Trip Dates: Monday, September 02 2019 to Thursday, September 05 2019
Total Elevation Gain (m): 7000
Total Trip Time (hr): 78
Total Trip Distance (km): 88
Peaks Ascended: Deluc (Three Brothers), Dip Slope, Clearwater
Rivers Crossed: Mosquito Creek, Pipestone, Clearwater, Siffleur
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3- you fall, you sprain or break something
Difficulty Notes: Much off trail travel on terrain from OT1 to SC6 with big packs and route finding. There are river and stream crossings, potentially steep snow slopes and tame glaciers. Endless boulder and scree fields, thick uphill bushwhacking and swamps to navigate.
Technical Rating: TL3, OT5, SC5, SC6; YDS (Hiking, 3rd class)
Map: Google Maps
I used to book the first week of September off for hiking but over the years I noticed a pattern that usually the weather really sucked that week. In 2019, Phil Richards and I had plans to go over Woolley shoulder and paddle the Columbia Glacier Lake between the Twins and Mount Columbia before pack rafting down the Athabasca River with Ben and Liam. Thanks to a nagging knee issue and chest injury from earlier in the year I had to pull the plug on my attendance of this unique opportunity but was left with a week off and pretty decent looking weather for once. What was I to do now?! Well, you know exactly what I was to do… My injuries were such that as long as my pack was reasonably light I could put a lot of miles on.
I started planning an intense 3-4 day trip that could be done with a relatively light pack and started contacting people to join me. When we scrambled Tombstone Mountain together I planted the idea of a multi day trip into the Devon Lakes area in Cornelius Rott‘s head. He was in. When Mike Mitchell contacted me that he also had the first week of September off, he was also in.
I remember planning a trip into the Three Brothers (Deluc) already years ago – at least 7 or 8 years or maybe even 10 or more. I was fascinated in the area after reading about Rick Collier’s adventures there. I was very inexperienced at the time but figured I could somehow ascend Dip Slope, Deluc and maybe even Cataract Peak. Over the years the plan kept coming up, but each year it didn’t pan out for some or another reason. Fast forward to 2019 and all of a sudden Deluc saw two ascents (that I know of) within the span of 4 weeks after 20 or 30 years of relative inactivity and obscurity (that I know of). This was not good (for me)! One of the climbers has about a billion followers on Social Media and he posted to all of them that this was a great option for people looking to “get away from it all”. Of course, I’d known this for years already and now it was time for me to put my dreams into action on this particular agenda before the masses turned their gaze – and more importantly their feet – towards the Banff backcountry triangulated by the Clearwater, Pipestone and Siffleur River valleys. The other person who’d scrambled Deluc in 2019 was my good friend Phil Richards who was kind enough to give me valuable beta on his approach and route which avoided many potential complications of other routes into this area.
Originally the plan was to do exactly the adventure I’d planned out years ago. Ascend Dip Slope, Deluc and Little Cataract with Cornelius and Mike ascending Cataract on our way past it on exit. Although this was a solid plan, I didn’t love the fact that we’d be exiting past a ton of peaks that I’ve done already including Cataract, Minnow, Molarstone and The Fang. I was also saturated with the Fish Lakes and North Molar Pass areas for the time being. It was Mike who suggested going back the other way, tagging Mount Harris and Clearwater instead of Little and “Big” Cataract. This was a great idea! I was apprehensive that we’d get up Harris from the south side but knew that Clearwater was definitely a possibility so why not? Clearwater Mountain had been on my “A list” of peaks almost as long as Dip Slope and Deluc and after ascending Devon and Willingdon in 2013 it was near the top of my list for the Siffleur River area.
