Saddleback Pass offers incredible views over Lake Louise in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.
Saddleback Pass, above Lake Louise in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada, is a 7.4 KM (4⅝ mile) round-trip hike with an elevation gain of 600 m (1,970 ft.) to a maximum elevation of 2,330 m (7,642 ft.)
The 2 hour, sunrise drive west from Calgary to Lake Louise Village is punctuated by a pause near the Bow River for the obligatory photographs of Castle Mountain and mist in the valley as cool air warms rapidly. Nearly transparent sheets of ice float gracefully along the surface of the Bow River.
Under clear, blue skies, the turn north leads to a quick tour of the Lake Louise Ski Area which is bustling with activity on this Easter Monday. The Lake Louise Sightseeing Gondola is a summer attraction within this spectacular Rocky Mountain terrain.
Saddleback Pass is wedged between Saddle Mountain and Fairview Mountain. A brief stop at the Lake Louise Visitor Centre informs about snow conditions and forecasted weather near the top of the pass. It is always wise to check.
At Chateau Lake Louise, parking at the west end of the uppermost lot will shave about 0.3 KM (¼ miles) and a few meters of elevation from the climb. Two trail junctions (first left away from Fairview Lookout, then right to avoid the horse trail) are clearly marked along the fairly consistent grade. Frozen snow offers an easy-to-hike-on, crusty surface using hiking boots supplemented by hiking crampons and gaiters.
The hike through predominantly evergreen forest is on moderate incline until arriving at the first of several avalanche chutes where short distances of flat trail provide some relief and offer spectacular panoramic views into the valley above Lake Louise Village. Along the way there are copious displays of Old Man's Beard which is edible in a pinch.
The best views occur near the unobstructed middle of an avalanche chute, however it is wise to gawk around and take photographs from near the margins in the unlikely event the rumble of moving snow requires a sprint to safety. The risk of avalanche increases in the rapidly warming air and deserves to be carefully managed. Every year, lives of the invincible or uninformed are lost.
On the lateral east, through forest and across avalanche paths on the north face of Fairview Mountain, there are countless examples of weather-created snow sculptures which capture the imagination similar to the time-honored tradition of gazing skyward to find transitioning images in the clouds.
Mist in the valley to the east is gradually dissipating.
The trail transitions from civilized to steep, on switchbacks through forest, until the open ground of the last, wide avalanche chute opens into sparse larch forest and the first clear view of the east face of clearly and aptly named Saddle Mountain. Sun hanging directly above Saddle Mountain in clear, blue sky renders snow powerfully bright. Even equipped with very dark prescription glasses covered by wrap around, fit-over, polarized and UV400 filtered dark sunglasses, it is still bright.
The risk of cataracts can be nearly eliminated by lifelong practice of eye protection.
An hour is required to reach the final approach to Saddleback Pass as the route curls around the east flank on the steep, snowbound ascent. An earlier start would have been beneficial because the warm sun on the open snow has eliminated the supportive crust and post holing is becoming progressively deeper on the struggle to the top.
Here, navigation of these steeper slopes would benefit from the snowshoes left behind. Determined to reach the objective, it will require nearly another hour of hard work to hike, with frequent stops for rest, the final half kilometer to the top of Saddleback Pass.
The view from the top is amazing. Descending immediately before snow conditions worsen and potentially become dangerous would be wise, but a few minutes are taken for a quick lunch and rest while thoroughly enjoying the hard-earned, surrounding spectacular panorama.
Far below, the snow cover has slid from the distinctive, red metal roof of the Lake Louise Railway Station. Back country skiers are carefully staging their graceful descent of the broad, unblemished slope from near the top of the east flank of Fairview Mountain and it is relaxing to observe their mission in the bright, warm sun tempered by a cool, gentle breeze and the phenomenal surrounding panorama.
Prior to descent, a Summit Stone is left in a crevice between two boulders peeking above the snow at the top of Saddleback Pass. New snow will bury the colorful stone but some lucky recipient will find and benefit from the musings on a subsequent hike. Saddleback Pass is a popular route in summer as a gateway via the Sheol Valley Trail to Paradise Valley where a wide variety of spectacular mountain features including Pinnacle Mountain, Giant Steps, and Sentinel Pass to Larch Valley reside beneath mighty Mount Temple.
From the hiking guide book, 'Hiking Lake Louise', by Mike Potter, Saddleback Pass was once the location of a third tea house operated by Canadian Pacific Railway between 1922 and 1937.
The descent improves past the exposed areas of sticky, non-supportive snow into the easier-to-navigate, protected, crusty snow in the coolness of the forest. The hike has taken much longer than planned or expected.