Elevation Gain (m): 1045
Trip Dates: Wednesday, September 3, 2008 to Saturday, September 6, 2008
Total Trip Distance (km): 46
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 1/2 – you fall, you tripped over your own feet
Difficulty Notes: This is a backpacking trip that travels through different alpine zones from below tree line to above it. It is rugged in places and remote. There are bears too.
Technical Rating: TL2; YDS (Hiking)
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
My annual fall scrambling / hiking trip took place from September 3rd to the 6th in 2008. Along for the ride was my brother Rod, cousin Jon and his wife Yolande (also known as George for some reason) and Hanneke, my wife. We were all pretty excited to be trying another new area (for us) of the Rockies – the Mount Assiniboine area of British Columbia. The Mount Assiniboine area has a rich history in the relatively short mountaineering saga of the Canadian Rockies. James Outram first ascended it successfully in 1901, just over 100 years ago, and since then many more have followed. Numerous alpine camps have been run out of this area and many of the local peaks have a colorful history and interesting stories of ascent. Mount Assiniboine, its namesake, can be seen from 100 km away and shows up on almost all my previous summit photos from all around Banff, Kananaskis and Yoho. Reaching up into the clouds at 11,781 feet it stands out clearly from the surrounding terrain like a pyramidal giant among normal folk. Often called the Matterhorn of the Rockies, it’s easy to see why when you get close to it’s sharply angled east face and summit towering above Lake Magog.
This trip report will cover the basic hike in and out of Assiniboine Provincial Park and the hiking we did while there. The individual scrambles will be documented on their own pages with links off of this main trip report.
While researching the trip I was amazed at the lack of information ‘out there’ on hiking and lodging around Mount Assiniboine. This is a very popular destination for hikers and climbers from around the world but I guess most people who visit don’t have web sites or something! Try finding a good picture of the Naiset Huts and you’ll know what I mean. So with that in mind, I’m going to try to detail my impressions of the hike into the Mount Assiniboine area via Assiniboine Pass and the hikes we did while there. I’ll also share my impressions (and photos, of course) of our exit via Wonder Pass back to the Mount Shark parking lot. The best site that I found (by far) is the Assiniboine Lodge site at http://www.canadianrockies.net/assiniboine/index.html.
September 03 2008 – Mount Shark parking lot to Assiniboine via Assiniboine Pass
Originally I had planned that we would go into Assiniboine via Sunshine Meadows and out via Wonder Pass. With clear, sunny, warm weather this would give us the best views and hiking opportunity that the approach and exit from this area has to offer. Because Hanneke and Yolande weren’t so sure about the long hike in (32km via Sunshine Meadows and 28km via Assiniboine Pass ) we planned on choppering in about 40-50 pounds of gear and saving their backs / feet the weight on the approach / exit trails. The plan was to drop one vehicle off at the exit trail head at Mount Shark and then drive through Canmore where we would drop off the gear to be flown in. Than we would drive to the Sunshine parking lot where we would catch a bus at 09:00 to the Sunshine Meadows trail head.
Unfortunately the weather didn’t agree with my well-laid plans! The forecast for Wednesday was nasty even a week before the day arrived and it never improved. By the time Tuesday came around we had changed our plans. Now we would hike in from Mount Shark via Assiniboine Pass and out to Mount Shark again via Wonder Pass. We would drop the gear off in Canmore on the way to the Shark trail head and would not need a car shuttle. This approach is much more sheltered than the Sunshine Meadows approach and was the better option given the rain / snow in the forecast. Later we talked to a fellow who hiked in via Sunshine on Wednesday in snow and rain – we made the right choice. There are two main problems with the Shark – Assiniboine Pass approach. The first is that the trail is so sheltered for the first 14 km that it’s incredibly boring. There is no entertainment other than strange mushrooms and trying to avoid all the horse by-product on the trail. Avoiding horse poo is fun but 14 km of it is excessive! The trail is a road (hard pack and did I mention boring?) all the way till the Bryant Creek hut after which it’s half a road (half boring?) till Assiniboine Pass. The other main problem is that there is quite a bit of elevation gain via Assiniboine Pass (520m or 1700ft) and that the gain doesn’t really start until you’re ready to pass out from the boredom of the first 20 km.
