Escarpment River Scrambles (Mt Kahl, Erudite Peak, Mt Heinrich, Nordic Ridge, Mt Martha)

Trip date: August 2-6, 2021

Moving time: 39hr

Distance: 107km

Elevation gain: 5600m

As soon as backpacking season ended last summer, I was making plans for this year. I really enjoyed my Martin Creek trip last year and I was hoping for something similar: remote with little beta, scramble-able peaks, blue alpine lakes, and maybe a nice waterfall or two. Many hours spent scouring Google Maps led me to the Escarpment River area in the Siffleur Wilderness Area. Throughout the winter, spring, and right up to a few days before departure, I tweaked my plans until I had a pretty solid idea of what I wanted to accomplish. The biggest challenge in planning this trip was the lack of beta, and the age of what little was available. In the end, I had three main resources: the Putnam party’s 1973 CAJ article “The Siffleur Wilderness”, and Rick Collier’s Bivouac.com reports of ascents of Nordic Ridge and Mt Kahl in 2001 and 2002 respectively. I would use the Putnam party’s route to ascend Mt Kahl and Erudite Peak, and then attempt Mt Heinrich by continuing NW from Erudite. Rick’s Mt Kahl report would be useful for general route info up to the main fork of the Escarpment River, and his Nordic Ridge report mostly just confirmed that the peak could be scrambled from the south ridge. I had no beta at all for Mt Martha, but it looked fairly straightforward on topo and satellite maps. Mt Martha is more unofficially named than most peaks, not even appearing on Google Maps or Gaia . There seems to be a few different peaks in the vicinity that have been given this name over the years. I would be ascending the peak labelled as Mt Martha on Bivouac.com, between the two main branches of the Escarpment River at GR 522452.

Day 1 – Siffleur Falls Staging Area to “Third Fuhrer Lake”

After a dry, hot, and smoky June and July, I managed to pick the first rainy day in months to begin my journey. I started my trip in a light drizzle on the wide Siffleur Falls trail. I decided I would follow the Terrace trail that appears on Gaia and would connect with the cutline trail after a couple kilometers. So at the first junction at the end of the boardwalk, I headed up to the bench above me instead of following the road to my right. I couldn’t find a solid trail on the bench, but for some reason I thought it would be obvious where I should turn to hit the cutline. It wasn’t and I missed the “junction”, which was a great way to start the day. I stayed up on the bench for an extra 2km before straightlining through the trees to the cutline. Yeah, I know what I’m doing.

Oh, there’s the trail. Great start, Sara.

Once I was actually on the cutline trail, travel was quick and easy. The trail actually deviates from the cutline a couple times to avoid unnecessary height gain/loss, which was an unexpected and welcome surprise! A sign at the side of the trail marked the boundary of the Wilderness Area. Beyond this point, there was much more deadfall on the trail. Most of it could be clambered over without too much struggle, but there were a few spots where it made more sense to just leave the trail and go around. About ten minutes after crossing the boundary, the trail begins a series of curves that parallel large bends in the Siffleur River. This was the first time I could actually hear the river, and it sounded angry.

When I had been planning this trip, the feasibility of fording the Siffleur was a major question. The Putnam party lost an ice axe and needed a drying-out break after their ford. Rick Collier chose to bushwhack up the east side of the river rather than ford the river again (having had a tough time on previous trips). And here I was, hoping to cross it on a day where it had already been raining for hours. Suffice to say, I was nervous.

After the last curve, the trail returns to its cutline-straight path and drops down to the level of the river. I left the trail and went to the riverbank to assess my options. The river was quite brown so it was hard to gauge depth, but it looked deep and it was definitely flowing quite quickly! I was at the downstream end of a ~3km stretch in which the river appears braided on maps, so I didn’t necessarily need to cross right where I was. I could keep looking for a good spot as I continued upstream. But the river was split into two distinct channels where I was, and I decided that I might as well give it a shot here, and back off if needed. I made it across the first channel on the first try, but then it took three attempts to find a reasonable crossing of the second channel. Both crossings were right at my limit, just over knee-deep (I’m little) and quite swift. Not being able to see the bottom made it tougher.

One channel of the Siffleur River, where I crossed.

