I’m dreaming about snow. I know what you’ll say; it’s only August, enjoy the heat while it lasts. Snow will be here soon enough. Well, whenever the temperature starts to drop from it’s summer peak, when the car steering wheel is too hot to touch without gloves, my thoughts turn more frequently than usual to the mountains in the west. I see them every day on my way to and from work, and often get out into them at the weekend, but I find myself thinking of them as I’ll see them in a couple of months. Covered in thick snow, with cloud drifting among the shattered pinnacles and buttresses like smoke. Get far enough out and you can experience a silence so profound that it has mass. Standing among the high peaks as large heavy flakes fall in the great empty spaces is one of my favourite things. If you’re lucky enough to find somewhere quiet enough, the only thing you can hear is the hiss of blood running through your ears.
This week has seen the start of Autumn, or the Fall, as they call it here in North America, in Calgary. At the moment, it’s fairly subtle, just patches of leaves changing to yellow and orange, with a few dropping from the trees on the way to work. Still, other visual cues tell me the earth is beginning her roll away from the sun, shorter days – driving home from Taekwondo there is now less light; daytime temperatures are finally, finally(!) starting to dip towards something more comfortable for a Scot from the West.
The local landscape changes greatly with the advent of snow. Tourist traffic drops off significantly, and it is possible to visit places and see absolutely nobody. There is something to be said for experiencing a place in every season. Much as I love to visit Lake Minnewanka in spring, summer or fall, I miss the sound of frozen trees cracking in the dark, as the stars wheel above Cascade Mountain, and the silent dance of the Aurora Borealis. Driving on roads that for six months will be hard packed snow and ice is a challenge, but fun, requiring careful thought about vectors and when to brake. More importantly, when not to brake. Avoiding snow-filled ditches is another good thing to try, particularly when the blizzard outside drops the temperature to around minus 35ºC. At least you won’t have to worry about that this year, May. Up along the Icefields Parkway, on the way to Jasper, the glaciers are visible year-round, but I prefer to see these colossal walls of ice when their mountains are swaddled in snow.
I love the clear light of winter, and cold, sharp air that chills as you breathe it. This season gives me more opportunities to drive and reflect in peace, as most normal people don’t like to head out into the back country when the conditions are less than ideal.
Mostly though, I think that winter improves the mountains. While they’re always impressive, vast sheets of snow and frozen waterfalls add character. The Weeping Wall is transformed from a large cliff into one of the best ice-climbing sites in North America. Driving down around Big Bend, near the Sunwapta Pass, the snow highlights the truly epic grandeur of the scene. Snow deeper than the Armco gives you the impression that if you don’t get your speed right, you will sail straight out into the valley, followed by a tumbling plummet to the pine-forested slopes below.
When you do meet people out there in the heart of winter, they tend to be good people. I’ve noticed that people almost always stop to check on stationary motorists. I’ve done it myself. Nine times out of ten, they’ve stopped for some mundane reason, but in the more remote places, breaking down runs the risk of freezing to death.
So, in reality, it’s probably about six weeks or so until we’ll see snow. In the meantime, I have to content myself with thinking about the conditions above. Western Canada is beautiful year-round, but when we sink into winter, that’s when I love it the most.
On the last day of June this year, I headed out west from Calgary to do a ridge walk with one of my friends and his children. The Nihahi Ridge lies at the far end of the Elbow Valley, close to a number of peaks named after either World War One Royal Navy battleships (Cornwall, Glasgow) or Roman Mythology (Romulus, Remus). We started from the car at about 10.30 AM, and were back down by 2.10 PM. This included a walk-in of about 1.5Km from the parking lot, and taking many small breaks due to my fitness level.
Today proved to be a lesson in mountain weather, and just how rapidly things can change for the worse. The start of our walk was in brilliant sunshine, though driving west, we had seen showers trailing beneath clouds in the distance. In such hot weather, heat-stroke is a risk, and adequate water should always be carried. Sun-block is essential too, and insect repellent.
