The access to Buller Pass, wedged between 2,805 m (9,203 ft) Mount Buller and 2,970 m (9,744 ft) Mount Engadine is located on the Smith-Dorrien / Spray Trail (gravel road 742) south from Canmore to the Buller Mountain Day Use Area. As I pass the turnout for the easy and popular day hike to Grassi Lakes, I discover the north end of the gravel Smith-Dorrien Trail is in less than ideal condition. I drive south past the outstanding mountain views across Goat Pond and, further south, notice the waterfall from Old Goat Glacier, on the other side of Spray Lakes Reservoir, is much larger than normal. Old Goat Glacier is one of my all-time favorite hikes.
At the Buller Mountain Day Use Area there are two parking areas. The first is for hiking the Buller Pass Trail. and the second is for fishing or picnicking at the very beautiful Buller Pond.
I gear up and walk the short distance, back across the Smith-Dorrien Trail, to the clearly marked trailhead just a few metres past roadside. My initial goal is the 7.5 KM (4.7 mile), one-way hike with 670 m (2,200 ft) of net elevation to the 2,484 m (8,150 ft) South Buller Pass. The objective is the incredible view east into the bowl which contains Ribbon Lake. No photograph can do it justice. It is necessary to stand there.
The trailhead is clearly marked with signs and a map. The trail immediately crosses a wooden bridge over Buller Creek and into some of the most beautiful trail I have ever seen. The sun is filtered by lush, aromatic forest on this fair weather day.
A short while later, this luscious trail crosses another wooden foot-bridge into the cool refreshing shade of dense forest. Elevation initially increases gently and gradually.
The ‘Buller Burn’ was conducted a year earlier to combat and prevent the spread of the Pine Beetle infestation. The evidence of the forest fire is evident for many long stretches on the trail. The pungent aroma of charred wood is powerful and in marked contrast to the smell of healthy forest. Some might see this as a bad thing. I find it an interesting and fascinating feature with an unusual beauty of its own. The senses are aroused quite differently. Without the foliage, visibility is much better, a characteristic of the huge forest fire ravaged areas on the west side of Glacier National Park in Montana.
The third bridge crossing Buller Creek is of the sturdy, sawn log variety. From here the trail remains very good, but more rustic, and elevation gain is slightly more robust. In a more open area, the trail makes an impressive pass beneath a tower-like outlier of Mount Engadine.
At the 4.0 KM (2.5 mile) mark, the trail passes a small, but stunningly beautiful, waterfall where Buller Creek tumbles into a blue rock bowl. It is pristine and very unique. I spend some time here to enjoy and photograph the fall. A short distance further, over a short, rocky knoll, I encounter the fourth and final bridge. I do not understand the importance of this bridge until later in the day.
Once again, the trail becomes more rustic. Rate of elevation gain, through forest, increases for a short while, then levels again into a burn area which reveals astounding images of charred trees in contrast with white rock. I find the area incredibly beautiful in a very unique way. The aroma of the burned wood is powerful but pleasant. Within a short time and distance, the burn area ends and healthy forest dwindles as I enter a canyon area where trees begin to thin in the elevation. The valley first narrows, then opens into a broad valley with a smooth hump to my left and steep mountain walls to my right, surrounding a flat, meadow plain interlaced with rivulets of crystal water from remnants of melting snow.
South Buller Pass is clearly in front of me to the right, as I pass a pretty waterfall, and hike over a stubborn patch of snow and ice. The climb to the top on reasonably well-organized rocks is a, one foot in front of the other, slog. The cairn at the top beckons and rest stops, to view the valley just hiked, are a must. The view from the top reveals world-famous, 3,618 m (11,870 ft) Mount Assiniboine in the notch to the far west. It is a landmark, a beacon, spanning the Alberta, British Columbia border used, often and from substantial distance, to assess pending weather changes. A band of heavy weather is currently forming up in the west and drifting towards me.
I hike a short distance north along the top of South Buller Pass. Ribbon Lake, at the bottom of the bowl, comes into view with the dual peaks of majestic Mount Kidd providing the backdrop. A little further along, the entire view of the bowl opens up with Guinn’s Pass at the south terminus of Mount Kidd. I think of the young biologist, Orval Pall and pilot Ken Wolff, whose plane crashed here in terrible weather on June 6, 1986, setting off the largest and most tragic search and rescue in Kananaskis Country history. Memorial Lakes, tucked underneath Mount Bogart, and between Bogart Tower and Ribbon Peak lies a few kilometres north of where I am standing. A Memorial Cairn there honors the 13 people who gave their lives. From where I am standing, there are trails which lead there, but today my mission is to consider a hike down to a trail junction which will allow me to do a return loop via North Buller Pass. I find a comfortable spot with a perfect view near the trail and enjoy lunch. My map and guide show a trail, but I cannot see the trail.
While I am pondering my course of action, two men hike up the trail from Ribbon Lake. They are Bill and Dave from Rosebud, Alberta. Rosebud is a unique, small town northeast of Calgary towards Drumheller. Many historical aspects of the town of Rosebud have been preserved and offer a step back in time. It is also the home of the infamous Rosebud Theatre. Dave and Bill are associated with the Rosebud Theatre. Rosebud is a great little town, and I get to brag about winning the 1994 Calgary Motorcycle Club History Tour with a perfect score of 265. My prize was a watercolour portrait of my motorcycle in front of the Rosebud Mercantile Company est. 1911. Painted meticulously by the Club President, Wade Y, it hangs proudly on my wall to this day. But, I digress.
I ask Dave and Bill if they passed the trail junction to North Buller Pass. They did not see it. We review the maps together because they are planning to hike down from South Buller Pass and return to the Ribbon Creek Campground via the North Buller Pass. It is the same route I am pondering in the opposite direction. Dave and Bill continue on, over the South Buller Pass. I am hiking solo and there are too many unknowns to justify dropping the significant elevation without confidence I will be able to find the trail to North Buller Pass. I reluctantly, and with disappointment, decide to return the way I came.
Following are a few of my favorite photographs captured on the return from South Buller Pass via the same trail used for access. I pass Bill and Dave and chat with them briefly. They have discussed the location of the junction to the North Buller Pass with another hiker and share that information with me. Remember the fourth bridge? That is where it is. I did not see any trail junction there.
The band of heavy weather passes overhead depositing four large drops of rain accompanied by a brief puff of wind. Sometimes, mountain weather is bordering on comical.
When I arrive at the sawn log bridge (the first one on the way back) I am tempted. There is one more short hike I want to do this day. I am very disappointed I did not hike the trail through North Buller Pass. I decide I can spare an hour. It will be insufficient to do the trail completely but I will have half an hour in and half an hour out. There is a tiny cairn but the entire junction could be missed in the blink of an eye so I add a marker for Dave and Bill and expect I may see them again on my way out.
Now, I am no longer disappointed, and there is a hint of excitement in the air. I will be hiking directly below Buller Mountain.