Summit Elevation (m): 2713
Trip Date: Tuesday, September 29 2020
Elevation Gain (m): 1350
Round Trip Time (hr): 10
Total Trip Distance (km): 21.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break your leg
Difficulty Notes: Easy hiking and scrambling over “Little Marvel” to the SE summit ridge, a few moderate steps to the summit.
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (3rd)
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
I heard the “crunch” before I felt the pain shoot up from my left ankle which was temporarily bent at a very unnatural angle beneath me. Instantly I knew that my season in the mountains was likely over but in the short term I had other things to worry about such as getting down to the parking area. I spent a few minutes dealing with the pain before make my way slowly down the trail. A slow wave of depression, knowing that not only was this trip finishing early but the beautiful fall season was likely over for me slowly washed over me as I slowly descended the trail. Before the incident Wietse and I were having a fun, scenic day in the Banff backcountry near Assiniboine Provincial Park scrambling Marvel Peak and enjoying Marvel Pass and Aurora Lake in beautiful fall colors. Let’s talk more about this good stuff before dwelling on the negative…
In July 2020, Jake Finnan posted a moderate scramble route up Marvel Peak, accessed from Marvel Pass over “Little Marvel”. The route appeared quite easy and remarkably straightforward considering how complicated other routes such as Rick Collier’s post on bivouac.com sounded. Back in 2018 Phil Richards and I were considering an ascent of Marvel but went up Mount Byng instead. Ironically Byng is harder than Marvel, both much more height gain and more difficult terrain to the true summit, but we didn’t know about the easier route at the time. As soon as I saw Jake’s post I knew that I would be attempting Marvel Peak sooner than later and ideally in the fall to take advantage of the bazillion larches in the area. As the last week of September approached the weather forecast looked almost too good to be true. I booked 4 days off and made plans to go on a few final larch-filled peakbagging adventures with Wietse and then with Phil. I was super pumped with the forecast and the planned objectives – even the dump of snow over the weekend before didn’t dampen my enthusiasm much. Wietse agreed to drive and picked me up from my house at 05:30 before making the lengthy drive to the trailhead.
Settlers Road was in prime shape for the most part and we only met 2 vehicles on our way to the Aurora Creek spur road just before the Baymag Mine. Wietse’s SUV had no issues with the spur road and soon enough we were parked at the Marvel Pass trailhead next to another SUV wrapped in chicken wire and looking pretty fresh (i.e. no moisture on the windows). The engine of the other vehicle felt cool but I was pretty sure the occupants had driven up that morning. No matter! They were scaring all the bears away for us which is never a bad thing. We wrapped the SUV in chicken wire (plenty of it laying around at the trailhead) before donning light day packs and starting up the well defined trail to Marvel Pass.
I knew from 2018 that the trail starts out mild in open forest before gaining height up 2 headwalls below the pass. Wietse set a brisk pace as usual and with light day packs we felt great! The sky to the west was clear but we had some clouds over us. The forecast had everything clearing off which would be awesome for views of Mount Assiniboine. For some odd reason many of my trips with great views of Assiniboine have been affected by clouds. The so-called “Matterhorn of the Rockies” doesn’t look as impressive or majestic when it’s only “half” a mountain. For the time being even Mount Eon was sporting a cloud cap beside us. Eon is another huge beast of a peak that’s been on my radar for many years. Jake also managed to ascend that peak in 2020 with Holly Williams – reporting back that the “moderate” route that Rick talks about isn’t so “moderate” in a scrambling sense of the word. But that’s another problem for future Vern – I’m sure I’ll get up there some day. As we approached the headwalls we started running into larches. Sure enough! By the time we were hiking through the scenic rock gardens the landscape was quickly getting digitized by both of us.
