The Sheep River Valley in Kananaskis Country offers many winter ice climbing opportunities.
While many Calgarians celebrate the New Year in their homes, or at expensive downtown parties, the choice here is enjoying the fourth hour of sleep in preparation for next years first mission.
An early morning drive, on empty roads under a striking red sunrise, heads south from home near Canada Olympic Park and west from Okotoks through Turner Valley and the Sheep River Wildlife Sanctuary to meet a friend and hiking partner in the Sandy McNabb group campground area of Kananaskis Country.
The New Year's Day objective is a reconnaissance hike and potential waterfall ice climb on the frozen North Coal Creek which feeds the Sheep River where the objective will be to locate an ice seep or frozen waterfall suitable for ice climbing.
The long switchback from the parking area descends to the bottom of the Sheep River Valley. North Coal Creek is directly across the Sheep River which is nearly all frozen. Carefully navigating the way across the Sheep River begins the journey over the snow-covered surface of Coal Creek in boots with crampons.
Carrying rope and ice screws make my colleague heavier so he leads. The hike proceeds on ice, covered with six inches (15 cm) of loose snow in a chilly breeze through the shady and ever-tightening canyon.
Coal Creek has running water beneath the ice which encourages listening carefully and watching for breathing holes. It is unlikely the route would punch through the ice into deep water but water getting above the top of boot could be compromising.
Occasionally, dead fall is encountered on the creek and off-trail through forest is employed when it is easier than navigating the creek while looking for drainages off to each side which may contain waterfall ice. About 4 KM (2.5 miles) in, we encounter a draw worthy of investigation but there is no reasonable potential within reasonable range.
Near the 5 KM (3.1 mile) mark, the rock walls narrow substantially and within the context of ice climbers, an exciting discovery appears from around a tight bend in the narrow canyon walls.
The seep is very attractive but a pool of deep water at the base requires exercising serious precaution. Coal Creek is entering from the left-facing side of the bowl with axes in hand.
After enjoying the find, a climb over the step to the left continues through the canyon. About a kilometer further arrival at the junction of North and South Coal Creek.
Along the route there is above average evidence of cougar and lynx. There is no evidence of human traffic in the canyon but there are cat tracks everywhere. The next discovery is a beautiful sunny spot to sit, relax, warm up and enjoy lunch.
Views are phenomenal. In one direction Junction Mountain hosts barely discernible Junction Fire Lookout on its flank. It is an active lookout and an excellent 13.4 km (8.3 mile) summer hike with an elevation gain of 690 m (2,265 m) from the Indian Oils parking area west of Turner Valley as documented in Mike Potter's book, 'Fire Lookout Hikes in the Canadian Rockies'.
In the opposite direction, there is a grand view of the rolling, grassy hills around the canyon just hiked through. Here in the sun, the air is still and it does not get much better than this.
The decision is made to climb to higher ground, then off-trail the periphery of two adjacent hills for return, first on higher ground before dropping into a draw which will provide an alternative route with potential for further discovery. Navigation is via topographical and digital wrist compass.
Through the drainage, challenging navigation is on a tight, frozen-solid ice surface. The creek is choked with trees, dead fall, rock falls and ice sections with occasional water flow from warm springs. Exit from the draw finds footsteps from earlier in the day for the return to North Coal Creek.
Back on Coal Creek, the warming day has compromised the integrity of the creek surface and boots punch through the ice more often. Heavier snow is harder work on tired legs. Daylight is diminishing rapidly on this short winter day.
After completing 15 KM (9.4 miles) of aggressive off trail, it has been a physically demanding day.
There is not a lot of ice climbing but this area of wilderness has provided new discovery combined with plenty of exercise and fresh air for another great and memorable day.