Right from the start, the view in this walk are spectacular. The surrounding mountains beside the Elbow River rise to large peaks all around, and the view of Nihahi Ridge during the drive in is striking. At first you wonder how you will manage to get up there. As it turns out, the approach is straightforward, switching back and forth, gaining height rapidly until you find yourself in an alpine meadow (coming into bloom at this time of the year), with Gaillardia, daisies and other flowers all around. Excellent views are seen from here, of the peaks to the southwest, Mt Glasgow, Mt Cornwall and Banded Peak. These bad boys are all in the 8000-9000 ft height bracket, and offer walking / scrambling that is unlikely to crowded. No queueing for Sharp Edge here!
Nihahi means “Rocky” in the local Stoney dialect, which is appropriate. Just as in Gaelic in Scotland, the local names tend to be descriptive. I much prefer them to some of those imposed by later settlers. Why name mountains after warships or politicians? The original names sound great, like “Yamnuska”.
As we approach the meadow, the views to the east, south and west open up. With the switchbacks, height is gained quite rapidly, but inside the pine forest, lack of external visual reference makes you feel as though you’re crawling along. At this point, as the pictures show, it was a bright, hot, sunny day. There weren’t even that many biting insects.
Looking out to the west, below, we start to get our first proper view of Mts Romulus and Remus, named after the mythical founders of Rome. These are serious mountains, though the very southern end of the Nihahi Ridge obscures the valley containing the Little Elbow River.
To the south, again, nice views as we gained height, with the Little Elbow River visible away down in the valley floor. Don’t know the name of the mountain in the far distance, but I like the shape of its profile.
Once up and across the meadow, a steep trail switches back and forth up the eastern side of the ridge. The post I’m holding in the photo below is part of a fence system protecting that section of the walk from a drop of perhaps one hundred and fifty feet. What isn’t clear from the shot is that the meadow in the background is actually quite high above the starting point, right down at the river. In the background, Elbow Valley runs east for miles, towards Elbow Falls and Bragg Creek. On a day like today, it is a fantastic drive, rarely seeing other drivers, let alone some of the aggressive yahoos commonly encountered on the TransCanada Highway. On another subject, I’m unashamed of the sweat covering my rugby shirt. Getting to this point was a real effort, and there’s nothing wrong with a good sweat in any case. Proves you’re putting the effort in!
As we gain height, Mount Glasgow and Mt Cornwall become a bit more visible. Even at this point, from the first real viewpoint on the ridge, the weather out to the west is perfect. At this elevation, there is little wind, and no real indication in the sky that anything is amiss. The walking is more of a scramble at this point, though still very easy. My main problem at this point is overall fitness. While I train three times a week in martial arts, this is more steady, prolonged effort, and suffering from asthma makes my chest ache and breathing is difficult for the first thirty minutes to an hour of any hike. Still, perserverance pays off, as here.
Just before the trees give out on the main ridge, the view to the east is still pretty spectacular. I think the hill over my left shoulder is Forgetmenot Mountain, though I need to check that. The meadow is now significantly lower, and what you can’t see immediately behind me is a much larger drop. To the east, the weather looks as it has done all day, lovely. Up here, there is quite a bit more wind, funnelling out of the valley to the west, where the sky is just starting to darken. Lunch was a good option at this point.
Now, the view west is starting to look a bit more ominous. In perhaps fifteen minutes, the sky behind Evan-Thomas E3 has darkened, and the clouds have closed in. At this point, I think I can hear distant thunder, but am not sure if I’m imagining it, with all of the ambient noise created by the wind from the west.
The effects of wind and rain are clear in the shot above, giving an idea of the time taken to erode these magnificent mountains to mineral grains. Literally a geological age.
To the north, the ridge loses it’s forest cover, and becomes essentially bare rock. Here we have a choice to make. The sky is darkening to the west rapidly, while to the east and south, everything is as it was. However, the main weather system is coming in from the west, and it doesn’t look good. The last thing we want to do is be stuck at altitude on a bare ridge with lightning bolts coming down. June and July is thunderstorm season here in Alberta, and the storms themselves tend to be significant, with lots of bolts and large, potentially damaging hail. Given the ascent time, we decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and turned around, unlike a small group of young people without much gear, who happily (and noisily) made their way upwards. Given their exit options, and the storm that was shortly to follow, I sincerely hope they got out OK.
