Circumnavigating the Drummond Glacier - Banff NP.
Sunrise over the remote and seldom visited McConnell Creek Valley
Hello everyone this will be my first post here. Been lurking off and on for a while, but as I currently sit locked up during pandemic times, my thoughts have been drifting back to a solo trip I did last summer in the Front Ranges of Banff. Hopefully someone will find this useful (or if nothing else, interesting).
Note that a section of this route goes thru the recent bison reintroduction area of Banff NP. Veering off trail in this region is not permitted and comes with hefty fines. However after contacting parks, they confirmed that the limited area of the restricted zone in which I intended to visit, was ok for this trip.
Throughout the summer I'd been lucky enough to find work as a backcountry lodge attendant at the Skoki Backcountry Lodge. As a result Iíd spent many days exploring the Front Ranges of the Canadian Rockies, and had long been planning a more extensive trip into some of their less visited corners. This area of the park is pretty remote. It's cool how Banff - an extremely popular park, has areas where you can go for many days without seeing any signs of humans. Once passing the Baker Lake campground I didn't see another person untill I dropped in at Skoki Lodge on my way out, three days later. A lot of time on this trip was spent navigating valleys and mountains with no trails. I tried researching the region as much as I could beforehand, but there really is limited information to be found online.
My intended route was to depart from Fish Creek Carpark. Iíd make my way past Ptarmigan Lake, Baker Lake and along Cotton-Grass Pass before settling down for my first night at the Red Deer Lakes Campsite. The following morning would see me making my way down along the Red Deer River, past the shingle flats and the old wardenís cabin east of Mt. Drummond. Shortly thereafter I would veer off trail, westbound, up the unnamed valley south of Mount McConnell. From here I would make my way to the summit of McConnell, before dropping down and bivvying in the hanging valley north of the peak, overlooking McConnell Creek. Day three would take me west to the headwaters of McConnell Creek, passing beneath the imposing summits of Bleat and Snort Peak. Hiking north, I would then climb the pass east of Cataract Peak over to the large alpine plateau with itís many-hued lakes. Near the head of the Roaring Creek Valley, my plan was to attempt a route over a pass situated between Dip Slope Mountain and Little Cataract Peak. This area in particular was impossible to find any information on, and quite a bit depended on this oassybeing navigable. It definitely turned out being the ceux of the trip, as you will see. Well on the western side of the mountain range I would set up camp at the large lakes (three brothers lake) in the hanging valley above the Pipestone Valley. My final day would be a long walk down the Pipestone Valley, into the Little Pipestone and then Skoki region. After hiking over Packers Pass I would finally retrace my steps back to the carpark.
Well on the trail, the transition from frontcountry to backcountry comes gradually. The first four kilometers of the hike are somewhat uninspiringly spent trudging along the gravel road making itís way up the backside of the Lake Louise ski hill. As the gravel road is eventually replaced by a compact dirt trail, laden with roots and boulders, the scenery opens up. The area is stunning! It doesnít take long before, under a gentle morning sun and flanked on all sides by giants, the winding trail lead me through alpine meadows bursting with wildflowers and babbling brooks. The incline wasn't very steep, but it is nearly constant and with a fully loaded backpack it was sweaty business!
On fresh legs however, I made quick work of this first section of the trail. Before I knew it, I was huffing my way over Boulder Pass Ė the first pass of the trip. As I skirted the rim of the pass Iím greeted by the dark cobalt blue waters of the expansive Ptarmigan Lake. On this calm, warm summer morning The lake sat placid and reflective. The lake stretches out for over a kilometer and the trail runs parallel to itís northern shore for its full length. Sitting in the shadow of the imposing Ptarmigan Peak and sat in a basin of subalpine pastures, the large lake is very beautiful. A couple hours further along the path I encountered yet another large lake. Baker Lake. There is a campground at itís eastern end, and here also the trail forks. I turned left and north, slowly making my way along the meandering streams and meadows that cover the green and verdant Cotton-Grass Pass.
Summer came late this year to the Canadian Rockies. Expansive snowfields lasted well into what normally would be considered summer. The extensive periods of rain and cold temperatures acted as a welcome break from the last few years' dryspells. The expansive, raging wildfires that came with them and wrecked havock in the mountains had instead been replaced by snow and rainstorms for most of the spring.
