Surprise snow creates a unique hiking experience in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada.
From the parking area at the Stoney Nakoda Resort and Casino, 60 KM (37½ miles) west of Calgary, Alberta, the drive proceeds south via Kananaskis Trail (Hwy 40) 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 the left.
The planned hiking mission 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 (7½ mile) hiking project, with significant gross elevation, is ambitious. The plan will be only partially realized.
The stop along Kananaskis Trail (Hwy 40) at Evan-Thomas Creek photographs the isolated 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 pedestrian bridge to create an iconic image from the massive impact of flood related damage in Kananaskis Country.
Today's plan is to hike the top of Pocaterra Ridge from north to south. On the approach to 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 plow is heading towards us from the opposite direction. This is entirely unexpected but not overly surprising for those familiar with the mountains.
Abandoning the mission for an alternative is discussed with a conclusion to make an attempt at originally planned. The trail on the other side (south) side of Kananaskis Trail is obliterated under beautiful, fresh snow but a route is found, on and off-trail to the snow-covered, slippery, downstream, log-jam crossing over Pocaterra Creek.
Again an off-trail route proceeds through brush to the barely recognizable winding route past the Rockfall Valley trail junction to the moderate climb towards the top of Pocaterra Ridge.
Forest air is still. On the approach to 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-focused attitude becomes important. The pause at treeline makes a gear change for protection in barren terrain prior to continuing towards the false summit which is hiding Peak 1.
Vistas expand dramatically and 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.
The hike south proceeds 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.
Outstanding views of mountains open across and around Highwood Pass while Mount Tyrwhitt stands consistently stalwart to the right on the far side of Rockfall Valley.
At one point there is a uniquely grand view of snow-covered Rock Glacier below to the left on the deteriorating east flank of Mount Rae. And, every 15 minutes, there is 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 from the wind but 46 cm (18 inch) accumulations of snow impede the pace of forward progress significantly. The need to pack hiking crampons and snowshoes was not anticipated. The surrounding winter scenery is magnificent.
A break is taken for some analysis. Ascending from the forested dip will return the hike into progressively more powerful wind with the progression of time combined with increases in 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. Fall days are shorter now.
With a bit of guide book, map and internet research followed by discussion, the decision is made to descend off-trail west through a forested drainage into Rockfall Valley. This will initiate a truncated version of the original intent.
The descent is relatively straightforward. Footsteps in deeper snow are made carefully to avoid injury. Forest transitions to 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!
Lunch is consumed under intermittent sun on the flat top of the huge rock fall before continuing the 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 or flagging to indicate a trail. The objective is to find and hike the trail out from Rockfall Valley which joins up with the trail ascended from Pocaterra Creek to the top of Pocaterra Ridge. Towards the north end of Rockfall Valley a large forest requires a judgement call.
Right or left. Maps do not give us a clear alternative. Collectively, right is chosen, 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. Arduous progress is made angling up the steep west side of Pocaterra Ridge in snow, over slippery grass, through and above forest. No trail entry is discovered. This is the first time, and possibly the only time Pocaterra Ridge will be ascended twice on the same day.
Arrival at the snow swept access trail on Pocaterra Ridge occurs below the false summit and just above tree line. Immediately, descent begins 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.
Morning footsteps in the snow guide us over Pocaterra Creek via the log jam and back to the lonely vehicle at the Little Highwood Day Use parking area.
The day has been a true adventure much different from anything that could have been anticipated, and another reminder to be prepared for anything. Indelible memories. Excellent exercise. Amazing experience. Grand hiking partners.
Photographs for this adventure are captured on October 1, 2013.