Zenfolio | Matthew Clay | Armor Peak, June 24, 2017
Visitors 55
75 photos

Distance: 21.5 km
Elevation gain: 1820 m (normally ~1600 m, but I made a silly mistake)
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Armor Peak is a highpoint at the northern end of the Protection Mountain massif. It’s been on my radar since Matt Hobbs published a report a few years ago, and with excellent weather and a strong interest in a big outing today we decided to give it a go.

We followed the directions on Matt’s website to the trailhead and started hiking along the north bank of the creek, encountering the trail shortly after setting out. With the exception of a bit of deadfall and a few swampy areas, the trail was in excellent condition and great to hike along. The flat beginning was a very pleasant warmup, and the switchbacks on the steeper terrain higher up were perfectly graded. A pleasant stream, wildflowers, a couple of old cabins, and the open old-growth forest kept the monotony to a minimum, and after 2 hours we reached treeline, 900 m up from the car and about 100 m below the old Protection Mountain mine.

We poked around the entrance of the mine for a minute or two (it’s really just a hole in the bedrock), then continued upwards, contouring to the right (southeast) to where the cliff bands guarding the ridge have crumbed and thus grant easy access to the ridgecrest. As we gained elevation I was surprised to see a very long snow patch extending from the cliffs down to near treeline that we’d need to cross to get to the gap in the cliffs. Unfortunately we’d cleverly left our microspikes and ice axes in the car to save weight and I spent a few minutes mentally debating whether we should descend 50 m to a narrow section to cross or continue up well over 100 m to the usual crossing point just below the cliffs.

Like my decision to leave the snow gear in the car, laziness won out and I decided to head for the top and cross there, saving myself from needing to regain the 50 m the other choice required. A few rocks were poking out of the snow higher up too so I assumed that meant it was shallow and that the crossing would be straightforward. Predictably this was not even close to the case. When I arrived at the steep snow near the top and went to kick a step into it, my foot bounced painfully off – the snow was solid ice! I couldn’t even get through the crust with my heel. Apparently it was one heck of a freeze the night before! There was no way we were getting across that snow, and even if we had brought our microspikes and axes it still wouldn’t have been safe for us; this ice required genuine crampons and far more experience than we have.

At this point I had no idea how to continue the ascent. At 22 km and 1600 m elevation gain this trip was already pushing our limits, and the 200 m we’d need to regain if we dropped to the bottom of the snow patch would push those stats into the extreme for us at this time of year, so with no other feasible options we dejectedly started back down. After 160 m of descent the snow patch had narrowed significantly and the snow surface was facing the sun just a bit more directly than it had higher up. This had marginally softened the surface and with a bit of effort I was able to kick steps into it! We easily crossed at this point, but we’d lost nearly an hour of time and we were still 300 m below the ridge.

This had, of course, devolved into a case of “in for a dime, in for a dollar”, and so now that we were across the pesky snow we decided we might as well continue upwards to get a view of Wonder Valley. The rubble along this ascent was terrible, but within 45 minutes I’d topped out on the ridge and was greeted by a fantastic 360 degree panorama. Sandra joined me a bit later and we had our second lunch of the day, relishing the views and the wonderful weather.

After lunch we decided to wander along the ridge towards Armor Peak, 3 km distant. We didn’t really have any hope of making the summit as it still held a surprising amount of snow, but we’d hiked so hard to reach the ridge we didn’t really want to head down without exploring a bit.

The ridge had several small ups and downs, but none were more than 40 m high, and while there were huge snow drifts on the east side, for much of the distance a path on dirt and rock existed. About halfway to the peak Sandra was stopped by a narrow section of ridge that could only be detoured around on icy snow, but I continued on, figuring I’d only be a gone a short while.

The north side of the next bump on the ridge still held an enormous amount of snow that couldn’t be bypassed, but the surface had melted enough by now that I was easily able to walk on it, and I soon found myself at the base of Armor Peak. It had looked impossible up to this point, but I started up anyway, picking my way up chunky rock on the west side where there was no snow. This route was an easy-moderate scramble and I found it quite fun as the rock was solid and I was able to avoid any exposure. In what seemed like just a few minutes I was only two meters below the summit.

If it seems odd to mention that I was just two meters below the summit, it’s because those last two meters were the most consequential. Between me and the summit was a very small, flat snow patch. I took two steps onto it and promptly crashed through the crust – an event that had happened many times already today – but this time my kneecap slammed into a pointy rock just below the surface. The pain of the impact was unbearable and completely crippled me. Thankfully my knee was immediately iced – I was sitting in snow and largely immobile with pain afterall – but within 30 seconds I realized I was very quickly getting soaked and so dragged and hopped my way to the closest flat area, which in this case was the summit. I immediately dosed myself with acetaminophen and ibuprofen and worked on getting my knee to bend again. This did, of course, involve stumbling around the summit block taking photos and admiring the fantastic views, and over the course of my 20 minute stay my knee loosened up enough that I felt ready to start the descent.

As I started down I quickly discovered that although my knee worked well on fairly level terrain, it wasn’t particularly bendy and thus going down was much more difficult. I didn’t really have much choice, however, so continued onwards. Thankfully once I was off the steep terrain I found the going much easier, and by taking small steps that didn’t involve much knee-bending I was able to get back to Sandra, albeit much later than planned. We refueled, headed back to our ascent route, and started down. Thankfully by this point the drugs had taken effect, and while my knee was still weak and had only limited motion, heading down wasn’t nearly as problematic as I had worried it might be.

Once back on trail we were able to move even faster, and even with breaks to explore the old cabins and a few rests, we arrived back at the car just three hours after regrouping with Sandra. My knee is still pretty sore today, but I was very happy to have actually made it to the summit (and back!). With the detour we had to take earlier in the day the total elevation gain clocked in at 1820 m, the second-most I’ve ever done in a day. I’m feeling quite ready for our big summer plans now!

Categories & Keywords
Category:Lifestyle and Recreation
Subcategory Detail:Hiking
Keywords:Armor Peak, Banff National Park, Protection Mountain, hiking, scrambling