An adventure in the Canadian Rocky Mountains

December 29, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

With 30+ mountains up our sleeves, my boyfriend and I decided to leave the Appalachians behind and tackle a considerably bigger challenge last summer - mountaineering in the Canadian Rockies. We also had the incredible luck of scoring four day passes to a hidden National treasure - Lake O’Hara.

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

Day 1

Our trip started in Calgary, where we picked up a rental car and headed to the Columbia icefield after a quick stop at MEC to buy a can of bear spray and a box of bear bangers. It's berry season after all!  

Athabasca GlacierAthabasca Glacier

We just had time for a quick walk on the Glacier toe before sunset - a sneak peek at tomorrow’s playground. We were told we could go for a walk on the glacier, but a rope at the beginning of the tongue suggested otherwise.

Athabasca GlacierAthabasca Glacier

Day 2

Aahh…! The adventure really begins now. Today, we opted for a guided tour - a 5 to 6 hours walk up the Athabasca Glacier until we reach the Columbia Icefield. Before starting the tour they gave us microspikes and split us into two groups. We went with the eager and adventurous group, led by Jen (mountain guide) and Snowpatch (beautiful female akita husky).

Athabasca GlacierAthabasca Glacier

We walked through multiple streams and beside many crevasses and moulins until we reached the icefalls at the crossing of the glacier and the icefield, where we stopped for lunch.

Athabasca GlacierAthabasca Glacier

Snowpatch was very interested in exploring the area, and enticed a few humans to do the same, including me of course - how often do you have the chance to scramble up seracs!

Athabasca Glacier meets Columbia IcefieldAthabasca Glacier meets Columbia Icefield

On the way back, we saw what looked like an ice cave - but it was actually a crevasse… we just had that impression since we were able to hike down on the side and walk right inside it.

Athabasca GlacierAthabasca Glacier

We drove down to Lake Louise immediately after the hike. There was still a few hours of sunlight left, so we took the opportunity to make a bunch of stops at various lookouts on the drive. Interestingly enough, we missed the Peyto Lake lookout...

Along the Icefields parkwayAlong the Icefields parkway

Day 3

After all those months of waiting, we were finally going to Lake O’Hara. We arrived in the park at 11am on what was promising to be a beautiful sunny day, and headed straight for Mount Schäffer via the Alpine Meadow trail, McArthur pass and the high-level circuit.

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

We arrived at an astonishingly blue alpine lake - Lake McArthur. We took a short break to look at the way we would climb up the mountain, admire the ridge and started the ascent. The hike to the shoulder was slippery but fairly easy. We saw a cairn or two as we were heading toward the steep part of Schäffer.

McArthur Lake - Yoho National ParkMcArthur Lake - Yoho National Park

Time to put the helmets on. The weather ahead was still great… or so we thought until we met a lady climbing down the fake summit, wishing us luck and recommending that we be careful of the storm coming…

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

We were almost at the chimney when I saw very dark clouds moving rapidly toward us. We turned around and carefully hurried down to the shoulder where the storm really hit us. Snow blizzard, thunder, lightning… standing there was very scary… especially after the first lightning stroke. I don’t know what possessed us to stop to take a picture or two, but I remember rushing down to safer ground as fast as I could, my helmet still on, in an almost complete whiteout.

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

The wind was so strong that even with sunglasses, it was hard to keep our eyes open. The snow turned into hail for a while, and then suddenly there was a break in the weather.

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

For a first real experience at route finding, it was quite manageable. We would definitely have summited should the weather have permitted it. We were so close...

We went back to the day shelter via the low-level circuit, and since there was still a few hours before the departure of the last bus outside the park, we slowly hiked the trail around Lake O’Hara. Quite a beautiful and peaceful place.

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

Day 4

A second day in Lake O’Hara. This time, we get an early start and arrived at the day shelter at 9 o’clock in the morning! Due to the weather, our hope at summiting was quickly vanishing. Every mountain, even the smallest ones, were covered in a fresh layer of snow. We quickly decided to change the plan - instead of attempting Yukness today, we will hike the alpine circuit starting with Wiwaxy Gap.

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

Maybe by the time with arrived at the gap, the weather will be tamed enough to attempt the peaks. On that trail, we had a great view of Lake O'Hara, Yukness and Schäffer!

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

We weren’t able to see the peaks the entire way up. The reduced visibility convinced us to abandon the idea of any summit, and we continued onto the Huber Ledges toward Lake Oesa.

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

We arrived at a very interesting foggy and mysterious-looking lake.

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

On the way back to Lake O’Hara, we passed by a few alpine lakes and by the Victoria falls.

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

We followed the Lake Oesa trail to the day shelter.

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

Once again, we had a few hours left ahead of us, so we headed toward Mary Lakes and then did a small section of Opabin Plateau. Despite very unpleasant weather, it was enough to fall in love - we will have to come back and spend more time on this Plateau! We made a little detour to Opabin prospect for a lookout that gave us a beautiful view at Mary Lakes and Lake O’Hara, and went back to the day shelter in a mix of snow and rain to catch the bus.

