Healy Pass, beginning from Sunshine Village, is a popular classic hike with options in Banff National Park west of Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
The hike begins from Sunshine Village in temperatures just below freezing, on icy trail covered with 5 CM (2 inches) of fresh powder. The first few kilometers of trail gain elevation gradually through an incredibly beautiful, aromatic, evergreen forest and underlying deciduous brush laced with fresh snowfall.
The hike continues and gains elevation through gently rolling terrain. Snow gets progressively deeper, increasing to about 15 CM (6 inches) at the 5 KM (3 mile) mark. Leaving the forest into more open area provides initial vistas of surrounding mountain scenery.
Evidence of wildlife is abundant including recently laid-down cougar tracks. As the day warms up, rushing creeks begin to sculpt the ice formed overnight.
Each of these ice sculptures is unique, like snowflakes for the moment, and will never be repeated. Bright sun creates sparkling jewels in the ice and the sound of rushing water is captivating.
Then the work begins. Elevation increases more rapidly in the open areas with snow gaining depth until we are post-holing in 70 CM (28 inches) of snow with 2 KM (1¼ miles) remaining to the viewpoint at the top of the ridge.
All evidence of trail is completely buried in snow so the hike continues on as straight a line as possible to our visible objective up and along the ridge ahead. Experienced hikers are rotating lead and breaking trail for less experienced participants.
Brilliant, snow-reflected sun, combined with hard work navigating the deep snow, reduces the need for warm clothing. Protection for skin and eyes becomes very important defence against direct sun and sun reflecting from snow.
At the 7,710 ft (2,350 M) summit of the ridge, surrounding mountains provide magnificent views. The lofty summit of Mount Assiniboine is visible in the distance. On the other side of the ridge, the view of a long chain of mountains opens up including two lakes in the valley at the base of Mount Egypt. One lake is frozen over and the larger lake below remains free of ice. In the opposite direction we have a clear view of Sunshine Village ski runs and surrounding mountains as well as many frozen lakes and glaciers. The scenery is spectacular.
On the return hike to Sunshine Village, warm temperatures have increased creek flow substantially. Trail conditions deteriorate to sloppy conditions for a major part of the trek down. Interestingly, temperatures at higher altitude substantially exceed those at the trail-head where it has warmed up only a few degrees in the shadow of the mountains.
Up and down layering of clothing is required throughout the mission. On this day, the hike is an aggressive and physically demanding day using advanced skill-sets.
Healy Pass is nothing short of spectacular.