Mount Ball (above): Elevation - 3311m / Rating - Moderate / 12km one-way / 1820m Gain Beatrice Peak: Elevation - 3125m / Rating - Moderate / 2km one-way from Ball / 200m Gain Total Distance: ~25km / Total Elevation Gain: ~2000m / Watch Data Team: Nicolas James / Brett Rayner / Kevan Rayner
Mount Ball is one of those scrambles that I have dreamed about completing, but between its remoteness and super long approach (apparently the worst in the book) it never made the shortlist for any of my previous day trips. Although it can and has been done in one long day, I was interested in getting a permit to bivy in the amphitheater high above the Haffner creek approach, and make it a two day adventure.
I found some time near the beginning of August that seemed to work for my brother and friend Nick. The next trick would be getting a permit from Parks Canada. After reading some reports online it seemed that other parties were successful in getting a bivy permit, and I figured I would give it a shot. This would be my first random camping permit, and I had heard whispers that Parks can be hard to deal with and often deny requests (random camping is illegal in Canadian National Parks).
I walked into the Parks information building in Banff and waited to be helped. After explaining my plan, I was told that a Park Warden would need to approve the permit. Bree (the lovely parks women helping me) made a few phone calls and came back saying that it would not be possible for them to issue a permit. I pressed harder saying that I knew others had secured one before, and she made another phone call. She then handed me the phone and I spent thirty minutes explaining to a warden exactly where we were going, and what we were doing. I was told to pass the phone back to Bree, and I continued to wait patiently.
Finally she hung up the phone and gave me little thumbs up! She printed off all the paperwork, I payed the fee, and she went over the rules for random camping. I walked out onto Banff Avenue with a big smile on my face, happy to have a permit in hand. After a lot of planning with no backup, it was great that plan A was a go!
The next day my brother and I waited patiently for Nick to finish work before we could make the trek into our bivy for the evening. Nick got off work and sent us a message, and within an hour we were pulling into the Marble Canyon Campground. We found the water tower described in Kane's guidebook, and were surprised to see another vehicle already parked there (Bree told me no one else had permits for the area).
We spent a few minutes dividing some gear between our three packs (mine was 80 litres and probably weighed 75+ pounds) before heading off along Haffner creek. There is no trail, and the only thing we had to follow was the creek. We started off by making the mistake of staying too close and found ourselves inside a canyon with steep walls, soon blocked by high, quick moving water. We quickly looked for a way out, and ended up climbing some steep grassy ledges on the left side.
Nick gearing up
Thinking about how to get out (Photo: Kevan Rayner)
Kevan climbing out of the canyon
We followed Haffner creek, sometimes along the gravel shores, but mostly among dense brush and charred trees. The flooding of 2013 and a previous forest fire have really taken a toll on this valley (like most others in the area). The going was very rough and physical, climbing over fallen trees and scrambling across steep dirt embankments above the creek. We ended up crossing the water a few times, on log bridges (both wide and narrow) and by rock hopping. We tried to move as quickly as possible because with every passing minute daylight was fading, and navigation would become difficult in the dark.
One of many log crossings
Most of the approach looked worse than this
Not even close
Still on approach (Photo: Kevan Rayner)
Sun going down...this could get interesting
Darkness fell as we approached the headwall to the upper valley. As we turned on our headlamps we could see some beams of light high above us below Stanley Peak. There were others in the valley, but we would not be meeting them today. Our planned camp was above treeline, much higher and to the right of their location. Trying to cross the water below the headwall I fell in and soaked my butt and most of my legs. Luckily it was a warm night and this was actually refreshing (as opposed to life threatening). We staggered on, almost blindly through the darkness, through bush on an ever steepening slope.
Suddenly, I heard a click followed by a loud hissing noise beside me. I had heard this noise before and instinctively shut my eyes. As I brushed by a rather sturdy bush, it had caught my bear spray safety and removed it, and depressed the trigger letting out a long burst of pepper spray. Thankfully none had gotten in my eyes or mouth, but it did land in my hair. For the last two hours to camp a mixture of bear mace and sweat dripped down my face (adding to the joy).
