Summit Elevation (m): 3143
Elevation Gain (m): 2000
Trip Date: August 16 2023
Round Trip Time (hr): 13
Total Trip Distance (km): 59.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something.
Difficulty Notes: Just as for many of its Palliser Range neighbors, the main defense of Puma Peak is getting there and then having the energy to tackle the peak. A steep slab and rubble gully provides moderate difficulty but nothing too serious.
Technical Rating: SC6, RE4/5
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
Video: Link to YouTube
First Recorded Ascent: John Martin (solo), August 14 1986
As Phil Richards and I made the long walk out of Flints Park after our ascent of Cuthead Peak, he asked me if I still had to bike the Cascade fire road for any more objectives or if this was “it”. I told him there was one last objective – arguably the biggest one yet – waiting for me to get done. Puma Peak is a large, prominent mass of rock rising above its remote neighbors at the south end of the Bare Range and north end of the Palliser Range. The only other peak in the range higher than Puma is Mount Aylmer at only 20 meters more (3162). I’d been looking at Puma for a few years now, ever since I started on a campaign of peaks in the front ranges and eastern Banff National Park including the Ghost Wilderness, Panther River, Cascade River and Stoney Creek areas. The problem with Puma was a complete lack of beta – everyone I knew thought it was unclimbed and we all suspected that the only viable scramble route might be up the complex south face. I knew several other folks including Sara McLean were keen on tagging this large objective and contacted her regarding an attempt. She was immediately in and we started making plans.
Ironically I found beta in one of my sources the very evening before Sara and I were planning a two day trip into the untracked wilds to finally settle the debate of whether or not the south face had a scramble route. I was finishing up my Cuthead Peak trip report and did one last scan for other sources of information when I stumbled across a brief account of John Martin’s 1986 solo ascent of what he dubbed “Palliser Peak” (1989 CAJ pg. 85). He rated the south face as F 3rd and called it “easy”. He also claimed it was only an 11 hour day trip from Lake Minnewanka. When I looked at the elevation (3140m) and zeroed in on the grid reference I knew he’d bagged “Puma Peak” and we actually did have beta. I right away messaged Sara who was disappointed that we weren’t going to get an FRA but happy to have information indicating a scramble route was there for the taking. We decided to move Puma from an overnight excursion to a much simpler (and lighter) day trip.
For the 2nd time in 3 days I found myself parking along Lake Minnewanka Drive and dragging my sorry butt up the Cascade fire road on my trusty Rocky Mountain Element 950. Even though the road is an easy ride, doing it twice in the span of a few days isn’t ideal. I must be a sucker for punishment though because I did a similar idiotic move on the Cutoff Creek Trail earlier in the summer for ascents of Forbidden and HH89. Just as with Phil a few days earlier, Sara and I haven’t been out since our Poltergeist adventure this past winter and we chatted our way up the 14km approach ride making it feel much easier than it was. After locking the bikes to a tree we continued across Stoney Creek and instead of going straight up the fire road, we deviated east, up the trail leading to Dormer Pass. The next 1.5 hours were spent hiking up Stoney Creek on the Dormer Pass Trail as it wound its way in and out of the creek and through the forest. Thankfully the trail was recently maintained and we walked straight through some sections of fairly recent blowdown. Already early into our day we started questioning just how in the heck John did this trip in 11 hours – we knew we were going to be a bit longer than that.
Phil had mentioned a faint trail leaving Stoney Creek just before the north fork entered and we managed to find it right away. We followed it excitedly, hoping for an easy route at least part way up the creek but alas, 1.5 minutes along the trail it petered out and never did recover properly. We found other bits of it along the creek but never enough to bother following very long. Did there used to be a good trail up here? I have my doubts, but maybe. In the end it didn’t matter as much as you might think. We played a very familiar game of “creek parkour” and were relieved to discover that this creek, like others in the area, was mostly debris and deadfall-free. We spent an hour hiking up a running creek before arriving at a split – we continued up the right hand branch to the NE slowly getting closer to our peak despite not having eyes on it yet.
The creek grew smaller after the NE branch but continued to hold running water which was great news on a hot summer day. We were a little disappointed in the smoky skies but we both commented that today was more about finding a route up Puma than about the views. Thankfully the smoke wasn’t thick enough to affect our breathing or fitness. One thing the smoke helped with was taking the fierceness out of the sun. I felt MUCH better than on Mount Wardle the day previous, thanks to the “smoke filter”. The small side creek remained mostly debris-free and we were delighted to complete the hike almost entirely without bushwhacking to a beautiful alpine meadow south of our mountain. I couldn’t quite believe it when we broke into the meadow and realized there would be almost no bushwhacking on this entire trip. Things were definitely going our way so far and this was fast becoming a trip of the summer for 2023.
