Monday, December 17, 2007

Avalanche Training

Avalanche Skills Level 1

We first did an uneventful day of classroom training at the University of Calgary. Later in the day we picked up some gear we rented from the outdoor club and headed out passing by the Olympic ice oval. I hadn't seen it before so we poked our head in and who was the first person we saw but Catriona Le May Doan, the fastest skater in the world!
The field class was at Bow Summit, north of Lake Louise on the Icefields Parkway. The hike on snowshoes from the highway up through the trees onto the summit pitch was really gorgeous. Along the way we learned some terrain recognition, how to make snow pits to assess the snow pack and of course avalanche rescue. Its a delicate art using the beacons quickly in waist deep snow.
As you can see from the pictures, there was lots of snow making me wish I was skiing rather than schoolin! In the first picture of the two of us, you can just make out the frozen Peyto Lake. In winter it sleeps off a summer of millions of tourists gawking at its milky green colour. On the way home we stopped in Banff for coffee with friends while we let the ski hill crowd cluster the highway back to Calgary. All in all, a fun weekend in spite of the serious and sometimes scary subject mater.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Snow Bunnies

Winter is officially here, at least in our minds. Calendars be damned. Sure, we've been out at Lake Louise and Suzanne has worn her winter boots on more than one occasion around town, but it always felt like it wasn't quite winter; it was still shoulder season. No, this isn't a reference to Dave or his physiotherapy. Shoulder season is when those who like to roam around are suddenly stuck in the city, paralyzed by indecision. Do we muck about in our hiking boots and gaiters? Do we pull out the skis? How warm is it? How cold? Isn't it better just to stay in the city limits and drink coffee and read the paper?
That time has passed. Dave has been to the Lake a few times already (most of them while Suzanne toils away in the coal mines). But today was her turn. Together, we travelled out to Lake Louise for an afternoon of skiing. Alone, we skiied. Dave braved the masses for a few hours on Louise, while Suzanne travelled towards the Chateau to find some cross country trails. Despite being the end of the weekend, Dave found some great snow off Larch that hadn't yet been sullied by tourists. For her first solo ski of the year, Suzanne found the Great Divide, a rolling logging road trail that offered clear direction and nice tracks. And dogsleds shared the trail. After deciding to let the thousands of Calgarians jet down the highway home, we stopped in Banff for a Mex-inspired meal at the Magpie & Stump. We highly recommend it for its cheese soup, large portions and lovely margaritas.
Next week, we take our avalanche safety course. The backcountry awaits.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Read's Tower/Mt Sparrowhawk

trailhead 5642ft 10,239ft summit vert gain 4597ft

My first attempt at a 10,000 footer

The picture at left was the last picture my camera took before the batteries ran out! Its 5:56am and I'm taking one last look at the maps before I set out. I guess I'll blame forgetting extra batteries on the early hour but the route was long and I needed every ounce of daylight for this solo trip.

With Suz out in Tofino learning how to surf, I thought I'd try a solo trip to Read's Tower and up if conditions allowed to the summit of Mt Sparrowhawk. Both are on the east side of Spray Lakes.

In lieu of my own pics, I'm relying on pics I found on the net of the route. This led to an amazing coincidence...

this is Mt Sparrowhawk as seen from Spray Lake, I was surprised to discover its just as orange as shown on my map.

Here is a nice view of Spray Lake on the way up to Read's Tower.

At about 9000 ft on Mt Sparrowhawk, I found myself on the final pitch to the summit. The snow however was substantial and wind polished to a marble finish that was really too dangerous to try by myself without an ice axe. The really weird thing is that through the snow pack were two sets of footprints set like concrete. That's not so weird but when I went online looking for pictures to show where I had been, I found this one on the left dated 3 days before my trip! The footprints in this picture are the very ones I was following! The internet is pretty cool. So as it turned out I was following William Marler's footprints. I don't know him but it blows my mind that I found out who's footprints those were. Sherlock Holmes himself would be impressed.

And so I enjoyed the view of the surrounding peaks including a great vantage of Mt Galatea 10km to the south. It was pretty cold to stay more than 10 minutes before making my way back down.

