Aster Lake Triple
Mount Northover (above): Elevation - 3003m / Rating - Difficult / 4.25km one-way from Aster Lake / 700m Gain
Warrior Mountain: Elevation - 2973m / Rating - Easy (with glacier crossing) / 5.75km one-way from Northover via alternate descent / 600m Gain
Mount Cordonnier: Elevation - 3021m / Rating - Easy (exposure) / 2.2km one-way from Warrior via ridge / 250m Gain
Total Distance: ~18km / Total Elevation Gain: ~2000m / Total Time: 7 hours / Watch Data
Team: Brett Rayner / Jared Smith
Ever since I bought a copy of "Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies", I have been trying to line up time off with a permit to camp at Aster Lake. The potential for scrambling from this base camp is huge and the views from the lake are stunning (on a clear day...with no forest fire smoke in the air).
Aster Lake is an 11km trek from Upper Kananaskis Lake. Starting on a popular trail around the lake, the route then breaks off through the woods and ascends steep scree slopes to the top of a headwall. After walking through meadows, and along a stream, you scramble up to the outhouse, overlooking the backcountry campsite. There are only five tent pads, and is almost always fully booked during peak months in summer. It is the kind of trip you need to book very far in advance, and pray that the weather is on your side. Most people camp here while doing the Northover ridge traverse; a three day, two night backpacking trip. I have seen some reports from people who have run the entire thing (~30km) in a day, and I have this on the list for a future mission.
Warrior Mountain stood out at me from the pages of the book, as an objective that I would have to work up to. The scrambling on the mountain is quite easy, but the route involves a glacier crossing, and is quite remote. It would require good route finding skills, experience on glaciers, and strong legs! This year I knew I was ready, and just had to find the perfect time to make it happen.
About a week before, I received my work schedule for the September long weekend and subsequent week, and I had two days off after the holiday. I immediately checked the Kananaskis backcountry vacancy chart, and was pleased to see there were four available permits for the Monday evening at the end of the weekend. Now I only had to find someone to tag along (or risk going solo).
I messaged my friend Jared to see if he could swing it. He was working on the Monday, but only until 3:30pm. Jared works at Mount Engadine Lodge, and I figured there would be enough time for me to meet him, drive the short distance from the lodge to trailhead, and make it to camp before dark! That would give us a whole day to attempt some peaks, and then return home in the evening. He was game, and just as eager as I was to complete a few scrambles in the area. Warrior was on the list, and Mount Cordonnier connected via a ridge, so it was an obvious double. Because we sometimes like running up mountains, I needed to find one more objective to make it a full day (and who doesn't love three peak days!). The closest mountains were Sarrail (which I did in April of 2016) and Mount Northover. The later wasn't on my radar, but after some reading and hunting on the internet for beta, I was excited (and pretty scared) to add it to the list. Northover is rated 'Difficult' and Kane warns that people have died attempting it. This will probably be the hardest thing I have attempted ropeless.
A week seemed to fly by, and after a weekend of the Banff International String Quartet Festival (work), my 'weekend' began. It was a bluebird afternoon as I drove down the gravel road from Canmore towards Mount Engadine Lodge. As I pulled up, Jared and his puppy Hazel appeared from nowhere. After a few moments of puppy love, we were off towards the Kananaskis Lakes.
We hit the trail at exactly 5pm, and passed hordes of long-weekend hikers heading back home. After 25 minutes of speed walking, we were alone on the trail. After an hour, as we came to the far end of the lake, I kept an eye out for the trail heading left to Hidden Lake. If you are not paying attention you can miss it, but the trail is very good, and in about 10 minutes we emerged from the woods at the edge of the lake. The water level was pretty low, which allowed us to walk the trail through the lake bed, avoiding the up and down of the trail in the woods along the shore.
Mount Indefatigable across Upper Kananaskis Lake
Jared crosses a nice new bridge built after the 2013 flood
Hiking towards the far end of Hidden Lake
The trail heads up through the woods, and then emerges to the left onto an open hill. As you crest the hill, the headwall comes into view. The next section of trail has bits of scrambling, and higher up you traverse over cliffs climbers right, and a slip could mean disaster. In spring of last year there was still a ton of snow here, which made navigating this section even more exciting. Once you pass a smaller waterfall on your left most of the elevation gain is complete, and shortly after you reach the top of the headwall. It is just a short jaunt to camp (2km), through forest and past a very dry (at the time) Foch Pond. After losing some elevation down some short switchbacks, the trail follows a stream bed to the right. Look for a cairn on the left as the trail cuts up some rocks and out of the stream.
