Cross & South Ghost Peak

Summit Elevations (m): 2587, 2631
Trip Date: Saturday, October 14, 2023
Elevation Gain (m): 1850+
Round Trip Time (hr): 11
Total Trip Distance (km): 30
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3+, you fall, you break something or worse
Difficulty Notes: A long way from nowhere with extensive onsite routefinding even with a GPS track.
Technical Rating: SC7-
GPS Track: Gaia
Map: Google Maps

It’s been a while since I tramped up Jura Creek. I think the last time was way back in 2007 on an ascent of Morrowmount with Wietse, long before it was even on many Alberta Rockies scramblers radars nevermind a guidebook. I can’t remember how long I’ve had South Ghost Peak on my agenda but it’s been a long time. I remember researching routes up Exshaw Creek for years. Then in 2013 Cornelius Rott posted a pair of trips up Cross Peak and a week later up South Ghost Peak using an exciting sounding route from Jura Creek. Then the Ramblers posted a trip report on an Exshaw Creek approach in 2016. Now that I had a set of viable routes, I had to wait until I was in the mood and had partners willing to do the long front range trudge with me. Years ticked by without even an attempt. You need to be in the right mindset for these types of trips, especially when you’re spoiled like I am. How do you motivate yourself to go up a dry, rocky creekbed for hours and hours before struggling up a peak hundreds of meters lower than what you’re used to with views that don’t include anything resembling alpine lakes, glaciers or wild, remote landscapes

Overview of the long route up Jura Creek to the summit of South Ghost Peak.

I knew, based on the relative blandness of the trip, that it would have to be done during the off-season – either spring or fall. Based on the fact that it involved a long trek up a creekbed, fall seemed like the best bet. The years ticked by. Every warm spring weekend or nice stretch of late fall weather I’d consider it but each time it fell into the “meh” pile and just didn’t happen. Finally in 2023 it was time to get it done. I was in the mood, and I wanted to go solo. (I was planning to use Cornelius’ route simply because it was much shorter and sounded much more fun than the slog that the Ramblers did.) I was very happy with the short drive on a dark Saturday morning but very much less happy with the dense fog I had to navigate on a busy highway #1! I pulled into an empty Jura Creek parking lot and started up a network of trails leading into the creekbed. As usual for solo trips, my thoughts swirled as I started the long walk up Jura Creek.

The route in detail from where it leaves Jura Creek. There is approximately 100 meter of height loss between the high col and Cross Peak and again from Cross Peak to South Ghost Peak. Confusingly, bivouac.com labels “East Peak” as “South Ghost” and doesn’t label “South Ghost” or “Cross” at all despite both being higher. David Jones Rockies Central climber’s guide doesn’t help – it labels “South Ghost” as “Exshaw” and the east outlier as “unnamed”. Both sources get the elevations way wrong.

I’ve been asked a few times recently where I get my motivation for trips from. It’s a fair question. While I don’t have the obsessive numbers of peaks like some folks I know, I have been at this game for almost 25 years now. I am slowly closing in on 1k peaks – almost exclusively in the Canadian Rockies between Waterton and Jasper. So where does my motivation to keep ascending more and more obscure and “off-the-radar” landscapes come from? The short answer is that I still love being outdoors, exploring new (to me) areas of my backyard and long days on my feet. But the longer answer is that I’m not always that motivated. As my objectives become more and more obscure, they necessarily also involve more and more complicated drives and approaches. With a very comfortable home back in YYC near a beautiful Fish Creek Park, it’s not always easy to wake early and drive to yet another distant mountain trailhead in the cold dark of morning. Rolling out of a warm bed next to a warm, beautiful partner just to repeat what I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of times over the years isn’t always number 1 on my list, believe it or not. 

But on the flip side there’s many wonderful adventures to be had! It’s a very rare moment that I’ve regretted getting out of bed to pursue another unseen valley, unexplored peak or scenic route in my beloved Rockies west of my comfortable home. It’s very rare for me to come home and admit I shouldn’t have left in the first place. My job is exceedingly dull and I have never had passion for my career. I am a typical middle aged bloke, trapped in a job that pays too well for me to simply walk away from it. I have too many people depending on me for a good life – I can’t simply quit on them. So I do the next best thing. I give myself excitement and fulfillment outside of work. It’s not the perfect solution, but it’s a solution. Considering what the vast majority of other humans on this floating blue marble of ours are dealing with, I consider myself extremely fortunate and privileged to have the health, freedom and money to be able to do what I do.

