Mount Assiniboine Day 5, 19 Sep 2019

Day 5: Wonder Pass and Gloria & Marvel Lake viewpoints: 16 km, +520 m, 7 h 45 m

  • Campground to Wonder Pass: 5.6 km (2 hr 24 min; +245 m, -60 m)
  • Wonder Pass to Gloria Lake viewpoint: 2 km (1 hr 40 min; +20 m, -140 m)
  • Gloria Lake viewpoint to Marvel Lake viewpoint: 1.6 km (1 hr 29 min; +145 m, -35 m)
  • Marvel Lake viewpoint to Wonder Pass: 1.8 km (50 min; +90 m, -85 m)
  • Wonder Pass to campground: 5.1 km (1 hr 22 min; +20 m, -200 m)

Despite the starry night it wasn’t as cold as I expected, and we awoke to just a little frost on the tent in the morning. I briefly contemplated getting up for sunrise again but thought better of it as I wasn’t convinced I could do better than yesterday. We crawled out around 8 am to be greeted by beautiful sunshine and mist which, of course, immediately set me off on a bit of a photo-seeking wander. Mount Assiniboine looked stunning in the morning light, coated in fresh snow, with the mist in the frosty meadows softening the morning sun and lending an ethereal quality to the scene.

Over breakfast we chatted with some of our fellow hikers, including an older couple from the US and a younger couple from Thailand, exchanging experiences and thoughts of here and other hikes. Some of the bigger, noisier groups had left which made it easier to relax and chat. We were ready to leave just after 10 am and we set off for Wonder Pass. We made it as far as Lake Magog before stopping for our first photo op, the mountains reflected in the calm water near the shore.

Continuing along the trail we crossed a pretty little creek running into the lake before a gentle climb up through the larch forest (making a bit of noise as we went) to reach the Naiset Huts. Last time we were here we were able to peek inside one of the huts but it looked like they were all occupied today so we left well alone. Maybe next time we visit we’ll reserve one of these little cabins, especially if we have some friends with us. We walked past the huts on boardwalk which led us over lovely willow-filled meadows, some brilliant red paintbrush hanging on by the side of the trail.

A couple of piles of very fresh bear poop encouraged to keep up our noise-making, calling out a yodelling Hello as we walked. Now it seemed that we were surrounded by larches, some 10 m or more tall with characterful shapes sculpted by years of growing in this harsh environment. Not that it felt harsh today with the warm sun on our faces. The golden sunlit larches were a wonderful sight against the blue sky of the morning.

We crossed the creek again in a broad larch-lined meadow and soon came to Gog Lake, flat calm and reflecting the mountains behind perfectly. A group of photographers had walked out over the damp meadow to where the creek drained the lake, most of them clustered in one spot no doubt trampling the plants along the bank. It looked to us like a photography workshop and I was disappointed to see them not sticking to the Nature First principles. As with all things, it not that it’s intrinsically bad for one or two people to venture off the trail occasionally but when a larger group does that the potential for long-term damage is so much greater. Plus it sets a precedent; when someone sees them out there, they too will probably think it’s okay to do the same.

Turning away, we rejoined the trail and crossed a boggy meadow on an increasingly faint trail, which didn’t seem right to us. Moments later we came to a water cascading down a small cliff, which we definitely didn’t remember from 2009, and we realized we must have followed a side trail. The waterfall was pretty, and of course there were a couple of photographers trying their luck although the sun was making life difficult. We turned back and found our way back to the main trail, turning right and beginning to ascend through the larch forest.

Wow! We’ve never experienced such a forest of larches before. We were completely surrounded by golden trees bathed in the morning sun and it was glorious. Between the larches was a carpet of moptops as far as we could see, a wonderful sight! The trail led us upwards where occasional views reminded us there was more here than just larch trees. We came to another waterfall, one that we did remember from our 2009 visit and we stopped to take some photos.

The forest was now beginning to thin as we climbed and we found ourselves hiking through more open meadows, still lined with gold of course, with great view opening up as we neared the pass. We could see back towards Nub Peak to the north and the gentle slopes of Wonder Peak rising up ahead of us. At the pass we stopped to take in the immense views behind us. I remembered standing here in 2009 and seeing the whole valley that we’d walked through on our way in. It was nice to revisit that view and remember that time.

We pulled off the trail in search of a good rock for a lunch spot where we could soak in the scenery. It was peaceful and the sun was warm, although a chilly autumnal breeze kept us from overheating. It felt amazing to be here. Again. The two couples we’d chatted with at breakfast joined us and we exchanged greetings and exultations. The Thai couple kindly took a photo of us at the pass; the US couple offered us some home-made peanut brittle. How kind!

With lunch defended from a persistent chipmunk, we dragged ourselves away from this dream scene and began to descend into the next valley, narrower but just as spectacular as the one we had just left with steep grassy and rocky slopes rising up to the Towers on our right. After a few hundred metres we took a side trail to the left in search of a viewpoint over the huge peaks at the head of the Marvel Lake valley, leading us downhill through meadows (with a few grizzly digs of unknown recency) and patches of spruce, climbing again slightly before coming to a steeper descent. This didn’t feel right: we had no memory of descending so far and so we set about trying to get a view from the knoll just off the trail. No views were forthcoming so we shrugged and decided to continue following the trail anyway, switchbacking down and losing more elevation. We’d passed the Thai couple on their return who said they hadn’t found a viewpoint so we really felt like we were on a bit of a wild goose chase, especially as the trail we were on wasn’t marked on the map on my phone.

