A Snowshoeing Birthday Adventure

You know how much I complained about the weather (a truly Canadian thing to do, by the way!) in my last post? Well, there’s an expression in the mountains here: “If you don’t like the weather, just wait 5 minutes.” We experienced the reality of that hyperbole Sunday.

The day started out a beautiful -15C and spectacularly sunny. The elk herd was still out back, pawing, scraping and munching up the frisbee golf course, having a grand time.

It was Bill’s birthday, and he was craving an adventure: a good ridge walk that we’d never done before would fit the bill, so to speak. Something up in the Spray. Something that felt really backcountry… so no trail with hoards on it. Something spectacular. But not avalanche-y. So we looked through the guide-book to find a snowshoe trek that would push our abilities, and meet the birthday criteria.

We set our sights on Conmonwealth Ridge, a favourite of local backcountry skiers who earn their thrills trudging up steep slopes with skins on their skis for the whoop and holler of a great ride down, zigging through the slalom course of the forest trees, plowing through amazing powder. It was a steep 650m ascent through thick forest with no avalanche danger, so we were set.

Commonwealth Ridge is the dark, soft-M shape that you see on the foreground of the mountain in this photo. What you can’t see in this pic, because of the cloud cover, is the mountain peak. We’d be snowshoeing only to the top of the tree line, as the rest of the way up, do-able in the summer, is all cornices and avalanche slopes.

Here’s the interesting part: we left at -15C in Canmore; by the time we drove 300m up the pass (Whiteman’s Gap… yup, that’s its unfortunate name, though there IS, admittedly, a steady stream of white men that head up into the Spray to hike, ski, fish, scramble & mountaineer… the gentrified white-man adventurers, of which I am unabashedly one) on the road that accesses the back country, it had warmed UP to -9C; by the time we parked at the roadside point to snowshoe across the marshy flats at the base of the ridge, it had warmed up to -1C! Go figure!

Birthday Boy getting all geared up at the roadside trailhead.

We had lucked out and snagged ourselves an inversion (where the temps are warmer at far higher elevations than they are down low)! Bill figured it was the best birthday surprise, ever. There might be cloud cover up here, but it was WARM!

The road lies behind Bill in this photo, between him and the trees… the snow bank from the plow is so high that you can’t see the car!

The route took us up through a beautiful, thick pine & larch forest. The snow fell gently from above, enshrouding the landscape in new white clothes and cloaking it with a sound deadening hush. It was gorgeous. It was strenuous and challenging at times. But the snow was deep, the forest ever so peaceful, and the views, once we got there at the top of the ridge, were powerful. Come along and see….

The first stretch of the trail took us across the marshy flats toward the stand of trees in the distance. It was easy going and the snow was fresh and deep… we definitely needed the fins on the back of our snowshoes!
At the edge of the forest, a stream ran past, visible here and there through the deep snow.
Tree stumps in the forest wore crazy chefs’ hats!
In no time, we were peeling off layers! Not that we were complaining… far from it! The cold snap was broken and the inversion was full-on!

There were obstacles to get up and over as we made our way up through the forest and onto the ridge line. Snowshoes are a blessing in deep snow, but bushwhacking through the forest over deadfall, they add a certain element of laughable challenge. Let’s just say that it was a good thing I had the camera…. I did a lovely tumble here that involved my snowshoe getting stuck under this log!

We have a new In-Reach device, something that allows you to communicate via satellite when you’re in the backcountry (there’s no cell service), and follow & plot your route on its GPS maps. Here, in the depths of the forest, on the steep slope of the ridge, Bill tries it out, and it works!

Sometimes you get caught, falling off the snowshoe track and go into deep snow! (I fell in there, Bill saw me… and he still got caught! Ha ha!) Even Seamus got caught a few times, and sort of swam his way back up onto the track.

The higher we went, the more larch trees there were. They’re really neat… they are pine trees, and yet they lose their needles for winter, turning a spectacular yellow in the process. In this pic you can see the little nubs that will sprout their graceful, long needles next season.
Once we were on the ridge itself, it wasn’t too bad. It was steep, and the views were hidden, but the snow was falling softly, and it was beautiful.
And then we were passed by a set of skiers! So those were the tracks we’d been following! It made our life so much easier to get up that ridge when someone else broke trail for us!
Now we had the ridge all to ourselves, and as the tree line began to thin, and the sun broke through the cloud briefly, we could see the magnificent views!
We’d come up along this ridge….
…. but there was still a ways to go! (That black lump is Seamus, rolling in the snow.)
We weren’t the only ones getting hot!
Up near the top of our route, the views were spectacular!
Our turn-around spot for the day. It was blustery up there! Far too cold to stop for our lunch.
IMG_2413 2.jpg
The way the sun broke through the thick cloud was eerie.
We headed back down the way we’d come to find a spot, tucked into the trees, where we could take in the views & enjoy our sandwiches & tea. The falling snow was so beautiful!
There, Seamus did the oddest thing (well, it was odd for him, as we joke he’s mostly cat and shows very little in the way of dog behaviour!). He dug a deep, deep hole in the snow (a good 3′ down) and sat there, chewing snow balls off his tummy fur. We’ve never seen him dig… ever!
As we headed down the ridge after lunch, the sun broke through the cloud, far off in the distance. It spotlit Spray Lake in such an ethereal way. Gorgeous.
As we headed down into the forest, our snowshoe trail had been obliterated by the skiers, slaloming through deep powder, through the trees…. there was no doubt where we were to go!
This was our tea & birthday-chocolate spot. Not a bad view, eh? And even a patch of blue sky!
Heading ever lower, it was still getting warmer!
As we headed out of the forest, and back onto the marsh once more, we took a look back. That mountain there, looking like a clenched fist, thrust up into the sky by a monstrous stone giant, is actually called “The Fist.”

