Henry MacLeod, Valad, Brazeau

Brazeau summit

Mount Brazeau lies southeast of Jasper above an icefield of the same name, the largest piece of ice east of the Continental Divide. While it was once reached via the ferry across Maligne Lake, these days it is more often approached via the Poboktan Creek trail off the Icefields Parkway. While Brazeau’s south face is itself just a scree-slog, reaching its base requires crossing most of the Brazeau Icefield. This would normally be the kind of glacier travel that I would not want to do alone at this time of year, but two factors seemed to make it feasible: first, the dry winter and hot summer were likely to have melted the lower icefield bare; and second, by traversing neighboring Henry MacLeod and Valad, I could avoid the upper icefield at the cost of some additional elevation gain.

Everything is wet

After a day in Jasper resupplying and relaxing in its pleasant public library, I drove back down the Parkway and pulled into the large Poboktan lot. It is the starting point for some backpacking routes, but features no major tourist attractions, so it is dirt with a primitive outhouse, and was mostly empty. I put some sandwich cookies in a bag (an affordable substitute for granola bars in Jasper), spread peanut butter on bread for sandwiches, spread a bit more on a mousetrap, and was asleep by 9:00. My sleep was interrupted by an overnight thunderstorm, which fortunately subsided well before my starting time.

I was moving again by 5:00, walking back down to the road and north across a bridge to find the somewhat obscure trailhead in some kind of small administrative complex. I was pleasantly surprised to find that bikes were allowed on this trail, and thought about returning to get mine, but quickly concluded that it would not have been worth it. Perhaps the trail would have been a good ride when dry, but it was muddy, slick, and intermittently boggy, with wet brush encroaching in places. It had been awhile since I had showered, and longer still since my last Cascades-style leg-washing, and I was soaked from the thighs down by the time I turned off on the obvious climbers’ trail, just past the first campground.

Coronet Glacier appears

This was, of course, more overgrown than the official trail, and I was getting cold, so I picked up a long switch to beat the accumulated water from the pines and bushes before bashing through them. This effectively spared me much fresh soaking, but was significantly slower than just bashing through normally. The trail climbed past a jagged-edged slot canyon, then climbed steadily along the tributary creek to eventually emerge in a broad gravel flat. This could have been a miserable bog earlier in the season, but was mostly dry and sparsely vegetated, making for fast, pleasant travel and no need for my water-switch.

Upper scree bowl

Where the valley narrows again, the percolating water once again becomes a stream. After a half-hearted attempt to find a dry crossing, I simply rolled up my pants and waded across calf-deep in my shoes and socks, then wrung them out on the other side. My feet were already about as wet as they could get, and would either dry out or not on the remaining hike to the glacier. The once-clear use trail mostly fades above the gravel flat, but I found a few cairns leading up the bank left of a cascade, then back down to the streambed. I followed some treads on the left side, then hopped across on a few rocks to follow the right, eventually leaving it to climb up a bowl before the watercourse again narrows. Above, I could see a lobe of the Coronet Glacier and the tip of Henry MacLeod’s southeast ridge.

Edge of icefield

I found a bit of a trail again here, climbing the right side of the bowl to traverse above a cliff-band, then climbing again to the lateral moraine of one shrunken tendril of the Brazeau Icefield. I put on crampons to descend to the ice’s surface, hopped over small rivulets while crossing it, then took them off again to scramble up ledges and gritty slabs right of an ice-cliff to where I could easily reach the main icefield’s surface. A few pieces fell off the cliff as I climbed, and I stayed well out of their way.

Lower icefield

I was relieved to find that, as I had anticipated, the surface was mostly bare, with the crevasses either open or clearly visible as white stripes of fresher snow. Trusting a snow-bridge after a warm and rainy night would be folly, but it was easy to wind around the slots as I climbed up and right. The icefield is much longer than it looks, so I had plenty of time to watch clouds envelop the summit of Henry MacLeod. This was discouraging in a number of ways: I was unlikely to get a view from Brazeau, glacier navigation could become trickier, and I did not look forward to another soaking on the return if it rained.

MacLeod summit view

As I climbed toward MacLeod’s glacial shoulder, the icefield began to hold a layer of mushy snow, masking the crevasses and making travel unpleasant. My plan had always been to climb MacLeod and traverse the dry ridge from there; with the weather, I thought I should at least tag it as a consolation peak, even if reaching Brazeau seemed unlikely. I turned back left, continuing on mostly-bare ice until I could dismount to choss to the right. I slogged up scree and outward-facing ledges to the ridge, then backtracked a short distance through the clouds to MacLeod’s summit cairn. The views were everything I imagined, i.e. uniform gray outside the nearby rocks.

I dithered for awhile on the summit: on the one hand, it wasn’t all that pleasant, but on the other, it seemed harmlessly misty rather than stormy, it wasn’t that cold, and I would likely never return here. I eventually decided to keep going, and set off down the ridge, jogging through some of the loose scree. I could not see too far, but it was easy to navigate by skirting the edge of the glacier, and the terrain was all easy. Eventually the ridge leveled out, and began to climb toward Valad over similar terrain. The glacier disappeared, but it is easy to stay on course while ascending a ridge: follow the steepest gradient.

Brazeau’s south face

It is a mystery why Valad was named, because it is a boring bump on the ridge, but I think I walked over the highpoint of its broad summit in the fog. Continuing toward Brazeau, I was surprised to find that the easy travel abruptly ended. I was briefly dismayed by a sheer step, which I downclimbed in a chimney with a detached flake on one side, and annoyed by some transverse rock fins, but the difficulties eased as I neared the saddle and rejoined the standard Brazeau route.

Northern icefield

I was expecting something grander for an isolated 11er with its own icefield, but Brazeau is just a big pile of scree. No doubt it is more impressive when you can actually see its surroundings. Climbing in the clouds, I did not find the use trail until about halfway up, and even then, the backsliding was tedious and exhausting. The clouds thinned intermittently as I neared the summit, but only enough to make things a lighter gray, and I did not have much hope of seeing anything. I slogged on, eventually reaching the snowbank lining the summit ridge, then turned right and was soon at the summit cairn. To my delight, the clouds were breaking up, granting me brief views of the summit itself, and the terrain to the north, east, and west. North, I could not see Mount Warren, the next peak north and likely an 11er, but I could see the sadly-diminished icefield. West, I caught some glimpses of lower peaks with their own lesser glaciers.

Peaks east of icefield

Now it was time to get home. I enjoyed plunge-stepping down Brazeau’s south face, all the while dreading the rolling return back over Valad and most of MacLeod. Fortunately the clouds continued to break up, so I could distract myself with the views, even getting a brief glimpse of Brazeau behind me. The icefield to my left past Valad looked reasonably treacherous to traverse, discouraging me from returning via the standard route. Crossing Valad, I was surprised to find a flock of dozens of small birds, swarming and chirping, eating who-knows-what above the rock and ice. I did try to shortcut MacLeod, but soon found myself blocked by a weakly-bridged crevasse, and retreated to follow more or less my route on the way out.

Parasitic plant

After that failed experiment, the rest was long but straightforward: a plod down the glacier, scree-bashing down to the woods, then a much faster hike along the climbers’ trail now that it was downhill and the brush was dry. I jogged parts of the main trail out of habit and boredom, and reached the parking lot a bit over twelve hours after leaving. There were different cars in the Poboktan lot, but still only a handful, and I passed another quiet night before continuing south.

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