Trip dates: August 24-28, 2020
Moving time: 39 hours
Elevation gain: 6300m
This trip was something I had been looking at and slowly developing since February. At first it was just the nice colour of the upper Martin Lakes on the satellite image that made me wonder if I could reach the lakes. Then Paul Zizka’s photos from above the lakes made it clear that it was possible to go further. A trip report from an unsuccessful attempt at Mt Harris from the east had me looking at maps and wondering if it would be easier from the west slopes. These guys beat me to it, but after some stressing about how it might be seen as copying (really I just needed to go to bed), I decided to go for it. After all, I wouldn’t be following their path exactly, just in certain sections. Still plenty of room for me to feel cool and original.
Day 1 – Mosquito Creek to Devon Lakes via Quartzite Col, and Mt Willingdon
I started hiking from the Mosquito Creek parking lot at 8am. After just over 4km, I reached the turnoff for Quartzite Col. I was worried that I would miss it so I was paying really close attention, but I don’t think I needed to worry. Right before the main trail crosses the fourth footbridge, go straight instead of turning right and stay on the left side of the creek. The trail looked like it had seen a bit of recent horse traffic, making it extra easy to follow. Where the horses were going, I don’t know. It looked like they turned around at a completely arbitrary point. After a few streams come down from the left to join the main creek, the trail got a bit fainter. About 4km after leaving the official path (8.3km total), a flagged cairn in a creekbed on the right signaled that it was time to start heading up. I climbed up the left side of this side creek and pretty soon I reached a nice meadow from which I could see Quartzite Col.
I read enough trip reports to know that you don’t aim for the lowest point of this col, but instead for the two very square pinnacles to the right. There were a few cairns leading through the rubble and a bunch of trails as well. Everything pointed towards the higher point so I feel like most people are pretty aware of the “proper” route now. From the pinnacles, another cairn led me further to the right to the top of a scree slope, free of any steep or exposed sections that could cause issues. From there on, trail through scree and then cairns across talus led me to the grass below the col. From there, I could see Clearwater Pass directly across the valley from where I was. There’s more valley than you’d think! After descending down to the Siffleur River, which is mostly willow wetlands at this point, I climbed back up to the pass. I went straight across the Siffleur trail and continued straight until I met up with the Clearwater trail.
At this point I was a little stressed because I had planned to ascend Mt Willingdon on the first day, but I also knew that the weather forecast was calling for rain in the afternoon. I wanted to have my camp set up and be heading up the mountain by 1pm, but that was looking less and less reasonable. I ended up camping near the outflow of the upper Devon Lake, aka Upland Lake, I think? I started off for Willingdon at 1:30pm, which was close enough to my original plan that I was willing to risk it.
I took the typical route up Mt Willingdon, following the west ridge. As I gained elevation, I could see rain clouds approaching me but they seemed to be separating and going around me, leaving me dry while drenching the areas on either side of me. No complaints here!
I was hauling ass because I knew my luck wasn’t going to last. I reached the cliff band in 1h40 and it wasn’t at all what I had expected. I knew the rock would be damp and icy, but it’s also rotten. I followed the ledge to the left until I reached the fixed rope that has been left there. I gave it a few tugs, had no idea if it would actually hold, and went for it. MAYBE I could have caught myself if the rope hadn’t held, but realistically, probably not. From the top of the rope, it was just more scree to the summit. The precipitation was just starting to hit, in the form of light snow. I quickly signed the summit register, took some pictures, and started booking it back down.
Just after I got back down the cliff band, the rain really got going with a healthy dose of wind mixed in. Can’t-hear-yourself-think wind. I considered stopping and adding more layers, but there wasn’t anywhere protected enough to do that and I decided I would be warmer if I just didn’t stop moving. Once I got back down to the lakes, the wind and the rain were less strong but definitely not stopping. I got into my tent and changed into dry clothes, managing (with great thought and effort) to keep my gear dry in the process. The forecasts had suggested the rain would stop around 6 or 7pm, so I decided to wait and hope for dry weather to make dinner. The rain did end up stopping at 6pm and I stayed dry. After dinner, I went for a little walk over to the other (actual?) Devon Lakes.
Day 2 – Devon Lakes to Upper Martin Creek via Clearwater Trail and Martin Creek
With the morning sun in my eyes, I started off down the Clearwater trail. It’s a pretty nice path. The forest it passes through is quite open and mossy, with a bit of a fairytale look. Of course, there are open willowy sections, but not too many.
