Summit Elevations (m) – Warre: 2743, Vavasour: 2835
Trip Date: September 20 2014
Total Trip Elevation Gain (m): 2500
Trip Round Trip Time (hr): 36
Total Trip Distance (km): 45
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3 – you fall, you sprain something
Difficulty Notes: No major difficulties – the hardest part is getting to the base of these mountains via steep bushwhacking from any direction. There’s a reason these peaks are only ascended very rarely.
Technical Rating: SC5; YDS (Hiking)
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
As part of a father / daughter backpacking trip over the last weekend of summer 2014, I decided it was time to take Kaycie on a real backcountry adventure instead of front country ‘easy’ stuff. She was game for something a bit more rustic after our bivy on White Buddha back in May. I had my eye on a trip that Rick Collier did as his first overnight solo in 1985. I was fairly confident that nobody had replicated Rick’s trip in the 29 years since he did it and I was intrigued to bivy in a remote area of Banff National Park that I’d never been in before. The trip included backpacking down the Spray River Valley from the Shark / Watridge Lake trail head in Kananaskis Country, to the Palliser Warden Cabin before bushwhacking and bivying at an unnamed tarn between mounts Vavasour and Warre (Warre Pond). Of course the point of the backpacking and bivying was to ascend the mountains around the small lake and possibly tack on Mount Leval as well. Rick sold the trip as easy / moderate scrambling and light bushwhacking to Warre Pond. I think he slightly oversold some of the ease, perhaps he wrote the trip report many years after doing it?
We parked at the Mount Shark / Watridge Lake trail head on Friday morning under grayer-than-expected skies. The weather forecast was calling for a mix of sun and cloud, but we’d already driven through rain showers and it wasn’t looking very good to the west where we were going to be hiking. The first 6km of hiking on a hardpan road past Watridge Lake and over the bridge spanning the Spray River are never very enjoyable. I’ve done this section of trail a number of times both on foot and by skis and every time I do it I swear I won’t do it again – yet here I was doing it AGAIN! It was much more enjoyable with good conversation and the day was cool and cloudy with the occasional rain shower just to keep us soaking wet. Although bikes would make this first 6km go by much quicker, with large backpacks and rolling terrain it wouldn’t have worked well for us. Speaking of ‘rolling terrain’, one of the reasons I don’t like the road / trail to the Spray River is the elevation loss from the parking lot. We descended over 200m on this first section and knew we’d be sweating (and swearing) on the way back out!
Just after the bridge there was a sign pointing the way to Palliser Pass – 20km down the Spray River Valley. We wouldn’t be traveling quite that far, but we turned off the wide trail that continued to Bryant Creek / Assiniboine and started down the much less traveled path beside the Spray River going south. I don’t normally enjoy hiking through valley bottoms and through dark forests, but Kaycie loves it and I have to admit she may be slowly changing my mind. The peacefulness and stillness of the forest is enchanting. The wild and rugged terrain surrounding the Spray River Valley surprised me. I don’t know why, but it was much more scenic and enjoyable than I was expecting. For some reason I was extremely nervous about bears on this trip – maybe it was Rick’s comments that got me on edge as he was also paranoid on his excursion in this area. Normally I don’t even carry bear spray but I think because of a recent mauling death in Kananaskis and because I was with my daughter, I was much more paranoid than usual. I knew this valley contained a very healthy bear population and sure enough, about 2km after starting the valley trail we started following fresh grizzly tracks – no more than a few hours old! And this wasn’t a small bear either. These were some of the largest bear tracks I’ve ever seen along with the largest piles of bear scat I’ve stepped around in 15 years of hiking. There was also clear evidence of huge Moose in the area, and I’m pretty sure we saw wolf tracks in the wet mud. I started yelling every 15 seconds and kept that up until finally the large bruin turned off to White Man Pass and we continued to the Birdwood campground.
