Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Devil’s Head Alberta

It is what I would call an iconic landmark of the South-Central Rockies in Alberta. The Devil’s Head stands out like a giant knob when looking West from Calgary. Once you see it, you always see it. And once I saw it, I wanted to conquer it.

The plan was simple. Leave Saturday morning, drive out to the Ghost Valley, hike in and set up camp. Attempt a summit that day if light and weather permitted and then return to camp. The following day on the way out, we would attempt Black Rock Mountain on the way out. It sounds ambitious, and that’s just what it was. Here is how it went.

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The drive on highway 40 through Benchlands and Waiparous was beautiful as always.

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Once we passed through the hamlet of Waiparous, we drove a few kilometers west until Highway 40 took a sharp turn north. Immediately to the left once you go north, there is an unimproved road that goes West towards the Ghost. It is best if you have a 4x4 to use this road as it was very very rough.

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The road offers some terrific vista views, and I kept my eyes tight on the mountain that has inspired me so. Luckily I wasn’t driving, so I was able to get plenty of photos for the drive in.

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Just having some fun with the camera.

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As the Mountain drew nearer and nearer, the road became rougher and rougher.

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Black Rock Mountain as seen from the Ghost riverbed. We had to drive along this riverbed, over the bridge until we came to a creek crossing.

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Driving up to the Ghost River bridge. You can see the tip of Devil’s Head in the far distance.

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There were seven of us. Probably a good idea to bring many people because it makes it just more fun.

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From where we parked, we hiked about 1km to the first stream crossing. You can see Mt Aylmer in the far distance of the Ghost Valley. Many ice climbers flock to this valley in winter to do their thing. It was obvious why. There were so many apparently good spots for ice climbing.

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First stream crossing. There were a total of 4.

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The trail along the Valley floor is very flat and easily identifiable. It would take a lot of skill to get lost. There are markers the entire way as well as a very obvious set of tracks.

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One of the many trail markers along the way.

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The Devil’s Head loomed closer and closer. I continually imagined myself standing on it’s summit.

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Along the north side of the Ghost River, there are some obvious valleys. We decided that the 4th valley to the north would be our ascent. It would take us up the non-vertical side of the Devil’s Head (from the West). So we set up camp at the mouth of the 4th valley and got ready for our initial ascent.

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The 4th valley, which I thought was Valley of the Birds (I was wrong), follows a creek bed to the base of the west side of the mountain. It rises gently over the two kilometers where we would attempt our ascent.

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Looking north up the wrong valley. Our ascent would be to ascend and traverse the slopes to the right, with Devil’s Head being on the other side.

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The first day we started ascending, but called it off due to the fact that we would be running out of daylight by the time we made it to the top. We were in no position to downclimb in the dark, so we explored the Wrong Valley for alternate ascent routes. The valley breaks into two, and the east branch followed a stream into some Lord of the Rings looking places.

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We discovered some few-day-old bear tracks, which just happened to be just outside of our camp.

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The next morning, we set out again to make a summit attempt. We returned up Wrong Valley and found an easily identifiable trail up one of the drainage ditches. It was marked by a cairn, so obviously this wasn’t the wrong approach. GPS data can be found here.

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Only four of us made for the summit that day. The remaining three stayed behind to rest and enjoy the wild. From this photo, you can see Wrong Valley and where it leads to the Ghost River. We camped right at that junction of the two valleys.

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We continued up our mountain and came upon a ridge. From here, well above the treeline, we could see the west side of Devil’s Head. Suddenly, it didn’t look as simple as initially thought. Two hikers called it a day and I and one other continued on.

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We followed the ridge across the top of a giant scree bowl. There was an obvious path, so again, our confidence that we would make it was restored. Still, the West slopes of Devil’s Head loomed high above us.

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We continued up the ridge, right up to the base of the cliffs. From here, it would get technical, dangerous and difficult. We had lunch and got ourselves ready for the summit.

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Looking east towards the city of Calgary. After lunch, we started using our hands to climb. We continued climbing and climbing. My altimeter ready 2600m, 2650m, 2700m. Then we ran out of ability. We came to a point that was too dangerous to climb. It was a sheer drop-off on one side, and vertical climbing on the other. We had reach the end. 100m from the top, we had to turn back. I snagged a summit rock and stuffed it into my pack.

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Looking southeast from the west side of Devil’s Head. One valley over is Lake Minnewanka and Devil’s Gap. The view was incredible. I felt defeated that we couldn’t make the summit, but it didn’t matter, I was still there.

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After returning down the mountain and collecting all of our camp goods, we took the 6km hike back out of the Ghost. I kept glancing towards the mountain which had defeated me, but also had given me so much experience. Then a sudden realization dawned upon me. The West side of Devil’s Head is two peak, divided by a rocky gully. We were climbing the west peak, not the East peak! We had taken the wrong approach.

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This is Black Rock Mountain on the way out. You can see, if you look closely, the fire hut located on the peak.

As we returned to the vehicles, tired and hungry, I looked back one more time at the mountain I have wanted to climb since arriving in the Calgary area. I looked at the summit rock in my pack, knowing full well it wasn’t actually a true summit rock, and tossed it down. I didn’t earn it, but I knew one day I would. I would do it again and stand tall on the Devil’s Head.



  1. Considering you climbed the wrong side, I'd say you did fantastic! Now you'll know which side to climb next time :)

  2. You bet! I hope to try again next year!

  3. While googling for info on the Devil's Head, I came across your blog. Your account of your travels there made for a great read, especially with the pics. I've no doubt you've done your own research into this area but in case you've missed this one, here's a link to Bennett Wong's scrambling site about the Devil's Head with some very good descriptions of the "hike" up there by two well-known scramblers. My original inquiry (from so long ago, it seems) is at the bottom....


  4. @ Poookie123

    Thanks for the comment! I will definitely have to try this again. Thanks for the link as well, I will try the alternate route (to mine). It was too bad we didnt' make the summit, but it was worth the experience.