Summit Elevations (m): 3112, 3020, 3160
Trip Date: August 4 2023
Elevation Gain (m): 3500
Round Trip Time (hr): 15
Total Trip Distance (km): 37
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you might sprain your big thumb or more likely, your ego
Difficulty Notes: No difficulties – this is a very long, mostly off-trail hike with no bushwhacking and no wet feet but significant height gains and distance.
Technical Rating: SC5, OT4; RE4
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
First Known Ascents: Alistair Des Moulins, Gail Des Moulins, Richard Jull, David Mulligan. September 5, 1993 (Struan), Arthur P. Coleman, Lucius Q. Coleman, Louis B. Stewart. July 27, 1893 (Andover)
On July 27, 1893 while scouting a new pass to the Athabasca, Rockies explorer Arthur P. Coleman and his brother Lucius, joined by Louis B. Stewart ascended an unnamed peak over 3100 meters rising over the headwaters of Beauty Creek. He writes in his journal;
To solve the problem of the pass we climbed a higher mountain next day, a tilted block like all the peaks along the Brazeau but so steeply tilted with so rugged a surface of limestone it was no sidewalk to ascend. From the top we had one of the finest panoramas in the Rockies.
(The Canadian Rockies, New and Old Trails by Arthur P. Coleman, 1911)
If one of Canada’s earliest and most prolific Rockies explorer – who traversed these mountains before trains made the whole thing much easier – says a peak has one of the “finest panoramas in the Rockies”, you should probably sit up and take notice. The problem is – what peak is Coleman referring to exactly and how the heck could I get there?! Good questions. I have a source that claims this peak is sitting at GR870–936 and bivouac labels it as “Andover Peak“, named after the town in Massachusetts where another early Rockies explorer, Walter Wilcox received his education. Reading Coleman’s description of the ascent from a camp near the headwaters of the Brazeau River I can’t say for 100% that this is the peak he and his party ascended on that snowy July in 1893 but after standing on its summit I can assure you that it does, indeed, sport one heckuva fine panorama! (It’s interesting to note that M.P. Bridgeland also ascended Andover peak in 1928 as part of the survey team he was on.) But of course, I’m once again getting way ahead of myself.
There is a special area of the Rockies located east of Tangle Falls between Tangle Pass and Jonas Pass where few people travel despite the hordes massing around the falls back on the Icefields Parkway. This area is known to many dedicated Rockies hikers and scramblers but there are very few online trip reports and even fewer ascents documented despite there being 4 summits near or over 3000 meters in the valley. This area is known as “Beauty Lakes” and contains the lovely Beauty Creek bubbling and cascading its way down to the mighty Sunwapta River far below to the west. Peaks nearby that most Rockies scramblers would be more familiar with include Tangle Ridge, Sunwapta Peak, Mount Wilcox and Nigel Peak. There are a few reasons why this area doesn’t have a lot of beta or trip reports and the biggest reason is the same one as usual – access. Any trip into the Beauty Lakes requires off trail travel and a bunch of height gains and losses just to access the valley. It’s a minimum 1400 meters gain just to get into the valley bottom from the Icefields Parkway – 700m to Tangle Pass, gained on approach and egress back over. In July, Wietse and Paul completed a long day trip into the beauty creek area and ascended Andover Peak. While there he noticed 3 others, Struan, Wurzburg and Skye. Armed with beta we planned for another trip sooner than later and Wietse even agreed to repeat Andover with me if I’d do the other 3 with him.
Parks Canada claims to hand out permits for random camping in the Beauty Lakes area (up to 1 party per day) but I have my doubts that this actually occurs. If there are so many overnight permits being handed out for Beauty Lakes than why is there essentially zero trails into this special place? We tried obtaining a permit of our own and were given the runaround before being assured that it was fully booked for the next 4 weeks. Yeah right. Time for plan B. Wietse and I train for trips like this all winter and in our minds a 700 meter gain is simply one Prairie Mountain. We often do 3 or more Prairie Mountain’s before breakfast, so the thought of 2 of them isn’t that scary. Now, adding 3 or 4 more makes for a slightly bigger day but what else could we do without permits? We planned 2 days but hoped to bag Struan, Wurzburg, Andover and Skye in one huge day with a backup plan to do Skye on day 2 if we had to. A repeat trip over Tangle Pass wasn’t ideal but we didn’t have much choice with no permit. After making the long drive to the Tangle Falls parking area on hwy 11, we started up the unofficial trail leading to Wilcox Pass from the north. The trail was in great shape and we quickly made progress before cutting across Tangle Creek and angling steeply through light forest up to Tangle Pass. Early morning views back over the parkway to the northern Columbia icefield were incredible.
From the pass I got my first glimpses into the Beauty Creek area and they did not disappoint. Sunwapta’s huge SW slopes at left rose to the heavens with Wurzburg, Struan and Andover completing the panorama. Although Beauty Creek was far below, it didn’t look too bad from the pass. Of course the valley and creek were lovely, being almost entirely above treeline at this point.
We knew we had to cross the creek before continuing up valley past the south end of Wurzburg up to the Beauty Lakes basin to access south slopes of Struan Peak. We had very little beta other than some first hand feedback from Eric Coulthard who dubbed this peak “Chilly” after the way he was feeling while ascending it many years ago. He assured me that the ascent was pretty simple. Struan Peak is also called “Sunwapta E3” on Google. Since I don’t love the idea of naming peaks after random human feelings or Google random names, I’m going to stick with vaguely official sounding bivouac names for now. The only trip report I could find online is on bivouac from Klaus Haring in 1987. (It’s interesting to note that even back then he had a difficult time getting permits for this area.)
