Summit Elevation (m): 3317
Trip Date: September 12 2015
Elevation Gain (m): 1700
Total Trip Distance (km): 20
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3 – you fall, you sprain or break something
Difficulty Notes: A very remote peak, the main difficulty will be having enough energy to complete it! There are more difficult ascent options if you want them.
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (3rd)
Map: Google Maps
After a spectacular day spent approaching and ascending Mount Willis, Eric Coulthard and I awoke at sunrise to a beautifully clear day on Saturday, September 12 2015. We were quite eager to ascend the lofty summit of Mount Stewart that we’d been staring at for a good portion of the previous day. We were pretty sure that Stewart was an easy scramble from photos we’d taken from the summit of Cirrus Mountain to the west. The issue with Stewart wasn’t going to be the technical difficulties of the climbing; it’s the remoteness of the peak and the access to its easy southwest slopes that present the challenge. From our camp we had two choices for routes to the mountain. We could try to maintain elevation and traverse Stewart’s slopes above tree line for several kilometers before turning sharply left and ascending easy south slopes. Or we could try to find the trail that presumably runs down the valley along Cataract Creek to Pinto Lake that Eric missed last time he descended the valley while on a school trip. They ended up bushwhacking the entire valley to Pinto Lake and only realized there was a trail on the other side of the creek when they got to the camp! Good times… 😉
We decided to let fate decide our approach route. We’d cross the valley towards an unnamed peak just north of Mount Stewart. If we crossed an obvious trail along the way, we’d turn further down valley and follow it until we got closer to Stewart. If we didn’t cross a trail we’d traverse above tree line instead. The air was surprisingly warm as we set off, still slightly stiff from the exertions the day before.
Our first navigational error involved an old moraine just south of camp which we ascended before having to lose height to a few stream crossings below. As we grunted up a steep stream bed and started off towards a long and tiresome traverse we had no way of knowing just how close fate had brought us to the trail… We kept traversing along the east side of the valley on a mix of grass, scree and annoying rubble. Making this traverse a real grind were the many gullies that we had to cross along the way – some being much more problematic than others. The common theme with the gullies was the slabby terrain that each presented. The terrain ranged from easy to difficult and we had to find our way around each one either by ascending or descending. Something I’ve come to understand over the past few years is that once you graduate from common hikes, scrambles and climbs with partial, or complete trails towards more remote peaks and backcountry traveling, you must get used to gaining and losing elevation and side-hilling as you travel. This is necessary when there is are no trails. You gain and lose height because it’s impossible to know exactly what the micro terrain is like no matter how good you are at reading a map or planning a route. You side-hill because this is key to avoiding nasty bushwhacking. I think of routes like Recondite, Alexandra, Totem Creek and Fortress (where we didn’t traverse and paid for it dearly). The bottom line is, if you can’t handle a bit of pain and suffering you should forget about traveling in remote areas of the Canadian Rockies. You won’t like it at all.
Thankfully the Cirrus Ramparts were stunning across the valley and the hours slipped by until I realized I was far enough south that I could double back and ascend the SSW slopes all the way up to the summit. As I scrambled and hiked up the easy terrain I saw that Eric scrambled up earlier than myself on harder slabs and cliffs. He later admitted that my route was better for descent. Rick Collier also scrambled up further north on harder terrain when he ascended this peak in 2008. It was tough looking up the never-ending scree slope above me – knowing full well that I had to be higher than every other summit around before I could even think about being at the apex. Again, it was one foot at a time, carefully placed on slippery scree or kicking steps up fresh snow until I noticed some of the smaller peaks were now beneath me.
Once I could see over the ridge to the valley beyond I was once again treated to sublime alpine views that few people have seen much less traveled in. The terrain kept going up and up and up. The final few slopes had dizzying exposure off the east side and I worried that we might run into nasty terrain but that never happened. I was delighted to spot the summit cairn and traversed over to it, hoping to find an old register with few names.