As we hiked up towards the pass I thought that the pole and boot prints in front of us on the trail were looking awfully fresh when all of a sudden we rounded a corner and met the owners. It was odd enough to run into people on a Tuesday on this remote trail but in a real twist of how small the world is sometimes, I know Susan and Fred from our sons hockey league! Crazy. We chatted for a few minutes before Wietse and I bid them adieu and continued marching steadily up the trail. Fred and Susan pretty much matched our pace as we passed a sign indicating Banff National Park and descended slightly towards Aurora Lake – beautifully calm and serene in bright morning sunshine. Call me silly but I didn’t realize that the entire Marvel Lake / Pass / Aurora Lake / Owl Lake and Creek area was in Banff National Park. I kind of knew it was but for some reason I thought this immediate area was all part of Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park – which actually ends at Wonder Pass. One of the reasons for my confusion was the incessant helicopter tours that seem to fly into this area, including two that landed at Aurora Lake while we were on Marvel. I thought heli tours weren’t allowed in the national parks and the sound of choppers is the one annoyance I have with hiking anywhere in the Assiniboine area. We took a short break along the shoreline of Aurora Lake, taking in the beauty of a pair of loons with Mount Byng and Aurora looming over their little corner of paradise.
After a short break at the lake we continued up an interesting tiered landscape leading to the SW ridge of “Little Marvel” Peak – an unofficial peak just SW of Marvel Peak that our route traversed over top. (I know there’s another name that is applied to this peak that gets applied due to the nature of social media and sites like Gaia which upload and name features based on GPS tracks. As I indicated in a rant previously on explor8ion, I do not think that we should be naming mountains after living relatives or close friends – even if it’s just in our own personal trip reports or guidebooks. I know that it was done innocently, but in this day and age of everything getting shared with everyone, I hear and see time and again that folks are hiking “So-and-so’s Peak” or that someone scrambled “Mount x and x” – so the names are in general usage and the cat’s not going back in that particular bag…) The landscape around the Marvel Pass / Aurora Lake area is very unique with lots of tiers, little ponds and in our case brightly colored larches and foliage. It was the exact magical place I’d imagined it would be when planning a fall trip into this area already many years ago. We wandered towards Little Marvel, even encountering orange ribbons and rock cairns along the way – yet another testament to the power of the Internet in leading to many more trips to these more remote areas than ever before.
The SW ridge of Little Marvel was no more than easy scrambling but the views were stunning, just as advertised. The views back over Marvel Pass to Mount Brussilof, Alcantara and Eon were epic. Unfortunately Mount Assiniboine and even Lunette were encased in clouds making them appear a little less majestic than they really are. The remainder of our route to Marvel Peak looked pretty simple and rather obvious now that Jake had shared it with the rest of the world. It was hard to figure out why nobody had found or at least advertised that route before but then again I’m sure not that many folks have actually done this peak either so there’s that. Rick thought he might have been a 2nd ascent in 1992 so that’s an indication of its former obscurity. Besides Jake’s group, I knew that Jay Lund and Glen Jackson had done it in 2018 because Phil and I met them on our way to do Brussilof and Alcantara and Glen emailed me beta from their (more difficult) route later. From the summit of Little Marvel we spotted an obvious goat / human track cutting across the scree slope side-hilling up towards the cliffs that we knew we had to reach before cutting up along an easy scree ledge. We took a few more photos before starting the easy and fast descent to the col below.
The descent to the Marvel Peak col was quick and easy on dirt and shale slopes. We measured it at around 100 vertical meters – not that bad to regain on return. It took a bit of wandering to find the traverse track but Wietse found it and we made short work of traversing the loosest of the side-hilling section towards the cliffs. A few rock cairns, likely built by Jake’s group, and bits of their tracks in the loose scree and rock guided us the rest of the way to the cliff face where the scree ledge leading up to the end of the SE summit ridge was easy and very obvious. I love sneaky routes like this! I had to keep telling Wietse to slow down because despite the awesome views in every direction, Mount Assiniboine refused to come out of the clouds. Blue sky kept threatening to move in from the west but the northern sky was actually clouding up even more. I told Wietse I was going to wait until at least 3 for the skies over the big “A” to clear and he was OK with that. Then he took off again and sped along the ledge. Transitioning from the ledge across the nose of the SE summit ridge and getting onto the ridge proper was the crux. It wasn’t particularly hard but likely deserves a moderate rating for a short section.
