With larch season comes great responsibility for the Rockies hikers, scramblers and photographers. The responsibility comes from having two weekends (at most) to take advantage of the very limited and short-lived phenomenon of what's commonly called, <dramatic music>Larch Season</dramatic music>. This season is sacred with those of us lucky enough to have felt its magic touch. If you're from anywhere else in Canada, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. Larch season is when the commonly known "larches" (i.e. Tamarack trees), all turn the same color that isn't green like every other darn living flora in the Rockies that isn't snow, rock or ice.
Ok - they turn yellow. They all turn yellow. At the same time. And then two minutes later with a gust of wind or a dump of snow, all those yellow needles fall off and <dramatic music>Larch Season</dramatic music> is officially over. The funny thing is, being from Manitoba, I used to be quite indifferent to a few trees turning yellow for all of one or two weeks. I grew up spoiled with a diverse and full autumn where trees turned their leaves not only yellow, but also orange, red, purple and every shade of these colors you could imagine! I used to find it quite boring that every larch turned the same bloody color of yellow - and then only for a few fleeting moments. Now that I've lived in Alberta for 18 years, I am also part of the crazed crowd of so-called "larch seekers" that lose our minds at the end of September each and every year. I'm not sure when this happened to me but I'm not afraid to admit that I have a problem.
I suppose there is something quite special about sparkling green / blue lakes reflecting puffy white clouds and blue skies, with snow-capped peaks towering above and yellow trees dotting their shores and adding their golden color to the landscape. There is something magical in hiking on trails paved with golden larch needles with the sharp smell of rotting vegetation stinging the nostrils and frosty morning air nipping your skin as the warm sun rises reluctantly over a dying landscape. Whatever it might be, I do know that my absolute favorite time for tramping through the Rockies, is for two or three weeks in September. I look forward to it all year and even take some vacation during this time to help deal with my gold fever.
[I guess there is something about larch season that brings out the crazy hordes of camera-touting hikers and scramblers. This view from Greater Pharaoh Peak is stunning and deservedly popular. ++]
Like everything else tainted by social media, <dramatic music>Larch Season</dramatic music> has also been exaggerated and blown way out of proportion for the general tourist masses. THERE'S MONEY TO BE MADE IN THEM THERE HILLS!!. If a yellow tree or two can make the stores in Banff a few extra bucks, why not I suppose? But it is getting a bit ridiculous. I'm not even sure why Parks Canada insists on advertising <dramatic music>Larch Season</dramatic music> at all. There's no need to advertise anymore! The first person to post the one yellow larch they found on September 12th is guaranteed at least 1 billion Instagram "likes", and from then on the zombie hordes will start their annual stampede to all of the larch hotspots. They will all get up at 02:00 and set up their tripod for the one sunrise photo that will make all their dreams and wishes come true. Or not. It's all very dramatically boring, but I have to admit that I am part of all this silliness and I'm not at all sure I'm OK with that. It is what it is, I suppose.
When someone posted on Facebook that;
the larches are turning two weeks early this year!
I believed it like everyone else and started making hasty plans. I was skeptical about the claim, but it made some sort of sense that the long dry summer of 2017 had stressed the trees, causing them to turn yellow a bit early. Looking at photos from September 18th 2016 made me think that perhaps yellow needles on the 16th wasn't even that early and maybe I'd missed the height of <dramatic music>Larch Season</dramatic music> this year. My favorite larch hike of all time was a solo trek into the Healy Pass / Egypt Lakes area on a moody September day in 2016. The views from Greater Pharaoh Peak were stunning that day - I got super lucky with a short break in the weather at the summit. I knew that I'd be back under clear skies for a shot at the less ascended and less dramatic Lesser Pharaoh Peak some day - and that day turned out to be September 16th, 2017. This time I was joined by Phil Richards. We were planning to combine Lesser Pharaoh with the small and easy Sugarloaf Mountain (aka The Sphinx) - just to make a long day even longer. I'm not sure who comes up with these ideas. I think it's usually Phil who talks me into these things.
