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Clearwater Mountain

Trip Date: Thursday, September 05 2019
Elevation Gain from Bivy (m): 1150
Trip Time from Bivy (hr): 7.5
Trip Distance from Bivy (km): 14
Reference Trip: Explor8ion in the Heart of Banff National Park
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something.
Difficulty Notes: A relatively straightforward scramble once you’re on the right mountain. 😉 Near the summit there is opportunities to get into trouble on quartzite slabs especially if they get wet or icy. Don’t underestimate the size of this mountain.
GPS TrackDownload GPX File
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (3rd)
Map: Google Maps


After a very interesting and somewhat disappointing day attempting Mount Harris, I woke up ready for a clear “win” on Thursday September 5th. Our agenda for this particular day was not unambitious despite all the exertions of the previous few days. Clearwater Mountain was to be the swan song of this trip, followed by a death march over Quartzite Col and back down Mosquito Creek to the parking lot. It took us a while to get going but by around 07:30 we were finally plodding our way out along Upland (Devon) Lake and over Clearwater Pass towards the Siffleur River valley. We turned west and then north down the valley on a small side trail that merged with the lower Siffleur trail. We got soaked thanks to the tight vegetation and moisture from the previous nights rain and eventually we came to a spot where we agreed to drop the heavy packs. 

The sun rises over Clearwater Pass in this view to Dip Slope Mountain from Devon Lakes.
Mount Harris attempt and Clearwater Mountain Route Map

Sidebar : Information about Clearwater Mountain

Clearwater Mountain is like the other mountains we scrambled on this trip – it has a somewhat intriguing history and ascent record. For such a prominent peak in a pretty accessible location, Clearwater received its first recorded ascent in 1980. Why so late? Simply put, the FRA for “Clearwater” back in 1925 wasn’t the right mountain! Many folks think they’ve scrambled Clearwater but they go up a lower summit to the SE – labelled incorrectly on all maps that I could find.

Another Little Mystery Bites the Dust

Complicating matters a bit more is that there’s likely an summit register on the incorrectly labelled peak since I know who put it there! 😉 In all this confusion it’s impossible to know just how many ascents there have been since 1980. It’s not many as we found very little evidence of humans other than the cairn and the beat up original register frozen into a solid hunk of ice and pretty much unreadable.


 

Honestly, I’m not sure what I was expecting from our day on Clearwater Mountain but in the end it highly exceeded anything I anticipated. The day was flat-out gorgeous and the mountain was flat-out fun. As we ascended above the soaking wet vegetation in the lower Siffleur valley we were treated to one of those rare late summer days with deep blue skies and a light, refreshing breeze. This year has been damp to put it mild and days like this were even more rare than usual. I felt strong as we pushed our way higher and higher up the relatively easy SW slopes towards what was quickly becoming a massively foreshortened upper mountain.

It was strange to be on such a foreshortened slope! I usually pick out a target to shoot for and can go in one push to attain it – not on Clearwater! I picked out a distant snow patch and it just kept looking further and further away as we kept ascending higher and higher. The “scree” slope that led to it was also not scree, it was a mix of quartzite boulders and dinner plates. Thankfully the terrain was mostly stuck in place on this mountain and we ascended quickly despite all the detritus.

I thought the snow patch high above was about 20 minutes away. An hour later I wasn’t there yet! And that “scree” slope is boulders – not scree.
Stunning views over Clearwater Pass and the Siffleur Valley as we near the summit ridge.

As we neared the snow patch I realized it was actually the false summit and we were almost at the top. Views were opening up all around us as we ascended higher than many of the peaks along the Siffleur, Pipestone and Clearwater valleys. Cornelius was in desperate need of some food at this point and Mike was a bit behind us so I was left on my own to tackle the interesting looking summit block. The rocks on the summit block were quartzite – white and blocky and a lot of fun to scramble. I was extremely happy not to have rain or snow on them as I tiptoed across some exposed ledges and even negotiated a moderate / difficult downclimb that was avoidable below. In a first for me on probably around 700 summits, there was some fine, white beach sand just under the top. Yes, beach sand! I almost stopped to play a while but the wind was cold so I kept ascending.

A perfect perch along the summit ridge with views of Harris, Willingdon, Crown, South Tower, Hector.
Looking back at the moderate down climb I did at mid center. Easier terrain at lower right but more slabs.

Finally I was on the top! I can say this with full confidence – Clearwater Mountain has VIEWS. Eventually Cornelius joined me and we marveled at our good fortune to ascend such a beautiful mountain on such a perfect late summer day. In a strange twist I found dozens and dozens of little “Alberta 75 year anniversary” pins scattered all over the small summit block. These were obviously from the first ascent party in 1980 since they celebrated that year. I found the obvious register container – it was very solidly built with a crappy plastic cap that had broken over the years. It was empty.

The incredible summit ridge of Clearwater with the true summit at left. Some of Banff’s hardest-to-reach and hardest to photograph summits at left.
Views back along the summit ridge at right and over the glacier to Harris and the Willingdon group at left. Martin Creek at mid left.
Augusta (R), Recondite, Simpson (Profound) and Mount Perren (Abstruse) (L).
Views back over the Siffleur River Valley. Kentigern, Osgood, Simpson, Perren, Recondite and Augusta at right.

The wind was very cool at over 10,750 feet. Mike was still a bit behind but we knew he could tackle the summit block solo while we waited out of the wind somewhere just below. As we prepared to leave I lamented that I couldn’t find the summit register which I knew just had to be somewhere, especially with all those anniversary pins. As I turned down the summit block I found the register. It was a solid hunk of frozen ice and had fallen completely out of the container holding it! I was happy to find it but it was in such bad condition I decided to take it with me and see if I could read it later when it thawed.

Kentigern at fg right with peaks from Forbes (L) to Conical and Quill (C) to Loudon (R) in the distance.
Some of the most elusive summits in Banff National Park including Mount Augusta, Icefall Mountain and Mamen Peak at left, along with the hidden Willingdon Glacier and Willingdon Group at center right.

We met Mike just below the summit block and took some great photos of him ascending and at the summit. Soon he joined us and we started down. 

Find Mike in the huge terrain! Cornelius and I got cold waiting at the summit so we descended a bit and waited for Mike to tag the top which he did.

We managed to find some scree slopes further to the west from our ascent line but eventually we were back on the SW ridge looking to escape into the sublime looking valley / bowl south of us. We picked a few lines into the valley and it was another Shangri-la – a perfectly hidden, gorgeously warm, green valley with a beautiful little stream draining the mountains above. We all drank deeply and enjoyed a break before continuing down easy alpine meadows to the Siffleur trail below.

More incredible views off the summit ridge looking east over the glacier to Mount Harris, Martin Creek (C), Augusta and Recondite (L). Mike is barely visible on the summit at upper left.
We decided to take a scenic route off the lower mountain into the lovely south basin.

We found a less used but much drier upper Siffleur trail running about 50-100 vertical meters above the lower trail we’d taken that morning. I don’t know how far this upper trail goes but it’s much better routed than the lower one and avoids all the swampy areas we dealt with on approach. The Siffleur trails also seem to be a bit overgrown with lots of vegetation growing right beside the trail and overhanging it. I’m not sure how much park maintenance is still carried out on these remote paths?

The south basin is a gorgeous place to spend a warm afternoon.
Exiting to the Siffleur valley from the south basin.

After reuniting with the large packs again it was time to tackle the infamous Quartzite Col and our exit to the highway.

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