Clearwater Pass trail and Willingdons

Crown, or Willingdon 2, is one of three 11ers southeast of Saskatchewan Crossing on the dry side of the Rockies. As with Murchison, there is some uncertainty about whether it is over 11,000 feet, though it is included in Corbett’s list on the basis of some friends’ handheld GPS readings. This is flimsy evidence, as consumer GPS units are inaccurate (though usually better than phones), but enough to add it to the club. My other unclimbed 11er in the area, Recondite, is a nearly fifty-mile slog with substantial cross-country travel and multiple stream crossings. After the previous day’s rain, I though that would be too wet and slow, so I settled for the questionable crown.

A cartographic digression… It seems that the Canadian surveys are less accurate and precise than the American ones. Both nations’ surveyors did heroic work over a century ago in the initial mapping of their hinterlands, but Canada’s efforts have since stagnated. While most of the Lower 48 is covered by consistent USGS maps with 40-foot contours (except some parts of the Sierra, which have metric maps), the Canadian maps I am using are a hodge-podge of styles, in English or French, usually with 40-meter (130-foot) contours. Recently, the Lower 48 are increasingly covered by public LIDAR data, accurate to within inches, enabling volunteer efforts by peak-baggers to determine peaks’ precise elevation and prominence. This data has, among other things, changed the list of Colorado’s top hundred peaks, which was long considered well-established. Where LIDAR is not available, Eric Gilbertson’s diligent surveying has also changed Washington’s top hundred list. Given the uncertain heights of Crown, Murchison, Cromwell (near the Stutfields), and possibly others, and the unknown prominence of various named and unnamed subpeaks, the current list of the Rockies 11ers is probably wrong.

Mosquito Creek from below Quartzite Col

I slept at the deserted trailhead for Recondite, then drove down to the Mosquito Creek hostel parking and hiked back across the bridge to the somewhat obscure trailhead. The route was much as I remembered it last time, a well-traveled and -maintained official trail leading to a clear, cairned, and slightly improved climbers’ trail following a side-stream toward Quartzite Col. The previous day’s rain had, predictably, collected on the trees and brush, so the climbers’ trail gave me a thorough leg-washing. It was cold enough that I employed my previous tactic of using a water-switch to whack as much of the vegetation as I could, which slowed me down considerably, but kept me slightly drier. I followed the trail for awhile after it crossed the creek, lost it at a ravine, and headed straight up an open slope to the treeless bowl below the pass, finding occasional boot-prints along the way. Above the meadow, the trail briefly reappeared, then disappeared into the large quartzite talus.

Willingdons (r) from Quartzite Col

I finally got my first view of the Willingdons from the col, and saw that its upper slopes were covered with a thin layer of fresh snow. Scenic, perhaps, but it would make the talus slick and slow. As on my last visit, the snow on the other side of the pass was too steep to seem useful, so I downclimbed the rock to the right, finding a bit of third class and having to dodge farther from the snow to get around some cliffs near the bottom. From there, I picked my way down unpleasant loose rocks and dirt to the boulderfield below, then passed a few cairns on my way to the grass.

Hello, porky!

I was afraid that the rolling cross-country hike to the Clearwater Pass trail would be boggy, but it was merely spongy and moist, and the day had warmed enough that I did not mind continued damp feet. I surprised a porcupine along the way, who waddled away in their usual unhurried fashion, eventually splashing across a small creek to get me to leave him alone. I easily crossed the headwaters of the Siffleur below Pipestone Pass, crossed the Siffleur trail, then joined the well-defined but mostly-abandoned Clearwater Pass trail. I followed it around the largest Devon Lake, then left to climb cross-country into the basin south of the main Willingdon.

Devon Lakes

I had been this way in 2017 to climb the main summit, but had failed to traverse from the main summit to the slightly lower one a kilometer to its southeast. This subpeak, Crown, is generally accepted to be just over 11,000 feet, and has enough prominence to count as a separate mountain. While I had climbed the curving lefthand ridge to Willingdon last time, I instead followed the bottom of the bowl, then ascended the right side to get around a small cliff-band. The slope was mostly unstable, unpleasant scree, but I found occasional bands of dirt soft enough to kick steps after the rain, and a faint bootpack from previous climbers. Above the cliff-band, the route angles up and right, aiming for the Willingdon-Crown saddle. I began to encounter snow here, making the terrain particularly slick in my worn-out shoes.

Lake and Crown

There was a decent-sized lake at the saddle, mostly covered with a skim of ice and slush. I hopped its outflow, then began the final slog to the summit. Other than some treacherous side-hilling, this part was mostly just work, following the ridge and deviating left or right to avoid small cliff-bands. The summit had a modest cairn, no register, and decent views beneath the clouds. The slightly-higher Willingdon was intermittently covered in clouds, but I could see most of the connecting ridge, and it looked just as time-consuming as last time, with cliffs to be avoided to the east on scree and snow. The Clearwater Glacier poked out behind and to its left, and lesser bodies of ice remained below to the north. The weather looked questionable, and I was tired of the scree, so I did not bother with the third, lower Willingdon a short distance to the southeast, despite its being a straightforward walk.

Quartzite Col from summit

I slid and tripped my way back to the saddle, then found some decent plunge-stepping here and there on the descending traverse back to the cliff band. Below, I used a thin tongue of snow to avoid more talus, then rejoined my route for the long return. The clouds were dissipating, and it was t-shirt weather by the time I reached the base of Quartzite Col. Last time I had cramponed up a continuous snow-slope, but the snow was split into several patches now, so I stuck to dirt and rock, this time on the other side, finding a few steep parts and some goat tracks. I took a more direct line down to the climbers’ trail on the return, finding easy meadows followed by mostly-open woods and a bit of side-hilling above a ravine. The climbers’ trail was much faster going downhill and bashing through the brush directly, and I had enough energy to jog the downhills on the Mosquito Creek trail. I was disappointingly slower than on my visit to Willingdon six years before, but still returned to the car with plenty of daylight. I made myself some sort of dinner with my meager remaining supplies, then stayed the night in the parking lot, leaving my choice of what to do next for the morning.

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