Just over the past week or so, however, the last persistent grips of winter seemed to be finally giving way. Delayed by cold weather, wildflowers that normally would have come into bloom early in the season, were just now peeking out, alongside the flowers that would usually come around this time of year. The results proved an explosion of color combinations rarely experienced, as blooms that normally wouldn't overlap, did so. Red, blue, yellow and white patches, all vivid under a bright blue sky, carpeted the landscape.
I could now make out approximately where my campground for the night lay. At the far end of the valley near the base of Pipestone Mountain. Once there, I set up an early camp and eagerly spent the afternoon exploring the surroundings. It was still early in the day, so I scrambled up to the summit of Pipestone Mountain (which is incorrectly marked on most maps) and explored the surrounding Red Deer Lakes, which are lovely.
The following morning I awoke early to the gentle pattering of rain on my tent. Knowing that I had a long day ahead of me, I wasted little time packing my gear. Heavy horse traffic through the region, combined with the nightsí rain left the trails in a state of wet-cement-soup. My boots turned out to be no match for mud and my sluggish slog down the Red Deer Valley would last most of the morning. The trail is mostly flat-ish and follows the valley floor thru dark forest. One of the breaks from the moody forest trail came in form of the Shingle Flats and the unbridged Drummond crossing. As the name would indicate, the flat and wide valley floor is bestrewn with smoothly rounded rocks and shingle chips.
Along the flats of the valley there are old teepee rings marking an area where the indigenous peoples of the region used to meet during the summer months to trade. This also marks the boundary for the Shuswap/Stoney tribes' lands. Itís fascinating to think on how people could make a living and thrive in the oftentimes harsh conditions of these mountains way before the comforts of modern day living.
Crossing the swift flowing, thigh deep river proved a cold affair, although not a difficult one. The river braids and widens not far above where the trail meets water.
On the opposite banks of the glacially fed waters I thought back on something my friend (who'd visited the region the previous summer) had told me. She'd described the trail after the river crossing as 'very beary'. Having spent the previous day and night in an area already known for its thriving grizzly population, and seeing plenty of bear tracks and droppings along the trails, I apprehensivly wondered how much more 'beary' I wanted things to get... While it would be another few days before I came in contact with any bears, I did see plenty of wolf tracks along this section of the trail.
I don't know if it was in my mind but the trail does take on a more distinctly wild feeling at this point.
I get what she meant by saying the trail being more 'beary'. You can tell that this region doesn't get much traffic, and judging by all of the mud on the trails, the traffic it does get would mostly appear to be equine of nature.
Shortly after crossing the Drummond outflow, a large Parks Canada sign sits aside the trail, stating in bold letters that you are now entering a woodland bison reintroduction zone and to avoid contact with the animals as they adjust into their new home range. Having heard stories about woodland bisons feisty behavior, I didn't need further persuading.
A few more hours of mixed open valley and forested travel saw me approaching the old Red Deer warden's cabin. It looks like it's been locked up for a good amount of time. From there I knew it would not be long before I would say goodbye to the comforts of a groomed trail.
Breaks in the forest along the Red Deer Valley
Red Deer Warden's Cabin
What started off as easy travel along my designated albeit untracked valley drainage, south of Mt. McConnell, quickly turned into heavy bush-bashing and scrub-whacking. The unnamed river I was following, twisted, turned and gorged, as it made itís way down the valley. Sometimes I would follow the river bed, sometimes it was easier to simply smash my way through the surrounding forests. Much to my delight the sun decided to make an appearance, and with renewed spirits I slowly made my way upstream for a few hours. As I got closer to the head of the valley, the river opened up and travel got easier along the rock beds beside the now slowly meandering river. Up until this point, Iíd spent a lot of time and energy trying to avoid crossing the river, but here I realized my follies. Instead I started switching back and forth from one riverbank to the other, depending on what side currently had easier terrain. All in all, I crossed the thigh-deep river seven times before I finally made it to the base of Mount McConnell.
