Category Archives: Canada

Old Goat

Upper ridge

“Old Goat Mountain” is the highpoint of the small Goat Range, the line of peaks separating the Spray Lakes road and Reservoir (formerly Goat Creek) from the Spray River southwest of Canmore. I had seen it while climbing neighboring Nestor with Bob and his son, and the peak-bagger in me immediately asked “why am I not standing on the highest thing?” The east ridge looked like a likely route, and there was even a short line on OpenStreetMap leading up it to the summit, so Old Goat was high on my to-do list while I was in the area. Not wanting to repeat the same bike approach two days in a row, or tempt fate by staying in the same place for too long, I saved it for my return to Canmore, after having completed the higher-priority Sir Douglas and Birdwood.

North side of Nestor

I started off as before, riding the decommissioned road south along the west side of the reservoir, this time stopping earlier, more or less due east of Nestor near the creek draining the valley between it and Old Goat. The line started here, but I saw no cairn or flagging, and never did find a hint of a trail. The fact that someone had put a track online, and that it was a range highpoint with significant prominence, but that it had attracted almost no attention, made me curious. However the woods were generally open, especially once I climbed above the valley bottom and its carpet of moss, so I had a fairly easy time simply heading uphill, at first along a ridge, then through whichever part of the forest seemed easiest. I was slow and tired after the last two days, but reached treeline in the bowl without any particular difficulties.

Grassy gully

To my left was Nestor’s east ridge, its north side rising sheer from the valley, its crest looking interesting but challenging. Ahead, the valley continued to a talus-bowl below the steep ridge connecting Nestor and Old Goat. To the right, a grassy chute angled up to a steep wall at the base of Old Goat’s upper east ridge. Trusting that I would find some way through the wall, I headed up the chute, finding it much friendlier than the more well-traveled lower Nestor route, a faint path through shifting limestone talus. A watercourse formed a weakness that looked like the best route up the cliffs at its head, but once I got closer, I decided that the slabs to its right looked better. While steep, they were solid and very sticky limestone, and split by enough ledges that the climbing was fun but rarely continuous.

Glacier NE of Old Goat

The terrain leveled off at the base of the ridge, and the rock changed to a melange of choss. Rather than heading straight toward the summit, I made a brief detour to a post I saw to the right, evidence that surveyors (?) had visited this odd location at some point. The ridge separates the Nestor-Old Goat cirque from a small glacier and anonymous creek to the north, hidden from the road and reservoir by a parallel spur ridge. This and the angle of the rock layers make the east ridge sheer on the right, and awkwardly-angled on the left. From Nestor, it had looked like the layers might rise directly toward the ridge, making for good climbing on the crest, but the angle was not quite right, so while the crest was usually the best path, it was not particularly pleasant.

Crux step

After an initial talus-pile, the ridge narrowed, and I negotiated a steep class 3-4 step to reach more moderate ground. Things continued in a similar vein as I headed up, crossing softer and harder layers, with the latter creating short sections of steeper climbing. Some parts were very exposed on the right, but I could probably have avoided many of them via unpleasant side-hilling to the left. The crux was a steep band of rotten black rock blocking access to the upper ridge. It was featured, but I backed off a few lines, finding them either too steep or angled at the wrong direction. I eventually stemmed up a wide corner a hundred yards or so left of the crest; counterpressure was the best tactic for such rock, but I dreaded downclimbing it.

North from summit

Above this crux, the ridge eased, then steepened and turned crumbly as it neared the main north-south crest. Here I deviated fairly far left, making a chossy traverse, then picking my way back up and right through gullies full of marbles and crumbly bulges. Once at the ridge, a bit more exposed walking led to the summit, with its cairn and hermetically-sealed PVC register tube. As in the States, these tubes usually manage to leak just enough to soak the register, then prevent evaporation, so I did not try very hard to open it. It had been a short climb, but I did not linger long, as I imagined the descent would be slow and meticulous.

Sheep/goat beds

I more or less retraced my ascent route, then deviated farther down at the crux, chossing my way across some ribs lower down rather than stemming down the dihedral. Where the ridge flattens before the final talus leading to the spur, I opted to plunge-step down scree to the right, into the bowl north of Nestor. The upper part was fast and easy, but the lower section was too hard-packed and covered with loose fist-sized rocks, which would roll out from under my feet suddenly and unpredictably. I saw a line of a half-dozen goat or sheep beds, but no animals, and not much of a helpful game trail. I am not sure if this saved me time relative to descending the grassy gully, but I eventually reached the trees and, after thrashing through some unpleasant woods, rejoined my ascent route. From there it was an easy bushwhack down to the road, where I grabbed my bike and rode back to the trailhead. From there it was back to Canmore to restock and catch up with the world, then out of town to rest and figure out what to do next.

Birdwood, Smutwood

Birdwood above the bog


Mount Birdwood is a distinctive peak between Sir Douglas and Smuts, with a long northwest ridge that is an exposed and somewhat challenging scramble. It first came to my attention from Smuts in 2017, and had been on my to-do list ever since. As it is accessed from a trailhead only a few miles north of Burstall Pass, this seemed like my best opportunity to climb it. After returning from Sir Douglas, I hung out at the Burstall Pass trailhead for awhile, then drove up to the one for Smuts and Birdwood to sleep. Apparently you are not even allowed to start an overnight hike from this trailhead, but I did not get in trouble.

Clearwater valley from col

A group of four Asian girls pulled up at dawn, and after the expected excited chatter, headed off down the trail while I finished my breakfast. The first part of this trail is an old dirt road, and I thought about riding my bike, but it was already a short day, and I figured bikes were also on the list of “thou shalt nots.” The trail rapidly deteriorates where the road ends, turning rooty and muddy as it turns to follow Commonwealth Creek toward the Birdwood-Smuts saddle. I caught the girls as they were puddle hopping along the edge of a marsh, passing and continuing at a slightly faster pace.