Back at the trailhead, the temp had reached +3C! (And I’d been so whiny in my last post about the cold spell we’d been surviving lately). As we headed back down into town, the temps gradually dropped…. though only to -4C now that the Bow Valley (what the locals call the valley that contains Canmore & Banff) was getting some of the warming from above.

Should you want to find out more about this trail, check out the guide book that we use, called Snowshoeing in the Canadian Rockies, by Andrew Nugara.

And on a sad, parting note, my heart goes out to the  families and friends of the two American tourists (from Boston), fatally caught in an avalanche, Tuesday, snowshoeing outside Lake Louise. No matter how prepared you are, no matter how trained in avalanche safety, you do take risks going into the backcountry of our spectacular mountains. Do be careful. Do get trained. Do carry the gear. It may not be enough… but please, just do it.

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.

9 Comments on “A Snowshoeing Birthday Adventure

  1. What a spectacular adventure for you and for Bill on his birthday. I bet it’ll be one he’ll remember for a long time. He looked like he was having a ball (so did you for that matter!) Wonderful post and photos. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      • Life changes doesn’t it when the kids go off doing their own thing. It would have felt strange no doubt but, like you said, a fun distraction. Always a good thing.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve always felt that life, and friendships even, come in phases. We’re entering the empty nest stage, and navigating our way through decades of parenting (and even homeschooling!). It’s a strange stage to be at. But overall, I have to say it’s going well so far.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Glad to hear. We’ve still got our youngest (16yo) son at home but feel like we’re teetering on being empty nesters with our eldest daughter hardly home these days. Yes, it’s definitely a different phase. Enjoy.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Sheri, thanks so much for including us on this fresh-tracks jaunt through the backcountry. Hope you’ll forgive me for chuckling as you snagged your snowshoe on a tree. For some reason, I have yet to go snowshoeing without force-feeding myself a few mouthfuls of snow at least once. Still fun though, and I can see that you 3 had a great time too.

    I really want to meet Seamus now 😉 Seems like many of my favorite pets are “cat-dogs” too. I’m not a cat person, but do you think it’s something they’re learning from us anyway? My wife insists that it’s a subconscious cat craving that I’m too stubborn to acknowledge.

    Glad Bill’s birthday turned out so well, and that you got a reprieve from the frigid temps!

    Liked by 1 person

    • CATS are strange aloof creatures who are in their own world. We had two (rescue litter mates) and they lived to be 22 years old, an exceptionally long time for cats. We got them when I was ready to have kids, and Bill wasn’t. He came to regret that decision!

      We’ve had 2 dogs now… one was very dog like, all alpha and I always felt safe on the trails when I was alone with him at my side. He lived for fetch and loved to herd things.

      Seamus, well, he’s more like a loyal companion. He’s quiet and curls up like a cat indoors, sleeping curled up in a ball most of the time unless he’s following me from room to room. Like a cat, hell often leave his food untouched for the whole day, eating it when it suits him (and we’ve tried many different kinds). He doesn’t bark. He’s exceptionally timid and usually hides from other people and from anyone with a stick (walking stick, cane, hiking pole, etc.). For the first two years we had him, he’d parallel me in the underbrush if anyone approached us on the trail, and he’d disappear if they had a stick, only to reappear, silently, at my side once they were gone. I think we can guess what his life was like before coming to us.

      Outside he has tons of energy but won’t stray more than 30′ away or so. And he couldn’t catch a ball or fetch a stick to save his life. He’s a strange guy. A rescue dog that we’re still figuring out, 6 years in. But I love having him around. And I love his odd behaviours and his very, very subtle forms of communication.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Seamus is very lucky to have adopted you all. And these traits (particularly the cat-ish ones you’ve described above) remind me so much of a Shiba Inu we had several years ago. She was an amazing member of the family.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Spicy Tent Ridge – Trail to Peak: The Adventurous Path

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: