Distance: 18 km
Elevation gain: 1255 m View map Download GPS track
Looking for an easy, relaxing scramble, my attention focused on an unusual candidate: Mount James Walker, rated as moderate in Andrew Nugara’s scrambling guide and located along the incredibly busy Spray Lakes corridor. On the surface it sure didn’t seem to fit the bill, but a little research revealed that while the normal route up the mountain is a moderate, exposed scramble, there is also a much easier route consisting of gently-angled scree. The scarcity of reports on the web suggested we’d be alone on the trip too, a critical requirement for a relaxing trip.
We arrived in the empty Sawmill parking lot just after 8 am and headed directly east (“up” from the parking lot) to find the start of the trail, a gated old logging road marked with snowshoe trail signs. We set a brisk pace along it in the cool morning, soon arriving at a cairned junction 2 km from the parking lot. We went right here, following a good trail on former logging road as it headed up the James Walker Creek valley. New growth is slowly taking over this trail and today it was dripping wet; within seconds we were dripping wet too.
Eventually the old logging road ended and the trail continued into the forest. There was some deadfall to deal with, the worst being a narrow swath of forest that had been mowed down by an avalanche in the past few years, but nothing unusually problematic.
Nearly 4.5 km from the parking lot we came to a lovely scenic pond. Unfortunately it was flooded and the trail and the entirety of its shoreline meadows were underwater, forcing us to detour into the forest to the right to get around it. The deadfall and brush were horrendous and the rain from yesterday made everything goopy and slippery, turning what should have been a short walk into a hellish 20 minute nightmare. By the time we emerged on the other side we were both covered in tree slime and had branches stuck in every loose area of our packs and clothing.
Thankfully the trail on the other side was in reasonably good shape, and after a moderately steep climb through forest next to a very lively James Walker Creek we arrived in the beautiful open meadows of the upper James Walker Creek valley. The moderate route up the mountain loomed in front of us, but we turned right and wandered up the valley between James Walker and Mount Inflexible.
This valley was very scenic and as we made our way to its head we passed several tarns, meadows, and snow patches. It really was quite wonderful and we slowed down a bit as we took it all in. From the head of the valley we started up the easy and very stable scree slope, stopping a short distance up for lunch. The weather was very interesting at this point as the hot air from the Kananaskis valley rose quickly along the James Walker – Inflexible ridge, rapidly forming swirling clouds just a few hundred meters from us.
After lunch we resumed our ascent, making good progress over stable scree. A large snowfield covered a few hundred vertical meters of slope below the summit, but a narrow section of rock to the east allowed us to continue the ascent on rock. Travel remained remarkably easy until the last 100 m, at which point the slope steepened and the scree and rubble became frustratingly loose. It wasn’t bad relative to other mountains, it just wasn’t the nice stuff we’d been on up until that point. Indicative of how easy this ascent was, the last 500 vertical meters took just 1 hour 10 minutes to ascend, which is a pretty good rate for us.
The view from the summit was spectacular, although the peaks to the west had their summits in cloud. That of the Opal Range was particularly impressive; James Walker is perfectly positioned so that the view of each peak in the range is well separated from its neighbor. With sun and only a light breeze we stayed on the summit for nearly an hour, taking in the sights and reading through the two(?) partially-filled registers.
On descent we decided to walk down the snow slope, a somewhat risky endeavor given our limited practice with self-arrest, but the snow was soft enough that even with unpracticed flailing I figured we’d be able to stop a slip. Indeed, at one point I hit a random icy patch, fell, and started to slide out of control, but quickly stopped when I dug in.
Once back in the upper valley we passed a couple having a picnic – the only people we saw the entire day – then discovered a rosy finch nest with eggs. They’re very clever at hiding them, but as a kid I learned a dead giveaway mother birds have that has led me to hundreds of their nests, and this one did the same thing. I also found another nest along the old logging road later in the day, this time with baby birds instead of eggs.
By the time we’d reached the flooded pond I’d already decided there was no way I was enduring the horrible bushwhack to get around it again. This left us only one choice – detouring around it on the other side – and so we crossed the creek on a fallen tree a bit upstream and did just that. This worked very well, bushwhacking was minimal, and the sidehilling on rubble was short and easy too. On ascent, if you ever find yourself staring at this flooded pond, backtrack a short distance to a rubble field out of sight of the water and follow it LEFT around the pond. Don’t go right into the forest!
A quick exit via the old logging road trails delivered us to the car 8.5 hours after having started out. The trip could be a couple hours shorter, but we saw no need to rush once above treeline. It was a very nice, scenic, and surprisingly easy scramble.