Lower Birdwood

Beyond the marsh, the trail winds through a slide path, then climbs steeply to a meadow below the col. Some clouds were already forming, and there was a cold wind blowing through the pass — the forecast called for a chance of rain in the afternoon. Fortunately limestone is sticky when wet, so the climbing would not be much affected, but the cold and wind dampened my mood. I stopped to layer up below the saddle, then headed left up some fun class 3 ramps and slabs on the lower ridge. I could have kept going to the Smutwood saddle to avoid this part, but it was more direct, and some of day’s most enjoyable scrambling. From the junction with the easier Smutwood ridge, the ridge flattened and narrowed, and I walked along sometimes-exposed grass and rubble for awhile. Birdwood is made of the same layers as Sir Douglas, so the rock quality is generally not great.

Birdwood from notch

The difficulties start abruptly at a notch in the ridge, which is not particularly obvious from below. I descended a dirt-chute right of the ridge, then crossed back and traversed the outside of a sketchy-looking flake that looks ready to fall off, but feels stable. From the notch just below, I followed a chimney right of the ridge back to the crest. The layers tilt slightly left of vertical on most of the ridge, so while it is best when possible to stay on the crest, one must sometimes climb chimneys and steep slabs to the right, or traverse outward-sloping gravel-covered ledge to the left. The ridge is consistently narrow and exposed, and I found the climbing sustained but not particularly difficult on the way up, so I was enjoying myself despite the cold wind on the right side. I felt the crux was a few steep moves on some clean but downward-sloping slabs higher up, with a three-pin anchor above.

Sir Douglas from Birdwood

The summit was a long, narrow crest, traversed with no hands and some caution, as tripping on the choss would probably end badly. The views were somewhat limited by clouds and haze, with Sir Douglas’ summit blocked, but the dappled light highlighted Smuts’ features to the northwest. The wind had thankfully not intensified, and the clouds did not look serious, but I did not hang around too long before beginning the downclimb. The Rockies’ classic rubbly slabs are often trickier going down than up, and this was especially true on Birdwood. One part that I had barely noticed on the climb, just below another old piton, forced me to proceed with extreme caution on loose, exposed terrain east of the ridge. Another, lower down, had me briefly descending a narrow, rotten crest backward and √† cheval; I did not even remember what I had done on the way up. Rappeling on the narrow, low-angle ridge would make no sense, though, so this bit of sketchiness is simply the price of climbing Birdwood.

Smutwood from Birdwood

I climbed straight along the ridge on the other side of the notch, and was soon back in easy-land. Still, my quads were tired, so my sloppy foot placement led me to stumble on the occasional loose rock. The weather was holding, so I decided to follow the ridge and tag Smutwood, as it would add only a couple of miles. I did not know it at the time, but apparently it has become an Instagram spot for its easy trail and striking view of Birdwood, explaining the busy trailhead. I met the four Asian girls on their way down, who had seen me on Birdwood and were impressed by my speed. I gave them my usual explanation — “well, I do a lot of this” — and continued up the trail, which kindly contoured around a bump on the ridge before turning braided on the final, steeper section to the summit.

Birdwood from Smutwood

With no other peaks reasonably accessible and the weather still fine, I took a bit longer to enjoy the view from Smutwood. Smuts is not particularly impressive from this angle, as it is broad and unfeatured, but Birdwood looks narrow and intimidating, and the ridge northwest of Smuts toward Shark has some cool layering. The air was too hazy, and the sun in the wrong position, for good photos of Birdwood, but it was still pleasing to the human eye. I met a few more people on the descent to the Smuts-Birdwood col, then a bunch more on the steep path down to the valley. One guy warned me that he had seen a brown bear, but I could not imagine the creature hanging around with the steady stream of people in the other direction. In the worst case, I could probably outrun at least one of them.

I met the four girls again, resting on a rock at the base of the descent. I was sorry to learn that they had not continued to the summit of Smutwood, dissuaded by the steep rock and wind. They were clearly new to hiking, and wondered what kind of shoes I was wearing to descend the slippery dirt trail so quickly. I showed them my nearly-dead old running shoes, and explained that in this case technique mattered more than gear: take small, quick steps, and the coefficient of static friction will hold you. I encouraged them to ditch their boots and get some decent trail runners, suggested a few more peaks, then continued on my way. I jogged the road part of the trail out of boredom, then hung out in the parking lot before driving on to the trailhead for my final short outing in Kananaskis Country.

Sir Douglas traverse

Sir Douglas from the north


Many Canadian peaks are named for dead Brits. In the area of the Rockies southwest of Canmore, the names honor sunken warships (e.g. Smuts, Birdwood) and World War I leaders. I have long suspected that the latter were responsible for quite a few dead Canadians, and Commander Sir Douglas Haig is one of the worst, in the most stereotypically British way. Fifty years after the American Civil War showed the disastrous consequences of using mass charges against entrenched troops with accurate guns, Haig was a believer in bayonets, horses, and √©sprit de corps, skeptical of new-fangled contraptions like machine guns and even rifles. His disastrous plan for the Battle of the Somme was to harmlessly bombard dug-in German troops for days, then give them time to crawl back up to their machine guns and mow down the Allies, who were ordered to walk in rows through no-man’s land carrying enormous backpacks.

Lower glacier

Anyways, Mount Sir Douglas is a beautiful mountain toward the eastern side of the range, between the Spray and Kananaskis Lakes. It is the highpoint of a long anticline (or syncline?) near Burstall Pass, the layers tilted at an angle that exposes smooth slabs to the northwest. The north side of its long summit shelters two moderate-sized glaciers, leading to the two most popular routes. I had started toward Sir Douglas when I was last in Canada in 2017, only to be turned around by miserable postholing below Burstall Pass. The dry year would eliminate that problem, but also close off the most pleasant route, a couloir on the northwest face, and potentially make the approach tricky for the standard west ridge. However dealing with post-glacial terrain — unstable moraines, gritty slabs, rotten couloirs, etc. — is a necessary part of mountaineering in the era of global warming.

