Trip Dates: Sunday, July 26 2020 to Tuesday, July 28 2020
Total Elevation Gain (m): 5500
Total Trip Time (hr): 58
Total Trip Distance (km): 75
Peaks Ascended: Kentigern, Harris, Augusta
Rivers Crossed: Mosquito Creek, Siffleur, Martin Creek
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 and steep snow slopes.
Technical Rating: TL3, OT5, SC5, SC6; RE5
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
Phil Richards is a master of planning remote, off-the-beaten-path hiking and scrambling trips. A few years ago, after Paul Zizka posted his annual shot of Upper Martin Creek Falls, Phil spent a few hours with some mapping software and figured out a route to get us in there. Of course we also needed some peaks to bag so Mount Harris and Augusta were added to the itinerary. In September of 2019 I spent 3 days on a loop from the upper Pipestone to the upper Clearwater and Siffleur Rivers with Cornelius and Mike, including a valiant attempt at Mount Harris and ascents of Deluc, Dip Slope and Clearwater. I’m not gonna lie – missing out on Harris was painful and I was keen on getting back at it sooner than later. I can’t tell you how many times over the past year I’ve wondered if we gave it our best shot – despite knowing that we did.
For such a remote and hard-to-access valley, the Upper Martin Creek basin has a number of entry points. Firstly, there’s the route over the Clearwater Glacier from Devon Lakes. This route has been used by guides to get clients up Recondite Peak without the hassles of the much longer (but easier) Dolomite Creek access. Then there’s the really long way around – up Martin Creek from the Clearwater River. Although very scenic, this route would take more than the 2 or 3 days we wanted to throw at it. Phil (and coincidentally Mr. Zizka) devised a third access via a high col (2800m!) between Mount Kentigern and Clearwater Mountain. We decided that July 26 2020 was going to be the date to try this new access route.
Day 1 – Sunday, July 26 2020 – Quartzite Col – Kentigern – Upper Martin Creek Col – Bivy
I picked Phil up in Canmore at 06:30 on Sunday morning. The weather forecast was ridiculous. The 10-day SpotWx showed at least 3 or 4 days of zero clouds, pretty much zero chance of any weather moving in and very low winds at elevation. The forecast was so good I was a bit worried about getting too much sun and too much heat. I like to hike with very little water in my pack to save weight. This trip would be surrounded by snow and ice but I’d still have to watch my H2O intake a bit closer than usual. The best part? No smoke this year from BC wildfires either! We chatted excitedly on the drive to the Mosquito Creek parking lot – this was finally an “A prime” trip in “A prime” conditions! We’d waited a long time for this to all come together. I’ve done way too many trips starting up Mosquito Creek. I’ve even repeated trips up there. Here’s a list of trips I can remember doing from this access valley;
- Mosquito Peak
- Ramp Peak
- Quartzite Peak (x2!)
- Devon, Willingdon, Crown and Tower
- Cataract Peak
- Molarstone Peak
- Minnow Peak
- The Fang
- Puzzle Peak
- Return from “Heart of the Park“
I think I’ve had my fill of this dang valley by now! Oh well. It obviously leads to many great adventures and landscapes so I’ll take a few familiar kms along a beautiful creek any day of the week for all that reward. We were surprised to see frost on the bushes along the creek, it was by far the chilliest we’d experience for the rest of our trip.
Having done the Quartzite Col route twice already, and as soon as 2019 I had a pretty good idea where to go and where not to go. We followed the north branch of the creek along the rough climber’s trail that parallels it, mostly on the climber’s left side. Put it this way – if you’re not on a pretty obvious trail, other than a few marshy sections, you are not on route. Follow the GPS track and you’ll be fine. I chose a slightly different line to the alpine meadows under the col which worked perfectly. Phil was amazed by the views already on the way to the col. I immediately recognized a large pinnacle to the right of the low point on the col which was our target for the easiest descent line down the other side.