All is innocent and exciting on the first day, so we joked and talked our way through the boredom and were soon huffing and puffing our way up the horse trail to Assiniboine Pass. The sound of the choppers was a bit distracting at first, until we realized that all our food was on one of them – then we didn’t mind the noise so much. (By the way, the choppers don’t fly on Tuesdays, Thursdays or Saturdays so those are good days to hike in if you want some peace and quiet on the approach or exit from that area – they are quite noisy and persistent on the flight days.) So, why were we on the horse trail and not the hiking trail to Assiniboine Pass? There is a bear closure covering the hiker trail up to the Pass as part of the Allenby Pass bear closure initiative so the hikers are re-routed up the steeper, muddier and presumably safer horse trail during the main bear ‘problem’ season (August-October). I’m not sure how much safer our route really was because we saw the biggest patch of bluebeary jam I’ve seen in a while on the horse trail! We were yodeling all the way up the trail so every bear within a 30 km radius was probably covering their ears in pain anyway – but better safe than sorry I guess. There was certainly a lot of bear sign around almost everywhere we hiked in the Assiniboine area.
The steep grunt up the horse trail went by fairly quickly. The trail was muddy and deeply rutted, as you’d expect from a horse trail. The views kept improving as we got higher. Yolande’s feet were giving her problems but being the tough girl she is, she didn’t let it stop her. We patiently waited a few times while her and Jon sorted out bandages and socks before plodding on. Once we reached the sign for Assiniboine Park we were more than ready for the hike to be done. 27 km is so easy to say and think about than to actually hike! The last 3 km to the hut was covered quickly, unfortunately we didn’t have any good views of Mount Assiniboine because of the cloud cover, but we could sense her lurking across the lake as we covered the last bit of trail to the Jones cabin (Naiset cabin # 1).
The hike in took us about 7 hours of leisurely paced walking with lots of breaks for eating and resting. I’m sure that a fast, fit party could do it in closer to 6 hours. We had lots of time on the first day to simply eat, play cards and enjoy the brand new cook shelter. Unless you really need to stay in a tent, the Naiset cabins are a great experience, especially now with the cook shelter. I enjoyed them much more than the traditional ACC huts since you don’t have to share sleeping quarters with 20+ people.
The cooking shelter was never very crowded either, although it did get awfully humid from all the cooking. We went to bed at 21:30, ready to bag The Nub the next day.
September 04 2008 – Nub Peak and Wonder Peak
I woke up bright and early on Thursday, September 4, ready to head out with my cameras to take photos of Mount Assiniboine. Once out near the lodge (where there are some great views of the ‘boine across Lake Magog), I scouted around for the best place to set up my tripod. I found a good spot (which was kind of hard to find and had an old, broken bench for me to sit on – no other photographers found this spot in the 3 mornings that I used it) and waited for the sun to start coming up. Unfortunately the skies were not totally clear but I managed to spend over an hour snapping photos before I returned to the hut to wake everyone else up and get the breakfast water boiling.
After hiking The Nublet and Nub Peak, most of our group were content to dive into the mountain of food we had left and relax for the rest of the day. Since we left around 10ish, it was now about 15:00 and it seemed like we were running out of time to do anything else before dark. Rod and I didn’t feel like sitting around for 6 or 7 hours so after lunch we decided to try scrambling either The Towers or Wonder Peak, both peaks being on either side of Wonder Pass which was only about 2.5km from the Naiset huts.
After our two peak day on Nub Peak and Wonder Peak, Rod and I ate a hearty meal (ok, believe it or not Rod can pack away a LOT of food when he has to!) and the group played cards till around 21:30 before retiring to our (very) warm sleeping bags. A warning – do not burn a whole fire log, even if it’s very cold outside. You will be in a sauna, rather you should break the log in half and open the windows a bit. Even then the huts are plenty warm if you have a decent sleeping bag. On the subject of sleeping and the Naiset Huts, I will bring my own padding next time, to supplement the provided mats. We all found the mats on the bunks pretty skimpy. Maybe we’re just too fussy!
