When our plans for climbing Mount Lefroy fell through, Mike and I started looking at other options. After swearing that I was done with David Thompson Country for at least a few months, I found myself planning another trip to the area. Mike was still feeling ill on Saturday, so I solo scrambled Abraham Mountain - a delightful and unexpectedly short day out. Our plans for the Sunday and Monday were to scramble Mount Stelfox, spend Sunday night camping and then attempt to find a scramble route up Bright Star Peak, it's higher neighbor to the north.
[Another great evening truck camping solo in David Thompson Country the day before our Stelfox adventure.]
Thanks to Brandon's recent ascent of Stelfox, we had a GPS track and general idea of the approach and the terrain. What we lacked, however, was any sort of details on either the approach or the mountain itself. I chatted briefly with Steven Noel about his ascent of the NW ridge, just above the easy scree gully that they used for descent. The ridge sounded pretty difficult but we decided to wait until we got there to see how we felt and how things looked. I finally got to wear my light scrambling shoes again, which made me very happy. I dislike my heavy scrambling boots intensely. Steven gave me some great beta, including where to camp and what to expect for water sources once above Whitegoat Creek (i.e. none).
I met Mike at the Cline Waste Transfer site along the David Thompson Highway. This isn't the garbage pit that I had in mind the few times I drove past the sign along the highway. I could have camped there actually. There were a few other vehicles parked there along with fire pits. This is the same parking lot that accesses the Vision Quest hike which goes to a sub summit of Vision Quest Ridge (although many folks claim this much lower sub peak as the whole thing). It's kind of strange because there's a big sign blocking the Vision Quest trail stating that it's not a trail. We went the other way around the transfer site fence before continuing along an OHV trail, marked as "Whitegoat Falls". We followed the track past a small trail to the falls and continued along it's muddy coarse while it gained and lost height in annoying fashion. Finally the track dropped precipitously down to Whitegoat Creek on our left - giving us a great view of both Stelfox and Bright Star. There's been some suggestion that bikes could be used on this approach along the OHV trail. I'm not convinced. If you're a machine on a mountain bike - sure. But if you're a more casual biker you will hate your life as you push the bike up steep, muddy tracks and then lose all the height before gaining it back.
[The only official trail markers are for the short hike to White Goat Falls along the creek.]
[There were quite a few unexpected muddy sections along the first part of the OHV track from streams running onto the trail without proper drainage.]
[Mostly the OHV trail is very pleasant hiking.]
[The trail plunges down towards Whitegoat Creek. Bright Star visible now in the distance, Stelfox at left.]
Since coming back from our hike, I've done some research and realize now that there's a backpacking route along here called the "Stelfox Loop" that is detailed in a popular local hiking guide. This loop runs up Whitegoat Creek before crossing it and ascending to the col between Stelfox and Bright Star. From there it descends to Coral Creek and back out to the highway. Apparently it's popular with the British army for military training, which explains why there was such a great (and unexpected) trail the entire way from the transfer station to Whitegoat Pass and beyond. The OHV trail is only supposed to be traveled from December to April, by OHV's or snowmobiles, which is also interesting. We saw clear signs along the track that it's been maintained since the 2013 floods and also that it hasn't been traveled for a while, since there was some trees across the trail in spots. This OHV trail is impressive. I don't like OHV trails in general because they tend to trash the environment they run through, but this one is different somehow. It's not boring to walk on and it's rugged as hell. Not just anyone can ride this sucker! The trail is long too. It goes way past the turnoff to Whitegoat Pass / Stelfox, running up valley before crossing another high col and descending either to Littlehorn Creek or even further, to the Bighorn River and coming out along hwy 11 where the Bighorn River passes underneath.
Thanks to the trail, travel to the creek section was fairly quick. From here we made things a bit harder on ourselves than necessary on approach, correcting our mistakes on the way back out the following day. The easiest way to travel along Whitegoat Creek is to stick to the OHV trail. It's replete with ribbons (too many of them) and obvious. The only downside? No bridges and no logs at the crossings. There is a hiking route along the creek that shares sections of the OHV trail but it avoids the wider areas of the creek so that one can keep dry feet while crossing the creek on logs or well-placed boulders. On the way in we managed to keep our feet dry without wading the stream but it cost us some time and some debris-thrashing. On return I simply walked through the creek at the OHV crossings and saved a bunch of time / effort doing this. (Wet feet might not be fun on the way in though.) It sounded like others may have forded the river at the OHV crossings (i.e. take off footwear and wade across) but this would be very annoying as there's numerous crossings. If you want to keep dry feet either hike in with river shoes or detour off the OHV track to cross narrower sections of the creek on logs or rocks like we did on ascent.
[The OHV track runs through and around the creek, impressively avoiding major debris fields from the 2013 floods.]
[A section of creek showing the flood debris / damage. This is a case where the OHV trail is at left and we are avoiding wet feet by crossing on logs and navigating more choked up terrain on the right (this is looking back downstream of course).]
[Enjoying the creek thrash.]
[Yet another crossing of the creek.]
[And another! The hiking route is also flagged and marked for the most part, making it fairly easy to find these crossings if you look around a bit.]
