Phantom Crag (Devil's Fang)
Elevation - 2223m / Rating - Not A Scramble / 15km Roundtrip from the Big Hill / 865m Gain (Hike) / Watch Data
Team: Brett Rayner / Kevan Rayner / Jared Smith
In November of 2016 I was searching for mountains in the front ranges that I could climb over the winter. Front range mountains can receive less snow, and many have the snow blow off by warm Chinook winds. I happened upon a fantastic trip report from Vern Dewit (explor8ion.com), detailing a climbing/scramble that can be done in the winter. Phantom Crag, located in the Ghost Wilderness area was full of challenges including access issues, short sections of climbing, and no cell phone service.
Fast forward to January 2018. My brother was visiting Banff and had the urge to climb a mountain (he lives in Kingston, Ontario for most months of the year). I had been to the Ghost four times already, and thought it may be a suitable adventure for our first summit of 2018! I picked Phantom Crag because it was one of my favorite mountains, which I had attempted twice, and made the summit only once. We invited Jared along as he was on the first attempt , but had not yet made it all the way to the top.
On Thursday morning we left Banff around 5:00am (after a stop at Tim Horton's of course). The first hour driving out of the mountains was relatively uneventful, as I sang to myself while Kevan and Jared were napping. The road into the Ghost is an unpaved logging road, and in the winter can be quite dangerous to drive. My three previous winter trips had been quite luxurious, with no snow on the road because of warmer than normal temperatures. This trip was very different. There had been a ton of snow at the end of December, followed by extremely cold temperatures and very little wind. The road was track set like a cross country ski trail might be, but these tracks were made by vehicle tires with very high clearance. Thankfully my brothers girlfriend lent us her 4x4 Rav4, which I still managed to high center on the raised, concrete-like middle section. After spending twenty plus minutes digging ourselves out with the help of some ice climbers who caught up behind us, we were off again. We only got stuck two more times, and decided to stop at the top of the big hill, which leads down onto the riverbed.
Parking at the top of the Big Hill with our objective in the early morning light
We quickly geared up and began our decent down the hill onto the riverbed. We followed vehicle tracks to keep out of the deep snow, and thankfully the river crossings were all frozen over. The Rav4 definitely would have been adequate for the conditions but we didn't want to risk not being able to get back up the hill, and the extra 6km (each way) was a great workout. We had some ice climbers drive by who offered to the drive our gear in (not enough room in their vehicle for the three of us), but we decided that would be like cheating.
Sun warms us up on the approach
Heading into the ghost with Blackrock Mountain ahead
After an hour of easy walking we made it to the point where we would leave the riverbed, and ascend through a narrow canyon to the final slopes. This would be the last time we would see the sun until we were up on the summit block, as it would be blocked by the mountain we were trying to climb. As we started up I noticed the snow was much deeper than my previous trips, and I began to worry the steep slope above treeline may be too hazardous to ascend. Thankfully Jared had a light pack and volunteered to break trail for the majority of the route.
Leaving the riverbed
Thanks to Jared for breaking trail 80% of the way
There are some cool bolted climbing routes in the canyon
The canyon was filled with snow sometime up to our knees. It did however keep us off the icy bottom which kept us from having to stop to put on spikes. The canyon starts to open up near the end and a steep face appears ahead. We took an steep snow covered scree slope right of the wall which leads to a traverse through the woods to the top. There is one hard move before making it onto the stream bed above that involves lunging or jumping from a rock very near the edge. We made quick work of it with our ice tools, although the landing was very snowy and slick.
The next challenge was to climb up a very short section of a rock band. There was so much snow at the bottom that we were able to pack down a 'stool' to stand on making the short step super easy. Bushwhacking through the deep snow for the next hour would be more challenging. We stayed to the left of the drainage we had been following for the remainder of the climb through the trees, mostly to keep out of the deeper snow that had drifted into the gully.
There is a 30 meter drop to his left
Last section of trees before the scree slope
When we made it out of the trees, the snow became more supportive and we were able to walk on top of the thick wind slab layer. We kicked maybe 50 steps before breaking through again, this time up to our waists. Luckily the final windblown scree slope was only steps away, and we were soon charging towards the curtain wall, a large cliff band guarding the summit. The wall is about 10 meters high and there is no easy way up. At the far right end is about seven meters of vertical climbing, before it tapers off to the top, presenting a good place to build an anchor and belay your friends up.
Making the final push to the summit block
Almost at the top of the frozen scree
We made it to the top of the scree, and turned right to skirt along the bottom to the weakness. There was a lot of snow at the base of the wall, some of which was a thick wind slab that we navigated carefully with a few good ice tool placements. As we rounded the corner at the end of the wall we were bathed in warm sunlight. I took time to put on some warm layers, and suited up with my harness and climbing gear.
