Local pros suggest exhilarating winter excursions
Dec. 7, 2015
By Afton Aikens
Massive. Rugged. Incredible. Whatever your interpretation, there’s no denying that the Canadian Rockies leave an impression.
In winter, peaks and valleys draped in snow and ice create a magical outdoor playground that entices adventurers into its wilderness.
For professional climber, paraglider and kayaker Will Gadd, growing up here shaped his identity and sparked a lifetime of legendary exploits.
In January 2015, Gadd became the first to ice climb Niagara Falls, on the heels of being named a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year (with fellow paraglider Gavin McClurg) for their five-week, 640-km flight over the Canadian Rockies. The Rockies Traverse, a film based on the expedition, premiered at the November 2015 Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival.
“From an early age I camped, hiked, skied and climbed with my parents,” Gadd says. “This gave me a 20-year head start as an athlete. I was hard-wired for expeditions.” Learning to build snow caves as a kid has served him well while bivouacking high on mountain faces. “The Rockies are a tough range, and my parents taking me into the wilds helped toughen me up.”
Gadd, who’s based in Canmore, says the drive from Calgary into the mountains and the first sight of Mount Yamnuska’s sheer rock face (the first mountain on the north side of the Trans-Canada Hwy) always makes him smile.
He’s been fortunate to travel the world, is currently involved in a TV series about vanishing places, and keeps busy as a mountain guide and international speaker. Many of his exploits are chronicled on willgadd.com.
Suggestions for Thrill-Seekers
There are countless options for unforgettable, thrilling adventure in the Canadian Rockies.
“You could spend a lifetime doing different activities here and still find new ones. I literally have,” Gadd says. Some of his favourite excursions that can be done in a day include the popular Weeping Wall ice climb on the Icefields Parkway, the glacier-adorned highway connecting Banff and Jasper national parks.
“I climbed this for the first time with my dad when I was 16, and most winters I climb it again. It’s 180 metres of ice—very beautiful.”
The Weeping Wall is favoured for its 10-minute access from the parking area, sunny exposure and proximity to Rampart Creek Hostel where many climbers stay.
Farther south, Haffner Creek in Kootenay National Park is a 30-minute ski into a canyon across from the Marble Canyon parking lot on Hwy 93S. This is “the best collection of easy-access and mixed routes in Canada,” Gadd says. (Mixed climbing involves ascending rock and ice using crampons and ice tools).
“It’s a ton of fun whether it’s your first time ice climbing or you’re training for the World Cup. Low avalanche hazard, too,” he adds.
For those who’d rather glide through powder than climb frozen falls, Gadd suggests backcountry descents at Bow Summit, the highest point on the Icefields Parkway. This is arguably Banff’s favourite area for yo-yo skiing, for its open slopes, consistent fall-line and 1-km ski from the Peyto Lake parking lot.
“This is one of the first places to get good snow in the fall, and last to hold snow in the spring,” Gadd notes. Skiers often take the short detour to the Peyto Lake viewpoint for a stunning view.
Gadd’s fellow Canmorite, Olympian Shona Rubens, also has recommendations for backcountry adventure. She suggests a ski tour to Tryst Lake in Kananaskis Country for its rewarding views and quick approach, a 2.5-km ski from Spray Lakes Road or 3-km ski from the Mount Shark Road parking lot.
“Make it a short day if you just want to go to the lake. Or do multiple yo-yo runs—there are lots of chutes to ski when conditions are good.”
Rubens grew up in Calgary and started skiing as a kid. She retired from Canada’s Alpine Ski Team with the 2006 and 2010 Olympic Winter Games under her belt, and recently completed an environmental sciences degree. She coaches ski racing; the sport is still a big part of her life.
“Most of (my family) vacations were spent outdoors,” Rubens says. “Being surrounded by people who loved the outdoors, and the ability to be in the mountains at the drop of a hat, turned me into the person I am today.” Rubens still skis with her family every Christmas.
“(The sport) is amazing, because it’s individual in that when you’re skiing you’re on your own, but you do it in a social environment. You can enjoy it backcountry, cross-country and downhill. The places it takes you are spectacular.”
Also in Kananaskis, the 20-km French-Haig-Robertson Traverse is a favourite one-day expedition of adventure photographer Ryan Creary.
The circuit—a remote ski tour for experienced backcountry skiers—requires knowledge of managing avalanche terrain, glacier travel, crevasse rescue and difficult navigation. “There are great offshoot trips and fun couloirs. You don’t have to do the whole circuit,” Creary says.
Now based in Revelstoke, BC, Creary lived in Canmore for 10 years and says that’s “where it all started” for him professionally.
“The sports I shoot (skiing, snowboarding, biking, paddling, climbing) have always been my passion, so I combined work and lifestyle. I packed my camera when I went to do stuff with friends; that led to images getting published, then big assignments,” he says. The cover of Where Canadian Rockies‘ winter 2015-16 issue features a Ryan Creary photo.
Although Creary now plays in the Selkirk and Monashee mountains, he says he’ll always feel a pull to the Rockies. “There are so many amazing experiences.”
One man who has truly lived a lifetime of adventure is photographer and certified Canadian mountain guide Pierre Lemire, winner of the 2015 Summit of Excellence Award presented by the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival.
Since 1987, this award has recognized “an individual who has made a significant contribution to mountain life in the Canadian Rockies.”
Lemire, who lives in Field, BC, certainly fits the bill. He moved to Alberta in 1965 at age 18, and from 1972 to 2011 was a guide with Canadian Mountain Holidays. In the 1980s, he worked as an examiner for the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG).
Lemire’s photography has appeared in Canadian Summits, Equinox, and the Faces of Canada and Hills of Nepal exhibits—the latter at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. As much as he’s contributed to the Canadian Rockies, the mountains have contributed to his life.
“In guiding, people want to climb or ski tour, but that’s just one dimension of the whole process,” Lemire says. “Because I enjoy taking pictures, I would stop and say, ‘Let’s spend some time here,’ to observe the light on the peaks.”
Lemire recalls one of his most memorable adventures. “Within a week, I climbed two iconic summits.” After guiding a man up Mount Assiniboine (3,618 m, the highest peak in the southern Canadian Rockies), a friend asked if Lemire wanted to climb Mount Robson (3,954 m, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies).
“I said, ‘Sure,’” Lemire says with a laugh. “Both mountains often take many attempts due to the weather. But the conditions were perfect! The chances of it happening like that were very low.”
Lemire’s advice for adventurers? “Get up early!” He says, “As the years pass, I realize how privileged I was to be in these mountains. Things change, but there’s still magic to discover.”
“Every single weekend, thousands of people are out in the mountains, but we only hear about the ones who get into trouble. So get out and have fun first of all,” Gadd advises. “Second, use the resources available if you want to travel in avalanche areas, and understand the terrain.”
Avalanche Canada provides online avalanche forecasts, terrain hazard ratings and maps at avalanche.ca. Yamnuska Mountain Adventures and the Alpine Club of Canada run avalanche safety courses in Canmore. In Jasper, courses are offered by Rockaboo Mountain Adventures.
Or, improve your skills by hiring a guide. Gadd takes clients ice climbing, and Yamnuska and Rockaboo offer ice climbing and ski touring.
Don’t have the gear for a backcountry foray? Local shops rent ski touring, ice climbing and avalanche safety equipment.
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