A Beautiful, Rarely Attempted Scramble
Date: September 12, 2015
Named for the gorgeous alpine pass it keeps watch over, “Verdant Peak” is another of Jasper National Park's secret super scrambles. Not labeled on any maps, I had no idea of this mountain's existence or its potential awesomeness until Steven pointed it out to me during our incredibly memorable traverse of Mt. Edith-Cavell in 2013. Ever since then it has been high on my list of must-dos.
An aesthetically pleasing mountain on the southern end of the Edith-Cavell massif, Verdant soars over 3,000m and offers spectacular views of the entire Tonquin region, the Whirlpool River Valley towards the Athabasca Pass, the Hooker Icefields region, and a vast sea of peaks to the south and west. It also has far less tendency of capturing clouds like its 11,000er neighbour. A moderate scramble at worst, Verdant's one to save for a beautiful day.
Trailhead and Approach
An ascent of Verdant Peak begins at the Astoria trailhead which shares a parking area with the Cavell Hostel. To reach this area, turn onto Hwy 93A from the Icefields Parkway (Hwy 93) just south of the park gates (outside of the town of Jasper); you'll see signs advertising the Marmot Basin Ski area. Traveling south on Hwy 93A you'll want to take a right turn onto the Edith Cavell Road, and then follow this winding roadway to the parking area (which you'll find on your right, across from the hostel). If you reach the main day-use area at Edith-Cavell you've gone too far. From the parking area follow a ramp down to your right, cross the bridge at the base of Cavell Lake and then follow the trail to the right on the other side to begin your trek along the Astoria Trail.
The Astoria Trail is a bit of a highway that is often used by outfitters supplying the Tonquin Valley, and you should be able to swiftly make your way down the 4km to the obvious turn-off for Verdant Pass on the left. If you manage to zone out completely and miss the trail, you'll know you've gone too far upon reaching a solid bridge crossing over the Astoria River near the base of Throne Mountain.
The hike from the Astoria Trail to the open pleasures of Verdant Pass follows a nicely maintained forest trail, that seemingly takes forever to traverse. While being a similar distance to the first leg on the Astoria Trail, the difference here is that you'll gain 600m in elevation by the time you reach a waterfall below the Sorrow/Edith-Cavell basin.
An easy rock crossing above the waterfall will lead you away from the climber's descent route from Edith-Cavell and begin the journey across the open meadows of Verdant Pass. Note that there are sections of trail here that will take you most of the way to Verdant Peak. When this trail starts heading up towards a large hidden tarn (‘Verdant Lake’) between Edith-Cavell's west ridge and Verdant Peak, you'll want to turn off and make your way easily across a lower tarn, then a small outlet stream, and to the beginning of the ramp on Verdant Peak
After ascending the first steep slope from the meadow floor through some easy hands-on scrambling, I got my first view of the huge open ramp that is the west face of Verdant Peak. The west face fans out to three broad ribs that you can ascend upon, and I chose the one on the climber's left as I was already there, saw no particular difficulties ahead, and wanted to maintain views of Edith-Cavell and ‘Verdant Lake’.
Sticking to the left side of this rib, I made my way up to the false summit area on a mix of solid terrain, loose scree and boulders. Beneath the false summit I made use of diagonal ramps to easily traverse around to the climber's right side of this highpoint, where negotiating a series of short, moderately difficult, hands-on rockbands brought me to an open area above where I could consider the next phase of the climb. The views behind will already be fantastic and the top won't look too far away, but don't be fooled... you can't see the summit from here, and it's still another 550m above!
As shown in image #18 below I followed the crest here for a short period before heading up easier slopes to the climber's right and then angled towards a large snow-filled gully above. Despite the recent warm temperatures, the snow in this gully was surprisingly supportive and helped me make quick upward progress over what's usually (I'm assuming) some pretty loose scree. This gully branches as you near the horizon, and I would ascend the left branch and return via the right (which is noticeably steeper, but was manageable thanks to the snow).
Beyond the gully feature the rest of my ascent followed the rib crest on a continuous series of quartzite blocks, boulders, and small rockbands. For those not familiar with the quartzite and its signature black lichen in this region of Jasper, it's great stuff to scramble in dry conditions (solid and grippy), but can get dangerously slick in wet conditions (like slab). As I neared the 3,000m mark a mix of snow, snowmelt and quartzite ensured that each step would be taken with care. The rib eventually brought me to the summit ridge, where a quick but careful traverse on the snow-covered rock brought me to the cairned, but sadly register-less summit. Without a single footprint to be seen on the mountain, I'm guessing this was the only ascent of 2015, and perhaps the first in a few years.
From the summit I enjoyed my first views of the day into the Fryatt region, the Athabasca River Valley, and further southeast into Maligne Lake region. I also enjoyed a bloody cold westerly wind that was coming in strong ahead of an approaching storm system. Although it was 2:30pm and rain wasn't forecast until around 7:00pm, I could already see that it was getting ugly to the west of the Ramparts (towards Mt. Robson). The summit ridge extends further to the east, and I probably could have gotten some better views had I made the 10 minute hike there and back, but I needed to do some first-aid work on my heels (thanks to new boots) before getting the hell out of there.
Outrunning a Storm
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As you can imagine, with its open, west-facing slopes and its vast, open meadows below, Verdant's not a great place to be caught in a thunderstorm. Thankfully the storm's progress towards Edith-Cavell was slow despite the strong winds as, despite the constant visual motivation, it would take me 2 hours to reach the meadows from the summit (there's lots of careful footwork on the way down). I was well across the meadows towards the waterfall (and the main trail out) when the clouds finally reached the towering summits of Blackhorn, Chevron and Throne.
I would only have to deal with intermittent light rain on the 8+ kilometre hike out, but by 8-9pm that night it was pouring rain with a substantial amount of thunder and lightning; theatrics I was able to safely enjoy from a friend's patio in town with beers. Two days later I ran into some campers returning from the Tonquin Valley and was told that things got pretty crazy in the valley that night; with lightning everywhere, strong winds, and then a dumping of snow as a coup-de-grace.
Sidenote: I was wearing new boots for the first time on this outing and ran into some major issues which forced me to stop 5-6 times to tape my heels. Without these lengthy pauses and being able to travel at my normal pace in general, I could easily have completed Verdant in under 10 hours.