I could clearly see an old tin register in the cairn when I looked inside. I was super excited as I gently pried it open. I’ve found one other register like this on a rarely ascended mountain and that register was no longer readable. This one was. I was disheartened to read a fresh entry from August 2015! Seriously?! What were the odds that someone else chose to ascend this remote peak this year? Oh well. I have to come to terms that more and more remote peaks are being ascended as folks become tired of full registers and familiar trip reports. Their note indicated that all they found was the empty tin can. I added our names to the single sheet of paper and put it in a Ziploc bag to help it last a bit longer. The views were stunning from this lofty peak. Mount Stewart is also quite a bit higher than indicated in most sources that I could find. My GPS has been pretty reliable with elevations and measured it at 3317m. The other entry in the register had it at 3306m. Any peak over 10,850 feet is quite high for the Canadian Rockies. There was quite a bit more cloud than on Mount Willis the day before but the views didn’t suffer much as a consequence. The wind was chilly and it looked like the weather was changing (as predicted) so we started our descent.
On return, Eric refused to side-hill again, putting his faith 100% in finding the Cataract Creek trail. I was a bit dubious with this plan as we hadn’t seen a trail that morning and he hadn’t actually hiked on it before either. I stayed up high while he dropped down to the right into the valley. Before he got into thicker bush I decided I should join him to keep things safer and bee-lined as quick as possible down the slopes and into the scrub. It was quite bad in there. I found myself yelling for Eric and completely buried in thick bush. This wasn’t good! I pushed on and was very relieved to finally hear him yelling back that he had found the trail! Yes. We followed a fairly obvious trail up the valley. Every once in a while it would fade in marshy terrain or Grizzly diggings which were everywhere but then we’d find it back. At one point there was an opening down to Cataract Creek on our left with a cairn beckoning us down. The problem was that the obvious trail we were on continued directly up the valley. What to do? The river wouldn’t be easy to cross here, so we continued on the obvious trail. Later on we figured out that the trail we stuck to leads up to Cline Pass. The cairn we spotted likely marks the place where the trail links up towards Cataract Pass from the valley but there must be a river crossing involved.
With more daylight left than the day before we rolled into camp around 17:00 with lots of time to relax and make dinner. The sky was threatening as we turned in. Eric confidently pronounced the rain wouldn’t start “until midnight”. Five minutes later the patter of raindrops on the mid walls started! 😉 The surprise came a few minutes later when the lightning show began. I wasn’t expecting that in September. For the first hour or so the lightning stayed in the clouds and there was little or no thunder. Then it started hitting ground. It’s always an interesting experience being high in the alpine during a thunderstorm with nothing but a see-through space age material holding the elements back. We survived the night, and when I woke at 06:00 there was no more rain and the sky was clearing.
The hike back up Cataract Pass from camp was interesting. Of course by “interesting”, I mean, “tiring”! Another interesting thing is the naming. “Cataract Pass” is nowhere near “Cataract Peak”. It’s also nowhere near “Cataract Creek”. What’s with that? Same goes for “Brazeau River” and “Nigel Pass”. I digress, but one thinks of such things when one is exhausted…
Lactic acid was building nicely in my lower legs by the time we finally followed the last cairn over the pass and back down towards the magical terrain along the Brazeau River leading to Nigel Pass.
The rest of the hike out to Nigel Pass and from there to the parking lot was pleasant under a mix of sun and clouds and with brilliant fall colors lighting up the natural world in all directions around us. We were each lost in thought as we progressed back to the real word after a few days spent in paradise.
I think I’ve found a new area to call my “favorite”. The White Goat Wilderness ticks a lot of boxes for me. It’s gorgeous. It’s wild. It’s remote. It is largely unreported and unknown (at least to me). If nothing else, Eric and I had yet another great trip. We both commented that this one might not eclipse our Mount Amery trip, but it came mighty close to it and that says something.
Postscript years later: As I sit here redoing this trip report in late April 2021 I’m struck by how different things are now, only 7 years later. Of course there’s the Covid-19 pandemic that’s changed the world around us in many ways already for over a year but there’s also the onset of social media and apps that are making places like the White Goat Wilderness almost feel like front country now. I miss the heady days of not running into anyone else in areas like these. Nowadays you have to hike 20, 30 and even 40kms in a day just to avoid the crowds of thrill and adventure seekers. It makes me sad to hear that on any given weekend there are half a dozen tents sitting near the lovely headwaters of Cataract Creek. “Progress” somehow doesn’t feel like “progress” at all when it comes to the business of selling the natural world as a way to look cool on a social media feed. I guess I’m just getting too old or something. I’m just happy to have the memories I do, of exploring areas that didn’t have such a huge spotlight on them while just doing it for the fun of seeing new areas with good friends.