With most of my water-related anxiety relieved, I made quick progress towards the Escarpment River confluence. In most places I was able to walk on gravel flats or grassy riverbank. A couple times, the river pushed me up into the forest but not for long, and travel wasn’t too bad there anyway. When I reached the Escarpment River, I realized that my river-crossing troubles were not over yet! It was much narrower than the Siffleur, but looked just as deep and seemed to be flowing even faster. I had no choice but to begin travelling upriver on the north bank. The first kilometer was fairly quick and easy along dry side channels, but then the valley got narrower and I was pushed into the forest more often. 2.5km from the confluence, at a spot where I could see what looked like a large rubble field on my (north) side of the river, the river split into two channels and I decided to take advantage and cross.

Crossing the Escarpment River.

This crossing was just as challenging as the Siffleur ford had been, and I was really hoping that I would be able to stay on this side for the rest of the day. To accomplish this, I actually waded along the edge of cutbanks a few times. The edge of the river wasn’t deep, so this seemed better than gaining elevation to go above the cutbanks. 6.5 hours into my day, I reached the valley containing the four blue lakes that had attracted me to this area in the first place. These are referred to as the “Fuhrer Lakes” on Bivouac.com, numbered 1 to 4 from highest to lowest elevation. I followed the creek up climber’s right at first, thrashing through thick willows. The valley climbed steeply for the first few hundred meters, then mellowed out. I alternated which side of the creek I was on fairly often, looking for animal trails but rarely finding anything substantial enough to be worth following. As I gained elevation, the creek got smaller until it dried up completely. Travel along the dry creekbed was pretty easy and I followed it to the fourth (lowest) Fuhrer Lake.

Fourth Fuhrer Lake.

I went around this lake on the west bank. The forest here looked like it would be quite a ‘whack to get through, so I returned to my earlier strategy of wading along the edge of the water. While the water clearly leaves this lake under the ground, it arrives in the typical above-ground fashion. Before I reached the feeder creek, I turned right and followed a short dry drainage which brought me to a bit of a bench above the creek. I stayed above the creek and cut off its first bend above the lake before the bench ended and I returned to the creek. The right side of the creek got a bit more willowy than the left, so I switched sides. I knew that at some point, there would be a red rock band and then I would be at the third lake. I didn’t realize how large this rock band would be! Before I could actually see anything, I could hear a waterfall. Eventually the waterfall and rock band came into view and I could see that the terrain ahead of me looked more like a scramble than a hike. At this point, I was inside a cloud and the fog was too thick for me to see if the other side was any better, so I just stuck to where I was. After an easy scramble beside the waterfall, I reached the third lake.

At the top of the red rock band, looking down the waterfall.

As the sound of one waterfall faded behind me, the sound of another came from across the lake. I couldn’t really see it through the clouds, but I made my way around the north side of the lake towards it. The fog swirled and lifted, allowing me to see an impressive waterfall cascading down a 200m cliff.

So that’s where all the noise is coming from!

I found a flat spot on grass near the waterfall and set up camp. Originally, I had hoped to summit Mt Kahl on the first day but this obviously wasn’t going to happen. I couldn’t get a clear enough view through the fog to see the goat route up the cliff, and trying to navigate inside a ping-pong ball above the cliff didn’t seem like a fun time either. But at least it stopped raining, so I was able to enjoy a pleasant evening as I watched the peaks above me fade in and out of the swirling clouds.

The west ridge of Mt Kahl briefly emerges from the cloud.
Went for a wander and caught a moment of clear sky.

Day 2 – Mt Kahl, Erudite Peak, Mt Heinrich

I woke to a hazy morning on Tuesday. I had been hoping that the previous day’s rain would result in at least one day of clear air, but no such luck. At least it wasn’t too heavy! The first task of the day was to find the Putnam party’s goat route that they used to get above the 200m cliff. I followed the lake shore beneath the waterfall, wading a short section where the cliff extends straight into the water. Then I began a grovel up loose scree along the base of the cliff, towards a couloir above me. Just below the couloir, a narrow ledge system appeared. This feature wasn’t obvious when I looked straight at it from my camp, and I’m very thankful that the Putnam party recorded its presence and that the goats showed it to them!

From the top of the scree cone, the goat route follows slightly-lighter-coloured rock up and right.
The narrow, exposed traverse of the goat route.

While not technically difficult, the ledge traverse was very exposed. I was very glad that I didn’t try it in wet conditions the day before, and that I only had my light daypack on. The ledge system led up to a scree slope littered with truck-sized boulders, above the two upper Fuhrer Lakes. This slope formed the west ridge of Mt Kahl, which I plodded up directly into the sun. Two hours after leaving camp, I was at my highest point of the day.