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

Day 5

We were up bright and early to head to Observation Peak up the Icefields parkway. We were a little concerned about being off the beaten path in bear country, but the approach was short so we forced ourselves to talk our way through the forest.

Observation PeakObservation Peak

There were no obvious trails. There were many “lines” going up, but none of them seemed to be continuous paths to follow. The 15 cm high cairns were almost invisible from a distance…

Observation PeakObservation Peak

So we just started going up in a straight line. The mountain was painfully steep, but at least the bottom part of it was hard-packed dirt. It was an excruciating hike up the lowest part until we reached the rocks, and even more so as the ground became slippery as the thousands of tiny rocks slid under our feet.

Observation PeakObservation Peak

At this point we started to see many little cairns, but they all seemed to lead in different directions so once again we ignored them. After 2 or 3 hours, we reached a big outcrop.

Observation PeakObservation Peak

We put our helmets on and started scrambling up. Once passed the main danger (there was a small section that was slightly narrower and steeper), we reached an area covered in snow.

Observation PeakObservation Peak

We continued up toward the false summit. Before long, it started snowing and the visibility became quickly reduced. We continued hiking up in deeper and deeper snow. At this point, we were considerably slowed down as we couldn’t see what was underneath the thick layer of snow - rocks or dirt - and we kept slipping. The storm picked up, and we couldn’t see the summit anymore… assuming that what we saw earlier was the real summit. We kept on going for a little while, until we were in almost a complete whiteout - at which point we turned around. There would be no summit again today.

Observation PeakObservation Peak

When we started descending, the snow had already covered our tracks and it took us some time to get out of the snowy section.

Observation PeakObservation Peak

We reached the outcrop, and headed down a slightly different way… in the middle of the right gully. The way down was pretty fast.

Observation PeakObservation Peak

Day 6

A third day in Lake O’Hara. Another short day. It was a day of rest. And of course, it was another day of mostly cloud, rain and snow. We will be drenched again today… and we still decided to hike 15 kilometers in the mud.

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

We headed toward Cathedral lakes with a detour for lunch at Linda lake.

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

But once again we had our minute of luck, and the sky cleared long enough to allow us to capture a shot or two.

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

On the way back, as we were walking through a clearing, we heard a big “bang” behind us. We were getting closer to the camping ground and we knew that grizzly were more active in that part of the park… Maybe it was a bear, and maybe it was just a tree falling but one thing is certain, we didn’t stick around to find out!

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

Day 7

Our last day in lake O’Hara. We finished the alpine trail. The day promised to be awesome: 10 degree and sunny at least half the time - no rain, no snow.

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

We started with the Lake Oesa trail - the larches were turning to yellow and orange, offering the scenery a very nice contrast with the grey rocks and blue and green lakes.

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

We stopped at Oesa lake for second breakfast, and to take some time to admire the landscape one last time.

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

The reflection of Mount Victoria, Mount Lefroy and Glacier Peak was almost perfect in the lake. As we were leaving, we saw a few hikers heading toward Abbot Pass Hut. They will have an amazing view from up there today.

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

We continued onto the Yukness Ledges.

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

As we hiked up the side of the mountain, we were rewarded with a breathtaking view of Lake O’Hara and the mountains surrounding this natural wonder.

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

We went down Yukness Ledges on the southwest side of the mountain and reached the Opabin Plateau.

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

We headed toward the end of the trail and stopped for lunch at Opabin Lake.

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

The Opabin Highline trail brought us in a lower section of the plateau. As we headed down on a small section of the trail, a stunning view of Hungabee lake appeared in front of us.

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

The trail continued to the local version of the “Hanging Gardens of Babylon” and on the All Souls’ Alpine Route.

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

Looking behind, the Opabin Plateau looked like a little oasis in the middle of enormous field of rocks and boulders.

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

While going up on the side of Mount Schäffer, the wind really picked up. We stopped quickly at the cairns on what I assume was the highest point of the trail to take a panorama.

Lake O'Hara - Yoho National ParkLake O'Hara - Yoho National Park

Day 8

The Iceline trail is located 13 kilometers north of the TransCanada Highway, at the end of the Yoho Valley Road. The trailhead is just across the parking of the Takakkaw Falls. Despite the cold rainy/snowy weather, this was a popular destination - there was a lot of people on the trail.

Iceline TrailIceline Trail

It is a steep hike at the beginning of the trail, but once passed the first six kilometers, there is almost no more elevation gains. The trail goes by a few glaciers and alpine lakes.

Iceline TrailIceline Trail

From the highest sections, there is another beautiful view of mountains, glaciers and icefields.

Iceline TrailIceline Trail

We cut the trail short and came back via Celeste lake and by the Laughing falls.