As we grunted our way up the western side of the col on a familiar mix of boulders, dirt and shale, I was surprised to see two people high above us, just ready to transition to the west side of the col. I was sure they were taking advantage of the perfect weather forecast and going for Mount Willingdon – one of the more popular and easy of the 54 (or 58) 11000ers. I didn’t think much of it and we kept ascending. Before long we were traversing a scree bench on the western edge of the col, looking down a surprisingly dry east slope to the lovely Siffleur River valley below. This was great news! Having a dry col likely meant much more of our route would continue to be dry than we were originally planning. Obviously the ax and ‘pons were staying in the packs, but this was a positive bit of energy early in the trip.
Phil was pleasantly surprised how easy the easiest line down Quartzite col was and soon we were walking off the loose rock and into the lush Siffleur River valley below. I noticed the two people in front of us deviate strangely downstream rather than straight across towards Willingdon and started wondering where the heck they were going? Surely they couldn’t be going towards Kentigern. Maybe Clearwater? Strange. Sure! This valley gets quite a lot of attention even for a remote location, but for two backpackers to be going the exact direction we were, on a random Sunday morning in July was a bit coincidental. I know I’ve been accused in the past of romanticizing certain aspects of the Rockies, including how popular they are (or aren’t) but peaks like Clearwater and Kentigern are simply not done that often. They are too far out of the way and aren’t high enough or sexy enough to be on many folks’ lists except weirdos like us. No matter – we crossed the boulder field at the foot of the col before hydrating at Siffleur Creek, shrugging into our overnight packs and continuing up the other side into the meadows.
As I wrote earlier, I’ve crossed the Siffleur Meadows more than once and each time it reminds me that not only is it a beautiful area, it’s also a mostly untracked wilderness. And with untracked wilderness comes things like elevation changes, willow bashing, bushwhacking, bugs, more bugs, even more bugs, stream crossings and bogs. Of course there’s wildflowers, birds and pristine views too – and being early in our adventures we concentrated on those things and mostly ignored the others. Ignorance would not work so easily on return, I’m afraid! As we worked our way to the eastern edge of the valley towards a distant Clearwater and Kentigern we wondered where the other group had gone. As we worked our way up a bit of a bushwhack on Clearwater’s SW shoulder I swore I heard voices. I told Phil to stop hiking a second and sure enough! Two male voices were coming up through the bush nearby. Phil shouted out and they responded. Soon a familiar face poked out from between two scrubby pine trees – someone I’d never actually met before in person. Paul Zizka and Adam Zier-Vogel were as surprised to see us as we were to see them. Even more shocking, as we chatted we realized that we were both going for the same access col to the Upper Martin Creek valley and would be spending the same amount of nights there!
It was very fitting that we’d meeting Paul since it was largely his photo of the Upper Martin Creek falls that was to blame for our adventure in the first place. Paul couldn’t believe that we were targeting the same col as him, as far as he knew nobody else had ever done it before. The fact that we’d meet out in the bush on our way to the exact same remote valley was very bizarre. We spent the next half hour or so chatting and walking energetically past the west end of Clearwater Mountain before Phil and I separated and headed for our ascent of Mount Kentigern. Paul thought he might tackle that peak on day 3, after he and Adam completed their planned ascent of Recondite Peak from the valley.
After our ascent of Mount Kentigern – the first recorded since the register was placed by Rick Collier and Graeme Pole in 1996 – it was time to complete our approach to the eastern edge of the Upper Martin Creek valley and our planned bivy site. Time was continuing to slip away from us, it was already after 18:00 by the time we hoisted the large packs onto our weary backs and proceeded up into the bowl between Kentigern and Clearwater. Thankfully we’d spotted a slightly easier and lower line than originally planned by Phil from Kentigern and we headed up the valley towards the line. This was not going to be an easy ascent after all our efforts already on this hot, sunny day. We had to gain at least 400 meters on loose scree to the col and navigate some low cliffs on route.