At about this time I made a navigational decision, which in hindsight I'm not sure was correct. Perhaps it was, I'm not sure I'll find out. In any case, the river I'd been following branched out into a throng of smaller chanels somewhere about 2/3 up the valley. I opted to follow the northernmost branch. Looking at Mt. McConnell, there is a large spur that reaches down from its SW side into the valley below. The river branch that I followed led me to the east of this spur. This meant that I would be climbing McConnell from direct south, rather than the SW, which I'd originally planned. This route seems more direct on a map, however it is steeper. Looking at a map, the west approach looks way easier, however, who's really to say.
Ahead and above of me now lay the dauntingly long and steep scree slopes leading to Mount McConnellís summit. Approaching it directly from the south, I filled my water bottle to the brim one final time from the headwaters of the river and started making my way up. The lose rock made for a strenuous climb. My heavily laden backpack prevented me from making any quick progress and for every two steps I took forward, I would slide back one, in the extremely lose scree. By the time I crested the shoulder of the mountain I was exhausted, sweaty, and cursing at the seemingly never ending scree that was fighting me so hard with every footstep. Just as I had found firmer rock underfoot along the upper ridge of the mountain, storm clouds rolled in. Driving gusts of wind blew in from the west, and with them came heavy snow Ė not exactly what I was hoping for during my mid August visit. On the exposed ridge there was little in the way of shelter, so quickly I donned all my warm clothes and sat down with my back towards the wind, using my backpack as a shelter.
Forty minutes later, the storm had passed and I was finally able to push on to the summit. The views surrounding me on all sides were astounding. In each direction the jagged peaks of the Rockies thrust up towards the sky. Deep valleyís stretched out far below me, carpeted in forests and dotted with pretty little blue lakes.
Riverbanks make for easier travel en route to Mt.McConnell.
The opposite side of the valley, seen from the base of Mt.McConnell.
View from Mt. McConnell summit, looking south down the valley I'd just came from.
View looking east
View looking west.
The summit registry had six or seven previously recorded ascents, but due to water damage, these were unfortunately largely indiscernible. I placed a new summit registry beside the old one. Hopefully this one holds up better over time.
The afternoon shadows were growing longer so I dared not linger up high for too long. I could see my intended campsite for the evening from the summit, but knew that getting there would not be so easy. To get off the summit cone I was forced to kick hand and footholds into a very steep and scary snowfield that precariously clung to the side of the mountain, several hundreds of meters above the valley below. The snow-kicking was followed by yet another unpleasant experience. A very steep section (perhaps 30-40 meters) of rock needed to be downclimbed in order for me to access the slopes that would lead me to the valley north of Mt. McConnell.
About a third of the way down, I came upon a place where wearing my backpack was no longer a safe option. Some of the moves I needed to make whilst making my way down the jagged ridge weren't suited for the chunky weight of the bag on my back. Iíd opted to tie the rope I was using to store my food in trees, through the shoulderstraps of my big bag and gently lower it down the rock face. Myself carefully picking my way down, once Iíd securely nestled it on a ledge below. I repeated this process three times, until I was almost at the bottom of the wall. Unfortunately my rope was not long enough to reach the bottom of the final drop, and for lack of a better option, I let go of the rope, letting my backpack fall freely for the final few meters, onto the snow slopes beneath. Seeing my pack, rapidly lunge and bounce its way further and further down the slope, gaining speed towards a band of cliffs, I was quickly regretting that decision. As fortune would have it, just as dread was turning to despair, the pack struck hard against a car-sized boulder, and wedged itself in place. I picked my way down to the bag scolding my stupidity all the way. Luckily from here, the rest of the day was easy going. The slope leading into the hanging valley in which I intended on sleeping was very enjoyable, a welcome scree ski towards the end of a strenuous day.
Approaching the stunning blue lake in the hanging basin, I spotted something scurrying back and forth along the lakes' shore. A wolverine. The entire area surrounding the lake was bestrewn with scattered pieces of bones. I'm assuming it has its lair situated somewhere nearby. A very pleasant surprise, as this was the first and only time I've ever seen one in the wild!
This nights bivy sight was spectacular. A series of flat grassy benches sit between the lakes outlet and the steep cliffs dropping into the valley below. The gorgeous McConnell Creek Valley stretched out before me, and at the far end, Boar Station Peak silhouetted itself against the sky. I slept like a log.