Birdwood

This time I had a bike, so I was able to ride the first two miles of the approach, leaving my bike locked up at the helpful bike rack next to the “no bikes” sign. I would not have wanted to ride much further in any case, as the trail crossed a series of log bridges over a bog, then dissipated in a willow flat to cross a braided creek. With some leaping and balancing, I was just able to keep my feet dry on the way out, when the glacial outflow was at its lowest. On the other side, the trail climbed steeply to a flat valley, then climbed again toward Burstall Pass. Before the pass, I left it to follow a clear use trail headed southwest up a valley toward Sir Douglas, crossing bare limestone slabs and dodging some deep holes.

East ridge from Zeke’s

The approach eventually reaches the edge of a deep valley descending to the right, forcing one to hug the line of peaks extending from Sir Douglas to Birdwood before climbing a limestone rib to its other side. Beyond, there is another descent, larger and much more discouraging, into the talus morass below the peak’s northwest face. I looked at that, and at the bare right-hand glacier with its steep, icy tongue, and decided I had a better idea. In rereading Corbett’s description of Sir Douglas the night before, I had noticed his brief mention of the 5.6 east ridge, and that its first ascent party complained of difficult and unprotected climbing lower down, but barely mentioned the rest of the ridge. Based on the rock layers’ slope, this looked like a better route, and “alpine 5.6” is usually easier than 5.6. I liked my chances, and wanted to skip the soul-crushing descent and slog to the normal route, so at the last minute I continued up the slope to the ridge before “Zeke’s Peak.”

Looking back to Zeke’s

The first part of the ridge was fun and easy, either walking along the crest or traversing the sticky slabs on the right. Ahead and to the right lay Sir Douglas, with the substantial glacier between it and neighboring Robertson to the left. The fun ended with the descent to the saddle, where the rock layers were no longer favorable relative to the ridge, and I had to downclimb some crumbly garbage with a couple of steep steps. A final notch with a choss tower required a bit more trickiness, and then I was at the base of the east ridge.

Typical chossineering

I had hoped for a steeper version of the traverse over Zeke’s Peak, but was sadly disappointed. The climbing was never truly desperate, but required careful route-finding to manage the rotten rock. Where the crest was too steep or otherwise undesirable, the general idea was to climb up and left on steep ramps, then cut back right in dihedrals, which were sometimes more solid and offered opportunities for stemming. I stayed close to the crest as I made my methodical way, and while there was certainly fifth-class climbing, I found nothing I would call 5.6. I had been concerned about a steep step visible from the approach, but when I reached it, I found an easy gravel traverse to the left, then low fifth-class climbing on relatively good rock to regain the main ridge. Here I was finally high enough to see onto the large Haig glacier, with a few buildings near its toe that I believe belong to a heli-ski operation.

Top of NW face route

Once back on the ridge, I soon reached the top of the Northwest Face route, recommended by Corbett as a snow/ice alternative to the standard West Ridge, but now melted down to a corner of gritty slabs and evil dirt. Crossing its top on a horrible loose gravel arete, I found an easy stroll across low-angle ridge to the summit. The air was slightly hazy, but I could still identify a number of familiar peaks, including Joffre, King George, and Assiniboine. I lounged briefly and then, mindful of the unpleasantness that awaited on the West Ridge descent, started down.

Looking down west ridge

The ridge down to the saddle was as advertised: loose junk on outward-sloping slabs. I found myself crab-walking much of the way, or side-stepping with one hand on the rock above. Where possible, I followed the edges of slabs so I could use the higher rock as a handrail. The rock naturally pulled me left onto the southwest face, so I had to make periodic corrections to stay reasonably close to the ridge. Other than one such correction, nothing felt particularly difficult, but it was slow.

The first part I was worried about was the chute leading down to the glacier, which Corbett warned could be icy or have a challenging bergschrund. This being a dry year over a decade after his book was published, I found something slightly worse: the hard-packed dirt and rotten rock left behind by ice in a now-dry couloir. I carefully picked my way down the right-hand side, noting that when I kicked loose more than a few rocks, they would entrain dozens of others which funneled down to the dirty ice below. I downclimbed some sketchy rock right of the landing zone, then put on my crampons beneath the shelter of a small cliff before setting off down the glacier.

Glacier tongue

The second part that worried me was the glacier’s bare icy tongue, which looked steeper than I would enjoy downclimbing in running-shoe crampons. This proved to be the case, but fortunately there were bare slabs and rubble to the right, and I was able to traverse to those before things got too steep. I hugged the right wall to minimize the chance of getting hit by a rock, and while the mix of gritty slabs and gravel was wretched, it got me down. From the base of the ice, I descended farther on unstable talus, until I was able to get around an old lateral moraine and begin climbing back toward the ridge leading to Zeke’s Peak.

Second pyrocumulus

Finally having the mental space to look around, I glanced behind me to see a huge pyrocumulus somewhere behind and north of King George. It had not been there when I was on the summit, or descending the west ridge, so the fire had blown up quickly, probably within an hour. As I made my way along bits of climbers’ trail through the chossy wasteland, I watched the smoke obscure Mount Assiniboine to the north, spreading east but fortunately sparing my lungs. By the time I reached the plateau north of the face, the first plume had been smeared, and a second, larger pyrocumulus now loomed. I took a slightly better line on the return, staying east of a minor bump north of the first deep valley, and was soon back at the Burstall Pass trail.

Returning to Burstall Pass

I jogged quite a bit of this out of boredom, passing a surprising number of day-hikers, eventually reaching the willow flat. As expected, the streams were significantly higher in the afternoon, and after an initial attempt to keep my feet dry, I gave up and sloshed along the most direct line. I stopped to wring out my socks on the boardwalk, then hiked back to the bike rack, where I found a dozen other bikes leaned against trees and each other. Though only about two miles of the trail are rideable, it seems plenty of others agree that it is absolutely worth bringing a bike. Sir Douglas is probably better with more snow, but it is not a peak I would want to repeat.

Crown

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.