September 05 2008 – Windy Ridge, Og Mountain and Cave Mountain
To my amazement everyone still wanted to hike on Friday! I thought for sure some folks would be ready for a break but obviously I had underestimated my group and so we decided to do the 6.5 km hike to Windy Ridge and back. Originally I had planned to haul us all up Cave Mountain but a park ranger convinced us that Windy Ridge had great views and I secretly had plans to bag Og Mountain too and since Windy Ridge and Og Mountain share some real estate this worked out very nicely indeed! There are advantages to being a trip organizer. You get to manipulate a group of people for your climbing pleasure. But don’t tell them that. After freezing myself in order to get some sunrise shots of Mount Assiniboine and feeding the gang some pancakes, bacon and way too much syrup for breakfast we got on the trail by 09:00 and began the march north of Assiniboine Lodge. The Og Pass trail is very well marked but a lot muddier than we expected! Overall, on this trip, there was far more mud than I’m used to in the Rockies. Usually all you get is scree with the odd bit of grass and we would have preferred that to the sticky, slippery muck that we got. Oh well. When we finally got to the lower slopes of Cave Mountain (about 4-5 km) we quickly started climbing and left the muddy soup behind.
The trail up to Og Pass through the trees on the lower part of Cave Mountain is well marked and obvious. When we reached the crest of this trail, between Og Mountain and Cave Mountain another sign told us that Windy Ridge was up to the left. We continued on an excellent, switch backing trail over and around the lower west end of Og Mountain and proceeded up a low angled trail to the Windy Ridge lookout. The lookout was actually located on the col between Windy Ridge and Og Mountain. Windy Ridge is marked on the map and I regret not spending the 15 minutes it would have taken to get up (and down!) it. An easier summit chance could not be dreamed of. But I wasn’t sure the ridge was officially named, the weather was closing in, the air was cold and there was a lot of snow on Og that we had to get up so we left Hann and George to attempt Windy Ridge while Rod, Jon and I headed up the northwest slopes of Og Mountain.
After scrambling Og Mountain Jon and I decided that Cave Mountain looked too easy not to try. We were slightly tempted to get up Windy Ridge on the way past, and now I really wish we had because it’s officially marked on the map. Oh well, maybe another time. We met Rod, Hanneke and Yolande back at Og Pass where we re-hydrated and ate some late lunch. I had spotted a weakness on the north side of Cave Mountain which would allow us to access it right from Og Pass. Numerous other options existed on the west side but this would be the easiest way for us so we headed for the mountain while Hanneke and George started the 6 km trek back to the cabins.
After another productive two peak day we relaxed on Friday evening and packed up our stuff for the next day’s slog out to the car. There was an amusing moment when I went to the lodge to drop off our extra granola bars. When I barged into the kitchen during supper time (the lodge was packed full of cheerful guests) I got some strange looks. When I dumped about 100 granola bars into the small container they provided, I got some good laughs! At $2 / lb to fly those bars to the lodge, I figure we probably wasted about 20 bucks on all the extras! Oh well. At least we didn’t starve right? On our Northover trip I barely brought enough food so this time we overdid it by a wee bit…
One of the guides that we had run into over the previous few days was curious where we had gone. When I told her that I had done the traverse of Og Mountain and then done Cave she was intrigued. When I explained my pathological need to bag peaks she quickly understood and began giving my route ideas for some of the peaks surrounding Lake Magog. When she mentioned a route up Naiset Point from the lake that could be done in around 2.5 hours I decided to go check out the approach on my own as an evening hike. It was 19:30 when I left the lodge and the clouds where settling in over the surrounding mountains lending a very eerie feeling to the evening. Nobody else was out and with fresh grizzly diggings and two known bears in the area I was a wee bit apprehensive about a solo hike around the less traveled south shores of Magog Lake. My peak bagging desires were stronger than my bear-phobia so I tramped around the lake on a well marked track. This side of the lake is a magical place, especially with the atmosphere of the late evening and the clouds and misty rain. I couldn’t find a clear track to the summit of Naiset Point but I’m sure there is a route around that side that would go. Since I would like to do The Towers and Naiset in the same push, it’s very unlikely that I would be coming up this side anyway, but it would make for a great alternate descent back to the cabins or the Magog campground. I returned to the cabin just before dark and we had another night of good fun playing cards and reading.