Day 1 – Approach to Deluc Mountain
With the weather window constantly changing we eventually settled on a half day approach to the Deluc Mountain bivy on Monday, September 02 from the Mosquito Creek trailhead. The rain had only stopped a few hours previous as we met in the sunny parking lot and sorted the last of our gear. By 14:00 I was getting a bit antsy that we should get going as I knew the hike to the bivy was going to be strenuous with the big packs. My pack wasn’t exactly “heavy”, but it was a heckuva lot heavier than my daypacks have been lately! We shrugged into our individual loads and set off across highway 93 and up the (very) familiar Mosquito Creek trail. Mike and I were intrigued to see a frisbee hanging off of Cornelius’ pack. What sort of strange tradition was this? 😉
Thankfully the trail that Graeme Pole has described as a “horse-churned hell of a trail” wasn’t quite as bad as when I was up it earlier in August. We chatted our way quickly towards the first campground before turning up towards the Molar Meadows and North Molar Pass. I could tell the heavier pack was going to give me a different experience than I was used to from all my light ‘n quick trips this year so far. Despite wearing light approach shoes and packing as light as I dared, my right knee still let me know it wasn’t 100% OK with the itinerary in front of it. As I always say however, sometimes you have to teach your body a “lesson” and this was going to be one of those times. Suck it up and quit your whining. Or simply hurt and be whiny – but I’ll just ignore you!
After crossing the upper stretches of Mosquito Creek near the shallow tarn along Molar Meadows we were officially off-trail and heading for the first high col that breaks between the meadows and the Pipestone River valley to the east. I’m sure this pass has a name but I can’t seem to find it anywhere. It’s a shortcut into the Pipestone River valley that avoids having to go over Quartzite Col / Pipestone Pass from the north or North Molar Pass and then back up the Pipestone River from Fish Lakes to the south. Don’t let the term “shortcut” fool you. This high col is still pretty bloody high and drops a long way back to the Pipestone! As we worked our way slowly up the easy slopes I was surprised how much height we were gaining on Noseeum Peak behind us. I was even more surprised by the beautiful lake we skirted as we continued up to the high col on a mix of scree and boulders.
It took us 3.5 hours to reach the first high col from the parking lot. We took in the wonderful views both up and down the Pipestone River valley hundreds of meters below us before reluctantly starting the first big descent of our approach. The descent was surprisingly steep but quick. We skirted another lake tucked under the col before crossing the valley and a pretty small Pipestone River at this early point of its journey south to the Bow River near Lake Louise. It was difficult not to feel a little depressed when looking at the slope in front of us on the far side of the valley to the 2nd high col of our approach. In reality it only took 45 minutes of steady hiking and we were once again taking in some pretty sweet views – both behind us to a setting sun and in front of us to a Shangri-La. Deluc Mountain sat off in the distance to the NE with it’s relatively tame glacier and upper slopes beckoning in late day sunlight. Two small lakes sat under our position on the col. The high lake definitely had the best location but the low lake was the more practical of the two considering our plans for the next day. We started our descent to the lower lake.
Phil had warned us not to repeat his approach error from the 2nd high col. He went straight down to the lakes below, getting caught in a series of cliffs along the way. We gratefully learned from his mistake and angled first up to our left (west) and then down a reasonable but steep scree and boulder field. The valley tucked under the high col and Devon Mountain to the NW and the Three Brothers to the east was a special place to spend the night. The approach had taken us around 5 hours and 45 minutes and included 1200m of ascent and over 750m of descent – obviously with overnight packs. Don’t underestimate this approach! We were moving pretty quickly to do it in this kind of time.
Our decision to leave on Monday afternoon instead of Tuesday morning was already panning out thanks to a gorgeous evening and warm night. Cornelius and I even managed a few throws of the frisbee at our spacious camp until we decided it was too tiring to chase after it. We agreed to set our alarms for 05:45 and everyone tried to get some sleep despite our excitement for the next days’ adventures.
Day 2 – Ascents of Deluc and Dip Slope Mountain
I don’t sleep well in tents, especially when I’m too warm. Our first night was much warmer than expected and even in my half bag I was way too hot. It didn’t matter. I woke up before the alarms went off and was up and getting my coffee on within 5 minutes. I’m a morning person. I attack most days like an advancing army of opportunities just waiting to be exploited. (Don’t worry – by late afternoon or early evening I’m usually waving a white flag…) We aren’t all morning people but within about an hour of the alarms going off we were marching towards a distant Deluc Mountain, ready for the first adventure of the day under a gloriously clear and deep blue summer sky.