All this musing about life got me a few hours and many kilometers up Jura Creek – just as I’d hoped it would. Slowly the creek narrowed as it turned up towards Morrowmount and here’s where the route started to become interesting. Not for the first time, this particular route is one of Cornelius’ best finds. Where Jura Creek ran up against a brown shale slope and continued up to the left, the route finally left the creek and started up a shallow ridge directly ahead. At first I was conflicted about this, wondering if the creek would be a gentler and easier route but soon I topped out on my first steep section and could see logic in the route I was on, as it followed a series of goat paths towards another crossing of Jura Creek directly under the high col.

The high col at upper left where brown shale meets grayish white limestone. Jura Creek is just ahead here as I complete the shortcut rubble traverse. Morrowmount at upper right here.

After crossing upper Jura Creek I ascended one last brown shale slope – this one was very loose and annoying. Not annoying, however, was finally reaching the high col and taking in the views back down Jura Creek and ahead to the rest of my journey. Feelings were mixed at this point if I’m totally honest. On the one hand I was psyched to be all the way back here enjoying a perfect fall day with nobody around. On the other hand, one look over the NE face on the other side of the high col had me thinking my day was done. I’d been assuming that with the warm weather and plenty of time to melt, there’d be no more snow on the east face traverse between Morrowmount and Cross Peak. I was clearly wrong and found myself backing away from the snow covered ledge and pondering next steps. I was also very annoyed with myself realizing that I’d forgotten to put my icers in the pack at the parking lot, despite thinking about it on the drive out.

For better or worse, I don’t turn back easily when I’ve put in the effort to get somewhere this remote and in this case I decided that the snow was solid enough to justify trying it for a short descent and shallow enough not to throw me down the deadly exposure below. I could see that the crux area was bone dry – it is more east facing than the initial NE facing ledges. After a few hundred feet I knew that the snow wasn’t going to be an issue. Any more of it would have been, but the amount I had was actually somewhat helpful on the loose scree covered ledge I was on.

Continuing the traverse I will have to first get to the ledge that Cornelius used and then up a slab and crux crack just visible here.

Looking at my GPS I could tell that I was no longer on Cornelius’ route. His line was about 20 or 30 feet above me on a slightly narrower ledge, closer to the light colored cliffs blocking easy access to the ridge above on climber’s left. My ledge was wide and very easy to navigate other than a few narrower sections where snow made things a wee bit trickier. I knew that at some point I had to ascend to my left and as I approached what I assumed was the crux area I made my way up a series of moderate ledges and slabs to get onto the same line as Cornelius had used. So far my route had been easy to moderate scrambling but as I searched around, the terrain was looking more and more complex. After scrambling up steep, moderate slabs and ledges I found myself at a near-vertical shallow crack leading up to another series of ledges. The crack wasn’t horribly exposed and had enough holds to feel reasonable and I scrambled up without too much severe clenching.

From the top of  what turned out to be the crux, I think I might have found a slightly easier exit off the east face than Cornelius did. Instead of angling up dicey looking snow-covered slabs where his track clearly went (moderate when dry), I continued around another corner on a NNW trending ledge – also snow covered. At first it seemed sketchy but on hindsight it was pretty easy going and before I knew it I was on a wide scree ledge leading easily to the south ridge of Cross Peak and was done my traverse. Without the easier ledge finish, I’m not 100% sure I would have made it over this last section with snow and ice complicating Cornelius’ exit line.

I was pumped about the clear sailing ahead but time was slowly ticking by as happens on these long days and I knew I had to increase my pace once again in order to beat darkness back to the parking lot. Despite appearances, there was no need to ascend the small cliffs lining the south ridge of Cross Peak and before long I was on my first summit of the day with pretty stellar views down Old Fort Creek to the east and over Exshaw and Carrot passes to the west. Many familiar peaks in the Fairholme Range stood out in the crisp autumn air reminding me of many other solo trips over the years.

Summit views north include (L to R), Mythic Tower, Epic Tower, Townsend, Stenton, Peechee, Girouard, Carrot, South Ghost, Orient Point, End and Association Peak (R).
Summit views down Old Fort Creek at left include (L to R), End, Association, EEOW, Wendell, Yamnuska, Morrowmount, Gap, Fable.

