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.
I found out about Chester Lake by walking with a local hiking group from Calgary, the Calgary Nature Lovers. You can reach their website here: http://www.meetup.com/Calgary-Nature-Lovers-Hiking-Meetup/ This was my second walk with them, and while not too strenuous for most people, I am still unfit enough that it made me sweat a bit. It can be found by driving west from Calgary on Highway 1 until you reach the intersection with Highway 40, running into Kananaskis country, beside the large and unattractive casino on Stoney land. Turning south, the drive is a good one, running past Barrier Lake (another good walk), and weaving between mountains on either side of the road. It is here, roughly opposite Mt Kidd, that I encountered a large female moose, standing still in a darkened roadcut. Thankfully car and moose went on their separate ways unharmed, driver forcibly educated about the kinds of wildlife to expect on rural roads. Rounding the base of Mt Kent, you take the Smith-Dorrien Spray Trail, twenty kilometers of gravel road. Along the way, you can see into glacial cirques such as the Black Prince, named for a World War 1 Royal Navy warship. Even in the last weekend of July, there was a sizeable snowfield in the cirque, that will probably last until the winter snows fall.
The view westward from the parking lot is seen below, showing Commonwealth Peak, Mt Birdwood, Snow Peak and Mt Burstall. Hidden behind Burstall is the evocatively named Whistling Rock Ridge. However, our trail today would take us to the north-east, climbing through forestry trails until we reached a plateau and a beautiful wild-plant and conifer meadow. From there, the trail wound easily along the flat, among streams and pools, to a green-blue lake, surrounded by large mountains on three sides.
The trail was well marked, and worked its way gradually up the side of Chester Creek, with tall trees providing some shade from the bright sun beating down. Thankfully, the walking group I was with had a good attitude towards pacing, and with lots of brief stops, we made our way to the plateau. As can be seen below, there was still a lot of snow higher up.
Once up on the plateau, we were surrounded by wild flowers. All of the usual Albertan suspects were here, and the smell of pine resin hung strongly in the air. It was truly a beautiful day to be outdoors. We had also been warned of the presence of a grizzly in the vicinity of the lake during the past two days. Bears are not stupid animals, and will tend to stay away from people, unless their young are threatened, or you do something stupid like leave food out where they can be drawn to it. When I was registering to buy my bear spray, a guy said to the people at MEC that he had been told he could spray it around his camp as some sort of barrier. NEVER do this. Bear spray is a strong extract of capsicum or pepper. If you spray it, bears will smell it from a long way away, and be drawn to investigate. You do not want this. Thankfully, on this day, no bears were to be seen anywhere.
Mt Chester, like the Black Prince, was another Royal Navy warship from the First World War. Why so many peaks in the Canadian Rockies are so named isn’t clear to me, but one of the mountains on the west side of Chester, Galatea, is another one. Most of these ships had a nasty tendency to blow up, as the crews stored cordite in open corridors. This allowed explosions to flash down the length of the vessel, generally causing a catastrophic detonation. Needless to say, the Royal Navy eventually learned from these lessons, and designed ships that were less dangerous to their crews than the enemy.
Approaching the lake, the mountains begin to rear up. In the photo above, Mt Chester is on the right, shedding vast scree slopes of limestone and mudstone, which contain fossils. The Fortress is almost in the centre, and Gusty Peak is the large one just left of centre. Galatea lies just out of shot the the left. These rocks give a real sense of age. Folding is visible, and the major beds all dip away to the south-east. Imagine the force needed, and the immense time needed to apply it, in order to make these gigantic bands of rock bend and twist.
The meadow really was idyllic. This is all hidden from the road, and has to be earned by tramping up the trail. Well worth it, by my reckoning. By now, the lake was pretty close, and we saw deer crossing one of the gullies on the side of Mt Chester, high up above us. The rocks making up Mt Chester are different colours, and where they change, the scree slopes change colour from cream to grey quite markedly. The photo below shows the grey slopes, at the base of which fossils can be seen. To be clear, it is not permitted to remove anything from here, and the only thing you can collect is photographs.
The lake itself is clear, not very deep, and extremely cold. Swimming here would be a challenging proposition! It was clear enough to allow us to see brook trout rising towards the surface and take flies, with gills and fins moving gently. It was almost as if you had an aquarium right at your feet. Stupendous.
As I mentioned, the scree slopes below Mt Chester contain fossils. In this case, not bivalves, as I had thought, but according to a friend of mine, Dr Stan Stancliffe, who studied the things, brachiopods, Rhynchonelliformea to be exact. The picture below is pretty low resolution, but I didn’t have a proper camera to hand. Better examples are seen if you Google the scientific name above.
After making our way back around the lake, crossing the scree slopes, we retraced our route back along the meadow and worked our way down through the trees to our starting point. All in all, a diverting few hours, and a really beautiful little lake. I’ll definitely do this walk again, and bring a better camera next time!
Apologies for the picture-heavy post, but hey, people like pictures, right?