Tuesday, September 15
Day 4 - Burgess Highline Trail and Mt Field, Yoho National Park
We got up with the gradual lightening before dawn. Today I had a more demanding outing planned: a high traverse beneath Wapta Mountain and the famous Burgess Shale beds to Burgess Pass, then a descent down to Emerald Lake from that pass. Returning to Emerald Lake this way would constitute what is often called the "Emerald Triangle": a big triangular loop going from Emerald Lake to Yoho Pass to Burgess Pass and then back down to Emerald Lake.
Along the way, I hope we can manage one of two "easy" class scrambles that we have access to once we reach Burgess Pass. We decide to delay deciding until we approach the pass. Gino, not being the most comfortable with the thought of scrambling, said he would reserve judgement and decide once we got to the decision point.
Must understand our objective
We headed off shortly after 9 a.m., briefly returning the way we came in the day before. When we reached the junction with the trail to Burgess Pass, we turned left, heading towards it. We soon came to a very large sign warning us that the Unesco World Heritage Burgess Shale sight is off limits to visitation unless you have a specific permit. Presumably fossil hunters (and stealers) were making off with the fossils.
Burgess HL trail junction
Traversing through forest
The Burgess Highline Trail (also known as the Wapta Highline Trail), runs from Yoho Pass to Burgess Pass, and traverses along underneath the towering cliffs of Wapta Mountain for much of its length. After starting in the forest for a bit, it broke out into open areas of scree and crossed under the base of a steep wall of blockily-textured shale. Then back into the forest, then back out onto an open avalanche or scree slope. And so on.
Air quality wise, it was (unfortunately) still very smoky this morning. We could barely see the bulk of the President Range behind us, and ahead of us, we could see nothing of Burgess Pass, as it was completely hidden in the haze. Emerald Lake would normally be a green jewel far below us, but today we could do no more than make out the faintest hint of an outline.
The Burgess Highline trail made a fairly steady and gentle ascent, climbing up perhaps a bit over a thousand feet (300 meters) before it gently started to level off at just over the 7,000-foot (2200m) elevation level. Since we couldn't really enjoy the wider scenery (hidden as it was by thick smoke), we enjoyed the little pleasantries of the nice path as it smoothly cut across the sideslope below Wapta Mountain.
Highline Trail and Burgess Mtn
The southern, higher part of the Burgess Highline Trail runs mostly out in the open, crossing large expanses of steep scree and large boulders. We were nearing the area of the famous Burgess Shale beds, and we started to wonder if we'd start seeing dramatic fossils just lying around on the edges of the trail (obviously not, but given the outsize reputation of the Burgess Shale, one's mind sometimes gets fanciful). We passed our first trailside snow patch (being late in the year, low-altitude snow is rare). We spied a sizeable herd of Mountain Goats, high up on the scree slopes towards Mt Field.
Burgess Shale Quarry Warning Signs
At its far southern end, the Burgess Highline trail meets the low saddle connecting Mts Field and Burgess. This low saddle is, of course, what forms Burgess Pass. The trail makes an abrupt turn to the west here, and starts to run roughly along the crest of the Burgess Pass Saddle.
It is at this turn where we stop. This is the spot where the scramble route for Mt Field starts, and here we can also take a good look at both the summits of Mt Field and Burgess. Both are rated as easy scrambles by my guidebook, and we had to now decide which we were going to tackle.
Mt Burgess looked pretty intimidating from this angle. We couldn't really see the described ascent route from this angle, and after re-consulting the guidebook, concluded that the ascent gully documented therein must somehow be reached from a point somewhat downhill along the trail down to the town of Field. For Mount Field, however, we felt we could mostly see the ascent from our vantage point: a steep scree ascent with what looked like a single short cliff band. With distance and foreshortening, we couldn't tell how hard it really was, but certainly it looked a lot more obvious than the Burgess route.
Gino glanced at the route up Mt Field and immediately said he'd be comfortable just waiting it out right here on the nice bit of alpine meadow next to the trail. He seemed pretty adamant about this so I didn't push him about it.
Gino's comfy waiting spot
Julian was still up for the ascent, though. We emptied out all non-essentials for the climb and left them near Gino. No point in bringing up tents and sleeping bags and stoves. Then, we started off, following a faint but distinct herdpath that led directly upslope from the sharp turn in the Burgess Highline Trail.
Heading off-trail up to Mt Field
As best I could tell from my guidebook's description, the scramble route angled up and over to the right on steep scree, crossing one or two (or maybe three) steep little gullies that ran straight down from the summit ridge above. I kept looking for faint indications of foot travel (which should typically be present on more popular, easier scramble routes like this one), but also mindful that a herdpath could also easily be a true animal path that leads places that animals want to go, which is usually not a summit (case in point, the 30-strong mountain goat herd behind us).
As we traversed across the steepening scree, I came to the conclusion that the gully we wanted is the second one over from our ascent gully (initial departure gully, then an intermediate gully, then the gully we wanted). We turned up into the rubbly, enclosed space of the gully, which immediately feels a little less exposed and more reassuring. We made our way fairly quickly up the gully to a small flat area that has formed at the base of a small pouroff. Surveying the terrain above, we can see we are quite close to the cliff band we saw back down at the trail. It is indeed a bit of vertical, solid bedrock, but it looks quite short (less than 20 feet high) and seems to offer a lot of blocky holds, all of which are upsloping and incut (meaning they will offer very positive holds).
Setting off again, we followed the now fairly clear indications of foot traffic in the loose scree, where they had formed a little network of braided paths that offer better footing than the general slope. These little paths first brought us to the brink of the precipitous east face of Mt Field, at which point we get an impressive look down into the valley of the Kicking Horse Pass, with the ribbon of the Trans-Canada highway and the Canadian Pacific railway clearly visible. Across the valley, the brooding, towering mass of 3200m (10,500-foot) Mount Stephen rose through the smoky monochrome murk, its summit hidden in the clouds. The steep finger of its north glacier, now exposed and dirty in the dryness of early fall, accentuated the mountain's seriousness (it is apparently a challenging climb).
The faint indications of foot travel helped lead us to a particular point along the short cliff band, where a small weakness in the rock has resulted in a bit of a chimney. Now that we were close, we could see there were many protruding plates of rock and small ledges that will offer a multitude of hand and foot holds. I made my way up to it and quickly climbed it to the top. It didn't feel exposed and there was never any mystery as to what hand or footholds to use. Very straightforward.
Atop the cliff band, the grade of the slope lessened considerably, and I could now see the summit, which seemed only about 50 or 60 metres away. I waited for Julian to climb up through the cliff band and then we continued to follow more faint braided footpaths to the summit.
So, success! It had taken us about an hour and forty minutes to get up here from where we left Gino at the curve along the Burgess Highline Trail. More fit and experienced scramblers could no doubt manage this same climb in just over an hour, but overall, we hadn't done too badly.
It was a cloudly and cool day, with a clear deck of clouds present at about the 10,000-foot level. Meaning we had open sight lines to most of the peaks around us, with of course, the obvious qualification that the ever-present forest fire smoke reduced what we could actually see by a substantial amount.
Julian took some calls with the suddenly-available cellphone reception up here (being as we were directly above the Trans-Canada highway now), and I got out the summit logbook and entered today's Mt Field climbing experience.
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