Rockfall Valley – Kananaskis Country – Hiking Alberta

After Jen and I meet Greg in the parking area at the Stoney Nakoda Resort and Casino, 60 KM (37 ½ miles) west of Calgary, Alberta, the drive south on Kananaskis Trail is on a typical Autumn day.  Dry pavement is bordered by partially foliated deciduous trees mixed with evergreens and stands of brilliant yellow aspen.  Early morning air is crisp and rising sun creates a glow behind Fisher Range mountains to our left.  Our hiking objective for this day is the length over the four peaks of Pocaterra Ridge with a return route via descent into Rockfall Valley wedged between Mount Tyrwhitt and Pocaterra Ridge.  This moderate, full day, 12 KM (7.5 mile) project, with significant gross elevation, is ambitious.

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

The bridge to nowhere, once over Evan-Thomas Creek, in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada.

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Mount Kidd behind the bridge to nowhere previously over Evan-Thomas Creek in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada.

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Autumn foliage beneath new snow on Mount Kidd in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Greg makes a brief stop along Kananaskis Trail (Hwy 40) at Evan-Thomas Creek for photographs of the bridge on the Bill Milne Paved Trail linking the decimated Kananaskis Country Golf Course with Wedge Pond.  The June flood has altered the course of Evan-Thomas Creek and stranded this picturesque bridge for cyclists and pedestrians.  It  has become an iconic image of the massive impact of flood related damage in Kananaskis Country.

We plan to hike the top of Pocaterra Ridge from north to south.  As we approach the Little Highwood Pass Day Use parking area, it becomes obvious an overnight, isolated weather event has dropped a band of 15 cm (6 inches ) of snow in the Highwood Pass area.  The road is increasingly compromised and a snow plough is heading towards us from the opposite direction.  This is entirely unexpected but not overly surprising for those familiar with the mountains.  Jen, Greg and I discuss abandoning this hike for an alternative with a conclusion to proceed as originally planned.  The trail on the other side (south) side of Kananaskis Trail is obliterated under beautiful, fresh snow but we find our way, on and off trail. to the snow-covered, slippery, downstream, log-jam crossing over Pocaterra Creek.  From past experience, we find our way off trail through brush to the barely recognizable winding route past the Rockfall Valley trail junction on the moderate climb towards the top of Pocaterra Ridge.

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Snowy parking at Little Highwood backed by Pocaterra Ridge and Mount Tyrwhitt in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

In the forest, air is still.  As we approach tree line on the ascent towards Peak 1 of Pocaterra Ridge, the intensity of a howling westerly wind is blowing snow horizontally across the trail.  A positive, goal-focussed attitude becomes important.  Jen and Greg pause at treeline for gear change as I continue towards the false summit which is hiding Peak 1.

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Ascending Pocaterra Ridge with powerful wind blowing snow in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Hiking solo towards the false summit in high wind on Pocaterra Ridge in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada.  Photo by Jen

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

The quintessential photo of person and mountain by Jen on Pocaterra Ridge in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Jen and Greg at treeline on Pocaterra Ridge with Elpoca Mountain providing stunning background over Kananaskis Valley in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

A northerly view through Kananaskis Valley from Pocaterra Ridge in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

At Peak 1, vistas expand dramatically.  The breathtaking beauty is overwhelming.  Snow accumulations at higher elevation have been blown away leaving crusty snow patches over ice alternating with more secure rock.  Navigation requires care.  Cornices have formed up on the edge of Pocaterra Ridge as views east highlight tiny Elbow Lake nestled between Elpoca Mountain ( Elpoca is a short form for Elbow and Pocaterra) and Mount Rae.

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Approaching the false summit prior to the first summit of four on Pocaterra Ridge in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

An easterly view from the top of Pocaterra Ridge across to Elpoca Mountain in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Approaching the first windswept peak on Pocaterra Ridge in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

An easterly view to Elbow Lake between Elpoca Mountain and Mount Rae over a cornice on Pocaterra Ridge in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Jen, Greg and I hike south along the top of Pocaterra Ridge towards a significant dip into the treed interlude prior to continuing onto the more closely spaced Peaks 2, 3 and the clearly defined 2,667 m (8,750 ft.) Peak 4.  We enjoy outstanding views of mountains around Highwood Pass and beyond, while Mount Tyrwhitt stands consistently stalwart to our right on the far side of Rockfall Valley.  At one point we have a uniquely grand view of snow-covered Rock Glacier below us to our left on the deteriorating east flank of Mount RaeFantastic!  And, every 15 minutes, we are getting a 10 year supply of fresh air.  It doesn’t get  much better than this.