Now we can definitely hear thunder, and the sky has a funny cast to it. The underside of some of the clouds starts to look bulbous, or domed, an indication of cumulonimbus, or thunderclouds. Mountaineers have reported their metal gear, such as ice axes, singing or humming in intense electrical fields before thunderstorms. I’ve never been this high up when such a storm has rolled in, and I admit to being very keen to lose some elevation before it arrives. Another hazard at this point is moving downhill rapidly. It isn’t as easy as you might think, and the chance of falling or turning an ankle is actually higher. As Baz said to his kids, if you fall uphill, you have less distance to fall. Now we can trip and sprawl downhill, potentially breaking wrists. The tree roots that helped us to climb the trail now become wet, and lying at an angle, represent sliding hazards. The first drops of rain fall, thick, fat and slow, but still not numerous. Thunder is now close and loud, with occasional flashes of lightning from close to the ridge.
Down at the meadow, we’re aware of being out in the open, and decide to shelter. Not being the tallest object in the area is a good thing, so we take shelter in a thick stand of trees, but not touching any. As the thunderstorm moves over us, we pass through one of the belts of strong hail, which comes drumming down, with a downpour of almost biblical proportions. If this is a typical Alberta thunderstorm, it will be violent and move through quite quickly. As it turns out, it slackens off fairly quickly, allowing us a window of opportunity to head for lower elevation still, among trees that now smell beautifully of pine resin and clean air. All around are pools of new rainwater, and the sun finally starts to reappear, even while the thunder is still crackling around the highest reaches of the ridge.
In terms of wildlife, this area is rich, though we didn’t see a great deal, mainly some butterflies that I need to look up in my guide. One thing we did see, and quite close to the road, was bear scratching marks, below. As with any walk in western Alberta or British Columbia outside of Fall (or Autumn for my non-North American readers), bear spray should be carried, and you should be competent in its use, before going on your hike. You won’t be any use to anybody if you end up spraying yourself – it happens.
So, overall, a great walk, within about an hour of the western edge of Calgary. The Elbow Valley was full of people taking advantage of the approaching Canada Day long weekend, but it still didn’t feel cramped. Everyone we met was friendly, including a batch of people all wearing red Raytheon t-shirts. Some sort of fundraiser perhaps. Anyhow, lots of nice folks, and when I can bend my legs again, I’m sure I’ll look back on this walk with affection. It was well worth the effort, and it reminded me that there are so many excellent places to hike, close to the city, but away from the usual tourist draws like Banff and Lake Louise.
Christmas Day was beautiful this year in Alberta. Clear blue sky, cold, but the snow was glinting on the mountains on the western horizon, and I had itchy feet. It wasn’t the happiest of days for me, for a couple of reasons, and the prospect of a long drive looked likely to help blow the cobwebs away.
At this point, it wasn’t too cold, and the bright sun in the southern sky looked to be the biggest problem I’d have to handle. This is where Highway 40 runs south from the TransCanada, past a really ugly casino on Stoney First Nations land. While I think the First Nations art of the Pacific Northwest is fantastic, I really think they could teach the Russians a few things about ugly buildings. Possibly, aesthetics were not at the top of their list, rather than income.
To the north lay one of my favourite mountains, Yamnuska. I’ve seen this hill in just about every kind of weather, and different light. My normal route home runs right along the base, visible as a line just below the main slopes. Seeing this mountain in the early evening, as the sun sets in the Bow Valley, is one of the things that I really love.
Heading south, the road runs between towering masses of the front ranges. I was surprised by how many people I saw, this being Christmas Day. One consequence of being in a winding valley was that the wind made the temperature drop. Starting off at minus 17C, it dropped steadily towards the mid-twenties. Strangely enough, the air itself seemed to have a blue tint to it – an effect that I couldn’t explain until yesterday. Apparently even the colour of shadows can be affected by reflected light from the sky. In this case, light from the intensely blue sky. Apparently the shadows aren’t black, but can appear really deep blue. Who knew? Certainly not me.
Highway 40 is only open part-way to the south. When open, it allows you to make your way to Longview, for possibly the longest wait for a cup of coffee in the history of catering, but that’s another story. Fortunately for me, it was closed and barricaded off well before that became a possibility.