After 3 hours and 14.5km on trail, I reached Martin Lake.
Here, the adventure began! I couldn’t find any beta for this creek. All I knew was that people had used it to get to where I was trying to go. I followed the south shore of the lake on a good game trail. There was some minor deadfall, but overall the going was easy. Then the lake ended and swamp began. The useful game trail petered out and the wide valley bottom became quite soggy. It was a tossup between bushwhacking or swamping, and I chose to embrace my inner moose. I have no idea if the going would have been any better on the north side of the creek. Martin Creek at this point is quite large and fast, and clouded with sediment. I’m not a fan of crossing fast rivers that I can’t see the bottom of, so I stuck to the south side at first.
As I progressed up the valley, the shores of the creek became less swampy and more gravelly, although it was still pretty consistently wet. I reached a wide open area that looked like a lake, but the map just shows this section as being more braided than the rest. Immediately above this was a waterfall that can easily be circumvented on the left side.
Shortly beyond the waterfall was an actual lake. This middle lake has cliffs extending all the way down to the water on both sides, but the north side is forested and the cliffs are smaller. I crossed the creek at the mouth of the lake and went as far as I could along the north shore before hitting cliff. From there, I went straight up a mossy, treed gully beside the cliff until I finally found a break I could get through. This led me to another cliff, which I also went up. In hindsight, I gained more height than I needed to. But it worked out fine. There is a waterfall above the middle lake, but I bypassed it completely and never saw it. I descended through forest back down to the creek and continued to the upper lake.
At the mouth of the upper lake, I crossed the creek again back to the south side. From the southern-most part of the lake (upper end, south shore), a route up the imposing headwall is obvious. Head up a rubble slope to the top of a small waterfall, then follow the creek above the waterfall up and around the rock to your right. With a large pack on, it should never be more than easy scrambling. Once I was past the steep rock to my right, I turned and headed northwest and down, toward Upper Martin Creek. I camped in a small green space with some of the only little trees in the area, just above the large flats of the creek.
Day 3 – Mt Harris and Afternoon Wanderings
I had a relatively relaxed morning. I knew that my only firm goal was to summit Mt Harris and that it should be pretty quick. The sunrise started out gloriously!
But very quickly, the sky clouded over and the beautiful sunrise colours disappeared. I headed down to the top of Martin Falls to check them out before heading back to camp for breakfast.
Eventually, I got going. I headed up the valley between Mt Harris and Mt Willingdon. The place to begin the ascent of Mt Harris was pretty obvious. It’s the spot without cliffs. From there, I began the long, boring slog up. The lower part of the slope was large, sturdy talus. As I got higher up, the scree got looser but it was never a treadmill. The weather got worse as I got higher. The wind was constant and a bit of snow fell, although it didn’t stick. Fortunately, the clouds cleared up quite a bit by the time I reached the false summit. The wind did not stop. I found the summit register in a large cairn at the false summit. Vern and Phil were the first people to sign it since it was placed in 1996. I’m pretty sure Paul Zizka has been up there, too, but must not have signed for some reason. Vern and Phil’s entry made it clear that I was not at the summit! I crossed the snowy arete to the east (true) summit, which has a repeater station on it. I took a few photos, but I wasn’t keen on spending too long up there. It felt like the wind chill was between -5 and -10, and it wasn’t pleasant. I crossed back to the false summit and descended back down to my camp for lunch.
After a relaxed lunch at my campsite (I usually eat while walking, instead of stopping), I headed out for a bit of a wander. First I headed up towards Kentigern Col. Vern’s report mentioned that travel was easier if one stayed on the north side of the valley. I wanted to see for myself, so I headed up on the south side. I didn’t find it to be too bad, but I had the advantages of a daypack and a different perspective. I could see the cliffs he struggled with, and also the route around them. That’s not something you would be able to see if you were descending instead of ascending. I took the north route down and it was definitely easier than the south route.
With my first few kilometers for the next day determined, I headed back to the waterfall. In the morning, I hadn’t crossed over to the north side of that falls because I didn’t want to get my boots wet so early in the day. That was no longer a concern, since I had tramped through the many braids of Upper Martin Creek immediately after lunch.
I continued up the side valley east of Mt Augusta for a while. I didn’t have a destination in mind. I really love this kind of rocky, grassy terrain. There was a herd of mountain goats that seemed pretty annoyed with my wanderings. Eventually I made my way back down to the creek, soaked my boots again while crossing it, and returned to camp for the evening.