Early the next morning I set off west along the McConnell Creek. Instead of dropping down to the valley floor, I opted to sidle up high along some quite steep earthern slopes. I would not have done this in wet weather. En route I spotted some shaggy white goats.
The head of the McConnell Creek Valley is lovely. It's a wide flat valley with a shallow river flowing down towards the (unmarked on maps) waterfall which drain into the lower valley. There are ample great looking bivy spots here, although I doubt many people ever come through this area. Someone clearly has tho, as a very large (about 2m tall) cairn sits close to the very end of the valley.
The pass just east of Cataract peak was easy compared to yesterdays slog up Mt. McConnell. A lovely goat trail leads all the way to the top. Looking south from the top of the pass, the largeish glacier at the head of the McConnell Creek Valley is visible. I suspect that in a few years time, after some more glacial melt, it'll be possible to pick your way from the head of the unnamed valley south of Mt. McConnell, to the head of the McConnell Creek Valley, via the pass that links the two, without the use of ice gear. As of right now I am not sure.
easy travel along flat ground approaching the head of McConnell Creek.
The upper reaches of the Roaring Creek Valley is split in two, separated by a mountainous wall. I easily picked my way down to the western side of the valley, which consists of a flat, boulder-strewn plateau, sprinkled with alpine lakes. The largest of which is over a kilometer long. This is great ankle spraining territory, so going was somewhat slow. The largest lake on the plateau subsequently drains into two smaller lakes thru a series of waterfalls and gorges, I did find it particularly difficult descending the rocky outcrops, by mostly staying close to the river. The lowest of these lakes sits in a grassy meadowed basin. I wish I'd spent more time in the area because it was very beautiful. A unique feature, if you look at the map of the area, is that the river draining this last lake disapears underground for about 500m, and then reappears further down the Roaring Creek Valley. This in of itself is nothing too special, however the way that the river submerges is quite cool. A large cavern opens up in the side of the neighboring mountain into which the river flows. It looks like the opening to an underground cave system. Terrifying and amazing! This area would have been yet another spectacular bivy. Although I did see a bunch of bear diggings close by. However, I knew I had one large hurdle left to tackle for the day before I could settle down so I lumbered on North, keeping close to the western side of the valley.
View of Plateau and lakes, from pass.
Close up from the largest lake.
Lowest of the three lakes
Zoom in of the underground river opening
The pass between Little Cataract Peak and Dip Slope Mountain, which leads to The Three Brothers Lake, looks on maps to not be that big a hurdle. Reality however is quite different. A 90-100m band of bluffs just below the pass must be overcome to make this route. Looking from a distance at the wall, I was very close to making the decision to bush whack my way down the Roaring Creek, and loop around via the Devon Lakes instead. In hindsight that would probably have been the wiser decision, despite it adding an additional day(s?) travel to the trip. For reasons unknown however, that was not what I decided to do. Instead I scaled the incredibly steep wall. This was full on climbing, on rotten, crumbling rock, whilst carrying a heavy backpack on my shoulders. I did not care for it, not one bit. It is not something I would ever do again, or recommend anyone else to do. Not without climbing gear. The bottom half of the wall was particularly nasty. Unfortunately I was way too caught up in the moment to take any pictures of the actual wall. I did take a picture from the top of the pass, looking back down, however it doesn't correctly convey the sense of steepness, as the lower section of the climb is obstructed from view by the upper, less steep section.
The payoff for all this madness was yet again being able to bivy in an amazing location. The hanging valley is an alpine wonderland with a smaller and a larger lake linked together by grassy meadows and a small stream. No wolverine this time, but plenty of Billy Goats call this place home. Cataract Peak reflected clearly in the glassy waters the following morning as I packed up for yet another long day. Each day of the trip ended up being between 9-11h of walking.
Looking down from the top of the nasty pass
Three Brothers Lake bivy
Cataract Peak reflection
Getting down from the hanging valley, to the Pipestone Valley below proved pretty easy. I followed the lake drainage down the mountain until it reached treeline. Then I veered off north and west, hugging the mountainside just above treeline, thinking this would be easier and faster travel than whacking thru the bush. There was even a great goat trail which I followed intermittently. The mountainside eventually steepend to the point where I was forced to lower elevation. Down in the forest I followed made my way west until eventually linking up with a we'll worn footpath, which I think is used for people headed for Cataract Peak. The trail leads to a shallow ford of the Pipestone River.
