Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Suddenly Popular

Last week, when I was posting, I noticed that the counter on my little blog had about 4,600 hits (probably 3,000 of which are mine...).

Today I noticed that I broke 12,000. Yes, twelve thousand.

Why I have suddenly become popular is beyond me. Perhaps someone is trying to hack my blog (if the writing suddenly improves, you'll know why). Perhaps there has been a rush of people with Garmin eTrex Vista Cx problems, too.

Or perhaps it's the Pika pictures. If so, I hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoy seeing the little guys. Please feel free to leave a comment if there's a post or photo you like.

And thanks for the visits. I'm flattered.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Read's Ridge Circuit & Pikas Yet Again

Saturday dawned cool but it looked like it would be one of the best hiking days of the year. We had planned to head up to the Sparrowhawk Tarns, but it seemed more logical to head uphill as much as possible to gain the best views on a day where the visibility looked like it would be over 100 km without any smoke or haze. So instead of the Tarns, we did the circuit route around Read's Ridge and Mt. Sparrowhawk.

Note: this is a steep uphill trudge. The whole loop is only 7.8 km, but we climbed an astonishing 900 m, our biggest vertical hike for the year on one of the shortest trails. The advantage of steep, though, is that it gets you to great views very quickly.

Don't forget to note KC staggering up the slope in the picture above. The route up to that point through the trees is very steep and straight up (have the trail makers never heard of switchbacks?), and the footing is poor. And that point is just the start of the up. Here's the trail on the ridge looking up the slope. Mt. Sparrowhawk is on the left, and Read's Tower is the slope in the middle.

Click on the photo above and look carefully at Read's Tower. There are 4 hikers working their way up that slope.

We did not do that. To have done that would have added another 275 m to the day, and we were not up for it.

Of course, the higher you get, the better the views. Here's looking up the Spray Valley towards Banff & Canmore.

You finally arrive up 600 m at the base of Read's Tower on a pretty grassy hilltop, which happens to be a great place for lunch for both people & critters. This fellow had a lot of something in his mouth. His cheeks are fatter than his butt.

So you have options at this point. You can climb 275 m up Read's Tower, pull a U-turn, and head back down the way you came up. The quality of the trail told me not to do that. Or you can circle Read's Tower, down 50 m through this gully and up 200 m over the col in the centre of the photo below.

The gully was a blast. Talus/scree Rocks + grass = Pikas.

That's 4 straight hikes with Pikas. These guys (we saw 3 or 4) were skittish, and covered a huge amount of territory, running at least 150 m up the slope from where we first found them.

Climbing the gully is a challenge, though not a technical one. It's hugely steep, especially at the top, and there really isn't a consequential path for lots of it. Here's KC working her way up in the shadow of Read's Tower.

But on top of the col, you get staggering views up the Spray Valley...

...and over the other side into the basin under Mt. Sparrowhawk. Interestingly, you can also hike to the top of Mt. Sparrowhawk from this point. That adds another 550 m to the day. Yowzer.

Note that the Sparrowhawk Tarns basin (our original destination for the day) is actually directly over my head in the above photo.

This whole basin is just grass and scree, and though we saw lots of holes indicating marmots or ground squirrels, and found some sheep scat, saw no life in the basin. Views up here are tremendous. Here's the view looking down the Spray Lakes, with Mt. Assiniboine peeking over the shoulder of Mt. Nestor.

There's no trail to get down. You just get on the right side of the creekbed in the centre of the photo above, follow it diagonally down the the flat spot on the lower left, then head out the meadow. At no time are you in forest. The going has some very steep sections, and some slippery bits. Staying on the grass and dryas beds offers the best footing.

Finally you reach the edge of the hanging valley, 200 m above the Sparrowhawk Tarns trail, and head straight down the slope starting on the right side of the upper rocky area in the photo below.

The trail back to the car follows Sparrowhawk Creek in a cool and moist valley with waterfalls and moss.

So this was an interesting hike, though a tough one. It came from the "Where The Locals Hike" book by the Copelands. Normally, I don't like their books, but the whole trail from the top of the col to the Sparrowhawk Tarns trail junction earned just 2 lines in Gillean Daffern's book. That notwithstanding, the Copelands version of times for the hike were (as usual) ludicrous. They claim you can make the top of Read's Tower in 90 min from the car. We took two hours to get to the hill below the tower. They claim you can make it from the high point col down to the Sparrowhawk Tarns trail in 30 minutes. Maybe if you slide or fall the whole way; we took 90 minutes.

If you're interested in doing it, know that you do need a guidebook, too. The Copelands are right in that there are better and worse (read: more dangerous) ways down the basin, and without a path to follow, screwups are more likely.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Bow Summit Lookout & Even More Pikas!

It's a long haul -- 90 min from the West Wing -- but we like to get up the Icefields Parkway to see terrain & scenery we don't normally get to see. Bow Summit Lookout is an easy, short trail that leads to great views up and down the valley and takes you to the actual headwaters of the Bow River. The downside is that the Peyto Lake viewpoint where the trail starts is wildly popular with the tourists, so is typically a zoo. The trail itself is nothing special; a fire road without the trees. But the views! Ah, the views! Up the valley past Peyto Lake to the Waterfowl Lakes...

...and down the valley over Bow Lake and to the Crowfoot Glacier.

It wasn't a great day for weather; 8° and a little windy. We got caught in a rain shower, which hid Peyto Glacier for a bit...

...but enhanced the waterfalls.

