Sunday, September 13
Day 2 - Crowsnest Pass and Mount Ward
Our night at the campsite in Waterton passed by uneventfully, other than the fact that Julian discovered that the downmat I lent him didn't stay inflated for very long. Fortunately, it had been a fairly mild night, and he hadn't been too cold.
We emerged from out tents to observe a muted, shady world. Overnight, the smoke from the western forest fires had thickened, and even though it was a clear and sunny morning, it felt damp and cool. Across the lake from us, Vimy Peak's summit was distinctly hazy, despite being only about 3 kilometres away from us. The sun was... an alien-looking orb of dull red, with streaks and wisps of smoke drifting across its face. You could easily stare at it without flinching.
Waterton Townsite Tentsites
Given that several key bits of Waterton National Park's infrastructure were closed (chiefly among them, the Akamina Parkway), I didn't see much point in hanging around Waterton for a second day. North we would go then, and the next general area on my south-to-north Rockies Scrambling itinerary was something in the vicinity of Crowsnest Pass, about an hour and a half drive north of the Waterton area. We stopped along the way in the town of Pincer Creek for groceries, and also to locate propane/butane canisters for our stove, but no luck. Only the car-camping style coleman fuel bottles seemed to be available.
We continued west and north to the Crowsnest Pass highway, and turned west on it. We stopped briefly at the notable location of 1903 Frank Slide, one of the worst mass wasting disasters in Canadian history. In the small town of Blairmore, along the highway, we managed to actually find the right propane/butane canisters at the local Home Hardware. Didn't expect that!
Now equipped with fuel, we were now ready and able to actually camp and make dinner out in the wild.
Field of Massive Limestone Blocks
Photographing Frank Slide Debris
Our initial drive and fuel search were now out of the way. But, it was now 11am. Another late morning. This was turning out to be another day where we'd be getting a late start to whatever thing it was we were going to try and hike or climb. I flipped through my guidebook, looking for the potential candidates I'd identified for this area. I judged that the level of easy to easy-moderate scrambling that we did the day before should probably not be exceeded today, so I restricted myself to short, easy scrambles that were already on my pre-vetted list. There was only one good candidate, really: Mount Ward - a 2530-metre (8300-foot) peak just off of the main continental divide not far north of the Crowsnest Pass. It was basically described as a walk-up, and had a short approach. Sold.
Allison Creek Road
The way to get to the trailhead for Mount Ward was to drive north on the gravelled Allison Creek Road. As we turned onto the road, we noted that the forest fire smoke situation had, incredibly, gotten even worse. Not only could we see very little to nothing of the peaks we knew surrounded us, but it was actually becoming quite dim out, even though we were nearly noon. I had hoped, for example, to get a great view of the standalone mass of Crowsnest Mountain. All I could do today was barely point out a faint outline.
Carefully following my guidebook's instructions, we drove a few tens of kilometres north on the Allison Creek Road and then turned off onto a nondescript side road. It was fairly rough but manageable for any sort of semi-high clearance vehicle. We headed uphill along this road until we got to a more serious road obstacle and a parking area beside it.
Window Mtn Lake Trailhead
We got out and had a look at the 4x4 obstacle, and at a large white Window Mountain Lake Trailhead sign next to it. At first I thought that a distinct path running behind the sign was the way to Window Mountain Lake. That caused us to park here and start getting ready to head off in that direction. However, after some consultation with some passing forest rangers and a re-examination of my map and guide, it became apparent that the way to Window Mountain lake involved continuing up the 4x4 road. We could have probably managed to drive past the obstacle and further up the road with the Jeep Grand Cherokee that we had, but since we were already parked, packed, and ready to go, we decided to just walk it. It didn't seem like that much farther up the road to the upper trailhead, anyway.
Smoky Mt Ward
Uphill we hiked on the 4x4 road (and noted there were only two tricky 4x4 obstacles, and with care both could probably be navigated in a 4wd vehicle with suitably high clearance and good ramp angles). Up ahead of us, a foreboding silhouette emerged out of the smoky, dim haze: Mt Ward's profile. We were not headed up this aspect, however, and I assured the others that the way up for us was a lot less scary looking.