But it all worked out: we arrived at a grassy knoll with stunning (if treed) views over to the turquoise Lake Gloria below the sheer walls and glacier-encrusted slopes of its namesake mountain. Up to the right, the summit of Mount Assiniboine had its head firmly in the clouds though enough of the peak was visible for us to see its much broader profile from this angle. To the south lay the hulk of Marvel Peak, where a small patch of golden larches was catching the sun, standing out so brightly against the grey limestone. We took our time sizing up and taking photos, doing our best to work around some of the awkward trees between us and the scenery. This was a little tricky as the ground dropped away even more steeply beyond the edge of the grassy pocket meadow. Photographically content, we sat down for a while in the warm and welcoming afternoon sunshine, feeling the need to put on some sunscreen for the first time this trip. It was a beautiful spot.

The sound of a helicopter reached our ears and we strained to pick out the small but noisy machine as it toured the uppermost reaches of the valley behind Mount Assiniboine. We spotted it and watched as it circled a couple of times, going in close to the glaciers to give the passengers eye-popping views. Thankfully it soon flew off allowing the quiet to descend once more.

We checked the map again – we were clearly not on a trail known to AllTrails or OpenStreetMap – and saw an alternative trail that looked to be worth exploring on our way back, so we set off back up the switchbacks, back into the larch-dotted meadows. When we came to a small boulder field, we noticed a faint trail leading diagonally up the slope to our right that matched the trail on our map. We turned off and picked our way over the boulders and began to climb up the flank of the ridge over loose scree, which was steeper than it looked from a distance but still quite manageable.

Instantly we were glad we had ventured up here as we found ourselves on a broad ridge that just invited exploration. A mixture of small meadows, shattered rock, and eroded limestone – very similar to the limestone pavement of the Yorkshire Dales – greeted our eyes and we ambled across this delightful landscape. And that’s before we talk about the views! Behind us was the meadow-lined slopes and crags of Wonder Peak, and of course the snowy face of Mount Assiniboine dominated the view to our right (west) again. As we reached the end of the ridge, we descended slightly to be greeted by more views that simply made our jaws drop in amazement. Before us we could see most of Marvel Lake, a stunning deep blue in the afternoon sun with its namesake mountain towering over it, and it gave us a hint of what we might experience on tomorrow’s hike to the next campground. Plus we now had an unobstructed view of Lake Gloria and the entire upper valley between Gloria Peak and Mount Assiniboine, sunlight glinting off the turquoise lake, and snow lining the ramparts of the ridge between the two mountains. Beyond Marvel Lake, we could see the sharp line of mountains on the east side of Bryant Creek, the ones we had only glimpsed occasionally on our hike in a few days ago. It was absolutely stunning, breathtaking, and mind-blowing. Pick one – or all three. Within moments it had become one of our favourite views in the Rockies.

How we wished the clouds would clear! It would have been so nice to see this face of Mount Assiniboine, but it was not to be. Perhaps next time? I can see us aiming to visit this spot earlier in the day so we weren’t looking into the sun as much. This was truly a view we didn’t want to leave, and we lamented on how much time we spent at the other viewpoint. No matter: at least we found this spot and made a promise to ourselves to return on our next visit.

To say we were reluctant to tear ourselves away would be a massive understatement, but we had to move on and begin our trek back to camp. We walked back along the ridge, wondering how easy it would be to continue to follow it all the way back to Wonder Pass. However, we thought we’d play it safe and return to the main trail, taking an alternative descent path that was much more gradual and a lot easier going. We were soon back on the trail and climbed gently back to Wonder Pass, stopping to photograph some of the lilac gentian and penstemon flowers along the way.

The breeze was cold at the pass and we didn’t stop, other than to take one last look at the view behind us, and hurried down towards the shelter of the larch forest. We revelled in the late afternoon sun as we descended through the golden trees which were simply glowing around us. Back through the meadows we rambled, spotting another raptor on a flypast looking for rodents, then past the Naiset Huts and on to the lodge where we stopped to review the latest weather forecast – thankfully it was still looking good! Then we had the last 1.5 km to the campground where we noticed the more direct trail (which had been closed after recent upgrades) was now open and we enjoyed an easy walk back to the tent.

Any semblance of warmth soon disappeared in the shade of the mountains, especially as the clouds had rolled in again obscuring the upper half of Mount Assiniboine. We collected our food and brewed a hot drink which we sipped while dinner was rehydrating. After dinner we enjoyed a very Scottish dessert – pure butter shortbread washed down with a nip or two of whisky. Delicious! We heated more water for our Thermos and retired to the tent, spotting the snowshoe hare again on our way.

We curled up in the tent to warm up and savoured the hot water as we relaxed after a longer and far more spectacular day than anticipated. As I wrote up my notes, we remarked on the array of flowers we’d seen hanging on into the autumn – both red and white paintbrush; yellow cinquefoil, buttercup, and arnica; white and yellow fleabane; moptops and the mini golf-balls of their relatives, cut-leaf anemone; strawberry flowers (!) and some tiny fruit; fluffy cottongrass and willow; finally some penstemon and of course the lovely tiny autumn gentians.

The thickening clouds brought rain as we settled down for the night, the gentle pitter-patter lulling us to sleep, my mind hanging on to the sights we had witnessed. I listened for animal sounds but tonight remained quiet and deeply peaceful.

On to Day 6…

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