I knew I’d be back at the summit of Cross Peak and didn’t linger long before continuing down its north ridge towards a very distant looking South Ghost Peak. I also knew that despite the height loss and appearances, my next summit couldn’t be THAT far away considering how far my GPS was telling me I’d already come. I guessed that within 2 hours I’d be back at the summit of Cross Peak.

Views back up Cross Peak’s north ridge with Old Fort Creek at left running to the prairies past Association and Wendell peaks.

Despite losing at least 100 meters of height down the north ridge of Cross, the views kept me entertained and my energy levels were such that I could maintain a good pace towards South Ghost. I knew from Cornelius that despite looking steep, the summit block was easier than it appeared.

Indeed, the summit block was easier than expected and within only 40-45 minutes of Cross Peak I was standing on my second summit of the day. Views were, as expected, very respectable for such a lowly front range mountain.

Summit of South Ghost from L to R, Saddle, Black Rock, Orient Point, End, Association, Wendell, Cross, Fable, Mythic, Epic and Townsend over Exshaw Pass.
Great views to eastern Banff include (L to R), Townsend, Stenton, Peechee over Carrot Pass, Girouard, Carrot, Aylmer, Saddle.
Great views over End Mountain and Association Peak with the east outlier of South Ghost at right.

The big debate with myself as I descended the SE ridge of South Ghost Peak was whether or not to bother with the east outlier. One of the only reasons to do it was the fact that bivouac.com labels this as “South Ghost”. Another reason was slightly different views, especially east over Old Fort Creek towards End Mountain and Association Peak. I decided to take the 15-20 minutes and check it out.

As expected, I wasn’t blown away by the views or the terrain but it was quick and relatively painless. Considering the effort put into getting all the way back there, I suppose it’s a no-brainer to wander up the east outlier despite its lowly status.

From the east outlier (R to L), Orient Point, Black Rock, Saddle, Carrot, Aylmer, South Ghost, Stenton, Townsend, Mythic Tower, Fable, Cross Peak.
Great views to the prairies down Old Fort Creek with End Mountain at left and Association Peak, East End of Wendell and Wendell Peak to the right.

The views were familiar as I snapped some summit panos before heading back towards Cross Peak. The 100+ meter ascent took more gas out of my tank than expected but in general I was still going strong considering I hadn’t had breakfast yet. I was happy to note that my estimate of 2 hours return from Cross to South Ghost and the east outlier was pretty much spot on. I quickly dropped back to the start of my east face traverse and didn’t waste time following my route to the crux crack. Descending the crux area went a bit easier than expected. Eventually I worked my way from Cornelius’ line back to my ledge and from there slowly wandered back up to the high col in punchy snow – cursing at my giant descent steps.

Finally I found myself at the high col with late afternoon lighting on the striking form of Hassel Castle looming over the long Jura Creek exit far below. I was now almost 8.5 hours into my day and knew that I’d be flirting with a finish in darkness. No matter – I was done the hard stuff now. I retraced my approach route back around the brown shale slopes into upper Jura Creek.

From the high col looking past Morrowmount (L) to the shortcut rubble traverse into upper Jura Creek.

The next few hours were spent doing what I do best – moving quickly down a wild valley all by myself, lost in thought as I wandered between short sections of trail and the jumbled mess in Jura Creek. I returned past the False Fault pools and took the west hikers bypass at the end of the creek rather than the east (Jura Cave) one that I’d done on approach. On hindsight I likely should have stayed in the creek for scenery but didn’t want to run into any deep pools of water.

I returned to the empty parking lot 11 hours after leaving it – just as the sun continued setting to the west. I really enjoyed this trip. It had just the right amount of distance, route finding and varied terrain to be interesting without being “too interesting”. It was the perfect way to possibly end my 2023 scrambling season before snowfall renders anything other than easy bumps done for the year. I agree with Cornelius that it feels like a long way out there when you’re standing all by yourself on the summit of South Ghost Peak but on this particular day that was exactly what I was looking for. I highly recommend this trip for experienced and fit parties – just remember your headlamp if you’re planning it for late season like I did.

(Note: A week later I was back up Jura Creek, completing a long desired trip up Goat Mountain to finish off my 2023 scrambling season.)

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