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Death's Head
Kananaskis, Alberta
September 2, 2018

With a mere 200 m elevation gain and 4 km length, Death's Head isn't likely to appeal to many hikers. But the lightweight hike offered me a chance to get out to the mountains following day surgery nine days earlier. I had a deviated septum fixed and a benign nasal tumour removed. With the surgery behind me, I could breathe easier but had to lower the bar on my activities while I recovered. “Ease into them,” my doctor advised me, and there was no way around it. Two days before this hike, I had over exerted myself and was rewarded with dizziness.

Following the directions in Kananaskis Country Trail Guide, I parked at a small pullout on Gorge Creek Trail and crossed the road to the trailhead. Unexpectedly, the trail immediately splits. Following the guidebook map, I took the right fork.

Normally a gentle grade up a trail wouldn't have fazed me, but today I quickly tired and resigned myself to a plodding pace. The path reaches and briefly follows a cutline. Just before the trail leaves the cutline, I noticed a side trail on my left. This trail, I learned on my descent, accesses the left fork I had seen at the trailhead.

Continuing on, I came to a small cairn marking the false summit. After it, the grade eases and the trail follows a ridge that permitted views of Mesa Butte through breaks in the trees. It was here that I was startled by a tremendous crash from the valley below followed by more noises. My first thought was that a car left the road and crashed into trees, yet there is no road below. Perhaps an old tree fell.

When the path came to a meadow I realized it was the summit, yet there was no cairn. A short time later I reached a viewpoint. Partially treed, the high perch offers far-reaching views west, but details of distant mountains were obscured in a haze of smoke.

Although I couldn't make a mountain out of this mole hill, I could make Death's Head more interesting by taking a different route back. Only a few hundred metres southwest, the North Fork trail edges a spacious meadow. I followed the summit ridge a short distance before descending the treed slopes and finding the trail in the meadow. I followed the trail to the cutline, the same I had been on earlier. The cutline is poorly defined and I often lost it, but eventually I got back on the trail.

Instead of following the ascent route back, I tried the other trail I had seen. With a beautiful grassy forest floor, it was not only quicker but more pleasant. What I didn't realize is that it was a main trail. I passed the turnoff, actually two turnoffs, before realizing my error. After backtracking and exploring a bit, I learned there are two faint side trails that lead back to the trailhead. If you missed the first one coming down, there's a second 100 m further on.

Hopefully I'll soon completely recover so I can resume tackling higher mountains. But Death's Head served me well in the interim, and I enjoyed getting out if only for a short time.

KML and GPX Tracks


The trail splits at the very start. Both forks work, but the left is shorter and is more pleasant.


The trail briefly follows a cutline


The trail passes a firepit


Continuing up the trail

The false summit. The left trail goes to the true summit. I don't know where the right trail goes.

Fall colours setting in

Mesa Butte lies northeast


Smoke obscured views to the south


The summit is just ahead but is only a couple metres higher than the viewpoint


Another firepit just before the viewpoint


Ruffed grouse


Mount Barwell fills the view northwest of the viewpoint


After following the summit ridge a short distance, I dropped down the southwest slope to a clearing (centre) where I picked up the North Fork trail


The trail follows the edge of a meadow

Seen from the trail, the cutline appears as a shallow ditch


Looking back after starting up, it's clear I'm on the cutline


The shortcut back to the trailhead was more enjoyable than the standard route


82 J/10 Mount Rae and 82 J/15 Bragg Creek

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