Making our way to the sun
Kevan skirts below the curtain wall
I cleared a bunch of snow from the bottom of the wall, and found some good cracks to build an anchor with. I placed a few cams into the rock, equalized it with a long sling, and then yanked as hard as I could to test the strength. Once I was satisfied I hooked Kevan into the anchor and we both tied into the rope. The start of the climb was rather slippery, but there are plenty of good handholds. The feet are not that great, with just a few nubs to get your toes on, but things get easier with small ledges higher up. I made the mistake of starting to climb with no gloves on, and my hands got very cold quickly. Luckily I had my gloves inside of my jacket and quickly got one on with my mouth, one hand hanging onto the rock. Once my left glove was on there was a really good fist sized crack which I jammed my hand into so I could get the other one on. In the three times I've climbed this short step that was the closest I was to falling off (due to cold hands and no grip). I climbed up a little higher to the better footholds and placed another cam for protection. Then I climbed up the final few meters and clipped into the upper anchor.
The cord anchor looked a little worse for wear and I placed a cam to back it up, then I pulled up the rope until it came tight on Kevan. He then pulled out the lower anchor and climbed up after me. I threw the rope back down to Jared, and he tied in and followed. Once we were all up we stowed the rope near our repel point, and set our sights on the summit block.
Climbing up the curtain wall (Photo: Jared Smith)
Kevan tackles the wall (Photo: Jared Smith)
Please sir, I want some more
The remainder of the route involves some moderate scrambling moves, and a bunch of exposure. First up after the climb up the curtain wall is some exposed scrambling moves up small ledges. The difficulty was compounded again by the slippery snow. These ledges are a short snow slope above the curtain wall, and a slip here could lead to a slide all the way to treeline. The three of us carefully climbed up while spotting each other, and lending a hand (or ice tool) where holds were small or not good. Once we topped out on the ledges we were standing on a plateau with the final summit block in view.
Jared heads towards the summit block
The final summit block involves a few more exposed scrambling moves. There are some giant steps on the right of the block that lead somewhat easily to the summit. First you climb a short narrow gully to a ledge that traverses right, under an overhang. Then you climb the very tall steps with a drop of over 100 feet to your right. This is not a good place to mess up, and we took some time to clear the snow before ascending the final few feet to the top.
Kevan in some steep terrain
Traversing under the summit block
Moving carefully up the giant steps to the summit (Photo: Jared Smith)
Kevan uses an ice tool for a good placement on the steps
The summit plateau is fairly wide and quite long, and feels like a ramp leading into the sky. The view over the prairies out towards Calgary is almost as impressive as the mountains behind, and the Ghost lakes at the end of Lake Minnewanka are also visible. We arrived at the summit with about ten minutes remaining until our preset turn around time, so we took a few pictures and had a quick snack. Now it was a race to get back to the car before darkness.
Jared approaches the summit
A happy Kevan makes it to the top
We didn't stay for long
Return is via the same route, with one exception at the curtain wall. Thanks to Vern's trip report (and previous trips) we knew there was an amazing natural anchor to repel the short but steep drop. We returned to where we ditched the rope and then walked along the top of the wall. The rock anchor and some old cord (an anchor I had built a year earlier) appeared in front of us. I inspected the cord and it looked a little worn so I built a backup out of some more 7mm cord, then sent Jared to test out the old anchor while I watched. The anchor seemed secure and I sent Kevan down, and then followed.
We packed up the rope and the rest of our climbing gear, and then started the long, snowy descent back to the Ghost riverbed. The snow slope before treeline was quite stable, so we slid down on our butts for a fair distance. We ended up getting back down just before darkness, but I messed up and dropped my helmet somewhere along the lower canyon and I had to run back to find it.
When we finally made it to the car, we decided to cut our planned camping trip shorter (Jared and I were going to stay in the Ghost for a few more days) and headed back to Banff with Kevan. We did manage to get our escape vehicle stuck once more, but some lovely ice climbers helped pull us out, and then allowed us to keep close enough behind them in case we needed assistance again. After 40 minutes on the logging road we were back on a paved road.
Kevan repels from the curtain wall
The snowy repel gully
Descent was quick and the snow pack was stable
Retracing our steps back down
Returning in darkness (like most of our ghost adventures)
Phantom crag is one of my favorite summits of all time, and is a great objective for anyone looking to put some technical skills into practice. It can also be a good winter objective because of the location on the front ranges. As long as the access road in not too snowed in and you have a vehicle with all wheel drive, there are endless possibilities for fun in the Ghost during winter.