Mount Joffre is an impressive, glaciated mountain located in Peter Lougheed Park that stands at 3,450 m tall! It is generally known as one of the “easier” 11,000ers of the Canadian Rockies, and it was our selection for the first summer mountaineering trip of the year.
Hannah, Trish and I met during a Women’s Introduction to Mountaineering course 5 years ago and the friendship that sparked between the three of us was almost instant! Ever since that initial trip, we have faithfully met up every single summer to attempt climb an 11,000+ ft mountain together. We’ve climbed Mount Lefroy, Woolley, and Athabasca together already! This trip to Joffre would mark the 5th summer in a row that we’ve gotten together for our “Annual Amateur Women’s Mountaineering Super Outdoor Expedition” or AAWSOME for short. Just kidding, I made that title and acronym up just now, and Hannah and Trish don’t even know about it (yet), but I think it’s pretty catchy so maybe it’ll stick!
We’ve had a lot of amazing adventures together, and Mount Joffre was not only another successful summit together (we’ve somehow always managed to luck out with near-perfect weather, great climbing conditions and successful summits as a team) but an especially memorable trip. We shared life stories and talked about our dreams for the future. Even though we don’t get to see each other often, when we do we pick up right where we left off!
Round trip time: It took us around 1.5 days, but trip lengths vary between 1-3 days.
Distance: Just shy of 40 km round trip. 12 km to Aster Lake, followed by another 2 km to our bivvy site, and then just under 6 km from the bivvy to summit.
Elevation Gain and Max Elevation: 2,100 m; 3,450 m
Since the three of us all live in different places, we drove separately to meet at Upper Kananaskis Lake early Friday evening after work. This proved to be the first crux of the adventure, as I had been patiently waiting at the parking lot beside the lake only to find out Hannah and Trish had been waiting for me at an overflow lot! We did manage to find each other, obviously, and set off with very full and heavy backpacks towards Aster Lake just shortly after 5:30 PM.
I’ve described the approach to Aster Lake from the Inter-Lakes Parking lot in my Northover Ridge post previously, which you can find here if you are interested! It is a beautiful 12 km trail to the lake that is worthwhile doing as a hike just on it’s own. We followed the mostly flat lakeshore trail through trees and across a few lovely waterfalls for around 5 kms until we turned left at the junction with signs for Aster Lake. This led through lush green forest brimming with plant life (there has been a LOT of rain this summer in the Rockies) around Hidden Lake and then up steep rocky slopes with wonderful views of Fossil Falls to the SW and of Hidden and Upper Kananaskis Lake to the NE.
There were a couple trickier sections on the slopes, including a few snow-bound crossings over cascading waterfalls (I highly recommend using poles or your ice axe for stability) and a small scramble section that I had to give Trish a good heave from below (I pushed her pack, not her bum!) to get over.
After following the creek that feeds into fossil falls, and observing the beautiful fossilized sea life embedded in the rock, we soon reached the Aster Lake Campground! By now it was nearing 9:30 PM but we wanted to continue to push on to reach our bivvy site. A very lovely camper asked about our plans, helped us take a great photo and wished us best of luck on our attempt to summit Joffre.
We continued hiking around the edge of Aster Lake which included some easy rock scrambling as not to get our feet wet in the still partially frozen lake, then at the end of the lake turned left to start hiking south along the rocky creek bed towards the valley between Joffre and Marlborough. The light was quickly fading, and our bellies were growling so we decided to stop and set up our tents on the rocky creek bed. We set up camp amidst windy gusts that tried to blow our tent away, and ate hot backpacking meals while the stars started to come out one by one. Because we didn’t make it all the way to the high bivvy site as we were hoping to, (around another 1.5 hours further) we set our alarms extra early for a 3:30 AM wake- up call!
After around 3 hours of tossing and turning and drifting in and out of a fitful sleep, our watch alarms officially woke us up and we groggily turned on our headlamps and packed our bags with our gear. We started trudging up the creek bed, trying our best to leap over the braided streams in the dark. At one point, the stream was more like a river, and Hannah’s attempt to rock hop across led to her slipping into the icy cold water!
Near the end of the valley, we began to ascend a steep snow-covered slope below the shadow of a large triangular face that I believe is a subpeak of Joffre as it joins with the ridge. The snow was frustratingly deep and un-supportive. Each step was dreadfully tiring as the top crust of the snow would briefly hold our weight, only to plunge through to our shins or knees over and over again. After we finally crested the ridge and began ascending up the toe of the Mangin Glacier, the sun began to rise and the mountaintops glowed pink, light purple and orange in the soft morning light.
