Ptarmigan Peak

With more than a dozen of Alan Kane’s easy scrambles under our belt in 2022, we wanted to up our game a bit in 2023 and move on to some of his moderate routes. For me, the primary challenge that comes with bigger scrambles is bigger exposure. While I’ve never considered myself afraid of heights, it’s a whole new ballgame when you’re on big terrain that can have big consequences. I had one moment of panic on a summit in 2020, and it’s been an uphill battle (literally) to move past it. I’ve always found overcoming mental hurdles much more difficult than the physical, and really getting my nose into some of these peaks has been such a satisfying way of pushing my comfort zone.

One of the moderate scrambles that most piqued my interest was Ptarmigan Peak. When we hiked a 21-mile (34-km) loop through Banff’s Skoki area last fall, the massive trio of Richardson, Pika and Ptarmigan caught our eye. As we stared up at the vertical headwall of Pika and Ptarmigan from Zigadenus Lake, neither peak looked touchable. However, we learned the scrambling approach from Hidden Lake up Ptarmigan was rated as moderate by Kane (Pika, on the other hand, is a difficult, very exposed scramble). After falling in love with Skoki after just one visit last year, we knew we wanted to return for a different vantage point of the area.

Any journey out to this backcountry area will require covering some meaningful distance, with most round-trip routes into Skoki clocking in at between 20 to 40 km. But if you’ve got the stamina, it’s absolutely gorgeous. Last time we visited, we went up Boulder and Packer Pass, stopped by some of the Skoki lakes, scrambled Skoki Mountain, and exited via Deception Pass. Having not yet explored the area around Hidden Lake, we were stoked to check out something new.

As with any hike into Skoki, our day started with the monotonous trudge up Temple Fire Road, a 2.5-mile (4 km) walk with around 1,200 feet of vertical gain. It’s not as tedious as the Lake O’Hara Fire Road, but it still feels like a pain. From the end of the road, it’s another 2.5 miles (4 km) to reach Hidden Lake. The trail is largely forested and is similar in grade to the access road, making it a fairly unexciting 8 km approach from the parking lot.

As these things typically go, however, once we arrived at Hidden Lake, we forgot all about the lackluster hike in. The trio of Richardson, Pika and Ptarmigan were drenched in the warm morning sun under cloudless blue skies. Even the air quality was cooperating on this unseasonably warm day – a major win considering the summer’s record-smashing wildfire activity.

From Hidden Lake, it’s a mere 1.3 miles (2 km) to Ptarmigan’s summit. However, it’s seriously steep, gaining nearly 2,500 feet (760 m) of vertical over that distance. There’s no obvious trail from the lake, however route-finding is pretty straightforward if you’ve studied the route Kane (and others) have used.

The general course trends hiker’s right from the southern shore of the lake – heading east and then northeast as you aim for the grass-covered slopes below Ptarmigan. As you make your way up the open slopes, the views get very nice very quickly – a nice distraction from the steep plod up. To the northwest, there’s a great view of neighboring Mount Richardson towering above Hidden Lake. To the southeast, Redoubt Mountain begins to look pretty impressive from this angle on the ridge. Between the two summits, the south-facing panorama extends across the lush Ptarmigan Valley out to Mount Temple, the hulking highpoints of the Lake Louise Group, and the sharp summits of the Valley of the Ten Peaks.

As we made our way up the southern slopes of the mountain, the sparse vegetation eventually gave way to a steep scree ramp. The route was fairly obvious, following a gully straight up to the ridge. As we gained the ridge, the scree turned to blockier talus and we got our first look out into Skoki Valley.

Once we hit the ridge, it was a fairly quick walk to the summit after the crux of the scramble. The crux came as the ridge narrowed just before the summit block – requiring a short downclimb of about three meters to avoid a sheer drop-off to the left. We weren’t sure how Sanchez would fare here, but were fairly confident in her abilities. She’s small but insanely athletic and loves some class 3 bouldering when the rock is good. As we expected, she had no trouble here, and was even able to make it back up unassisted on the return. We were kind of in awe watching her shoulders ripple as she pulled herself confidently back up the crack.

After the downclimb, it was just a few minutes further to Ptarmigan’s summit – the second highest in Skoki at 10,036’ (3077 m). Of all the scrambling we’ve done here in the Rockies, these views were some of my favorites. Peering off the sheer north side of the mountain, we spotted a small glacier below. Just beyond this vertical face sat the blindingly blue pools of Zigadenus and Myosotis Lakes. The turquoise tarns were named after the genera of two alpine wildflowers – mountain camas and forget-me-nots. It’s certainly easy to see how the latter earned its moniker. The striking lake is indeed unforgettable, both up close and from a distance.

The panoramas looking out into Skoki Valley were sweeping. Beyond the two lakes, bounded on either side by the Wall of Jericho and Packer’s Pass Peak, we gazed across Skoki Meadows and Deception Pass out to Skoki and Fossil Mountains. To the southeast and east was a gorgeous view of Ptarmigan, Baker, and Redoubt Lakes – the latter perched on a bench between Redoubt Mountain and Heather Ridge. Beyond Heather Ridge were layers of peaks, including Brachiopod and Anthozoan, Tilted Mountain, and the familiar highpoints of Mounts Douglas and Saint Bride rising behind Fossil and Lychnis.

Looking south was the same scenic view we enjoyed on the way up, with Temple and the Lake Louise group dominating the horizon. The only difference was that we were now high enough to see the turquoise waters of Lake Louise beyond Whitehorn Mountain (home of the Lake Louise Ski Resort). To the west and northwest, we got a peek at mighty Mount Balfour’s glaciated crown peeking out from between nearby Richardson and Pika. Mount Hector’s snoopy-shaped summit was also unmistakable from across the Pipestone Valley.

Heading back to Hidden Lake, we felt reinvigorated after a long stay at the summit soaking up the views and enjoying the solitude of it all. While we originally wondered if we could bag Mount Richardson in the same day, it was definitely not in the cards. The afternoon temperature was now brutally hot as it approached 30C (86F), and the roundtrip to/from Hidden Lake simply added too much distance for two somewhat aggressive peaks. We were okay with that, though. Returning to this stunning area for another summit day required no convincing.

If I had to nitpick about one blemish on an otherwise perfect day, it was that there was no pen in the summit register. Sanchez felt like she really earned that one – especially with her prowess on that crack – and was eager to leave her mark in the customary pink box for all human scramblers to see. Oh well. Our fuzzy little scrambler can still hold her head high, penned pawprint or not. In the future, though, I will make sure the world’s cutest summiteer won’t be missing out on another log. The first thing I did when we got home was throw a pen in the top pouch of my day pack.

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

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