Diadem and Woolley

Woolley and Diadem

Woolley and Diadem are two peaks northeast of the Columbia Icefield. While neither is particularly technical, the possibility of 40-degree ice in a dry year makes them “big boots” peaks, requiring real crampons and benefiting from two ice tools. I had not done any of that kind of mountaineering in awhile, so the peaks were a welcome change of pace, despite my dislike for stumbling around in clumsy ankle weights. The peaks share the first part of a rugged approach with Mount Alberta, probably the hardest Canadian Rockies 11er at 5.6 on rotten rock by its easiest route. This approach begins with a multi-part ford of the braided Sunwapta River, which is supposedly knee-deep if are lucky, then follows a surprisingly good trail to the terminal lake of the glacier descending from the Woolley-Diadem col.

Woolley Creek falls

After hanging out for the afternoon at the icefield visitor center, I drove back north to a pullout that is inexplicable unless you know that it is the start of the Woolley Creek approach. It was not the quietest place to sleep, but I read one of Eric Gilbertson’s recent trip reports, then got more sleep than he had. By the time it was light enough to see, I was ready to go, stick in hand, crossing the road and heading straight for the first of many channels I had to cross. The first two had rock dams that I was able to balance across without getting more than my soles wet, but that would not last. Knowing that I would get soaked to the knee, I rolled my pants up to the thigh and plunged straight in, resolved to get the unpleasantness over with quickly. The first few braids were obviously shallow, but the larger ones were impossible to gauge with the silty water. In the back of my mind was the thought that I was crossing the streams at the lowest time of day, and that the return would be some amount deeper. There were no cairns, so I made up my own route, looking for signs of shallowness. Most of the channels were no more than calf-deep but I found a couple that were briefly thigh-deep, forcing me to power through quickly. The cold took awhile to manifest, but my feet and calves were painful by the time I was done. I took off my wading shoes, took off my pants to wring them out, then put on pants, socks, and mountain boots. I propped my balance stick up with some rocks, hung my blue shoes from the top, then took off downstream for the mouth of Woolley Creek.

Cascade below gravel flats

I picked up a faint trail along the edge of the woods, then a bit of flagging and a much more obvious one near the creek’s south bank. The creek cuts a deep chasm headed by an impressive waterfall, while the trail climbs near the edge, through open, moss-carpeted woods. Where the stream returns to ground level, the trail stays near the south bank, with a decent tread in the woods, and a line of cairns closer to the bank that I followed on the way in. The trail disappears in a boulder-field below an old moraine, reappears briefly, then turns to a line of cairns through a second section of larger boulders. I failed to hug the stream closely enough here, and briefly took a slower line until I returned to the creek and found the cairns. Back on-route, I followed a clear line past a cascade to a gravel flat. The trail disappeared again here, and for some reason I decided to cross the creek. I found a dry path with a bit of ingenuity, and continued cross-country up past another waterfall to the terminal tarn, where I saw the tent platforms on the other side of the water. My side of the lake looked like a miserable side-hill, but turned out not to be so bad, and before too long I was at the base of the glacier, ready to play “real mountaineer.”

Diadem showing ascent and descent routes

I strapped my real crampons onto my boots, took out one tool, and started walking up the glacier. It started low-angle and rocky, then steepened a bit as it approached the icefall. This had been cooking in the sun for a few hours, but I did not hear much movement or see anything break off; perhaps, with no overnight freeze in awhile, anything loose had already fallen. I wound my way through a few crevasses, then made my way right up the debris fan of the southeast couloir. There are two ways up Diadem: bypass the icefall to the right, then continue to the col and hike the ridge, and climb the southeast couloir directly to the summit. The sensible thing would be to take the former, since I would discover any difficulties on the way up rather than down, but the latter would allow me to experience more terrain and probably better climbing. I had been leaning toward the former, but decided at the last minute to take the latter and figure things out on the descent.

Chute with runnel

The southeast couloir had looked ugly from below, with a huge dirty runnel down low, a possible bare step, and grayish ice up top. The runnel turned out to be a safety feature: I French-stepped up the snow to its right, while bits of rock falling from above and left were channeled harmlessly into the chute and slid past. My strip of snow steepened as it narrowed, and as I began kicking steps and front-pointing, I took out my second tool, more out of symmetry than necessity. I felt like a poser plunging the shafts of two tools into snow as I booted up the couloir: after all, I could have done this with trekking poles. Where the strip right of the runnel disappeared, I turned right into what proved to be the main couloir. With moderate choss-slopes on both sides of a narrow strip of snow, the route felt a bit contrived, but the snow was undeniably more pleasant than the rock. Lacking a runnel to catch the rockfall, I had to pay more attention to what was above me, and look up more than at my hands and feet.

Upper icy bit

The chute I was climbing eventually opened up to a face leading to the summit ridge, and became icier. Several chutes descending from the summit ridge were occasionally spitting rocks, so I picked my route carefully, crossing their paths quickly and resting below small rock outcrops. The final few hundred feet were both steeper and icy, so I got to swing both tools and feel like a real climber for a bit. The top-out was straightforward, with no cornice and solid snow on top, and I reached the summit plateau just short of its highpoint.

Woolley and Alberta from Diadem

After focusing on climbing for awhile, I finally had a chance to look around at the view. Most striking was Mount Alberta, probably the hardest Rockies 11er, its 3000-foot “easy” east face looming behind Woolley to the west. Alberta is hidden from the road and lesser peaks to the east, so few people see it in person. This was my first time, and the photos of this notorious peak do not convey its overwhelming size and menace.

Rock summit from ice one

Diadem is named for its small summit glacier, which was a hundred feet thick when it was first climbed in the early 1900s, probably making it the peak’s summit. It is thinner now, however, so a rocky fin to its east is now higher. A trip report I had found described this fin as exposed and tricky, requiring a bit of a cheval traversing, but I found it straightforward, with a flat ice saddle and a bit of loose scrambling leading to its highpoint. I left my crampons before the ice saddle, visited the highpoint for a minute, then returned to them to begin the traverse to Woolley.

