Cuthead Peak

Summit Elevation (m): 3034
Trip Date: August 13 2023
Elevation Gain (m): 2230 
Round Trip Time (hr): 17.5 (moving) 
Total Trip Distance (km): 82.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3+ – you fall, you break something or worse
Difficulty Notes: Some low-difficult scrambling on slabs with exposure, tricky route finding to keep things reasonable.
Technical Rating: SC7-
GPS Track: Gaia
MapGoogle Maps

Originally Phil Richards and I had grand plans for the weekend of August 11-13 2023 but a band of rain forecast to move through the Rockies on the 12th scuppered that vision. We haven’t been out together in a long time (since our Trident Lake trip last year) and were determined to get something done. I had been tossing the idea of Cuthead Peak for a while already and threw it out as an option for 1.5 days over Sat/Sun to avoid the rain and take advantage of some great weather on Sunday. Phil agreed and we arranged permits to camp at Flints Park on Saturday night – with plans to leave the trailhead Saturday afternoon.

Cuthead Peak is one of those peaks buried deep along the Vermilion Range in Banff National Park that only a few die-hard hikers and scramblers know about. It’s hard to get a good line of sight on this peak since there are only a few trails in the area and most peaks worth ascending are located many kilometers away. David Jones lists the peak in his Rockies Central climbers guide as “GR851-016” with an elevation of 2960m and “No recorded ascent”. Thanks to the prolific Rockies peakbagger, Cornelius Rott, there was now a recorded ascent (from August 14 2021) and we were planning to follow his approach from the campground via North Fork Pass Trail. Back in 2020, Phil and I had made a memorable ascent of Flints Peak and had good views of Cuthead Peak from there, elevating it on both our agendas. I was excited to get after it and after picking Phil up in Canmore we started on our bikes up the fire road at around 13:30 on a busy Saturday afternoon near Lake Minnewanka.

NOTE: Cornelius rates Cuthead Peak as a “moderate” scramble and Flints Peak as “easy”. Either I’m getting soft in my old age or he has upped his scrambling game in the last few years because there is no way (IMHO) that Flints is as simple as a stroll up Cirque Peak or other “easy” rated Kane scrambles. After scrambling Cuthead I really don’t think it’s SC6 terrain unless again, I’m getting soft with age but be forewarned that these peaks might surprise you if you’re expecting a simple stroll with no hands-on scrambling. I’ve rated Flints as “SC6” and Cuthead as “SC7-” just to be on the safe side.

Cuthead Peak Route Map

We’ve both been up this silly fire road more times than a human probably should be. Despite a plethora of journeys, most – if not all – are pretty darn good memories including trips up Haunted Peak, Psychic, Panther, Stoney, Spectral and Solstice. And let’s not forget the mighty Elaphus Peak on AT gear in January! Phil quickly realized he only had 3 gears as we ground up the first hill from the parking area – he did remarkably well with the three he had! We chatted and rode the 14 kms to Stoney Creek, catching up on over a year of activities before ditching the bikes near the “no biking” sign and continuing on foot. 

Hiking the Cascade fire road along the lengthy and scenic south ridge of Bighorn Peak.

We tend to forget how far we go in half a day so it was amusing to chat for a few moments with a fellow at the bridge near the Stoney Creek campground. He asked where we were headed at 14:30 and when we told him “Flints campground” he sort of glazed over. I guess 17 kms of hiking is a fair distance but for us it’s usually not a very big part of our trip. The trail was its usual hardpack limited scenery affair but we covered ground quickly and within 4.5 hours of the truck we were pulling into the silent and empty campground.

After setting up our tents we enjoyed supper before 5 energetic ladies from Lake Tahoe joined us and livened things up a bit in the quiet campground. We wandered off to check out a nearby canyon / waterfall along the North Cascade River that Phil knew about while the other group ate supper and started a cheery bonfire. After sitting around the fire for a few hours I was shocked how cold the night air was as I shivered my way into a warm sleeping bag and drifted off for the night. Our alarms went off at 05:00 and we both promptly hit “snooze” before dragging our sorry butts outta bed and preparing for the long day ahead. We knew it was going to be hot but it certainly didn’t feel that way as we walked out of camp and went hunting for Phil’s water bottle (don’t ask – a squirrel destroyed it overnight).