Day 4 – Upper Martin Creek to Devon Lakes via Kentigern Col and Siffleur Trail, plus Devon Mountain
I started off the day knowing exactly where I was supposed to be going, thanks to the previous day’s exploration. Most of the time, I could see the col I was trying to reach so navigation wasn’t much of an issue. There were plenty of bumps and dips along the way that got kinda frustrating after a while. It sucks to go up something, think you’re making progress, and then see that you just have to lose that elevation again right away. But it was a beautiful morning and I felt good, so it wasn’t too bad.
After crossing lots of scree and talus and a little bit of snow, I reached Kentigern Col.
Most of the west side of the col is lined with cliff, but there is one small break that allows passage down the other side. It was marked with a small cairn, but I saw the break before I saw the cairn. From below, it looked relatively easy to spot as well. Again, just aim for the part with no cliff!
Slowly, I made my way down to the Siffleur trail. After I got out of the upper part of the drainage, I traversed south along treeline until an arbitrary point where I decided to go down. The vegetation was interestingly varied. A lot of the forest was pretty open at the bottom, which made for mostly easy travel. However, there were occasional spots that had dense bush. Eventually I made it to the Siffleur trail, which was not where the GPS track suggested it would be. At the spot where I hit it, it was actually headed back up the slope I had just descended. I don’t know if this is just a case of the original GPS track having a long interval between signals, leading to straight lines between points, or if there was a trail lower down that has been washed out or overgrown or something… Anyway, eventually the trail on the ground rejoined the trail on the map.
As Devon Mountain came into view, I was feeling a bit conflicted. I felt pretty tired, but I don’t like backing down from the plans I’ve made and I also don’t like having too much down time at camp. So after some grumbling, I left the trail and made my way up the grassy shoulder northwest of Devon Mountain. Here, I put some stuff in my daypack and left my big pack behind. From here, the way was pretty clear. Just go up the scree. A herd of goats watched me from above for quite a while before I got too close and they took off. The last bit before the summit of Devon Mountain was slabby, but nice and grippy and fun. Consistent with the theme of the trip, it was a bit cloudy once I got to the summit. But it wasn’t too windy, so I was actually able to hang out for a bit and enjoy life.
After descending Devon Mountain, I joined the Clearwater trail and made my way to Devon Lakes. This time, I decided to camp between the lower lakes. I had seen a pretty good-looking campsite during my walk after the rain on the first day and I wanted to camp there. It was a fairly impacted site. There was no vegetation left, which turned out to be a bad thing, although I didn’t know it yet… It was a beautiful evening. Warmish and not too windy.
Now for the bad… It got pretty cold that night. I knew from the weather forecasts I had seen that this was likely, but expecting it doesn’t make it nicer. Then, around 5am, the windy changed direction (I had been pretty sheltered from the wind up to this point) and really picked up speed. Not a huge deal, except for that dirt I was camped on was nice and dry and dusty. So there I was, cold and slowly being covered in a fine layer of dust that was being blown through the mesh of my tent, feeling pretty damn sorry for myself.
Day 5 – Devon Lakes to Mosquito Creek via Quartzite Col
The wind died down by the time I got up. I had really worked up how awful ascending Quartzite Col from this side would be in my head and I wasn’t looking forward to it. But the morning air was nice and fresh and the skies were clear and I got over myself pretty quickly. I think I managed to find a slightly more efficient route across the Siffleur valley, or at least it felt like I wasn’t gaining and losing as much elevation as I had on the first day. Then I started the slog up Quartzite Col. It wasn’t tooooo bad. Not nearly as bad as I had convinced myself it would be. The scree wasn’t too loose on the trails. On the other side, I just couldn’t find the trail down through the rock. I knew there were cairns because I had followed them up, but i just couldn’t see anything. In the end, I just aimed for the bottom because it doesn’t really matter. Once I made it down to the creek, the trail was fairly easy to find and of course it only got more distinct as I got closer to the Mosquito Creek trail. The last 4km back on official trail was super speedy! I didn’t see anyone on the trail, which was a bit unexpected. This trip marks the longest I’ve gone without seeing another person. On my previous 5-day trips, I’ve seen people on the second day. This time, my last interaction was on Monday evening when I was returning to my tent after Mt Willingdon.