It didn’t take too long to get into the bowl and we started up. One foot in front of the other. The scree was more stable than it looked from afar which made progress much better than expected. Within an hour of starting into the bowl we were already cresting the high pass – at 2800 meters it was higher than many of the peaks we’ve done this year! The view over the Upper Martin Creek valley was stunning and we were very excited to get into it. The terrain ahead looked deceptively simple at this point and we thought we had maybe an hour to traverse the 4+ km to our planned bivy site on the eastern edge of the valley. Little did we know what we were actually in for…
The next 2 hours were much different than we expected at first. The landscape we found ourselves in was gorgeous, wild and untouched. It was mostly devoid of “green things” or life but had glaciers, brilliantly colored lakes and tarns, countless streams, snow fields and soaring named and unnamed peaks rising over 3200 meters in almost every direction. But it was also much more complex than the topo and satellite maps that we’d used for planning implied. Our planned approach up the right-hand side (south) was the exact opposite of what we should have planned! As the light faded quickly around us we kept running into steep cliffs and waterfalls that prevented forward progress. There were also steep snow banks that proved slightly problematic for our light approach shoes. We could have donned crampons but we were feeling a bit rushed at this point and kept thinking the next obstacle would be the last one! Thankfully we found a much better route on return. We’ve had this lesson before, but it was reinforced on this trip. Terrain that looks straightforward on Satellite maps is never as easy in person.
Finally we scrambled down one final waterfall and found ourselves in the valley flats running out to the eastern edge of the valley. The light was magical in the setting sun and Mount Harris glowed a brilliant red-orange as we hurried to find a bivy before dark. We found the perfect spot near the waterfall, located between Augusta and Harris on a soft, level patch of green. We couldn’t believe it had taken us 2 hours from the col to travel the ~4km to the bivy but this only shows what tired minds and complex landscapes can do.
It had been a long first day! As we settled in for a long overdo supper we realized just how much work we’d done. We’d traveled almost 32km and 2400m over 13.5 hot hours – much of it off trail through untraveled landscapes and with heavy overnight packs. Despite being exhausted, we were happy to finally be within reach of the elusive Mount Harris which looked bone dry and very easy from our vantage. Tomorrow would be a big day again and I was apprehensive about Mount Augusta – a peak that I’ve been after since first seeing it’s magnificent north face from Recondite in 2013.
Day 2 – Monday, July 27 2020 – Mount Harris – Mount Augusta – Waterfall
Our only full day in the Upper Martin Creek valley was everything we expected and much more. The ascent of Mount Harris via easy west slopes could not have gone more smoothly and the views we got from the lofty 3320m summit were stunning and as clear as the views from Kentigern the afternoon before. Mount Augusta proved the worthy objective that I figured it would. With objective hazards, loose terrain and a toppling summit block it wasn’t nearly as straightforward as Mount Harris, despite being a pretty nontechnical ascent.
After returning to camp from a successful (and rare!) ascent of Mount Augusta we ate supper and prepared for the final excitement of the trip. Although our camp was only 500 meters from the infamous Upper Martin Creek waterfall, we hadn’t seen it yet and it was time to rectify that situation. Neither of us were sure what to expect. The original plan was to hiking down below the falls on exit day before leaving the valley. This would require hundreds of meters of height loss and was not guaranteed to work, so we were hoping to scope out some of the route the evening before from the top of the falls. As we hiked to the top of the waterfall the thundering cascade got louder and louder until it was suddenly there. What a moment! Paul isn’t wrong when he gushes about this falls as one of Banff’s most hidden and beautiful landscapes.
