One of my goals this fall was a solo climb up Mt Richardson. Located in the Skoki area north of Lake Louise, this is a big mountain with great views of some big peaks. As it’s quite a hike just to get to the base, I decided to make a muti-day trip out of it by hiking in on day one, climbing day two and returning day three. To save on weight I tried out the advice of backcountry gurus, the Copelands, and went without a stove. It would be a little dreary not having hot food or drink but would save quite a bit of energy by being lighter. This area is above treeline so a campfire isn’t practical even if it was allowed!
Above: Horse corral on the trail to Skoki Valley. The Skoki area north of where I was exploring is home to the famous Skoki Lodge, one of oldest lodges around. Prince William and Catherine stayed here a few years ago, though they rode a helicopter in! Most people hike or ski to this old world lodge and since there are no roads or motor vehicles allowed in, horses still do much of the work.
On my way up the Skoki valley, the only people I saw were two young gals on horseback leading a small pack train of horses carry supplies to the lodge. What a treat to see life unchanged for a hundred years. They wore flannel shirts, jeans and cowboy hats and it may well have been 1890 as far as I could tell. Only my technical fabric clothing and modern pack betrayed the scene! I suspect the two girls weren’t making much money but their faces told of a different renumeration. As a cowboy I met down in the Crowsnest Pass told me, “when you drive a machine, you have to look where you’re going. When you ride a horse, it knows where its going.” So true, these two riders of course are not passengers and must keep the horses on task, but they do get to look around and really smell the roses. Apart from really enjoying themselves, I could see a hint of pride as well. Perhaps I looked impressed.
Above: Perfect day following a creek up the Skoki Valley, massive Mt Temple in the background. I made pretty good time up to Hidden Lake at the foot of Mt Richardson. There was enough time in the day to set up a camp and do some recon of my route.
While setting up my tent I could hear a couple of voices approaching. Bounding down the slope were two women smiling profusely and carrying very small, 5L barely-there packs. I asked where they had been today. “Well, we went up Ptarmigan Peak, then down and over to Pika Peak, climbed that then traversed up Mt Richardson and down now we’re on our way out!”
I could hardly believe it but their was no fibbing in their muscled legs. “Where did you start today?” I asked. “The road!” She said with identical enthusiasm. Remember I was setting up a tent because I had thought just one of these mountains was too much to do in one day! In Canmore I may have done three mountains in one day, but they were not technically demanding or as big as these three, or so far from the road. If I wasn’t so impressed I would have felt embarrassed setting my tent up in front of them. At least I figured out why they were bounding down the mountain so fast. I peppered them with numerous technical questions about the route they had done. Certainly nothing I would have entertained without a ton of rope and protection even if I had the speed and stamina. My consolation was discovering it was Canmore local, Liza Pye I was talking to. She’s a mega talented athlete who competed on the world stage doing adventure races. These are multi-discipline endurance races where competitors race kayaks, bike, run and climb through challenging terrain they must use map and compass to navigate through. She’s about as tough as they come and though I didn’t know who her friend was, she seemed to have no trouble keeping up which is praise enough for mortals. I wished them well and they pranced off as though they hadn’t done a thing all day. You just run out of astonishment with people around here!
Above: Hidden Lake colours at the base of Mt Richardson. My tent was a short distance from this lake so I tried to take some pictures of the colours as they morphed with the changing light. A ridge nearby offered a good look at the first ascent line on Richardson so I climbed it and took a few telephoto pictures to study my line up for tomorrow. As the sun set, cold supper was enjoyed and a short sleep followed.
Above: Dawn at Hidden Lake with Mt Redoubt on the skyline. I woke early, ate some fruit bars, and packed what I needed. A big mistake was not having my smaller climbing pack along for the climb as I thought I would leave it at home and repurpose my larger backpack I had hauled everything in with. As soon as I started the steep climb though, I found it was difficult to look up on steep terrain as my head was bumping into the pack when it was craned up at maximum. Another lesson!
Above: This crumbling spine greeted me. This was the only way up. Scale is hard to judge but the steep rocks in the foreground are many stories high. The best way up is to skirt the left hand side of this mess though I found the drop very disconcerting. Had I been with someone, I would have little difficulty but when I am by myself, crumbling rock on a big face freezes my nerves. It’s hard to solve the route problem when I can’t find the will to go on.
Often when I’m by myself, I lose my nerve in places that are not really dangerous. Serious perhaps but not dangerous relative to the activity. Often I need to just wait these out and collect myself. Sometimes just spending some time in these positions improves my comfort enough to rationalise away the fear. In this instance though, the more time I spent here, the more I realised I wasn’t going any further.
Disappointment is easy to bear in a wonderous location, but it’s still disappointing. Especially after all the work of hiking in and setting up a camp. I made the best of it and enjoyed the views as they were.
Above: Mt Victoria, one of Canada’s largest mountains rises up in the background. My touring group did our crevasse rescue training on the glacier seen here. With lots of time left in the day, I made the decision to descend and explore the surrounding area. I picked my way down and hiked up the valley and over Boulder Pass.
Above: Over the pass lies Ptarmigan Lake, a good-sized lake in the heart of high alpine country. The high altitude gives the place a very raw feeling as there are mostly just scrub plants among the rock. As quiet as it was, I did catch this busy moment on an Alpine Aster.
I hiked back to my camp and decided to head back that evening. It was all downhill back to the road and I figured I could make good time so I packed up and headed home. I will definitely have to come back here with a partner and complete Mt Richardson as it feels like unfinished business. A raw landscape with many beautiful nooks and crannies hidden throughout. By bailing on my larger project I ended up with more time to discover many hidden spots up there. And it’s always a treat to meet yet another mountain luminary out in the wilds and see and hear their stories first hand.