Straight up towards the morning sun along the west ridge of Mt Kahl.
Mt Kahl register placed by Rick Collier.
No entries since Rick’s original one.
Looking west. Mt Martha is the nearest layer, with Nordic Ridge and Icefall Mountain in the next layer and Mamen Peak in the third layer behind Nordic.
Harris and Willingdon barely visible at center left. An outlier of Recondite Peak at center, with Augusta to its right in bg and Recondite directly behind Antevs.
Perren/Abstruse and glacier over the upper Fuhrer Lake.
Erudite Peak, with Mt Heinrich behind it.

After signing the summit register (the only register of the day), I returned the same way I came. I crossed between the two upper lakes, then began my ascent of Erudite Peak along a gentle yellow rib. The prominent peak directly above the lakes is merely a high point along the ridge, with the summit hiding further to the north. The yellow rib became a broad yellow scree slope, with a convenient goat trail traversing upwards towards the ridge.

Between the two lakes. Erudite Peak route follows the yellow rock up from left to right. Summit not visible.
And THAT’S the view I came for! Looking back on the upper Fuhrer Lakes from partway up Erudite Peak.

Once I was on the ridge, it was a simple scree slog to the summit.

Looking across the Escarpment valley towards Cheshire Peak.
Mt Heinrich, with Mt Loudon and Siffleur Mountain in the hazy background.
Big fan of the view south today.

Next on the list was Mt Heinrich. I returned to the spot where the goat trail had gained the ridge, then descended straight down on soft, dirty scree towards the glacier and lake below.

Straight down soft scree towards the glacier and lake below Mt Fuhrer.

I skirted around this lake on the east and north shores. Travel along the north shore was slow through large, unstable rubble. Same goes for the ascent up to the col between Fuhrer NW2 and Heinrich’s ridge. Lots of large, loose rocks that really seemed out to get me. The ridge to the summit was a loooooong 1.5km walk. There was a tiny cairn at the true summit, and then a massive cairn at a lower point further along the ridge. I think this peak can be scrambled from the Siffleur side, although this route might be less attractive since the 2018 Porcupine Creek wildfire scorched the forest lower down.

A slightly less hazy look at Mt Loudon and Siffleur Mountain.
The big cairn below the summit.
Mt Fuhrer towers above the unnamed glacier and lake between Erudite and Heinrich.

After a lunch break, it was time to begin the long trip back to camp. I retraced my steps down to the lake, then back up to the ridge below Erudite Peak and then back down once more to the upper Fuhrer Lakes. I hadn’t left any cairns to help myself find my way back along the ledge traverse, but between goat trails and my own footprints on the rain-softened ground, I was able to find my way back down the spooky, exposed route.

3 out of 4 blue lakes!
Don’t slip now…

I got back to camp at 4:30 and probably could have moved my camp back down to the Escarpment River, but spending a few hours reading on the lake shore was much more appealing and I spent another night at the Third Fuhrer Lake.

Day 3 – “Third Fuhrer Lake” to upper Escarpment Valley, Nordic Ridge

Smoke in the air makes for a nice, orange sunrise.

I decided to descend the red rock band on skier’s left, as it seemed like less of a scramble. It was less exposed, but the bush was a bit thicker than I had hoped for. At the base of the rock band and waterfall, I retraced my steps from the first day back to the lower lake. After the lake, I followed the dry creekbed until the water reappeared. This time, I found a very well-defined animal trail on the left side of the creek.

I’ve followed official trails less defined than this animal trail.

It came down to the creek a couple times, but mostly stayed high above it on the left side. It was still quite high up by the time it reached the main Escarpment valley and showed no signs of descending, so I left the trail and dropped down relatively open slopes (some old forest fire debris, but not too bad) to the river. Travel up the river towards the main fork was pretty open and quick.

The riverbanks are much more open as you approach the forks. Looking at Mt Martha.

The river was also noticeably lower, since it wasn’t raining and the day’s glacier melt hadn’t really kicked in yet. I crossed a couple times to find open ground without any difficulty. At the fork between the east and south branches of the river, I left the river and started gaining elevation above the east branch on the south side of the river. Rick’s report mentioned a canyon which I had missed in all my map-examining. I wasn’t sure how canyon-y this canyon would be, but I didn’t want to risk getting walled in and needing to backtrack.

Pretty canyon-y down there!

