Summit Elevation (m): 2695
Trip Date: October 6, 2023
Elevation Gain (m): 1100
Trip Time (hr): 5.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 11
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3 – you fall, you sprain or break something.
Difficulty Notes: There are no major difficulties to the main summit but if continuing to the east outlier there is one short, moderate exposed step where you don’t want to slip.
Technical Rating: SC5
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
It seems like a lifetime ago but it was only in October of 2009 that I scrambled up the endless scree ramp route on Storm Mountain in Banff National Park. In 2022 I repeated the mountain, this time on skis. I remember thinking already back in 2009 that some day I’d love to visit the two tarns located NW of the peak and wondered if the outlier peaks rising above them would be a fun little scramble. I figured they’d have some incredible views of the Castle Mountain massif. I was right on both counts and finally managed to check things out as the 2023 scrambling and hiking season came to a close.
For a small unnamed peak surrounded by big, named summits “Vista” doesn’t have much public beta but is mentioned by David Jones in his Rockies Central climbers guide as “Unnamed 2695m” on page 235. The boundary commission ascended it in 1913 to take photos of the surrounding area – apparently they also thought it would be a great viewpoint. One of the main issues with what I called “Arnica Peak” (we later found out that someone else called it “Vista”) was simply that it looked too quick and easy for the length of drive – I have a personal pet peeve with a drive taking longer than an objective. On Friday, October 6th Wietse needed to be home early so I suggested this diminutive summit and he agreed.
We weren’t sure exactly where to park and approach Vista Peak so we decided to give a track on the Gaia basemap a try. We parked at a small pull off at the Kootenay National Park boundary sign along hwy 93 and started bushwhacking from a dried up Vermilion River on the opposite side of the road. You guessed it already. There was not even a hint of a trail despite the track on Gaia. I remembered a much better situation up climbers left of the stream coming down from Storm Mountain and its tarns and suggested we trend in that direction. Thankfully it didn’t take long and we were on an obvious trail. Just as I remembered from years previous, the trail was obvious but ducked and wove its way over, under and around a lot of deadfall. It was still much better than the random Gaia track and after about an hour of steep hiking we veered off to our left up Vista’s lower SW ridge.
After a short and relatively pain-free bushwhack we found ourselves facing a reasonably angled slope covered in fallen trees from a wildfire event many years ago. We angled our way up the slope, trying not to wipe out on any frost covered logs.
As the slope slowly turned north, it steepened and we got better views to the upper SW and west ridge and Storm Mountain sitting ominously above to our right. The Storm tarns were in deep shadow as they are most days thanks to their position under the mountain’s north face. Finally we ascended out of the fallen matchstick forest and found ourselves on easy rubble and slab slopes in warm sunshine.
It was a glorious fall day as we continued scrambling the easy upper SW ridge to a summit that was further and higher than it first seemed. This reminded me of Little Temple which is also much higher and further than it looks – being next to a larger peak always makes these types of peaks seem smaller.
After some unexpected – but fun – easy slab and ridge scrambling we finally popped out at the 2700 meter summit, complete with a large wind wall made of rocks and containing a summit register. It was from this register that the name “Vista Peak” was gleaned – and it makes sense considering that Vista Lake is located right under the north face. If I was surprised by the register I was even more surprised by how busy it was! There were at least 3 dozen entries since 2016, if not more. Many folks were continuing on to Storm Mountain so maybe there’s a more popular access route than I realized over this peak?
Summit views were stunning just as I suspected they might be. I wasn’t expecting the view south to be so darn good but in morning lighting with the green valley, yellow larches and white snow with blue skies overhead it was positively sublime. I was planning a hike to Gibbon Pass the following day and convinced Wietse to head over to an east outlier to see if it would offer some views in that direction. Another reason for the extension is that we were going to be back at the car within 4 hours of leaving it and that was simply too darn fast. We wanted to be out at least 5 hours if possible.
As we suspected, the traverse between peaks wasn’t quite as easy or straightforward as it first appeared, with some huge, shifting boulders and exposed sections of ridge to navigate. Most difficulties could be avoided with either slow, deliberate steps or with circumvention but there were 1 or 2 unavoidable (short) moderate steps along the way with pretty severe exposure down the north face. Summit views were once again, stunning.
I was happy to get photos of Arnica Lake but we couldn’t quite see Gibbon Pass from the east outlier. Oh well – it was still worth the short trip and fun scrambling to get over to it plus it was going to put our day closer to 5.5 hours which suited us just fine. No sense in rushing home on days like this one!
After snapping too many photos, we returned along the ridge until we were back under Vista Peak where we side-sloped rubble and loose boulder slopes back to the upper SW ridge. We enjoyed some of the rock steps along the way – nothing posed any problems and in dry conditions the whole thing would be no more than easy scrambling with some exposure.
As we strolled down the south ridge, back to the fallen matchstick forest on the lower SW ridge we marveled at the beautiful day and the incredible views down hwy 93 and the Vermilion River valley. We’ve both skied many of the peaks and valleys in this area and seeing it all so green instead of bright white was awesome.
The rest of our descent to the trail and then back down it to the highway was quick and relatively straightforward in warm afternoon sunshine. The only hiccup was when we neared the highway we kept losing the trail until we lost it completely! I can see why folks scrambling Storm Mountain get a bit frustrated with the lack of a clear trail from the highway. We followed the dried up riverbed to our approach route before crossing a very busy highway back to the car.
Yes, Vista Peak is unofficial, lowly and unremarkable in almost every way. BUT. Its location made it worthwhile for the boundary commission over 100 years ago and it should make it worthwhile to you as well. With a trail leading up through the worst of the bush and an easy route with stunning views from there and from the top, I think it should be on most Rockies hikers and scramblers hit lists.