Summit Elevation (m): 2735
Trip Date: Friday, September 15, 2023
Round Trip Time (hr): 9.5
Elevation Gain (m): 1320
Total Trip Distance (km): 20.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you sprain or break something
Difficulty Notes: Some route finding and moderate to difficult scrambling depending on the route choices made both up the staircase waterfalls and on the summit ridge.
Technical Rating: SC6; RE3
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
Takakkaw Peak is located at GR367-092 and mentioned by David P Jones in his Rockies West climber’s guide (pg. 74 as “unnamed 2730m). It was first ascended by Eaton Cromwell and Georgia Engelhard in 1940 via a gully from the Yoho River Valley south of Takakkaw Falls to the Daly Glacier and then the south ridge. Marko Stavric was the one to give it the more meaningful name in August of 2016 on an exploratory trip to get closer to a large lake that feeds the falls below. He never made the summit. Andrew Nugara finally managed to nail this diminutive peak almost exactly 6 years to the day after Marko’s attempt. It took Nugara two tries and he engineered a scenic route up the so-called “Angel’s Staircase Falls” rather than Marko’s less appealing track up steep cliffs and rubble. Finally, Liz and Mike followed Andrew’s route earlier in 2023 and posted about it on Facebook, detailing even more about the best scramble lines to take. When Wietse suggested it as an option in mid-September I could find very few reasons not to do it – so we made plans.
We arrived at a frosty parking lot at 08:00 – it was already filling fast. After crossing the feisty Yoho River towards the always impressive Takakkaw Falls we turned left, following a faint trail through massive boulders on the east side of the Yoho River. After getting past the recent rock fall we spent the next hour working our way up the scenic river flats and through light forest to the bottom of the Angel’s Staircase Falls. The bottom of the falls wasn’t very impressive but we knew it wouldn’t take long before that changed.
As we started up the small stream forming the falls the terrain slowly ramped up – literally. The first few falls were small but scenic and it didn’t take long before we were looking up a much larger series of small cliffs, shelves and waterfalls forming the “staircase”. I can see why folks looking from across the Yoho River aren’t that impressed with the falls – they are hidden quite well with thick forest on either side of them and only really visible from within.
The next 45 to 60 minutes were pretty spectacular. The lighting made taking photos challenging, on hindsight I should have used my iPhone’s HDR capabilities but ironically I took my “good” camera and wanted to use it instead. Because the falls are in deep shadow in the morning and everything else is bright morning sunlight the photos were a little disappointing but being there in person certainly wasn’t.
As indicated by Andrew, Liz and Mike, there are a lot of scrambling options up the staircase. We did a bit of everything on ascent from steep dirt, wet grass (exposed and steep), firm rock, moderate to low-difficult cliffs and stream hopping and parkour. I think it’s possible to ascend on climber’s right of the falls in forest the whole way up which wouldn’t be more than a very steep hike, but this would be a little silly given the whole point of going up here is to see the falls.
Near the top of the staircase the route trends to climber’s right along a very scenic upper shelf before the drainage narrows into a single channel that must be followed on it’s right side (SW) either near the creek or in the forest above. This section was also very scenic but is a more regular creek than the distinctive staircase falls below. It took us about 90 minutes to ascend from the Yoho River to the upper alpine valley at the top of the steam feeding the falls. Travel is not fast with all the route options and the scenery that must be enjoyed or what’s the point?
From the upper alpine valley we had two route choices. We could continue SE up the valley to intersect the long south ridge of Takakkaw Peak at its lowest point or we could ascend very steep SW slopes through forested cliffs to access the peak’s south ridge more directly. Because we weren’t in the mood to get tangled up in complex terrain we chose the easiest and longest option to the SE and hoped that we’d find a way through the cliffs at the end of the day.
It was longer than it first appeared but the SE option worked well and within 30 minutes we were approaching the top of a hard-pack moraine at the extreme south end of a long ridge coming off our peak. As Liz indicated, views from this end of the ridge out of the Yoho Valley towards Wapta Mountain were stunning. Since we were here for the views I also descended the moraine towards the outflow creek from Takakkaw Lake to the top of the falls and took some nice photos there before ascending back to the ridge.
Once we dedicated ourselves to the south ridge we made faster progress than the few hours previous. Again – we were here for the views so it didn’t matter. The lower south ridge was easy and granted excellent views over a paltry Daly Glacier to the lovely Takakkaw Lake on one side and the familiar Yoho River valley on the other – from a very unfamiliar angle. I remembered many trips into this area in my early scrambling days, including a memorable one that included Isolated Peak from the Elizabeth Parker Hut when it was still easy to book such luxuries. It took much longer than expected but we finally passed the last tree on the ridge and proceeded up steeper terrain shortly afterwards.