After returning from a fantastic ascent of Deluc Mountain, Mike, Cornelius and I packed up our camp at the lower bivy lake and set our sights on the next challenge in front of us. I had planned a route from the Deluc bivy to Dip Slope Mountain. My route traveled north up an untracked valley and around the north shoulder of Deluc NW2 down to another valley leading towards Dip Slope Mountain. We would then up this valley and break through a headwall under Dip Slope to another unnamed lake just under its SW ascent slopes. Cornelius modified my route after looking at Google satellite maps, going up and over the north shoulder directly rather than down and around it in the valley bottoms. This route would avoid a lot of height loss and some bushwhacking but had the potential to flame out around the eastern side of the shoulder. Satellite maps are a valuable route planning tool but they do have the tendency to undersell micro terrain traps such as cliffbands and steep slopes. We agreed avoiding bush and height loss was worth the risk of failure and headed down the headwall protecting the two Deluc bivy lakes from the valley below.
The valley north of our Deluc bivy site was pretty easy going as far as untracked wilderness goes. There were some moments of frustration but overall it was scenic and straightforward. The only difficulty was the re-ascent up the north shoulder of the Deluc outlier between us and Dip Slope in the hot afternoon sun with big packs. It took about an hour to hike the valley from our bivy and another 1.5 hours to ascend to the high point of the shoulder. By 14:30 we were finally taking in stunning views of Dip Slope and the surrounding landscape from the top of the shoulder. We were also looking at a very steep dirt / shale slope that we really hoped would work out. There was nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other and hope for the best so that’s exactly what we did.
Mike and I were on approach shoes for the trip and we both found the hardpan difficult to traverse without feeling very unstable – even with hiking poles. Cornelius was in stiff hiking boots and had an easier time of it, but even he had to be careful on the steep traverse. A slip anyway along this aspect of the shoulder would send the slipper hundreds of meters down to a line of cliffs and a deep valley far below! My photos don’t do the slope justice – it feels much steeper than it appears and rain or snow would be problematic to say the least. In a very strange and unexpected twist we saw recent human footprints on the north shoulder that seemed to stop halfway along the traverse. We didn’t expect to see evidence of humans all the way out here and it goes to show yet again that there are people tramping all over the place! Good for them – it’s a gorgeous area. We were delighted after making the steepest traverse to see not only that the route would definitely go but another “hidden” gem of a mountain lake paradise sitting directly below us to the south.
We made short work of the scree descent to the sparkling aqua coloured lake before hiking along its eastern shore on a wonderful little hike towards Dip Slope Mountain and the next lake. The lake directly under Dip Slope wasn’t quite as scenic as the first lake but we found some pristine bivy sites just above it. At first Cornelius wanted to set up camp on the dirt flats closer to the lake but thankfully we didn’t pursue this idea considering the rainfall we were about to get that night! After setting up camp we ate some good food and I had a coffee in preparation of what lay ahead.
Cornelius even managed to get me to toss the frisbee a few times – this camp was a bit more restricted than our previous one. It was a bit nuts, but the weather was ideal and we had enough time that an ascent of Dip Slope Mountain made good sense. So we did that.
Surprisingly we had full LTE cell signals at the summit of Dip Slope and I’d managed to score an updated weather forecast from SpotWX. Not surprisingly there was now rain in the forecast for the next few nights but strangely the days looked relatively moisture free for now.
We closed out one of my best mountain days of 2019 with a nice sunset and big supper after all our work. And yes – Cornelius once again brought out that darn frisbee! 😉 We were feeling very good about our attempt at Mount Harris the next day.
