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Upper Athabasca River

Upper Athabasca River

Fortress MountainI had the hik­ing bug real bad and sim­ply couldn’t wait for sum­mer to return on this occa­sion, so it was time to put my skills at snow­shoe­ing to the test, and in April(not win­ter, but def­i­nite­ly not spring either),of 1999 decid­ed to go some­where I knew was rel­a­tive­ly flat and open. Ide­al for snow­shoe­ing, right? Oh yeah. And it was to be none oth­er than the Upper Athabas­ca Riv­er Val­ley, but of course. I had explored some of that val­ley in the sum­mer months and knew it to be open and flat, so fig­ured it would be a good place to go. And it was.

My start­ing point at Sun­wap­ta Falls was an easy begin­ning to a trip as any, the snow was very firm , crusty, and I didn’t sink into the stuff at all. What a qui­et place the wilder­ness was when the land­scape remained car­pet­ed in a lay­er of white. The riv­er flowed, but not with the vol­ume it retained much of the sum­mer. And the wind…ah the wind…my favourite element..an utter­ly calm­ing sound which has brought me into peace’s realm time and time again. A calm and sound­less for­est would sud­den­ly be trans­formed into some­thing inde­scrib­ably joy­ous as streaks of white pow­der migrated…tree through tree.

MtAs the descent of the val­ley pro­gressed, so did the depth of the snow. I was trav­el­ling grad­u­al­ly toward the con­ti­nen­tal divide, so it didn’t come as much of a sur­prise. The camp­ground known as Big Bend was a great place with ter­rif­ic van­tage points all around. I could see a good dis­tance upstream to where the Athabas­ca joined the Cha­ba Riv­er, and the frozen look­ing peaks which bor­dered the area. It became windy at this camp and with that came the snow, but not too much. Going to the bathroom(what’s that) involved sit­ting on one of those green toi­lets with no walls, roof, etc. and pret­ty much exposed to the blasts of wind dri­ven snow com­ing from the direc­tion of the Colum­bia Ice­field. Brrrr! Need­less to say these vis­its remained few and far between.

Of course there was nobody else out here, so the con­tin­ued descent of the val­ley remained track­less until my new­fan­gled snow­shoes made their mark. Deep, deep, snow(over 1 metre) was now com­mon, but luck­i­ly it was all crusti­ly set, and the pre­vi­ous­ly dis­tant Athabas­ca Riv­er neared at every turn. The riv­er and the end­less flats which stretched all the way to the head of the val­ley came into view below the Athabas­ca Cross­ing Camp­ground. It was per­fect snow­shoe­ing coun­try, all open for 10–30 metres along the river’s edge, with deep for­est begin­ning beyond that.

upperA won­der­ful swing­ing bridge across the Athabas­ca pro­vid­ed access to the Fortress Lake trail, a wide for­est mean­der­ing which I fol­lowed all the way to the cross­ing of the Cha­ba River,though the trail was lost at this point and the descent to the afore­men­tioned aban­doned. The snow here was very deep! , the bot­toms of trees were nowhere in sight. Remain­ing camped in one spot, the upper val­ley was explored as best I could, the days became increas­ing­ly warmer though, and clumps of wet snow began cak­ing into sol­id clumps of ice under the claws of the snow­shoes. At its worst, they had to be slapped togeth­er every few steps, else each foot felt like it weighed 20 kg. Back at camp, as the late after­noon pressed into dusk, an unex­pect­ed sym­pho­ny of wail­ing echoed back and forth across the val­ley, wolves. What a tru­ly refresh­ing sound for the mind to con­tem­plate, a wild sound. They chat­ted for a few min­utes, then all fell silent once more. The return trip to Sun­wap­ta Falls was hard as it led me uphill for the most part, but one sight kept me on my toes all the way. Deep in the for­est, in the mid­dle of each incom­ing snow­shoe track, was a bearprint. Had I made things a bit eas­i­er for some bru­in on an after­noon for­ay. The tracks even­tu­al­ly dis­ap­peared off into the end­less bush.

Story and Photos submitted by: John Boehm



elysiumI actu­al­ly found the prim­i­tive camp­ground for the first time after get­ting some rough direc­tions from a local. The area was mos­qui­to infest­ed but gen­er­ous appli­ca­tions of Muskol did won­ders and any kind of breeze was most wel­come to keep the demons at bay. The trail up to Ely­si­um Pass ends there, but vast mead­ow­lands dot­ted with trees made for easy hik­ing towards the first objec­tive, Monarch Pass. It actu­al­ly has anoth­er semi-official name but it dosn’t come to mind at the moment.

Camp was made next to a clus­ter of dense­ly packed but stunt­ed conifers in high mead­ows with superb views down a trib­u­tary to the Snar­ing Riv­er Val­ley to the NE. Then, some­thing moved down in an adja­cent gul­ly, and it looked like a bear to the unaid­ed eye. My field glass­es said oth­er­wise, thank­ful­ly, it was a huge por­cu­pine, wad­dling around next to a creek. After down­ing my usu­al trav­el mug of strong cof­fee and gra­nola with pow­dered milk it was off to the next point of ref­er­ence, East Derr Pass, and this was much hard­er to access as it lay at the far end of a snow and boul­der filled basin, with sev­er­al most­ly snow cov­ered lakes thrown in.