Woolley glacier

After crossing Diadem’s ice-cap, the rest of the route to the saddle was bare rubble, with even a bit of use trail in places. I reached the saddle, then once again put on my crampons to climb the first part of the ridge to Woolley. I had seen an old track in the snow to the left, but stayed closer to the spine myself, following bare ice and dodging a few crevasses, including stepping over a couple that crossed the crest. The ridge turns to rock again where it levels off, forcing yet another crampon transition. The rest was straightforward other than a short rock step with snow on its left side, which I climbed by sort of chimneying between snow and rock.

Alberta looking proud

Woolley’s summit has a panoramic view of Alberta and the northern Columbia Icefield peaks — the Stutfields, North Twin, and Twins Tower. Unfortunately intermittent clouds frequently obscured the icefield peaks, but Alberta was in the clear, the surrounding glaciers and deep chasms now visible. I lounged on top for awhile, fortunate to be enjoying this rare view, then started down. I had been able to see much of the descent route from the summit, and it looked more tedious than difficult.

Death chute

Back at the saddle, I hugged the left side of the glacier heading down between the two peaks, dismounting just above the icefall. The terrain immediately below ended in a cliff, but below I could see the side-couloir normally used to reach the upper glacier. It is described as 40-degree snow or perhaps ice, but was now unpleasant old rock-encrusted ice with intermittent small rockfall coming down. I headed up the side, planning to cross near the top, but stumbled upon a large cairn and decided to cross there instead. I scrambled down to a fairly narrow part of the ice, put on crampons, then crossed as quickly as possible to the rock and mud on the other side. The steep mud was unnervingly mobile, but the wet slabs on the other side were too outwardly-sloping for my liking. Still sort of in the line of fire from above, I used my crampons and ice tool to downclimb the mud to where the slabs were flatter, then exited to safe ground before switching back to boots.

Stone camp chairs

Rather than downclimbing the death-chute, I traversed down a broad talus bowl, aiming for a cairn I had noticed near the side of the southeast couloir on the way up. I meandered through unpleasant choss, appreciating the way my big shit-kicking boots protected my feet and ankles as I… well, kicked shit. I eventually found a line of cairns and a faint foot-path leading back to my ascent couloir from the morning, where I returned to crampons and speed-downclimbed facing in left of the runnel. Below, I mentally relaxed as I walked down the lower glacier, then removed my crampons for the last time to walk around the correct side of the lake.

Sunwapta Peak and River

The return went more smoothly than the hike up. I passed some fine campsites, including one with a pair of stone lounge chairs, then followed a good trail to the lower gravel flat, and found the correct route through the main boulder-field below. My feet were feeling beat up from too much time in boots, but bringing three pairs of shoes for one day (wading, walking, and climbing) would have been ridiculous. Finally reaching the Sunwapta, I saw that the wind had knocked over my shoes-on-a-stick, but fortunately the shoes were bright blue, and I had marked them on my map. Knowing what lay ahead, I took off my boots and pants, put them in my pack along with my phone, put on my wading shoes, and got to it. The first few channels were not bad, and the air was warmer than in the morning, but the larger channels had grown, and the water was just as cold. Whereas before I had only briefly waded thigh-deep, this time I was thigh-deep a few times, and crotch-deep once, testing my balance with two sticks. It was all over soon enough with manageable misery, and I did not bother to put on pants to cross the road back to my car. Let the tourists in their rented RVs think what they may; I had earned it.

Sunwapta

Sunwapta’s erosion profile


After a long day to Brazeau, I was looking for something short and nearby, and Sunwapta fit the bill. While over 5000 feet above the highway, it is only a few miles via a steep trail, and normally has good views of the peaks north of the icefield across the valley to the west. From the Poboktan trailhead, I drove a few miles south to park at Beauty Creek, then packed my pack and almost immediately left the Stanley Falls trail to hop across a bog/stream, soon picking up a mix of cairns and flagging leading me to a well-used trail.

Water sheeting down slabs

The trail follows the left side of a ravine, climbing steeply along the edge of the woods above some cascades, eventually emerging above the trees where the ravine emerges from Sunwapta’s broad west face. From there, cairns and a use trail lead steeply up an interminable scree slope, which thanks to foreshortening looks much shorter than it is. The trail fades and branches as the scree turns to talus, eventually reaching the peak’s north-south summit ridge. The other side is consistently steep, with some parts improbably overhanging despite the poor quality rock.

Tangle Ridge

From where the trail reaches the ridge, easy terrain leads to the summit, with a large cairn and a pink ammo can holding the summit register. I was hoping to see Woolley and Diadem across the way, and perhaps Brazeau to the north, but the smoke was bad enough that I could barely make out Tangle Ridge, some four miles southwest. The air quality was therefore not pleasant, but probably not outright unhealthy. After a snack, I retraced my route, finding some decent scree-skiing, then easy shuffling down through the woods.

Just as I reached the car, I heard someone remark that “he came a long ways,” and introduced myself to the two kids in the next car over. They were from Edmonton, and had just returned from an unsuccessful attempt on Sunwapta, having followed the tourist trail too far and failed to find the climbers’ route. They turned out to be budding mountaineers, and we spent some time talking about peaks in the States and Canada, the value of mountaineering courses, and the necessity of partners. I am somewhat ambivalent about encouraging people to follow my path, but always enjoy encouraging young people with so much enthusiasm, time, and potential. Afterward, I drove down to the icefield visitor center to catch up on internet things for as long as I could stand the milling sightseers and their mewling spawn, then packed and prepared for a fuller day in the hills.

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.

Resplendent

Sunrise over Resplendent

Mount Resplendent is one of Mount Robson’s lesser neighbors, toward the northwest end of the high Canadian Rockies. Though 1800 feet shorter than Robson, and something of a subpeak, it still rises over 11,000 feet with over 1500 feet of prominence, so it is a legitimate summit in its own right. It also requires a fair amount of effort, though unlike Robson it is not technical, and involves only a half-mile of very tame glacier travel. Resplendent normally has one of the best views of Robson’s glaciated side, which is hidden from any road. Unfortunately the BC wildfire smoke rolled in the night before my climb, so I could not see Robson at all from the summit only three miles away, and saw only ghostly outlines from closer along the connecting ridge. This will probably be my last time up the Thoni trail to Robson-Resplendent Col, so it was a melancholy farewell.

