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.