⚠️ Hiking and scrambling are inherently dangerous activities. Please read my Disclaimer. ⚠️
Without a doubt, Mad Wolf Mountain lived up to its name. Howling winds and driving rain made for a wild day weather-wise as Andrew and I attempted the ‘Mad Wolf Grand Circuit’ as described by John VanArendonk in Volume 5 of Blake Passmore’s, Climb Glacier National Park. This route, which includes Mad Wolf Mountain, Eagle Plume Mountain, and Bad Marriage Mountain, is located alongside the Cut Bank Valley and in good weather, would offer up some incredible scenery. Unfortunately, we only had a fleeting glimpse as a low pressure system packed moisture-laden clouds above the entire area. The forecast had originally called for rain in the late afternoon, but when I met Andrew at the Cardston A&W at 6:30 am, the sky was already surly.
When we started hiking around 8:30 am, we did so under light, but consistent rain. Though teased by sporadic appearances of the sun, by the time we gained the north ridge of Mad Wolf, we could see a rapidly approaching wall of rain. This was when we began to seriously consider turning around. However, this initial band of intense rain was short-lived and once it had passed, we could see that we weren’t too far from the summit, so we continued.
Well, that initial wall of rain was quickly followed by another, and with it, extreme wind gusts that turned the downpour into horizontal rain. This ensured a complete soaking, but what really made things miserable was after reaching the summit, the temperature dropped and the driving rain turned into tiny daggers of ice. Both of us realized that there was no way that we could safely continue along the route without becoming hypothermic pin cushions, so we counted ourselves fortunate that we had summited Mad Wolf, and made a hasty retreat off the mountain. By the time we reached the Pitamakin Pass Trail, the weather system had weakened and blue sky began to emerge, though we could see that the wind was still howling atop of the massif.
One of the things that I appreciate about Glacier National Park, is the naming of mountains that reflect the Indigenous people and places of the region. This is a gap that in my opinion, Canadians need to address, especially as we seek to implement the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). According to Passmore, Mad Wolf is named after Siyeh, a Piikani “who recovered the tribe’s sacred albino otter bow case from the Crees [Nêhiyaw]. The bow case provided power in war.” (116) Passmore continues by noting that Eagle Plume Mountain “was named for a Peigan [Piikani] chief who was father to one of the most beautiful Blackfoot [Siksikaitsitapi] women Otter Woman” while Bad Marriage Mountain should have been called, ‘Bear Knife Mountain’ after a Piikani warrior who was killed by the Apsáalooke [Crow] in 1853. (116)
All in all, though the weather was miserable, the company was stellar as hiking with Andrew always ensures solid conversations and lots of humour. 🙂 Though we followed VanArendonk’s route to the mountain, we did deviate from it and from other trip reports such as Summit Post, by heading climber’s right after completing the initial section of scrambling up the northeast slope. This brought us to the mountain’s north face where we enjoyed an easy but enjoyable (minus the rain!) scramble onto the crest of Mad Wolf’s north ridge. After descending using VanArendonk’s common route, we concluded that the route up the north face was far more scenic and interesting than the scree and rubble slog up the northeast slope and therefore, would recommend this as an alternate. Finally, Andrew and I plan on returning to complete the ‘Mad Wolf Grand Circuit’ but in reverse, now that we know the options on and off of Mad Wolf.
To get to Mad Wolf Mountain from Lethbridge, drive south on Highway 5 to Cardston, then take Highway 2 to the Piegan-Carway Border Crossing. Once across, continue on Highway 89 for ~53 km until you come to the turnoff for the Cut Bank Creek Road. Turn right onto the gravel road and follow it for ~8 km until you arrive at the parking area just prior to the campground. This is the trailhead for the Pitamakin Pass Trail. Follow the trail for ~800 m until you come to a fork. Take the left path – which is the Mad Wolf Boundary Trail – and follow it down to the North Fork of Cut Bank Creek. Here is where you will have to cross the creek. Andrew used waders while I used river shoes, though depending on the time of year, this could be deeper and trickier than it was for us.
The trail is easy to find on the other side of the creek, but will soon disappear as you arrive at a series of dry and wet stream beds that constitute a tributary to Cut Bank Creek. Do not cross the tributary but stick to the left bank as you follow it through a meadow before coming to the edge of a forest. The trail resumes in the forest but it is nearly impossible to tell where from alongside the tributary. We could not find it on the way in, but eventually stumbled upon it as we kept following the bank of the tributary into the forest. On the way back, we followed the trail directly into the meadow and I’ve included a picture later in my report that may help. Its location is about ~15 m from the left bank of the tributary.