The run south takes you past one of the popular ski resorts of the area, and Kananaskis Village. I seem to identify better with trees and mountains than people – certainly I understand them far better, so this is a good drive just to get away from people. The views are superlative; it is almost impossible to take a bad photograph, though I would caution you as to where you stop to take said pictures. It is possible in more clement weather to be flattened by some yahoo in a pickup truck who hasn’t noticed you.
The forces of geology are on display here in a number of ways. First, the effect of the collision between continental and oceanic tectonic plates, creating the Rockies. I tend to bang on about that quite a bit, so won’t belabour the point here. Secondly, the effect of glaciers, carving the landscape over an entirely different timescale, leaving unmistakeable traces in the country around you. While they operate more quickly than your average continental collision, I wouldn’t use either plate tectonics or glaciation to set your watch by – even Lothian Buses run more quickly.
Down here, the road branches off west and north around the base of the mountain chain, and becomes the Smith-Dorrien Highway. This runs north past Mount Chester, Black Prince Cirque, a whole load of interesting mountains and the (presently frozen) Spray Lakes, reappearing at the east end of Rundle (EEOR) high above Canmore and the Grassi Lakes. The steep descent to Canmore on snow and ice is not one for the faint-hearted, but not overly difficult.
Mount Chester is a great day-hike, though possibly not while the trails are covered in a thick blanket of snow. There are lots of promising mountains here to wander, though bear spray is essential in non-winter seasons. I never did get to the bottom of why so many Canadian peaks in this part of the Rockies are named after British World War One naval vessels (Chester, Galatea, Black Prince, Nestor, Hector, Indefatigable and so on). Many of them exhibited an unsettling habit of exploding and sinking, which makes them even more improbably candidates for immortality. I would imagine that Canadians have a variety of other names for them that are more suitable, and think it would be more appropriate to go back to using them.
From here, I started to encounter idiots on the road again, after a refreshingly long time. Some people fail to understand (or don’t care) that their brakes won’t prevent them from crashing into the rear of cars ahead when driving on ice. While it is comforting to know that their insurance will repair my car, I don’t much fancy the prospect of being forced off the road into a steep slope of conifers with massive boulders in it.
At least once through the township of Canmore, it was possible to head back home along one of my favourite roads, Highway 1A in the fading sunlight. All in all, possibly the best Christmas Day I could have had, and proof that sometimes, the best company is your own.
Here in Western Canada, winter normally means crazy freeze/thaw cycles (the Chinook, where moist, less cold air from the Pacific Ocean rolls over the Rockies, raising the temperature by up to 10C) and vast numbers of people for whom a steering wheel is an unfamiliar and unsettling object. The bonus is frequent days like today, with clear skies and bright sunlight. While cold, it is a great opportunity to get outdoors and enjoy the mountains. Last weekend, I took a trip up Highway 93, otherwise known as the Icefields Parkway. This Highway connects the TransCanada to Jasper, running through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. The geology is varied, the landscape titanic, and the driving conditions quite interesting, in a don’t-lose-concentration-or-you’re-off-the-road sort of way. Early in the winter, the driving surface tends to be powdery snow, which then packs down and is polished, to an icy base layer. The actual route isn’t too bad to drive, as long as you think carefully about bends, and changing your speed without braking much. I didn’t realise just how slippery the road was until I stepped out of the car to take some pictures.
Being several hundred kilometres long, the weather along the Parkway can be quite varied. On this occasion, it was fairly cloudy, with snow falling through the lower reaches of the route. Where Highway 93 branches off from the road to Vancouver, infrequent traffic meant it was necessary to estimate where the lanes were. I love this turnoff though, as it always gives me a sense of going somewhere special, off the beaten track, as it were. The Smith-Dorrien highway out of Canmore to the Spray Lakes also does it, and Highway 68, down Jumping Pound way. On this occasion though, the drifting snow made finding the appropriate lane something of a challenge.
The drive follows a path between ranges in the Rockies, with lakes frequently to the side of the road. In summer, these are a vivid turquoise colour through the presence of ground up suspended minerals, termed “rock-flour”. Today, everything lay under a layer of ice and snow, though not everything had frozen. It was possible to see patches of unfrozen lake, though they were being swallowed up rapidly.
