Saturday, September 19
Day 8 - Tangle Ridge Loop
We got up at 5 a.m. sharp on the morning of Saturday, September 19 - the final activity day of our 2020 Rockies Trip.
An efficient pack-up and minimal breakfast had us quietly driving out of the Wilcox Creek Campground at 6 a.m. Weather conditions were mild and breezy and I think I was able to even see a star or two, although they were very likely among the biggest and brightest stars (and therefore able to penetrate the murk). It only took us about fifteen minutes to drive north to the start of our climb.
We were about to tackle a 3000-metre high peak called Tangle Ridge, hoping to summit and return to the car by about 1pm.
The first part of the climb leads along the northern end of the Wilcox Pass trail. This confused us for a bit, since we hadn't noticed that the northern end of the Wilcox Pass trail is not an official trail and therefore has no corresponding roadside signs (so we accidentally drove a bit too far before realizing our mistake). Since the unofficial trail starts next to the Tangle Falls pullout, that was the sign we needed to be looking for.
With the correct start point figured out, we quickly got ourselves ready in the breezy darkness. We hiked across the road from the parking area, letting the sound of Tangle Falls guide us. From the route description, we knew that the northern end of the Wilcox Pass trail was here somewhere, and I was prepared to go searching for it - however, we soon came across a park service sign that confirmed the start point, and which highlighted the unmaintained nature of this northern part of the trail (from Wilcox Pass south, the trail is officially maintained).
We began up the trail. For about ten or fifteen minutes, it paralleled the Icefields Parkway itself, and it didn't really feel like a true trail. In fact, so much so that I started to wonder if we are actually on the trail. Because of this, I was quite sure that at some point it would veer off to the left and away from the highway, and I paid special care to periodically sweep my headlamp to the right. Sure enough, we detected a path leading off to the left, and it indeed turns out to be the way that the Wilcox Pass trail leads (I later find out upon reviewing satellite maps that this first bit of the trail is actually following the old bed of the original Icefields Parkway - hence the strang routing).
A more convential hiking path now led across relatively flat forest terrain to a steeper section, which in a few switchbacks brought us both higher and angled us back over to the banks of Tangle Creek. I was carefully monitoring our distance and time, hoping to not miss the point where we are supposed to break off from the trail and begin our ascent up to Tangle Ridge's summit.
At this point we've been going for about thirty minutes, precisely the amount the guidebook says it will take one to reach the ascent route start point. We were indeed right adjacent to Tangle Creek here, as the guidebook predicted, and in the dim light of pre-dawn we peered across the creek to the far bank, looking for some indication of a herdpath. And, there it was, right on schedule - a distinctive little path leading diagonally upwards through the glacial till on the far side.
Since it was practically autumn, Tangle Creek's water flow was probably at its lowest point of the year. In other words, it was a very easy hop and skip to the far side of the flow. The climbing herd path was a little indistinct at first, as the route climbed through a jumbled area of braided gravels and boulders, but soon consolidated into a single distinct path that followed the western banks of a steepening drainage ravine. Soon the herdpath headed left onto a forested slope and simulataneously got quite steep. We pushed fairly hard through here, raising both our heart rates and our altitude in equally rapid measure.
We took our first real sit-down break at about 8 a.m. It had been about 90 minutes after setting out, and already we were nearly 2,000 feet above our start point and we were at treeline on our ascent up to Tangle Ridge's highpoint. We had gotten off to a solid, rapid start and were well on pace to finishing our loop sometime early in the afternoon.
The smokiness factor was pretty high this morning, in addition to a fairly solid overcast and even a hint of some showers in places. Overall, this gave the landscape a gloomy, murky, bland feel. We did note that we were in a fine position to observe the eastern edge of the Columbia Icefield, which was just a few kilometers across the valley of the Athabasca River to the southwest.
Initial Columbia Icefields View
Onwards and upwards. A fine and obvious path led straight up through the alpine meadowland, pointing nearly directly at the rounded crest of the Tangle Ridge highpoint, now visible about 1500 feet (450 metres) above us. Soon the meadow gave way to bare scree, but it wasn't the loose or awkward scree we had encountered on some of the other climbs on this trip. Instead, this scree was compact and fairly firm, and offered no meaningful impediment to our progress. It was just a straightforward upward hike.
