Jasper to Hamber (EPIC)

I’m not exaggerating with the title I’ve given this, most likely the most awesome off trail adventure in my hiking history….So far anyway. Its hard to know where to begin but all I can say is that this is one of those treks which grabs hold of your senses and never ever lets go. Be it the sheer challenges in the unknown depths of wilderness, or those quiet reflective moments high in some desolate pass with the night winds howling around your own protective cocoon. I’m going to try to take you where I went, or most likely give you an idea of the struggle. And that’s just what it was, 10 days of it.

It all began where most day hikes or weekend camping trips end, at the southern tip of the 2nd Geraldine Lake and the campground there. As usual I really had no idea what I was getting into except that it would be wild and trackless. Some people at the campground said I was in for a great trip and they don’t know how right they were. Cairns and bits of trail led the way to the 3rd and 4th Geraldine Lakes, absolute gems of turquoise, bordered on all sides by meadows. The giant toothlike shape of Mt. Fryatt loomed ahead as a stunning and vast meadowland was reached. I call the high gap above the lakes Fryatt Pass, purely as a point of reference. The views all around were jaw droppingly unbelievable. At once the scope of the ordeal became apparent, and looking out across a timeless landscape I began my quest for Hamber.

Alnus Col

Alnus Col

Hamber Provincial Park is a remote park tucked away on the B.C. side of the continental divide, bordering Jasper National Park. Scrubby, low plants with rocks underneath which rolled under my feet were all the rage during the descent to a pale blue lake(Aqua Lake). It seemed to take forever to get down there and at its far end an inquisitive group of marmots looked and looked as if they’d never seen anything like it. Maybe they hadn’t. Soon I would be nothing they’d ever smelled either. Yeah.

An incredibly dense tangle of coniferous growth impeded my progress down to the next lake(Green Lake). It was like going through a car wash minus the water and the car. What kind of descriptions have I thought up. My next goal was to reach the valley containing Divergence Creek(a tributary to the Whirlpool River) and it lay just ahead. Well not exactly. Punishing scree slopes mixed with deadfall, big rocks, and densities of something or other I’d rather not go into detail about got in the way. But what could one expect as there was no ruddy trail.

Alnus Creek Headwaters

Alnus Creek Headwaters

During the pauses between exhausting bouts of exercise(there’s got to be a better word) darned if I wasn’t having a good time. Clouds of bugs, mainly mosquitoes had formed a permanent cloud about my head, which felt like it had been in an oven on grill. Little wonder as I’d just bushwhacked around the side of a mountain, diagonally. The trees began to thin and around one more ridge lay …heaven…. Unobscured views of peak after peak, untrodden meadows stretched every which way, and a small gurgling creek flowing down from somewhere below Mt. Lapensee, the dominant castle-like mountain in this area. Lapensee, Belanger? and Franchere were three guys who went through Athabasca Pass in 1814. This I know, and so each had a peak named after them, Belanger being nearby, but Franchere in the Astoria River valley of Jasper I believe. Can’t recall who they were, but anyway it was long ago.

Approaching Divergence Pass

Approaching Divergence Pass

I stayed in the meadows for a couple of days , studying the way ahead with the zoom lens on my camera. The pass(Divergence Pass) which would lead into Hamber loomed above me across the valley at the headwaters of Divergence Creek and the brilliant green lake of the same name. Please remember I’m making up the names of the lakes and passes as they are in reality officially nameless. Surprisingly, and with a great deal of joy, I found the way to the pass much easier than the previous absurdities encountered, the forests were open with lots of meadowfilled corridors amongst the trees. I was truly happy, not a worry in the world. The backpack itself had become a part of me, not weightless, but unnoticed as the paradise was an all consuming feast for the eyes, ears, scent. Another treeless meadowland, simply sprawling,filled the scene below Mts. Lapensee, Belanger, Parnassus.

Aqua Lake

Aqua Lake

To the west I then began the ascent towards Divergence Pass and Hamber Park, a remarkable scramble up talus slopes set beneath a hanging glacier. Chunks of ice from the glacier lay in piles here and there so I didn’t linger here too long, just in case. Well packed snowfields led the rest of the way to…..almost the pass. An extremely steep slope of downshelving slabs of rock and scree. It couldn’t be done standing or even crouching, so on my butt it was, the bottom of the pack dragging along as the feet probed for holds. More snowfields after this, and then…the moon. It might as well have been, and only one small spot to pitch my tent amongst chaotic heaps of geologic jumbles. I’m not kidding! Piles of rocks just don’t describe the scene, I’m sorry. I knew I wasn’t at Edith Cavell below the Angel Glacier that’s for sure, no cairns!

Divergence Pass Entering

Divergence Pass Entering

The weather had remained uncannily good and rainfree so far, and I had been taking it for granted. What a different experience it might have been. Next morning began the absolutely monotonous ascent up to the pass proper, an endless sea of rocks most of which were quite large and teetered under my weight. It was sooooooooo….. quiet, quiet. If I stood still there was just the sound of the pulse in my ears. How long had silence reigned here until this two-legged traveller stumbled through? I wondered about alot of things…out here… and there was time to wonder, and think and wander. All the time in the world. Green, green meadows , ice clad peaks and a small subalpine tarn entered my field of vision at once. I was in Hamber.

