Pocaterra Ridge is a 4–humper. After wrestling with a virus for the past two days, I am uncertain if I have 4 humps in me but I am committed to achieving the first peak at the very least. The trail-head is a short walk across Kananaskis Trail (Hwy. 40) after parking in the Little Highwood Pass parking area north of the Elbow Pass Trailhead (the route to Elbow Lake and beyond, and the Rae Glacier). I am hiking again in the Kananaskis Highwood Pass area, at higher altitude, to help condition myself for the upcoming 9 day mission to Rogers Pass, Glacier National Park, British Columbia, Canada.
The early drive west is under confused skies. The sunrise behind me is spectacular. To the north and south, over the mountains, there are large and powerful lightning storms putting on quite a show. Within 20 kilometres (12.5 miles) I am driving in intermittent, light rain. There are fleeting rainbows. South on the Kananaskis Trail there is some evidence of clearing skies. A small herd of deer, containing several young bucks with new antlers, is captivating.
I will hike on Pocaterra Ridge from north to south. If I were doing it the opposite direction, I would begin at Highwood Pass and enter through Highwood Meadow past Pocaterra Cirque. The ridge is about 6 KM (3.8 miles) long and tracks the east side of Kananaskis Trail. There are outstanding views of familiar features in the mountain range on the east side of the highway.
The first challenge will be to cross Pocaterra Creek which is running robust from recent rain and continuing, high-elevation, snow melt. The only feasible place I can find without removing footwear is a wet, slippery log crossing. Surprisingly, I creep across successfully to begin the steep climb, on very narrow trail through wet forest shrubbery which soaks my pant legs.
Just over an hour later, and 757 m (1,500 ft) of aggressive elevation, I break the tree-line and fabulous views begin to unfold around me as I continue to hike up to Peak 1 through meadows saturated with delicate, alpine flowers. It is an amazing ridge walk which begs to be continued. From the first peak I drop into a heavily forested dip on my way to Peak 2. There is a large component of larch trees which would make this an amazing and different hike in the fall when the larches turn, yellow, orange and gold. The aroma of flowers in the damp forest is overwhelming.
The view of Elbow Lake, tucked in between large mountains, continually unfolds to the east. The Rae Glacier is hidden around the corner and is never visible from this trail. As it turns out, there are many false summits. It is closer to a ten peak trip. I am up and down like a toilet seat. Gross elevation is high. I guess they decided to name just 4 of the most prominent peaks.
On my way from Peak 2 to Peak 3, the Rock Glacier is directly below me to the east. Rangers are detonating explosives at the side of the Kananaskis Trail. My guess is bear activity close to the road. The explosives will convince the bears to move further back into the forest. On my right of the ridge there are phenomenal views of Rockfall Lake deep in the tight valley below me to the west. For the first time this season the mosquitoes are ferocious in the hot, still air. I would definitely apply some bug spray if I had remembered to bring any. At the summit of Peak 3, I have an outstanding view of the snowbound Little Highwood Pass below to the west and Highwood Pass is just below and south. There are many options. I can continue along to the summit of Peak 4 where I will have great views of Pocaterra Cirque and possibly Ptarmigan Cirque, on opposite sides of Highwood Pass, which I hiked last week.
There is something else I want to do. I would like to find and photograph the remnants of George Pocaterra’s Cabin (circa early 1900’s). I have identified two potential locations from the top of the ridge and I will pursue those possibilities. To do this I will need to return to the highway and I choose to do this off-trail by dropping directly off the col between Peaks 2 and 3 into an avalanche chute. The decline is steep but manageable by traversing the slope from side to side as I create self-determined switchbacks. It is challenging terrain, eased by 3 snow slopes through the scree. The wide slope tapers to a draw which is navigable part way then is blocked by impenetrable rock and forest debris. This forces me up into the forest which will become the toughest half kilometre of off-trail I have ever travelled. The forest is so dense it is nearly impossible to penetrate. It takes me more than an hour to achieve this short distance.
Twice, the underbrush seizes my lower legs, throwing me off-balance into closely spaced spruce trees and deadfall on the ground where I receive several painful cuts and contusions. As I am flailing around in the bush, I know the forest animals, timid by nature, who have been watching me from behind trees, are now on their backs with their hind legs twitching in the air, one front paw clutching their chest so they will not have a heart seizure from hilarious laughter, and the other paw over their mouth to prevent revealing their location. Oh! the humiliation! At least I am hiking alone so there is no one to spread the story. Thank God, I am not writing this out loud.
When I finally reach Pocaterra Creek, water flow has increased substantially since the morning on this now very hot day. The only way to cross is by removing boots, carefully throwing all the gear into the brush on the other side, including the camera, and wading through the fast, freezing water in bare feet with pant legs rolled up and hiking poles keeping me vertical. It is more than refreshing.
Neither of the two locations identified from the top of the ridge are George Pocaterra’s cabin. They are wood debris washed up on the opposite shore. I do not find the cabin this day. I will research further and I will find it another day, if indeed the cabin still exists. The 5 kilometre (3.1 mile) return hike along the Kananaskis Trail to the car is very hot and uneventful. I photograph some of the surrounding mountains towering above me and end the camera day with flowers.
My car is still the only one in the parking area. I have not seen a single person all day. It is just as well because I look and feel like I have fought the Second World War single-handed. Pocaterra Ridge belonged to me this day. The drive home in sun, and full air-conditioning, is accompanied by storms building to the north and south that will later spare Calgary at the expense of others. The bizarre and volatile weather continues.