In September of 2006 I was joined by cousin Jon and brother Rod on an unforgettable backpacking trip over Northover Ridge. We weren't satisfied with just a strenuous 35km and vertical mile backpack though - no, we were determined to also bag a number of Kane peaks along the way.
Northover Ridge is best done in a clockwise loop starting from the Interlakes Parking lot. We started from the Upper Lakes parking area, but this means an extra (boring) 5km hike from Interlakes to Upper lakes at the end of the trip which I remember sucking big time.
I would highly recommend this hike in late August or September when the bush is dying out and Hidden Lake is pretty much a puddle. This will make your approach to Aster Lake much more pleasant and less buggy. Going later in the year also has the advantage of clear skies (unless you're unlucky with fires like we were), cooler weather, more stable weather (no thunderstorms at elevation), less people on the trails and at the campgrounds and no snow / ice on route. Disadvantages of hiking later would be more bear activity in the fall, less daylight hours and some dried up water sources.
[Notice that if you hike the loop clockwise, most of the elevation gain is in the first half of your hike. ++]
[A color-coded map of the route, again showing where the most elevation gains are - from Upper Kananaskis Lake to just east of Onslow Mountain. ++]
Day 1 - Upper Kananaskis Lake to Aster Lake
We arrived at the Upper Kananaskis Lake parking lot early in the morning on a gorgeous, clear day on September 5 2006. After struggling into our heavy backpacks, we proceeded around the first few kilometers of Upper Kananaskis Lake before cutting off on a 'hidden' trail towards Hidden Lake. You may have a tough time finding the trail to hidden lake but look carefully at the maps and the GPS track and you should be able to find it.
After following a somewhat rough trail to the lake, we were delighted to see that its shoreline was dried back many meters, allowing for easy passage along it. Even though a trail has been cut around the east shore of Hidden Lake, it's much easier and more pleasurable to hike alongside it in the open.
[Rod and Jon on the rough trail between Kananaskis Lake and Hidden Lake.]
[Rod and Vern are very glad to be hiking along the shoreline of Hidden Lake rather than bushwhacking around the east side of it.]
[A very calm and retreated Hidden Lake with Indefatigable and Warspite in the bg.]
From the south end of Hidden Lake we followed bits of trail through light forest and then cairns and trails up a steep scramble through the headwall along Foch Creek and past the impressive Fossil Falls. This section should not be under estimated! With heavy packs on and pebbles-on-slab terrain, it felt exposed in places. I could see some folks turning around here - especially if they don't have proper hiking boots and poles for stability.
[After Hidden Lake we started up more 'scrambly' terrain towards and through the headwall along Foch Creek.]
[Do not under estimate the headwall. It's loose and exposed in places and much harder with snow (as we had when we approached and climbed Joffre in June 2014.]
[Vern and Rod come up the headwall with Hidden and Upper Kananaskis Lakes in the bg.]
[Fossil Falls with Mount Lyautey looming in the bg.]
[Closer look at Fossil Falls.]
[Rod delicately balances over a moderate scrambling section of the headwall. This is tricky with a large backpack on.]
[Gorgeous views from the upper headwall back over our ascent route - note the trail in the scree to the right.]
[A good trail continues from the top of the headwall high above Foch Creek, which is oos to the right.]
[We dropped our backpacks near this dried up tarn before turning left (east) up the west ridge scramble route on Sarrail. We could have gained the west ridge sooner but this worked too.]
Once we arrived at the base of the Kane scramble route on Mount Sarrail's west ridge, we dropped our heavy gear and scrambled up Mount Sarrail.
[Summit views from Mount Sarrail with Foch on the left and Joffre at center. Cordonnier and Warrior to the right of Joffre and Northover on the right with King George in the far distance. Aster Lake clearly visible to the right. ++]
After a wonderful scramble, marred only by the smoky views, we returned to our gear and continued on to the Aster Lake campground (we made reservations before staying here and so should you). The route from the unnamed tarn to Aster Lake can be confusing - I seem to get lost in here every time through it! Remember that you must traverse several ridges / drainages west from the Foch Creek drainage to the Aster Creek drainage. On the map this is clearly marked as a sharp turn right, back along a side creek near Foch towards Aster Creek before turning again left up Aster Creek to Aster Lake.
[Detail of the route to Aster Lake, up the headwall and under the west ridge of Sarrail (scramble line marked in purple) and the confusing area circled in purple.]
[Heading back to our packs near the dried up tarn.]
[Nice falls along Aster Creek.]
[Jon takes a breather as we traverse ridges from Sarrail (rising in the bg) to the Aster Lake campground (behind me here). Aster Creek at lower left.]