Enroute to Hamber

Enroute to Hamber

Simply absorbed and overwhelmed with this fairytale land odyssey, it wasn’t until the movement out of the corner of my left eye reminded me to be on the lookout for wildlife. It was a grizzly, not so big, but still a grizzly, and it ambled along the other side of Alnus creek, maybe 10 metres away if that. My heart pounded with an intensity I’d never known, but I kept calm and walked slowly past as if I were just some other mountain animal or something. Oh hey, how you going grizz. Out for a walk huh. Yup. Me too. The bear was behind me now and out of sight, until a splash caused my head to look back suddenly and in time to see it raise its nose a little and then run away faster than I’ve ever seen anything move. Like a film, on high speed. It must have just caught my ….smell. I saw it staring down at me through a gap in some trees, and then it was gone.

Entering Jasper from Hamber

Entering Jasper from Hamber

So now all the dug up meadows became more visible all of a sudden. A couple of days of relative ease followed, camping at both the North and South Alnus Glacier outwash plains. I studied the maps, rested, studied some more, especially on how I was to proceed from here. A group of peaks in the area were named after Capt. Scott, the Antarctic explorer and some of his associates. I could hardly imagine the scale of their hardships. Mine was a pleasure cruise.According to the maps, a high col on the divide could permit access back into JNP, but who was to be certain. I had to go to find out.

Extreme moonscape hiking for hours and hours finally led to the final approach over solid snowfields, little suncups covering the entire snow surface. Also, a long track mark, as if something had dragged itself, or maybe it was just a trail where some animals had come through and melting snow had altered its appearance. Anyway, it was strange. Now an 80 degree snowface presented itself. Oops. I’d never chopped steps into hard snow before, but I learned quickly, climbing up like on a ladder as the ice axe did its job. The first time it was really needed and glad to have brought it along.

Mount Lapensee

Mount Lapensee

The col was only about 3 metres wide and the descent into Jasper on snow with wet moraine and slush underneath began after one last look back into Hamber.I’m sure it was the very remote Clemenceau Icefield Group off in the far distance, and the peaks which cradled the unseen Fortress Lake at the extreme far end of the Alnus Creek valley. I made camp on a flat moraine area just below the col and contemplated the return to civilization. The weather remained glorious throughout the remainder of the trip, remarkably the tent fly hadn’t even got wet.

The next day’s trudge over more talus and scree was more bearable as it was all downhill, the return to treeline a welcome change from the drudgery of the rockfields. A sinking stream ended at a moraine dammed lake, and then a sound…. It was a chopper, perhaps carrying some climbers or fishermen to Fortress Lake. I’m sure they saw me, probably thinking..what in the name of… The sinking stream reappeared deep in the slopes of the bush, roaring out of a hole. Caves in the making no doubt. It was going to be a hot day, and I was a little bit concerned about the creek and river levels.

Whirlpool Valley

Whirlpool Valley

The Whirlpool River was finally reached and I’d come down a tributary just to the northeast of Ross Cox Creek after a glance at the map. Wide windy and beautiful is how I’d describe the dryas flats which stretched as far as the eye could see, however a curious cliff-like area ahead raised some worries. It was time for a scouting trip. Leaving camp behind it soon became apparent that one branch of the Whirlpool flowed right next to the cliff band, cutting off my progress. The cliff formed the base of a ridge which I first climbed to check out if there was another way. SCOTTY!!! ENERGIZE! It was a very steep scree covered sheet of rock without benefit of any trees to hang on to. Just when I’d thought it would be all clear sailing, then this. The river’s current was slowed by outcrops of rock which jutted out into the main stream, so facing the cliff I inched my way along probing for holes and the like. It was hip deep at its worst, but no current to speak of. Was it cold? Not as bad as the ice water in Scott Creek, which was the next ford to cross. It was raging and very very fast, the Scott Glacier visible in the distance. I knew things would be much more difficult with the pack on but I tried to choose the shallowest place to cross. Hard when you can’t see the bottom due to the glacial silt present. I stomped and slapped my legs on the far side to try to get some feeling back into them, and then the bridge! I’d read about the existence of a footbridge across a gorge containing the Whirlpool River and here it was.

The Whirlpool Valley trail then stretched away into the distance. And now I had to go back and do it again. Oh brother. The next day was even warmer, 30C on my thermometer.And yes the water was even higher. Instead of hugging the cliff band with the pack on, I opted to ford the branch of the Whirlpool outright, and very nearly got swept away. Stupidly, I grabbed a crossing stick which shattered into pieces half-way across, leaving me afraid to move one foot so was the force of the stream. Hastily I lunged for the gravel covered river bank, which was waist high, and was soon dragged a short distance downstream until my elbows and forearms were used to haul my butt out of the torrent. This was serious stuff and my camera bag had been dunked. Cripes! Numb and shaking, Scott Creek was all that separated me from the trail, and it was much worse than anticipated, but the hasty bug had me and in I went, nearly getting bowled over a short distance from the bank. Midway across, the water boiling up to my hips, it was do or die, and once again I lunged myself forward into the shallows, landing full force on one knee, but feeling nothing.

My legs were like slabs of dead meat and once on the trail it became apparent that it would be a slow hobble. My knee would hardly bend in either direction, obviously inflamed from the fall. The final forced march to Moab Lake was a painful 27 km. slog using a branch for a crutch, and luckily a couple of nice people at the Moab Lake parking lot ferried me into Jasper. After a week or so of ice and beer, I was out on another trip. Unforgettable!

John Boehm

Story and Photos submitted by: John Boehm

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