At this point, the three of us were feeling exceptionally weary. The lack of sleep, combined with the exhaustion of post-holing up steep snow slopes was wearing thin on us. We took a breather and seriously contemplated whether this would be the end of our journey. The majestic north face of Joffre looked so close and within reach ahead of us. However, if the snow conditions on the face were as unstable as where we were currently standing, we knew that the dangers of falling would be too great to continue up.
After some grumbling and discussion, we decided to keep going for at least another 20 minutes to test whether snow conditions would improve closer to the face. Much to our delight, the further along we got on the glacier, the more stable the snow became! We were no longer sinking in with every step, but could easily walk on top of the snow! This completely changed our mindset (at least, it changed mine and Hannah’s mindset) and the summit suddenly felt very attainable. Trish on the other hand was extremely tired and questioned whether she would continue on with us up the main face or wait for us at the base. Being the trooper that she is however, we all put on our crampons and continued on, slowly and carefully switch-backing our way up the increasingly steep snow towards the rock band and up to the summit ridge.
As we finally neared the summit, the steepness of the ridge became more gradual and we were soon on top of the world! Mount Joffre is the highest peak south of Assiniboine, and we were towering over many of the peaks that once seemed massive including Warrior, Northover and Sarrail. Another two guys from Calgary who had started their trek up sometime around the midnight hour had by now caught up with us and we helped each other take some summit photos. We had perfectly clear skies, and the wind wasn’t too strong which made for an enjoyable time admiring the ocean of mountain peaks surrounding us in every direction. Far off in the distance we could spy several prominent and impressive mountains including Assiniboine and King George.
Hannah, Trish and I had bagged yet another successful 11’000er together! We were ecstatic that we made the decision to push on when we were so close to giving up and turning around. Our hard work and determination had rewarded us with the most amazing views of the Rockies. It was just coming up on 9:30 AM, and it was time to turn around and get off the face of the glacier before the sun started to make the snow too unstable. We plunge stepped back down the same way we came up, and the descent down the face was a breeze compared to the slow trudge on the way up. Once we got off the glacier and arrived at the steep snow slope, we were even able to slide all the way down on our bums almost to the bottom of the valley!
While the descent coming off the glacier was a breeze, the walk back to our bivvy along the creek felt much longer than in the morning. The lack of sleep was starting to catch up with us, and the adrenaline rush of being on top of Joffre was wearing off. When we finally reached our camp, we tossed aside our bags, stripped off our sweaty clothes, and promptly lay down for a much needed early-afternoon nap.
We woke up about an hour later, and I felt as though I had gotten more actual rest in that nap than I had the entire night before! Our feet and shoulders and body were aching and sore, but we still had the entire stretch from Aster Lake to the parking lot to tackle before the end of the day. We packed up camp and started our trek back to our cars, which actually proved to be the most difficult and exhausting part of the trip!
Despite the descent only being 13 km, it felt as though we were walking for a lifetime. I wasn’t used to having such a heavy pack, as we brought quite a lot of extra gear that we didn’t need to use including avalanche safety equipment. By the time we were descending the steep rocky slope between Hidden Lake and Fossil Falls, every step made the soles of my feet ache. The sun was beating down on our brows, and we were drenched in sweat. No amount of water seemed to quench my thirst and I was concerned I was running low on electrolytes. When we finally reached the lakeshore trail, and saw there was still 5.5 km left to go to the cars, I nearly cried! What should’ve taken an hour to hike took us over two hours, and I had to keep telling myself that there is no option but to continue onward.
While hiking out in pure misery, I was reminded of a quote from David Goggins, a former Navy SEAL, that I had read from his biography about a year ago. He claimed that “When your mind is telling you you’re done, you’re really only 40 percent done.” I told myself this message over and over again. My body felt 1000% done, but my mind kept telling me that I could and had to keep going.
We of course did make it back to our cars, because really, it was just 5 km along a mostly flat trail. We exchanged heartfelt hugs and bid our farewells until our next adventure. When I got back into cell service, I called my husband Ryan and for some reason promptly burst into exhausted tears. Something about the highs of being on top of Joffre combined with the pure mental and physical exhaustion of the hike let loose a strange raw emotion that was buried within me.
Would I do this all over again? I mean, now that it’s done I’d rather not repeat it, but that’s not to say I couldn’t be convinced to try it again 😉