After crossing a lively, but small, Beauty Creek (didn’t even get wet feet), we continued into the Beauty Lakes basin, eager to get our first glimpses of the lakes. It was also nice to finally be ascending to our first peak after losing a bunch of elevation over Tangle Pass. First views did not disappoint!
We continued to work our way into the valley, taking in views of more and more of the Beauty Lakes as we progressed on slabs and rubble and finally took in glimpses of our first peak. The south ridge looked like a pile of rubble but also looked very easy. The lakes continued to impress as we passed them.
It was interesting to note the stream running down between the Beauty Lakes disappeared underground in several places, only to burst back out of solid-looking rock slabs further down. The line of jagged peaks lining the upper basin was impressive even if the actual peak was a bit laid back. We started up rubble slopes, slowly inching our way onto the broad south ridge and from there to the summit. It took a while but was all very easy. Views back over Wurzburg were stunning with an unexpected glacier covering its NE face.
Only around 4.5 hours from the parking lot we found ourselves on top of Struan Peak with stunning summer views in every direction. Gaia tells me the summit is actually closer to 3080m but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it’s definitely a worthy peak to walk 4.5 hours for!
After 30 minutes at the summit we slowly worked our way back down rubble slopes into the basin and past the lakes. We took our time, neither of us were 100% gung-ho about slogging up Wurzburg’s endless rubble slopes to take in what we assumed would be a less dramatic view from a lower summit with no views over Jonas Pass. Of course we had to go check it out despite any misgivings since we were right there anyway and had lots of daylight and energy to give it a go.
We slowly started up the broad SW rubble slopes of Wurzburg just as the sun was at its hottest around 14:30 in the afternoon. I’m not gonna lie – it was a bit of a slog! Everything continued to be very simple but I wondered what the descent would be like. I managed to find some solid(ish) slabs and larger rubble to balance my way up. Views back over Beauty Creek were better than expected.
It was only 15:30 as we approached the cairned summit of Wurzburg – only taking around an hour to ascend the easy slopes. We were pleasantly surprised by the views that greeted us there. Apparently this lowly peak is worth an ascent afterall! My favorite views were to the NW towards a group of striking peaks north of the Diadem Glacier including GEC, Nelson, Smythe and Gong Peak.
We lingered a bit at the summit before starting what we assumed would be a semi-horrid descent. It wasn’t. It was actually quite fast – we managed to find bits of softer scree runs between the stumbly boulders and rubble. Views over the Beauty Creek valley kept us distracted as we debated the feasibility of ascending Skye from Beauty Creek.
Hiking across the valley back to the creek we realized that although we could easily tag Andover Peak before dark there was no way that Skye was going to happen today. We slowed down our pace and took many photos of the creek and the valley with its deep cracks and ledges.
As we hiked up valley towards the ascent slopes for Andover Peak we scouted routes for Skye Peak the next day. We preferred a direct route from the Andover col up a steep east ridge directly to the summit but this looked a bit gnar for our tastes. There was a steep scree slope leading to a break in the long NW ridge that also looked possible. The afternoon was beautiful as we slowly walked up valley and gazed up the steep scree and slab slope that Wietse and Paul had hiked a few weekends previous. We hoped the tracks that Wietse beat into the scree were still there.
Wietse wasn’t 100% sure he felt like a repeat at this point, so I took off ahead of him as we gained the bottom of the steep SW face of Andover. I was still feeling pretty good and we knew we’d be exiting in the dark at this point so any daylight we could save was worthwhile. The slope was indeed, very steep and the tracks were still there making for a much nicer ascent.
As I gained the upper bench a few hundred vertical meters under the summit I could see why Wietse was willing to repeat this part of the scramble. An incredible hanging lake and dying glacier occupy this hidden spot, with incredible views over the area. Wietse was going to relax here with a coffee while I bagged the summit above. I didn’t waste any time before starting up easy summit slopes.
I was feeling the 3000 meters of height gain as I broke onto Andover’s upper south ridge but the views back over the deep Andover Creek valley towards the White Goat Wilderness and back over Andover Tarn to Nigel Peak and the Columbia Icefield kept me distracted enough not to feel it too much. What a special place this was! And to have late afternoon lighting was a bonus despite the implication of a long hike back in the dark.
As I gained the large summit cairn I was blown away by the views down the colorful Andover Creek valley with its many lakes and tarns and the red and gray walls running down its length towards the Brazeau River and the White Goat Wilderness in the far distance. Not for the first time I was thankful for a body and the life that allows me to enjoy moments like this.
I didn’t linger long despite the amazing summit views. Wietse was waiting for me at the hanging lake and we had a long way to travel yet today. My soul was full as I slowly picked my way back down easy rubble slopes to enjoy a late day coffee for energy to get me back to the car. As expected, views of the dying light from the hanging lake were next level.
The hike out was indeed, long and painful as expected. Considering the height gains and how much of this trip is off trail, we actually didn’t do too bad on timing. With a well planned route and an earlier start I believe that fit parties could bag all four of the “Beauty Creek” peaks in a long day from hwy 93. Two separate trips would be more reasonable. Considering the photos in this report I think you know how I feel about it. This is a special place that is worth the effort to get in despite the obvious barriers that are in place to limit access.