Cantata is one of the most recognizable big peaks in the Chugach, rising to 6,390 feet at the head of the well-traveled South Fork Eagle River valley. If you do a lot of hiking in the Chugach, it’s one of those mountains that you see so much of that you eventually feel like you have to give it a shot.
The preferred route up Cantata has shifted over the years. The first ascent was a technical Class 4 climb up the southeast ridge. In 50 Hikes in Chugach State Park, Shane Shepherd and Owen Wozniak recommend scrambling up the SE face above Mirror Lake, though this route seems to have fallen out of favor because it requires some fairly precise threading through cliff bands. The west ridge route that is almost always recommended today is also, suspiciously, the most direct and therefore the one that should have been discovered first. So what took so long?
It’s easy to see why the obvious west ridge route was the last to become accepted: it looks nasty. Hiking toward the peak, the west ridge resembles a steep line of craggy battlements atop the immense wall of cliffs on Cantata’s north face. Up close it doesn’t look much better: the very first step to tackling the ridge is a slightly unnerving sidehill around a set of Class 4 crags. On a trip September 2016 trip up Cantata, as we crested the ridge to Point 4755 and Cantata’s west ridge came into view, one of our group was a little startled: “Are you sure this is the way?”
Honestly, yes. The route works, and if you do it right you will remain entirely in Class 3 (scrambling, but never rock climbing) terrain. SummitPost’s official writeup of Cantata goes so far as to call the peak an “an easily attainable summit,” though I think that statement requires a lot of qualifications. There is plenty of tricky scrambling and some routefinding on the west ridge route, and there’s no doubt that if you get significantly off-route you could find yourself in some nasty Class 4 stuff, particularly on the lower ridge. The north face is Class 5 and is probably best left alone entirely. While no single section of the route is too far beyond what someone might encounter on, say, the west ridge of Ptarmigan or North Suicide, Cantata’s general steepness, routefinding challenges, height, and remoteness demand an additional level of commitment. It is probably comparable in difficulty with nearby Eagle Peak, and overall significantly harder than Bold (minus the climb out of Stiver’s Gully). I would not recommend climbing the peak for the first time in fog/clouds (and never in the rain), and would leave at least a few hours of extra daylight at the end of your trip. I would also recommend wearing a helmet.
Cantata Peak Approach
The approach to the base of the peak is as straightforward as any in the Chugach. Park at the South Fork Eagle River trailhead and walk the excellent trail up the valley until it reaches the small bridge over Eagle Creek, at the outflow of Eagle Lake.From here follow the light web of trails and cairns over the boulder field. A picturesque, winding trail picks up on the far side of the boulder field and ascends the crest of a tundra-covered moraine between Eagle and Symphony lakes, toward the especially-pointy Point 3800.
This informal trail splits toward the top of 3800, with one branch sidehilling to a small drainage to the west and another heading straight up to the point. It doesn’t matter which path you choose, and once you’re over 3800, the trails spread out and disappear anyway. Head up the gently rolling hillocks, tundra slopes, boulders, and snow patches toward Point 4755.
There is usually a creek on the north side of this tundra ramp, and this may be your last opportunity to fill up on water. By late summer or early fall, however, even this stream may have dried up. If it has, you may have to descend all the way to Mirror Lake from the col between 4755 and Cantata. This would be a long way to go for water though (about 700 vertical feet), so I’d recommend potentially bringing a few liters all the way up to the top of 4755 if you have doubts. You can always stash the extra water to grab when you return.
You can climb all the way to the top of Point 4755, or sidehill around the east face on a well-defined hiker/sheep path. From there, walk the rocky ridge to the final col between 4755 and Cantata.
Because most of the approach is low-angle tundra/scrambling in a fairly well-traveled area, there are a couple alternate approaches to the final col before the west ridge. The most attractive of these follows the unofficial but well-defined trail around the south side of Eagle Lake and up the large hanging valley below Cantata’s rugged north face. This is a great route up the peak but it is significantly less direct than the main route, so I’d suggest saving it for the descent if you have extra time. You could also make your way up the valley above Symphony Lake, pass Mirror Lake, and climb to the final col from the south, though I can’t vouch for this route personally.
This is where the hike really begins. The gist of the west ridge route is that you’ll want to stay on the ridge as much as possible, cutting over onto the southern face briefly when you confront notches and cliffs. In some places there are footprints–though nothing that really rises to the level of being a trail–and there are a number of cairns, though they are small and somewhat erratically placed. Don’t ever traverse onto or above the extremely steep north face.
The first impassable (without ropes, anyway) obstacle is encountered just a few dozen feet above the col. Move onto the southern face, following a light path that sidehills around a set of steep, rocky gullies. You won’t go too far–angle up the first prominent climbable gully, continue sidehilling briefly, and then climb up the first scree field back onto the ridge. This first set of maneuvers is a good test for the rest of the climb. If you don’t feel comfortable here, don’t continue. As a mountain runner on his way down the peak said to us “it doesn’t get harder but it doesn’t really get easier.”
Once you’ve regained the ridge, you’ll hit my favorite part of the climb. This part of the ridge is steep but very hikable Class 2. You’ll switchback a bit on light paths as you gain a great deal of elevation. To anyone watching you from the col, it’ll look like you’re somehow walking up a cliff. This part of the climb ends at the top of a small false summit, after which you’ll lose sight of the col below Cantata.
After you climb over this small false summit, you’ll scramble down into a short, strange mini-col of unmistakably flaky, fine, black rock. Stay to the south side of the mini-col–the north side drops down in an ominously smooth, steep face and then disappears. On the other side of this mini-col is another impassable obstacle. At this point on the mountain, you’re above the most serious cliffs on Cantata’s lower reaches, and you can take more liberties in traversing onto the south face. Some people recommend moving over onto the chossy southern face and scrambling to the summit at various points, but you can stay close to the ridgeline too. Just make sure you keep traversing onto the south face as needed, and don’t be afraid to backtrack around sketchy pitches or obstacles.
The last few hundred feet to the summit begin to flatten out (flatten out being pretty relative here). The summit is a well-defined shallow point, with one of the finest views in the Chugach. There is a register tucked into a cairn on the summit. Unlike some registers in the Chugach, this one is opened by twisting the block on the top end, rather than the whole end piece.
If this is your first South Fork peak, this is an excellent opportunity to scope out the main nontechnical routes up Hurdygurdy, Eagle, and Calliope, all of which are visible from the summit.
Descend to the col between Cantata and Point 4755 just the way you came. The route feels different on the descent because obstacles are harder to spot from above than from below, but if you retrace your route you should do fine. Provided you stay on-route the descent goes pretty quickly. If you have a little extra daylight left, taking the “alternate route” marked on my map out can be a good way to gain some more perspective on Cantata’s north face, and an opportunity to scout the approach to neighboring Eagle Peak.
Other resources and trip reports
- SummitPost entry for Cantata Peak – Though this entry undersells the difficulty of the peak a little, it’s the best source for images and route information I can find online.
- Trip report by Trond
- Trip report from “Matt and Allison Doing Daring Deeds”