Summit Elevation (m): 3450
Trip Date: June 22 2014
Elevation Gain (m): 2100
Round Trip Time (hr): 24
Total Trip Distance (km): 36
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something
Difficulty Notes: Depending on conditions can be a fairly easy snow climb or pitched ice climb. We had snow. There is obviously some avy risk and a possible rappel on descent to avoid the steep snow face.
Technical Rating: MN7; YDS (II)
Map: Google Maps
On the longest day of 2014 Ben, Steven and I hiked into the Aster Lake region to attempt the 11,000er in the region, Mount Joffre. We’ve been planning this one since May, so it started out as a ski trip and ended up as a snowshoe trip due to the lateness of the attempt. Snowshoes just might be the way to go for this one as it couldn’t have gone any better than what we experienced. Ever since I scrambled a whole bunch of peaks in the Aster Lake area in 2006 while completing the gorgeous Northover Ridge hike, I’ve had Joffre on my ever expanding list peaks I’m interested in standing on top of. Joffre’s lofty and unique summit block was visible from many other peaks that I’ve stood on, almost all the Kananaskis peaks have Joffre somewhere on their summit panorama! The distinct snow / ice north face rises steeply above the Mangin Glacier before gracefully arcing to the snowy summit apex. Joffre is generally considered a pretty non-technical 11,000er but many parties are turned back from her summit nonetheless. Being 11,319 feet high and on the continental divide means catching a lot of bad weather. Being glaciated, the face has some crevasses and a good chance of bare ice, especially on the steepest part where the face bulges just over 40 degrees. Partly because it’s considered one of the easier 11,000ers I think people tend to underestimate the trip and get themselves into trouble.
We were a bit confused by the weather forecast for the weekend of June 21/22. SpotWx and TWN were both calling for a mix of sun and cloud with minimal chances of rain. My go-to weather site, mountain-forecast.com, was calling for nothing but rain showers all weekend in the area! Because of family commitments, it was either give it a go this weekend or probably wait another year. I made a good pitch to the other guys and they agreed we should take a chance and just go for it. Our risk mitigation was to camp near the Mangin Glacier and have two windows to attempt the summit. We would try to bag it on our approach day in the evening like we did on Cirrus. It was the longest day of the year so we’d have daylight until well after 10pm. If that window didn’t pan out, we still had early Sunday morning to make another attempt. The only variables that remained out of our control was the condition of the snow and the impact of up to 4″ of rain over the past week on the snow pack! Reading other trip reports I’m surprised that not too many people bring snowshoes on this climb. It’s the perfect situation for ‘shoes – too late in the year to lug skis all the way above tree line but the snow is post holing hell without something to keep you afloat. A good set of mountaineering ‘shoes seemed to be the perfect tool for this 11,000er.
We had a long day ahead of us so we didn’t meet until the “late” time of 06:30. At around 08:30 we pulled into the Upper Kananaskis Lakes parking lot and started prepping our gear. I noticed two signs by the trailhead right away. One was red, which is not a good color for a sign at a trailhead that you want to travel! Sure enough. We had a bit of a problem. The section of trail (actually the whole area) from the Rawson Lake turnoff to the Aster Lake junction was closed due to a bridge washout from the 2013 floods. Crap! Not a great way to start the day. Steven was sharp-eyed and noticed a yellow sign indicating that the Aster Lake region could be accessed from the Interlakes trailhead, going around the Upper Lake in the opposite direction. While this would be a bit longer, at least it was doable! Note to self. ALWAYS read the local trail reports before assuming things are open.
Interesting Facts on Mount Joffre
Named in 1918. Joffre, Marshal Joseph Jaques Cesaire (Marshall Joffre was appointed Commander-in-Chief of all French armies from December 1915 until December 1916.) WW I Official name. First ascended in 1919 by J.W.A. Hickson, guided by Edward Feuz jr.. Journal reference CAJ 11-19.
At 09:00ish we were loaded up and tramping around the Upper Kananaskis Lake. I’ve hiked this trail many times, and it has to be said that as scenic as it is, it’s not the best design in the world. I’m sure it’s fine on a bike or horse back, but as a hiker I am baffled by the dips and rises. Honestly, it feels like it’s up-hill both ways. We made good time and were soon past the Point Campground and crossing a raging Kananaskis River. Thank goodness for the excellent bridge that survived 2013 or we would have been outta luck on this objective. Nobody is fording that section of crazy river any time soon. Much quicker than I expected we came to a cairn and a possible trail into Hidden Lake. I didn’t think we were nearly far enough and the other two guys didn’t recognize the spot either. Then Ben noticed the letters “HL” with an obvious arrow carved into a tree. Apparently this was the way to Hidden Lake! There are two routes into Hidden Lake. The trail marked on Google Maps is the one we’ve all taken and is the first turnoff when you come the normal way from the Upper Lake parking lot. This one is further up the trail (west) than the other.