The next few hours were a mix of pleasant hiking and horrible hiking. The morning air was cool and pleasant as we strode along a well maintained North Fork Pass Trail. Until it wasn’t. Maintained, that is. Sure! There was still a great trail underfoot but everything 4 inches and UP was a mess of wet willows encroaching as close as they could on either side. Doesn’t sound that bad until you realize we didn’t bother thinking about rain pants until it was way too late, of course. :eyeroll: Ah well. We knew that despite the temporary unpleasantness, we’d soon be too warm rather than shivering so we sucked it up and marched bravely on.

After crossing a rather chilly and wet North Cascade River we continued on the other side, hoping for a break from wet willows. We got our break in the form of frozen willows! :another-eyeroll: Yup. We’re getting into that time of the year again I suppose. 32 degrees celsius during the day and 32 degrees fahrenheit overnight – at least both Canadians and Americans are correct about the temperature no matter the unit. The sun rising on Flints Peak to the east and unnamed summits to the north and west reminded us why we were trudging along with frozen legs and feet.

More willow-whacking on the North Fork Pass Trail with the sun rising on unnamed peaks in the distance.

After a good 90 minutes on the trail we finally spotted our access drainage and started up grass and forested slopes towards it. The lower west slopes to the drainage were a curious mix of easy walking on alpine grasses and shrubs to acrobatic high stepping over rotting deadfall. Something toppled a lot of large trees here many years ago and they are all fallen down and decaying making travel a wee bit harder. As we transitioned into the rubble gully we noted how large the rubble was. This was going to be as slow on exit as on ascent but at least there was no mystery about the route at this point.

For the next few hours we played the endlessly fascinating game of “find the fossil”. This is a distraction technique that any Rockies peakbagger will be familiar with. While staring down at our feet to prevent a stumble, we have spent countless hours over the years, looking for (and finding) fossils and interesting geometric patterns in the rocks underfoot. We chatted and slowed our pace, enjoying the beautiful morning and striking views back to an unnamed summit catching sunrise behind us to the west.

Finally we found ourselves breaking into sunshine just as the scree steepened in the final few hundred meters to the col. Jackets came off and water was consumed as the heat ramped up considerably. Within 3.5 hours of the campground we found ourselves staring up at a wall of slab and scree, almost identical to the one we’d stared at 3 years previous on Flints Peak. I knew from Cornelius that Cuthead was harder than Flints so I was prepared for things to notch up a bit here.

The upper ~200 meters to the summit from the col is very foreshortened. Careful routefinding keeps this at a scrambling level but it would be easy to get into 5th class terrain.

Slab can be very tricky. It always looks far easier than it feels once you’re on it. Straight from the col there was a short traverse on a thin ledge to climber’s left. From there I spotted a steep line up broken slab with rubble that I thought was the most reasonable. Phil wasn’t immediately convinced but he can be forgiven considering this was his first scramble of the year.

At first he was debating turning back and waiting for me at the col but I encouraged Phil to concentrate on the terrain right in front of him rather than try to suss out the entire face above us. That’s the trick with Rockies scrambling. Routes that look insane from below can be very reasonable once you get your nose into it. The only thing I kept emphasizing to Phil was that he had to be comfortable going down the previous step and up the next one. If he stuck to that rule than he shouldn’t worry too much. After the first steep bit the angle eased off and we quickly gained height on loose rubble before coming up against a blank wall. I remembered Cornelius saying something about “going right” so that’s what I did. Just as on Wind Mountain (but this was a bit harder), there was a beautiful route hidden off to the side up a series of steep, grippy slab with a nice crack to keep everything from feeling too exposed. On dry rock there is no reason to slip here but if you did you would be in a world of hurt. Or none. It’s serious terrain with serious consequences and we built many little cairns to guide us back down the face.