The SE summit ridge was spectacular! Views were stunning over first Owl Lake and then Lake Gloria and Terrapin towards Mount Assiniboine and over Marvel and Wonder Passes. The scrambling was never hard despite appearances. Views of many familiar and many planned peaks kept me snapping photos. As we approached the summit cairn I could see that we’d be waiting here for a while if there was going to be any possibility of Mount Assiniboine showing it’s whole self. We settled in just under the summit to protect us from a cool wind and started a long summit stay. We were in no hurry since we were planning to car camp at the trailhead and continue with another objective on Wednesday. I negotiated a hard turn-back time of 15:30 with Wietse which ensured we’d get back before dark and left me with as much time as possible for Assiniboine to clear off.
Alas. The clearing didn’t happen. Despite coming close, at 15:29 Wietse was hiking back down the SE ridge and I was snapping a few final photos to make a stunning panorama from Marvel Lake to Mount Byng. At least Lunette was now visible and Eon was completely cloud free. Assiniboine was stubbornly hiding the final few hundred vertical meters of summit but was looking pretty good despite being shy. It would have to do! Maybe I’ll come back some day just to get that stunning shot of fall colors with Assiniboine and the beautiful lakes beneath it’s intimidating east face.
We easily descended the SE summit ridge before turning and descending the NW trending scree ramp to our traverse line. Even having a GPS track didn’t help find the goat track but eventually we stumbled across it and made short work of ascending Little Marvel Peak, enjoying the views under an increasingly cloudy sky. As the sun started to descend under the clouds the landscape around it warmed and lit up beautifully making for some dramatic lighting and photographs.
We traversed around a quiet, still Aurora Lake before starting down the Aurora Creek trail to the parking area and our camp. The descent was going fairly well with gorgeous late day lighting and a good summit buzz. We chatted in between periods of silence – all in all the perfect way to end the day. And then it happened. I was simply walking along, ironically discussing my week’s plans with Wietse and wondering if maybe it was a bit too much for my tired body when I stepped on a slippery rock on the trail and my left foot went sideways under my weight.
Ah well. First world problems I suppose. In this chaotic year of the pandemic I am lucky to be living in Canada and have a job throughout while so many are getting sick, losing jobs and even dying. I understand all that, of course, but it is still a bummer that I can’t continue to take advantage of this smoke free, snow free 2020 fall season. Even worse for me, I can’t walk my standard 15-20k steps per day that helps keep me sane. I don’t think I’m going to make my October workout challenge of 191 minutes of exercise per day! I hope it’s not as bad as it felt and looks a few days later. The ankle is swollen and turning colors. I can walk on it – barely – but feel like I probably shouldn’t. It’s not broken but it’s certainly a bit of a mess! I’m meeting my doctor to get a more professional opinion. Before you start messaging me that I should wear “proper boots”, please don’t. In a very ironic twist I was wearing my most supportive half boots due to the side-hill section and possible snow. I should have just worn my regular approach shoes as I did on Natalko only days earlier in much more challenging terrain! Accidents happen when we least expect them and this is simply what occurred – I’ve twisted ankles in ski boots, hiking boots are not a guarantee against stepping sideways on a loose rock. I can’t do long days in heavy boots so wearing approach shoes has been my solution and I will not stop using them going forward. All that’s left to say at this point is that my 2020 season was one of my favorite to date and even a messed up ankle can’t take away the many peaks, many beautiful landscapes, great memories with great friends and all of the many wonderful experiences I was lucky enough to enjoy.