A funny thing happened in the cirque. The cirque has a very narrow opening before it drops straight down to the watershed. In the doorway that I was forced to go through, I thought I could see a brown animal sitting a prominent rock. It was 50ft away from me and I was joking to myself that that rock looks like it has a cougar on it. What a perfect spot to hunt in this bottleneck. Then I saw the brown shape move and I realised that there was an animal on it! I did a quick scan and realized I had no where to go and no way to avoid this spot. I gave a low yell and started throwing rocks into the ground beside me. Before I could get properly terrified though, it jumped off its perch to reveal itself- a mountain goat. I laughed with relief but was puzzled it was perching like a hunching cat on this promontory.
Scare and all, I'll definitely go back here when there is less snow. I'll make sure I have camera batteries too.

Mt Indefatigable

7.6km 5658ft trailhead 8150 summit vert gain:2508ft

This was our season finale trip, our first attempt of Mt Indefatigable or Mt Fatty as its called locally. At left is an aerial shot (not mine) that I've drawn the route on though the summit is out of frame. Suz's friend Karen and her dog Rocky joined us on this trip.

The view from the lower hog's back of Upper Kananaskis Lake is stunning. Behind Suz is Mt Surrail whose buttress we climbed on our Rawson Lake trip. I'm always in awe how beautiful this area is and how few people there are here.

left: The last push to the summit was one of those optical illusions that made it seem like it was only a hundred more feet to the top. Karen puts her back into the final push to the top. In the background, the Opal range stands on its hind legs. The route follows a brutal drop off most of the way, the girls didn't seem to mind walking right along its edge which of course gives me the willies. Rocky also had no problem peering down into the void, enjoying the sure footedness of four legs.

Suz rewards herself with some kibbles at the top of Mt Indefatigable. The summit is bounded on three sides by knee- weakening death drops. I was dying to crawl on my belly to the edge behind Suz and gaze straight down to the valley but I just couldn't manage.

left: This is the picture I'm going to send my surgeon. I was pretty pleased.

Like many season finales, this one didn't disappoint. Once off the summit block, Karen and Suz used a plastic bag as a sled and rocketed down the snow-filled cirque. Their laughs were punctuated with screams as they covered a couple hundred feet in a minute. A perfect end to a great day!
here's a short vid I made of the summit panorama. Its not the best quality, but it gives an impression.

Mt Yamnuska

5km 4511ft trailhead 5905ft end vert gain:1500ft

I felt so guilty when this gorgeous fall day called me out to the mountains while Suz was at work. When she got home looking quite tired, I actually chickened out telling her right away knowing what a nice day it had been to be working inside!

That being said, I've often been curious about Yamnuska, the closest true mountain to Calgary. The south face is a rock climbing hot spot due to its rock quality and verticality as the picture shows. The route I chose traverses to the east and approaches the summit block from the north.

left:hiking up to the summit block

The best feature of this trip is that you're really perched on the edge of the prairies

left:Bow River leaves the Rockies on its way to Hudson Bay

left: on Yamnuska looking north into CMC valley.

I was very intrigued to finally see north of the trans Canada and the bow valley! There's no roads north of Canmore so its sort of a Shangri-La to me to finally see what was on the other side. As it turns out, CMC valley is a Shangri-La, and I'll certainly drag Suz here for a longer amble through here.

Guinn winter ascent/Lillian Lake

18km 5084ft trailhead 8000ft col vert gain:3000ft

For Thanksgiving weekend, my friend Jim came out for a backpacking trip. Its been a long time since I carried around a big pack. When I'm working in the bush, I usually have helicopters and quads to carry my life around so I was paranoid about weight. Above, Jim proudly sips a take-out coffee that lasted from Calgary.

After gaining around two thousand feet, the crux of the trip faced us. A very steep gully for a thousand feet taking us over a pass and then down the next valley to our proposed camp.

Here we are taking a break, fuelling up with chocolate for the big push. The snow though had drifted and in places was knee deep. Climbing a 45 degree slope through deep snow is very hard. Couple this with altitude and we would take 10-20 steps and rest for 10 seconds. We didn't talk much and I kept thinking that I'd try and go a bit further but was doubting whether we'd make it up.