[There's a reason they're called "Fossil" falls...]
[Back on an obvious trail running along Aster Creek.]
The camp area was smaller than we were expecting but it also had one of the best out houses around - stunning views of Sarrail if you leave the door open! :) I have to warn you that there are very aggressive porcupines in the Aster Lake camping area so if you hear what sounds like screaming in the middle of the night, or wake up to chewing noises on your boots you know what this is - it's quite unnerving the first few times it happens!!
[Outstanding biffy views of Sarrail!]
[Jon cools off in Aster Creek after a long, hot day of scrambling and hiking.]
[Fall colors near camp.]
[Falls along Aster Creek from near our camp site.]
[Our palace for the week is Jon's deluxe three person Eureka.]
After spending some time around camp and enjoying a perfectly calm evening we settled in for the night.
Day 2 - Scrambling Warrior, Cordonnier and Northover
The day after our approach to Aster Lake and scramble of Mount Sarrail, we were off to scramble Warrior, Cordonnier and Mount Northover in the Aster Lake area. This was a monster day of scrambling and hiking with one of my scariest moments in the mountains occurring while ascending Mount Northover.
[An image from our ascent of Warrior Mountain - note Rod on the broad summit ridge and Cordonnier in the bg. Joffre just visible through the smoky haze at center.]
[Rod on the summit ridge of Cordonnier.]
[Jon on one of the tamer exposed sections on the SE ridge of Mount Northover.]
We spent a second night at the Aster Lake camp. Bright and early on September 07 we were off to hike more of the route to Three Isle Lake, ascending Worthington and McHarg along the way.
Day 3 - Aster Lake to Three Isle Lake
As we made our way along Aster Lake and up the steep pass to the Northover Col I remembered my scary moment on Northover the day before. The views were awesome on this part of the trail so make sure if you do this hike, you have good weather on this section of the route, both for the safety and the views.
[Leaving Aster Lake camp in early morning light towards Warrior Mountain, which we scrambled the day before.]
[There are a few tight spots along Aster Lake!]
[Northover and Lyautey reflect in Aster Lake.]
[Yet another calm day (third in a row) - also very warm and smoky due to BC wildfires.]
[Hiking the glacial flats under Warrior towards the col with Northover which is just out of the photo to the right.]
[The scary SE ridge and summit block of Mount Northover, which Jon and I scrambled the day before after first ascending Warrior and Cordonnier. As you can see - there's a bit of exposure on this ridge!! ;)]
[Sometimes the trail just disappears for no reason - that's why Northover Ridge is a 'route' and not a 'trail'. Here Rod is grunting up the lower SE ridge of Northover to the col with Warrior before wrapping around the SW face and ascending to the ridge above.]
[Hiking up the steep trail to the west shoulder of Northover - Northover looming above on the right. The exposure from the summit block crux down this face is tremendous - especially when you're wearing mountaineering boots and have to back down a friction move - looking straight down!]
[Jon and Rod work their way up to the west shoulder of Northover at upper right, now we've wrapped around the SE ridge and are beneath it to the west. The glaciated peak to the left is Mount King George. You can also see one of the Northover Lakes at the pass which apparently allows random backcountry camping (see next pic).]
[This shot is from Jon and my descent off of Northover the evening before - but clearly shows one of the two small Northover Lakes located at the pass between Northover and Warrior Mountain. Apparently if you don't want to pay for camping or the Aster Lake campground is booked full, you can stay here for free since it's technically outside the park and in BC. We would have stayed here for sure if I would have known about this beforehand. For one thing there's no fees and another? There's no porcupines!]
[Detail showing the scramble route up Northover's south ridge and descent to the west shoulder of Northover. The two tarns that allow random camping circled in purple.]
[Looking back at Rod coming up to the west shoulder of Northover - Warrior, Joffre, Marlborough and Foch (R to L) in the distance.]
On our way up to the pass we spotted a helicopter land near us and drop off a park warden. We briefly chatted with him (he was going down to the warden cabin near Aster Lake) and kept humping our way up to the col. Once at the col we could scope out our descent route on Northover and had amazing views of the rest of the ridge and the surrounding area. The one bummer was forest fire smoke from BC fires that slightly marred our otherwise perfect vistas.
[A ranger is dropped off nearby - we thought for sure he'd check for passes or tell us that the whole area was closed due to wildfires, but after a brief "hello" we made our separate ways.]
[The chopper flies past Warrior's north face.]
[Distant views of mighty Mount King George (which I'd climb in August 2014) with Onslow in the foreground and Prince Albert to the right.]
