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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: Download
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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.

Nigel Pass & Cataract Pass
The road is a bit of a trudge, but a nice enough one
The road is a bit of a trudge, but a nice enough one
Crossing to the regular Nigel Pass trail.
Crossing to the regular Nigel Pass trail.
Crossing a lively Nigel Creek.
Crossing a lively Nigel Creek.
Eric marches off through frost-tinged shrubbery that's also turning into its brilliant fall coat.
Eric marches off through frost-tinged shrubbery that's also turning into its brilliant fall coat.
More of the terrain on the Nigel Pass trail - the mountain on the left is unnamed, a very common theme for this area as there are very few named summits here.
More of the terrain on the Nigel Pass trail - the mountain on the left is unnamed, a very common theme for this area as there are very few named summits here.
Views from near Nigel Pass, Nigel Creek descending at left, Brazeau River at right.
Views from near Nigel Pass, Nigel Creek descending at left, Brazeau River at right.
Getting closer to Nigel Pass now, some of the impressive slab above Eric has slid into the pass area, making for interesting hiking.
Getting closer to Nigel Pass now, some of the impressive slab above Eric has slid into the pass area, making for interesting hiking.
Views back down Nigel Creek valley towards Parker Ridge and Mt. Saskatchewan.
Views back down Nigel Creek valley towards Parker Ridge and Mt. Saskatchewan.
Getting ready to cross the Brazeau River. Our route out of sight to the right.
Getting ready to cross the Brazeau River. Our route out of sight to the right.
The magic starts right at the turn up to Cataract Pass. This is looking up the Brazeau River at the crossing point.
The magic starts right at the turn up to Cataract Pass. This is looking up the Brazeau River at the crossing point.
Backpacking magic along the Brazeau River
Backpacking magic along the Brazeau River
Backpacking magic up the Brazeau River
Backpacking magic up the Brazeau River
Backpacking magic up the Brazeau River
Backpacking magic up the Brazeau River
Wonderful morning atmosphere hiking up the Brazeau River.
Wonderful morning atmosphere hiking up the Brazeau River.
More of the Brazeau River with an unnamed summit rising beyond. The entire Cataract Pass trail is on climber's left of the river.
More of the Brazeau River with an unnamed summit rising beyond. The entire Cataract Pass trail is on climber's left of the river.
Hiking towards a still-distant Cataract Pass directly into the morning sun.
Hiking towards a still-distant Cataract Pass directly into the morning sun.
Hiking towards a still-distant Cataract Pass directly into the morning sun.
Hiking towards a still-distant Cataract Pass directly into the morning sun.
Views back down the Brazeau River.
Views back down the Brazeau River.
We hiked over and around some pretty neat boulders. Just enough to be interesting, not too many to be annoying.
We hiked over and around some pretty neat boulders. Just enough to be interesting, not too many to be annoying.
Looking back down the Brazeau River.
Looking back down the Brazeau River.
Looking back at Eric as we enter some flats along the Brazeau River. A bunch of unnamed, but not unimpressive, peaks in the bg.
Looking back at Eric as we enter some flats along the Brazeau River. A bunch of unnamed, but not unimpressive, peaks in the bg.
More magical landscape
More magical landscape
The trail is well marked and obvious where it needs to be.
The trail is well marked and obvious where it needs to be.
Nearing the end of valley and start of the Brazeau River.
Nearing the end of valley and start of the Brazeau River.
Landscape magic at the head of the Brazeau River.
Landscape magic at the head of the Brazeau River.
Looking back over our approach to Cataract Pass (R) and the glacial tarns under the unnamed peaks from near Cataract Pass.
Looking back over our approach to Cataract Pass (R) and the glacial tarns under the unnamed peaks from near Cataract Pass.
Eric crests Cataract Pass.
Eric crests Cataract Pass.
Self registration.
Self registration.
A surprisingly restricted area - more so than the national parks.
A surprisingly restricted area - more so than the national parks.
Eric crosses Cataract Pass.
Eric crosses Cataract Pass.
Descending Cataract Pass.
Descending Cataract Pass.
Descending Cataract Pass.
Descending Cataract Pass.
Eric surveys the incredible environs of the White Goat Wilderness Area. The only named summit visible here is Mount Stewart, rising on the right.
Eric surveys the incredible environs of the White Goat Wilderness Area. The only named summit visible here is Mount Stewart, rising on the right.