[Back on the east side of the creek where the OHV trail is wide and obvious and marked with a million bright ribbons and signs.]
Eventually the OHV trail left the creek and spent a while gaining and losing height again through forested slopes on the east side of the creek. The trail was less muddy here than the first treed section, which was nice, but there were a few pretty steep rolls on it that got annoying. Overall it was a very pleasant section of hiking though. When we came on 5 or 6 brightly colored ribbons marking a small single-track down to our left, we knew we were leaving the OHV track for good. We dropped down through light forest towards the creek, running into the first random camp site just on the east side of it. Ribbons helped us cross Whitegoat Creek and pick up the trail on the west side and soon we were at the second (and larger) random camp. We were greeted there by 4 dogs and 4 people who were a bit surprised to see us at 09:30 in the morning. We briefly chatted (they'd apparently tried gaining Stelfox the day before but the terrain was too rough for them) before dropping our bivy gear and continuing up the trail. We made sure to fill our water bottles at the creek between the two camps as Steven Noel had warned me about a lack of water further on.
[Back out of the creek bed and on the OHV trail. Note the hill up ahead? This is a common theme here.]
[The single track trail runs off the OHV trail towards Whitegoat Pass. This is near the 2nd camp site.]
From the 2nd random camp the trail continued through light forest (tons of Calypso Orchids here) before running into a dry, rocky stream bed / drainage running down from the west. Here the route drops into the creekbed and is a bit indistinct for a few hundred meters. We stuck to climber's left and soon ribbons and another track led us up the bank again before running into a washout. We traversed the washout and picked up an obvious trail on the left hand, upstream side of it again. I wasn't expecting such an obvious trail, especially after our recent conversation with the group back at the camp site. From here to the Whitegoat Pass the trail was the kind where you feel like your bushwhacking, but your feet are on a very obvious track beneath the growth. After struggling briefly through some thick alders we veered climber's left up a side drainage heading south back towards Stelfox and the col with Bright Star. This section of the hike was far different than either of us were expecting. Aside from the obvious trail, there was the strange "bushwhacking" through low bushes, combined with interesting meadows, short creek section and even light forested sections. After passing a recent blowdown we crossed one more section of valley, choked with knee to chest high bushes before spotting our route up and around the toe of the NW ridge of Stelfox. The only routefinding challenge on approach, other than the Whitegoat Creek section, was having the patience to wait for the correct ascent slope. If you head up too early you will quickly run into difficult terrain.
[In the dry, rocky drainage now - we only spent a brief amount of time in it. The trail is at left. A sub peak of Bright Star visible high above us here - the true summit at top right, barely visible.]
[Leaving the main drainage coming down from Bright Star and thrashing our way into the smaller drainage coming down from Whitegoat Pass. Believe it or not, we're still on an obvious trail here!]
[Heading back south to Stelfox now, in a nice open valley section. Resist the temptation to head up here as you will run into cliffs. The ascent ridge and / or slope isn't even visible yet.]
[Looking back down our approach towards part of the Vision Quest Ridge.]
[Again - believe it or not but we're on a very obvious trail here!! There are 2 or 3 sections of low bushes that would make for great bear-hiding terrain. Again, don't ascend here. Stelfox is obviously visible but we're nowhere near the ascent gully or ridge yet. Both are hidden by the ridge visible here.]
[Now we're finally getting close to the ascent slopes. The NW ridge and gully are to the left here, while Bright Star is to the right. This is very near the Whitegoat Pass - you can just glimpse some peaks across the Coral Creek valley at center distance. ++]
I spotted an obvious sheep track cutting across the toe of the NW ridge, which we followed up and around the ridge into the obvious NW scree gully leading up towards the distant summit. The whole approach had been bone dry and the gully didn't have obvious water sources either. Do not assume you can find any water past Whitegoat Creek on this trip! We were considering camping at Whitegoat Pass since it would save us the approach to Bright Star the following day, but this would have been a bad idea due to the complete absence of snow or water nearby. The NW scree gully on Stelfox is a very easy scramble - pretty much only a hike. Sure - the scree is a bit tedious, but it's much quicker and safer than the NW ridge above - which is a climber's scramble if you're up for that challenge. (At least you have an easy descent route!) The top 1/3 of the gully was foreshortened and by the time we popped out on the summit ridge we were both feeling it. We also realized that with day packs, Stelfox could easily be a 9-10 hour day - not too bad. With a bike (and lots of energy), Stelfox could even be a 7-8 hour day or less.
[On the sheep track now, headed up the toe of the NW ridge. For the difficult ridge scramble you'd head up to the left here, following the ridge to the summit. For the easy scree gully, we simply followed this track around the far corner before turning left up the first major gully.]
[And there you go! The obvious NW scree gully up Mount Stelfox! The summit is not visible here yet.]
[Looking back at Mike crossing over the NW shoulder along the sheep track and dropping into the gully behind me. Bright Star rising to the NW.]
[Higher up the scree gully, looking back towards Bright Star - the summit not visible here. ++]
[Right about here the route got foreshortened. The summit is still not visible - it's above the snow and to the left.]
