A beautiful, but bloody cold day in the mountains.
Date: February 01, 2014
A funny thing happened to Steven and I on the drive from Canmore to Lake Louise on this day. An initial temperature reading of -16°C in Canmore at the crack of dawn promised a pretty moderate day (by February standards), but we watched with a mix curiosity and dismay as my car’s thermometer gradually sank lower and lower during the drive as the world outside became increasingly bathed in sunlight. By the time we pulled into the Fish Creek Trailhead parking area it was -27°C outside. It was going to be a clear, sunny, and bloody cold day in the mountains.
As can sometimes happen when there’s a lot people itching to do something without a clear objective in mind, a single suggestion from one led to a chain of communication which resulted in a large number of experienced scramblers congregating for a single objective. This natural phenomenon is sometimes referred to as “Team Alberta”. As Steven and I were prepping our skis the parking lot began to fill as Vern, Wietse, Andrea, Raff, Sonny Bou, Spencer and Brandon soon joined us.
Our objective for this day was a ski ascent of Heather Ridge. With a really nice approach both in terms of views and year-round trail maintenance, an easy ascent gully, and lovely, varied views from the ridge itself, Heather makes for a great objective any time of the year.
A trip to Heather Ridge, as with any other journey into Skoki, begins at the Fish Creek Trailhead parking area. You’ll find this lot from a turnoff a kilometre south of the main Lake Louise Ski Resort chalet/parking area on the only road heading north out of Lake Louise.
The day begins with a 3.9km climb through viewless forest to the Template Day Lodge via either a service road (summer) or ski route which parallels it (winter). From there the views open up as you’ll follow a well-marked trail along the flanks of Redoubt Mountain to Boulder Pass another 4.7km away. The climb is pretty gradual until a few steeper sections near the pass but, as photos #5 and #6 would attest, that effort is quickly rewarded with great views in both directions.
From Boulder Pass you’ll want to cross (winter) or skirt (summer) Ptarmigan Lake towards gentle ascent slopes on the right (east) which lead to a plateau between Redoubt Mountain and Heather Ridge. You’ll likely mistake the first highpoint at the west end for your summit (which is likely a great viewpoint in the summer), but of course it’s actually far to the east near the opposite end of the ridge.
Looking at photo #7, if you trace an imaginary trajectory for the group you should see the weakness in the first slopes (on the left) which is where you should look to begin your ascent of Heather Ridge. From that point we followed an easterly (climber’s right) trending gully to the top of the ridge which brought us to an area referred to here as the “Rock Garden”, and an easy walk away from the false summit. Much of this route is visable in images #32 and #33.
As you may notice from the photos, snow coverage on Heather Ridge wasn’t great and we had to carefully work our way through rocky bits at times before we finally decided to leave our skis behind at the false summit. From there to the true summit was an easy walk with big views in all directions.
We spent a reasonable amount of time at the summit to reassemble the group and take some photos together before the cold eventually took its toll and we needed to start moving again. It was at this point that one of my trekking poles snagged between two rocks during a slip and sheared apart.
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Having only one functional ski pole for the flatter sections of the return ski trip would be an exhausting handicap for me. I would later figure out that I could remove the sheared section from the assembly and then jam the bottom part back in to form a functional pole again; later, as in back in Edmonton later. *shakes fist at hindsight*
Now I wouldn’t recommend Heather Ridge as a backcountry skiing destination as it was difficult to string more than 3 or 4 turns together before having to carefully pick a route between exposed rocks, but it’s great for the approach and return from Boulder Pass.