Distance: 11 km
Elevation gain: 725 m View map Download GPS track
It’s been a long time since Sandra and I did a big trip to a (relatively) big summit and we were quite eager for some hardcore exercise and views today. We had options from the Ya Ha Tinda to Waterton, but since the weather was forecast to be better to the south we decided to head to the Crowsnest Pass area. Our plan was to ascend both McGillivray Ridge and Ma Butte, two peaks we’d seen a few weeks ago from tiny Saskatoon Mountain
Highway 40 was plowed to an oil well road, about 600 m south of where people usually begin the ascent of McGillivary Ridge. The unplowed road was well packed by snowmobiles and shortly after leaving the truck we turned from the road and started heading up through a cutblock. While we had an old snowmobile track to follow, the snowpack was very stable with 20 cm of fresh powder on a solid base and we didn’t really notice a difference between travel on the old track versus breaking our own trail. We were, however, heading in the wrong direction at this point, but a circuitous GPS-assisted detour got us back to the usual route up the ridge.
The standard route follows a powerline to the lower ridge where it intersects an old road that leads above treeline. While I’d seen photos of this route I was very surprised to find that it was 30-45 degrees steep. With no feasible alternative due to the thick forest on either side, any hint of avalanche risk would’ve caused us to abort the trip right there without a second thought, but thankfully the steep slope had (somehow) been extensively tracked by snowmobiles, there wasn’t a hint of instability on the gentler approach slope, and the avalanche risk was low below treeline today. That didn’t make it easy going up, however, and while the heel-lifts on my snowshoes helped, Sandra doesn’t have those and could barely get enough traction to ascend, despite the excellent snow conditions.
With considerable effort we made it to the top of the steep slope and shortly thereafter intersected the old road. Travel was now relatively easy again, but we were very dismayed to see huge plumes of snow billowing off the ridge; part of the allure of this hike had been the long ridgewalk it entailed, but with the wind that would now be exceedingly unpleasant. We pushed on anyway, pausing for a brief snack just below treeline, before putting on our extra layers and continuing up, hoping to at least make it to the ridgecrest. Travel continued to be relatively easy and we soon reached the point where we had to leave the road and ascend to the main ridge.
Miraculously, just before we popped onto the ridge, the wind died down and the low cloud dissipated a bit. We’d long ago given up the possibility of reaching the summit of Ma Butte and hadn’t been too positive about summiting McGillivray Ridge, but it now seemed likely we could make it to the latter. We were less than 2 km of nearly level travel from the summit and the windblown ridge looked easy, so we left our snowshoes where we’d gained the south end of the ridge and continued with microspikes, assuming we’d be back in an hour.
Travel along the ridge, however, was far more difficult than it had appeared. What had appeared to predominantly be a grassy ridge with a few sections of ugly rubble turned out to be mostly ugly and unstable rubble with loads of krumholtz and drifts. The fresh and windblown snow hid every hole, slab, and icy patch and the best we could do was stumble carefully along and try not to fall or break an ankle. Worse, the wind was rapidly increasing and we were being pelted by ice and snow crystals. By the time we reached the summit, nearly an hour after leaving the relative safety of the lee side of the ridge, the temperature had fallen to -18 C and the wind was blowing a steady 50 km/h with higher gusts. I was starting to freeze in clothing I’d never frozen in before and Sandra was no better off. After some quick pictures of the cloud-enshrouded mountains we started our retreat.
The wind was cold and strong enough that we frequently had to take a break and turn our backs to it, as much to warm up as to get a mental break from picking our way through the rubble. At one point I turned around to see Sandra and was scared to see that part of her nose had actually turned white; in other words, it was starting to get frostbitten. She hadn’t seemed to notice, but at that point we stopped, bundled her face up much better, then continued onwards, blinded by both the snow and condensation on our glasses. By the time we finally reached our snowshoes more than two hours had passed since we left them, we were both starving, and our water bottles had frozen shut. We had more water and hot chocolate in my backpack, but any area out of the wind was just one big cloud of spindrift and so stopping meant instant freezing. We had no choice but to bail down to treeline on whatever reserves we had left.
Thankfully heading down on the excellent snow was quick and easy, albeit far colder and windier than on the ascent, and in the relative shelter of the trees we were finally able to have another quick snack. We then continued our rapid descent and soon arrived back at the security of the truck. We’d wanted something adventurous today and certainly got it, but it wasn’t quite the type of adventure we’d been expecting! This type of adventure did, however, earn us a trip to South Street Burger and chocolate cake as a sort of “we survived!” reward.