-343 rises above me.
Approaching GR857-343 with Elch to the left. Note a small pocket glacier on its north face. Tomahawk Mountain at center with HH89 at right.

I continued up the NE outlier ridge without issues and soon had wonderful views to Elch Peak with a small pocket glacier clinging to its north face. Within 6 hours of the parking lot I was on my first summit of the day. The wind was very strong and cold and I didn’t linger before starting towards Elch Peak, looking similar in height.

Summit views to Wapiti Mountain at center and Elch at right. Barrier and Warden Rock in the far distance left of Wapiti. The headwaters of Eagle Creek below.
Summit views over Ya Ha Tinda include Scalp, Willson, Evangeline, Hat, Wellsite and many others in the far distance. Barrier at right over Warden Rock.
Summit views over the headwater valley of Scalp Creek include Elch (L), Tomahawk, Forbidden, HH89 and the Clearwater River exiting the Rockies at distant right.

As I wandered SW towards Elch Peak I wondered if the cliff band guarding its summit would be an issue. The views over its north face plunging hundreds of meters to Scalp Creek were incredible. I couldn’t get over how wonderful this day was going – and this on 4 hours of sleep and way too much driving over the past 48 hours. 

Thankfully the summit block was easier than it looked and within 20 minutes of the first summit I was on the second. Views were similar, obviously – slightly better to the west and slightly worse to the east as expected. Also, as expected there was a summit register from Cornelius from the summer of 2022. Unexpectedly, this one was from September and not from August as the one on HH89 had been. I thought for sure he would have combined the two peaks with a camp but apparently not.

Summit views include many remote Banff peaks at distant left such as Willingdon, Harris and Augusta. Tomahawk at center along with Forbidden and HH89. GR857-343 at right looking to be the same height.
Summit views include GR857-343 at left with Wapiti at right of center.

After a brief summit stay in hurricane winds, I decided to descend further west into the true headwaters of Scalp Creek. I knew from a source that Alistair Des Moulins’ group used these slopes in their FRA in 1995 and rated it pretty easy. It was even easier than their F 3rd classification implies – I would say F 2nd at most. The views of Tomahawk Mountain‘s east face and outlier were stunning as I slowly descended on easy scree. Tomahawk is a frustratingly difficult mountain to spot and photograph and these were by far the best views I’ve seen of it.

Incredible views over the headwaters of Scalp Creek with Tomahawk Mountain at left and HH89 at center. Note the obvious track far below, going right along the creek that I followed to exit this remote valley.

I could spot the Scalp Creek Trail far below as I slowly made my way down scree slopes to the waiting alpine paradise below. It was indeed a worthwhile extension of my day as the winds finally died down and the sounds of marmots echoed off the cliff walls around me. I walked along the upper creek until reaching the end of the road and the start of my long walk back down the creek.

The track starts near the headwaters of Scalp Creek. GR857-343 and Elch rising above.
A wild landscape as I look back up Scalp Creek.

I was alone but not lonely as I wandered slowly out of the upper Scalp Creek paradise towards a distant civilization. Somehow these wild and lonely places give me more energy than anywhere with humans does. I’m not sure what this is all about but my tank was running a bit empty after less than a dozen peaks in 2023 so far. To be fair to me – the ones I have done have been pretty remote for the most part.

A stunning outlier of Tomahawk Mountain at left. HH89 at center distance and Elch rising out of sight at right.

I continued town the creek, passing a few deep blue pools and several small waterfalls until finally linking back up with my approach line. It was almost 16:00 hours as I started back on the main cutline, trying to forget about the boggy sections awaiting me. It didn’t take long and I was back to wet feet. The landscapes and memories kept me cheerful as I walked.

Stunning views back to GR857-343 at left and Tomahawk Mountain rising over the obvious cutline at center.
My trail and the cutline disappears into the distance ahead as I continue my long trek back to the bike.

After passing junction “CC9” I turned down the wet trail above Scalp Creek before ascending back to “CC8” and my waiting bike. The ride back to the parking lot was very fast – I realized pretty quickly why the morning ride had seemed to dang long and tough!

Back at my bike at CC8. The road continuing at center is my exit.
Incredible lighting over the Ya Ha Tinda ranch as I ride the final rough track to the road. Jap Peak at center and Warden Rock at distant right.

Descending the braided horse trails down the Ya Ha Tinda meadows in late afternoon lighting brought back many pleasant memories from this special area of the front range Rockies. Every time I think I’m almost finished with it, the landscape drags me back out! I don’t mind. There are certainly worse places to return to and worse memories than these stored in my old noggin. As I followed a horse wagon back along an incredibly dusty Tinda road my thoughts turned to how much more popular this area is now than it was when I first started visiting it almost a decade ago in November 2014. It hasn’t gotten less beautiful as a result – thankfully – but finding a summit as quiet as Elch has certainly gotten harder. I highly recommend combining Elch and HH89 with a camp in upper Scalp Creek. The only downside of this idea is that you will not get to walk the shores of Forbidden Lake like I did, unless you do a much longer loop back along Forbidden and Skeleton Creek to exit.


One thought on Elch Peak (Stud, GR851-335)

  1. Looks like a really beautiful spot Vern! I have still never been to the YaYa Tinda

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