It was a little longer than we thought to get to the upper tailhead - perhaps a little under 1.5 kilometres. There was a small parking area here, but no other vehicles. In addition to the parking area, there was another sign... well, really more of an interpretive plaque.
Window Mtn Lake Trailhead
Behind the interpretive plaque, the 4x4 trail continued but soon started to peter out, and a more traditional hiking path led off to the left. It soon started to climb very steeply, surpassing a short cliff band in short order. Above that, the trail levelled out and continued through deep forest. It was a very short time thereafter - maybe no more than fifteen minutes, that we noticed a clearing with bear food storage boxes and then, immediately thereafter, we arrived at the shore of Window Mountain Lake. A remarkably short approach!
This whole area was in a "PLUZ" area (a Public Land Use Zone - a designation used in Alberta to denote a certain type of public land where wilderness activities can be conducted). That meant camping was allowed - free camping, and indeed there were a number of nice open areas suitable for camping, where in fact people had clearly camped, near the lake. The fact that a free camping zone like this provided modern steel bear boxes was fairly impressive. That's good value for free, first-come/first-serve camp spots in a great location like this. There was probably also a privy around somewhere, but we didn't see it.
We stopped at the shore of the lake for a bit of a snack break. The far western side of the lake butted up against the alpine slopes leading up to the continental divide, and a steep shoulder of Mt Ward itself rose directly out of the lake waters to the south. The lake water itself looked clear and clean. It was quiet and peaceful here, and even with the drab, dull effects of the thick forest fire smoke, it was a beautiful place. A handful of other people were distantly visible around the shore of the lake, seemingly either fishing or just randomly throwing some rocks (into the lake).
From Across the Lake
My guidebook described how the ascent route to Mt Ward began up a gully accessible from the back end (western end) of the lake, and in fact from our vantage point we could see said gully angling up to the left, behind the foreground bulk of Mt Ward. It seemed that there was an informal footpath leading all the way around the lake, so we had our choice of two approaches. We chose the northern way around.
We followed bits and pieces of a reasonably good footpath (we were not on official trail anymore at this point) around the lake. On the far side, we were face-on to the ascent gully and we could even see a faint footpath leading up through the gully's scree. We followed this up, fairly steeply for a bit, before the grade relented and we arrived at a high, dry basin nestled between the crest of the continental divide on our right and the summit of Mt Ward on our left. The slope up this flank of Mt Ward was its least steep aspect - basically a scree slope (albeit a steep one) all the way up seemingly to its summit.
It was very brooding and gray and solemn up here today. The forest fire smoke and haze from the US was as thick as ever. The warmth and color of the sun was completely drained by it, and it appeared only as a small, wan dot in the sky - more of a brighter area than an actual discernable disc. It was a bit chilly, and there was a dampish breeze that blew by every so often. It felt stark and desolate rather than bright and wild.
It was pretty clear that the way up was simply to surmount the scree slopes to a small saddle just north of Mt Ward's summit, then follow the crest the last few hundred metres to the top. We began the long plod upwards.
The going was steep, but initially it was on grippy, springy turf, which apart from the physical effort from the grade, was pretty straightforward. Higher up this gave way to loose, angular scree. This was more tiring and less secure, and I could tell Gino was starting to become a little nervous with it, even though there weren't any actual cliffs of any sort.
It took us about an hour of picking our way up steep scree to reach the col. As we crested, the striking profile of Window Mountain immediately presented itself to us, across the next basin to the south. It was close enough that the thick smoke didn't obscure it, although it looked cold and grey and hard in the flat monochrome light. The mountain's namesake window was more striking and prominent than I had expected. The scramble route gully up to the window (another route from my guidebook) looked impossibly steep, but I knew that was more than anything due to our face-on vantage point.
Approaching Window Mtn view
From the col, we could see partway up the crest towards Mt Ward's summit. The right-hand side of the crest was a sheer dropoff; the left-hand side was simply the top edge of the steep scree slope we had been climbing, with perhaps a few sections of bare bedrock here and there.