Above the crack section there were a few more steep slab and rubble moves before we finally broke onto the upper summit ridge. I was feeling great – this was what scrambling is all about! Phil wasn’t sure how he was feeling but I assured him he was having a blast. 😉 The difficulties weren’t over at the summit ridge. A short, narrow, exposed and extremely loose traverse finally brought us to the summit cairn with Cornelius’ register waiting for us.

We carefully picked our way to the cairn, even the final move just below it was a bit tricky. We stood atop Cuthead Peak, years after first planning it and took in the incredibly clear and smoke free views in every direction around us. We both measured the summit above 3000 meters indicating that most topo maps likely have it too short. There are a lot of other remote peaks in the vicinity and we’ve been up way too many of them over the years including Bonnet, Block, Flints and Panther Mountain.

Summit views (L to R), Bonnet, Halstead, Lychnis, St. Bride, Douglas and many other unnamed peaks over North Fork Pass.
Lovely views west and south include (R to L), Bonnet, Block, Noetic, Mystic, Assiniboine, Flints.
Views over the Cuthead (R) and Wigmore (L) Creek valleys include Melanin, Panther, Oliver, Puma and Aylmer. Flints Peak at right.
Views down the Cascade River and our approach. Puma at left and Mystic at right with Flints at C-R.

After 30 minutes or so at the summit we reluctantly turned back down the exposed ridge to our long exit. The day was promising to be bloody hot and we had a LONG way to go yet at this point – around 26 kilometers of hiking followed by 14 kms of biking back to the trailhead. The descent went a little easier than expected. We took our time and found all our ascent cairns. The grippy slab assisted with feeling more secure in steep terrain with rubble conspiring to ruin the party if our attention lapsed.

Slowly we picked our way down until finally we were at the last steep, rubbly descent. Phil wasn’t sure he wanted to descend the way we came up but there were few other reasonable options and in the end he was glad he did. From the high col, any technical obstacles were over but the toughest part of our day was still in front of us.

Heat and distance combined with endless rubble made the next few hours of our day a little rougher than expected. We wandered out of the high alpine bowl, seeking but rarely finding pleasant scree to help our descent. More often than not we were on rubble just big enough to stumble on but not big enough to parkour on. 

Descending back to the North Fork Pass Trail was a huge relief – our ankles were feeling the strain of all that rubble at this point. The sun was brutally hot as we marched back to the Flints Campground – crossing the North Cascade River I wanted to just lie down in it and I probably should have. We were drinking what we thought was plenty of water but slowly our energy levels began to sap. By the time we checked out the Flints Park warden cabin and packed up our tents we were both feeling the heat and somewhat dreading the many hours of hiking ahead of us still.

Despite the hours and hours of endless road and relatively mindless hiking ahead of us, we did what we’ve both done many times before – one foot in front of the other until you’re there. “There” in this case was our bikes at Stoney Creek. It took about 4 hours to finally reach our 2-wheel steeds and at this point we still had 14 kms of biking to do. The sun was losing its strength as we started the ride – two immediate uphill sections ensured we kept warm enough. Despite being stuck to 3 gears, Phil led a pretty quick pace and we whooped and hollered our way down the final big hill to Lake Minnewanka Drive to end a 50km, 13 hour day at 8pm. We both commented many times over the last few hours that we felt much more exhausted than the stats indicated we should. On hindsight we were both dehydrated and suffered from the extreme heat despite being pretty convinced otherwise. Lesson learned I guess – drink three times more than I think I need instead of only twice as much. Cuthead Peak was a very good outing for many reasons. The campout with a cheery fire and good company, getting out on another obscure peak with Phil and fun, challenging scrambling on the summit block. There are very few reasons why any hardcore Rockies scrambler / backpacker shouldn’t have this one on their list.

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