Willis, Mount (Nigel Pass, Cataract Pass)

Summit Elevation (m): 3220
Trip Date: September 11 2015
Elevation Gain (m): 2000
Round Trip Time (hr): 24
Total Trip Distance (km): 28
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3 – you fall, you sprain something
Difficulty Notes: No major difficulties. Mostly a hike but in a remote setting and far from any road. Note: We bivied near Cataract Pass and did Mount Stewart on day 2.
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (Hiking)
GPS Track: Gaia
MapGoogle Maps

After spending a rather dismal and lengthy day on Mount Rowe and Festubert I needed a few days off to rest the legs and read some good books I had been ignoring for much too long. The weather started improving again on Thursday and plans started being thrown around. When the dust settled it was Eric Coulthard and I heading into the White Goat Wilderness via the Nigel and Cataract Passes to attempt a couple of remote and rarely ascended peaks. There are a few notable things about the White Goat Wilderness Area as compared to a national or provincial park. In a way, it’s even more restrictive. There are no horses, no motorized vehicles and no air traffic allowed. No fires, hunting or even fishing are permitted. But random camping and backpacking is highly encouraged – provided it’s done responsibly of course. I’d certainly seen mountains in the White Goat before, notably the three summits just north of Mount Cline and the massive summit of Mount Stewart, which I’d last seen from Corona Ridge

Nigel Pass, Cataract Pass and Mount Willis Route Map.

By 07:00 on a cool, crisp Friday morning Eric and I were hiking along the 2km road to the trailhead. The old Nigel Pass trail descends immediately from the parking lot, but the bridge over a raging Nigel Creek was no longer there so an alternate route has been put into use. It’s a boring road, but the going was quick and soon we were cutting through a horse corral area and crossing the creek via three log bridges before setting off on the proper Nigel Pass trail under a brilliant blue sky. Frost was on the bushes and grasses and fall was firmly in the air as we hiked. The trail was well maintained, apparently the Brazeau Loop is one of Jasper National Park’s jewels and so the trail is excellent. The trail does have one annoying habit. Every time it crosses a gully system it loses and regains height, rather than snaking along the same contour line around the nose of the ridges. I’m not sure if this is because it was originally a horse trail but it was especially annoying on the way out. 

Eric crosses a lively Nigel Creek.

After ascending the final steep trail to Nigel Pass, the views behind and ahead of us improved dramatically. A blue sky combined with the fall colors in the foliage and shrubs along the valleys and streams presented us with that unique September palette that has to be experienced to be believed. We descended briefly to cross the Brazeau River on small boulders – the river is very shallow and wide at the crossing spot. Instead of going left along the South Boundary Trail, we turned right (south) and proceeded up to Cataract Pass, paralleling the Brazeau River, which was now on our right.

Landscape magic near Nigel Pass.

The next few kilometers where true backpacking magic. Honestly, I cannot remember when I last passed through an area so special. Actually I can. The high line route into Mount Alexandra was the last time I experienced something like this. Even though the majority of peaks surrounding the Nigel and Cataract Passes have no official names, this doesn’t mean they aren’t dramatic and deserving of a title. I’m a little bit annoyed that little front range bumps have great sounding names, while towering masses of jagged rock, snow and ice, surrounded by glistening rivers, streams and alpine lakes aren’t known by any official labels. Or maybe this is perfect, and suits the nature of the area? I’m not sure yet. In the end it really doesn’t make a difference if a peak is labelled by humans or not.

After passing through a “Lord of the Rings” type landscape of huge, broken boulders alongside brilliantly clear rushing streams we arrived at the bottom of Cataract Pass. There was already some snow on the ground here, but we could clearly see the trail going up the scree above, and set off a bit slower under  the weight of our three day packs. My cold wasn’t slowing me down too much – I was too enthralled by the surroundings to notice such a minor inconvenience as a sore throat. Three gorgeous alpine lakes came into view behind us as we ascended Cataract Pass.  As we crested the pass, the White Goat Wilderness Area was spread out at our feet with the towering summit of Mount Stewart dominating the brightly colored valley below. 

Landscape magic at the head of the Brazeau River. Northern outliers of Cirrus Mountain loom over the valley below.

We descended the pass around 300 meters before arriving at a great campsite on the gravel flats right at the foot of the slopes to the pass. Originally Eric was planning to camp near Cline Pass before ascending Mount Willis and checking out Afternoon Peak. I was starting to feel the height gain and length of the approach already and started asking Eric some pointed questions about his objectives. I know Eric and I was wondering if maybe we’d be chewing off more than we could handle with his initial plans.

Eric descends to the incredible environs of the White Goat Wilderness Area. The only named summit visible here is Mount Stewart, rising at right of center.

After some discussion we agreed to set up camp right where we were at the foot of Cataract Pass. We would proceed to bag Mount Willis yet that afternoon (with much lighter packs) and return to camp. On Saturday we would attempt Mount Stewart, which was a fine objective, being one of the loftiest summits in the White Goat Wilderness. On hindsight this was the best plan possible given our conditions and fitness levels.

Our camp area with unnamed peaks rising beyond. Cline Pass is out of sight in the gap just right of center.