From the trip reports available we knew that the scrambling should never be “difficult” on the ridge and for the most part it was easy to moderate. We avoided some difficult steps on climber’s right but always immediately returned to the ridge proper for the most fun terrain.
Not surprisingly if you’ve ascended any peaks around here (or anywhere in the Rockies for that matter!) the terrain was terribly loose and caution was required on several moderately exposed and steep bits. We wore brain buckets more to keep falling rocks off our noggin than anything else.
The upper ridge was a lot of fun with some blocky scrambling and little bits of sidewalk with exposure. Views over the Yoho River valley were absolutely stunning, as were the views to Mount Daly and Niles across previously glaciated terrain. The color and different rock types along with the shimmering tarns and large Takakkaw Lake made this a premium summer scramble. Finally, around 5 hours from the parking lot we were on the highest point.
The weather at the summit was beautiful and after taking summit photos and a nice long break we slowly wandered down the north ridge towards a distant Mount Balfour. It appeared from our vantage that it may be possible to ascend Balfour in summer without ever setting foot on a glacier but we couldn’t see 100% of the route. It would be a long day trip via the Staircase Falls. The north ridge of Takakkaw is a little strange in that it doesn’t drop very much. Despite this, there is a small cliff band just under the summit that is best circumvented on skier’s right before zipping back up under the nose and continuing down the ridge proper. I tried downclimbing the nose of this cliff and although possible there’s little point in it – the bypass is easy and quick.
After regaining the north ridge we continued down, heeding Andrew’s advice NOT to ascend too early – there are cliffs below that are hard to see until it’s too late. We descended to obvious yellow slabs and scree that clearly offered easy access to the large plateau that used to hold the Daly / Balfour Glacier and descended to a traverse line along the east face of Takakkaw on easy rubble slopes leading back to the south ridge.
On ascent we’d noted what looked like an easy descent option into the cirque at the top of the creek feeding Angel’s Staircase Falls, breaking through cliffs on the west side of the ridge before traversing roughly at treeline south, back into the cirque. We decided to try this line, it saved us from having to descend all the way to the south end of the ridge.
Our descent line worked quite well. At first we thought it was all very easy and straightforward and for the most part it was, but the final descent into the rubble cirque was a bit manky with very steep slopes, boulders and tight trees. This might be a better option for ascent – I think Liz and Mike might have gone this way but I’m unsure. The advantage of the ascent route we took is that we got the scenery earlier in the day when we had more energy to check it out. One thing you do NOT want to do is follow the track on Gaia marked “Takakkaw Lake Route”. This is Marko’s line and is a difficult sounding descent, especially if you didn’t ascend it. We chose to descend the staircase falls, realizing that the forest on skiers left was likely pretty easy if the falls got too difficult or slow on the way down.
After working our way out along the feeder creek we came back to the top of the staircase, looking hundreds of meters down to the Yoho River raging far below us. The descent of the upper falls was easy and fun on the blocky terrain we’d ascended. At some point we were going pretty slow and decided to simply take the forest to the south of the falls, just skier’s left. This worked well.
Roughly 75 minutes from the top of the feeder creek in the cirque we exited the bottom of the staircase falls back to the Yoho River. The river was incredibly fast and furious – much higher and angrier than earlier that day! On ascent we’d mentioned a few times that we likely could have crossed it from the trail on the other side but there is no way anyone was crossing back over in the afternoon of a warm sunny day – not safely anyway. The hike back to Takakkaw Falls was very pleasant in late afternoon shadows along forest and river flats.
Takakkaw Peak is like many other peak in Yoho National Park. It’s incredibly scenic with far reaching views over glaciers and snow fields to other, very scenic peaks. As someone who has ascended almost every named peak in the park I can assure you that this one is well worth the effort to attain but oddly in this case it’s not really about the peak itself. Sure! It’s always nice to stand on another high point and remember so many other trips to all the high points surrounding you, but in this case Takakkaw Peak is about more than the top. The Angel’s Staircase Falls are incredible in their own right and as Liz warns – they add a significant number of minutes to your day due to terrain and scenery that begs to be gawked at constantly. The views of Takakkaw Creek and Lake from the south end of the south ridge are well worth a slight detour and cost more minutes. The scenery over the Balfour and Daly Glacier is the icing on the cake, as are the views of the Iceline Trail and Little Yoho Valley from a vantage that is fairly unique to the area. Put it this way – we were very surprised by the amount of time this “small peak” took us, despite Liz’s warning that it would happen. This is a trip to take your time on and let the magical landscape that few others can get to soak into your soul to linger a while.