Day 3 – Mount Harris Attempt
What do I say about day 3 of our 2019 explor8ion into the heart of Banff National Park? It was both a great day and a really crappy one. The weather was nice, the scenery was excellent – but we failed at our initial objective. That’s the long and short of it but there’s more to the story of course…
It rained heavily overnight and as we packed up a soggy camp we noticed the puddles around us growing bigger and bigger as the huge scree face above our camp drained out! I woke up several times overnight to the sound of rockfall from high above – Dip Slope is definitely not what you’d call a “stable” mountain. We started our day with some apprehension about escaping the bivy to the Clearwater River. The plan was to descend along the outflow creek into the valley to the north before crossing the Clearwater River and leaving the big packs at the Clearwater trail. With small day packs we would tackle Mount Harris from the south, using a route pioneered by Paul Zizka and rumored to be no more than a scramble followed by a “hike” to the summit of Mount Harris. We were super excited to be going for what we all considered a prime-list peak – even more desirable than the a-list peaks we’d stood on the day previous.
I was confident in our route down the watercourse from camp. I knew Graeme Pole had used it back in 1990 when he completed his FRA of Dip Slope. Unless the route had washed away since then, it should still be there, and of course it was. We descended steep rubble / slab slopes down the streambed, crossing to its far side to keep things reasonable about half way down. As we exited the bottom of the outflow we tried to stay out of the thickest forest which was still soaking wet from the previous night’s storms.
Eventually I worked my way high onto a scree ledge along steep cliffs guarding the west side of the valley. Cornelius and Mike weren’t convinced but I knew that my route would go and again, it did (ok, I got a bit lucky). Eventually there was no more escaping the soaking wet forest and life sucked for about an hour as we worked our way closer and closer to the Clearwater River. I was nervous about the river crossing for some reason (haha) but it was a complete non issue for us. The Pipestone, Clearwater and Siffleur rivers are all energetic waterways near the end of their courses, but they’re pretty tame near their beginnings where we were.
We finally stumbled onto the Clearwater trail around 10:30 in the morning – 2.5 hours after leaving the bivy under Dip Slope Mountain and certainly longer than I expected. I was getting concerned about the time. I’ve done enough 11000ers to know that they require a certain extra amount of effort and Harris is a near-11000er at 3300m high. The others had no concerns other than sheer exhaustion (!) but we gamely donned our smaller day packs and after a quick break set off down the Clearwater trail. Yes – down. Thankfully we only had to descend about 50-75m and around 1 km before cutting up through light forest to the left (west) along yet another wild and lively stream. The route to the upper hanging valley south of Mount Harris was obvious and easy compared to our thrash in wet vegetation earlier in the day. The sun was out and was pleasantly warm on our necks and we were pumped to be going for such a prime peak on such a lovely day.
Our joy would be short-lived.
As we exited the ascent slopes and worked our way into the lovely valley with fall colors just starting to show, my heart sank. The waterfalls that were to be our scramble route to Harris looked impossibly steep and menacing already from the very first glimpse. Mike, who has a way with words, instantly dubbed the four waterfalls The Crown Jewels since they are beneath Crown Mountain, an 11000er next to Mount Willingdon. There wasn’t much to do but go check out the crown jewels to see if a route would magically appear but I knew that our any hope of standing on the summit of Mount Harris was essentially gone. Sure enough! As we finished hiking up steep scree to the base of the most “scrambleable” of the jewels (easternmost) we could not see a viable line up it that wasn’t full-on climbing.
We looked hard for a scramble line up the jewels, I can assure you of that. I think I’m becoming less and less attracted to the idea of falling off hard scramble routes but Cornelius and Mike are pretty competent and none of us are OK with “failure”. At one point we decided to just start up and see where we got to, but then it became a question of safety. Mike kept pointing out that if it rained while we were hiking above to the summit we were screwed for any hope of descending the impossibly steep and exposed face. And nevermind potential rain (it was clouding over), the waterfall itself was busy keeping the only remotely possible route soaking wet at some of the more intense looking sections. Very reluctantly we realized that we were not up to Mr. Zizka’s scrambling prowess or bravery. This wasn’t going to be our day.