We started out from the Healy Creek parking lot (Sunshine Village) at around 07:00 with a fall nip in the air. With a 40km day ahead of us we knew that the first 10km or so would have to be ignored as much as possible. The only way to do this effectively was by chatting and walking fairly quickly, so that's exactly what we did. As we started gaining some height on the Healy Pass trail I noticed that the undergrowth and low brush around us was still very green. I mentioned to Phil that I was starting to have doubts about the larches turning early - there didn't seem to be enough frost-kill in the forest. Sure enough! As we slowly started seeing larches in the Healy Meadows around 1.5 hours after leaving the parking lot, a lot of them were a disappointing shade of green. Uh oh. We had just planned a 40km day and two peaks specifically to see yellow larches - NOT green ones! I felt silly for buying into the social media hype that had led me to believe that all the larches were turning two weeks early. Based on what we were seeing, compared to the same time a year previous, they looked to be a week LATE if anything.
[Heavy frost along the Healy Creek Trail.]
[Crossing Healy Creek near the upper meadows - the larches are turning but aren't completely yellow yet.]
We tried not to be too disappointed as we started up the trail to Healy Pass. Phil had never been to the pass and didn't realize how amazing this place can be when all the larches are turned. As we ascended, there were more and more yellow and half-yellow trees. The sun had also risen in a clear, blue sky by the time we reached the pass, and the views back over towards the impressive Monarch were stunning. I temporarily forgot about the half-turned larches and concentrated on the wonderfully clear views. The grasses and shrubs were all covered in frost and the view over the pass towards the Egypt Lakes area was very respectable. It felt good to be out here on this cool, crisp morning. I'm sure it's been weeks, if not months, since this area has been so fresh. The Verdant Creek wildfire started only a few kilometers from Healy Pass and had been affecting the air even as far away as Calgary and beyond over the past few months. We felt pretty lucky to be enjoying the clean air on this particular day. Within 2 hours of leaving the parking lot we were starting the long descent into the Egypt Lakes area from Healy Pass.
[We joked all day about the "wonderful green larches"! But there were still enough yellow ones to enhance the landscape.]
[Great views along the Monarch Ramparts to their namesake in the distance. The heavy frost should help turn the stubborn larches even more yellow over the next week or so. Click for a view from a year previous when the trees were all turned.]
[Starting the long descent to the Egypt Lakes area on the west side of Healy Pass. Sugarloaf at foreground left of center and Greater Pharaoh at foreground right. Egypt Lake barely visible at bottom with Scarab Lake above it. ++]
Sugarloaf and the Pharaoh peaks went from looking small and close, to big and far as we descended from Healy Pass. This is the way this long day trip goes. After gaining about 400m to Healy Pass, we spent the next hour or so losing 300 vertical meters all the way down to Pharaoh Creek. The larch forest near Healy Pass was amazing, but as we descended further along the excellent trail, the larches became greener and greener until they weren't turned at all. By the time we arrived at the bridge over Pharaoh Creek we were 11.5km from the parking lot and mentally only starting our day. We didn't allow our bodies to feel any pain at this point yet. It's amazing what small mental tricks like ignoring pain can do! We both found it amusing (and not) that someone had a cheerful fire going in the Egypt Lake shelter despite the signs scattered all over the place with FIRE BAN written all over them!
[Larches near the pass were mostly turned.]
[A gorgeous late summer day, looking back up the trail behind us as we descend from Healy Pass.]
[Hiking in paradise.]
[Approaching Pharaoh Creek with Greater Pharaoh directly above and Lesser at distant right.]
[Heavy frost in the valley with Sugarloaf at left.]
The next few hours of hiking from Pharaoh Creek up to Whistling Pass were sublime. Sure - the larches weren't 100% turned but enough of them were yellow to make a dramatic impact on the landscape. The undergrowth and vegetation around the trail was also turned and even some reds crept into the color pallette. The trail up the headwall beneath Scarab Lake is very well constructed and Phil was suitably impressed on his first time along it. As we hiked up to the second pass of the day, we looked up at Greater Pharaoh Peak and wondered if we could possibly add it to the itinerary. It's so easy to be positive when you're only 14km and 4 hours into your day. A few hours of effort would cure that problem.
[On our way to Whistling Pass from the popular Egypt Lakes campground.]
[A brilliant morning view towards Egypt Lake and Sugarloaf Mountain.]