In the trees, the trail is generally easy to follow, through sections of it are overgrown with vegetation which will force you to remain vigilant to stay on track. We discovered that the trail will eventually veer further to the west than what is indicated on the map while concurrently, becoming more obfuscated the closer you get to Mad Wolf Mountain. Fortunately, you can see enough of Cut Bank Ridge from this point and it is not a long trip off trail to get to it – though we would find the trail, then lose it many times as we drew closer. On the way down we tried to find the upper section of the trail by using the map, and could not locate it, so reverted back to our original path. From the point where we crossed the creek, it was roughly ~3.8 to 4 km to the start of a large section of krummholz at the base of Mad Wolf Mountain.
An obvious path leads through the krummholz towards the north face. Once beyond the krummholz, follow the base of the mountain climber’s left (southeast) until you come to a weakness in the cliffs that is easily identified by two ‘rabbit ears’ of rock (pictured later in this report) An easy scramble will bring you to a wide shelf. The common route will follow the shelf to climber’s left and then up scree and rubble slopes to the north ridge. Our route went climber’s right and onto the north face of the mountain. Here, we followed a small ramp that led to a short section of scrambling before arriving on the crest of the north ridge. Once on the north ridge, the route to the summit is obvious. On descent, we used the common route and then followed Mad Wolf Boundary Trail back to Pitamakin Pass Trail and then the trailhead.
Our total roundtrip distance was ~14.4 km with a total elevation gain of 1019 m. Our total time was 6 hours and 33 minutes.
Gearing up under increasing cloud cover at the Cut Bank trailhead for the Pitamakin Pass Trail. The north face of Mad Wolf Mountain is on the far left while Bad Marriage Mountain is the more distant peak on the far right. Eagle Plume Mountain is not visible.
Andrew checks out Bad Marriage Mountain (centre) as we walk along the Cut Bank Trail.
Approximately 800 m from the trailhead, we came to a fork. We would keep to the left which is the start of the seldom used, Mad Wolf Boundary Trail.
A short distance from the fork, we arrived at the North Fork of Cut Bank Creek. Andrew wore hip waders, while I just used my river shoes. Depending on the time of year, this may be deeper and wider than it was today. It is also obvious where the trail continues on the other side.
Once across, the trail was easy to follow as we made our way towards a tributary of Cut Bank Creek.
As was commonplace for the day, the trail suddenly vanished once we arrived at the tributary. We would follow the left (east) bank of the tributary – note there are several dry and wet stream beds that comprise it – until we came to the start of the forest that can be seen in the distance.
I took this picture at the end of the day to indicate where the trail begins inside the forest. On our way in, we completely missed this for obvious reasons, and kept following the bank until we eventually stumbled onto the trail. For reference, the trail begins roughly 15 m from the edge of the left bank of the tributary.
Following the trail alongside the tributary. By this point, the rain had begun in earnest and would not let up until the end of the day.
Once inside the forest, the trail follows alongside the tributary for ~250 m before making an abrupt turn to the south as it heads towards Cut Bank Ridge and Mad Wolf Mountain. This is also where it begins to gain elevation.
Andrew searches for the trail amidst a patch of thimble berries.
And yet another moment where the trail simply vanished… (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
After following the trail – then losing it, then finding it, then losing it, then finding it – we arrived on the open slopes of Cut Bank Ridge. This is the view back to the north and northwest with Kapunkamint Mountain in the centre and Mount James to the distant left.
Heading towards the crest of Cut Bank Ridge and the base of Mad Wolf.
On Cut Bank Ridge and looking at the obvious break in the krummholz (centre) that we used to reach the base of Mad Wolf. After passing the krummholz, we initially went to climber’s right as there looked to be a possible scramble route up the lower section of Mad Wolf’s north face (far right). However, this proved to be fool’s gold, so we simply followed the base of the mountain to its northeast aspect. (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
Some sheep take shelter from the rain inside the krummholz.
Looking back at a very cool rainbow as the sun teases us into thinking the rain will stop. Kapunkamint Mountain is to the left of centre, while White Calf Mountain and Divide Mountain are on the far right.
Andrew hikes alongside the cliffs at the base of the mountain.
Another view back to White Calf Mountain and Divide Mountain.
The two ‘rabbit ears’ that mark the weakness in the cliffs are in the centre. In the background is the east summit of Mad Wolf.
Gazing up to the ‘rabbit ears’ (left) and the short, easy-to-follow scramble route.
A short scramble brought us to this fairly broad shelf. The common route follows it south towards the east summit of Mad Wolf (centre), before eventually ascending scree and rubble slopes to gain the north ridge. This is was what we would use for descent.