It’s impossible to describe the falls fully, or show them in photos or even video. They are not only impressive because they’re so large and beautiful, but because as you stand beside them you know that hardly any humans have witnessed them. I’m not sure if they’re the most remote waterfalls in Banff, but they have to be close to it. And it’s not only the falls that are amazing, the atmosphere itself is magical. Cliffs plunge down hundreds of meters on either side of the falls. A gorgeous lake reflected the dying light and showed surging rapids continuing downstream towards Martin Lake and the Clearwater River. The lush valley below the Upper Martin Creek moonscape hinted at more secrets hidden from our eyes.
Because the falls looked so good from our vantage on top of them, we decided that rather than try to traverse down and around them the following morning, we would be back for sunrise armed with a morning brew and save ourselves a lot of effort in the process. Reluctantly we turned back from the scene and traversed slowly back to camp in growing darkness, our hearts and minds completely filled with the amazing day we’d just had.
Day 3 – Tuesday, July 28 2020 – Martin Creek Falls – Egress
We woke up bright and early on Tuesday morning to a warm wind. After getting some gear ready we set off for the falls to see what they presented in morning lighting compared to the evening before. It was a short walk and we were at the falls, settling in on a ledge beside the falls with severe exposure down to the creek far below. Unfortunately despite the amazing atmosphere the bugs were terrible in the warm weather and no wind – much worse than any other point on the trip. As we waited for sunrise Phil gestured at me to come over and check something out. Incredibly a mama and kid goat were sharing the exposed ledges with us and after vanishing for a few minutes appeared even closer and seemed to be very curious about us.
Eventually mama got nervous and our special neighbors disappeared over a set of cliffs and we were once again alone with about a billion bugs. Finally the sun started coming up and we spent the next 30 minutes snapping photos, taking video and finishing up breakfast in one of the most scenic spots I’ve had the pleasure to spend a morning enjoying.
As we turned back to go to camp and pack up for the hike home I managed to snap a beautiful morning photo over the Upper Martin Lake below. This moment captured the feeling of the place for me. The sunlit valley with the small gap forming the top of the falls was another interesting photo opportunity behind us as we left the valley.
We slowly packed up camp before starting the long journey back to the parking lot. It was HOT as we slowly worked our way out of the valley – sticking generally to the north side before going south around the largest lake. The landscape continued to work its magic despite the weariness and coming across a huge set of perfectly preserved elk antlers was the highlight of our exit. Working our way up snow and scree to the col was more work than it should have been, the heat was already taking its toll.
The descent back into the Siffleur River valley went much quicker and easier than expected, thanks to good scree and snow. From here the heat of the day and efforts of the days previous caught up with us. Billions of bugs swarmed us as we kicked up the vegetation along the valley and the relentless heat of the sun combined with sheer exhaustion worked to slow us down. Elevation changes across the valley sucked too. There were moments of beauty (isn’t there always?) but in general it was a tough exit until we finally crossed the Siffleur one last time and stood under the intimidating east side of the Quartzite col.
Despite appearances, the ascent up loose boulders and scree to the top of Quartzite col wasn’t as bad as I expected. Slowly, one foot in front of the other until it was over. I remember this happening at the end of the Heart of Banff trip in 2019 too. I guess even when you’re exhausted, the body can respond if it has no choice! We celebrated every little cloud that finally came across the sky – but they were very limited, it being mostly clear again. Descent down to the north branch of Mosquito Creek was without incident and soon we were marching down a trail again – much quicker than our pace across the Siffleur Meadows had been.
As we turned down the Mosquito Creek trail the sun shone straight into us and the heat ramped up again. The final 4 kms felt more like 10, but as usual we just put our heads down and dealt with it until it was finally over.
This trip will go down in my books as a top 1 or 2 – at least for a long while. It had everything we could possibly want in a trip including rare ascents of large peaks, clear views, gorgeous lakes, tarns and waterfalls. It had a perfect bivy site, warm summer weather with no storms and mostly clear traveling, even off trail (very little bushwhacking). It was a real adventure, seeking out a new route into one of Banff’s most remote and untraveled valleys. What more could we want?