Banff 2015: Snow, Sun and Smoke

Mountain weather is unpredictable. As someone that considers himself not to be an idiot, I know this. However, given fairly constant temperatures the breadth of conditions experienced in my first three days hiking in the Canadian Rockies was nothing short of amazing. Either that, or maybe I am an idiot.

Joining my Dad and I on this year’s installment of the annual father/son trip that hasn’t quite been annual lately based on things like having a daughter and living abroad, was Lindsay and our friends Judith and Glenn. Judith and Glenn were there because we chose the locale of this year’s trip in a place where they had just purchased a beautiful new condo. When you mooch free lodging, it’s only appropriate to invite them along for the fun. Especially when they’re excellent hosts, local experts, and pretty much my favorite hiking and travel companions. Lindsay was there because, well, when you’re traveling with your favorite travel companions that you met while trekking with your wife, it would be a pretty shitty thing to not invite your wife.

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The Snow – Sunshine Meadows

After a late arrival in Calgary and a short drive to Canmore, our trusty guide for the week, Judith, knew it probably be best to keep the first day short and sweet. She had selected Sunshine Meadows, which is a short school bus trip up the ski-out of Sunshine Ski Resort in Banff National Park. Yes, rather than hike up the 1.5 – 2 hours to the top of the gondola, we elected to hop a ride on the bus. Would you expect anything less from a hiking crew that specializes in fully portered Himalayan trekking (aka princess camping, or as the kids are calling it these days, “glamping”).

When we arrived the night before, she had mentioned it had snowed and I figured it would be just a dusting; however, as we exited the bus, there was actual accumulation. It was only a few inches but the ski runs looked rather skiable. The hiking trails melted first, looking almost plowed.

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As promised, it was a short loop with minimal altitude gain. This was perfect for the first day as I realized I hadn’t laced up my hiking boots since walking into the village of Lukla at the end of Everest Base Camp in May 2014. After the short time, we had time for a lunch that was unintentionally timed perfectly to catch the bus back down. The picnic tables were covered still covered with enough snow that we made the call to make it easy and eat inside, but by the time we headed back, snow was starting to disappear from the paths.

Thankfully, this was a one-day thing. The forecast called for a week full of sun.

The Sun – Helen Lake

Since we left all the hiking planning to Judith with the basic criteria of: (1) pick your favorites and (2) try not to repeat stuff we’ve done before, the second day found us driving deeper into Banff National Park to the trailhead for Helen Lake. The hike itself was one I like. A moderate incline through the forest that tops out and gently ascends a meadow to a lake. This isn’t one of those aquamarine lakes you hear so much about in the Canadian Rockies, but it didn’t matter. The lake was just a destination. A nice quiet place to have lunch. The highlight of this trek was the views both up and down along the meadow ridge. The weather only helped. Crystal blue skies with spotty clouds. Absolutely perfect. It was exactly what the forecast had called for. Looking ahead to the rest of the week, which included one final hike with the others before the actual father/son portion of the trip began with a 3-night trip to Shadow Lake Lodge, we felt we were in for a treat.

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What we didn’t pay enough attention to on the way back down was the light haze we saw forming in the distance. We figured it was just a slight disturbance caused by the angle of the sun or something equally mundane. We couldn’t have been more wrong.

The Smoke – Burstell Pass

As you may be aware, forest fires cause smoke. That smoke needs to go somewhere. That somewhere is where the wind blows. When the fires are in Washington state and the wind blows from the southwest, apparently the smoke blows straight to the Canadian Rockies. Unfortunately, the fires were in Washington state and the wind was blowing from the southwest.

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What did this mean? Well, it meant that it pretty much smelled like a big forest fire and you couldn’t see mountains, unless you were pretty much right next to them. Burstell Pass never stood a chance. In fact, Lindsay rated it a “solid C.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement for one of Judith’s favorite hikes, not that there was anything that could be done about it.

Honestly, for being a complete smokeout that killed what was supposed to be a killer view from the pass, I kind of liked the hike. We crossed a stony wetland with multiple stream channels. On the way in, Judith and Glenn suggested we change into sandals as stepping in water would probably be necessary so we didn’t need to find the driest route. In reality, we probably didn’t need to change as the water didn’t get above where our shoes would have been. We planned to stick to our shoes and stay dry on our way out. However, the melting glacier had other plans and the water was noticeably higher when we approached on the way back.

Even the stream crossing wasn’t enough to budge Lindsay from her “average” grade. However, even she would have to admit, the conditions she experienced in her second visit to the Canadian Rockies were, well, unique. A day of snow, a day of sun, and a day of smoke.

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