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.

Mount Willis
60 photos
Looking back at Mount Stewart on the right, and ahead at Cline Pass on the left.
Looking back at Mount Stewart on the right, and ahead at Cline Pass on the left.
As we contour around to Cline Pass, Willis comes into view at left of center. It's still kilometers away at this point and obviously quite snowy.
As we contour around to Cline Pass, Willis comes into view at left of center. It's still kilometers away at this point and obviously quite snowy.
Mount Willis over Cline Pass.
Mount Willis over Cline Pass.
Willis is more obvious now, as we start cresting Cline Pass.
Willis is more obvious now, as we start cresting Cline Pass.
Views north over Cline Pass.
Views north over Cline Pass.
Guardgoat Peak over Cline Pass.
Guardgoat Peak over Cline Pass.
As we begin to gain height on Willis, this is looking back at Cline Pass with the Cirrus rock wall in the bg.
As we begin to gain height on Willis, this is looking back at Cline Pass with the Cirrus rock wall in the bg.
Looking over Cline Pass towards the South Boundary Trail.
Looking over Cline Pass towards the South Boundary Trail.
Willis has a long south ridge.
Willis has a long south ridge.
Bear tracks?  We followed these tracks from the valley floor to almost the entire upper ridge on Willis.
Bear tracks? We followed these tracks from the valley floor to almost the entire upper ridge on Willis.
I'm fairly confident these are bear tracks. (They were melted out so hard to decode.)
I'm fairly confident these are bear tracks. (They were melted out so hard to decode.)
Guardgoat Peak over Cline Pass.
Guardgoat Peak over Cline Pass.
The south ridge of Willis stretches a few kilometers to the right. Guardgoat L Afternoon R.
The south ridge of Willis stretches a few kilometers to the right. Guardgoat L Afternoon R.
The sublime hanging valley between Willis (far left), Afternoon (right of Willis) and Stewart (far right) with at least 20 small lakes or tarns, each with their own unique color and shape.
The sublime hanging valley between Willis (far left), Afternoon (right of Willis) and Stewart (far right) with at least 20 small lakes or tarns, each with their own unique color and shape.
Willis at left with Afternoon in red and the Afternoon Lakes at center.
Willis at left with Afternoon in red and the Afternoon Lakes at center.
Just a small sample of the Afternoon lakes in the magical hanging valley.
Just a small sample of the Afternoon lakes in the magical hanging valley.
Yet another pano of the valley. "Afternoon" is the red colored ridge / peak in the distance at left.
Yet another pano of the valley. "Afternoon" is the red colored ridge / peak in the distance at left.
Still a bloody long way to go. It's a beautiful day for such a long objective and I love how Willis' upper ridge curves gently into the apex in the distance.
Still a bloody long way to go. It's a beautiful day for such a long objective and I love how Willis' upper ridge curves gently into the apex in the distance.
Views from Cataract Creek (L) to Cline Creek (C) and Afternoon Lakes (R).
Views from Cataract Creek (L) to Cline Creek (C) and Afternoon Lakes (R).
Views east (C) and south (R) from the ridge. Willis at far left, Stewart at center.
Views east (C) and south (R) from the ridge. Willis at far left, Stewart at center.
Guardgoat over Cline Pass and Creek (R).
Guardgoat over Cline Pass and Creek (R).
WOW - what a day to be alive! Cirrus is just in sight now, over the rock wall and an outlier of Stewart is also visible on the left.
WOW - what a day to be alive! Cirrus is just in sight now, over the rock wall and an outlier of Stewart is also visible on the left.
Some moderate scrambling on the ridge kept us entertained.
Some moderate scrambling on the ridge kept us entertained.
Trudging on up to the summit.
Trudging on up to the summit.
The Afternoon Lakes Valley is an incredible landscape. Mt. Stewart at right and Jain Peak at center.
The Afternoon Lakes Valley is an incredible landscape. Mt. Stewart at right and Jain Peak at center.
The Afternoon Lakes Valley is an incredible landscape.
The Afternoon Lakes Valley is an incredible landscape.
Getting closer now, gentle terrain to the apex.
Getting closer now, gentle terrain to the apex.
The Afternoon Lakes at left and Cline Pass at right with Stewart in the middle.
The Afternoon Lakes at left and Cline Pass at right with Stewart in the middle.
Eric follows me up the south ridge of Willis.
Eric follows me up the south ridge of Willis.