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Greg and Jen on Pocaterra Ridge with a southerly view through Kananaskis Valley in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Greg and Jen on Pocaterra Ridge looking towards Summit 4 and a partial view of Rockfall Valley beneath Mount Tyrwhitt on photo right in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Jen’s photo of yours truly and Greg looking towards prominent Peak 4 on Pocaterra Ridge in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Jen, Barry, Greg –  Photo by Jen

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

A view down to Rock Glacier on the deteriorating flank of Mount Rae in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

The tree sheltered descent into the evergreen and brilliantly colored larch forest protects us from the wind but 46 cm (18 inch) accumulations of snow impede the pace of our forward progress significantly.  None of us has anticipated the need to pack instep crampons and snowshoes.  The surrounding winter scenery is magnificent.  Jen, Greg and I take a break to do some analysis.  When we leave the forested dip, we will be back into strong wind which increases with elevation.  The exposure to wind and blowing snow at Peak 4 will become an issue, along with the fact the shorter daylight hours may compromise our ability to complete the originally planned hike over unfamiliar and hazardous, snow-covered terrain in daylight.  With a bit of guide book, map and internet research followed by discussion, we decide to descend off trail west through a forested drainage into Rockfall Valley.  It will be a truncated version of our original intent.

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

The view of larch forest and Peaks 2, 3 and 4 of Pocaterra Ridge in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Beautiful forest provides shelter from the wind but snow gets deeper on Pocaterra Ridge in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Jen leads the way in the deeper snow on Pocaterra Ridge in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada. Periodically, checks to see if Greg and I are still alive :-)

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Gorgeous winter scenery on Pocaterra Ridge in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Serene winter scenery in the protection of the forest on Pocaterra Ridge in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

High winds over exposed terrain at higher elevations on Pocaterra Ridge in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

The descent is relatively straightforward.  Footsteps in deeper snow are made carefully to avoid injury.  We leave forest into snow-covered talus which begins to level onto a massive area of rock fall just north of the level area below which would contain Rockfall Lake in spring and summer.  Rockfall Valley, wedged between Pocaterra Ridge and 2,874 m (9,430 ft.) Mount Tyrwhitt, seems much larger from the inside than it did from above.  The winter scenery is nothing short of breathtaking.  Wow!

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Off trail retreat into Rockfall Valley from Pocaterra Ridge in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Shelter from wind in deeper snow as we descend into Rockfall Valley from Pocaterra Ridge in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Long way down into Rockfall Valley between Pocaterra Ridge and Mount Tyrwhitt in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Jen leads the charge through snow-covered talus to the bottom of Rockfall Valley, north of Rockfall Lake, from Pocaterra Ridge in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada. Farther down than it looks.

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Grand view of what is Rockfall Lake in summer between Pocaterra Ridge and Mount Tyrwhitt in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada.

We enjoy our lunch under intermittent sun on the flat top of the huge rock fall before picking our descent into the bottom of Rockfall Valley, hiking north over talus hosting the occasional group of evergreen trees accentuated by the brilliant orange and yellow needles of larch trees.

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Approaching our lunch location on a giant rock fall above the bottom of Rockfall Valley beneath Pocaterra Ridge in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Breathtaking winter scenery at our lunch location in Rockfall Valley, Kananaskis Country, Alberta.

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

The return hike north begins through snow-covered talus. Rugged progress. Rockfall valley looks a lot bigger from the bottom than it did from the top.

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Further descent on the approach to the north end of Rockfall Valley in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Rugged terrain and intuitive navigation in Rockfall Valley in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

A view back from the bottom of Rockfall Valley in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

There is no evidence of trail or flagging to indicate where we might pick up a trail.  Our objective is to find and hike the trail out of Rockfall Valley which joins up with the trail we ascended from Pocaterra Creek to the top of Pocaterra Ridge.  Towards the north end of Rockfall Valley we approach a large forest which presents us with a judgement call.  Right or left.  Maps do not give us a clear alternative. Collectively, we choose right, hoping to pick up the trail through the forest.  The correct answer is left around the bottom of the forest, for those faced with the same decision in the future.

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Navigating the bottom of Rockfall Valley beneath Pocaterra Ridge in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Hiking into forest near the north end of Rockfall Valley in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Decision time near the north end of Rockfall Valley beneath Pocaterra Ridge in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada. Photo by Jen.