The pictures above are above the treeline. At this point, the temperature has dropped to around minus five and the wind is blowing very hard. There was nothing enjoyable about this part of the trip. It was really a test of will in a binary world of up/down, quit/go on. And so, at 4pm we crested the summit and stared down into the valley we were going to camp in and had a quick assessment of conditions. We thought that the snow was very deep on the other side and perhaps we might not be able to climb out if we went in. This was complicated by the fact that our backcountry permit technically only allows us to camp in that valley. Of course when its -15 with windchill and you're standing at 8000 feet surrounding by nothing but the overwhelming, the park bureaucracy seems pretty meaningless.
Prudence prevailed though and we ended up hiking back down the way we came and over to Lillian Lake where we pitched our tent as dusk enveloped us. We were proud of the ascent but we sort of felt as though this campsite was our second place. Amazingly, there was two other groups camping in the snow and they had a passable fire going already. When they asked us where we had come from, we filled with pride when their mouths dropped as we pointed up at the mountain we had just retreated from. With hot coffee brewing we looked up at the route and answered their questions. Success is relative. The next day we packed up the tent and hiked back to the road

Saturday, October 20, 2007


11km 4700ft trailhead 6986ft summit ridge vert gain 2200ft

The day began with a first hand look at a chinook formation. I've seen a few "chinook arches" from the east looking west but this was the first time I've been right underneath it. This picture is a 6 picture composite I made to get a 180 degree view and it really deserves to be clicked to get a close-up look. The wind pummeled us with gusts I can only guess were close to 90km/hr.

The route (I've drawn it in red) starts off the highway on the east side of Barrier Lake (Lac d'obstruction as we like to call it) and quickly launches you above the Kananaskis valley. The photo here shows the first half of the route tracing its way along the top of the Wasootch ridge giving you constant 360 views.

The snow wasn't much of an impediment and really only served to make the vistas more dramatic. At the left Suz pauses with the Wasootch creek winding its way far below.

Its a testament to the area that in spite of the wind punishment, Suz still has a smile!

Here's a typical example of the ridgeline. For the most part its wide enough to navigate while still gawking around. In places however, it narrows down. One six foot long section is only two boots wide and a couple thousand feet down on either side. Suz pranced across this like a mountain goat but I found myself with both hands down crabbing across not liking things at all.

Here's one of the reasons I wanted to do this route, the rare Limber pines, Pinus Flexis (sometimes latin sounds made up) They only grow at high altitudes and especially on ridge crests. I've only seen a few and these certainly were astounding. Twisted into bonsai shapes over hundreds of years, the ridgeline is littered with them. This species is very draught tolerant and nearly impervious to winterburn allowing it to grow in perfectly inhospitable environments.

click on this pic to get a closeup of this ancient survivor.

I couldn't resist trying to dangle my legs over the abyss on this rock ledge that was cambered slightly back from the ledge. I could only force myself to get my feet over the edge which I counted as a small victory over my acrophobia.

Even though we were wind whipped we loved this trip. The terrain was the perfect challenge to our ability level and the view was superb. Added to that was the thrilling overtones provided by the chinook though I occasionally worried about being blown right off the ridge. It wasn't likely to happen but I worried about it anyway.

Suz wants to return here on a nicer day and perhaps we'll scramble up the peak connected to the ridge.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Ptarmigan Cirque

4.5km 7239ft trailhead 7938ft cirque vert gain: 700ft

Our trip to Ptarmigan Cirque began with a snowstorm which isn't too surprising at Highwood pass as its the highest public road in Canada. The trailhead begins where the pocaterra cirque trip begins (trip # 3 in the blog) and we were anxious to get a view of that previous route on this trip. In this snowy picture of Suz, you can just make out the unnamed peak we climbed to get the view of the valley (see pic #4 of Grizzly Peak/Col entry)

I was a little nervous as well owing to Suz's parents being with us and I didn't want to drag them up a mountain in a snowstorm!

After a half hour the snow let up and the sun came out long enough to enjoy the larch trees turning their famous hue of orange.

Up in the cirque we found this purple flower making a go of things at around 7500 feet. From this photo you can see that spring and summer have winter breathing down its neck. Summer really only lasts a couple weeks at this altitude.

Sun is finally out giving us the view we came for. Grizzly col (the second part of trip 3) is the saddle between the two middle peaks. The water in the creek behind me was some of the best I've had. I bottled some and took it home.

