Saturday, 5 September 2015

Aug 10: Going to the arctic

For our second day in southern K-Country, the target was Plateau Mountain. This is a very special and somewhat weird place.

For starters, it's Kananaskis Country's only Ecological reserve. It's designated that way to protect the weird stuff on its summit. The summit isn't a peak, but 14 square kilometres of basically flat plateau. The top is a nunantuk, meaning it was above the ice sheets during the last period of glaciation. It has ice caves. It's a treeless, windswept place with permafrost, and exceptionally reminiscent of Canada's high arctic.

Access is up a partially closed road leading to old and new gas wells. The first gas field up there, which was discovered by Husky in the 1950's, had 4 wells, all of which are long abandoned and almost impossible to detect they were ever there. In the 1990's along came Direct Energy who acquired the gas rights in the area and drilled 2 new wells. Both of these are still there but currently capped. For those who care, the gas produced was processed way down in the Crowsnest Pass at Coleman at a plant specifically built for the field, but since Devon closed the plant in 2010, the wells no longer can produce.

So "active" roads still exist to get to the top, and other older roads exist up on top leading to the farthest northern reaches of the plateau, which is about 8 km long and up to 2 km wide. Reaching the top is about 9 km up the road from Hwy 940, but you can drive the first 4 km. This access road has been closed for the last 2 years due to flood damage; we weren't even sure it was open before we headed down, but confirmed that it was on arrival.

Best part: biking the roads is OK. However, don't believe the bike up is easy. Maybe if you're a better biker than us, or have better bikes. We ended pushing our bikes up about 90% of the way, taking about an hour and a quarter to climb the 250 m to the top. The road heads up via two big switchbacks...
Looking southwest from the first switchback at the road section you can drive 
The steeds. Looking west. 
Looking southeast to the southern section of the mountain 
From the first switchback, looking up. Road continues up the plateau at right centre
Looking north at the first switchback 
Mt. Burke from the 2nd switchback 
...then winds up the mountain.
The road continues up from the 2nd switchback 
Northwest view from the 2nd switchback 
The northern reaches of the plateau 
Peaks of the Divide peek over the ridge to the west
The roads lead directly to the wells (surprise).
The first well
We ran into an exceptionally friendly herd of bighorn sheep up here. They liked our bikes.
One coming to visit 
Others block the road 
I suspect they like the dust 
Far too friendly
Lots of cool stuff up here; it starts with pattered ground. Water percolates up from the ground, and the freeze/thaw cycles force large stones to the surface. Lateral forces then turn the rocks into geometric shapes.
Flat fields of rocks in circles and hexagons 
Like a field full of stop signs
There used to be paths up here that led to things like communications towers and other routes up and down the mountain. Since no one has been up here for 2 years, everything is so overgrown you can't find much evidence of the these things. We even had trouble finding the start to the road leading north up the plateau, given that there isn't a reason to drive on it anymore (though unlike the abandoned well pads, the road hasn't been reclaimed).
The road start. It's more obvious farther north
The plateau has a narrow waist, a perfect lunch spot.
Hailstone Butte to the east. There's a well down in the valley
A hawk was ridge soaring the canyon while we had lunch. Very fun but hard to photograph.

We continued the easy ride north, not realizing why the ride was so easy (see below). Twenty minutes of riding took us to the most northerly (now missing) well site and more stellar views.
Mt Burke is due north 
Northwest to the Divide and Rasberry Ridge 
Southeast to Sentinel Peak, which peeks over the plateau
The main reason to come this far north was to go see the ice cave.
The monument 
Panel 1 
Panel 2
We had no intention of going inside. Our sole goal was to get a photo of the gated entrance. The route in Gillean's Volume 5 of the 4th Edition of the Kananaskis Country Trails Guide was to head northeast to the knoll in the photo below, then work you way down ~85m the face on the right. The cave entrance is on an exposed rock wall.
The cave entrance is somewhere down the face on the right 
Looking back from the lowest point; bikes on the grassy flat upper right
We dropped the 50 m from where the bikes are parked to the low point, as instructed, then headed down. We found none of the things we were looking for to help establish where to go, in great part I believe because we were the first people to have been to this spot in 2 years. Two years of rain and snow washed away all signs of access. For instance, we were looking for a white rock with a spruce tree as the mark to start down. Is this it?
All the rocks up here are white, and the spruce trees are all over
Could be. Maybe not. We dropped down the face anyway, not terribly easy going on a steep mostly unstable scree slope.
About 40 m downslope
60 m down (on the way up)
It was a convex slope that got steeper the farther we went down. We were looking for a large cliff/rockband with a second rockband not far below it. We found one but none below it. We descended 90 m, poked around a bit, and gave up. If anyone gets to the entrance, some cairns to mark the route would be nice. Alternately, a photo taken from the plateau opposite side of the gully with a good telephoto lens would help with route planning.

Back up on the plateau and disappointed we didn't find the entrance, we walked northeast to the top of the outlier.
Mt. Burke looms to the north
Sentinel Peak to the southeast
It was now 2:45 pm so we figured we needed to start heading back. At that point, we were still 10 km from the car. We walked back uphill to our bikes, and discovered why we were so fast getting to the north wellsite: from the bikes, it was 6 km and 200 m uphill to the peak of the plateau. Yes, by riding to the north and hiking down to the area of the cave, we had effectively dropped to the same elevation as the car, meaning we had to climb the mountain a second time, as my GPS shows me now in a fit of 20:20 hindsight:
So we took another hour and a quarter to push the bikes another 5 km up another 200 m hill, exactly as we had to to start our day -- only this time, we were heading into a 40 km/hr wind (Karen's bike almost got blown over on several occasions while she was pushing it). Since the slopes on the graph of the two climbs are different, it is safe to assume our afternoon climb was slower.

The bright side? From the top, we made it to the car in 17 minutes, including walking past two rough sections. Of the 26 km we travelled, we figure we rode a little less than half of it, and walked the rest.

Once back at the car, we headed back to the campground. Once there, we drove around to check the place out. We were now one of 5 occupied sites in the 105 site campground. The place had been taken over by the deer.
We were hot and sweaty and in need of a shower. I brought along a $7 solar shower (basically a black plastic bag with a nozzle you leave out in the sun to get hot), and so I built a little shower stall out of tarps so we could hang the thing from a tree to shower.
Rigging the tarp
Ready to go 
The inside
I swear they were so few people around that we could have showered naked without the tarp and no one would have noticed. No matter. The shower felt excellent.

Tomorrow: Can we get up Mt. Burke? Stay tuned.

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