Following the trail after popping out of the woods
Following the scree trail towards Fossil Falls while trying not to breathe in too much smoke
Looking back towards Hidden Lake
Approaching the top of the headwall
Trail down the stream after the right turn
Not long after leaving the stream, the campground outhouse will appear atop a small rock band. Jared laughed and made a comment about having to scramble to the toilet! Once up the rocks, the campsite appears, complete with waterfall, food lockers, and a few tents. It was everything I had imagined and more! We quickly found a flat grassy spot to setup our tent, and then we headed off to make dinner. As the light faded into darkness, we sat eating food, and discussing the plan for the next day. A very bright light shone through the smoke from behind Mount Foch, like something out of Close Encounters, and soon the Moon rose above the mountains. We had a big day ahead, and climbed into our sleeping bags just after 11pm. Before closing my eyes, a bright flash lit up outside the tent, which I found out later was a meteor!
Arriving at camp as the sun fades
Home for the evening
The moon (one night shy of full) and Jared
I was wide awake by 5:30am. I felt well rested, and I guess I was just excited for the day ahead (and maybe a little scared of what was waiting for us on northover). As it began to get brighter outside, it was hard not to notice how thick the smoke was in the valley. I stayed in the warmth of the tent until 6:30, then I braved the crisp morning air to have a look around. We were going to have to wait a bit for the sun to (hopefully) clear out some of the smoke. Jared emerged from the tent to watch the sun rise over Mount Sarrail. We made some coffee, and ate as much oatmeal and trail mix as we could handle. Then we set about the task of packing up (and stashing) camp. The only things we would have on our backs would be the following (with slight variation):
1 - Running vest 1 - Headlamp 1.5L - Water (bladder)
1 - Spot emergency beacon 1 - Folding knife 500ml - Gatorade
1 - Small first aid kit 1 - Waterproof jacket 2 - Clif bar
1 - Suunto Ambit II GPS watch 1 - Pair ice cleats 2 - Granola bar
1 - iPhone 6 1 - Epi-pen (bee stings) 1 - Honey stinger bar
1 - Climbing helmet (with GoPro) 1 - Life straw 2 - Honey stinger gel
1 - Bear Spray 1 - Chapstick 1 - Tube anti-chafe cream
1 - Emergency bivy sack
We set off from camp at exactly 9:30am. The adventure (and the running) had begun.
Mount Sarrail in the early morning light
The sun draws Jared out of the tent
The smoke is so thick we can't even see our objectives
Approaching Aster Lake with Warrior Mountain in the distance
The first part of the trail was fairly easy. We followed it through a little meadow, to the edge of Aster Lake. We went around the lake clockwise, and at times we were quite close to the water. The trail splits from the shore at the far end of the lake, and skirts around a toe of Mount Marlborough. The trail fades into a river of rocks, and although there probably is a trail you can follow, we just headed straight for the first objective. We had to find our way onto the South ridge of Northover. There was a very easy, partially grassy ramp, that took us no time to get up. The start of the ridge is quite easy. First a long, flat-ish plateau, and then a wide semi-steep scree hill. This is where things start to get difficult. You have gained a fair amount of elevation, and as the ridge narrows (to knife-edge for some sections) you become aware of the huge drop on either side.
Jared checking out Mount Northover
Aster lake through the haze
A little jog to the best part of the day!
A little bit scared about what comes next
Next up: the final bit of ridge and summit block
The first hard section is a slab that slopes down to the right. You can skirt to the left of it, but that is on loose rock and is still quite exposed. The easier route (for us climbers) was to stick to the slab, and hold on to the top edge. Our Salomon Speedcross trail runners stuck nicely to the rock, and we were at the summit block in no time. I went to tackle the crux of the route first. It involves scrambling up some slab, which has good but small hand holds. The crux move is in an 's' curve feature in the rock. The slab is steep, and there are no good holds to the left. I solved this problem by securing a good hold with my right hand, and using a friction move with my left foot and hand. once you step up there are more holds and you move onto less steep ground. The summit is now just steps away. we made it to the top in 1 hour and 40 minutes after leaving camp!
