Mount Richardson

Standing at 10,125’ (3086 m), Mount Richardson is the highest peak in Banff’s Skoki area. Along with Pika and Ptarmigan Peaks, the three summits are part of the same massif that rises above picturesque Hidden Lake.

After setting our sights on two of Alan Kane’s moderate scrambles, Ptarmigan and Richardson, our original plan was to bag the peaks together. However, that ended up being an overly aggressive goal. We’d looked at a couple trip reports from scramblers who had camped at Hidden Lake and bagged both as a day hike; but we failed to account for just how much extra distance and time hiking all the way in and out from the access road would add.

Beginning from Hidden Lake, a double summit day would include a significant amount of vertical but would be achievable for those used to big-gain days. The roundtrip to Ptarmigan’s summit is just under 3 miles (5 km) with around 2,500’ (750 m) of vertical. The roundtrip from the lake to Richardson is about the same – just under 3 miles (5 km) with around 2,600’ (800 m) of vertical. However, if you’re hiking in from the access road, as we were, that roundtrip adds just over 10 miles (16 km) and another 2,000’ (600 m) of gain. Since it was a brutally warm 30C (86F) day when we scrambled Ptarmigan – and taking time to enjoy the views sounded better than a rat race – we opted to forgo the cumulative 16 miles (26 km) and 7,100’ (2200 m) of vertical and simply return for Richardson.

Two weeks after scrambling Ptarmigan, we indeed found ourselves plodding back up the winding 4 kilometers of Temple Fire Road toward Hidden Lake to nab Richardson. For the first time ever, we had some company on the first part of the trail. We met a pair of hikers just past Temple Lodge who were headed up to Boulder Pass/Ptarmigan Lake for a mother-daughter outing. The duo was from over in Golden, where we spent six amazing months last year, and keen to chat about the area while enjoying the company of a scruffy street dog. Exchanging trail stories and scrambling ideas made the typically dull hike in much more entertaining, and it was nice to meet a couple of friendly new faces.

We eventually parted ways with our new friends at the turnoff for Hidden Lake. They headed for Boulder Pass while we finished out the last kilometer to the scenic shoreline as our usual team of three. Back on familiar terrain, we examined our route up Mount Richardson. From Hidden Lake to the summit, the one-way trip was around 1.3 miles (2 km) with 2,600 feet (800 m) of gain, almost identical to Ptarmigan’s stats.

For us, the least enjoyable part of the scramble came early, from Hidden Lake to the col. There’s no trail or cairns here to direct you, so it’s largely a choose-your-own adventure route. While the general direction is obvious, I think we got over excited about gaining the ridge and headed too far right. It felt like we chose incorrectly and should have stayed on the grassy slopes near the center of the gully for longer. We quickly found ourselves in terrain that was a brutal mix of loose scree and hard-packed dirt where we struggled to gain any sort of footing. It was too late to really change our minds, so we just forged ahead. One of us was swearing profusely on the dirt treadmill. One of us with four-wheel drive had zero issues and thought the whole thing was hilarious. The remaining one, as usual, was simply along for the ride with his two wild girls at the end of a twenty-foot lead.

Once we finally gained the col, it was smooth sailing to the summit. It was about a kilometer from here to the top, including a really gorgeous little ridge walk followed by the usual scree pile once we hit the summit block. From the top of the ridge, there was now an obvious path the entire way.

The open south ridge of Richardson offered some lovely views of the Pipestone Valley to the west, as well as a nice look at Temple and the peaks of the Lake Louise group to the south. Looking back at our approach from the east, Hidden Lake stole the show below Redoubt Mountain. On a slightly higher bench in the meadows above Hidden Lake, a gorgeous little tarn added another pop of color to the already vibrant landscape. With its swirls of green and blue hues, the little pool was especially striking.

While the views from the ridge were worthy in their own right, the views from Richardson’s summit also did not disappoint. Relative to Ptarmigan’s summit, we were now on the western side of the Wall of Jericho. This vantage point offered a bird’s-eye view of sapphire-hued Merlin Lake as well as a look at the icy glacier on Richardson’s shaded north side.

Due east we gazed over the col at neighboring Pika Peak (3053 m), with Ptarmigan’s slightly taller summit (3077 m) just beyond. As we tried to make out the scrambling route up, it was obvious to see why Pika earned a difficult rating. A fall on Pika would no doubt end very badly. With that kind of exposure, it definitely surpassed either of our comfort zones.

Looking northeast between the jagged spine of the Wall of Jericho and Pika’s crown, we could see Fossil Mountain across the valley, with Skoki giants Douglas and Saint Bride just beyond. Skoki Mountain’s stunted summit also peeked out from behind the Wall of Jericho with the much larger peaks of the Drummond Icefield sitting just northwest.

As we wandered across Richardson’s sprawling summit plateau, we noticed a second highpoint slightly west of the summit cairn. The cairned point was accessible via a short ridge, so we made our way over. While no one else was at the summit, this seemed like an even more secluded spot for lunch. The views from this outlier easily matched, if not exceeded, those from the main summit. Not only was the vantage point of Merlin Lake and Merlin Castle now better, but we got a great look at Mount Hector’s Snoopy-shaped summit to the northwest as well as glaciated Mount Balfour across the Icefields Parkway.

After soaking up another peak’s worth of amazing Skoki views, we headed down the scree ramp and back across the panoramic ridge. Of course, as we made our way back down the approach gully, I didn’t learn from my earlier mistake – sending us too far left on the descent. We were back on shit dirt and gravel, and I dug my poles in as I swore and scooted my ass back to firmer ground. When we finally reached the lake, I celebrated my stupidity with a protein bar while Sanchez romped along the lakeshore. Once again, all was well with the world.

From the lake, it was the same monotonous five-mile (8 km) return down the forested trail and fire road that we’d now done a handful of times. I’m pretty sure that last bit will always feel like a tedious pain in the ass at the end of a long day, but I’m similarly certain the dull plod will always be worth it for another chance to visit our beloved Skoki.

Total distance: 13.0 miles (21 km)
Elevation gain: 4,276 feet (1300 meters)
Scramble rating: Moderate (Kane)

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