[Higher up - the summit of Bright Star getting more visible. The difficult NW ridge running up to the right. Once you're committed to the ridge, you're pretty much stuck on it until the summit as the slabs would be difficult to traverse.]
[Still a ways to go. The false summit visible now at center. Another, much steeper and mankier parallel NW gully joins our scree gully here, coming up from lower right. It was choked with snow and ice and looked like no fun at all.]
[Looking back at Bright Star as our views open up. The parallel, manky, gully at left, our gully at right. Coral Creek at lower left with Whitegoat Pass at lower center. ++]
[Mike finds some solid(ish) rock along the top edge of the manky NW gully which we followed up towards the summit.]
[The NW scree gully isn't visible anymore, in this view down the NW manky gully. ++]
[Nearing the summit slopes now, Both NW gullies visible with the shallow ridge running up between them.]
[We briefly detoured towards this outcrop for some different views over Coral Creek. It wasn't really worth it but we had time so...]
[Spectacular views from the outcrop towards Elliott and Sentinel (L), Resolute and Cline (C) and Seven Seas (R). ++]
[Elliott is still very snowy on its scree ramp.]
[Great views towards Resolute, Cline and the White Goat peaks.]
[Ironically the only real scrambling we had on Stelfox was on and off this outcrop below the summit!]
[Mike comes up a lingering snow arete behind me as we traverse from the outcrop to the summit.]
[The summit of Stelfox with Whitegoat Creek at lower left and Mount Michener and Abraham Lake in the distance. ++]
We had very little wind - the second day in a row for me - which is rare for this area, and we spent some time on the summit, taking photos and re-energizing. We realized at this point that we were going to be back at camp very early, so there was no need to rush things. We scouted out our route on Bright Star for the following day and tried to pick out summits in the vicinity. The obvious ones were Cline and Resolute to the south and Vision Quest, Allstones and Abraham to the north. Eventually we started wandering back down the gully to Whitegoat Pass.
[Great views east over Whitegoat Creek towards Vision Quest with Allstones and Abraham at distant left. The long SE ridge of Stelfox runs out towards Elliott Peak at right with Abraham Lake in between. ++]
[A tighter shot of the SE ridge and Elliott Peak.]
[A wonderful shot to the west (L) and north (R) up the Coral Creek Valley. Peaks across the valley include interesting names such as Seven Seas, Strong Winds and Circle Game. ++]
[The wonderful colors of the upper Whitegoat Creek Valley towards Hangman Peak (snow covered). The OHV trail goes right over the pass at the head of the valley, heading towards the Littlehorn Creek headwaters.]
[Abraham Mountain at left distance with Vision Quest's ridge running up the foreground. Kista and Michener at right across Abraham Lake. ++]
[Hangman Peak was first ascended in 1996 by a group of Rick Collier's friends.]
[Peskett and Loudon.]
[Murchison (R) and its many towers.]
[The twin peaks of Resolute at left (Lioness and Lion) with Cline looming over them at right.]
[A striking peak to the NW.]
[Bright Star's intimidating south ridge doesn't look like a pushover.]
[Abraham Mountain's summit block is bone-dry.]
[Move of the Whitegoat Creek Valley and Vision Quest from the summit ridge of Stelfox.]
The return went pretty quickly and by around 15:30 we were setting up our camp. The party of four and four had left the site for us to enjoy on our own. There is no need to bivy if you're only interested in Stelfox. As indicated above, 8-10 hours should be plenty of time to bag this peak in a day. I highly recommend Stelfox. It's a rare easy scramble in DTC that's to a legitimate peak that isn't the named shoulder of a higher ridge. The approach is on trail and interesting almost the entire way, another huge bonus!
[Interesting green rocks on a small section of the summit block.]
[I'm not sure why it's only in this small zone, but I haven't seen anything like it anywhere else in the Rockies.]
[Some of the greens were really deep while others were lighter colors.]
[Our destination for the following day - Bright Star Peak, looks pretty sexy from this angle and deceivingly straightforward. Hint: It's not.]
[Down the ridge between the parallel gullies - we will take the right hand one.]
[Looking over Whitegoat Pass towards part of Vision Quest in the bg.]
[A very pleasant section of the Whitegoat Pass trail.]
[Vision Quest from the drainage we follow back to camp.]
[Calypso Orchids are abundant in the surrounding forests here.]
We were surprised to see yet another group pass by our camp on their way to Stelfox at 15:30 in the afternoon. They were back about 2.5 hours later having run into navigation issues and "cliffs". This confused us again, because the route on Stelfox is really rather obvious - and there's a darn trail the whole way to the ascent gully! I think this pair probably started up too early. This is the only way to run into "cliffs" on Stelfox. We spent hours at camp - on hindsight it might have been worth checking out Vision Quest across the Whitegoat Creek, but eventually evening crept in and the forest got quiet and darker. It was very warm as we settled into the mid and tried to get some sleep before our next adventure the following day.
[A delightful camp - too bad we're so bloody early. Darkness won't settle in for another 6 hours or so...]