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Northover Ridge

Summit Elevation (m): 2763
Trip Dates: Tuesday, September 5, 2006 to Friday, September 8, 2006
Elevation Gain (m): 1550
Round Trip Time: 1-3 days
Total Trip Distance (km): 36 
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3 – you fall, you sprain or break something
Difficulty Notes: Although this is a backpacking trip, it has some sections of easy to moderate scrambling where a slip or fall could be serious. Since this is a traverse along the Continental Divide, be prepared for everything from calm and sunny to snow and windy – on the same day.
GPS Track: Click to Download
Technical Rating: OT5; YDS (Hiking)
Map: Google Maps


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 35+ km 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) 5 km hike from Interlakes to Upper lakes at the end of the trip which I remember sucking big time. (To be fair, we’d bagged 7 peaks by the time we hit that slog.)

NOTE: As of 2019 I realize that many folks now do this loop as a day trip, which is a great idea as long as you don’t expect to bag the 7 peaks we did along the way on our trip. With light day tripping gear this would make a premier day hike, especially in the fall.

Northover Ridge Route Map

I 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 forest 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.

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. 

Gorgeous views from the upper headwall back over our ascent route – note the trail in the scree to the right.

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 and Petain on the left and Joffre at center looming over Marlborough. Cordonnier and Warrior to the right of Joffre and Northover on the right with King George and the Royal Group 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.

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!
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 pretty big day of scrambling and hiking with one of my scariest moments in the mountains occurring while ascending Mount Northover.

Looking back at Rod ascending the wide south ridge of Warrior, Cordonnier and its traverse along with Joffre in the background.
I personally think this is more than just ‘easy’ scrambling terrain. A slip to the left would be injuries for sure, probably severe. Going off to the right obviously isn’t even an option for survivability! 😉
Unbelievable exposure down the SW face of Northover as Jon clambers up the crack that I found, leading to the summit. Northover Lakes far below.

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.

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.

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.

Leaving Aster Lake camp in early morning light towards Warrior Mountain, which we scrambled the day before.
Ascending over the SE ridge of Mount Northover.
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).
Apparently, since the two Northover Lakes are outside of Alberta and the park, random camping is allowed near them. This is a great alternative to the busy, expensive and porcupine-infested Aster Lake campground!

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.

Looking along the Great Divide and Northover Ridge route running to the left. This is where the backpacking gets very interesting!
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.
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.
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 headwaters valley which is out of sight at lower right here. Onslow and Defender just in front of us.
Another view of the end of the ridge with Onslow in the bg.

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.

There was an obvious trail in the scree that took us down into the Three Isle headwaters valley and towards Three Isle Lake in the far distance.

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.

Jon makes his way down valley towards Three Isle Lake. We will descend a bit further before cutting to the left (west).
The east face of Mount Worthington – we ascending easy slopes oos to the left but there are moderate scrambling routes right up this face too.
Our heavy backpacks are back on! Heading down to the main trail to Three Isle Lake.
Hiking along the shoreline of the lovely Three Isle Lake with Putnik rising to the left in the bg.

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.

Spectacular views of Worthington rising above the Three Isle Lakes.

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.

Incredible views from the top of the headwall down Three Isle Creek towards the Kananaskis River. Outliers of Lyautey on the right.
Hiking back along Upper Kananaskis Lake – back in thick smoke. Mount Sarrail and Foch at right.

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!

 

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