Considering how little information you can find on this trail (including on the Banff trail report), I was pleasantly surprised when we came on two newly installed bridges over the river and a new trail cut into the forest to get around some 2013 flood damage. I’m pretty sure these repairs were very new as there was no trail or even tracks worn into the newly cut forested sections and the bridges smelled of freshly cut wood. The Birdwood back country campground was eerily quiet as we hiked past. We saw very little evidence of humans anywhere along the Spray River Valley. Fresh horse tracks indicated riders within the last week (this is an approved Banff horse trail) but other than that we felt very alone in the gray mists and cool breeze. Kaycie was loving it and I was trying to hide my nervousness regarding more bear sign – we came across at least 3 distinct bear tracks / sign on the trail up to the Palliser Warden Cabin. Surprisingly for a horse trail, the track wasn’t completely destroyed, but was very enjoyable and easy to follow. At one point the trail split – make sure you follow the hiking signs or you’ll be wading through creeks instead of crossing (new) bridges over them
Shortly after passing the Birdwood campground we arrived at a bridge over a dry stream bed. A lonely Canadian Flag flapped in the breeze far off to our left, standing guard in front of a small warden cabin. What a grand place to have a cabin! Once again I found myself envious of the lucky few who get paid to travel and stay in these locations. Looking the other way, to our right, we could see Mounts Vavasour and Warre with our approach gully leading up between them. We decided to head towards the gully, hoping to follow an obvious rocky stream bed up to our bivy on Warre Pond. We didn’t notice it right away, but there was also a very dark band of rain clouds rapidly approach from the south. Sure enough, as we crossed the cold, shallow waters of the Spray River a steady rain began to fall. Knowing that we had to bushwhack up over 1000 feet in a soaking rain almost made me turn around and go back to the Birdwood camp ground instead of continuing to our bivy. On hindsight that may have been the smart thing to do, but Rick had promised me “light bushwhacking” so I wasn’t too concerned at this point yet.
In fairness to Rick, I should have done more research before this trip. I assumed that the easiest route up to the bivy would be either directly up the drainage or on either side of it. Now that I have the benefit of hindsight, I should have viewed the Google Earth image of the area before making this assumption. I would have seen an obvious avalanche gully which likely would have resulted in much less bushwhacking than we encountered. As it was, we endured a few hours of pretty intense character-building bushwhacking. At more than one point I asked Kaycie if she was done, but she insisted she was fine and we should keep going so we did! I even started to wonder if we’d be stuck on steep slopes with an emergency bivy at one point – the shrubs were dense, trees were down everywhere and everything was soaking wet. We were absolutely drenched from head to toe, even with rain gear which only helps so much when you’re wading over and through dense underbrush. Seeing fresh bear tracks along the stream didn’t calm me down any either… There was only one place that bear could be going! There were short stretches where we could hike in the stream bed, but more often than not we had to scramble up steep banks and bushwhack along its edge.
Kaycie was a trooper – I felt terrible for dragging her into such a tangled mess! I wasn’t too happy about it but eventually we were ‘only’ 300 meters from the lake and turning back was pointless. The only obstacle left was a steep headwall with a waterfall plunging down it. We struggled up beside it on climber’s right, slipping on the steep, muddy / grassy slope. Kaycie was looking pretty tired as we finally crested the waterfall and stumbled on a goat trail leading to the lake. The last struggle involved getting through some avy debris before we finally glimpsed paradise! I will say this – working for it makes the reward that much sweeter.
I think Kaycie was ready to kill me when I called back to her that we were going to hike around the lake to its far side to look for a nice bivy spot. I didn’t like the idea of camping right by the headwall, especially with fresh bear tracks near it and wanted to be more in the open. The far side of the lake looked more open and Rick had stayed there too. We followed a distinct goat track around the lake before finding the one flat, soft spot that my tiny tent would fit on. Put it this way – there’s not many options for a good bivy near Warre Pond, but the one that is there is absolutely perfect! We were backed onto the lake with waves lapping the shore so close to the tent it sounded like we were going to get wet! The views out the entrance were pretty good too, and we were on a soft bed of moss. Like I said, perfect.
