After a spectacular day approaching and ascending Mount Willis we awoke with sunrise to a beautifully clear day on Saturday, September 12 2015, quite eager to ascend the lofty Mount Stewart that we’d been staring at for a good portion of the previous day already.
[A stunning morning sunrise from camp. Not a shabby way to start the day. ++]
We were pretty sure that Stewart was an easy scramble from photos we’d taken from Cirrus’ summit to the west. The issue with Stewart isn’t the technical difficulties of the climbing; it’s the remoteness of the peak and the access to the easy southwest slopes. From our camp we essentially had two choices for routes. We could try to maintain some elevation and traverse Stewart’s slopes above tree line for several kilometers before turning sharply left and ascending the easier slopes. Or we could try to find the trail that presumably runs down the valley along Cataract Creek to Pinto Lake that Eric missed last time he descended the valley while on a school trip. (They ended up bushwhacking the entire valley to Pinto Lake and only realized there was a trail on the other side of the creek when they got to the camp! Oooops.)
[The route up Cataract Pass, which must first be completed before you can even think about ascending Stewart.]
[Our route up Mount Stewart from the bivy beneath Cataract Pass]
We decided to let fate decide our approach route. We’d cross the valley towards the peak just north of Stewart. If we crossed an obvious trail, we’d turn further down valley and follow it ‘til we got closer to Stewart where we’d exit and climb the sw slope to the summit. If we didn’t cross a trail we’d traverse above tree line instead. The air was surprisingly warm as we set off, still slightly stiff from the exertions the day before.
Our first error was in summiting an old moraine just south of camp before having to lose some height to a couple of stream crossings below. As we grunted up a steep stream bed and started off towards a long, tiresome traverse we had no way of knowing just how close fate brought us to the trail… We kept traversing along the mountainside – on grass, scree and rubble. The biggest annoyance was the many gullies that we had to cross – some were more problematic than others. The common theme with the gullies was the slabby terrain that each presented. The terrain ranged from easy to difficult and we had to find our way around each one either by ascending or descending. I shouldn’t complain too loudly though. Something I’ve come to understand over the past few years is that once you graduate from common hikes, scrambles and climbs with partial, or complete trails up and down to more remote peaks and backcountry traveling you must get used to gaining and losing much elevation and side-hilling. Both of these are necessary when there is no trail. You gain and lose height because it’s impossible to know exactly what the micro terrain is like no matter how good you are at reading a map or planning a route. You side-hill because this is key to avoiding nasty bushwhacking. I think of routes like Recondite, Alexandra, Totem Creek and Fortress (where we didn’t traverse and paid for it dearly!). The bottom line is, if you can’t handle a bit of pain and suffering you should forget about traveling in remote areas of the Canadian Rockies. You won’t like it at all.
[Looking back at Cataract Pass (upper left) from the first moraine we mistakenly ascended.]
[Great views from the summit of the moraine. Now all we have to do is descend to the valley on the lower right before spending hours side hilling to Stewart. This is looking towards Cline Pass with Mount Willis in the sun - we did that peak the day before.]
[Marmot remains - maybe a grizzly got him?]
[A lovely morning as we look ahead to the long side hill traverse.]
Thankfully the “Cirrus rock wall” was stunning across the valley from us and the hours slipped by until I finally realized I was around the corner and could double back and ascend the SW slopes to the summit. As I scrambled the easy terrain, I saw that Eric scrambled up earlier than myself on harder slabs / cliffs. He later admitted that my route was better for descent. Collier also scrambled up further north on harder terrain.
It was difficult looking up the never-ending scree slope, knowing full well that I had to be higher than every summit around me before I could even think about being at the top. Once again it was one foot at a time, carefully placed on slippery scree or kicking steps up fresh snow until I started to look around and notice some of the smaller peaks beneath me. Once we could see over the ridge to the valley beyond, we were once again treated to sublime alpine views that few people have seen much less traveled in. The terrain kept going up and up and up. The final few slopes had dizzying exposure off the east side and I worried that we might run into nasty terrain but that never happened. I was delighted to spot the summit cairn and traversed over to it, hoping to find an old register with few names.
[Looking up at the trudge to the summit after finally crossing numerous gullies and traversing kilometers along the base of Stewart.]
[Looking back at the valley with the Cirrus rock wall and Mount Cirrus rising beyond. ++]
[Some fine peaks across the valley and Castleguard showing up in the distance.]
[I took advantage of as much snow as I could for the ascent.]
[The views to the west continued to impress more and more the higher we went. Saskatchewan and Alexandra now in the far distance and Cirrus rises on the left.]
[Finally getting higher than neighboring mountains.]
[Not quite as impressive as the hidden, hanging valley behind Mount Willis, but still a secluded and rarely seen alpine valley hidden behind Stewart. ++]
[The exposure off the summit is severe to the east. Bertram Lake in the distance at right.]
I could clearly see an old tin register in the cairn when I looked around. I was super excited as I gently pried it open. I’ve found one other register like this on a rarely ascended mountain and that register was no longer readable. This one was. In the only disappointment on Stewart I was sad to read a fresh entry from August 2015! Seriously?! What were the odds that someone else chose to ascend this remote peak this year? Oh well. I guess more and more remote peaks are being ascended as folks become tired of full registers and familiar trip reports. I don’t think there was a full register when they ascended. Their note indicated that all they found was the empty tin can. I added our names to the single sheet of paper and put it in a Ziploc bag to help it last a bit longer.