One of the things I really love about being up here in the winter time is the silence. Stepping from the car, often the only audible sound was the murmur of the wind through the endless pine trees. Occasionally, you might hear the gurgle of a creek that had yet to freeze solid. Proper silence, without any of the things that we normally tune out.
When you drive east to west (or vice versa) anywhere in the Rockies, you are weaving your way through successive waves of a geological car crash, literally waves frozen in stone. To the south, on Highway 40, Mt Kidd is a graphic reminder of this, with the waves plain for anyone with eyes to see. You don’t need to be a geologist to see how and where the forces that shaped that mountain range were applied. If it bakes your brain, don’t be concerned; we are no more capable of being blase about the forces and timescales involved. After many years, the specialist term that I apply for such situations is “Oh wow”. Works most times.
Back to the Icefields Parkway – here, we are travelling north-west, between successive waves of mountains. For me, the things of note change depending on the season. In spring and summer, the lakes dominate, with their beautiful turquoise caused by rock-flour. In winter, the mountains running alongside the road are dominant, brooding shattered crags, often rising into mist or low cloud. Then there are the glaciers. Frozen titanic masses of water, descending from immense ice sheets to the west, some hang down mountainsides, such as the Snowbird Glacier, while others extend to the east, such as the Bow or Athabasca Glaciers. The ice that makes them up has a vivid blue hue, due to the removal of ice bubbles that normally gives ice a whitish colour. This material has had all of the bubbles crushed out of it, and so looks almost synthetic in nature.
The primary rock type up here is limestone, and the weather has eroded it into the kind of vertical structures that I’ve seen in pictures of karst topography in the Far East. Below is a picture of the crags on Mt Murchison which illustrated the landform quite nicely.
It is a long drive, and the landscape changes as you head towards Saskatchewan River Crossing. Ahead is Mt Wilson, with its large syncline (v-shaped structure, caused by rock beds being folded) and inclined beds. Beyond lies the Weeping Wall and the Sunwapta Pass. The aptly named “Big Bend” rises to the pass, with Cirrus Mountain on the right, with the Palliser, Banff and Rundle Formations all laid out for inspection. For my part, my concentration is focused on staying on the sharply rising curving road, and not driving into the thin armco barrier that really doesn’t look as though it would prevent a plummeting descent into the valley below.
Past the Sunwapta Pass, the weather became quite a lot worse, with snow blowing in from the north, as well as off the icefields to the west. At the Icefields Visitor Centre, closed for the season, the snow lies in thick drifts. This is not a place to get into trouble, as I was shortly to find out first-hand. Here, on a clear day, the Athabasca Glacier descends from the Columbia Icefield, and several hanging glaciers push down from Mt Andromeda and Mt Athabasca. Vast quantites of lateral moraine (ground-up debris from the passage of the glacier) lie on both sides of the valley. In summer, special buses take tourists up and on to the glacier itself. Today, it would end badly. and to be honest, even if you could get out on to the glacier unharmed, the weather was severe enough to make you wish you hadn’t.
This was not a good time to drive your car into a snow-filled ditch, but I did. Two of us proved unequal to the task, and thankfully we managed to enlist the help of a number of people passing on the road. For an hour or so, it was fairly unpleasant, and a tow-rope moved to the top of the to-buy list.
Interestingly enough, one of the currently invisible peaks in this area, Snow Dome (3456m) is, according to Ben Gadd’s Handbook of the Canadian Rockies, the Hydrographic apex of North America. In short, water poured on the summit of this mountain flows into three oceans. To the south and east, water drains into the North Saskatchewan River, and by a meandering course, into Hudson Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. To the west, into Bush River, the Columbia River and ultimately the Pacific Ocean. To the north, water drains into the Athabasca River, Slave River, MacKenzie River and finally the Arctic Ocean.
So, all in all, a good drive. It’s worth remembering that it’s a long drive back to Calgary, and breaking the trip up somewhere like Banff or Canmore to have some food and decompress from concentrating on driving for a few minutes is a really good idea. This is one of my favourite drives, and certainly not one I’m likely to forget any time soon.
