There are two published routes. One is a scramble and the other is a ski ascent, both using similar approaches. The true summit is divided by a notch from the ridge and is the crux of this climb, particularly in the winter. Like all of its brethren on the east side of the Icefield Parkway, Cirque Peak offers grand views of ice to the west including the Wapta Icefield peaks, Crowfoot Mountain and its hanging glacier.
Getting There The Trans-Canada Highway dissects Banff National Park east to west as you come in from Calgary. Continue past the Banff and Sunshine Ski Resort exits to Lake Louise. Exit onto the Columbia Icefield Parkway. Drive 33kms north from the park kiosk (forced stop to check park driving permit which you should already have). Pull out to the right in the Dolomite Pass-Helen Lake Trail head across from the Crowfoot Glacier view point. I have encountered a black bear crossing the Parkway at Mosquito Creek. This road is probably the most “wildlife viewed” road in all of North America. I have witnessed Moose cross the road as well in this area. I advise following the speed limit for that reason.
Red Tape You will be required to purchase a national park pass as you enter the park. This pass is good for all four national parks. If you plan many visits to Canadian National Parks within one year, you should purchase an annual pass. There are no permit requirements to climb in Banff National Park, but all camping is regulated. There is also a backcountry permit required if you plan on spending a night in the backcountry versus the town campsites. This can be obtained via the parks website which is included in the camping section below. Park headquarters are located in Banff and you will drive through the manned kiosks as you enter the park.
This is active grizzly country, therefore, you should always have bear spray on your person during non-hibernation months. I advise checking with Parks Canada for any area and/or trail closures.
When To Climb As with most scrambles in the Canadian Rockies, the driest time is from June through September. I climbed Cirque Peak in September and the route had considerable snow at the higher elevations. There is a published ski mountaineering route up Cirque Peak for the winter months. I did the ski route in February.
Camping The closest camping is located back south a few kilometers at Mosquito Creek Camground located on the west side off of the Columbia Icefields Parkway. You can go on line at Banff National Park to pick your camp site and obtain your camping permit. You will also be required to obtain your backcountry permit, if you are going to use a backcountry site, which is separate, but can be obtained simultaneously.
Route-Scramble This is a 3600’+/- ascent day. Park at the Helen Lake trail head (east side of road) on the Icefields Parkway 33 km north of the Trans-Canada Highway. Proceed on Dolomite Pass-Helen Lake Trail for 6kms to Helen Lake. Now you have two options, either continue on the trail to Dolomite Pass or, as I did, just head straight for the peak via the left side of the lake. This route takes you to pristine high alpine meadows and eventually to shale and rubble. As I proceeded to the base of Cirque, I bypassed some short cliff bands to the left and dove straight up snow and ice angling back right, aiming for the summit ridge. An alpine axe was necessary in September. This was a steep hump, but once I gained the ridge, I traversed with axe over to the first, lower summit and then carefully descended and made for the real summit slightly south, which had a register in 2003.
I made the summit in under three hours from the car. My summit day was a cold, blustery and cloudy one, but still offered good views of the Crowfoot and Bow Glaciers to the west. I returned the same way. Helen Lake is a great place to have your lunch.
Crux- If you follow the route I suggest, traversing right to the true summit can present a challenge. If you are doing this in the winter, take a rope.
Route-Ski This is a 3700’+/- ascent day. Park just beyond the Helen Creek bridge on the right. There is no signage for this trail. It starts gaining elevation on the left side of the creek straight away so you will need your skins on from the car. Once you ascend a few hundred feet, the trail flattens out and curves to the left (north) offering you a good view of the Dolomite Peaks on your right. Continue along and shortly descend to Helen Creek and cross to the other side. Follow the creek closely across three avalanche slopes until you run into it again as you head north and it curves east. Cross it again and start a steep glade ascent that takes you above tree line and below limestone cliffs on your right that make up Dolomite Pass. At this point Cirque Peak comes into view to the north with reasonable visibility.
Stay to your right through a large open snow field and pay attention for any avalanche hazards above your right side. As you top out onto an open snow plateau, descend ever so slightly hugging the right slope. You do not want to descend to Helen Lake. Stay above the lake and to the right. You are looking to hook around a rock buttress on your right to gain a snow ramp that takes you to the top of Dolomite Pass, but away from Cirque Peak. You can continue on this ramp and do a U turn at the top, but we chose to ascend a steep snow section on our left that broke through the steep cliffs above without having to follow the snow ramp in the opposite direction of Cirque Peak.
Once on top of the pass, continue north until you reach a rock step that will make it necessary to remove your skis. At this point there is another 1000’+/- to the summit of Cirque Peak and you will have to make a decision based on conditions whether you even want to carry your skis above the rock step. Despite being listed in Chic Scott’s alpine ski book, Summits and Icefields-Canadian Rockies, I have never seen Cirque Peak when it was not completely wind blasted. We chose to put our crampons on at the rock step and ascended on foot up the wind packed thin layer of snow to the summit. Make sure to stay off of the cornices to the right. Some of these cornices extend out for quite a distance. As you near the summit ridge, the grade gets considerably steeper. Eventually you gain the rocky summit ridge and ascend a short distance through thin ice and rocks to the first summit.
The true summit requires that you descend to a notch on rock and snow above a precarious hanging cornice. I have been to the summit of Cirque Peak twice, September of one year and February another. On both occasions this cornice was approximately the same size. A slip here could be fatal and some, including Chic Scott, advise taking a rope for this crux. On both occasions I felt comfortable enough to descend down to the cornice and hug the rock feature as you turn left and cross over to the true summit feature. The ascent up the true summit offers some exposure as well. Left is less steep, but perhaps more exposed. In February, the right side offered more stable ice and snow. An alpine axe or ice tool is helpful in this section. Once up a couple of meters, the ground becomes less technical and the summit is just a minute away.
There is a dying glacier with a bergschrund that can be seen in the summer on the east side cirque of the mountain which is in fact what Cirque Peak was named after. On ski descent we found decent powder in the before mentioned snow ramp and again right above tree line. There are a variety of routes to ski out depending on conditions and visibility
Essential Gear Compass, Map, Skis, Skins, Poles, Crampons, Alpine Axe or Tool, Gaiters, Short Rope, Avalanche Safety Gear, Goggles, etc
CLICK TO ENLARGE PHOTOS 1. Cirque Peak from Dolomite Peaks (June) 2. Cirque Peak on Winter Ascent (February) 3. The Summit Crux (February) 4. On Ski Approach (February) 5. Ski Descent (February) 6. The Summit Cornice (February) 7. View of the Ski Out (February) 8. Dolomite Peaks (February)