Thankfully the rain slowed down long enough for us to set up camp and make supper. As evening settled in, we relaxed with our e-readers and hot chocolate while admiring the wilderness in our little corner of paradise outside the tent. Ducks made calls over the small lake and a magnificent white mountain goat grazed peacefully up-slope from us. Oh – and did I mention that our little meadow was torn up by fairly recent grizzly diggings? Yeah. The wind picked up as the rain died off and I made sure the tent was tied to large piles of rock before turning in for the night. Throughout the night wind gusts tried to blow us into the lake, but thankfully they were unsuccessful.
Ascent of Mount Warre
After a hard, but lovely approach the day before, Kaycie and I were delighted to wake up to a clear sky and calm breezes early on Saturday morning. After taking some morning photos of our gorgeous bivy area, including the lake that I’m calling Warre Pond, we set about getting ready for some scrambling adventures. The goal for the day was to scramble the two rarely ascended peaks directly behind our camp – Mount Warre and Vavasour. I wasn’t expecting to tack on Leval, but it was an option if we had time. The day before had taken it’s toll on Kaycie’s feet and she was sporting some quarter sized blisters on each foot. We bandaged them up good, but we also had a long trek back out on Sunday so I didn’t want to push her too hard. (I shouldn’t underestimate her though – she’s very determined to keep up to her dad!!)
From camp, we angled up to an obvious gully through the scree. Normally there’s a stream running down here, but this late in the summer there was hardly a trickle making it through. Once through the narrows the terrain opened into a nice alpine bowl from which many ascent lines to the col or south ridge of Warre became obvious. We choose to grovel up grassy slopes and then scree (quite firm) to intersect the south ridge of Warre, well north of the col. This worked out very well and within 1.5 hours of leaving camp we were approaching our first summit of the day. The scree and south ridge provided very nice scrambling with supportive scree and just enough hands-on to entertain without being tough. Kaycie really enjoyed it – especially once we were on the ridge proper.
The views in every direction were stunning! White Man Mountain and Mount Assiniboine stole the show but many other summits managed to impress too. I was especially fond of the view to Mount King George – it brought back good memories from earlier this year. After enjoying the summit views in a stiff, cool morning breeze we headed down the south ridge towards Mount Vavasour – our second peak for the day.
Ascent of Mount Vavasour
After scrambling up Mount Warre on a gorgeous final Saturday of summer 2014, Kaycie and I turned our sights on Mount Vavasour, the higher of the two peaks standing sentry over our beautiful bivy site beside Warre Pond far below. The day before had been quite a struggle, with over 20km of backpacking in the rain, including a steep and difficult bushwhack to the rarely visited tarn I’m calling Warre Pond. Kaycie had quarter-sized blisters but was bravely bagging peaks with me anyway! We took our time coming down the easy south ridge of Warre. The scenery was stunning and the fall colors enhanced the experience by 10x. We were both fascinated by a waterfall plunging out of the rock face beneath a gorgeous tarn under White Man Mountain.
There were no difficulties on either the south ridge descent of Warre or the north west ridge ascent of Vavasour. The scrambling / hiking was actually very pleasant for the most part, on firm scree or small rock ledges / steps that made it fun. Maybe we were just comparing it to the soaking wet bushwhack of the day before, but we both couldn’t believe how much fun we were having! The summit views from Vavasour were even better than Warre’s – mostly due to it’s additional height. We found a nice flat spot to sit on near the summit cairn, out of the wind, and enjoyed a nice long break and some well deserved lunch.
After enjoying an extended break on the summit of Vavasour it was decision time. Do we go back to the bivy and enjoy the rest of the afternoon relaxing and reading e-books or do we push ourselves a bit and try for either Leval or at least the east peak of White Man? I honestly really wanted to go for White Man Mountain (main peak) but I was ill-prepared for this trip and hadn’t done nearly enough research so I decided to descend the South Ridge of Vavasour and attempt Mount Leval. Kaycie would come part of the way and would find a safe, warm spot out of the wind and read her book while her dumb dad kept bagging peaks…
Attempt of Mount Leval & Summit of Albert North Station
The south ridge of Vavasour was easy enough – at least at first. About half way down to the Leval col I sensed that the ridge ahead was more complex and difficult. We found a perfect spot for Kaycie to wait for me and agreed that if I wasn’t back by 4:30-5pm Kaycie would hit the 911 button on my SPOT. It was 12:30 at the time, and I honestly thought 4 hours would be plenty of time to return. I didn’t want to leave Kaycie alone, stranded on a mountain if something happened to me and wanted her to get help before dark if something were to happen so that’s why we agreed on such a short time window. Giving myself only 4 hours to return from Leval was also a mistake on hindsight.
