I love snowshoeing. I also love the mountains covered in thick, fresh powder and the amazing scenery of the backcountry. So when I was discussing different tours with the wonderful staff at White Mountain Adventures, I asked what they had for an adventurous snowshoe: something you couldn’t get “in town”. Their immediate response: The Snowcat Snowshoe Adventure. A full day of backcountry snowshoeing at Fortress Mountain, accessed by a bus ride and a snowcat. Awesome.
My day started at the Coast Hotel in Canmore, because White Mountain picks you up! Our van arrived and I was greeted by our friendly guide, Marc. He made sure everyone on the tour was dressed correctly – winter coats, snow pants, hats and mitts/gloves are required. They tell you all about this when you register. We already had a couple people from Banff and we picked up four more at the Stoney Nakoda Resort. Then it was off to Kananaskis!
Marc stopped to put on snow chains before unlocking the gate at Fortress and heading up the hill. You know it’s a good day when the driver has to chain the tires! The sun was just beginning to rise, defining the mountains with angled shadows. “The snow is like makeup for mountains,” said one of the guests, “it defines their features and brings out their beauty.” The combination of the fresh snow and the early morning sunshine definitely made for some stunning scenery as we drove past the old ski lodge at Fortress Mountain.
Marc gave us all snowshoes and double checked that we had the necessary clothing. Because the day was sunny and relatively warm, we ran the risk of sweating. We had to make sure we weren’t overdressed for the conditions. Marc explained, “You don’t want to sweat. Your body cools down by sweating, but if we have to stop for some reason, your sweat will cool you down too fast and you could get hypothermia. If you are starting to sweat, remove a layer so your body doesn’t overheat.”
Our snowcat operators gave us a quick safety rundown before we loaded into the machine. They had a lot of experience with different movies filmed at this location, including The Bourne Legacy, Inception and The Revenant. They were preparing to shoot a film, which meant they would be doing some avalanche control during the day. We could expect to see helicopters and hear the bombs. With any luck, we might spot a few avalanches as well.
Then we were off! For anyone who hasn’t experienced a snowcat before, it is the ultimate machine for moving through deep snow. With a large track underneath and a plow out front, there was nothing that could stop us as we were transported to the best area given the day’s conditions.
We stopped at the top of a rise, 2300 meters above sea level. The snowcat drivers pointed out where different film sets used to be. They also shared some juicy stories about actors and directors as we put on our snowshoes and prepared to set out. They wished us well before heading back to the lodge to meet the incoming helicopters.
We were on our own for most of the afternoon. We had about three feet of fresh powder in the trees, which was our playground. The new snow had piled high on the branches, creating the perfect winter wonderland to explore. We were long past cell service at this point. There’s something special about being disconnected in the wilderness surrounded by trees and mountains.
We had lots of photo opportunities as we bounded through the fresh powder. Marc told us about the different trees in the area as well as any tracks we discovered. He showed us the basics of snow layering and avalanche safety, although he assured us we would not be venturing into avalanche terrain during our trip.
We went through the trees and followed no set trail. Marc asked that we stay together, but we could venture on our own lines if we wanted. Most of us were happy to let him break trail and follow where he led. The further back along the line, the easier the trek becomes as the people in front work to pack down the snow. I broke trail in a few places, but I was also happy to let Marc take on the hard work! Everyone had a few moments of falling in the snow, and we all laughed as we struggled to regain our feet in the deep powder.
About halfway through our adventure, we stopped for tea, hot chocolate and cookies. It was a delicious snack that refueled us for the rest of the afternoon. Marc explained that the best way to ward off the cold was to “feed the fire,” or feed ourselves in this case. As we stood around enjoying our snack, we could feel the cold creeping up after our exertion. It was a warm, sunny day and we were all sweating a little bit. We were also wet from falling in the snow on difficult sections.
Because everyone in the group had experienced snowshoeing before, and we were all game for an adventure, Marc was able to take us to some pretty incredible places. The “wall” of Fortress Mountain was certainly impressive, and it showed how this place got its name. A few remnants of movie sets were still in place, although most of them had been completely dismantled after filming. There were some open areas for cat-skiing, which some enthusiasts still do at the resort. At the moment, the lifts are eerily still, a reminder of what was once a favourite ski hill for many locals.
In the afternoon, the helicopters arrived. Although they were bombing far from where were snowshoeing, the explosions echoed throughout the valley. We could see the helicopters and a few of the explosions, although the avalanches were tumbling on the other side of the rise. As we made our way down a ski run to the snowcat at the end of the day, the helicopter circled overhead. At the cat, we were able to watch as they triggered avalanches in the area where we were dropped off earlier that day. We learned a lot about avalanche bombing from Chris “Chevy” Chevalier, the president of the K-POW team, who picked us up in the snowcat.
After the excitement of the helicopter action, we all piled into the snowcat to head back to the van. We were smiling from ear to ear with the excitement of the adventure. On our way down, we were starting to feel the cold creep up once again. We added some extra layers back at the van before settling in for the drive back to town.
We all shared stories of different life adventures on the drive back. Marc kept us entertained with some of his wild backpacking stories and advice on excellent summer backpacking trips. We returned home feeling tired from the exertion, but otherwise elated from having experienced such an amazing adventure.
Bottom Line: if you’re looking to experience the beauty of the backcountry in the Canadian Rockies, try the Snowcat Snowshoe Adventure from White Mountain Adventures. You will experience some of the best backcountry snowshoeing that the area has to offer with zero hassle. They provide the transportation, equipment and expertise. All you have to do is have fun!