I like to be outdoors as often as I can. While it can be very relaxing to sit with a book and while away a day or two, there is always something to be said for getting outdoors and feeling the wind, rain or sun on your face.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have driven out to the west, into the front ranges of the Rocky Mountains, in weather that could best be described as poor. When traveling alone, the trip gives me a chance to reflect. At this time of year, as autumn gives way to winter, the tonal palette of the landscape changes from the greens and yellows of fields and trees, to the burnt oranges and browns of winter. Often cloudy, the skies possess a beauty not seen during the rest of the year, as tendrils of water vapour coil their way among the shattered crags of the biggest geological car-crash between here and the Pacific Ocean. The worst weather often puts off the multitudes of tourists who normally jam up the roads with their people carriers and waddle about waving selfie sticks. I understand and accept the need for tourist-generated income for local towns and villages, but find the self absorption and utter lack of awareness of anyone else around them that such tourists generally exhibit quite annoying. I mean, when people are stupid enough to step backwards into moving traffic, in order to get a better photograph of their friends on a sidewalk, doesn’t that tell you something fairly basic about what’s going on (or not) inside their heads?
This past couple of weeks, I headed off the main tourist trail near Banff, to Lake Minnewanka. This is a favourite of mine, especially once the lake freezes, giving access to the interior on snow shoes. This time, it was the kind of day that I normally associate with the Pacific Northwest, whenever I think of the art of the Haida. Rainy, damp, not really too cold, but lots of moisture in the air, with dark still lake waters. Even here, on a day like this, it was impossible to completely evade the selfie-brigade, but their numbers were greatly reduced. I don’t like crowds, in case you haven’t noticed. Lake Minnewanka is ten minutes from Banff, but I suspect that most shoppers have never seen it. I really like Banff, girdled with mountains of different characters and possessing a river that I could sit and watch forever, but it isn’t the main reason I head west and north. The Palliser Expedition passed though here just before the American Civil War, heading out from the Great Lakes, with the remit of surveying everything to the west. Standing at the monument above Lake Minnewanka and looking out at wind ruffling the surface of the lake betweeen Cascade Mountain and Mount Girouard, I can’t imagine what that trip must have been like. I find the character of the people that set out to the west inspiring.
I like to get as far away as I can from cities sometimes. I don’t deal well with crowds, and the braying jostling masses sometimes make me want to shout at them. The view below is of the Crowfoot Glacier, on the Icefields Parkway, during the summer. I’d like to see this in full winter, with sharp clear sunlight and air that burns your lungs. Better still, I’d like to take my gear and get off the road, so often crowded with more tourists, and strike out into the back country across the lake to the west. There’s a lot to be said for breaking your own trail, and learning the skills necessary to be self-sufficient. Wilderness camping, under the stars, with only what you can carry, is one of life’s luxuries. Thoreaux and Emerson had it right when they talked about the wild. You can keep your satellite TV and two hundred channels of pap. Give me a good backpack and an ice axe and my own company. Chances are, I won’t fight with myself, and the trip can be a source of considerable catharsis.
Again, to find solitude, it isn’t necessary to get far from civilisation. Sometimes getting a couple of hundred feet higher up can do the trick. The picture below is from high above Lake Louise in Alberta, another destination for the busloads of tourists. Going off-piste, led on by a sign warning of danger of serious injury proved irresistable, and rewarded us with this view. Not many people from the carpark make it up here. The silence was palpable, and the light special. These are ancient rocks, from the Cambrian period, 540-480 million years ago.
Moving down the frozen expanse of Lake Louise, it was possible to leave the selfie-stick wavers behind, and enjoy the magnificent mountains towards the Victoria Glacier. The only people out here were snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. Out here, there are endless miles of trails, of a fairly serious character. Need to get fitter before I can tackle them.
Mind you, Canada isn’t the only place where you can find peace and quiet. The high tops in Glencoe, in the western Highlands of my native Scotland, offer good places to get away from it all. The first peak I managed in this group is below, Buchaille Etive Mor, the Great Shepherd of Etive, looking over to Bidean nam Bian. I have the First Midlothian Scouts to thanks for teaching me to navigate, camp, and most of all, to love the mountains of my homeland. I’ve not got the skill or head for heights needed to rock-climb, but scrambling is fine. On a clear day up here, you can literally see for miles. Choose the wrong day, as I did on Beinn a Bheithir, and you can’t see the end of your nose, with potentially fatal consequences. Those are when you learn hard lessons. I have never been happier to see the Clachaig Bar.