After the fantastic animal trail earlier that morning, I was hoping to find something similar. I wasn’t so lucky this time and couldn’t really find anything worth following. Fortunately, the forest floor was relatively open and travel wasn’t terrible. I wasn’t moving quickly by any measure, but at least I felt like I was making progress. Above the canyon, the terrain guided me back down to the “river”, which was just a pleasant little creek at this point.

“Escarpment” is a good name for this place. High cliffs with waterfalls everywhere!

Travel was straightforward beyond this point and soon I was below the Nordic Ridge drainage in a lovely meadow.

Entering the meadows of the upper Escarpment River. Icefall Mountain stands tall above the valley.

I set up camp beside the river and by the time I had done that and eaten lunch, it wasn’t even 1pm yet. My plan for the day was an afternoon ascent of Mt Martha, which I thought would take less time than Nordic Ridge. But I had also budgeted A LOT of time for the bushwhack to this point in case the canyon section was longer and/or the vegetation was brutal. I got to my camp spot way earlier than I had expected and now it seemed like I had plenty of time for an attempt on Nordic Ridge. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to find a reasonable route up the mountain from this side. I couldn’t find any trip reports other than Rick’s, and his group ascended from the Ram Glacier on the other side. I had an idea of a route from the Escarpment side, but satellite maps tend to “flatten” major features and topo maps can only be so detailed. I was confident that if I reached the Icefall/Nordic col and joined Rick’s route, I would be fine. It was just reaching that point that I was very unsure about. I had hoped to get a look at the mountain from Mt Kahl, but smoke had eliminated that opportunity.

I started up the drainage that drains the north side of Nordic Ridge. As soon as the drainage turned to a north/south orientation, I took a hard right and went straight up scree to the ridge above me.

On the ridge, with the beginning of the scree ledge in the distance.

I followed the ridge until I reached the summit block, where the ridge became a scree ledge running below the block.

Scree ledge traverse below the summit block.

Sticking close to the top of the scree ledge, I traversed around the summit block towards the col. The scree was frustratingly loose, but eventually I rounded the last corner and could see that I would be able to join Rick’s route!

Woohoo, that’s the col!

I didn’t go all the way to the col, and instead started going straight up from the point where the above photo was taken. There were two parallel gullies above me and I chose the one to climber’s left.

Up the left gully, for no reason in particular.

The scree below and within the gully was horrendously loose, and any rock that looked solid was also highly suspect. This is a mountain that would rather be flat. The gully ended and I traversed left to another gully, which led me up to the ridge. The summit was only a short distance from there. When I picked up the summit register, it sloshed. Not a great sign. Sure enough, it was full of water. I tried to get the notebook open to the first page, ripping it in the process.

Soggy. No other entries.

Obviously there was no signing this one! I didn’t know what else to do with it, so I packaged it all up and put in back, still soaking wet.

Checking out Mt Martha.
Icefall Mountain.
The Ram Glacier. Mt Huestis on the left.

I retraced my steps on descent, where the loose scree was much more enjoyable than it had been on ascent! I agree with Rick’s assessment of Nordic Ridge as a moderate scramble, mostly because of the untrustworthy rock on the summit block. The approach from the Escarpment side is frustrating, but likely not more technically difficult than from the Ram side. I spent the evening laying in the meadow, reading my book as yellow butterflies flitted around my head.

Day 4 – Mt Martha, upper Escarpment Valley to Siffleur River confluence

I started my ascent of Mt Martha directly across the river from my camp. A narrow grassy route led up through the trees to a rubble bench, which I followed south until I reached the rib that would take me all the way to the summit ridge.

Sunrise on Mt Martha. My route follows the bench above me to the skyline rib, which leads to the summit.

From Nordic Ridge the day before, I had been able to get a good look at this mountain and was pretty confident that it would be a straightforward, easy scramble. The rubble on the ascent rib was a bit loose in places, but it was much more stable than the scree on Nordic Ridge had been. Just below the summit ridge, there was one small cliff band that was easily avoided to the left.

Lots of bright yellows and reds on this mountain! The cliff directly ahead can be avoided to the left.

There wasn’t a cairn at the summit, but I know from the “which peak is Mt Martha?” Bivouac page that this was not the first ascent.

Augusta at center and spiky Recondite to its right.
Looking down the Escarpment River valley.

