Rocky Mountain ramble in Bow Valley.

Bow River Valley. Photo: Julia Fryer.

Bow River Valley. Photo: Julia Fryer.

Liberated from the desk jockey purgatory one summer, I set out with my partner-in-crime Rob on a road trip to show him the Rocky Mountains for the first time. Our chariot, an unbreakable model of Taurus, drove us from southern Ontario to Alberta and back. We camped along Lake Superior, belted out Neil Young’s greatest hits through the golden prairies, imagined the hunt at Head-Smashed in Buffalo-Jump, and hiked in both the Banff-Jasper corridor and Waterton Lakes areas, visiting friends along the way wherever we could.

When we made it to Cowtown, we got ready for our first Rocky Mountain hike together with my cousins who grew up in Calgary, hiking and skiing in Kananaskis. They’d read some routes ahead of time and were excited to try out a hike that included a scramble called Heart Mountain. Unfamiliar with this concept of scrambling, I nodded in agreement and pretended not to be from Ontario.

Outside the city, the mountains rose from the prairie foothills and so did our anticipation. Our faces were collectively glued to the windows to see the looming giants around us until we reached the parking lot in Lac des Arcs area. How could you not stare? It only took 2,925 kilometres to get here.

Named after the heart-shaped limestone formed by erosion at the top of the mountain, Heart Mountain is a beauty 10.4 kilometre circuit located near Canmore in Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park, neighbouring its more famous cousin Banff National Park situated to the north.  What Bow Valley lacks in notoriety, it makes up for in proximity to the city of Calgary and incredible vistas of the Bow river valley. Wildland Park is one three Bow Valley protected areas created  or expanded in 1998 to preserve the Bow River Valley region including Canmore Nordic Ski Area Provincial Park and Spray Valley area to the west, all provincial crown land with high ecological, social and recreational values.

Stairway to heaven

After a few parking lot selfies, we started off the day in the sunshine around 9:30am. Heart Mountain wasn’t joking around. The creek portion of the trail soon gave way to unrelenting switchbacks through sub alpine forest for about 1,000 feet elevation gain. Bred in a flatter Ontario landscape, I precipitated some degree of lollygagging on my part. As I struggled behind the rest the first few hundred metres, I wondered if the Calgarians actually had more oxygen in their blood? Or longer limbs? What did they give them at the Olympic training centre?

The only saving grace was the cousin who stopped frequently for rests because of asthma, so I appeared both (a) immensely sympathetic and (b) less out of breath as I joined her, bless her pulmonary-deficient soul. (Admittedly, I’m an occasional sufferer of the lung wheeze.)

Photo: Julia Fryer.

Photo: Julia Fryer.

Eventually, everyone set their pace, and the moment in hiking I look forward to materialized unconsciously: the steady rhythm of the walk, a meditative quality to the ascent. Sometimes you’re paying attention to your surroundings but more often than not you’re completely absorbed in the act, concentrating on your footing, the simple satisfaction of one foot in front of the other.  I can almost remember when Rob was struck by ‘summit fever’ on this climb – to forge new trails, climb great heights and live wildly - as I watched the magic of the mountains wash over him with each look at the landscape. He was hooked.

Barrier Lake from Grant McEwan Peak. Photo: Julia Fryer.

Barrier Lake from Grant McEwan Peak. Photo: Julia Fryer.

When the treeline ended, the imposing Yamnuska Mountain across the valley came into view along with infinite blue sky. We passed a sign indicating to switch on mountain goat mode, also known as the Scrambler’s Route sign. The sweating and swearing paid off. I may have also shed a singular tear to make myself get up the ‘crux’ (at which I can now laugh). Once over the lip, nothing else mattered. The scenery was spectacular! We were rewarded with unparalleled views of the Bow River snaking up the basin, the Alberta prairies sweeping to the south, silver pinnacles and skyward peaks in a grand display of geomorphology that make those mountains rock. Had we reached heaven? Vista-filled snacking ensued.


Descent of dissent

To complete the Heart Mountain circuit, we soaked up the sun west on the ridge towards Grant McEwan Peak, looking longingly at the mountains, in their rocky symphony surrounding us. Our fearless local leaders had been reading the trail guide up until this point and we were having a great time mindlessly following along. From this peak, Barrier Lake shimmered aquamarine in the sunlight. Grassy meadows in bloom sent bits of colour, flecks of white through the green - did I mention what a gorgeous day it was? In the midst of our wandering on the ridge, we came to a point where we no longer knew where to go.

Having been suddenly awakened from our summit high, and into reality, we discussed our options. We thought we saw someone on the same ridge across to the south but from where we were it looked suspiciously far away. Much discussion on about where the trail continued. It was suggested to veer downward from our location in the meadow as per trail guide instructions. {Oh, the flowering alpine meadow}. With the highway in sight, and I mean just barely about 1,200 feet down, everyone thought this could be the way to go.