The trail was obvious – there was some deadfall but nothing horrendous. Within 15 or 20 minutes we were at Hidden Lake already. This was certainly a nice way to access the lake. I’m not sure the trail we took works when the lake is full (there’s some areas that look swampy), but to our great surprise the lake was still very empty on this particular day. What a bonus! We were expecting a long bushwhack alongside a full lake but instead we got a very pleasant hike on the dry shore line. Numerous wild flowers, a raging waterfall and towering rock walls around the blue-green lake made for a wonderful start to our day. The birds were out in full choir too. At the back of Hidden Lake the day finally started getting tougher.
We followed the rough track up steep forested slopes and encountered some steep snow patches as we slowly worked our way up to the rocky slopes leading to the headwall beside a roaring Fossil Falls. This section should not be under estimated for hikers. It’s definitely moderate scrambling – and with a heavy pack it can be awkward in spots and with snow it’s downright dangerous. There was one slope that was extremely exposed – a tiny slip would have sent us over a 100 foot waterfall and down into the valley below. Thankfully the snow was just soft enough to kick steps but not soft enough to feel dangerously unsupportive. There is a rushing stream on this slope too (under the snow), so caution is advised on this section if you’re doing it on snow.
The next section to Aster Lake was fully snowbound and hard to find the route. It’s hard enough in the summer, with a trail. We had GPS with built-in maps and So’s track from his Joffre attempt so we weren’t going to get totally lost but still floundered a round a bit trying to find the correct path of least resistance. I finally figured out why it’s so confusing. The initial trail above the headwall follows a small gully along the base of Mount Sarrail. Eventually, however, you have to cross two ridges and a stream in order to end up paralleling the stream coming out of Aster Lake. The confusing part is not losing the trail as it crosses these two ridges.
Eventually we ended up beside the rushing stream and followed above it high on climber’s left – on some steepish snow slopes. We took the ‘shoes off briefly here (the snow was pretty hard) and walked past the overturned biffy and above the snowy campsites. There was still at least 3 feet of snow covering the tent pads. Aster Lake was pretty much locked in ice with a ring of water on the very edge. It was hard to keep going after sitting on the lake shore for lunch. Birds were chirping, the sun was warm and the rushing stream was lulling us to sleep. But it was only around 1pm and we had a ways to go yet so we struggled on our heavy packs and starting heading around the lake.
We just managed to squeeze past the lake shore – the water here was about as high as it gets (even though most of the lake was ice covered). We could also clearly see evidence of the large rain event from a few days previous on the snow. It was very pocketed and many little stream beds were carved into the slopes from the water. The snow was very supportive though – even in the intense sun and mid-afternoon. On snowshoes we easily walked on top with no post holing at all.
As we rounded the north and west end of Mount Marlborough the views opened up nicely. The Aster Lake region is stunningly beautiful. In my 8 years absence from the area I’d forgotten how sublime the scenery is back there – and with a coat of snow it is very impressive. Warrior and Cordonnier looked ready to be ascended on great snow. Northover still intimidated me – one of my closer brushes with danger in the Rockies. Sarrail is always a beautiful sight with it’s gently curving upper ridge and Mount Marlborough looked impressive immediately above. We actually started talking about how awesome an ascent right up the west gully of Marlborough would be. Steven mentioned that he knew of two people who scrambled it and we instantly put it on our target list if Joffre ended up successful on our first evening. This interested me as the mountain is not ascended that often and it would be my 400th peak.
I knew from others that most people get impatient or lost in the dark on their way to Joffre from Aster Lake. The trick to an easy line of ascent without side sloping beneath Cordonnier or losing hard-won elevation is to go up the valley until you’re under an obvious triangular rock face that’s an outlier at the very end of Joffre’s north ridge. This is where we set up our bivy and took about an hour’s break to hydrate and fuel up for the remaining climb. We still had at least 1000 meters of elevation to go but we had plenty of time and the snow was holding up great.
