Distance: 24.5 km
Elevation gain: 1600 m (includes wandering) View map Download GPS track
With a beautiful sunny day forecast Sandra and I hoped to make the most of it by heading up Helena Ridge, the second highest peak on the huge Protection Mountain massive. We started the hike at 8:20 am and arrived at Tower Lake a bit under 2 hours later after enduring 8 km of the most unbelievably boring and soul-sucking trail to get there. Things improved after Tower Lake and a short ascent later we came to beautiful Rockbound Lake. Here we took a 15 minute break to soak in the scenery and mentally recuperate, then started the ascent towards Helena Ridge. As we gained elevation we were quite dismayed to find that Environment Canada's forecast of "a mix of sun and cloud" was 95% cloud, but with just enough wind to keep the sweat at bay this actually made the ascent quite pleasant.
After gaining the ridge above Rockbound Lake we started to head towards the gully coming down from Helena Ridge that serves as the ascent route. My instinct was to simply contour upwards to reach the gully at perhaps its halfway point, but numerous cairns led along level terrain to its base and I decided to take it easy and follow them instead of forging my own route. This worked fine and shortly we intersected an acceptable trail heading up the gully.
At the top of the gully we turned west and ascended the final 150 m to the summit of Helena Ridge. There were many bits of trail through this section, but with or without trail it was a perfectly typical Rockies plod up scree and rubble. Views from the summit were fantastic and certainly better than those from Castle Mountain, in which the western panorama is marred by the sight and noise of the Trans Canada highway. Particularly stunning was the entire Castle Mountain massive and its ridges and plateaus.
After a summit lunch we headed northeast along the ridge towards an enormous cairn hoping to get a view of Luellen Lake, but the terrain kept forcing us down and we decided it wasn’t worth the effort to continue. Instead we backtracked to the summit, descended to the col, then hiked 150 m up a more easterly summit. This ascent was very easy and granted a surprisingly different panorama of the Johnston Creek valley than from the main summit. Several colorful tarns were also visible in the valley below, including the east end of Luellen Lake. It was a very worthwhile detour.
Heading back to the col we retraced our steps to Rockbound Lake, passing or hearing several other groups on the way, then made our way as rapidly as possible back to the car on the dullest of trails before starting the drive home. (As expected, unfortunately, some drunk?/high?/speeding?/texting? douchebag had rolled his truck+boat on the last day of the long weekend and our 2 hour drive home took well over 3; never, EVER try to head west on the first day of a long weekend or east on the last in Alberta!).