After setting up camp on the flats at the headwaters of Cataract Creek we started hiking up to Cline Pass and Mount Willis. I kept asking Eric for the names of the surrounding peaks and he kept giving me the same boring answer; “that peak’s not named”. Finally after dipping up and around and over some sublime alpine meadows he changed his tune a little. “That’s Willis”, he pronounced confidently. NICE. Willis isn’t a grand technical objective, but I think it’s a pretty sexy peak nonetheless. It’s appeal lies in the curve of a sharp ridge extending a few kilometers from above Cline Pass in a gently curving arc up towards its summit. From a distance, it looked like a wonderful scree walk in the sky. From a distance everything looks better and I should have known that.

Mount Willis rises far off in the distance over Cline Pass.

Cline Pass was another beautiful area. As we started up large rubble slopes to the south ridge of Mount Willis, we could see two large tarns sitting right under a very impressive “Guardgoat” Peak on the west side of the pass. The pass is strange in that it’s kind of swampy. How does that happen at the highest point of a pass?! I wouldn’t want to be here in early or mid-summer. The bugs would be nasty here, I’m sure of it. The slog up to the south ridge was a harbinger of things to come. At the time we were hoping that our misery was only temporary. I guess the mountain couldn’t be too easy. 

The south ridge of Mount Willis is LONG! We will ascend at right and then make the long traverse to the distant summit at left.

What made the travel difficult was fresh snow on very large scree and small boulders. We slipped and slid around on the rubble and it made travel slow, tedious and more than a little dangerous. I’m still very surprised that one of us didn’t get a broken ankle in that mess! By this point we were also getting tired. The day was already long in the tooth when we started up the ridge and now we had kilometers to go yet before reaching the highest point – still far in the distance.

Views up the several KMs to the summit of Mount Willis at center. Afternoon Peak and the incredible Afternoon Lakes to the right and Guardgoat Peak over Cline Pass to the left.

One foot in front of the other. Eventually you get where you’re going. You hope. I remember looking back from the ridge traverse and finally getting higher than the surrounding peaks. Willis is not a small mountain! It’s not as high as Mount Stewart but it’s higher than all the other peaks in its immediate vicinity. When we finally popped out on the ridge top we were treated to one of the most incredible views I’ve had in the Rockies. The alpine valley between Mount Willis, Mount Stewart and Afternoon Peak is a patchwork of at least 20 different tarns of various sizes and colors – all set in a brilliantly colored tapestry of different rocks and glacially scoured terrain. These are referred to collectively as the Afternoon Lakes, after the peak of a similar name that rises above them. I’ve never seen anything like this anywhere in my travels around the Canadian Rockies.

Just a small sample of the Afternoon lakes in the magical hanging valley east of the ascent ridge.

As we got higher on the ridge, the terrain became more complicated, necessitating some detours to climber’s left to avoid a very broken and cliffy spine. Making things interesting was a set of large animal tracks along this terrain – whatever it was it picked out a darn good route. Just like on Festubert Mountain a few days previous, animals don’t always travel where you’d expect them to. After crossing a few steep snow slopes we were on our way to the tippy top. Finally!

At around 17:30 we found ourselves on the summit of Mount Willis, taking a zillion photographs of the sublime surroundings. A surprise for me was the number of 11,000ers that were visible from the summit. I haven’t counted them yet, but I’m sure we could see at least half of them. Even Robson was visible! We felt very fortunate to be enjoying such awesome views considering how smoky everything was for a good portion of this past summer.

Views from L to R include Snow Dome, Columbia, Kitchener, North Twin, Twins Tower, Stutfield, Cromwell, Alberta, Woolley, Diadem, Gong, Smythe, Sunwapta, Charlton, Unwin, Poboktan, Flat Ridge.
Stunning views over the Afternoon Lakes towards Mount Stewart at right of center.
Views include (L to R), Amery, Forbes, Willerval, Lyells, Oppy, Saskatchewan, Alexandra, Bryce, Castleguard (R).
Views include (L to R), Poboktan, Flat Ridge, Marble, Aztec, Longview, Afternoon, McDonald, Obstruction, Hangman, Bertram, Slump and Stewart (R).

We didn’t linger long in the cool summit breezes. Daylight fades quickly in mid September and we had a long way to go back to our camp. Instead of retracing our steps back along the spine of the ridge, we dropped down much earlier and climbed back up and over Cline Pass on a very faint track. From the pass it was a meandering route over and around old moraines covered in alpine grasses and shrubs with the setting sun on Mount Stewart and the unnamed summits east of Cirrus, the Cirrus Ramparts stealing the show.

The long descent back to Cline Pass. Mount Stewart at c-l with Cirrus and Guardgoat at center and right.
The sun sets over the Cataract Creek valley. Mount Stewart at center left.

We stumbled into camp just as night settled in over the valley. A million, million stars winked at us from afar as we ate supper in silence, lost in thought over the many beautiful things we’d seen that day. I was deep in my thoughts pondering some of life’s mysteries in the unique manner that one does after many hours of hard toil and a tired mind. We settled into the tent at 22:00 hoping to follow up one special day with another – the ascent of one of the highest peaks in the White Goat and an officially named one at that – Mount Stewart.

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