Mount Schaffer

At the start of our six-month stay in Golden in 2022, I told Stephan that hiking the Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit was on my must-do list. I followed that up by informing him that visiting the area would also require hiking in, and then back out, 6.5 miles (11 km) each way on a forest service road – adding 13 miles (22 km) to the 8-mile loop. Suffice it to say, he was not on board with this plan. Completely unwilling to give this one up, I pressed on with my persuading. After enough convincing, as I expected, he finally caved. On a stunner of day the second week in September, we were off.

Fast forward a year later, and we found ourselves back in the Rockies. Once again, one of my must-do scrambles was up at Lake O’Hara. This time around, though, he didn’t act as if I’d absolutely lost my mind. In fact, he didn’t so much as wince at the thought of walking that road again. After seeing some of the most spectacular alpine scenery we’d ever laid eyes on, he was all in on another mind-numbing march up the fire road.

Just like last year, we tried to wait for a nice weather day. After all, if you’re going to walk 13 miles just to access a trail, you kind of want conditions to cooperate. Once again, we found ourselves venturing out the second week in September – this time, the day after Stephan’s birthday. I think I may see a new birthday tradition taking shape here…

This year’s objective was Mount Schaffer, an 8,829-foot (2691 meter) summit that towers above All Souls’ Prospect but is simultaneously humbled by a belt of nearby 11,000-foot giants. The peak was named in honor of Mary Schaffer – an American-Canadian naturalist, photographer, and writer who spent much of her life exploring and documenting her time in the Canadian Rockies. As someone who only dreams of spending her life doing the same, it seemed fitting to visit her namesake mountain.

The very long, very boring approach to Mount Schaffer begins like any other to Lake O’Hara – except for the lucky few who score a highly-coveted shuttle ticket – with a good old 6.5-mile (11 km) plod up a fire road. With the road closed to vehicular and bicycle traffic, the walk is at least peaceful; but that’s about as much as I can hype the experience. The best part of the approach is unquestionably the last white marker tacked to a roadside tree that reads ‘11 km.’ On the return, it’s the ‘1 km’ sign that elicits a celebratory high-five and concurrent sigh of relief.

Once we arrived at Lake O’Hara, we made our way to the Le Relais Day Shelter then headed southwest along the MacArthur Highline Trail toward McArthur Lake. Although we’d beaten the second shuttle up there, Sanchez was heartbroken to learn that the shelter’s morning batch of carrot cake had already sold out. She had worked so hard collecting seltzer cans over the summer and was all ready to exchange her hard-earned stash of loonies and toonies for a slab of that famous cake. Dejected and dumbfounded, she finally decided she could carry on with her hike rather than waiting around at the picnic table for the afternoon batch to pop out of the oven.

After briefly consoling the poor, cake-less doggo, we hiked about a mile up through stands of larch trees, past the Elizabeth Parker Hut to Schaffer Lake. We’d hiked this section last year as we descended from the All Souls’ Prospect segment of the Alpine Circuit and, admittedly, had to force ourselves not to make a hard left and repeat that unforgettable loop.

From Schaffer Lake, it was about another mile up and over McArthur Pass until we reached the shores of McArthur Lake. Although there’s a shorter route up the Schaffer Bowl from Schaffer Lake (where you can gain the same col and then Schaffer’s western ridge), we decided to take a slightly longer route around the southwest side of Mount Schaffer to McArthur Lake. After making the tedious trip all the way up the service road, we saw absolutely no reason to shave off even a second of our precious time amongst that gorgeous scenery.

Bounded on three sides by Mount Schaffer, Mount Biddle and Park Mountain, cerulean McArthur Lake was even more stunning than we imagined. With the southeastern light less than ideal, however, we decided to push on to the summit and revisit the lake on our return.

From the lakeshore to Schaffer’s summit, it was about another mile via some off-trail hiking and easy to moderate scrambling over scree and rubble. The only thing that slowed us down here were the views. Mount Odaray has got to be one of the most photogenic summits I’ve ever seen. Beneath the mountain’s unmistakable profile, the larch forests around Schaffer Lake were just beginning to turn from green to their distinctive gold. In another week, I imagined they were going to look magical. In the distance beyond Odaray, we were afforded a gorgeous look at Mount Stephen and Cathedral Mountain.

After finally putting down our cameras, we continued plodding up the sparsely vegetated slopes to the col. At the col, we then scrambled up some rock ledges, continuing hiker’s left until we reached a steep scree gully. The route up the gully was obvious enough, and soon enough we popped out atop the ridge. From there, it was a short ridge walk/scramble to Mount Schaffer’s summit.

As we expected, the views from the top were fantastic. Of course, I’m not sure it’s possible to go up to Lake O’Hara and have a bad view. From Schaffer’s summit we got a good look at the neighboring giants running along the Divide: Mount Victoria, Glacier Peak, Ringrose and Hungabee. In the valley below, we gazed down at turquoise Lake O’Hara and equally striking Mary Lake, beautifully framed by the Wiwaxy Peaks and colorful Mount Huber. Just southeast of the two large lakes, we had a beautiful vantage point of the Opabin Plateau. Here, beneath the summits of Mount Yukness and Ringrose Peak, larches peppered the landscape around Moor, Cascade, Hungabee and Opabin Lakes.

Immediately southeast, we examined the sharp spine that connected Mount Schaffer with much more imposing Mount Biddle. Off the south side of Mount Schaffer, we looked back at McArthur Lake and Park Mountain. To the right of Park Mountain’s shoulder sat the snow-capped peak of Mount Owen, with glaciated giant Mount Vaux rising just beyond.

After a good amount of time atop the summit enjoying the striking views, a well-earned lunch, and the warm autumn sunshine, we made our way back to McArthur Lake. The water was even more vibrant in the afternoon sun, and there was some slightly better light on Mount Biddle and the retreating pocket glacier balanced on the nearly-11,000-footer’s western slope. A few early-turning larches added an extra splash of color to the already vibrant landscape.

While we were about a week too early for the larches this year, we couldn’t pass up the day’s perfect weather and amazing air quality on the heels of an historically smoky summer. Additionally, because this time of year can be especially fickle when it comes to weather, all it takes is one early season snow dump to thwart fall summit bagging in the Main Ranges. Consequently, we chose to seize the opportunity when we had it.

Perfectly timed golden larches or not, it was another picture-perfect day at Lake O’Hara. Even with that dreadful roundtrip trudge up the fire road, the area has quickly turned into one of our favorite little corners of BC. Hopefully next year we’ll be able to make a return trip… Mount Yukness, perhaps? And while our luckless little pup missed out a second time on her coveted carrot cake at our 4 p.m. return to the Le Relais Shelter, she still declared it a splendid day in the mountains. In the meantime, she’ll be squirreling away her coins for next year. She lucked out back in 2022 and remains determined to get her paws on another piece of post-hike perfection.

Total distance: 19.3 miles (31 km)
Elevation gain: 4,254 feet (1300 meters)
Scramble rating: Easy/Moderate, depending on route

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