Over the years, Dr. Phil and I had been eyeing up a couple of easy ascents, rising over the Red Deer Lakes in the Skoki backcountry of Banff National Park and on the western edge of the Drummond Icefield. When we finally scrambled up Mount Drummond in late September, 2015, our interest in Cyclone Mountain and Pipestone Mountain increased. In late September 2017, it was finally time to go check them out a bit closer. Rick Collier details a trip that he and Mardy Roberts did back in June of '92 where they traversed from Pipestone to Cyclone Mountain as a day trip. He mentions several obstacles in his typical underhanded way, including some problematic cliff bands and the fact that Mardy even required a short rope for one section. Phil and I decided that in order to keep things reasonable and easy, we would ascend one peak at a time, book-ending the trip with long hikes through the gorgeous larch country that comes along for the ride with approaching and egressing these remote peaks. We also planned a side excursion to the so-called Shingle Flats under Mount Drummond so that Phil could obtain some soil samples for work from Douglas and Drummond Creek. This would add at least 6-7km each way from the Red Deer Lakes campground - a not insignificant distance but one that would satisfy our desire for more hiking views.
The weather shaped up beautifully towards the end of the last week of September and I hiked up Odlum Ridge the day before rather than 'waste' such gorgeous fall conditions. By the time we had our bikes ready for the ~4km uphill grunt of the Lake Louise ski-out, I was seriously wondering if my legs could handle the long days ahead of them. As usual, I was willing to find out the hard way for some reason. The uphill ride was its usual grumpy self, but within 45 minutes of leaving the parking lot we were already locking up the bikes and preparing for the hike. We both wore light footwear for this trip and took a bit of a risk leaving crampons and alpine axes in the car. Although the Rockies had received some snow over the past week, there was already a significant amount of melting going on and we assumed we'd deal with any snow on our routes quite easily considering the fairly tame terrain we'd be moving through.
The hike up to Boulder Pass went by quickly. A hard frost provided us with some neat photos but by the time we crested the pass in the strong morning sun, any thoughts of being cold were instantly gone and all the extra layers came off. By 10:00 we were hiking around a gorgeously still Ptarmigan Lake in our t-shirts. What a day! There was absolutely no wind as we climbed towards Deception Pass. Our views back towards Redoubt Mountain looming over Ptarmigan Lake were impressive, as usual. We scoured the landscape in vain for the tell-tail sign of the resident Grizzlies. Despite the dire Parks Canada warnings for the Skoki area, we saw very little fresh sign the whole time we were in the area - and we covered a large swath of it. The larches around Ptarmigan Lake and Deception Pass were absolutely stunning - they seemed to be lit up from the inside, they were so bright. From Deception Pass we got our first glimpse of Cyclone Mountain. We were glad to see only a skiff of snow covering it's easy upper slopes. Our decision to once again travel very light was looking like a good one.
[Deep frost surrounds us as we arrive at the bottom of Boulder Pass. Redoubt Mountain looms over us here. ++]
[Looking into the Hidden Lake bowl between Richardson (L) and Ptarmigan (R).]
[Looking back at the larch display under Boulder Pass - Mount Temple at distant left.]
[I always wonder where this pass gets its name from. ]
[Paradise awaits!! We arrive at Ptarmigan Lake to brilliant sunshine and dead air. ++]
[It's been over a dozen years since I saw Ptarmigan Lake looking remotely like this, with Lychnis (R), Mount St. Bride (C) and Mount Douglas (L) reflecting in it. ++]
[I love this impressive view of Redoubt Mountain from the trail around Ptarmigan Lake.]
[Heather Ridge behind us as we ascend Deception Pass.]
[Looking back at Redoubt Mountain rising over Ptarmigan Lake and surrounded by a golden landscape. Lake Louise giants including Hungabee, Lefroy and Victoria raise their snowy summits in the distance at right. Pure. Hiking. Magic. ++]
[From Deception Pass we get a look at our destination summits rising impressively at center right (Cyclone) and right (Pipestone).]
[Mount Willingdon shows up in the distance, left of center.]
As we descended towards the Skoki Lodge, we were a bit surprised by the faded larches visible around the Skoki Lakes to our left. We wondered why those ones would be obviously past their prime when the Ptarmigan Lake and Boulder Pass trees were at their height of color? No matter, we continued down the trail which was in fantastic shape compared to our 2015 experience with mud and horse damage. Within 3.5 hours of leaving the truck we were turning off towards the Red Deer Lakes campground. There was still frost nipping the shady areas as we marched along through the forest. We were surprised to come upon a group of deer munching on some bushes, who really didn't seem too bothered by our presence! When we first spotted the deer, my heart briefly leapt out of my chest - spotting a moving patch of grey in the bushes right beside us made me think we'd finally run into a Skoki Grizzly. I have to say, considering the many kilometers and hours I've spent hiking and scrambling in the Skoki area, I am surprised that I have yet to see a Grizzly there. We watched the animals peacefully feed for a bit before continuing down the trail and running into our first humans of the day. They were coming from the Baker Lake campground and heading for Merlin Meadows and we briefly chatted before continuing our separate ways.
[Glancing over towards Skoki Lakes (our return route), we can see that many of the larches have lost their shine in that area.]
[The larches on our trail are still very bright despite the hard frost on the shaded path. Skoki Mountain rises in front of us here.]
[Glancing back at the impressive north faces of Ptarmigan (L) and Pika (R) mountains.]
[A tranquil scene. Click to spot the locals up close.]
[Phil squares off with another local.]
[Hiking towards the largest of the Red Deer Lakes from just past the campground. Cyclone Mountain rises in the far distance just right of center with Pipestone at right.]
[Mount Douglas rises impressively over the Red Deer Lake meadows.]
We were excited to see the largest of the Red Deer Lakes, shimmering in the still, warm air in front of us as we approached it from the campground. This lake is a brilliant shade of blue and with the fall colors lighting up all around it, it becomes a very special place to visit. Our two peaks were looming impressively above the lake - it was hard to believe Cyclone was "only" 1000 vertical meters to go - it seemed much higher from a comfortable spot along the lakeshore. After taking a short break, we hung all our extra camping gear on a tree near the trail and continued on the Little Pipestone trail towards Cyclone's lower south slopes with light packs and high spirits. It was a good day to be alive.
[Red Deer Lakes are a special place in the fall. ++]
[The landscape is on fire as we work our way around the NE shores of the largest Red Deer Lake.]
[Why would you sit in an office on a day like this?! Scenes like this remind me why my riches go far beyond a big bank account or a large house. This is soul food. These riches are on a much deeper level than trinkets and fancy furniture. ++]
[Another, slightly tighter shot. Mount Hector rises at center with Andromache at right. ++]
[Looking up at the false summit - looking deceivingly close but hundreds of vertical meters above us. We will travel through light forest towards the skyline ridge at center distance.]
Anyone who's experienced a perfect fall day in the Rockies like we did on Cyclone Mountain will understand what I'm talking about when I use words like "soul food" or "refreshing". The air was cool but the sun was warm. There wasn't a breath of wind as we walked through a landscape bursting with reds, oranges, yellows and greens. Looking back at the Red Deer Lakes, they were a shimmering mirage of liquid emerald and azure. Birds were chirping their cheerful, but waning summer songs in the cool air of the forest around us. Our thoughts wandered aimlessly as we started up the lightly forested south slope of Cyclone Mountain - aiming for an obvious drainage centering a slide path. Once we reached the lower slopes of the large slide path, the going temporarily got a bit rough in low scrub as we struggled to reach the rocky drainage running down the center of it. We found and followed the rocky drainage up to a large scree and slab gully before going slightly left and up easy rubble slopes just to the west. (We descended the gully proper later in the day, taking advantage of gravity with its loose nature.)