One interesting thing I stumbled upon whilst looking for this trail, was an old abandoned cabin sitting in the woods. Or at least what remained of it. I'm guessing it was an old trappers cabin at some point. By now all that remains are some of the logs that made the base of the walls. No trails lead to it. It would be interesting knowing the story of who lived there.
The Pipestone Valley is long and flat. And quite overgrown in places. Yet again I think this trail is most common for horse riders, and as a result, it is very muddy. Often times I'd find myself whacking thru bushes and shrubs taller than myself. The bushes were wet and it didn't take long before I was too. I was a little bit paranoid about bears along the trail, as I was following at least one set of large grizzly tracks. With the bushes limiting visibility, it would have been easy to get within a few meters of a bear without seeing it. At one point I heard a loud snarl/growl a few meters off to the side in the trees. I stopped and looked hard for quite some time but didn't see anything. Not more than 50 meters further down the trail I saw multiple sets of very fresh wolf tracks. I'm quite convinced they were telling me to get out of their way.
I hoofed it all the way down to my turnoff point at the Little Pipestone warden cabin occasionally the trail opens up and you're greeted with nice views of the surrounding mountains, however a lot of the views along this trail are obscured by all the bushes. I can imagine that on horseback, things would be different.
The river crossing here was probably the trickiest one on the trip for me. The river was flowing rather high and fast, probably because of the rains which were constantly off and on throughout the whole trip. I poked around a few different locations before finally finding a good spot, a perhaps a hundred meters south of the cabin.
The trail up the little Pipestone was another muddy affair. I really dislike how horses have absolutely demolished trail quality in this entire region of the park. The Little Pipestone is a rather uneventful track, pretty much in forest the whole way until Governor General Meadows. It's amazing how much faster and easier you cover ground whilst walking on a trail (even a muddy one) compared to off trail navigation!
Before I knew it I was chatting with my buddies at the Skoki Lodge, munching down cakes and cookies and chips.
I opted for the trail out via the Skoki lakes. At this point I was back stomping thru familiar grounds and and I kind of entered cruise mode. Just letting my mind wander, as I knew these trails very well. Little did I suspect I'd be getting one final adrenaline boost before this ordeal was over.
The lower of the Skoki lakes is normally accessed from the meadows below it by a natural chimney. Said chimney is perhaps 15 meters high and a meter wide. About half way up there is a large Boulder wedged in place, under which you will need to duck (almost crawl) to get under. As I minded my own business and came up on the other side of the large rock, I found myself standing face to face with a mother grizzly bear and two cubs. They were descending the natural chimney from the opposite direction, and we're about 2-3 meters away from, staring right at me.
Those of you who have been thru this chimney will know what I'm talking about when I say that there are few places I can thing of, where it would be worse to encounter a mother + cubs. There is nowhere for me to go, there is nowhere for the bear to go. The last thing you want is a startled bear that feels trapped. The first thing I did when I saw the bear was to let out an unconscious yell and jump back. The bear, clearly startled, also twitched back a step from me. I pressed back with my back towards the large boulder behind me, which now was blocking my escape route. Grabbing my bear spray, I squatted down and crab-walked out backwards beneath the rock, never breaking eye contact with the bear. On the other side of the barricading rock I stood and pondered my options for a moment. For what ever reason the bear had backed off a bit when it first saw me. I poked my head beneath the slab and saw that the coast was clear. Yet again I squirmed beneath the boulder and came out the other side. No bear in site. I tentatively scrambled up the remaining segment of the chimney just in time to see the three bears slipping off into the trees 20-30 meters away from me. I'll tell you, I didn't take my finger off the trigger of the bear spray for the better part of an hour after that.
Lower Skoki Lake.
And that is all. Looking back it was a wild ride. The trip has definitely got me reevaluating how I'm going to be managing risks in the backcountry moving forward. It's not a route I would do again, particularly on my own, but I'm grateful to have done it, and experienced some stunning regions that see basically no traffic.
If you've got any questions on the region, shoot, I might be able to answer!