With time on our hands we decided that since we were there anyway, we might as well scout the entire south bowl of Harris for possible scrambling routes through the huge curtain wall guarding its easy upper slopes. We knew Rick Collier had ascended an icy crack with the help of a rope but perhaps the crack would be dry for us? We continued on up the valley despite knowing in our hearts that we were not going to summit Harris. We negotiated some impressively large boulders in the valley bottom before coming to a loose scree slope leading way up to the SE ridge a few hundred meters below the summit. Everything was much larger than it appeared, including this bloody slope! I know the other two guys were hating life as I led upwards but I actually didn’t find it too bad for some reason. As we approached 2900 and then 3000 meters the view back to the NE faces of South Tower, Crown and Willingdon was absolutely spectacular.
Again, we knew we weren’t going to be successful but attempted to find a route through broken cliffs on the SE ridge just below the summit. I even attempted a difficult line before almost injuring Cornelius with horrid rockfall and officially calling it “quits”. Sure! We spotted many potential lines up through the curtain wall guarding south access to Harris, but they were all desperate and unlikely to pan out. Could there be a scramble route up there somewhere? Yup – of course there could be! Good luck finding it though… 😉 Everytime someone would get excited and point out their route idea, someone else would quickly find an issue such as a scree ledge running out, an overhanging section or simply utter the words, “that looks a bit silly”. Everyone was ready to tuck tail and just get back to the Clearwater trail at this point, but I wanted at the very least to complete the traverse to a minor summit at the end of the SE ridge.
In a common theme for the area, the terrain turned out to be a bit more convoluted and difficult than expected but as a rain / sleet storm moved in on us from the north, we managed to summit the highpoint at the end of the SE ridge. The views, especially to the east, were pretty darn special. I felt pretty good about our day despite not bagging the prize. We didn’t have the energy or excitement to build a cairn – there was certainly no evidence of anyone ever being there before and I’m sure there’ll be none ever again either! Obviously I’m not naming this minor bump but it was almost 3100m high and had spectacular views over Martin Creek towards Mount Malloch. It’s funny how we ascend named summits and enjoy the views but then when we get to an unnamed high point we feel like we’ve failed somehow, despite being in a remote, beautiful area with wild views in every direction! Humans are weird animals – I’m pretty sure mountain goats and ravens don’t care whether they’re on a named summit or not…
We descended steep scree slopes SW back into the hanging valley before following the lovely stream and our approach route back to the Clearwater trail. Thankfully the rain was brief and it was dry by the time we got back up to our overnight packs. The day was growing late as we reluctantly struggled back into our overnight packs and prepared ourselves mentally for the ~6km and 300 meters of height gain to Devon Lakes. Mike and Cornelius seemed to get a burst of energy from somewhere that I didn’t have access to over the next 2 hours. I lagged behind them as we all marched like robots up the Clearwater trail towards the Devon Lakes. Our views back to Dip Slope Mountain were pretty stunning in the late day lighting, making us happy that we succeeded on that summit at least.
Finally we arrived at a promising spot next to a stream running down to Devon Lake and decided it was high time to pitch camp. Cornelius didn’t have the energy to look upstream for a nicer spot while Mike and I went about 200m further up the stream off the main trail and found a good location with a bit more room and flatter tent sites. We spent the next hour setting up camp and decompressing from another long day in the hills. It was interesting to meditate on the nature of missing a goal such as the summit of Mount Harris while still experiencing a wonderful day in the heart of Banff National Park – ironically on a high point that has almost certainly never felt human feet before.
The cumulative elevations and distances were starting to catch up with us at this point, especially Mike who hasn’t been out a ton this summer compared to Cornelius and I. I was impressed he was still walking to be honest! 😉 There was no frisbee this night. A light rain started falling just as I crawled into the tent but thankfully it was short-lived and heavier precipitation avoided us the rest of the night.