Robson the afternoon before

I went for a ride to Maligne Lake, then hung out in Jasper for the rest of the day before driving over the Divide and the BC border to Robson. The visitor center was the same, but I think the parking area has been remodeled since I was last here: I remember haphazard shady spots among trees, but it is now a giant slab of bare asphalt, with a couple picnic tables under a gazebo to escape the sun. Robson was hazy, but not much worse than conditions over the past few days, and I hoped the smoke would subside with overnight cooling. This would be much easier than my last visit, when I did a loop up the Patterson Spur and Kain Face to Robson, then down the South Face. While Resplendent shares the same approach, the route is trivial from the top of the Spur, so I could use my light gear. Also, I had a bike, saving me about three miles each way of tedious walking to and from Kinney Lake.

Resplendent the morning of

Things started to look down in the middle of the night, when I woke to hear the dreaded sound of a rodent chewing something in my car. This typically happens a couple of times per year, and invariably costs me a few nights of sleep until the creature either leaves on its own or (more likely) steps in a peanut-butter-baited trap. I wrote off the night’s sleep, and tried to at last shut my eyes until my alarm went off. Starting in early daylight, I immediately noticed that I could no longer see Robson. Low morning light can play tricks with visibility, but the smoke had clearly not improved, and had probably gotten worse.

Approach valley

I biked past the Kinney Lake bridge, and found the Thoni Trail with only a bit of searching, still well-hidden from tourist eyes. As I muscled my bike into the woods to hide it, I noticed that my headphone charging case had fallen out of my pack, another small annoyance for the day. Once on the trail, I found it well-flagged and easy to follow. There had been some deadfall since it was installed, but it was still fairly smooth going, comparable to a good Cascades climbers’ trail. I had bears on the mind even before I saw a few piles of manure on the trail, and periodically talked back to the podcasts I was listening to as a sort of warning. I maintained this sort-of vigilance until I emerged onto the gravel flats below the Patterson Spur.

Ugly at the best of times

I should have dropped to follow the riverbank, but instead cut straight across through some woods, then crossed the first stream on a slippery log with the help of a sturdy stick. I followed this stream for awhile, then crossed to the second, which was significantly larger and more ferocious. I dithered up and down the bank for awhile, then found another stick and crossed on a series of slightly-submerged rocks, soaking my feet but not having to contend with the current. On the other side, I picked up a faint use trail again, which led to the base of the well-marked initial climb up a forested rib.

Looking down spur

From above the rib, the route meanders right, then left and right to get past some cliff bands, then makes a long traverse left along the toe of a sad glacier to the base of the Patterson Spur. There are cairns here and there, but they are not particularly useful: you can wander between the top of the woods and bottom of the spur in a number of ways with a bit of third class here and there. Robson is a beautiful mountain from some directions, but this is not one of them. The 4800-foot climb up a mixture of scree and post-glacial junk is ugly even at the best of times, and the smoke and orange light made it vaguely apocalyptic. I reminded myself that at least the smoke kept things cooler, but it seemed to get worse as I climbed, and I began to smell it.

Dagger scree

I had to recross the glacial outflow streams to reach the spur’s base, though it was easier up here with some rock-hopping and a brief detour onto the ice. I took a ledge around the base of the ridge, and found cairns and straightforward class 2-3 climbing around the left side. I continued up a gully, then traversed under a small horn to gain the ridge crest at a flat spot with another cairn. From there the route-finding was obvious, following the path of least resistance and occasional treads up a mix of slabs and dagger-like scree to the Robson-Resplendent ridge.

Resplendent from col

Views in both directions were equally grim, with both Robson to the northwest, and Resplendent to the southeast, barely visible through the smoke. I took off toward the latter along the talus ridge, passing several tent platforms, a couple well-built out of the peak’s natural flagstones. I could almost have stayed on rock to just below the summit, but it seemed the glacier still got too close to the ridge to squeak by at one dip. I put on my crampons and mounted the glacier at a flat spot, and stayed on it until the summit. The southwest side was mostly bare ice, so it was easy with a bit of meandering to avoid the open crevasses and whiter snow bridges. There were a few steeper bulges to surmount, but nothing that felt at all sketchy in my running-shoe crampons.

Resplendent summit ridge

Near the top, I climbed to the northeast edge of the glacier to follow flatter ground to the icy summit. I could see old avalanche debris at the base of the north ice-face far below, and a ridge continuing south and east to Mount Kain. At three miles away, Robson itself was completely obscured by the smoke, but I could see the connecting ridge, and the descent off its right side to the upper glacier looked much more challenging than it did in mid-July 2017. Then, I had descended some steep snow and made a long step across a bergschrund. Now, the upper slope was bare ice and the ‘schrund completely open.

Robson on return

It was breezy and depressing on the summit, so I did not tarry long before starting back. The side-hilling caused my running shoe crampons to squirm off at the heels a few times, which was irritating but not particularly threatening. By the time I reached the crampons-off point, I could make out Robson reasonably well, though not clearly enough to say for sure that the ‘schrund below the Kain Face was still bridged on the right. I found a flat rock to take off and stow my spiky things, then sat for a minute to absorb and say goodbye to a place I have no reason to visit again.

The Patterson Spur is far more annoying to descend than to climb, with the scree rarely deep enough to plunge-step, and the slabs rarely clean enough to walk down. It is not dangerous, but is slow and time-consuming, especially with tired legs. The route is much easier and faster below, and I was back at the stream fairly quickly. I used the same crossings I had last time, less concerned about getting my feet wet on the way home, then took the smart way along the river to get around the woods. I was in no particular hurry to get back, and did not push myself on the Thoni trail. Though it is only three miles from Kinney Lake to the trailhead, the bike was a complete game-changer: instead of hamburgering my feet in wet mountain boots for an hour like last time, I spent less than a half-hour swooping down the road/trail, dodging rocks and tourists. Amazingly, I was the only person on a bike. After a nap in the parking lot, I drove back toward Jasper, hoping to find less smoke or at least a cell signal. I eventually found a side-road with both where I would not be harassed, and settled in for another night with my murine friend.