[The trail is an interesting mix of switchbacks and forest. Note how green everything is lower down.]
[As we get higher the fall colors come out again.]
[It's hard to feel tired when you spend so many hours hiking through scenes like this.]
[In order to climb the headwall, the trail does some interesting twists and turns.]
[Sugarloaf from the trail.]
[Most of the larches in the upper valley under Pharaoh Peaks were cooperative with the fall theme, unlike their lower elevation cousins.]
[Phil hikes towards Whistling Pass.]
[Looking back along Great Pharaoh's easy lower south slopes at left. Lots of larchy goodness up here!]
[Looking back from near Whistling Pass. Greater Pharaoh at left, Sugarloaf at center. ++]
[The view NW over Whistling Pass. An outlier of Haiduk, Mount Ball, Haiduk Lake, Mount Storm and Lesser Pharaoh from L to R. ++]
The views over Haiduk Lake and down Whistling Valley from the pass were impressive, as was the view of our destination peak rising to the north. At first glance it looked like there might be some difficulties on the upper south face, but on more careful inspection it started looking easier and easier. Rather than descend the trail to Haiduk Lake, we chose to traverse a large boulder field directly towards an obvious gully coming off Lesser Pharaoh's south aspect. On hindsight, while this traverse certainly worked, it was more tedious and dangerous than necessary. We knew almost immediately that we'd be taking the trail on return - despite the fact that we'd have to lose and gain more height to do it. In one potentially bad incident, Phil found his right foot buried in shifting rocks with an extremely large and loose boulder threatening to come down right on his leg! He very slowly and cautiously extracted himself from that situation but we were extra-cautious from that point onward. I've been in way too many of these temperamental boulder fields this year. They feel easy until you nearly get a crushed leg and then you don't want to step or touch anything around you anymore.
[We descended the trail from the pass briefly, before cutting across the innocent looking boulder field at right - aiming for the obvious gully on Lesser Pharaoh. On return we stuck to the trail. Click for approximate route.]
[Looking back at Whistling Pass as we start the boulder field in earnest. And start regretting that decision.]
[Find Phil in the boulders.]
[Pretty sweet views over the Whistling Valley towards Mount Ball.]
When we finally exited the boulder field we were happy to find easy terrain in the gully. We ditched our packs about 300 vertical meters from the summit and continued upwards. There were no surprises once we got onto the upper south face and we followed easy, blocky terrain until we finally found ourselves at the first summit of the day. As we ascended, our views of the Middle and Greater Pharaoh Peaks were pretty inspiring. Looking back over Haiduk Lake towards Mount Ball and Haiduk Peak was also quickly filling our memory cards.
[Looking up the easy gully giving access to the upper south face of Lesser Pharaoh Peak.]
[From the gully looking back over Whistling Valley. Middle Pharaoh at left, Haiduk fills the entire skyline at center and right. ++]
[Out of the access gully and on the south face now, looking back over Whistling Valley. Greater and Middle Pharaoh Peaks at left, with the massive bulk of Haiduk Peak filling the rest of the horizon. ++]
[Phil on the south face. We stuck to the NW ridge as much as possible.]
[The face is a bit of a grunt. And loose. But nowhere near "OXO" loose. ]
[The other two Pharaoh Peaks start looking smaller as we gain height on them. Lesser is higher than Middle. ++]
[Just under the summit - even Greater Pharaoh isn't too much higher than Lesser - leading to a great philosophical question. Is Lesser actually more than Greater? ]
By the time we topped out, we'd traveled roughly 16km, 5.5 hours and many hundreds of vertical meters from the parking lot. We were suitably impressed with the views back over Healy Pass and of the many visible lakes including Haiduk, Black Rock and Pharaoh. I knew the view from Lesser Pharaoh wouldn't quite match the views from Greater, due to the alignment of the main lakes in the area (Egypt, Scarab and Mummy) but I was still pretty blown away by the three other lakes we could see clearly from this slightly lower summit. The wind was cool and we had no extra clothing (remember we left our packs further down), so after 15-20 minutes of enjoying the views we started our descent.