We picked our way along the spine of Northover Ridge in perfect fall weather - warm, windless and cloudless! I can clearly remember the cool morning breezes on our backs as we hiked - what a glorious day that was. We managed to scramble over some pretty narrow areas before dropping down off the ridge (obvious trails) to the drainage leading to Three Isle Lake.
[At the west shoulder of Northover looking north at an unnamed outlier of Lyautey towards Mount Putnik in the distance, which Jon and I would ascend the next morning from Three Isle Lake.]
[Looking along the Great Divide and Northover Ridge route running to the left. This is where the backpacking gets very interesting! ++]
[Spectacular hiking along Northover Ridge - the Royal Group in the far distance.]
[Dips and rolls on the broad ridge.]
[With a warm, windless day this ridge walk was stunning. Only downside? The obvious smoky haze took away some of the scenery. Note Mounts Onslow and Defender to the left are almost the same height as the ridge! ++]
[Continuing along the ridge - Worthington and McHarg now visible in the distance.]
[Interesting shapes on the small, receding glacier to the north of the route on the west side of Northover.]
[Jon with Onslow to the left and Defender just right of center. Royal peaks in the distance include Princess Mary, King George, Prince George, Prince Albert, Prince Henry from left to right and Prince John and Queen Mary at far right.]
[Nearing another moderate scrambling section on the route. McHarg and Worthington at far right.]
[Some exposure and loose terrain near this section and obviously some height gain too.]
[Looking back along the moderate exposed section of ridge as Vern and Rod balance over it. You do not want high winds or snow / ice here!]
[Looking off Northover Ridge down towards Three Isle Lake. We will have to traverse a bit further along the ridge before dropping into this valley.]
[Jon descends the west end of Northover Ridge to the Defender col at lower right. We will descend easy scree slopes to the right into the Three Isle headwater valley which is out of sight at lower right here. Onslow and Defender just in front of us.]
[Jon has one foot in British Columbia (L) and the other in Alberta (R)! King George makes us feel small.]
[Another view of the end of the ridge with Onslow in the bg.]
[One last look at the giant Mount King George with Princess Mary to the left.]
[There was an obvious trail in the scree that took us down into the Three Isle headwater valley and towards Three Isle Lake in the far distance.]
[Looking up at the impressive east face of Worthington on our way to Three Isle, after scrambling it and McHarg. We ascended and descended easy slopes out of sight to the left, but there are moderate scramble routes up this face too.]
Before getting to the end of this drainage, we dropped our gear once again and this time made for the summits of Mount Worthington and McHarg, which were reached easily.
[Jon approaches the summit of Mount Worthington with Three Isle Lake far below.]
After enjoying the views from the summits of McHarg and Worthington (as much as we could with the thick smoke anyway) we made our way down their rubble slopes and along the always gorgeous Three Isle Lake to the excellent backcountry campground on its NE corner for our last night.
[Hiking along Three Isle Lake to our campsite which is located on the left side in the distance around the shoreline. Mount Putnik rises on the left.]
[Our home for the third night at Three Isle Lake. I think we were the only people around.]
Day 4 - Three Isle Lake to Upper Kananaskis Lake
Jon and I woke up early on September 8 and scrambled up Mount Putnik. Surprisingly we were only the 8th ascent party in the register!
[Jon and Vern on the summit of their 7th mountain in 4 days - Mount Putnik. We got our clearest views on this early morning scramble.]
The hike back out to our car along the Three Isle and Forks trails was very scenic but I remember the last 4-5km seemed pretty long. Since the 2013 floods, there may be some trail work going on in this area and some detours or rerouting relative to my GPS track, so beware of that. Descending the chains down the headwall beneath Three Isle Lake was certainly easier with good stairs built into the cliff now - even though long legs are a definite asset here!
[Looking at Putnik's lower slope from the campground.]
[Another hot, clear fall day as we make our way towards the Three Isle Creek headwall.]
[One of my favorite hiking sections from Three Isle to Upper Kananaskis Lake is above the headwall.]
[Incredible views from the top of the headwall down Three Isle Creek towards the Kananaskis River. Outliers of Lyautey on the right.]
[Jon takes in the views before our steep descent back into the forest along the valley floor.]
[The stairs make short work of the cliffs around the headwall.]
[Three Isle Creek with Mount Putnik looming high above now.]
[Hiking back along Upper Kananaskis Lake - back in thick smoke. Mount Sarrail and Foch at right. ++]
[Almost there! Cross the Upper Kananaskis Lake dam just before the parking lot.]
Overall, this is a fantastic backpacking trip that is unmatched in the Rockies for it's scenery and type of terrain. Only attempt this if you are comfortable at route finding and exposure with a large pack. I would also highly recommend you pick good weather and clear views, especially for the high traverse of Northover Ridge. Your camera will thank you!