The whole day already, I was looking over at White Man Mountain, thinking how much sexier it looked than the insignificant and difficult looking summit of Leval. The problem was, I had absolutely zero beta on White Man due to a quick packing job and busy week. This was one time I should have done more homework on two levels – both for Leval and/or White Man… I could see massive summit cairns on the false (west) summit of Leval and another on the false (east) summit of White Man. This told me that the true summits were both difficult to attain since obviously most people weren’t bothering with them! I didn’t realize it at the time, but Calvin Damen and Andrew Nugara had summited the east peak of White Man back in 2008 with stunning views. I would have done that peak instead of Leval if I’d done my homework and known about it.
I left Kaycie and continued down the south ridge of Vavasour on my own. Almost right away I began running into slight difficulties on the ridge (moderate scrambling) and started worrying about getting back by 4:30. I really didn’t want Kaycie hitting that 911 button if I was fine! I started feeling rushed as I descended to the Leval col and started up to the west summit (Albert North Station) above. I traversed easy slopes, bypassing the west summit on climber’s left so that I could refill my water bottle with fresh snow. When I popped out on the ridge to the main summit I knew that things weren’t going to go as fast or as easy as I needed them to. The summit block looked very complex and vertical but I knew I had to give it a shot so I proceeded up the west ridge. Soon I ran into cliff bands and drop offs. I gave it my best effort and ended up just under the summit block on the west ridge before I completely ran out of options that weren’t 5th class. I was feeling a bit bagged already at this point and was nervous about getting back to Kaycie in time, but I decided to give it one last “go” and back tracked before losing at least 100m down the south slopes beside the diagonal cliffs that were causing me headaches. I tried several times to break through the cliffs but ended up being thwarted by steep terrain each time. Finally I realized that I had to descend almost to tree line above Leman Lake before I’d have any hope of scrambling this pesky peak in a safe manner. I was disappointed at this juncture, because in my hasty reading of Rick’s trip report I remembered reading the words, “relatively easy and safe”. This was neither of those things. The words I missed were, “intricate route-finding along the WSW ridge of Leval” and “It was a good 2 hrs over to the summit of Leval”. I decided that it was better to be safe than sorry and reluctantly started trudging back up to the west summit of Leval (called “Albert North Station” in David Jones South Rockies guidebook). At least I’d get some views.
Ironically, upon arriving at the huge cairn, I found the only register of the day inside it. This is the first time I’ve found a register that admitted it was on top of the “false peak” of anything! (I didn’t bother to sign it…) The views throughout my jaunt up and down Leval were still very nice. I especially enjoyed the views of Soderholm and Talon Peaks. After snapping photos from the false peak, I descended the northwest ridge before trudging back up Vavasour’s south ridge to where Kaycie was enjoying a very relaxing afternoon with her ebook.
Our descent back to camp was quick and pleasant, other than a side-hill bash to get back under the summit of Vavasour and avoid reascending it. We had a great evening back at camp before turning in for the night and departing the next day.
KC and I awoke to clear skies the last day of our trip. Warre Pond was gorgeous in the early morning light and we reluctantly packed up camp and set off for the bushwhack descent to the Spray River Valley far below. Rather than retrace our nasty approach route up Warre Creek, I chose to traverse further north (skier’s left) to find the more open avalanche slopes that I knew were there. This worked out much better than the bushy stream bed!
Once we hit the Spray River trail things all was copacetic once again and we spent the next few hours hiking through a magical late summer landscape, going long stretches without talking – just enjoying the birds and the warm sunshine on the backs of our necks. I have to admit that the long trudge out from Watridge Lake got annoying after awhile, but all’s well that ends well and we both agreed it was going to be tough to match the adventure we’d just had.