Rockfall Valley, Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Yours truly in snow and forest near the base of Pocaterra Ridge in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada.  Photo by Jen

There  is no time for further photography.  We work very hard angling our way up the steep west side of Pocaterra Ridge in snow, over slippery grass, through and above forest. We do not find any trail entry.  I can honestly say this is the first time, and possibly the only time in my life, I will climb Pocaterra Ridge twice on the same day.  It is a character builder.

Jen, Greg and I are very happy to arrive at the snow swept trail on Pocaterra Ridge below the false summit and just above tree line.  We immediately begin our descent but it is not the end of this day’s trial.  Warming afternoon temperature has melted some of the 15 cm (6 inch) snow cover on the trail, which has rendered tree roots wet and slippery and thawed the frozen ground beneath.  We are hiking on wet tree roots we cannot see.  All of us are slipping on the tree roots and occasionally falling down.  I seem to be doing a better job of this than Greg and Jen who are making well controlled and civilized falls with good recovery.  My performance is highlighted by a snagged foot launching me off the trail into a large evergreen tree which requires a humbling extradition.  I honestly believe their genuine concern for my well-being prevented them from rolling around on the ground in raucous laughter.  Either that or they were able to recover quickly, as I removed myself from the inner sanctum of the large Christmas tree.  Further down the trail, another root induced fall at a sharp corner on the switchbacks delivers a shoulder injury which causes me to use a single hiking pole for the remainder of our descent.  Our morning footsteps in the snow guide us over Pocaterra Creek via the log jam and back to Greg‘s lonely vehicle parked at the Little Highwood Day Use parking area.  Greg drops us off at Jen’s car in the huge parking area at the  Stoney Nakoda Resort and Casino and Jen drops me off on her way home.  It has been a wonderful day much different from anything we could have anticipated and another reminder to be prepared for anything.  Indelible memories.  Excellent exercise.  Amazing experience.  Grand hiking partners.

Photographs for this post are captured on October 1, 2013.

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6 Responses to Rockfall Valley – Kananaskis Country – Hiking Alberta

  1. Jen says:

    I may have laughed out loud a tiny bit in memory of your launch off the trail into the tree after a grand and epic ascent, descent, then another ascent of pocaterra :) … looking forward to getting back in there in the dead of summer when there isn’t a hint of snow! Great recap, trip report and memories!

    • Thank you for your comment, Jen. At the time, I remember struggling to see the humour in the tree dive but I can see it clearly now. It was a frustrating and challenging descent. Yes, I look forward to revisiting the experience with a hike in late July or August, 2014 on a bluebird day. I will bring the flagging tape. I suggest we begin again at Little Highwood parking and swing right at the junction on the Pocaterra Ridge ascent into Rockfall Valley then flag the trail, hike the entire length, ascend to Little Highwood Pass for amazing views into Pocaterra Cirque and complete the ascent to the summit of Pocaterra Ridge at Peak 4. If that doesn’t kill us, the return across Pocaterra Ridge is predominantly downhill. The entire loop is only about 12 KM but the rugged terrain gains and loses substantial elevation and gross elevation must be in the order of 2,000 metres overall. It will be interesting to compare the estimate with real from the GPS. Just thinking about it is exciting. Look forward to it. I am bringing instep crampons for sticking the tree roots. Thanks for the memories. In my experience, the more challenging days are always the most memorable. Take care and stay safe. Hope you are enjoying climbs on this years amazing ice.

  2. Helen says:

    What an amazing, spectacular, feel good day this has been. Your photos truly reveal the magic of freshly fallen snow. Read during a rest break of a busy day when my youngest son was packing to visit his brother in Banff. Will I fit in the suitcase?!!! Maybe next time…
    Also loved your snow shoe routes.

    • Thank you, Helen. It was an indelibly memorable day on Pocaterra Ridge. There were humbling moments and a couple of minor character builders. We were surprised to see snow and not completely prepared to handle all the conditions encountered. We are now well into ski and snowshoe season. Opportunities to enjoy crisp winter air in transformed scenery. Hope you are able to get to Banff in the near term. Reading of your adventures in the Glasshouse mountains. Glad to hear you are enjoying a break from the high temperatures. We are hearing of the record breaking heat and the wildfires in Southern Australia. Wishing you relief soon.

  3. Fabulous photos – I especially love the ones of the larches in their autumn glory against all that brilliant white snow!

  4. Pingback: Pocaterra Ridge - Kananaskis Country - Hiking Alberta

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