With no better proposal, it was knee breaking time. We descended from the grass to a steep pitch of scree at a run, causing mini rock avalanches as we surfed on top – freedom! It was all fun and games until we reached the gigantic boulders. About fifty or even a hundred metres down, we had to clamber over a rock bed that felt like a scene from Honey I Shrunk the Kids. Starting to scorch under the afternoon sun, something lurched in my gut. This. Was. Not. The. Trail.

I launched a protest. As the eldest of those related to me, my thoughts immediately went worst case: cougar attacks, bear maulings, being thought responsible for the deaths of my two younger cousins, imminent cannibalism due to starvation. I was also nearly done my water as well and it was HOT (a red head’s worst nightmare – we just don’t belong in the heat).

After much discussion, the group convinced me that going back up was just not an option. The treeline seemed fairly close from our position, and maybe a few kilometres beyond that, the highway that led back to the car. Rob seemed convinced that the dried up creek we were hiking down would eventually lead us off the mountain, pending no cliffs got in our way. We could see one rock face in our line of vision below that may be troublesome. This was really not what I wanted to hear. We set off in silent disagreement.

It took us about another hour or so to reach the tree line. A lesson in eyeballing distance here – objects in mirror are often further than they appear. It took us so much longer than we expected to reach the trees. By this time, it was mid-afternoon and we had been out for around 5.5 hours, enough time for us to have completed the hike. One of the cousins realizes she has cell service and sends a ‘We’re kinda lost’ text back into the abyss of urbanity in case this somehow helps. Oh, this is ripe, I thought. Lost with cell service.

Once back in the forest, walking on the dry creek became all the more important so you didn’t get bush whacked in a very literal sense. Soon enough a little worn path beside the creek became visible and Rob followed it. Walking for another half hour, we reach the giant rock face we were worried may be the end of the road. Low and behold, as we walked along the bottom of the cliff, instead of disaster, we ran into a group of rock climbers. I’ve never been so happy to see gortex, spandex and belays! They pointed us in the direction of the trail that would take us back to the highway. And the hikers rejoiced!

We made it back to the car in another 1.5 hours, maybe two, for about eight hours out that day. Along the highway in the last begrudging kilometre, one of my cousins pulled out some water from her bag. My disbelief at the sight of that water was quickly drowned in the glorious taste of freshness when it was passed to me. We’d made it back. And the water tasted delicious.

Reflections on off trail adventures

Thinking about this day trip, a few things stand out in retrospect. The decision to go down towards the highway was a failure on all our parts to communicate. Not double-checking the navigation of others, assuming locals have more knowledge of the area – these are classic dynamics of hashing it out in groups. Human psychology can lead to bias in our perceptions like blindly following group leaders, being afraid to deviate from consensus, and making quick decisions in bad weather rather than carefully considering the options. For hiking and backcountry snow sports, human factors like attitude, familiarity with the area, peer pressure, herding instinct, and ‘blue sky syndrome’ (i.e. nothing bad can happen in good weather) have cost the lives of even the most experienced explorers in avalanche terrain. Adventurers should be aware that these factors can cause all sorts of strange dynamics especially in times of stress or when deciding to, for example, head off trail with no topographical maps and limited supplies (eeerrrp…).

Prepare like there is no rescue service. In perspective, longer day hikes in worse conditions have been completed by yours truly  since. Eight hours out is no big deal if we’d had a little extra water and food on hand, an emergency first aid kit and a compass, things that are usually mandatory in our bags. I don’t even know if we had them at the time. Looking back on our (mis)adventure, it’s a fond memory of the outdoors because it had so many firsts: first hike with this Western family, first visit to the Rockies for Rob and first time getting both lost and found again. But imagine our instincts had led us astray? Being rescued were just a few kilometres away from the highway would have been nothing short of mortifying and hopefully, nothing worse.

Some critics of wilderness rescues argue that the expectation of being rescued allows rad foursomes like you, me and the bobbsey twins, to venture off into backcountry and take greater risks still knowing there is an emergency outlet to save us. ‘Why should society pay for this risk?’ they ask. Wilderness explorers should be prepared to survive sans guardian angels, detractors quip. Of course, unforeseen circumstances can happen to anyone, as can honest mistakes like veering off trail. Still, the former bears a strong point to those who hope for salvation in form of rescue service. Being prepared is no joke and I expect that few out there have the finances to front the cost of rescue due to poor planning.

The thing about learning curves is you are given the fortune of perspective further along, just like looking out from the summit of a mountain after the ascent. You don’t get to choose where you exist on the curve, you just get to live the lesson. So here’s to a lifetime of learning, many rambles and even more safe returns.