Hiking Beneath the Icefield
I charted a switchbacking course up through the scree. This part was fairly mindless - just a back-and-forth plod over unchanging, sloping scree. The constraint was that we not stray too far to the west, where we would be closer to the steeper terrain dropping down towards the parkway (per Gino and uncomfortableness with convexity).
The thin tendrils of showers that we could see here and there around us never materialized over us, and we stayed dry all the way to the top, which we reached shortly after 9 a.m. Pretty solid: less than 3 hours from trailhead to summit.
There was a repeater station up here on the summit - a large blocky metal building with antennae and solar panels affixed to it. Peering through its windowed door revealed networking equipment. Perhaps a communications node for search and rescue in the national parks?
Up here on an exposed summit at 3000 metres, it was definitely cooler - and breezier. We had a short snack break in the lee of the comms building before embarking on the next phase of today's intended journey: the hike down Tangle Ridge's ridgeline.
I'm always up for loop routes like the one we planned to do on this day - especially loops involving long traverses along open ridgelines. Today fit that bill perfectly - a hike along an undulating, rounded and completely open ridgeline.
We started crunching north-eastward along Tangle Ridge's ridgeline. The hiking conditions were perfect: fairly fine scree embedded in a soil-like matrix. It wasn't loose, it wasn't hard and unyeilding, it wasn't so soft that it was energy-sapping. It was just right: a very comfortable walking surface.
The first bit of ridgeline down from the summit descended in a fairly steep (but still smooth and without cliffs) manner, and off both sides, the terrain dropped away even more steeply (especially on the northwest side, which was more cliffy in nature and had an old, mean-looking cornice). The steepness and the "convexity" of this got Gino's nervousness levels up again, but we stayed right with him and with a bit of fortitude, he made it down just fine. Once at the base of this initial steepness, the ridgeline was mostly just minor up and down undulations, and he felt much more comfortable.
The next half hour or so consisted of easy rambling along the ridgeline - chatting, observing, just enjoying being outside and high up, even with the cloudy, somewhat smoky conditions. But boy, would this be a fantastic and easy high altitude hike on clear and sunny day!
Julian and Gino and upper ridge
We came to one final and slightly higher bump along the ridgeline before arriving at a pronounced pass that cut across our ridgeline. We took a couple of selfies here at this little bump before beginning a descent into the pass. After a short rest break in the bottom of said pass, we began angling off of the ridgeline and into the high basin to our right (west). This was a high basin that formed the headwaters of Tangle Creek. We planned to descend into it, cross it, and then angle over to rejoin with the Wilcox Pass Trail.
We've come quite a way now
Descending down towards high valley
Fossils and shales and slates
We returned to the land of grasses and meadow as we hiked down from the high pass into the basin. Oranges and yellows and browns of fall painted the landscape below. Here Gino and I diverged - I opted to choose a slightly more up-valley line, aiming to avoid thicker and higher vegetation, while Gino seemed to prefer the straight-line approach, regardless of what vegetation was in his way. We eventually re-converged back down on the floor of the basin, right next to the watercourse of Tangle Creek.
Back down in the heather zone
High Alpine Valley of Tangle Creek
Descending to Valley floor
Our spot next to this alpine section of Tangle Creek, where it flowed through an area of short cliffs and across little steps, was quite pretty, and was a nice spot for a quick lunch break.
The weather had improved dramatically on our way down into our high basin. The smokiness had greatly reduced, the sun had come out, and there was even blue sky visible here and there.
There was only one routefinding challenge remaining: chart a course underneath the prow of a cliff band to intersect with the Wilcox Pass Trail. I once again chose a higher line, hoping to remain above treeline for as long as possible, versus Gino's more direct line. Eventually I was forced to turn down at the top of a steepening drop but soon was able to resume a descent westward towards the Wilcox Pass Trail. We once again descended through a forest band and once again feared we'd have unpleasant bushwhacking. But, once again (as in the Norman Creek Basin), we found there was almost always an open laneway in the forest that made passage quite easy. As a result, we were soon stepping foot onto the little earthy track of the Wilcox Pass trail.
Tangle Creek, Tangle Ridge