Murchison

Murchison from Saskatchewan Crossing

Mount Murchison may or may not be above 11,000 feet, and has a reputation for some of the Canadian Rockies’ worst choss (that’s saying something!), but it is short, and was right along the way north, so I chose to do it after Hungabee. I drove to the Mistaya Falls trailhead, parked right next to the road, and tried to get a decent night’s sleep despite the traffic and light lasting well past my normal bedtime. With over sixteen hours between sunrise and sunset, and nearly eighteen hours of visible light, it is hard to get enough sleep so far north this time of year. I was up again early, starting out somewhat after headlamp time to hike up the road a hundred yards and drop into a creekbed leading toward the peak.

First falls

I am not sure when peak flow occurs here, but the creekbed was perhaps ten yards wide and completely dry at the bottom, its polished rocks generally large and stable. Water emerged a short distance up, but it was just a trickle that did little to get in the way. Following it is far more efficient than ascending the woods to either side, which contain a fair amount of deadfall and a spongy carpet of moss. Unfortunately the creek contains a couple of waterfalls, which must be bypassed through the woods to either side, and transitioning between the two can be tricky, as the banks are either vertical or treacherous hardpack. The first waterfall was easily bypassed to the right, while the second required some more desperate scrabbling to the left. I returned to the creekbed too soon afterwards, and was forced to climb some sketchy outward-sloping slabs to get up a third step, then return via sketchier hardpack with embedded rocks. I made a mental note to do something different on the return.

Scree bowl

Above the last fall, the creek opens up into a broad bowl full of scree and small cliff-bands. I stayed generally right of the main watercourse, finding a bit of class 3-4 scrambling getting through one cliff band, and plenty of unpleasantness in the form of backsliding scree, hardpack dirt, and slabs covered in marbles. I made my way back to the watercourse for some easier, more scoured terrain, then had to traverse back right to escape where the bowl turns to cliffs. I found a couple of cairns here, and a scrambly bit getting through another rock band. Above, I enjoyed some easy compact gravel on my way to the only part of the mountain, other than the summit ridge, that would not slide if you put a tent on it. I could also finally see to the west, and enjoyed magnificent views of Sarbach and Chephren across the parkway and, farther away, Forbes and the Lyell Icefield.

South Murchison towers

But soon it was back to suffering, this time a long sidehill traverse to the peak’s southwest gully. Murchison is a small massif to itself, with many slightly lower towers surrounding a grassy cirque at its southeast end, and I distracted myself admiring them as I slogged onward. The recommended ascent gully was mostly full of snow, but even if I had brought crampons and axe, I would not want to have ascended it, because the snow looked rotten, and the gully subject to spontaneous rockfall. Instead I scrambled up scree and ledges to its left, where I found a few cairns. I eventually found a step that felt too sketchy to climb, and traversed into and across the gully.

Snow gully and upper mountain

Now right of the gully, I made my way up more loose terrain, eventually reaching steeper and somewhat more solid rock. Murchison has two summits, the southeast slightly higher, and Corbett suggests traversing right at some point to ascend a gully to their saddle. However, finally on decent rock, I climbed obliviously upward until, looking right, I saw the southeast summit a fair distance away, and realized I had gone too far. No matter: the rest of the climb from where I was to the northwest summit looked like more of the same, and the ridge connecting it to the saddle was supposedly moderate. I kept on straight up, and eventually emerged a short distance from the northwest summit.

SE summit from NW

I took in the views north to the Saskatchewan River, with glaciated Wilson and mostly-dry Cline to the north, and the Lyells to the northwest, then set off for the real summit. The descent to the saddle was somewhat trickier than expected, with a few steep steps to negotiate, but I reached the lowpoint without much trouble. From that point on I began seeing regular cairns, making the route feel easier. As advertised, it involved a series of steps, with the easier ones attacked directly, and the harder by traversing right to find a gully regaining the crest. Corbett’s route description had been fairly unhelpful on the featureless slog below, but was accurate and helpful here. With a final long bypass, I emerged just south of the summit.

Forbes and Lyell Icefield

Somewhat to my surprise, I found a register on top, with entries going back a number of years. One entry, noting a half-dozen entries that same summer, lamented the peak’s “crowding” and asked “what have you done, Billy?” Accustomed to the States’ much higher level of peak traffic, I found no grounds for complaint: there were no other people on the mountain on a perfect summer weekend, and few enough signs of previous traffic to force me to actually use my brain to find a route. I enjoyed the views for awhile longer, then began the dreaded descent.

Rock glacier, with Chephren behind

The first part down the summit ridge was easy, and I found a few more cairns plunge-stepping down a scree gully from the lowpoint. There was little to no boot-pack on the traverse back north to the snow-filled gully, and I mostly made my own way over various loose terrain. It was rarely deep enough to scree-ski or solid enough to downclimb, but usually somewhere in between, so little faster going down than up. I crossed the gully where I had on the ascent, then took a slightly different line back to the camping-spot.

Looking down bowl

The lower bowl went slightly better, as I found a bit of skiable scree, then traversed hard right to the scoured watercourse. Where it drops over a first cliff above treeline, I traversed right on faint game trails to the highest lone trees, then made a beeline for the forest, where the moss has largely stabilized the underlying rocks. My shoes were wearing smooth, so I slipped a few times on the pine needles, but found game/use trails and generally decent terrain taking me down to where I had left the watercourse below the second waterfall. From there I retraced my route, and returned to Mistaya Falls without further trouble. I think the downhill to Saskatchewan Crossing is a popular speed trap, and a cop was just finishing giving someone a ticket nearby. Albertans definitely drive well above the speed limit, and I have yet to figure out what is the accepted level of speeding, equivalent to five over in the States. There is no cell service along much of the Parkway, and I needed gas, so I drove into Saskatchewan Crossing to pay too much for a tank, then poached some spotty WiFi from the pub and wiled away the afternoon before heading north to finer peaks.