Iceline TrailIceline Trail

On the way back to Field, we made a quick stop at the Natural bridge.

Natural Bridge - Yoho National ParkNatural Bridge - Yoho National Park

Day 9

On the morning of the ninth day, the sun was bright and shinny and the weather was perfect to attempt another peak - Cirque peak. On our way to Helen Lake trail, we saw a grizzly grazing by the highway. The first section of the trail showed evidence of recent wildlife activity, but we didn’t see any.

Helen Lake TrailHelen Lake Trail

As we gained elevation, there was a thin layer of snow covering everything.

Helen Lake TrailHelen Lake Trail

Of course, when we passed the treeline, it started to snow… again.

Helen Lake TrailHelen Lake Trail

When we reached Helen Lake, we only had one glimpse at Cirque peak before another snowstorm picked up…

Helen Lake TrailHelen Lake Trail

We could only see a few meters ahead, and before we realized it we were heading the wrong way. We couldn’t even distinguish the mountains anymore.

Helen Lake Trail and beyondHelen Lake Trail and beyond

We settled for a smaller ridge not too far from where we were. 

Helen Lake Trail and beyondHelen Lake Trail and beyond

We climbed all three peaks on it.

Helen Lake Trail and beyondHelen Lake Trail and beyond

As we were climbing down, the storm stopped and a shiny sun reappeared. We could now see the approach to Cirque peak, but it was too late to attempt it. We had to clear the forest before dark… so down we went.

Helen Lake TrailHelen Lake Trail

Day 10

Last day of vacation. It has to finish with something special. So, how about testing my fright of height and claustrophobia at the same time. Off we went to the Rat's Nest Cave in Canmore, on a 5-hour extreme caving adventure.

To access the cave, we had to hike for about half an hour during which we learned a lot about squirrels. The caver guide was a little crazy - I loved him!

CanmoreCanmore

Just before arriving at the cave, we had to cross a stone gully - the guide informed us that we were standing on top of the main cavern.

Rat's Nest CaveRat's Nest Cave

We then stopped under a shelter, put on the overalls and cleaned our shoes with a bleach solution to prevent bringing bacteria and other contaminant into the cave, and more specifically to kill fungal disease damaging to the native bat population. The first thing you notice when entering the cave is the smell! Then, your mind shifts to more important things as you clip yourself to a lifeline and look down at least 60 meters into nothingness. A little crawling brings you to the first challenge: repelling down the equivalent of a 6-story building.

Rat's Nest CaveRat's Nest Cave

Now, it is really pitch black.

Rat's Nest CaveRat's Nest Cave

The squeezes began. The first one was to test people - if you cannot do it, you had to turn around. It was also the only one with an alternate tunnel. Throughout the cave, we had to crawl into squeezes that appear to be much too small for us to pass… and yet we managed.

Rat's Nest CaveRat's Nest Cave

The most interesting squeeze for me was an unplanned one…

  • Try this one, said the guide.
  • Erh… There’s no way I can fit in there… I replied.
  • Sure sure you can, I brought a team of 18 in there, said the guide.
  • Head of feet first?, I answered.
  • Head. We’ll be right behind you, said the guide.

When I reached the other side, I yelled

  • Are you guys coming?

And the guide answered

  • Are you crazy, have you looked in front of you!

I was standing at the meeting of two giant rock slabs - the meeting of two tectonic plates - right on a fault line. It was an amazing experience.

 

Then, there was the psych squeeze... Another voluntary and unnecessary squeeze. It is named psych squeeze because there is only one way out, and most humans are very uncomfortable at having only one way of escape. Having that said, yep! that's me down there...

Rat's Nest CaveRat's Nest Cave

Our guide thought it would be funny to make us go through two connected squeezes in complete darkness. As the guide disappeared ahead of us, all four of us turned off our headlamps and we ventured into the obscurity. There was a lot of uncomfortable touching with strangers, and a very weird conversation going on, but we found our way effectively through the complete darkness… good thing we were wearing helmets though.

We continued deeper into the cave.

Rat's Nest CaveRat's Nest Cave

We reached a very interesting gallery. It had an underground lake, and a very rare formation the shape of a perfectly round bowl. We stayed there to observe a moment of silence in complete darkness… I would lie if I didn’t say that all the sci-fi and horror movies I have watched didn’t made me a little uncomfortable during these few minutes!

We finally turned the lights back on, but mine decided to act up. The battery was probably dead, and the light would stay on for about 30 seconds at the time. I was chosen to lead the way back up on a specific and extremely slippery slab of rock. Success… until I saw the cluster of thousand of spiders over my left shoulder! I hate spiders.

 

For more pictures, see my photo gallery.

 


Comments

No comments posted.
Loading...

Archive
January February March April May June July (2) August September October November December
January February March (2) April May (1) June July August (1) September October (1) November (1) December
January February March (1) April May June July August September October November December
January February March (1) April (1) May (1) June July August (2) September October November December (1)
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December