Summit Elevation (m): 3220
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.
GPS Track Download: Download GPX File
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (Hiking)
Map: Google Maps
After spending a rather dismal and long day on Mounts Rowe and Festubert, I needed a few days off to rest the legs and read some good books I had for too long ignored on my e-reader. The weather started cooperating 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 either. 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. (Stewart was actually another choice for the weekend Steve and I did Corona Ridge and Marmota Peak…)
By 07:00 on Friday, we 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 is no longer there, so an alternate route has been put into use. It’s a boring road, but the going is 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 (so who cares about such things as maintaining elevation) but it was especially annoying on the way out. Not a huge deal – just something I noticed.
After ascending the final steep trail to the 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.
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 vast 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 at all. Or maybe this is perfect, and suits the nature of the area better? I’m not sure yet.
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 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 underneath with the towering summit of Mount Stewart dominating the brightly colored valley below. We descended the pass around 300 meters or so before coming to 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 and ascending Mount Willis before checking out Afternoon Peak or a couple of smaller summits further behind Afternoon. 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.
After some discussion we agreed to set up camp right where we were. We would try to bag Mount Willis yet that afternoon (with much lighter packs) and return to camp. On Saturday we would attempt Mount Stewart, which is 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 and we’re both very happy with it.
After setting up camp on the flats, we started for 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 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.
Cline Pass is another beautiful area. As we started up large rubble slopes to the ridge on Willis, we could see two large tarns sitting right under a very impressive (unnamed) summit on the west side of the pass. The pass is a bit strange in that it’s kind of swampy (how does that happen at the highest point of a pass?!) and 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 ridge was a harbinger of things to come. We didn’t know it at the time and were hoping that our misery was temporary. I guess the mountain couldn’t be too easy right? What made the travel difficult was fresh snow on very large scree / 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 getting tired. The day was getting long in the tooth already when we started up the ridge and now we had kilometers to go along it before reaching the highest point at the far end.
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 Stewart – but it’s higher than all the other peaks in its immediate surroundings. When we finally popped out on the ridge top we were treated to one of the most incredible views I’ve had a long while. The alpine valley between Willis, 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 “Afternoon Lakes“, after the peak of a similar name that rises above them. I’ve never seen anything like this anywhere in my 450+ peaks and hikes in the Canadian Rockies. It is a very special and unique place.
As we got higher on the ridge, the terrain became a bit more complicated, necessitating a few detours to climber’s left to avoid a very broken and cliffy spine. Making things interesting was following a large set of animal tracks along this terrain – whatever it was it knew a good route. Just like on Festurbert a few days previous, animals don’t always travel where you expect them. After crossing a few steep snow slopes (what’s with the damn snow this year anyway?!) we were on our way to the top. Finally, at around 17:30 we were on the summit of Willis, taking a zillion photographs of the amazing 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 sublime views considering how smoky everything was for a good portion of this summer.
We didn’t linger long in the cool summit breeze. Daylight fades quickly in mid September and we had a long way to go back to camp yet. 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 Rockwall”, stealing the show.
We stumbled into camp just as night settled in over the valley – a million, million stars winking at us as we ate supper in silence, lost in thought over the many beautiful things we’d seen that day. I was lost in my thoughts – pondering some of life’s mysteries in the unique manner that one does after many hours of hard toil and an empty mind. We settled into the tent around 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.