Hungabee

Hungabee route on return

Mount Hungabee is one of two 11ers accessed from Lake O’Hara, the other being Mount Huber. I had avoided them on previous trips because the road to the lake is closed to cars, and the mandatory shuttle runs at times that basically force one to camp out. This time I had hoped to bike that road, but arrived the night before to find it is stupidly closed to bikes. Not wanting to do the seven-mile road-hike twice, I decided to do Hungabee, the more independent and interesting of the two peaks. I am coming to accept that I probably won’t complete the Rockies 11ers, and with that mindset, I have little interest in climbing peaks like Huber, which is sort of a wart on Mount Victoria’s side.

Moonset roadwalk

Somewhat concerned about afternoon showers, I got a fairly early start up the road, then had to jog back to the car when I realized I had left my bike on the rack. The Lake O’Hara road is generally uphill but rolling, and I jogged the downhill and some of the flatter sections. The moon was setting over the peaks to the west as the sun began to hit them, and I had plenty of time to enjoy the juxtaposition in the long northern dawn. Lake O’Hara is a bit of a zoo, with a lodge and cabins, a large campground, and a ranger station. However few people were stirring when I passed through in the morning, not even photographers up to capture sunrise on the lake.

Hungabee Lake

I hiked the well-used trail around the right side, then headed up the East Opabin Trail, apparently the more direct of the two ways to reach Opabin Lake. There is a maze of trails and signed alpine routes above Lake O’Hara, though they seem to be well-signed, and one talus section near Hungabee Lake even had blue and yellow painted equals signs showing the route. Much of the upper trail is a series of well-laid stepping-stones to prevent erosion of the meadows. Looking back, the Wiwaxy Peaks that looked so imposing from the road seemed minor compared to their higher neighbors.

Opabin Pass

The official trails end at Opabin Lake, and I did not find any sort of use trail to Opabin Pass. The route crosses a large talus-field, then a low-angle and retreating glacier before climbing a short, steep headwall of snow and dirt to the saddle between Hungabee and Biddle. I followed a line of prints across the glacier, sinking annoyingly into the surface snow, which I assumed from a distance were human, but looked like a bear up close. They took a direct line from the pass, and even made a glissade on the steeper snow. There was a tent platform at the col, with an old sign saying that this “campsite” was closed due to bear activity, so perhaps I had been following the local bruin, still wistfully traversing the pass and remembering past campsite raids.

Hungabee from Opabin

Above Opabin Pass, I followed a faint use trail through the talus and occasional cairns to the new campsites atop “Opabin Peak,” a minor bump on the ridge. Perhaps the scree slope was annoying enough to dissuade the bear, but I found it only mildly unpleasant. Ahead of me, Hungabee looked intimidatingly steep, with the route not at all obvious. After a slight descent, the ridge began steadily climbing again, growing steeper as the rock turned to quartzite. The route remained non-obvious, even with Corbett’s description of cutting left where things got steep, then climbing the right side of the southwest face. Fortunately I found a few cairns indicating the correct band to traverse, as the south ridge gets more difficult only gradually.

Hungabee summit

The southwest face is kind of a mess, but I found decent rock on the “indistinct rib” at its right, which slowly became more distinct and steeper. At a very solid anchor made from two old pitons and a fixed nut, I decided I must be at the place where one can either climb the direct ridge at 5.6, or traverse back right at 5.choss. I probably should have done the former, but I was still getting my scrambling head, so I opted for the latter. I traversed right on some partly snow-covered ledges, heading gradually upward, and eventually climbed straight up a garbage chute to reach the upper black scree-slope. Despite the face still being mostly shaded, a spontaneous rock whanged down and hit my pack, making me hurry up and slightly regret my route choice. The scree above was precariously close to the angle of repose, so I crawled up and left to reach a sort of ridge where the rotten rock underneath showed through, then climbed that to gain the summit ridge. The easiest route apparently traverses below, but I was unhappy with that prospect, so I climbed some crumbly black slabs to reach the slightly better yellowish rock on the ridge above. I found a low-fifth-class chimney leading through a more solid black rock band, which led to a cairn and the final summit ridge.

Biddle with Goodsirs, Stephen, Cathedral behind

The haze unfortunately marred the view to the east, where Temple rose above lake-filled basins to either side, but the smoke was faint enough that other views were relatively clear. To the west were Biddle and Lake MacArthur, with glacier-clad Cathedral, Stephen, and the always-imposing Goodsirs behind. To the north, I could make out the toe of the Waputik Icefield behind Mount Niles. It was pleasantly calm, and no storms seemed to be brewing, so I hung out for awhile on the summit before beginning the long march home.

Free boats?

I retraced my steps, climbing steeper rock to one side of the garbage chute, then somehow traversed too high and downclimbed part of the direct ridge. The rock was much more pleasant, some bulging, featured, sticky yellow stuff, and felt pretty easy for “5.6.” If I were to do Hungabee again, I would definitely take the direct ridge finish. I took a slightly different line down the moraine below Opabin Pass, which felt about the same but took me past some old metal poles (measuring glacial movement?). There were three people taking photos at Opabin Lake, and quite a few more doing the Yukness Ledges route. I moved quickly and avoided much interaction, slowing only to take in the unexpected scenery of a couple women in bikinis on the boat dock.

The final road slog was every bit as frustrating as I had anticipated, even jogging most of the flat and downhills, and listening to the most interesting podcasts I had left. My body was not used to so much jogging, and did not appreciate its sudden reintroduction. The only justification I can think of for the bike ban is that cyclists would get in the way of the shuttles. Parks seem paranoid about this, e.g. Zion has an absurd rule where cyclists must stop and pull off the road to let buses pass, and shuttle drivers get rage-y when they don’t do so fast enough. But there are only a handful of buses per day going to an from Lake O’Hara, not shuttles every few minutes. In fact, in my hikes/jogs up and down, I saw a grand total of zero other people and one pickup truck within yards of the lower gate. Many people would enjoy riding the road, and the park (or concessionaire?) could probably make a bundle renting e-bikes at its base. But I don’t rule the world, which is probably for the best.