Suz pauses in front of Mt Arethusa beside a larch in full bloom. For a short trip this was pretty satisfying. Suz's parents enjoyed it which pleased me. The weather was perfect right down to the snowstorm which put the finishing touch so to speak on the surroundings. For a two hour hike this trip has got to one of the most underrated as it launches you right into a high alpine ecosystem without having to climb several thousand feet of vertical. For us it was pretty cool to stare across the valley at our route from the previous trip.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Guinn Pass

16km 5084ft trailhead 7940ft Guinn pass vert gain: 2900ft

Guinn Pass was a fantastic trip starting at the foot of Mt Kidd, a K-country landmark. The trail crosses Kananaskis river and hops back and forth across galatea creek. Before reaching Galatea lake the trail veers straight up to Guinn pass which is actually a southern extension of the Mt Kidd outlier. We were pleased to time ourselves at 1 hour/ thousand vertical feet.

Suz negotiates a short rock band

view of Mt Galatea as trail climbs up to the sub alpine zone

at around 6500 feet we attracted some curious mountain sheep who to a sheep wore an expression of "what are They doing here?"

Here we are at the saddle between Mt Kidd and the unnamed summit in the foreground. From this picture you can easily see the steep pitch we climbed to get up here and why we were so tired at the top!

drinking in the view from around 8000 feet

had to splice three pics to get this 180 degree view. Overall this was our favorite hike of the year. The approach trail was very interesting with many fine vistas, waterfalls, outcroppings and varied forest. The ascent wall was a bit harder than required due to my zeal for fresh drinking water, I traversed across to a waterfall to drink and then sort of missed a traverse. We ended up scaling a pretty hairy section only to intersect the traverse higher up and continue on a more calming pitch. On the way down we had a pretty good chuckles seeing how much easier the traverse was.
At the top one is treated to 360 panorama with the Opal range( my favorite) spread out like a turkey dinner. Our highest score for this trail:9 Hoagies out of 10

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Rawson Lakes

11.3km 5658ft trailhead 7806ft Sarrail ridge vert gain: 2200ft

Next trip was to Rawson Lake, a small tarn above Upper Kananaskis Lake. Really impressed with Kananaskis Lake pictures behind Suz at left. Stunning crystal clear lake with Mt Indefatigable (Mt Fatty as the locals shorten it) proudly guarding the far shore. Strangely, there was no-one around even though you can drive right to this magnificent lake.
In an effort to lessen the load of my pack and give my shoulder a break I chose to leave the trail guide in the car. Thus setting in motion the following short drama:

Dave: I absolutely will not carry that book around today! (expression denotes total confidence) I stared at the map and totally know where were going.
Suz: ( expression of stiffled scepticism ) Hmm.
3 hours later
Dave: Okay maybe this isnt the Surail Ridge but lets just climb up here 'cause I'm positive it flattens out and plus ....

Anyway, we eventually ended up where we intended. And though they say that the winners write history here I am recording the events. Therefore I will boldly suggest that trudging around, backtracking and climbing blind dead ends added to the adventure of the trip. At least until Suz figures out how to hack this article. The view on top of Surail Ridge was dizzyingly great. All told this trip was 12km round trip with elevation gain of 1200 feet.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Headwall Lakes

14km 6265ft trailhead 7675ft upper lake vert gain: 1400ft

This weekend we went to Headwall lakes, a series of tarns in the southern end of the Kananaskis range. The walk up the valley was more than pleasant with much of the understory turning colors. The fireweed was at its zenith for color.

about 5km from the trailhead is a fairly steep and gnarly section that demanded total care and attention but after about 100 feet of vertical, the trail evened out into a fantastic Karst landscape of weather eaten limestone cut into fantastic shapes. At about 7000 feet, just above the treeline, the landscape becomes quite lunar.
One of the many oddities above the treeline was a chirping sound that seemed to change direction. It was as though there were pan-dimensional chimpmunks trapped in eddys in the space-time continuum. Suddenly at a moment of interphase, the probability wave collapsed into what looked like a cute rodent with big ears and no tail.
Our friend google explained that this critter was a Pika and that they are renown for their ability to throw their voice in every direction. This same rodent, also found in Japan is the inspiration for the Pokemon character Pikachu. Luckily we weren't aware of this at the time for an encounter with living anime would have had deleterious consequences to our mental health.

At left Suzanne pauses at the top of the upper headwall. The range in the background is the continental divide. All told, the trip was 15km roundtrip with 1500 feet in elevation gain. The cirque guarding the tarns has a very wild quality about it. Suzanne gave this trip 7 chewy bars out of 10 but I was more fascinated by the karst as I would give it an additional scoop of gatorade powder.