Richardson, Pika, and Ptarmigan
At 3077 meters, Ptarmigan Peak is the second highest peak in the Skoki Lakes region of Banff National Park. This area, also known as the Skoki area of Lake Louise, has limited access which reduces the number of visitors in the backcountry. The three most visited peaks in this area, located behind the Lake Louise Ski Resort, are Mount Richardson, Pika Peak, and Ptarmigan Peak. They are all part of the Slate Range, a minor sub range of the Rockies.
Richardson, Pika, and Ptarmigan are the most commonly climbed peaks in the Skoki Lakes and are also the highest. Only Pika Peak offers any degree of technical difficulty on the standard route. Ptarmigan is surrounded by alpine lakes on all sides. The northern cliff face offers the most vertical relief and features a hanging glacier at the midpoint. For those that are unusually fit, it is possible to climb all three in one day. But most people would prefer to narrow it down to only one peak.
Ptarmigan was first ascended and also named in 1909 by the same man, Joseph W. A. Hickson. Hickson was accompanied by his friend and number one climbing companion, Edward Fuez. Fuez was a Swiss alpine guide and resident of Lake Louise. It's likely that the two climbed to the summit together but generally Hickson is credited with the first ascent, likely for his nationality. Hickson was one of the first Canadians to take an active interest in mountaineering and he acquired 30 notable first ascents in the Rockies and the Selkirks. It is said that he named the peak after encountering several ptarmigan in the meadows, during the approach.
Joseph W. A. Hickson
(Courtesy of the Whyte Archives)
Unless you have reservations at Skoki Lodge, you will have to walk the 4.5 kilometer road up to the trailhead. When it comes to Lake O'Hara and Skoki Lakes, It's kind of frustrating to walking on a perfectly drivable road, but in this case, the goal is well worth the extra effort. After the first kilometer, come to a junction and turn right. Continue to the end of the road, staying to the right at any splits. There should be a sign at the head of the trail. Hike north through the valley towards Deception Pass and/or Hidden Lake. As you gain altitude, views of Mount Temple to the south become more and more impressive. Richardson, Pika, and Ptarmigan should also soon be visible. During the summer this valley is riddled with alpine wildflowers.
After 7 kilometers you will come to Halfway Hut, a historic log cabin. From here you have the choice of following the trail to Hidden Lake and ascending bare slopes or cutting more directly through the trees to reach the lower slopes of Ptarmigan although this involves some bushwhacking. Emerging from the trees or ascending from Hidden Lake, climb scree and talus slopes on the south side of Ptarmigan Peak. Aim for the clear passageway left of the major cliff bands and easily avoid any exposed sections.
Continue to ascend loose rubble until you reach the crest of the west ridge. At this point, views to the north are very good. You might be thinking "oh, that's Pika Peak" towering off to your left, but it's not. It's actually just an unnamed highpoint. Pika is out of sight, behind what is visible. What you can see from the top of the ridge are the two Skoki Lakes down below (Zigadenus and Myosotis). These unusual names refer to certain flowers. Turn east and proceed toward Ptarmigan's summit until you come to the narrow spot. One quick and easy class 3 move will drop you into a notch (beware exposure on both sides). Beyond the notch, some more talus walking will shortly lead to the summit. As of September, 2011, there was a register, located at the larger of two cairns.
Take the Trans-Canada Highway to the Lake Louise exit and turn east, away from Lake Louise. Go one kilometer, continuing onto Whitehorn Road. Do not turn right at the junction onto Bow Valley Parkway. One kilometer from the highway, Fish Creek Trailhead parking lot on the right. The Skoki access road is only a few meters away.
Red Tape / Considerations
There is a backcountry campsite located at Hidden Lake but this will necessitate permits at an extra cost, available at the visitor center downtown Banff.
Don't even think about leaving your car parked anywhere in Banff National Park unless you have the National Park Pass displayed in your windshield. These are also available at the visitor center downtown Banff.
No bicycles are allowed beyond the small storage building near the bridge on the approach road.