Cantata Peak (6,390 ft.)
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 have to wonder is there a way up that thing?
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 threading through chossy 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 line of craggy battlements atop the immense wall of cliffs on Cantata’s north face. And the view never gets more reassuring: 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) territory. 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 getting off-route will immediately put you in Class 4 or 5 territory. 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 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 disperse 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 will 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.
Sidehill around the east face of Point 4755 on a well-defined hiker/sheep path, and walk the rocky ridge to the final col between 4755 and Cantata.
The Summit Ridge
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 only when you confront notches and cliffs. In some places there are footprints, though nothing that really rises to the level of being a trail. Cairns sometimes mark the way, though they are erratically placed and tend to disappear with winter storms and avalanches. Don’t ever traverse onto or above the extremely steep north face.
The first impassable 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, the terrain mellows slightly into steep 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.
Above this small false summit, 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 set of steep rocks. At this point, you’re above the most serious cliffs on Cantata’s lower reaches and can move more liberally onto the southern face. To keep the route in Class 3, traverse one tenth of a mile onto the southern face of the peak, losing a few dozen feet of elevation as you cross the tops of scree fans. As soon as you find a gulley that takes you back to the skyline, scramble back up onto the west ridge. Don’t traverse too far onto the southern face, or you’ll find yourself doing excessive sidehilling and scree-scrambling. From the black col it’s also possible to traverse only a few dozen feet and then immediately regain the ridge. However, this part of the ridge pushes into light Class 4 with increased exposure.
The final quarter-mile of the summit ridge is relatively pleasant Class 2+ walking and there is a light trail directly on the ridgeline. 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 exactly the way you came. If you have extra daylight left, consider taking one of the the “alternate routes” marked on my map. The northern alternate route provides an excellent opportunity to appreciate Cantata’s intimidating north face and scout the approach to neighboring Eagle Peak. The southern alternate route descends a chossy scree field to the beautiful lake tucked between Cantata and Calliope, and then follows game trails through light brush back to Symphony Lake.
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”