Altyn Peak....

.... and Apikuni Mountain  

July 25, 2010

Mountain heights:                                          
    Altyn:                              2422 m
    Apikuni:                          2764 m
Total elevation gain:           approx. 1700 m
Ascent time to Altyn:           3:45
Traverse time to Apikuni:    2:15                
Descent time:                      2:15
Solo scramble.

I can’t think of an appropriate adjective to describe this trip other than the word “miraculous” – though definitely in a figurative sense, not a literal one. The variety and vibrancy of colours throughout was absolutely unreal; to the point where, on two separate occasions, I actually said out loud, “No way! This can’t be real?” Having marginally come to terms with the disturbing realization that I am now talking to myself in the mountains, I did take all the requisite time and energy to soak in some of the best mountain scenery I’ve ever experienced.

The initial plan for the day was abandoned when my scrambling partner took ill that morning. With a high pressure system in place, and a plane ticket to Houston, Texas for the following day, I wasn’t about to sit at home on what was guaranteed to be a glorious day. After manically ripping through guidebook, maps, and internet trip reports, I settled on Altyn Peak in Glacier National Park.   

Altyn may seem like an illogical choice to many. It requires 8 hours of total driving time for 4 hours of scrambling, it’s a relatively low peak, surrounded by many higher ones, I had already reached the summit of its neighbor, Mount Henkel (twice!), and the summit view was likely to be far inferior to that of Henkel. Nevertheless, I’ve learned that you can never under estimate the scenic potential of any trip in Canada’s Southern and America’s Northern Rockies.

I’ve also learned that on clear weather days you can never go wrong visiting the shores of a mountain lake. Although Gordon Edwards’s route descriptions for Altyn take direct lines up the lake-less south face, I found an excellent trip report by saintgrizzly on SummitPost that takes a more circuitous route via Natahki Lake.  

Thus the stage was set and after the longish drive, I started up the short Apikuni Falls Trail, at a relatively late 10:45 am. The waterfall was stunning, to say the least, and at a measly price of 1.6 km. Above the fall, travel along a streambed of fine, red argillite was pleasant and easy. It also became quite apparent that the summit of Apikuni Mountain could easily be reached from this colourful hanging valley; I would put that notion in my pocket for the time being.

I forgot to bring the specific route description outlined by saintgrizzly, but route-finding was generally straightforward and animal trails helped throughout. I soon arrived at a point just above the lake, where I took a break to decide on a course of action. There were so many options with Altyn, Apikuni, and Henkel all within striking distance. The number of permutations of potential routes from this location is quite staggering.

After much self debate (thankfully all in my head), I decided to stick to the original plan and go for Altyn. If time was on my side I would return to the lake, ascend Apikuni, and then take the descent alternate route described in Edward’s guidebook.

I then descended to what I thought was Natahki Lake. The lake was relatively small, but quite beautiful, highlighted by a deer walking through the shallow waters, only a short distance away. At the far end of the lake, a splendid waterfall cascaded down the slope above, originating from what appeared to be a much smaller body of water.  

The smaller body of water turned out to be much larger and was in fact Natahki Lake. It was also one of the most gorgeous lakes I’ve ever seen, compliments of the beautiful, red argillite shoreline. I spent an inordinate amount of time photographing this marvel of nature. With the golden form of Henkel and the red-tinged Altyn and Apikuni surrounding the lake, this was a rare and precious treat. It was terribly unfortunate that Mark hadn’t been able to join me, as he would have loved this type of scenery. Mark doesn’t like to do trips with me that I’ve already completed (he is hopelessly selfless), however, I vowed to myself right then and there that I would return to this spot with him, if I had to drag him by his overgrown mop of hair!

Continuing the trip, I circled around the west side of the lake and ascended lush, green slopes above. Once again I was stopped dead in my tracks when red, Indian Paintbrush littering the slopes was cause for another barrage of photos. At this point, I had spent so much time photographing and enjoying the phenomenal scenery, the Apikuni ascent was all but written off. It would be more worthwhile to take my time ascending Altyn and then using the easy descent route down the south face. And so I did just that, taking in one profoundly colourful scene after another.

Though still is fair distance from the summit, I suddenly saw three figures approaching the top of Altyn. After 11 ascents in GNP, I would finally be sharing a mountain with another party; given the staggering beauty of the park in general, a decidedly bizarre fact indeed.

A detour to the right to avoid four mountain goats, basking in the Sun, and only a plod up the red slopes remained. I chatted briefly with the other party, who were on their way down. They shared some tips with me for the descent route via the southwest face; it sounded fast and very easy – just what I was looking for. Shortly after, I reached the summit of the red peak.