We ascended loose scree for about 30 minutes before the terrain levelled off a little. The altimeter on my GPS watch read over 2000 meters elevation, which meant we were getting close to treeline and a place to set up camp. I wandered off ahead of my brother and Nick, who was not feeling so hot and moving at a slower pace. My goal was to find a suitable spot for the night hopefully with water nearby. As I ascended a steeper forested section, Kevan called out saying they had seen eyes reflecting in their headlamp beams behind them. Not knowing what was watching us I waited for them to catch up, and we walked the last few hundred meters together.
Finally we passed the last of the trees, and we hunted for a flat spot to pitch our tent. Stipulations on our permit meant we had to camp above 2300 meters (treeline) off of any foliage, and no camp fires were permitted. We found a semi flat rock slab and each of us threw off our bags and collapsed on the ground. After gathering our last ounces of energy we worked as a team to build the tent, as well as boiling water for some hot meals. The air was cool, but we would be quite warm with three of us in my tiny two man tent. We shared macaroni and cheese and some curry (both of which were rehydrated from a package) and drank tea and hot chocolate as we gazed at the stars.
We lucked out on this trip, as the Perseid meteor shower was at its peak, and the sky was perfectly clear. Bright streaks of light crossed the sky multiple times per minute, and I saw more shooting stars in an hour than I have seen in my lifetime. It was so cozy in my sleeping bag outside the tent that I could have stayed out all night. It was after 1 AM when we retired to the relative comfort of the tent. We only had two sleeping pads which didn't quite cover the entire bottom, and I spent the night sleeping on hard rock, nestled between my brother and Nick!
Finally at camp with the tent up!
Kevan prepares some late night snacks for the meteor shower viewing party
Morning came quickly, and I was awakened by voices outside our tent. The voices trailed off and I drifted back to sleep. When I awoke again it took a moment for me to remember where I was. Kevan and Nick were awake as well, still in the their sleeping bags. I unzipped the tent door and was greeted with an amazing 360 degree view. Directly out the tent door was Mount Haffner and Vermillion Peak (which I climbed with Kevan a week before on a surveillance mission) and behind was Beatrice Peak and the route to Mount Ball. The summit of Ball was obscured by the ridge we would take to get there, and it looked like a long, rock filled adventure. We ate a breakfast of oatmeal, fruit, nuts, and warm pilsner!
Morning view, morning brew
Home sweet home
Getting ready for the day (Photo: Kevan Rayner)
Nick prepares for the summit
After sorting through our gear and packing for the day, we stashed our camping supplies and headed uphill. The start of the route from our current location heads across Karst pavement (flat rock formations) and then up what seems like a never ending scree slope. There is one rock band that divides the scree slope, but from afar it was easy to see the weakness where we would ascend. Above was some easy but more exposed scree slopes, and hopefully a view of the summit.
Headed up to the light coloured scree left of centre
Excited for the scree ahead (Photo: Kevan Rayner)
The Scree Ahead (Photo: Kevan Rayner)
After what seemed like an endless struggle up moving rocks (and a short stop at a trickle of glacier water) we arrived at the bottom of the "waterfall". From straight on it looked a little steep, but to climbers right was an easy staircase up and over the water. These moves are exposed and can be slippery, so we donned helmets for added safety. Above the water is a steep scree bowl, and we made our way quickly up to the ridge above.
Looking up the waterfall and the easiest route up the first cliff band
Some hands on moves up a small waterfall (Photo: Kevan Rayner)
Moving to easier ground
Finally the objective came into view! Mount Ball loomed high above (and still far away) with an exciting looking connecting ridge in between. As Kevan and Nick neared the top of the bowl I heard voices again, and we soon met up with the other climbing party we had seen the night before.We chatted briefly, and I offered to let them sign a summit log we were bringing up.
We parted ways and I set my sights again on the summit. The next challenge was the meandering ridge leading to the final slope. Travel was fairly easy with a few cliff bands to make things interesting. We made things more exciting by climbing a few steep walls, but most of these bands have easy ramps to ascend and descend. Be wary of snow near the edge of the ridge as a slip here could lead to a long tumble down the glacier.
