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“Mystery Cairn Peak”
Racehorse Creek Provincial Recreation Area, Alberta
May 24, 2020

Five years ago, when I was searching for a way up Lightning Peak, I noticed a small mountain bearing a huge cairn. I've come across big cairns on popular peaks, but never on obscure, nameless mountains like this one. I was mystified why this monticule would garner such reverence. But the setting appeared alluring: the impressive cliff on which the cairn sat would command a valley, a grand viewpoint.

Focusing on climbing Lightning Peak, I forgot about the mountain with the curious cairn until recently, when I was browsing through my photos. I quickly determined where it was on a map – the confluence of Racehorse Creek and Vicary Creek – and devised a loop route. From Highway 40, we could climb the south ridge, tag the summit, and descend the west ridge. The descent then turns right to follow a south-bearing ridge that almost reaches the highway. A 600-metre saunter back along the highway completes the loop.

From a camping area on the side of the road, Renata, Dinah and I started up a steep slope to gain the south ridge. To our surprise, we found a well-defined trail on the crest. Too bad it didn't keep going straight. When it turned left and down and in the wrong direction, we forged ahead on a faint path. It led to a valley. We turned right to regain the ridge.

We soon left the forest behind and climbed a grassy slope to the ridge crest. Alhough we were a little over halfway up the mountain, we had an incredible panoramic view. On our right, Thunder Mountain appeared dry, but snow still lingered on Lightning Peak. Closer at hand, we could see the cliff bearing the cairn, but it was across a valley, on the east ridge. The summit was close by, barely higher.

We continued climbing to the top of the peak. It wasn't cairned and trees prevented views, so without pause, we headed to the cairn on the cliff. The clifftop – one could call it the east summit – was only four metres lower than the uninspiring west summit, and it offered splendid views.

Aside from the big cairn, there were two small, subsidiary cairns. Another pile of rocks appeared to be a cairn, but on close inspection, was a tall ring of stones – a fireplace. We sat down next to the big cairn and had lunch.

Enjoying good weather and far-ranging scenery, it was a blissful setting. Then I spied a tick crawling on me. The summit spell was broken. We hurriedly evacuated the cliff, but not before I found two more ticks on me.

(This peak is a tick haven. I found four more by the time I got back to our car. When Renata stopped on the drive back to Calgary, she found three on her. I discovered one more when I got home, fastened to my stomach. I gently removed it with tweezers. How it got there is an enigma as my shirt was tucked in, and my pant legs shoved into my socks. It appeared to be a wood tick and not the dreaded black-legged tick that can carry Lyme disease.)

To reach the grassy east ridge, we hiked down a steep chute that bisects the cliff on the east side. Continuing down, we traversed a couple of bumps, dipped into a forest briefly and climbed onto the south descent ridge. This kilometre-long ridge, open and gentle, ends near Highway 40. At the end of the ridge, we dropped down into trees and crossed a stream.

We were now less than 100 metres from the highway, but stopping us were the raging waters of Vicary Creek. But conveniently, a bridge on highway 40 crosses the creek just 150 m away. However, that short stretch along the bank of Vicary Creek – boggy, bushy and full of deadfall – was the worst section of our trip. But once we reached the highway, we could walk back to our cars.

Aside from establishing a sound route to the summit, I learned nothing about the mountain. I found no summit cairn, so it remains a mystery as to who built the cairns and if this appealing peak already has a name. It seems apt to call it “Mystery Cairn Peak.”

KML and GPX Tracks


Mystery Cairn Peak seen from my recon in 2015. Mouse over to view the cliff and big cairn.


Mystery Cairn seen from Highway 40


From the parking area, we climbed the ridge in front of us


Looking back after reaching the ridge crest


The ridge crest trail


Following trails, we came to a valley and regained the ridge on our right


Coming up to the ridge crest. Behind us are McGillivray Ridge and Ma Butte (mouse over for a close-up)


The cliff came into view along with our descent ridge


Well up the ridge


Looking back


Thunder Mountain


Lightning Peak on the right


We can see the cairn on the cliff


We continued along the ridge


Looking back


Almost at the summit


The true summit lacks any views


Heading to the cairn


Dinah joins Renata at the cairn


Standing next to the cairn


Nearest peak north is Fly Hill


Sugarloaf Lookout also lies north


Mystery Cairn is a tick magnet


Going down the chute in the cliff


Looking up the chute


We descended the east ridge to get to the south descent ridge behind the bump ahead


Looking back at the cliff


Pasqueflowers adorned the hillside


One more bump to go over before we reached the south descent ridge


Dinah turns around to look back


Before reaching the south ridge, we'll lose some elevation in the trees


The south descent ridge was a long, pleasant stroll


The cliff remained in view throughout most of our descent


Highway 40 came into view


Vicary Creek lies below


At the end of the ridge, we had to cross a brook


Coming up a brief trail after crossing the brook


We made our way to the south end of the bridge over Vicary Creek


Back on Highway 40


82G/16 Maycroft

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