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At 15:30 we headed out of camp and started going up a steep snow slope beneath the triangular face. Once up this slope we were at the high bivy that some climbers use to access the Mangin Glacier area. It’s a gorgeous bivy but I’ve heard that it’s almost impossible to get permission to stay here as most climbers are told to stay at Aster Lake. Staying at Aster Lake is fine but it will add at least 2 hours to the approach and also at least 200 meter or more of elevation gain compared to this wonderful high camp. It wasn’t worth lugging our heavy packs up to the high camp because we planned on finishing the peak on day 1 but if that wasn’t the plan we probably would have.
The next few hours were wonderful. This is the reason I like climbing the 11,000ers. Most of them are located in remote terrain far away from the humdrum “busyness” of everyday life. Out here it’s just you and your buds plodding across endless expanses of snow, rock and ice with a cool breeze blowing on your face and the brilliant high alpine sun doing it’s best to dry you out. I’ve heard that the Mangin Glacier approach to Joffre’s north face is much longer than it appears – and this is true. If we weren’t on snowshoes at this point, we would not have had a very good time. The ‘shoes kept us on top of the slushy snow – I was growing faintly concerned with the conditions on the north face but since it was so much higher we decided to get our noses in it before making any calls about turning back. There was some minor sloughing visible under the rock band but nothing major was coming down (this is both good and bad – you don’t want to be the one to trigger that whole face!!).
Eventually we were plodding up the north face of Joffre. Like most snow climbs, the exposure sneaked up on us and all of a sudden we started to realize just how big this face is! The good news was that the snow was bomber. No more slush up here – our ‘shoes allowed us to crampon straight up the face. No switch-backing necessary. At a slight bulge beside an obvious outcrop of rock the slope probably went a hair over 40 degrees. This doesn’t sound like much but with over 400 vertical meters of steep snow already underneath us at this point, the exposure was certainly quite thrilling! We loved this part of the ascent. Sure, we were exhausted after a long day with heavy packs, but you tend to forget about your problems when you’re at 11,000 feet on a beautiful evening with no wind and views forever. Once up the face it was a short walk to the summit where we had to be very careful not to stray too far onto the massive cornice at the top.
The evening light was beautiful and we thoroughly enjoyed our views of many, many familiar peaks in every direction. Mount Harrison, King George, Assiniboine and Sir Douglas all looked very snowy. It was neat to see Mount Mangin, Marlborough, Cordonnier, Warrior, Foch and Northover looking pretty small below us. The breeze was chilly and after about 30 minutes on the summit we started the descent.
Many people choose to descend the north ridge to a steep, rocky (or icy / snowy) gully where a rappel may be required depending on conditions. For us that didn’t make any sense. We simply donned our crampons and plunge-stepped down our ascent tracks along the north face. In a matter of mere minutes we were down the steepest part of the face, no fuss, no muss! We thought of glissading it but there was too much possibility of getting tangled up due to the speed and we didn’t want to risk injury at this point. Our day was going too good to ruin it now. Plus we weren’t in any hurry as there was lots of daylight left on the longest day of the year. We took our time descending the Mangin Glacier, enjoying great views of some brilliant blue tarns underneath Cordonnier, with Northover looming above in the distance. As we descended to our camp we took a good look at Mount Marlborough which was looking bigger again.
After enjoying such a great day on Joffre we sat down for supper and made plans to get up early on Sunday for an attempt at Mount Marlborough. We knew that it’s steep northwest face required stable (frozen) snow and we knew that a good part of it had already slid so we didn’t want to take unnecessary risks. I turned in around 21:00 with the sun still quite high in the western horizon. The calming sound of a nearby waterfall ensured that I was soon dead to the world, ending one of my all-time favorite days in my beloved Rockies.
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After climbing Marlborough Mountain we started the egress to Kananaskis Lakes. The hike out past Aster Lake and down the headwall was interesting. Especially with snow, this is not a simple backpacking excursion. Once again we were surprised with the exposure on some of the snow slopes we had to cross – there was more than one “no slip” zone and with heavy packs this becomes even more of a concern. The hike back along Upper Kananaskis Lake was undulating and felt uphill the whole way but with the satisfaction of two successful summits and more great memories we found it hard to complain about that too much.
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Looking back on this two day trip, I realize that it epitomizes all that I love about the Rockies in general and the 11000ers in particular. In general the smell of early summer vegetation with the raging creeks, shimmering lakes and tarns and snow covered peaks combined to intoxicate the senses as we hiked through forests and along waterfalls. In particular, ascending the huge north face of Joffre on snowshoes in late afternoon with zero wind and views forever, was another transcendent experience which seems to happen with predictable regularity on bigger peaks (when conditions are perfect). This turned out to be the perfect trip to stand on top of my 400th peak and I am grateful for this memory.