Still have some interesting terrain to get to the summit (Photo: Kevan Rayner)
The scrambling gets interesting
Kevan makes a few moves up a vertical cliff band
The final slope to the summit is 300 meters of snow or rock. Kevan stayed off the snow to the right, while Nick and I went straight up the white stuff (ice axe and crampons recommended). After a long slog we climbed from snow to rock, and walked along a broad ridge to the high point. The view from the summit is unbelievable with mountains stretching as far as the eye can see. Many 11,000ers including Assiniboine, Temple, Deltaform, and Mount Hungabee can easily be seen from this vantage (Ball is 138 feet shy of eleven thousand).
We spent an hour and a half on the summit, eating, drinking, and building a summit cairn. It was a little cold on the summit with a light breeze blowing, but that didn't stop us from staying as long as we could. I had a feeling that with the long approach we would not be back here any time soon. We all signed the summit log, and placed it inside the cairn. It will be interesting to come back at some point and read the names of those who had been there since us.
Ascending the final snow slope to the summit (Photo: Kevan Rayner)
Rayner Bros enjoying the view from the summit featuring our nerdy bear spray and the fabulous KEB TROUSER from FjallRaven (Photo: Nick James)
Summit cairn with Mount Temple towering above in the distance
We finally decided to head down (we had one more summit and a trek to the car still today) and began to make our way back along the summit ridge. We descended the steep slope on the rock instead of snow and made quick progress back to where we emerged from the scree bowl. From there it was a short scramble up a broken ridge and scree slope to the summit of Beatrice.
Nick heading out
Kevan on some big terrain with camp far below
Although Mount Ball towers high above, the view from Beatrice is just as grand because of the awesome view of the summit we had stood on less than an hour before. We spent some time eating as well as looking at Stanley Glacier before we started thinking about the long walk to the car. We decided to try out an alternate descent down a steep, loose gully. It is quite close to the summit of Beatrice, and not hard to find. Once in the gully we tried to stick close together as every rock seemed to be precariously balanced, and at times the whole slope was moving. Helmets are definitely recommended for larger parties. Some scree skiing expedited the descent and it spat us out closer to the flat Karst pavement, skipping a large portion of the toilsome scree bowl we ascended.
On the summit of Mount Beatrice with Ball summit behind (Photo: Kevan Rayner)
Looking back up the descent route from Beatrice
The trees started getting closer, and we soon arrived at the gear stash. The sun was beginning to get low in the sky, but we spent time lounging by our camp. We finished the last of our beers to save weight for the trip out, then packed the remaining gear and shouldered our packs. It was nice to see the terrain we had climbed up the night previously in the pitch dark. I had a feeling it was going to be just as much of a mission getting out, as it was getting in.
Slightly reluctant to shoulder the heavy packs again but night is coming and we have to work tomorrow
The trek out ended up being pretty uneventful, except for the last kilometre or so. As we neared the car, in pitch darkness, we began to swim through pine trees. I lost my sense of direction (and the sound of Haffner creek) so I set my GPS watch to the track we had set the day before, and began to follow the directional arrow guiding us back to the car. With only 5% battery life left, I was worried that the watch would die and we would walk past the car all the way to the highway (resulting in an extra kilometre backtrack through the campground). To make matters worse the trees were getting more dense and harder to navigate.
Suddenly something caught my eye and brought me to an abrupt halt. My headlamp shone directly on a giant spider web, and inches from my face sat a huge spider. I turned left, and again came face to face with another web. They were everywhere, and the only thing I could do was swing my hiking pole in front of my face to (hopefully) keep them off of me. Finally we emerged from the woods and our headlamps illuminated the car. I think all three of us were relieved that it was finally over, and it felt so good to sit down.
The look of a champion about to feast after a well fought victory
We still had another hour of driving to get back to Banff, and it was 1 AM before we finally made it back. Like most of our missions, we refuelled on greasy burgers from McDonalds before heading off to bed. Mt. Ball was everything I had hoped for. It was the first big multi-day trip that I had embarked on, and my first time camping in the backcountry. I couldn't have asked for a better team to experience (suffer) this wonderful area with. Although it was not a technically hard trip, the remoteness, approach, and varied terrain made it exciting and challenging. I said I would probably never come back to Haffner creek and Mt. Ball again, but I already have plans to do it again next year (with another peak added in for good measure).