300 vertical metres inferior to Henkel, I couldn’t imagine this summit panorama would be at all noteworthy – it was fantastic! Henkel did nothing to impair the terrific view if Wilbur’s “harder than it looks” east face. As well, Gould, Allen, and Grinnell were all magnificent. Several beautiful lakes completed the wonderful view. My summit stay was long and gratifying, thanks not only to the stunning surroundings, but also to a new mountain ritual of mine – a summer, summit soda pop. Tangerine Fanta was the drink of choice and more refreshing it could not have been!

About to embark on the easy descent, I couldn’t help notice it was only 2:30 pm. The sky was still clear, I seemed to have energy in abundance (thanks to the pop), and I was sure I could descend back to the valley, tromp my way up Apikuni in 2-3 hours, still leaving time for the descent and a coffee-powered drive back to Calgary. Apikuni was on again! Only the magnitude of the elevation loss was worrisome. I was hoping it would be less than 300 metres – my hopes were not realized.

I took a slightly different route down than I came up, affording me more scenic photo opportunities and gasps of amazement. At the lowpoint I checked my GPS to discover I had lost 400 metres of elevation. A gain of 750 metres was needed to get me to the summit of Apikuni – not the best news, but it could have been way more.

The easy, but long ascent slope to the ridge between Henkel and Apikuni seemed to go on forever. I was very relieved to gain the crest and take in some much need air, as well as good views of Crowfeet, Merritt, and Seward. The second plod of the day to the summit was also foreshortened and had one disillusioning false summit along the way. Still, I was happy to arrive at the highest point of the “Henkel, Crowfeet, Apikuni, Altyn Quartet”, 2.25 hours after leaving Altyn’s summit.

Although the ascent was generally a little anti-climatic to what had preceded it, the summit view and descent certainly were not. To complete the visual assault of colours throughout this trip, enter Yellow Mountain. Yellow Mountain really is yellow, and unlike any mountain I’ve every seen in my life. I had decent views of the unique massif on previous trips, but never one so close and with the Sun in a better position. The colour contrasts were remarkable and became even more pronounced when I started the alternate descent via the southeast ridge.

The golden colours of the summit quickly gave way to the bright, red argillite rock bands, similar to those on Henkel. Rarely does one see the combination of yellow, red, and blue (the sky) in the mountains – it was seriously cool and yet again had me mumbling exclamations of bewilderment out-loud (so much for my mental well-being!)

The quickest descent route would have entailed following the ridge for a short distance and then bombing down scree slopes to the valley above Apikuni Falls. The temptation of the beautiful red ridge, however, was far too great. An extra kilometre or so of easy hiking appeared to be a very small price to pay for the added scenic opportunities and indeed it was just that. The striking form of Yellow Mountain continued to inspire throughout. This trip had just moved into the #1 spot on my “Most colourful trips” list.

I stayed on or near the ridge for as long as possible.  A little backtracking was required when the north side of the mountain suddenly disappeared in precipitous cliffs. Other than that, the alternate descent route was easy and wonderfully scenic and I arrived back at the car just before 8 pm, as satiated as any man can ever be!

Quite easily one of my most enjoyable and astonishing days ever in the mountains. My sincerest thanks to saintgrizzly for posting the terrific trip report that was the impetus for such a wonderful day.

Altyn (left) and the southeast side of Apikuni (right); the summit of Apikuni can be seen between

....with flowers

Apikuni Falls

Same as above

The red streambed

Above the lakes (lower left)

The first lake

Bambi makes a cameo appearance

Thanks to his previous silver screen experience he wasn't camera shy

Bambi goes for a dip

The waterfall emanating from Natahki Lake

Looking back at the first lake

A closer look at the waterfall

Another look at the first lake

Natahki Lake and part of Mount Henkel

The red argillite shores of Natahki Lake, with Apikuni Mountain behind; one of the most beautiful lakes you will ever see

Same as above

Same as above

More colourful flowers

Same as above

Same as above

The slopes above the lake

A small tarn and the connecting ridge from Altyn to Henkel

The summit of Altyn

Looking back to Henkel; the tarn and Natahki Lake are also visible

Wilbur and Iceberg show up

The summit cairn of Altyn; Yellow Mountain is barely visible beyond Apikuni

The gorgeous lake-filled view to the south 

Visible summits from left to right: Siyeh, Allen, Piegan, Pollock, Bishop's Cap, and Gould
Swifcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine complete the scene

The short and easy way down Altyn; Mount Wynn at the far left

Someone else besides me likes red argillite

Looking back at Altyn

The tarn again

Altyn and Natahki Lake from a different angle

Approaching the Apikuni ridge

Mount Seward (left) and the double peaks of Gable in the centre

The Three Amigos make a cameo appearance also

Dusty Bottoms, Luck Day, and Ned Nederlander (a must see movie!)

Chief Mountain peaks over the ridge (left) and Yellow Mountain stretches out to the right

From the summit of Apikuni, looking east

Yellow Mountain (obviously!)

A whole bunch of descent scenes featuring the red of Apikuni and the yellow of Yellow

The southeast side of Apikuni

The moon on the drive home