Taming the Pigeon

For those of you familiar with the drive from Calgary into Canmore and Banff along the Trans Canada Highway, you will know the point at which you are driving below Pigeon Mountain. As the highway turns sharply around a large marshy lake viewpoint area, and you are surrounded by wind gust warning signs, and you feel your car lurch sideways as those chaotic gusts come roaring down off nearby cliffs, buffeting you ever so unpredictably, you’re there. That’s nasty, temperamental Pigeon.

Pigeon Mountain is a windswept peak on the outer edge of the Rockies’ range, just east of Canmore, named for the shape of its profile, during the Palliser Expedition of 1858. In theory, it is a great shoulder season hike to do when other mountain tops in the area are building up unstable snowpacks on their summits and are otherwise inaccessible, a terrific stretch-your-legs-while-bagging-a-peak, late fall hike. It’s summit is only 2,394m, and it’s distance 16km, return, so it is easily do-able in the shorter daylight days of late fall.

However, on the November day we scaled its lofty heights, it was incredibly windy! As a result, it had little snow on its top and flanks (a good thing), but when the wind gusts combined with sharp, sleety ice needles, it resulted in us receiving a natural dermabrasion “spa” facial treatment (not such a good thing!). But, as a rather resilient friend once told me, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad dressing.” So we embraced the “Suck it up, Buttercup!” principle, bundled up, packed those layers, and took it in stride!

Our hike began, following a track through the forested slopes of the mountain (if there are any locals reading this, we didn’t take the traditional, boring, fire-road start of the route, favouring a steeper, but far more interesting route that leaves through the two large boulders on the east side of the parking lot). In about an hour, we were up onto the meadowy slope of the mountain.

img_4135-1Once we emerged from the forest onto the grassy slopes of an alpine meadow, we could see Centennial Ridge and peak of Mount Allan, an epic day hike that we’d done in the summer (it is the mountain tucked in behind the one in the foreground in the photo below), crouching under an ominous sky. For now, at least, the sun radiated down from overhead, making the meadow grasses glow with a golden hue. It was incredibly windy, making even conversation, difficult. But it was exceptionally beautiful.

We needed the protection of those scant trees… if you look carefully on the left side of this photo, you can see the trail hugging their shelter.

What you cannot appreciate from these photos is the sound of the wind. As we hiked up the grassy slopes of the mountain’s shoulder, there was a cliff band above us. At times the wind would hit it, just so, and the sound of that collision, like the deep, throaty growl and protesting roar of a waking beast, filled the air around us.

The grassy slopes were far steeper than they look, even in this pic, and they curved over the older, eroded parts of the mountain, forming an undulating  backbone of a long, lung-bursting hike up to its summit, with winds relentlessly pushing and buffeting us.
Nearly there… the final hike to the summit was rocky and barren, with just a hint of a snow cornice building on the leeward side of the ridge.
The summit cairn (pile of rocks), looking out over the surrounding mountains.
Looking off to the northeast, we could see the curve of the Bow River, the slate-grey surface of Lac des Arcs, and the mine scar of the cement plant of Exshaw in the far right.
The top of a mountain looks far different from below than it does once you are up there. Pigeon’s peak is typical in the way that it is littered with eroded rock debris, and it is a far larger surface area than you might expect.
For a few moments, the sky cleared, the sleet stopped sandblasting our faces, and the dogs posed for a perfect pic! (Photo cred: Alex Fricker).
Our hiking group on the summit.

I so enjoy hiking in the mountains, especially when accompanied by friends. It’s a great way to visit, as you have hours and hours to talk, explore ideas and connect. It’s a terrific way to get some serious exercise in (even if you have to do the painful pigeon pose, after completing the journey to stretch out your protesting hips!), and a wonderful way to build memories in a spectacular setting. That, and the picnic spots usually have unbelievably spectacular views (even if you are huddled in the shelter of a depression to avoid the wind!). Until next time….

Click here for more terrific hikes in Kananaskis Country (Canmore Area). And check out more hikes from Canada and our adventures around the world here.

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