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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Rae. Fantastic! And, every 15 minutes, we are getting a 10 year supply of fresh air. It doesn’t get much better than this.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.