I built a small cairn, then, for once, did NOT retrace my steps! I opted for the longer scenic route I had picked out from Nordic Ridge the day before. I followed the summit ridge south for a few hundred meters, then began a descent on lower-angle rubble and grass slopes to the headwaters of the Escarpment River.

A long, chill descent on rubble to the grass below.
The upper valley is beautiful!

This upper valley would have also been a lovely place to camp, with plenty of flat grassy areas. As I followed the “river” downstream, the banks became more willow-choked. Between the Icefall and Nordic Ridge drainages, most of the ground is covered in willows. This “scenic route” ended up taking a tiny bit longer than the ascent had, and it was noon by the time I had everything packed up for my retreat down the Escarpment River.

I wasted a lot of time trying (and failing) to find a good animal trail above the canyon section. Once I got to the forks, I was not stoked to see how much brown, fast-flowing water was coming from the south branch. Turns out glaciers melt more in the afternoon than they do in the morning. Wild. I was quite surprised to find myself thigh-deep in water when I crossed at a spot that had been simple the day before. I followed my route from the previous days, staying on the south side of the river and occasionally walking in the water along the shore. I crossed to the north side at the same spot I had crossed on the first day, and it was almost as difficult as it had been the first time.

At some point during the afternoon, I started feeling some uncomfortable pressure against my right Achilles tendon from the back of my shoes. They were new-ish shoes, but they hadn’t bothered me at all up to this point of the trip. I’m still not sure what changed, the shoes, my ankle, or my gait? Anyway, something changed and started causing this discomfort. By the time I made it to the confluence with the Siffleur River, it had crossed the line from discomfort to low-level pain. It was a relief to take my shoes off when I set up camp at the confluence, and I hoped that the night would be enough time for my body to recover.

The brown Escarpment River races to meet the Siffleur. Looking up the Siffleur valley.

Day 5 – Siffleur River confluence to Siffleur Falls Staging Area

Surprise! My ankle did not get better overnight. I started the day off with a manageable amount of pain that got worse as the day went on. Also, heavy smoke had moved in overnight and a fine layer of ash had settled on everything. On the plus side, the Siffleur River was much lower and clearer than it had been the evening before and I had a good feeling about the upcoming ford. I made my way down the east bank of the river until I reached the spot where I had crossed on the first day. This time, it was simple. Not only was the water lower, but since it was clearer I could actually see the shallowest places to cross instead of just guessing.

Ugh, smoke. At least the Siffleur is low and clear!

Once I was back on the cutline, I started the grueling 12km march back to the car. I was well and truly hobbling as fast as I could go. If I limped dramatically, I could mostly avoid putting pressure on the tendon. But sometimes I accidentally took a normal step and the shoe would touch the back of my ankle, sending a bright, searing pain shooting up through my leg. It gave me the full-body shivers that a nails-on-chalkboard sound would produce. I honestly can’t remember the last time I was in that much pain. It was fucking miserable. I did not try to find the Terrace trail this time, sticking to the cutline and road all the way to the boardwalk. I spent the last kilometer scowling at all the happy people out for walk as I desperately speed-hobbled towards my car and the sweet, sweet bliss of sandals (also, cookies and chocolate!).

Despite the painful ending, I’m super happy with this trip. This was the most time I’ve spent off-trail and the longest I’ve gone without seeing another person. I did so much research and it paid off, with all my pre-planned route choices working out. This was the most peakbagging-centric trip I’ve done, and while I do enjoy just seeing how far I can walk in five days, it was fun to switch things up. I had hoped to also bag Cheshire Peak as a part of this trip, but the timing didn’t quite work out. I guess I’ll just have to come back!

10 thoughts on “Escarpment River Scrambles (Mt Kahl, Erudite Peak, Mt Heinrich, Nordic Ridge, Mt Martha)

  1. Great read Sara. I have contemplated a trip in to the Escarpment River area for a while but never put it into action. Kudos to you for getting in there. The photos are just how I imagined it would be like, it looks like a special place. So I suppose I need to get my ass in gear and get in there.

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      1. Yeah, it definitely made me jealous when he said you were planning on going in there! Maybe next year I’d like to camp below that waterfall and at the headwaters of the river and visit some of those peaks. This year just seems to be the year of injuries for me. Would be good to go for a run with you and say hi once I’m fixed up.

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  2. Reading this again today and just as amazed as I was the first time. That’s a dang long ways from the middle of nowhere by yourself. Not sure I have what it takes for a trip like this but maybe someday. That traverse does look terrifying! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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