Due to the nature of the creeks we’d been hiking along it didn’t feel like we’d gained any height as we strolled through open alpine meadows, taking a bit of a highline approach towards a low rise that still hid the lake and mountain from view. I knew we had, but it didn’t feel like it. Our rising traverse worked perfectly and as we stepped onto the low col Puma Peak stared back at us in dramatic form and we could immediately see our planned line of attack straight up an obvious gully system cutting down the massive south face.
The only other slight disappointment of the day besides the smoky views was the half-dried up, muddy lake that greeted us as we continued wandering towards the mountain. Instead of a beautiful turquoise alpine lake sparkling in sunlight we were met with a rather dull, muddy pond.
We had no issues walking the dried up mud flats of the lake and continued towards the huge south face which only grew bigger and bigger the closer we got. The good news was that there was very little choice regarding which route we were going to attempt – there wasn’t any other viable option. The tilted strata and complex folds reminded us both of Revenant Mountain – a nearby peak with a very similar look and feel to it. After a short scree cone ascent we were under the gully splitting the face and started immediately up it. We were both really psyched at this point – everything was working out unexpectedly good on this adventure. This is what scrambling is all about! I shouldn’t have been so surprised as other peaks in the range have been pretty stellar too, including Stoney Peak, Solstice and the Spectral Lake peaks.
As we ascended on slab and rubble we got to what I think is the crux of the route just before really getting into the south gully system. It was only moderate (SC6), but it was steep and a little exposed. A slip here would definitely hurt badly. We were very glad to have helmets in the gully as it is a terrain funnel for falling debris. The next part of the gully was great fun on a staircase almost devoid of any rubble. With the amount of debris above, I’m not sure how it happens but we ascended the next hundred meters pretty quick on easy rock steps before getting onto more typical Rockies scree and rubble terrain. The staircase reminded me of the excellent hidden crack route breaking cliffs on Mount Amery.
As we continued up the gully on steep rubble and scree, we stuck to either side finding more solid ground like we did on Afternoon Peak (this was MUCH more solid than that gully was). There were rock ribs that we could also take advantage of, making the ascent pretty darn efficient. As we approached the bottom end of a crumbling black rock rib splitting the upper gully, we deviated climber’s right to more solid looking terrain. Here we managed to find more ribs in the scree and only 90 minutes from the lake we were already topping out at the west summit ridge with smoky views of Panther Mountain to the north.
I commented to Sara that, “we might actually nab this peak”, as we continued up slabs and ribs to the still unseen summit along a steep, narrow ridge. There were some limited options to bail the ridge to climbers right but the best option seemed to be on the ridge crest. Again – I would say moderate or “SC6” with some exposure and loose rock as you’d expect here. Some sections looked more intimidating than they felt once on them and before long we were at the small summit cairn and the top of Puma Peak!
Views, as expected, were extremely limited thanks to smoky skies. We were delighted anyway. It’s not every day that you get to make a 2nd recorded ascent of a pretty big peak in the Canadian Rockies – and one that’s much easier and simpler than you thought while planning it over a few years. There was no register in the cairn.
We didn’t linger long at the summit, knowing we still had another 30km to travel on exit. We carefully descended the west ridge – it certainly felt moderate in sections with exposure down the incredible north face to Puma’s dying glacier far below. As we descended the upper ridge, we decided to descend the opposite side of the crumbling black rock rib that we’d ascended, hoping to find nice fast scree. And we did! Puma just kept delivering the goods for us. We made very short work of the upper section down the south gully before stumbling and bumbling our way back to the staircase. Following the staircase we descended more tricky, moderate slabs with rubble before finally exiting the lower crux back to scree.
It was incredible to exit that huge south face, knowing the route not only went – but went very smoothly. We relished in the success of our day, slowly wandering back to the dried up lake and making our way down alpine meadows to the upper stream. Thanks to the smoke filtering out the hot summer sun we didn’t feel too exhausted as we started the long journey back out to Stoney Creek and our bikes.
The next many hours were spent in an extremely familiar pattern for me this year. I’ve only done around 20 peaks in the Rockies in 2023, but most of them have been way over 40km days with wild creeks, old trails and mountain wilderness in every direction. It’s been an amazing year so far. I know so many folks are into lists and challenges that other people put together but I am so over that. I love the freedom I have to just go nab anything (or not) that I want to, when it works for me.
As I rode the familiar 14 kilometers back to the Lake Minnewanka parkway, I meditated on how darn lucky I am to be free to do whatever adventure motivates me, pretty much whenever I can. My kids are both done college and this fall is the first time in over 18 years that nobody in my family is going back to school. I am extremely grateful for my family – they are the best thing in my life – but there is a great sense of freedom now that they are less and less dependent on me for their day-to-day support. Life goes by very fast and I am grateful for the Rockies and the sense of exploration they still offer in a modern world with very little true “unknowns” still there. Now I just have to hope my poor body can keep up with my spreadsheet as I continue to seek these adventures out. 😉