[*Update September 2018* - Apparently I need to start looking more carefully in summit cairns for old registers. Steven Noel contacted me this year about finding possibly the second ascent register entry from 1979 for Stewart in the summit cairn.]
The views were naturally stunning from Stewart. The mountain is also quite a bit higher than indicated in most sources. My GPS has been pretty reliable with elevations and measured it at 3317m. The two other alpinists had it at 3306. Any peak over 10,850 feet is quite high for the Canadian Rockies. There was quite a bit more cloud than on Willis the day before, but this can enhance the views rather than ruin them. The wind was chilly and it looked like the weather was changing (as predicted) so we started our descent. It was going to be another full day before we got back to camp.
[Now we're higher than pretty much anything else! Views east and south off the summit include names such as Strong Winds and Seven Seas and many other unnamed summits. ++]
[Great views to the west and north include Cirrus and many 11,000ers. ++]
[Views west and north over Mount Willis and the South Boundary Trail. ++]
[Zoomed pano of many of the visible 11,000ers from the lofty summit of Mount Stewart. ++]
[Mount Amery rises behind the Cirrus Massif.]
[Afternoon Peak is obvious (red color) with other front range peaks along the SBT in the distance. ++]
[Hoping for an original summit register, or at least a very old entry... Alas, we didn't get that on this remote peak.]
[Mount Saskatchewan with Alexandra to the left.]
[Mounts Woolley and Diadem]
[Looking deep to the east]
[Looking at Murchison (L) and Wilson (R)]
[Looking over Mount Coleman towards Erasmus and Forbes]
[The lovely form of Mount Amery with Forbes at left.]
On return, Eric refused to side-hill again, putting his faith 100% in finding a trail. I was more dubious as we hadn’t seen a trail that morning and he hadn’t actually hiked on it before. I stayed up high while he dropped right into the valley. Before he got into thick bush I decided I should join him to keep things safer and bee-lined as quick as possible down the slopes and into the bush. It was bad. I found myself yelling for Eric and completely buried in thick bush. This wasn’t good! I pushed on and was very relieved to finally hear him yelling back that he had found the Cataract Creek trail! AWESOME. We followed a fairly obvious trail up valley. Every once in a while it would fade in marshy terrain or Grizzly diggings (they were everywhere) but we’d find it back. At one point there was an opening down to the Cataract Creek on our left with a cairn in it. The problem was that the obvious trail continued up valley. What to do? The river wouldn’t be easy to cross here, so we continued on the obvious trail. Later on we figured out that this is the trail to Cline Pass. The cairn likely marks the place where the trail descends from Cataract Pass into the valley, but there must be a river crossing of some sort.
[Back near the warm and lovely Cataract Creek valley.]
[Massive amounts of bear diggings all along the Cataract Creek trail.]
[Cataract Creek far below the trail]
[The trail is quite nice - provided you don't completely lose it in the swampy areas. Which easily happens.]
[More creek gymnastics]
[Scenic alpine meadows near the head of Cataract Creek. Mount Stewart rises on the left. ++]
With a bit more daylight than the day before, we rolled into camp around 17:00 with lots of time to relax and make dinner. The sky was pretty threatening as we turned in. Eric confidently pronounced the rain wouldn’t start “until midnight”. Five minutes later the patter of rain drops on the mid walls started! ;) The surprise came a few minutes later when the lightening show began. I wasn’t expecting that in September. For the first hour or so the lightening stayed in the clouds and there was little or no thunder. Then it started hitting ground. It’s always an interesting experience being high in the alpine during a thunderstorm with nothing but a see-through space age material holding the elements back. We survived the night, and when I woke at 06:00 there was no more rain and the sky was clearing.
[Another great sunrise from near camp.++]
The hike back up Cataract Pass was interesting. (Another interesting thing is the naming. “Cataract Pass” is nowhere near “Cataract Peak”. It’s also nowhere near “Cataract Creek”. What’s with that? Same goes for “Brazeau River” and “Nigel Pass”. I digress, but one thinks of such things when one is exhausted…) Of course by “interesting”, I mean, “tiring”! Lactic acid was building nicely in my lower legs by the time we finally followed the last cairn over the pass and back down towards the Brazeau River. The rest of the hike out of Nigel Pass to the parking lot was pleasant under a mix of sun and clouds and with brilliant fall colors lighting up the natural world in all directions around us.
[A dramatic scene behind us as we crest Cataract Pass, Mount Stewart rising on the left and clouds pouring into the valley below.]
[Back to the land of magical hiking (on a trail)! ++]
[A small stream flows towards the Brazeau River]
[Water, rock and snow.]
[The hiking trail has to get creative in a few tight spots.]
[A large herd of sheep in the peaceful meadows under Cataract Pass.]
[Just before Nigel Pass the Brazeau River squeezes into an interesting channel.]
[Eric crosses the Brazeau River]
[Another glorious day for hiking!]
[Looking back towards Nigel Pass]
[The gorgeous landscape around Nigel Pass, looking west towards Mount Saskatchewan.]
[Full-on fall color up here.]
[Can't get enough hiking in this area. I'll be back for sure.]
I think I’ve found a new area to call my “favourite”. The White Goat Wilderness ticks a lot of boxes for me. It’s gorgeous. It’s wild. It’s remote. It is largely unreported and unknown to me. If nothing else, Eric and I had yet another great trip. We both commented that this one might not eclipse our Amery trip, but it came mighty close to it and that says something.