Distance: 17 km
Elevation gain: 1080 m Route map
As I scanned the conflicting weather models for this weekend I uncharacteristically had zero ideas for anything even remotely interesting where the weather would be tolerable. Then Alison pulled Natal Fire Lookout out of thin air (or apparently from #58 in “Fire Lookout Hikes in the Canadian Rockies”). I’d never even heard of it and as I started to research it, Alison swiftly started sending maps, ascent routes, and tons of other details. She’s a veritable trip planning mastermind! I’d barely found it on the map by the time she had the whole thing planned! The weather still looked marginal and I wasn’t very enthusiastic about plodding 10 km and ascending over 1000 m through deep snow in the forest, but admitted it was the best idea we had. Thus Sandra, Alison, and I set out early Saturday morning for Natal Fire Lookout, located on the southern end of Sparwood Ridge.
In her research Alison had uncovered a snowmobile trail map
that showed the “Old Lookout Road” heading up from Corbin Road and we’d decided on this as our ascent route. As it was labelled as a major route on a snowmobile map we assumed it would be well-tracked by snowmobilers, thus making the ascent much easier. It also avoided nearly all avalanche terrain with the exception of the last bit to the summit when it contoured around an avalanche slope, but we would just hike along the ridgecrest at that point.
When we arrived at the presumed trailhead we were dismayed to find that the bridge we’d seen on satellite imagery over Michel Creek was an old railway bridge inaccessible to snowmobiles and that the old road thus had no snowmobile tracks for us to follow. What I’d expected would be an easy, albeit boring, plod, was now assuredly a strenuous plod with a much lower chance of success! The forecast mix of sun and cloud was also pure cloud with flurries, suggesting the reward for our effort would be zero views. I was not particularly enthusiastic at this point!
While the first few kilometers of travel were easy on shallow snow and followed the route we’d plotted out, we soon ran into deeper snow that required snowshoes and significant routefinding difficulties. Thankfully the snow was supportive and so the trailbreaking wasn’t too strenuous, but the old road on the map was alternately non-existent, overgrown, or had been obliterated by logging, and a dozen other old roads did their best to lead us astray. Instead we utilized a combination of bushwhacking, new circuitous logging roads, and easy travel through open forest, relying heavily on GPS to stay on track. I’m not sure any of us thought we’d actually get to the summit during this time, but at least we were outside getting exercise.
After four hours of tough trailbreaking our spirits got an enormous boost when we finally reached the summit ridge and the sky began to miraculously clear. The scenery, especially the sunlit snow-covered trees, was far better than we’d expected and the summit lacked a cornice we’d been worried could stop us. What had looked to be a boring ascent in the planning phase and an awful idea for the first few hours was rapidly turning into a scenic and genius idea!
Snowshoeing along the ridge remained easy, but we had to be aware of steep sections where a slip would be highly problematic and the potential to set off small avalanches. In the end only one area proved difficult – a huge and deep snow scoop that spanned the width of the ridge and required us to climb a 2-3 m near vertical wall of snow. I managed to carve steps into it with my snowshoes that worked for Sandra, and Alison used her ice axe for additional assurance.
The view from the summit greatly exceeded our expectations given the weather we’d had for nearly the entire day, but was limited to the west by a summit forest and all around by low cloud. Still, the snow scenery and momentary blue sky and sunshine provided a number of fantastic views made all the more awesome by the hard work we’d put in to get them.
We hung around on the summit for as long as the moderate wind would allow, then carefully retraced our path back along the ridge. Continued impressive views slowed me down a bit along here, but as we re-entered the viewless forest our pace quickened considerably; in the end the entire descent, including two food breaks, took just 2.5 hours, half the time of our ascent. Given the workout we’d all just had and the late hour, we capped the day off with pizza at Black Rock Pizza in Blairmore. While I hadn’t had very high hopes for this trip, it turned out to be a fantastic choice for the day!