“I set up on the summit ledge, awaiting the eclipse.”
Date: September 27, 2015
With a very late 3:15pm start there was no way that this ascent of Mt. Nestor was going to be a typical affair. Nor was it meant to be.
All that week various news feeds were abuzz about an upcoming cosmological event where the apex of the “supermoon” (the point of the year where the moon's orbit passes most closely to the Earth) was to coincide with a full-lunar eclipse (with the Earth aligning perfectly between the moon and the sun). With this event occurring on a weekend, and with dire warnings that it would not occur again until 2033, what I needed to do was obvious: a night scramble!
Using a deeply scientific approach comprising of a vague memory of having shot a supermoon in Jasper once and walking out of my apartment (near Edmonton) around the expected peak time and seeing where the moon was in the sky, I determined that I wanted to summit a high mountain with an open view to the southeast. For the next few hours I must have dropped that little yellow dude onto dozens of summits in Google Earth, searching for the right mix of high summit elevation, easy ascent, and good views to the southeast. With five different weather models assuring me of clear skies that night for the Kananaskis area, I knew I had my destination with Mt. Nestor.
What followed was lies, locked gates, and a postcard sunset.
Trailhead(s) and the Bike Approach
The usual trailhead for Mt. Nestor can be found at the end of the “West Side Road” which crosses the Three Sisters Dam and passes through the Spray Lakes West Campground. You can reach the dam by following the Smith-Dorrien trail southward from Canmore, passing the Nordic Centre, then through Chinamen's Gap, and then past the canal. You'll see both the dam and a sign for the campground on your right a few minutes past Goat Pond. The road continues to your left once you're across the dam and ends at a sizeable parking area with a turnaround. At least that's how it normally works.
The fun thing with Alberta Parks is that their staff apparently panics at the sight of the first fallen leaf and zoom around their territories throwing locks on any gate that'll accept one. To say I was absolutely beside myself with befuddlement when I crossed the dam only to encounter a seasonal road closure, 4.5km away from the trailhead, on a warm, sunny, Sunday afternoon in September, would be an understatement. I actually had to return to the gate a second time and shake it a bit to ensure that: a) it wasn't a mirage, and b) it wasn't a joke. My Gemtrek map helpfully states that this road is closed for winter, yet here I was in shorts weather facing an additional 9km of cycling. Wonderful.
After prying open my front brake with a knife so that it would accept its wheel, I loaded up my gear and began the long 13km approach ride to the base of Mt. Nestor. Once you're past the campground, the rest of the approach takes place on a mellow fire road next to the lake. The entire approach took me about an hour; a competent cyclist should be significantly faster.
What you're looking for during the approach is a 2' tall cairn on the climber's right (west) side of the trail, near the apex of a turn with a culvert (see image #4). There's a small trail heading into the foliage and back there you should have little difficult finding a good place to stash your bike. While I didn't use one due to the timing of my trip, a bike lock would probably be a good idea under most circumstances.
From the bike cache you'll find a trial heading upwards to the right towards an open area in the forest that resembles on old burn. From here you'll have a clear view of the ascent gully and will be able to make out the major fork in its route as you gain elevation along the trail.
As you get closer to the fork you'll encounter a section that's overgrown with vegetation; if you find a good line through, be sure to turn around and take visual notes as you go for the return trip. When I returned to this area by headlamp later on, the trail's location was a mystery and I had to bushwhack a good 100-200m before the slopes cleared enough so that I could spot the trail again.
You can go in either direction at the fork in the drainage. Based on the visible wear on the ground most people go left here, a route which is said to be slightly easier and gets you to views faster. With the sun beginning to set, I definitely wanted to get views to the south as soon as possible and it also made sense to scout the easier route in daylight in preparation for my later descent. So I went left. The advantage of the other route is that it's more direct, and likely faster. Either way you're still looking at a daunting 1,080m of elevation gain from this point!