[Making our way through the easy forest - there was some deadfall but nothing horrendous.]
[Exiting the forest to this large avalanche path choked with annoying shrubs. We worked our way to the center where there's a narrow, rocky drainage making things much easier. Higher up, we went climber's left of the obvious gully.]
[Looking back over Red Deer Lakes towards Oyster Peak (L) and both Lychnis Peak and Tilted Mountain (C).]
[Starting the grunt above treeline to the false summit.]
[The views are not horrible as we grind our way upward! Mounts Douglas and St. Bride at left with Oyster, Lychnis, Tilted and Skoki to their right. ++]
The south scree slope to the false summit of Cyclone were extremely fast and easy to ascend. Some short sections were annoyingly loose, but intermittent slabs and the nature of the scree was such that we did very little backsliding and our light footwear worked out better than we could have hoped for. With incredible views and very easy scrambling, it quickly became apparent that the only reason Cyclone Mountain isn't summitted more often than it is, is its remoteness. Most people that are in the area are either backpacking through it (i.e. no time or inclination for summits) or skiing through in the winter. As a day trip it is prohibitive and there are many other closer options, such as the many "Kane" peaks in the Skoki area. Regardless of its obscurity, Phil and I were slowed by the great views that just kept getting better and more unique as we got higher. I will admit though - by the time we finally realized we were targeting a "false" summit, we were ready to top out. Such is the nature of most mountains, I suppose. Just when we thought we were close, we still had a few hundred vertical meters to go. We were briefly distracted by the sight of a magnificent mountain Billy Goat on a ridge beside us. Witnessing such a wild and pure scene as the white goat with huge mountains of snow and rock looming behind it was a highlight of the trip for me.
[Ledges and fairly 'solid' scree assist in an efficient ascent of the mountain's south aspect. The false summit looms above us here.]
[It's a long slope...]
[Views! Looking south (L) west (C) and north (R) off the ascent slopes from Douglas at left to the Ptarmigan group at center to Mount Hector at far right. ++]
[A magnificent scene of snow and rock - made even better with a magnificent Billy Goat at far left. ++]
[A closer look at the Billy.]
[We hit snow line but it's pretty melted back already. Still a few hundred meters to go!]
[Fantastic views to the north include Hector South, Mount Hector, Little Hector, Andromache and Molar Mountain. ++]
[Phil traverses and ascends to the summit of Cyclone Mountain from the false summit.]
[Thank goodness there's not enough snow to make our light footwear an issue.]
[Significant exposure down the east face with Mount Drummond now visible at right.]
We finally topped out at around 16:00 - 8 hours after leaving the parking lot. Not that bad, actually, and putting Cyclone within a day trip for hardcore peakbaggers with a bike approach. We spent quite a bit of time at the top, donning toques and gloves in the cool, late afternoon breezes. Cyclone offers amazing views of the many unnamed peaks on the Drummond Icefield and the two other named summits - Drummond and Pipestone. Of course, many other summits were visible and the views over the Red Deer Lakes were breathtaking.
[Phil on the summit of Cyclone Mountain with views over the Drummond Glacier at left, Mount Drummond at center right and Pipestone at right in front of a distant Douglas Mountain. ++]
[Great views south over Pipestone (L) towards Douglas, St. Bride, Lychnis, Oyster, Tilted, Avens, Anthozoan, Brachiopod, Fossil and Skoki at foreground right. Note the three Red Deer Lakes far below. ++]
[Cyclone's summit register shows an average of less than 1 ascent every 2 years since it was placed.]
[Stunning late day views over Merlin Lake towards Pika (L), Temple, Richardson, Hungabee and Lefroy.]
[Cataract Peak looms to the north of the Drummond Icefield (L).]
[Mount Balfour (distant left) and Hector with Little Hector at right.]
[Looking north up the Molar Creek Valley between Mount Hector (L) and Molar Mountain (R) towards Andromache (C).]