One of the last true wildernesses in Scotland is Knoydart, often referred to as the Rough Bounds. If nowhere has a middle, it is somewhere in there. The hills are serious, and carrying in everything you need focuses the mind. It helps to forget the humdrum and banal elements of “everyday life”, and sometimes the day can be distilled down to breathing and putting one foot in front of the other. Again, these are ancient rocks, cooked and compressed over geological ages. We’re privileged to be able to witness their testament to hundreds of millions of years of rains and snow. The span of time is almost impossible to imagine. Beside all of this, we are less than ants.
Glen Affric is another good escape. It is possible to walk all day here and not see many people. The shot below was in the Autumn, looking to the west. Typical for many highland rivers, the water was peat-coloured and shockingly cold. The trees were just on the turn, as the country slid into winter. I remember the smell of the foliage after rain.
The far northwest has some of the most ancient mountains, including mighty Suilven, here seen from the east, near Loch na Gainimh (Sandy Loch). These massive butresses rise from the underlying rock, dwarfing everything around for miles. These are names to conjur with, Canisp, Stac Pollaidh, Cul Mor and Cul Beag. I have seen these mountains lined up in the gathering dusk, casting massive shadows on the ancient land. They will still be here when Man has ultimately passed back into dust. Again, good for getting a sense of our own lack of significance.
The eastern side of Scotland also has great places to get peace. Here, under the gaze of the Cairngorms, there are many tracks giving access to woods and water. Funny to think that the blathering crowds aren’t actually that far away. If this reads as though I am fairly antisocial, it isn’t the case. I just prefer to be able to choose my company, and those people tend to be those that don’t constantly fill the air with prattle and noise. They’re the kind of people who can sit in the car with me for an hour and not feel the need to say anything. Sometimes just being there is enough. Wind and water, tree and hill. Give me moss and bracken, and rain in my face, and I will be happy. Cities are for other people.
Winter is pretty much my favourite time of year. Even when I lived back in the UK, I always found the cooler weather more comfortable. Here in Western Canada, the temperatures get well below what most of Britain sees, but with the proper gear and a bit of winter walking knowledge, it’s quite possible to enjoy days out at anything down to about minus thirty Celsius.
Given the vast number of lakes in Canada, when full winter comes, there are lots of relatively easy places to walk. Snowshoes are essential, or cross-country skis. I’m not fit enough for skiing yet, but snowshoes themselves take a bit of getting used to. Strapping wide and long metal plates to your feet require a different mechanism for walking, which in my case brings John Wayne to mind. Over long distances, using them can be pretty strenuous, though definitely an improvement over the alternatives.
Another essential is an ice axe and rope. Even walking on trails in wooded areas, it is possible to fall into deep pockets of very powdery snow. This happened to me last year, below minus 20C. As I tried to free myself, I found that I had no contact with anything solid. Moving my arms and legs caused an influx of fine powdered snow through my sleeves, boot tops and the neck of my jacket. All of this conspires to rob you of heat. An axe can help you reach something that will allow you to get free, i.e. a tree. Better still, being roped improves your chance of avoiding being caught in such a situation. When I got back to the car about ninety minutes later, my clothes had frozen to the point where they had to be beaten to return to their original shape. That way lies hyporthermia. It also creeps up on you gradually, so alert friends are a bonus.
Barry Bennett, above, is modelling the kind of gear you should be wearing. Don’t be deceived by the grin, it was bitterly cold, halfway up one of the mountains beside Lake Louise. Without gear, your situation would become dire rapidly, with frostbite and worse on the cards.
Windchill can also catch you out. While it is generally a much drier cold over here than in Europe, when the wind blows, it can drop the effective temperature by another ten degrees. Bare skin also sticks to metal, which is just another bonus. Still, if you have respect for the conditions, winter can provide some truly breathtaking walks.