Day 4 – Clearwater Mountain and Exit via Quartzite Col
Our third morning and fourth day in the heart of the park started early, once again. We had a fairly big day planned, especially considering what was in our rearview trip mirror. On the agenda was an ascent of Clearwater Mountain followed by an exit to highway 93 via the infamous Quartzite Col. Mike was a hurting unit by this time – again, he was doing amazing considering what he was putting his body through! We took a bit longer than usual to get moving this last morning. Cornelius, who was camped a few hundred meters away, nearly gave me a heart attack after sneaking up behind me in the dark and growling right in my ear!! Jeez! He’s probably lucky I wasn’t wearing my sheath knife or bear spray… 😉
Finally, close to 2 hours after I first got up we were tramping along the Clearwater trail along Devon Lakes towards the Siffleur River valley. The day was darn near perfect and I was feeling really good about our chances on Clearwater Mountain via Graeme Pole’s SW slopes route. After descending slightly to the Siffleur River trail we followed it for roughly a km or two before dropping the heavy packs and once again continuing with daypacks to summit yet another giant peak with few recorded ascents.
It took us roughly 6.5 hours to ascend Clearwater Mountain and return to our heavy backpacks along the lower Siffleur Trail. We were pretty pumped after another wonderful ascent in perfect conditions but as I shrugged into my larger pack I was convinced it had become heavier than normal somehow. I knew it was just my exhaustion starting to come through but it honestly felt twice as heavy as when I started which made no sense considering I was down to my last three granola bars and that was it for my food stash for the remainder of the day!
We started off across the Siffleur River valley, heading for a distant Quartzite Col. It took about an hour to cross the lovely meadows which were just starting to don their fall coats. We crossed the last stream and were left gazing up in trepidation at the huge ascent gully to Quartzite Col, looking impossibly loose and high above us.
There are enough resources to get you through the col without me going into great detail but suffice it to say that the final elevation gains of the trip were also likely the toughest – at least mentally! It was a case of one foot in front of the other and don’t overthink it ’cause you’ll pass out or vomit or both. 😉 I was shocked by how well our ascent went to be perfectly honest. We just plodded up the rubble and loose boulders and dirt like robots in stuck in a very low gear. There was no skipping and jumping but there was no serious lagging or complaining either. An hour after starting at the bottom of the col we were cresting it with views into the Mosquito Creek drainage and our exit.
The Quartzite col used to be considered a climber’s shortcut from the Mosquito Creek north branch into the Siffleur River valley. It is used most often to access the Devon Lakes and Willingdon climbs and Willingdon can even be day tripped thanks to this shortcut. Hikers had to go way around, usually over North Molar Pass, down to the Pipestone below Fish Lakes and then all the way back up to Pipestone Pass to access the Devon Lakes and Clearwater Pass areas. Thanks to the Internet and copious amounts of usage, the col now has much easier route lines that various people have discovered over the years. I’ll leave the research to you, but suffice it to say that if you are ok with easy (SC5) scrambling on steep, loose slopes you can do Quartzite col with a backpack.
We descended easily from the col, following smatterings of trails here and there in the scree and grass before I led the way down to the drainage and the unofficial trail alongside it. I was surprised how much of the route I remembered from 2013. One part I didn’t remember was where the small trail has been washed away and ribbons guided us up a random streambed causing a great deal of cursing and debate amongst our team. 😉 It was a silly diversion and someone should take those brightly colored orange ribbons and dispose of them promptly. I’m not sure why we didn’t take them down. After that bit of “fun” we picked up the trail again until it finally merged with the Mosquito Creek trail and led easily back to the parking lot. We ended a fantastic trip with some Pepsi’s courtesy of Cornelius.
It’s been about a week since we came back out of the Mosquito Creek trail. I’ve been thinking a lot about this trip and how it defines exactly what I love about hiking and scrambling in the Rockies. I went pretty lightweight as usual on this trip, wearing approach shoes and carrying minimal food and no water – choosing to drink directly from streams as we crossed them. I carried the entire tent and all our cookware since I figured Mike was pushing things already on this trip – which he definitely did. I was too hot most nights and took too much clothing, as usual. I could have left the crampons behind, saving myself at least a couple more pounds between extra clothes and gear. Oh well.
I can’t get the images of the remote valleys and tarns and lakes and cliffs and wilderness out of my head. I can’t imagine any reason why I won’t go back to the hills as soon as possible to do more explor8ions that I love so much.