During my insane November, I didn’t do much painting…or blogging…or noveling, actually. But I did get outside a couple of times. The winter barrier on Highway 40 through Kananaskis Country goes up on December 1 every year, so a friend and I decided that we’d better get down there while we could. This was on November 17.
Pocaterra Ridge is actually not far below the barrier, which is near the Elbow Pass trailhead. It runs north-to-south between the Elk Range (including Mt. Tyrwhitt and Pocaterra proper) and the highway, with spectacular views of Mount Rae…when it’s clear, as it was when Soistheman visited in 2010. It’s a very popular spot for AT skiing, which is something I’ve never tried. We talked about coming back on AT skis the following weekend, but the gear rental places weren’t letting AT skis out due to a lack of snow. (It seemed like there was plenty, but then, my cross-country skis are quite scratched-up, not only because they’re extremely old, but because I tend to think there’s plenty of snow when there really isn’t, quite.)
The trail starts on the right side of the highway at the summit of the Highwood Pass. It climbs and descends a substantial forested hump before reaching the first bowl. Here it crosses a creek bed that was eroded by the recent floods into a gully about ten feet wide.
We could see some frozen waterfalls on the cliffs of Mt. Tyrwhitt, high up to the left (not in the photo). A quick Google doesn’t reveal named ice routes in the area, and I think getting to them would be a major problem.
The trail carries on to the right along the bottom of the valley, with the ridges of Tyrwhitt and Pocaterra towering above snowy slopes to the left. Bent trees at the edge of the forest showed that this area has seen some major avalanches in the past, and guidebooks recommend bringing safety gear. However, so early in the season, we didn’t feel like there was much of a risk, and neither did a couple of dozen skiers earning their turns by making the climb. Later we did see some loose snow sloughing off a much steeper part of Mt. Pocaterra—an impressive sight.
The sun struggled to break through the clouds, but it never quite made it.
Note the natural window through the rock!
The weather got gradually worse, not better. We turned to the right near the end of the valley and began climbing Pocaterra Ridge, a fairly bare and relatively rounded peak that actually looks fairly friendly in the summer and fall, when people traverse its entire length to see the larches. There were six or eight inches of fresh powder over a layer of ice, and the toothy built-in crampons on my rented MSR Evos came in handy in places. I’ve never used snowshoes with climbing bars, but this final ascent was just steep enough that I started to wish I had them.
There are a few different wide-open ways down for skiers and the few snowboarders we met slogging up on snowshoes with their boards on their backs. The upper reaches are very windy and the ridge lends itself to cornice formation that makes the traverse impracticable in winter.
I’m not sure when it started to snow, but it was coming down hard by the time we left the summit:
This was a round trip of 4.5 miles (7.2 kilometres) with an elevation gain of about 1500 feet (500 metres), with the summit elevation being 8,796 feet (2,681 metres). Worth it for many reasons, although on this particular day, not for the panoramic views.