[Looking far to the west towards Mount Victoria (L), Cathedral Mountain (C) and Mount Stephen.]
[A slightly wider view of Mount Hector with Hector South at left and Andromache at right. Note the forest of larches on it's south side, looking like flecks of gold in the late day shadows.]
[Looking north towards Devon and Willingdon Peaks.]
[A wider view looking north with the Pipestone River Valley running bottom left to center. Cataract Peak at far distant right. ++]
[Molar Mountain is still a favorite peak of mine. Rising in the distance is Mount Forbes. Andromache stretches out at left. I can't get enough of the golden flecks of larch forests in the late day lighting below.]
[A close-up view of Castilleja (L) and Merlin Lakes.]
[Gazing far north towards Mount Murchison.]
[Mount Forbes at left with the Lyells at distant right.]
[Mount Drummond at left and the Skoki area at right and center in this view south down the summit ridge. ++]
[Mount Ball (L) and Stanley (R).]
[Even Mount Assiniboine is visible!]
[Raf is somewhere on Mount Drummond and likely in this photograph somewhere. ;) This is pretty odd, considering less than one party summits Drummond per year! We were on that peak a few years previous which is when we first noticed Cyclone and Pipestone Mountain and put them on our objectives list.]
As the sun continued to dip lower to the west we tore ourselves away from the great views and started to head back down to the Little Pipestone trail far below. For our descent we chose to try shortcutting down the large gully we'd ascended next to on climber's left. This gully starts under the false summit and was easily attained on loose scree. The scree run was awesome - allowing us to drop over 250 vertical meters in mere minutes before getting back into slightly larger rocks and some slabs. Nothing was difficult, however, and soon we were back in the cool forest and heading for the trail.
[Descending the summit ridge.]
[Can't stop looking and photographing the views as we descend.]
[Upper Red Deer Lake.]
[The moon rises over Oyster Ridge at left.]
[Gorgeous late day lighting on Ptarmigan, Pika and Richardson rising over Merlin Lake.]
[Looking back up our easy and fast descent gully with our ascent ridge at left here.]
[Back on the Little Pipestone trail. The moon rising at center right over Tilted Mountain.]
Our day wasn't over when we hit the Little Pipestone trail. We had plans to travel all the way to Shingle Flats in order to allow Phil the opportunity to get his soil samples. We had permits from Parks Canada to allow this, of course. With at least 6km of hiking still ahead of us, we loaded up our packs with the gear we'd stashed before hiking happily towards Mount Drummond. The trail was in much better condition than in 2015. We both remembered the forested trail between the warden's cabin and Shingle Flats as interminable, but this time it seemed to pass by very quickly and easily. As we tramped past the "Natural Bridge" turnoff through the forest, I saw a figure walking towards us in the growing darkness (it was close to 19:00 by this time). He was wearing a yellow fleece and I knew immediately who it was. In a very strange coincidence, we just happened to run into Raf, on his way back from a solo ascent of Mount Drummond! Even stranger - he was the second person that day to summit the remote peak that usually sees much less than one ascent per year! We briefly chatted before parting ways - we both had a long way to travel yet, but Raf would certainly be arriving at his Bake Lake camp well into darkness.
[The north end of Oyster Ridge with Tilted Mountain at right.]
[Late afternoon lighting on Oyster and Douglas (L).]
[The "Natural Bridge" turnoff. We continue straight.]
[What?! Meeting Raf in the middle of nowhere in growing darkness was unexpected! Only a certain type of person does this sort of thing solo. Raf is a Rockies legend who has summitted many hundreds of the same peaks that I have.]
[Mount Drummond comes into full view near Shingle Flats. ++]
[Mount Douglas catches the last few rays of sunshine with the moon rising to it's right.]
As the quiet evening settled in along the toe of the Drummond Glacier and the Red Deer River running through Shingle Flats, we set about preparing for the next day - an ascent of Pipestone Mountain.