Approaching Derr PassThis place faced the NE, so lit­tle won­der it had all this snow in sum­mer, snow which I sank into up to my hips when one foot plunged into some sort of hole. The way became more dan­ger­ous as rolling hills of boul­ders cov­ered in snow had to be crossed. There were unseen hol­low areas clos­est to the big rocks so I tried to avoid get­ting too near them, but even so it was very time con­sum­ing. East Derr Pass pre­sent­ed awe­some views in the head­wa­ters of Derr Creek, with spec­tac­u­lar peaks all around, and Derr Pass, at the head of that val­ley, was my next goal. It was a much low­er pass, but most­ly still beat­i­ful green mead­ows, and not a soul to be seen. It could have been the year 1700 for all I knew. Time­less­ness was at home here. I didn’t care what time it was and it didn’t mat­ter for there was no timetable or real plan to fol­low. It was just now. Colum­bia ground squir­rels alert­ed the whole val­ley of my pres­ence with their shrill whis­tle alarms and even though it was a solo trip, I was far from being alone out here.

Low East Derr PassTo the north of Derr Pass then began the despair­ing descent of a trib­u­tary to the Snar­ing Riv­er, far, far below. Dead­fall filled forests alter­nat­ed with chest high shrubfests in which my feet remained invis­i­ble to me for hours on end, prob­ing for a sup­posed ground being the gen­er­al rule. The slopes then began to steep­en, the shrub night­mare con­tin­u­ing along the edge of dead­fall choked woods. Sounds invit­ing doesn’t it? A real walk in the park huh? I’d lost the creek way back up and beyond, but found it again fur­ther down and guz­zled its refresh­ing con­tents. Some more skir­mish­es with plant mat­ter and the val­ley bot­tom was final­ly reached and it was.….a bog­gy mess.

Monarch PassThe ani­mals had also done a pret­ty lousy job of mak­ing game trails, but what had I expect­ed, hav­ing camped in over 200 dif­fer­ent places in these moun­tains. Should have known bet­ter real­ly. My ini­tial plan of attack was to make for the Snar­ing head­wa­ters to the west but an encounter with a huge frothy trib­u­tary com­ing in from the north set my mind oth­er­wise. So, well, it was the oth­er way then, to the east we go. The river’s edge hik­ing actu­al­ly improved as progress was made down­stream, the occa­sion­al bald eagle star­tled by my inva­sion and seek­ing to roost else­where.

Snaring RiverVery steep river­bank slopes some­times forced an inland detour, involv­ing dense con­cen­tra­tions of sapling trees, with bare­ly enough space between for me to pass. Nobody heard my curs­ing, of this I’m sure. At no time was I will­ing to bash all the way down to the Snar­ing Camp­ground, espe­cial­ly with my knowl­edge of the canyons and gorges fur­ther down. No, it would have to be anoth­er trib­u­tary back up to Monarch Pass. Gulp! What hid­den hor­rors lay and wait? After con­sult­ing the map, the best choice seemed to be a major creek to the east of Mt. Knight, deep in the Snar­ing hin­ter­land. I was con­stant­ly clap­ping to alert the wildlife, but they were prob­a­bly going yeah, yeah, we heard you com­ing from Derr Pass idiot! Idio­cy was a tru­ly appro­pri­ate term to describe the inane strug­gle of end­less bush­whack­ing up this for­sak­en val­ley.

Snaring camp0055All the usu­al cast of obsta­cles were there, with cameos by tus­socks & bogs, knee deep mossy cush­ions, and the final half walk-half crawl through tan­gle after tan­gle to uncer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly enter the mead­ows below Monarch Pass. I felt that at the very least, per­haps a brass band should have been there wait­ing. The griz­zly encounter atop Monarch Pass was the last thing expect­ed at this point. We just met at the sum­mit, it waived its nose in the air and stood on its hind quar­ters for a moment before charg­ing off down the mead­ows from where it had come. Thank good­ness. It van­ished into the dis­tance in no time till a lit­tle brown dot was all that remained. From then on I could see lots of lit­tle brown dots, none of which turned out to be a bear. One more relax­ing camp was made high in the mead­ows below Mt. Oliv­er, and the next day, in the pour­ing rain, the end­less mead­ows once again descend­ed to the Ely­si­um Pass camp­ground.


Sto­ry and Pho­tos sub­mit­ted by: John Boehm


Edith Cavell Adventure

Here are some shots from the classic route of Edith Cavell. This amazing mountaineering adventure is by far my favorite achievement. The trip took 17 hours round trip with lots of breaks and one mishap.

Caution is advised for this adventure. Climbing knowledge and no fear of exposure is a must! Of course the common sense to hire a mountain guide if your ability is not up to par.

This trip started at 1:40 am at the parking lot of Edith Cavell. A short hike to the first snow patch that leads to the east ridge in the full moon is breathtaking. We put on our crampons and started our accent. This where my epic began, nearly reaching the ridge, my footing failed and I slid down the corn snow in the dark and thinking to myself "this is it!" After 80 or 90 feet of high speed (it felt like 100 miles per hour) decent losing the ice ax right off the bat was not in the plans. Somehow, some lucky turn of event I stopped short of slamming into the rocks where we just crossed. Big sigh of relief and adrenaline rushing through my veins was definitely happening. A distance call from the ridge, "...EDDIE!"

Lucky for me that I packed a spare ice ax, with the adrenaline that was coursing through my system I started my accent again, collected the ax where I had started to fall and shortly was on the ridge where Mike was waiting patiently and perplexed at what happened. I showed him my Huge road rash on my left forearm and out came the first aid. As you can see from these photos, we continued our accent. Whenever there were snow I was very slow going. Can you blame me?

Sun rise at 6:30 am, this sight was to be remembered forever. The First Step to the peak was so intimidating that talk of turning back was spoken, but not really in our plans. The interesting parts were just beginning, hanging out there and looking under your arm pits and seeing the Cavell pond beneath you is some thing that I cannot be captured in words.

The summit was reached at NOON! After a paparazzi session and lunch on top of the world, the ugly decent of the west ridge was to begin. But that is another story...back at the vehicle by 7:30 pm.

by Eddie Wong
August 17, 2000