I picked Mike up in Calgary at 3:30pm and we arrived at the end of the pavement at 5:30 near Highwood Pass. After sorting the packs and unloading the bikes we set off at 6:00pm, not exactly the classic 5am alpine start!
This year I included an added challenge of a 12km bike approach through the Highwood valley, into the McPhail creek valley. I wasn’t sure what it would be like to mountain bike with a massive backpack so there was much unknown. above: crossing Highwood River with bike and pack and socks in hand.
The first few kilometers were merely just a burden. As the trail gained elevation, we were soon completely exhausted and left pushing the bikes. I began to think this was a terrible idea and why couldn’t I have gone some place well known with proper directions! Eventually after pushing through a large mud pot and staring up at another rocky hill, we abandoned the bikes. Travelling on foot with just my multi-day pack seemed a joy suddenly and we pushed on looking for a spot to camp for the night. above: Camp 1
A couple kilometers later we found a flat-ish spot close to a creek as the sun was setting. With camp up we had some food and a cup of hot coffee and waited up to see the remains of the Perseid meteor shower.
The rising moon stole the show and we busied ourselves guessing when it would clear a prominent ridge and trying to get our cameras to take pictures using just moonlight. The other activity was examining the headwall blocking our path and trying to figure out just how it would be climbed the next day.above: The imposing headwall.
We had breakfast, broke camp, packed and were on our way by 8am. As we got closer to the headwall, a goat path up the wall emerged. For the most part it was pretty safe though in a few places a bad step would have had serious consequences. I was glad to reach the top and relax a bit as we surveyed the valley. The base of the two mountains we intended to climb was in front of us so we looked about for a suitable place for our base camp. Water was our primary concern as a tarn lower down made a suitable site but higher up would be better. I used the digital telephoto on my camera to spy what appeared to be a spring higher up. With the evidence before us, we pressed on and made our next camp on the higher plateau.
With camp fixed, we traded our big backpacks for lighter day packs and set off to climb Mt Muir. After a brief discussion, Mike volunteered to carry the stove up so we could make coffee at the summit.
The route to the summit followed a crumbling ridge spine. The 60km/hr crosswind unhinged me a couple times as I searched to find my balance but for the most part the climb up was interesting.above: this spine served as the ascent route.
As the picture above shows, it’s really a choose your own adventure. You can alter the difficulty level through the thousands of choices on the way up. The lack of perspective cues makes judging distance very tricky. We ended up taking a substantial and regrettable rest break two minutes from the summit owing to such optical illusions!
We reached the summit and found a summit register under a pile of stones. Only a couple of people had been here since the 1990’s. Owing to the small piece of paper in the register, someone had signed their name on a shred of birchbark they must have been carrying! I cut off a corner of our map and signed our names, sealed it in plastic and put it in the register.After enjoying the view we set up the stove and brewed some victory coffee. I’ve always wanted to do this on top of a mountain but have always discarded the idea for having to carry the extra weight. But under a perfect blue sky, we enjoyed a cup of coffee at the top of the world.above: Mike brews the coffee on a precarious ledge at the summit of Mt Muir.
above: making my way back down the spine.
The clear skies gave us a pretty good look at Mt McPhail next door which was to be our objective for day two. The mountain did little for our ambitions though as the route looked steep and uninteresting. Rather than a trip, it seemed more like a punishment and at only 400 feet higher, would give views comparable to what we just experienced. So we made the decision to break camp and head back hoping to do something interesting the next day.
The tragic comedy of this decision was that we ended up carrying our heavy packs up the difficult headwall and back down for nothing! Had we known in advance, we could have brought just our summit packs from lower camp I. Alas! So we broke up camp II never having actually used it and headed down without thought to how far we may get. The headwall was a challenge to my nerves once again but soon enough we were down onto more gentle terrain.
As the light faded, we seemed to be bashing through trees on a trail much fainter than I had remembered. The surrounding mountain geometry was not matching the map I had created on the way in. Not wanting to follow this animal trail into the middle of nowhere we made the decision to turn around and follow a creek we had thought also had an animal trail on it. We double backed only to discover the trail we thought we had seen turned out to be nothing. We followed a glade to get a better view and came to a dead end surrounded by impenetrable trees and steep terrain. For a second I think we both became a little worried that we were spending much energy when we could little afford to do so. We also thought that if we couldn’t find the trail, recovering the bikes would be very difficult.
On a hunch, I picked a line through the underbrush and bashed through and sure enough, just 20m in, our original trail appeared. Our weary feet were extremely grateful and with renewed energy we pressed on and found our abandoned bikes.
above: Mike enjoys the long ride downhill with “Matterhornish” Mt Muir in the background. Hard to believe we climbed up and down it today.
We carried the bikes over the mud pit, got on and held on for dear life as we rocketed down the narrow, rocky trail with brakes squealing. Exhaustion was quickly replaced with adrenaline and the fading sun sparkled through the trees like flashbulbs. Soon enough we had blasted back to the Highwood River and made camp at the end of what I would call a long day’s work!
We cooked supper as a group of trail riders on horseback forded the river beside our camp, a rather unexpected sight.
We broke camp and waded across the Highwood river and headed up highway 40 north to Canmore looking for a side trip. What caught our eye was a connecting ridge between Gap Peak and Elpoca Mt. above: our route as seen from Pocaterra on a previous trip.
We set off with threatening weather and bushwacked through the trees. A theme of this trip has been route finding and this climb was no different. We had many conferences to decide our direction. The face steepened to the point of it being almost impossible to make progress against the sliding rocks.above: rain and fog cloak the summit of Mt Elpoca.
After climbing about as high as we could under the conditions, we made our way down as the rain picked up. We drove to Banff and soaked our tired selves in the hot springs for an hour or so. Afterwards we enjoyed a well earned supper at the Rocky Mountain Flatbread Co and a couple of favorite episodes of old Star Trek in the evening.
Another fantastic trip! I really appreciate Mike’s spirit of adventure as few people around here want to thrash up unknown routes as they usually have lengthy lists of well known “must do” routes. Four great days!
more photos at