It is January 16, 2015. I have had one day to rest after my Rogers Pass experience and inevitably to run around to accomplish multiple mundane tasks. I have signed up for one of the “First Track Fridays” offered through the University of Calgary Outdoor Recreation Centre. This is a great, economical and safe way to get into the backcountry with an experienced guide and like-minded individuals.
Our group of five met early morning in Canmore, Alberta. The original plan was to ski somewhere along the Smith-Dorrien roadway in Kananaskis Country. However, we were faced with the same problem as I originally had earlier in the week. The snow conditions were not great locally. After some discussion, we decided to drive further west, carpooling in three vehicles, towards Kootenay Provincial Park along Highway 93 South. Hopefully, the conditions would be better there.
We initially decided to skin up to the “Fire Break”. This slope is accessed from the Stanley Glacier parking lot. There were several massive forest fires in this area in 2003 sparked by lightning. As the name implies, a section of trees was removed to assist with managing the forest fire in this area. With good snow conditions, this area does provide a very safe and accessible backcountry ski slope. There are also wonderful views of the Stanley Glacier above and further southwest. The weather conditions were good but the snow base was rather shallow. One had to be very careful with barely covered rocks, logs as well as small trees. We found this out as we skinned up. Our up-track brought us out approximately halfway up on the Fire Break. It was a simple matter to skin up the slope to the crest. Some of the low-lying cloud did clear which provided excellent views of the surrounding mountain ranges including nearby Chickadee Valley, another popular backcountry skiing area. We accomplished several short runs on the Fire Break but our hearts and legs pined for more. Several of the group looked across the roadway at the opposite slopes and asked the guide Doug if it was possible to ski those slopes safely. Thankfully, he was up for it. The avalanche conditions for that day at tree line were rated as moderate.
We crossed the highway like a band of ducks holding our equipment and then simply disappeared into the trees skinning up along an avalanche run-out pathway. Doug, our guide, did a great job of finding a route and also explaining why it was safe for us to proceed. Backcountry skiing is all about assessment of your terrain, your party members comfort levels, the local conditions as well as making sound decisions. This up track was definitely more challenging and at times steeper than that of the Fire Break.
We ascended approximately 300 m before we decided on a good point to transition and reap the rewards of our efforts by skiing down. The sun came out and we had brilliant views of Stanley Glacier and the entire west-facing Kootenay mountain range. The ski down was fantastic. The snow was perfect. What a feeling! We were all thrilled we had made the decision to come over on this side to explore the slopes. We were only able to get one run in. We exited down immediately adjacent to the highway and it was already mid-afternoon.
We were able to ski out without transitioning back into our skins in order to get back to our vehicles. We had a great group led by a very competent guide, Doug, who was willing to accept our suggestions, break trail and also had numerous really bad guide jokes! An example “How many mountain guides does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer-three. One to unscrew the lightbulb and two others to say good turns….good turns”.
We drove back to Canmore and then everyone departed home. Like any skill, backcountry skiing requires practice, practice and more practice. First Track Fridays is a great way to accomplish this. I will definitely be back for more. Cheers!