In the flat, gloomy light and with the stronger gusts of cold wind up here, it didn't look inviting. Gino took a glance at the ridgecrest and flatly stated that he was staying at the col, but that we could go if we wanted to. Julian was not super thrilled with the look of the ridge either. Even for myself, I felt slightly uncomfortable with the look of the ridge. Objectively, I knew it wasn't that bad - there was even a faint footpath leading up just to the left of the crest and it looked like there were no real obstacles. It did look like it would feel a bit airy and exposed, and maybe it was that, in combination with the gusts of wind and the generally gloomy atmosphere, that ended with us deciding not to complete the last bit to the summit. I'm pretty sure I would have gone if Julian had said "let's do it", but today I didn't feel like giving him any encouragement. Very strange of me, indeed.
Instead, Julian and I explored a tiny bit of the craggy ridgeline to the west, before returning to collect Gino to begin our descent.
The irony of another clear day
Julian was feeling confident and sporty, and took a straight-line, heel-plunging descent down one of those human-generated descent paths you sometimes find on these loose scree slopes. Gino was not feeling that method and I stayed with him, picking a more controlled and convential descent, zig-zagging back down the steep scree. By 5pm we were back down at Window Mountain Lake, this time choosing to take a tidy little path around the southern side of the lake. Very shortly we were back in the camping area and taking a final drink and snack break.
I hadn't really considered that the backcountry camping at this location would be this good (big, nice, lakeside sites, proper food storage facilities) and available (there were no other campers here). It really would have been a great place for us to spend the night. Unfortunately, we hadn't brought up our backpacking gear, so it wasn't really an option (unless we wanted to hike back down to the car, organize an overnight pack, and then come back up here - which we didn't really feel like doing).
So... after our rest break, we continued on down, quickly reaching the upper trailhead, and then not too long afterward, completed the 4x4 road descent back to the lower trailhead.
Along the way back to the trailhead, we discussed our next steps. I really wasn't liking this smoke thing - and I felt really bad that I couldn't show Julian and Gino the true beauty of the Rockies, instead of this post-apocalyptic dim, grimy scene.
We thought... maybe we can escape the smoke. And as we drove back to the Crowsnest highway, back into cell coverage, we started researching. Forecasts, "smoke maps", air quality indices. They showed that, if we drove north a few hundred kilometres, we could get to an area of low smoke. We might even see some blue sky! ooh, the thought!
Interactive trackmap with photo points - Climb to col near Mt Ward - click map to view
Climb up to Ward Col - Hike Data
* : +/- 75 feet
Total Elevation Gain:
Total Elevation Loss:
* : +/- 75 feet
A Smoke Map
Everyone was on board with this outrun-the-smoke idea. And so, with the remaining hours of the day, we turned north, heading through foothills country and seeing how far we could get before turning in for the night. I had hoped to do mostly camping between the start and end days of our trip, but I agreed that given that we would be driving well into darkness, perhaps a cheap motel would be in order, and Gino started web surfing, looking for places and deals. In the dark recesses of the back seat, Julian casually asked if we could stay overnight in Banff - because... famousness? I pushed back on that idea, saying what would be the point in checking in late to an expensive Banff hotel and then leaving super early the next morning?
Final Night of the King Edward
Northward we drove, passing through cowboy-and-ranch foothills country and keeping an eye out for a decent-looking motel along the way. Never have I been so focused on clarity.... as in, air clarity. We kept surveying the sky and the far distance, exclaiming when we thought it looked like we could see more clearly down a particular valley or spot a distant peak. It *did* seem like the air was a bit clearer the further we drove.
In the end, after all of our searching, we ended up in ... you'll never guess - a Banff hotel; the very thing I had railed against earlier in the evening. It was an interesting find, however. We found rooms (with a fairly low price, too) at the King Edward in downtown Banff, on... get this... the very last night of its existence. You heard right: the very next day, the clerk told us, the King Edward was closing for good. Curious and sad, don't you think?