There's not much to be said of the left drainage, other than grassy slopes eventually give way to (mostly) trail-less grey rubble that's tedious to walk on. Around the 2,250m mark I bailed on the drainage to gain a forested ridge on the climber's left where, if you stay right next to the top of the slope you'll find pleasant hiking on grassy terrain all the way to the beginning of the summit approach. While the forest to your left is dense at first, it soon thins out, providing a captivating panorama of some of Kananaskis' best known peaks, the Royal Group in B.C., and the Assiniboine area, all with the emerald Spray Lakes in the foreground. Weather permitting, you'll have this view to enjoy all the way to the summit.
As seen in image #12, the ridge top to the left of the left drainage leads all the way to the summit (which is still another 600m above from where that photo was taken). While there's still a far distance to go, the travel is easy. As the grassy slopes give way to scree and rubble again, there are a network of zig-zagging trails that will lead you up the mountain to where they converge below the false summit.
While there had been few clouds on my sunny approach, and visible clouds, far away, along the divide when views opened to the south, I was quite disappointed to finally see westward only to behold an impenetrable ceiling of cloud at 13,000 feet. The consensus forecast of clear night skies for Banff and Kananaskis was proving to be wildly inaccurate. While I'm reticent to besmirch a certain profession, my understanding is that there's plenty of precedence for this kind of charlatanism in meteorology.
Sticking near the crest, I quickly traversed the false summit to reach the beginning of the descent towards the summit col. This particular section looked a tad intense for an easy scramble during my research for the trip, but even with snow present it proved to be easier than expected. The descent from the false summit to the col can barely be called a downclimb, with only one step requiring hand placements. The col itself, while significantly exposed to either side, is a good 4-5m wide and can be traversed safely. Upon reaching the other side the col, I climbed up a frozen scree gully which steepens near the top and, from there, scrambled up the last few rock steps before gaining the ridge crest and making the short walk to the nearby summit cairn. It was 7:30pm, and the show was about to start.
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I'd soon learn that I had made a miscalculation as the moon made it's first appearance due east of the summit, between Sparrowhawk and Bogart, rather than to the sexy southeast. The eclipse had already reduced the full moon to a crescent, but its colour had yet to begin changing. It didn't matter much though, by the time I had my tripod set up on a perch below the false summit, overlooking the Spray Lakes far below, the moon had disappeared into the clouds. After an hour's fruitless wait, with a frustrating moment where an angry-looking, red-ringed moon teased briefly through black clouds, I sadly packed up my gear and began the descent.
One trick I've learned over the past year is using the reading light mode (red light) on my head lamp. In those awkward twilight periods where it's not dark enough to justify the full beam, but it's difficult to make out details at your feet, the red light can help considerably and doesn't eat up your battery. As I found out on Nestor, it can also be used to descend a mountain when you're trying to preserve your night vision. (Granted, you need a well-defined route to follow as the range of the red light's only about 2-3m). I felt that if I saw the eclipse, the view would be fleeting, and I would need to be fast to photograph it... and I was right.
A few hundred metres down the mountain my moment arrived, with the moon briefly escaping the clouds. Throwing myself to the ground, I quickly improvised a rock tripod, switched my camera to maximum zoom and started shooting. Not being able to view my LCD screen while shooting, the next 2 minutes was a frantic period of trial-and-error, as I adjusted exposures, shooting angles, and eagerly awaited the processing of each shot. While the four decent shots I got during this flurry of activity will never be prize winners, they were so much better than coming back empty handed.
Knowing that I had gotten some shots of the eclipse, despite the adversity, made everything better on the return. Especially the part where I learned that I would have had clear views the entire time from the immediate vicinity of my apartment. With my headlight beam back on, I continued the long descent and return at a quickened pace but wouldn't reach my car until 11:30pm. The skies wouldn't begin to clear until I reached Deadman's Flats another hour later, and would remain so for much of the drive to Edmonton.