See what I mean? Absolutely beautiful, and the air was so cold, you could feel it inside your chest. What really blew me away was that this was part of the route of the Palliser Expedition. This was a British expedition to survey a large swathe of Canada, from Lake Superior to the southern passes of the Rocky Mountains. They did this with a combination of canoes and horse travel, between 1857 and 1860, shortly before the American Civil War. They didn’t have the kind of materials we have access to nowadays, and I admire the spirit of people for whom this was not regarded as a problem. The Doctor of this expedition was ultimately injured by one of the horses, giving us the name “Kicking Horse Pass”. Further to the north-west in this area is the Yoho Valley, “Yoho” meaning “Wow!” in one of the local Indian languages. It isn’t hard to see why.
This is Mount Rundle, with the suburbs of Banff in the foreground. Also in view is Tunnel Mountain, named despite not having a tunnel bored through it. The railway engineers eventually decided to run the track around it. What I love about this shot is that it shows very clearly that Mount Rundle has a gigantic layer-cake structure. Geology but on a monumental scale.
Tolkien had one of his characters in the Lord of the Rings say about roads that you never know where they may take you. Well, that might well be true, but sometimes the roads that fire my imagination are those whose ends you DO know. There are two close to where I am sitting right now. Highway 1, or the TransCanada Highway, lies not more than two or three miles from this desk, and it runs all the way across Canada to St. Johns in Newfoundland, many many miles away. In fact, by the time you reach St Johns, you are close to Glasgow than Calgary.
The second road is just out west, a little past Cochrane, on the way to the Rockies on Highway 1A. This is a quieter way to get into the west, with nowhere near as much traffic as the TransCanada, and scenery that is just as good. Just before Ghost Lake, there is a road that branches off to the north, up and over a ridgeline, and out of sight. Forestry trunk road 40 – not the most romantic name to conjur with, but what fires my imagination is that this road continues to the northwest, following the Rockies, up through Nordegg (a name with meaning for geologists), to the east of Jasper, crosses the Athabasca River west of Hinton. You are now as far north as Edmonton, though quite a ways west of the city. Edmonton is three hours drive north of Calgary, say about the same drive as Glasgow to Manchester, or Glasgow to Aberdeen, in the UK. A quick look at a provincial roadmap for Alberta shows you that there is still lots more of Alberta to go; this is only the southernmost end.
On to Grand Prairie, and the road number changes. On through Muskwa and Fort Nelson in British Columbia, and the Yukon beckons at Upper Liard (another geological name) and Watson Lake. Jakes Corner leads to Whitehorse, a city I will fly to some day. From Dawson City, the road splits, taking you either north to the places you have seen in Ice Road Truckers, Inuvik, Aklavik and Tuk, or west into Alaska. Highway 2 ultimately leads you on to Fairbanks, and continues on to a barrier at Deadhorse: “No private transportation beyond this point”. This is about five miles or so from Prudhoe Bay, on the Beaufort Sea. From here, you’d get your feet wet.
So, all of this lies within about thirty minutes drive from where I’m sitting. One day I will drive the whole thing, but for now, I’ll have to settle for the first few miles. I drove it on Canada Day, trying to get away from the crowds thronging to the better known places I like to visit. The first part is easy, on paved roads, winding through Water Valley, in beautiful rolling farmland. Off ahead are the Rockies, with peaks like Devil’s Thumb prominent on the skyline. To the southwest, a thunderstorm rolled and boomed across the southern part of Highway 40, down near Mt Kidd and Mt Baldy. Up here, it was beautiful, a good day to be alive, with swallows zipping about over the grass, and barely any sound but the wind.
These are the kinds of roads that I like to drive, particularly at night, when you can stop the engine somewhere rural, and the silence almost hits you. Watching the moon rise over Moose Mountain, and the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter over the Rockies at midnight. The only thing that can give an edge to nights like that is the sound of things moving around in the deep woods, in the dark, in cold that could give you frostbite. That happened up at Two Jack Lake, in February this year, while it was twenty below. Whatever it is that’s moving around is welcome to it! Back to the car and a good heater!
For this kind of drive though, you really need two people, and to plan logistics. Fuel stops are a long way apart, and breakdowns become more than a simple inconvenience. That said, this is proper driving, and I plan to see it all some day. Any takers for the co-driver’s seat? More to follow as I head north and west.