September 06 2008 – Wonder Pass Trail to Bryant Creek Trail and Home
We were determined to get an early start on Saturday (OK, really I was the only determined one but everyone else liked the idea of an early start) so instead of waking everyone up after my early morning photography session I made sure they were out of bed before I left for some sunrise shots of Mount Assiniboine. This was the clearest morning we’d had yet and I got some very good alpine glow on the Matterhorn of the Canadian Rockies. I think the best part about fall photography is that the sun is rising nice a late (between 06:30 and 07:30) so you don’t have to be up at 04:00 like in the spring to get some decent alpine glow!
After a nice breakfast of granola and oatmeal with coffee and hot chocolate we headed out for Wonder Pass on a very frosty morning. My one big regret of this trip is that we didn’t do it 2 weeks later. The larches combined with the snow and frost would be mind blowing scenery! Oh well, maybe next time. The grunt up to the pass was a good way to warm up. I was really looking forward to the views from the pass after getting a cloudy glimpse of them from our Wonder Peak attempt 2 days earlier.
Since there’s a lookout clearly marked on my Gemtrek map, I thought we could easily walk the 600 meters to the lookout and get some amazing photos. So when we dropped in over the pass to see thick rising clouds over the whole area it was a big disappointment. Refusing to accept defeat we tried finding the lookout but after traversing around the lower slopes of Wonder Peak on a clear trail (branched left off the Wonder Pass Trail) we lost hope and backtracked to the Wonder Pass Trail without getting our killer views.
As so often happens with clouds and mountain valleys, as we descended from Wonder Pass the views started to improve dramatically. Soon we could spot glimpses of the emerald green waters of Marvel Lake and the looming masses of Eon and Aye mountains. For the next 4 or 5 kilometers we forgot about our heavy packs and the pressure points of our boots while soaking in the incredible scenery of the Wonder Pass Trail and Marvel Lake area. I will definitely be back to explore this area some day – it’s truly amazing. Rod spotted something rather large swimming in Marvel Lake, but even with my 200mm zoom we could not figure out what it was! It could have been rocks but Rod swears that it was moving, relative to the shore line. Is there a monster living in Marvel Lake? It definitely had 3 distinct bumps, or it was a group of 3 swimming together. It kept us occupied for a few minutes anyway.
After a nice break on a bridge crossing Bryant Creek, just across the meadows from the warden cabin we reluctantly agreed that it was time for the 14 km slog to the car. (I would recommend bypassing this part of the trail by going to the Marvel Lake camp and then back to the Bryant Creek trail below the headwall to Bryant Creek Cabin.) What a slog it was! With 6 km to go George’s feet and legs were crying “Uncle!”. Any slight downhill section in the trail would stop her dead in her track for a few minutes before she could continue. Even the 4 or more Advil that she took stopped working at this point (!!). She’s a nurse so I assumed she knew what she was doing!
At this point Hanneke could not stop all the time or she would also be at peril of not making the parking lot. So I led Rod and Hanneke on a mechanical, robotic trudge all the way back to the parking lot with full intentions of turning back (without my pack) to help Jon and George if they needed it. After a 15-20 minute break at the car, just when I was ready to head back up the trail, Jon and George came striding out of the trail head! George actually hiked the last 5km in her flip-flops which was just enough of a relief for her feet (killed her knees though) that she made it out. I’ll say this much, Yolande is tough.
After a greasy burger in Canmore we were ready (not really but…) to face the normal rigors of life again. Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park is my new favorite hiking and scrambling destination. It’s a slog getting to it but it’s chalk-full of amazing views, towering summits and scrambles all over the place. It even has semi-private cabins and a brand new cooking shelter! What more could a peakbagger possibly want?!