Looking towards the north from the same vantage as the previous picture. We chose to deviate from the common route and head climber’s right towards the north face.
Andrew navigates an interesting section of rock as we make our way to cliffs above. We would then follow the base of these cliffs to climber’s right and onto the north face.
The view to the east with Cut Bank Ridge on the left and the South Fork of Cut Bank Creek in the centre. This is a very scenic little valley.
Standing on a wonderful viewpoint located on the north face of Mad Wolf. (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
The view towards Bad Marriage Mountain (left) from the viewpoint. Note the incoming bands of heavy rain.
Looking at our route up the north face from the viewpoint. A nice little ramp (upper left) allows easy access.
Glancing back as we hike to the ramp. The viewpoint is behind Andrew to the right.
Looking up from the base of the ramp.
The very short section of scrambling at the top of the ramp. It looks more difficult than it actually is because there is another little ramp that leads from the centre to the upper right.
Easy, but interesting terrain above the ramps.
The final section before reaching the crest of the north ridge. As it was raining, we avoided all scrambling by sticking to climber’s left.
Looking to the west from the same vantage as the previous picture. We will soon be overtaken by heavy rain and intense wind.
Looking back to the north shortly after the previous picture was taken. The rain moved in so quickly that we seriously contemplated turning around.
Peering through heavy rain, we could finally see the summit (right). Buoyed by this, we decided to gain the crest of the north ridge before making a final decision on whether to call it quits.
Decision time on the ridge crest… (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
A pano of the long ridge that leads from the summit of Mad Wolf (far right) to Eagle Plume Mountain – which is completely beclouded on the far right.
The rain thankfully let up enough for us to decide that it would be a shame not reach the summit (right) when we were this close. (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
Andrew follows me along the north ridge.
The formation of a cloud between the east summit and the true summit reminded me of the Song of the Witches from MacBeth: “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and caldron bubble…”
Approaching the col before the summit. (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
From the col, we could see an even nastier band of incoming rain. At this point, I finally decided to put on my rain pants – something that I should have done much, much earlier. 😉 (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
Despite the miserable conditions, the rain and the clouds did make for some neat shots.
Andrew hikes over slippery argillite as we are whipped by high winds and horizontal rain. The temperature also began to fall rapidly.
The summit of Mad Wolf Mountain (2538 m).
The view towards the east summit.
Looking southwest at what should be Red Mountain.
The long ridge that leads to Eagle Plume (somewhere out there). There was no way that we were going to continue on to it as planned. Despite having gloves, both Andrew’s hands and my own, were growing numb from the cold and to make matters worse, the rain had turned to ice pellets. I’m sure if I were able to grow a beard, the wind-driven pellets would have shaved it off of my face. 😉
Andrew on the summit of Mad Wolf Mountain.
A similar picture of myself on the summit. We didn’t wait too long before heading back. (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
We retreated off the summit and took shelter behind the small cliffs that can be seen above Andrew. We waited there until the rain let up enough for us to continue on our way.
Andrew is either playing the harmonica or warming his hands – or both! 😉
We descended down the common ascent route described by VanArendonk.
There’s nothing quite like hiking over slippery rocks in the pouring rain… 😉
Making our way along the wide shelf that leads back from the scree and rubble slope.
Arriving back at the ‘rabbit ears’ (left of centre) that we passed on ascent.
Another rainbow in the same location as the one we saw on the way up. I guess that’s why all those little Irish guys with pointy hats were running around in the krummholz. 😉 . (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
Descending from Cut Bank Ridge towards the trail.
Those little Irish dudes dropped their cricket balls…
A closer look at what I think must be some type of fungus.
Heading towards tree cover as another band of rain bears down on us.
We discovered this old tin trail marker on the way back.
Playing another game of ‘Find That Trail’ amongst some very wet thimble berries.
Back at the tributary and looking towards the north face of Mad Wolf Mountain as blue sky begins to emerge. We determined that given how fast the clouds were moving, the wind atop the ridge must have also remained quite strong – meaning, had we continued we would have ended up as frozen popsicles.
Already thoroughly soaked, Andrew forgoes his hip waders as he wades across the North Fork of Cut Bank Creek.
Arriving back at the trailhead after 14.4 km and 6 hours and 33 minutes. Despite only tagging the summit of Mad Wolf, we could see why Passmore and VanArendonk describe this trip as both arduous and beautiful. This is truly a scenic part of GNP and we look forward to returning one day to complete the ‘Mad Wolf Grand Circuit’ – though perhaps in reverse.