[As one of my wife's favorite male actors would say at this point - "All right, all right, all right"! Black Rock Lake sits below the peak in this view looking north down the Pharaoh (R) and Redearth (L) Creek valleys. ++]
[Looking over Haiduk Lake with Haiduk Peak at left, Mount Ball at center, Storm Mountain at center and Copper and Pilot mountains at distant right. There is a couple of unnamed 3,000m peaks in between Ball and Storm. Stanley and Beatrice peaks are hidden behind Mount Ball in this angle.]
[Looking north across the Redearth Creek Valley towards Copper Mountain.]
[The view we came a long way for! Looking NE (L) to SE (R) over Black Rock (L) and Pharaoh (R) Lakes below. Greater and Middle Pharaoh Peaks rise dramatically over their namesake lake. Peaks such as Pilot, Brett, Black Brett and Bourgeau at distant left and center. ++]
[Black Rock Lake.]
[A wider view south over Pharaoh Lake and Peaks with the confusing and massive bulk of Haiduk Peak rising over the Whistling Valley at right. ++]
[Looking past Copper Mountain (L) and Pilot (R) towards Mount Ishbel and other peaks in the Sawback range across the TCH - a LONG way from where we're standing! ++]
[It's hard to believe that the two summits left of Storm Mountain are unnamed. At over 3,000m they deserve names don't you think? Shadow Lake just barely visible at lower left.]
[A nice and smoke free view over Citadel Pass (R) towards snow covered Fatigue, Naswald and Golden. At left is the Sunshine peaks including Eagle, Howard Douglas, Lookout Mountain and Brewster Rock. Quartz Hill is in front of Fatigue. ++]
[I had to traverse the summit block a bit to get Haiduk Lake on the shot. Mount Ball at right.]
[Despite what some maps might show, Greater Pharaoh Peak isn't that much "greater" than Lesser. I do, however, concede that the views from Greater, are indeed a bit greater.]
[Mount Bourgeau looks great with some fresh snow. Mount Peechee rises dramatically in the far distance.]
[Views over Pharaoh Creek and Healy Ridge / Peak towards Pilot, Brett, Black Brett and Bourgeau (L to R). ++]
[Fatigue, Naswald and Citadel peaks.]
[The impressive White Tail Mountain looms over a sub peak of Haiduk.]
On our way back down Lesser Pharaoh, we decided to nab "Tiny" Pharaoh too. This small subsidiary peak to the west of Lesser is a very worthwhile distraction and only took us a few extra minutes to summit. The views back towards the impressive north face of Lesser Pharaoh along with Black Rock Lake nestled at its base were very dramatic.
[Heading up "Tiny Pharaoh" peak at left. Yes, we bagged it. No, we didn't "claim" it. Relax! Lesser doesn't look very lesser from this angle. ++]
[Black Rock Lake with Lesser Pharaoh Peak looming over it. ++]
The rest of the descent down the gully and back to the Whistling Pass trail went without a hitch and before long we found ourselves slowly grunting the few hundred vertical meters back up to the pass we'd been at several hours previous. As we ascended in the warm sunshine I think we both knew that if we decided to do Greater Pharaoh, there was no way Sugarloaf was going to happen.
[Phil descends from the col between "Tiny" and Lesser Pharaoh Peaks with Greater and Middle looming above and Haiduk on the right. Whistling Pass is between Middle Pharaoh and Haiduk at center. ++]
[Phil was enthralled with the purple rocks here. It was sort of weird but I let him go through that experience. That's what friends do.]
[In a green larch forest, looking up towards our ascent gully.]
[Some larches were nicely turned on the descent towards Haiduk Lake.]
[Looking past a ripped off tree (avalanche) towards Haiduk and Whistling Pass.]
[Partially turned larches from the return trail back up to Whistling Pass. Our ascent gully up Lesser Pharaoh visible at center.]
[Up and up we go (again)! Middle Pharaoh above us here.]
[The final grunt back up to Whistling Pass.]
[A last glance over Haiduk Lake towards Ball (L) and Storm (R).]
Our legs were getting harder and harder to ignore by the time we crested the pass for the second time that day. We decided that instead of doing Greater Pharaoh, we'd save that one for the 2018 larch season (I was keen for a repeat in clear conditions) and stick with our original plans for Sugarloaf.