Distance: 16 km
Elevation gain: 1030 m Route map
With spectacular weather forecast for Saturday and more snow due to arrive on Sunday, Sandra and I fled to the Ya Ha Tinda Friday evening for our first camping trip of the season. Our target hike was the northeast ridge of Barrier Mountain, a trip that has been on my radar since I first visited the Ya Ha Tinda six years ago. In that time several ascents have been reported on the internet, and while I originally wanted to name this peak "Dogrib Ridge" after the creek to its south, another report
notes it is called "Jap Mountain" in the Bighorn Wildland book published by the Alberta Wilderness Association.
After a nice dinner and several hours of reading and relaxing, we settled into bed for the night. At some point in the middle of the night I awoke to an unusually bright sky; after putting my glasses on and stepping outside, I realized it was the northern lights! I'm not much of a night person and so have only seen them once, but I managed to get my camera out, sort out the settings, and snap off several photos before the show faded and I was too frozen to continue.
We woke up a bit late on Saturday and it was after 8 am by the time we were crossing the Red Deer River at the Bighorn campground. I'd been happy to see on Friday afternoon that the river was incredibly low and thus I wouldn't need to worry about it getting too deep from meltwater later in the day, and while we wore waders to cross this morning, I think we almost could've walked across in our boots – it was very shallow!
Once across the river we picked up a horse trail heading upstream. I knew from the Ya Ha Tinda trail map that if we followed this far enough we'd reach a signed intersection marking the trail to Sheep Cliffs and ultimately onward to the summit of Jap Mountain, and a little less than 1.5 km from the river crossing we reached it. Marked with a moose antler on a tree and a large metal sign it was very obvious, but the entire area is plagued by a ton of horse and game trails that make you think you're going too far upstream and tempt you to leave the trail too early.
Travel on the Sheep Cliffs trail was very easy, although there were several unsigned intersections and a large ice flow that made navigation briefly difficult a few times. Higher up we encountered snow, but ancient snowshoe tracks from much earlier this winter and a reasonable overnight freeze had created a solid track for us and made the ascent relatively effortless.
Once in the meadows above the Sheep Cliffs the snow largely disappeared and we slowed down considerably to take in the wonderful view. The weather was absolutely perfect – sunny and warm, but with a light breeze to keep us from overheating.
At the end of the Sheep Cliffs meadows we picked up a very good and obvious sheep trail that sidehilled up the west side of the ridge leading to the summit. We could've hiked along the ridgecrest, but intermittent patches of snow and ice would've been annoying to deal with and the sheep trail was almost completely dry. Sheep always know the best route anyway.
The view from the summit was very nice, particularly towards the cliffs of Barrier Mountain, and we took a long break to enjoy the weather and scenery. I also spent a bit of time pondering our descent route. While returning the way we came would be safest, the ridge offered some spectacular hiking and I knew there were multiple trails further to the east that would return us to the Red Deer River. In the end I decided the ridgewalk was worth the unknown descent risk and descended east off the summit, wandering to a highpoint about 2 km to the east. Near here we headed down an open ridge I knew someone had ascended last year, and everything went well until we hit the forest.
I should've predicted this, but the forest held a ton of snow – far more than we'd encountered on our ascent route, and we soon found ourselves postholing up to our thighs. A cliff band complicated our descent shortly after entering the forest, and after finding a way down we arrived at a dry meadow that had been visible from atop the ridge. We spent a considerable amount of time wandering back and forth in the meadow trying to locate a trail or reasonable route down before accepting the inescapable conclusion that our only choice was to plow our own way through the deep snow.
For the next 1.5 km we fought through waist-deep isothermal snow, soaking our pants and utterly exhausting ourselves. There was no reprieve. Each step was thigh to waist deep, the bush was not light, and only rarely could we spy something that indicated we were anywhere near a trail. Eventually we reached less deep snow, but wherever there was the slightest opening in the forest canopy, the snow was once again above our knees. For much of the second half of the descent we had to choose between dense bush with little snow or open forest with deep snow.
By the time we made it back to the truck we were both exhausted. Happily, I'd brought some sausages that I cooked up on our stove, and coupled with chips, cold drinks, and carrot cake for dessert, we were soon feeling much better. Rather than head home right away, we crawled into the back of the truck and read for a couple hours, debating whether to spend another night. I was a bit nervous about the incoming snow, so in the end we decided to head home. Other than my poor route choice on the way down, it was a fantastic trip!