Jared on the exposed slab
Looking back from where we came, with Joffre looming in the background
Brett approaches the summit block
The summit block is huge
Brett standing on the summit of Mount Northover
We only stayed long enough to sign the register, and then we headed for the North ridge and the alternate descent. Some accounts of the descent make it sound just as hard as the ascent up the South. I found that my shoes gripped the slab well, and anytime I felt uncomfortable, I just sat on my bum and shuffled my way down. We passed two bolts on the way down the slab, one of which had a short length of thin cord hitched to it. The descent to more stable ground took less than ten minutes, and we stuck close together to keep from knocking rocks down on each other. Then it was a short slide down loose scree slopes to the col where we linked up with the Northover Ridge hiking trail. After a short rest break we took off down the trail back towards Aster lake, and the start of the scramble up Warrior Mountain.
Jared heads down the North ridge, with Mount Lyautey dominating the background
Northover Ridge hiking trail with the Royal Group peaking out of the clouds behind
Taking a short break before running over to Warrior
We made good time getting back down to the gravel flats
We passed a few people who were headed for Three Isle Lake campground, and a guy who was hiking the ridge traverse in one day. Soon we were running down the trail towards the gravel flat. The network of trails, stream beds, and cairns galore can make this area confusing, but if you know where you want to go you can just head towards the objective (as long as you are not cutting across undisturbed meadows). Eventually you will find a cairn or trail going the same direction that you are. Our goal was to cross the glacier on climbers right where it was shortest, and then head up rock above the ice to get to the ridge line. We headed up to a small waterfall where we used our life straw to drink water, saving the liquid we had in our packs for higher up where there was none.
We scrambled up a left trending ramp, and then up slabs to a ridge which led to the foot of the glacier. It was much steeper then expected and was weeping furiously, but there were no crevasses. We donned our micro spikes, and set off towards skyline. It took less than 10 minutes to get up and across the glacier. I was happy with where we crossed as farther climbers left there were some obstacles, and the glacier was at least three times wider. There is a short scrambling section to get up onto the ridge, with a few path-like options. Once on top it is just 200 vertical meters to the summit. The smoke was rolling in again, but the views were still great! We also got a great look at the ridge over to Cordonnier, which looked pretty straight forward.
Starting up the glacier towards Warrior
Back on solid rock after a very short glacier crossing
Jared approaches the summit of Warrior, with Joffre (center) and Cordonnier (right)
Jared on the summit of Warrior, with Northover behind
We had an extended stay on top of Warrior (20 minutes) and then headed over to the last summit of the day. We made quick work of the descent down to the col, and within minutes we were slogging upwards again. The ridge over to Cordonnier, according to Kane is easy. There is one section where the ridge narrows and you must walk along a ledge of rotten rock, with steep slab falling away to your left. If you do not like exposure, then you probably will not like this.
After gaining the final scree slope it is an easy walk to the final (and highest) summit of the day. We ate the last bars in our packs before heading back down to the campground. There is an alternate descent down from Cordonnier, which we decided to take. It was very steep and had a lot of loose rock on slabs, which made it very slippery. Once down lower there are clear, low angle slabs which make travel faster. We soon found a cairn, which guided us to a trail back to the gravel flats. In no time we were running around Aster Lake and back through the lovely meadow to camp.
Now we slog up the other side
The ridge to Cordonnier gets interesting
Sweet ridge man!
Jared approaching the summit of Cordonnier
Mount Joffre (3433m) with Mount Mangin (center)
Summit panorama on Mount Cordonnier
Looking back up the alternate descent route off Cordonnier
Panorama from the gravel flats with (L to R): Mount Cordonnier, Warrior Mountain, Mount Northover, outlier of Mount Lyautey
It had only taken us 7 hours to complete the loop! I couldn't have asked for a better time, and just the fact we had made it safely back from a day of hard and dangerous scrambling left me feeling elated. We found our stashed packs where we left them, and headed back to the empty campground. Jared boiled some water for dinner, and we sat by the river replenishing our energy for the hike out. We still had another 11km back to the car, with heavy packs, and tired legs from earlier.
We reluctantly shouldered our gear, and headed along the trail out of camp. The air was thick with smoke, and it was nice to be headed home. We made it out in 2.5 hours (because Jared was running at times and I was forced to chase), and it felt pretty damn nice to sit down in the car. The sun faded into darkness as I drove down the gravel road after leaving Jared at the lodge. What a fantastic two days we had just had!
The smoke was worse for the hike out
Larches. Are. Coming
This trip was hands down my favorite multi-peak day ever. I have wanted to summit Warrior since my love for scrambling began in 2014. Aster Lake has always been on my list for a night of camping, and the area is just beautiful. I wish we could have stayed one more night, as the hike out after a big day in the mountains was very draining, but my schedule didn't allow for it. If you are lucky enough to secure a permit for camping, I highly recommend getting in there and exploring!