Looking back at the drop off we avoided on the west side.
Looking back at the drop off we avoided on the west side.
Views south (L) and west (R) from the summit of Willis.
Views south (L) and west (R) from the summit of Willis.
View over Afternoon or "Goat Door Peak" whichever you think it is...
View over Afternoon or "Goat Door Peak" whichever you think it is...
Views from Poboktan (L) to Marble, Aztec, Arete, Longview, Obstruction, McDonald and Afternoon (R).
Views from Poboktan (L) to Marble, Aztec, Arete, Longview, Obstruction, McDonald and Afternoon (R).
Views past Aztec Mountain past Arete and Capitoline Peak (R).
Views past Aztec Mountain past Arete and Capitoline Peak (R).
Views over Afternoon to Lonely, Dark Storm, Hangman, Storm Winds, Bright Star and Stelfox (R).
Views over Afternoon to Lonely, Dark Storm, Hangman, Storm Winds, Bright Star and Stelfox (R).
Cornice and Cloister are a mid distance beyond unnamed peaks over the Afternoon Lakes valley.
Cornice and Cloister are a mid distance beyond unnamed peaks over the Afternoon Lakes valley.
Views from a distant Minster and Cline to Steward, Cirrus, Amery and Forbes (R).
Views from a distant Minster and Cline to Steward, Cirrus, Amery and Forbes (R).
Poboktan is not a small peak either.
Poboktan is not a small peak either.
View north to Sunwapta, Waterfall Peaks, Le Grande Brazeau, Flat Ridge and Poboktan (R).
View north to Sunwapta, Waterfall Peaks, Le Grande Brazeau, Flat Ridge and Poboktan (R).
Marble Mountain.
Marble Mountain.
Views from Jonas Pass (L) to Brazeau River, David Thomson Country and the White Goat Wilderness (R).
Views from Jonas Pass (L) to Brazeau River, David Thomson Country and the White Goat Wilderness (R).
Huge peaks to the west from Forbes (L) to the Lyells, Saskatchewan and Mount Bryce (R).
Huge peaks to the west from Forbes (L) to the Lyells, Saskatchewan and Mount Bryce (R).
White Goat Peaks (L), Minster, Cline, Stewart (C), Murchison, Cirrus, Chepren and White Pyramid (R).
White Goat Peaks (L), Minster, Cline, Stewart (C), Murchison, Cirrus, Chepren and White Pyramid (R).
The Columbia Icefield from Athabasca (L) to Snow Dome, Kitchener, Alberta, Woolley and Diadem.
The Columbia Icefield from Athabasca (L) to Snow Dome, Kitchener, Alberta, Woolley and Diadem.
Flat Ridge in front of Poboktan.
Flat Ridge in front of Poboktan.
View over Marble Mountain to Isaac Peak.
View over Marble Mountain to Isaac Peak.
Strong Winds Peak.
Strong Winds Peak.
Hangman (L), Circle Game, Strong Winds, Bright Star and Seven Seas.
Hangman (L), Circle Game, Strong Winds, Bright Star and Seven Seas.
Views over Afternoon Peak to Whisker (L), Sam Rogers, Ribbon, Dark Storm, Lonely and Hangman Peak.
Views over Afternoon Peak to Whisker (L), Sam Rogers, Ribbon, Dark Storm, Lonely and Hangman Peak.
Tele of some of the lakes in the hanging valley south of the summit.
Tele of some of the lakes in the hanging valley south of the summit.
Descending the south ridge.
Descending the south ridge.
Descending to Cline Pass.
Descending to Cline Pass.
Descending to Cline Pass as the afternoon shadows grow into evening ones.
Descending to Cline Pass as the afternoon shadows grow into evening ones.
Ascending back up to Cline Pass.
Ascending back up to Cline Pass.
Looking back down Cline Pass with the lower slopes of Willis rising in the sun on the right.
Looking back down Cline Pass with the lower slopes of Willis rising in the sun on the right.
Ascending back up to Cline Pass.
Ascending back up to Cline Pass.
The setting sun on Stewart and its outliers as we continue back to our camp.
The setting sun on Stewart and its outliers as we continue back to our camp.
Another glance back at Willis as the sun sets.
Another glance back at Willis as the sun sets.
The setting sun on Stewart and its outliers as we continue back to our camp.
The setting sun on Stewart and its outliers as we continue back to our camp.

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