The glacier itself was never anything better than murky to view.

But while the other tourists were ogling the glacier and the lake, I was watching the marmots, big and fat, full of attitude, surveying and waddling around their territory.

And I was watching my favourites, the Pikas. These ones today -- and there were dozens -- were not as friendly as yesterday's. Hanging out near their middens caused them to stay away, so Pika watching was more challenging, and only one wanted to pose for me.

However, I did get into a staring contest with another. He seemed happy to let me get within 10', but one step closer and he bolted. And boy, do they run fast when they want to.

Now it's possible it wasn't me. Right at the last moment, his attention was diverted.

Damn, they're cute.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Headwall Lakes & More Pikas!

The centre section of the Spray Lakes Trail is a treasure trove of great hikes. On the west side of the valley, north to south, are Tent Ridge, Commonwealth Valley with it's access to lakes and the French Glacier, and the Burstall Valley. The east side, north to south, features the two Buller Passes, then Rummell, Chester, Headwall & James Walker Creek. Chester & Burstall are the best known and most popular, but the rest are really good, too.

Headwall was busy today because Chester is closed due to grizzly bear activity. Here's an example of bear activity in Headwall Lakes: one front paw print from a large black bear, laid down in the last 48 hours.

Fortunately, that and some old scat was the only evidence of bear we saw.

The Headwall Lakes trail doesn't have the most entertaining start; 5 km of pretty (and easily bikeable) logging road, infested with chipmunks & ground squirrels.

Suddenly, the trail just cuts up into the forest at an unmarked intersection. Soon, cool views of Mt. Chester appear.

The trail follows Headwall Creek into some willow infested meadows.

Then you cross some scree, climb a cliff...

...and actually, I was worried about going back down some of this, but it was easy.

The valley unfolds in a series of steps, some of which are cool limestone full of holes with water running underfoot.

You end up at two lakes, a lower lake in a spectacular setting...

...and an upper lake in a sea of rocks.

That's Fortress Mountain in the background, and from here, it looked like an OK scramble on lots of scree.

Seas of rocks attract my favourite critters, Pikas. We saw dozens. Some posed. All were harvesting grass.

We also came upon a herd of Bighorn rams. At first we thought there was only two, and old one and a younger one.

Turns out there were 7. The oldest guy led them in single file across the mountain face.

And to round out the animal show, an Osprey flew over, too.

So Headwall Lakes is right up there with Rummell Lake in quality & interest. Both beat Chester by a mile.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

My GPS Sucks

A few years ago, as a safety precaution for my time on the trails, I bought a Garmin Vista Cx handheld GPS unit. I've lived with it for about 3 years now. Way back when in 2007 in this post I complained about the stupid user interface and functionality problems. Over time I have grown even more weary of the device. Last weekend on Tent Ridge, just when I needed it most to follow a track to get off the mountain, it got confused and "lost me". It does that a lot.

Here, for instance, is the track from this hike up to Rummell Lake.

According to this track log, the hike is over 90 km long, and I managed to climb Mt. Galatea, and bore a tunnel through The Tower to get to the other side of the peak. Here's a track from this hike up to Paget Lookout and Sherbrooke Lake.

This hike was just over 80 km long. I apparantly repeatedly crossed the TransCanada, and crossed the lake (people have always told me I walk on water, now I can prove it). My favourite part is that you can't actually tell where Paget Lookout is, and yet that's the most exposed part of the hike, where I sat & had lunch for an hour, and where the trail ended.

The tracks the Vista generates are useless. They can't be followed. They barely even suggest where the trail might be. Making critical, life saving decisions based on them -- or the positioning the unit says while standing in the bush -- is potentially deadly.

Because I realize that I hike in the mountains, and a GPS is only as good as the unit's ability to see sattelites, I understand that it might occasionally have it's locating challenges. But when I'm standing on the top of a mountain, you would think that the Vista would actually be able to see the best. You would be wrong. Look at the above messes as proof.

The crappy reception does not result from how I carry it. I carry it clipped to the top of the shoulder strap on my daypack. The only thing blocking it from the skyward view is my big fat head. I am aware and accept that if I put my pack down the wrong way, it gets lost. But by contrast, I am always puzzled that if I forget to turn it off, and I lock it in the trunk of my station wagon, it makes a perfect track home every time.

I bought a bike mount for it. The $25 bike mount Garmin sells for it (with Vista Cx clearly marked on the box) doesn't fit the unit. Do you need one? I wrecked the packaging and tossed my receipt so can't take it back. I'm not sure exactly what it fits.

I'm a Mac guy. Garmin and Mac barely speak. To get a topo map into the Vista, you have two options.

The first is to buy a Garmin topo map SD memory card and put it in the unit itself. Great, but you can do no route planning on the computer.

The second option is about as convoluted as you can get. First, you need to buy the MapSource maps on CD and a PC (yes, a different computer). Then you access the maps in MapSource on the PC, and create an export file. Then you use Garmin's Bobcat software to import the maps into the Mac (where you still can't see them) and export them to the Vista. This is assinine. If you have access to a PC to use MapSource, why not just connect the Vista to the PC and be done with it?

Recently, Garmin tried to make it better. Last month they released BaseCamp, which is software that allows you to use certain maps on the Mac. The maps you can use for Canada? Topo Canada V4. All $155 of it. Covers the whole country. Great for those weekend getaways to Iqaluit (actually, I think my Vista has mapped me there already) or Trois-Rivieres. At least BaseCamp is free.

So to make the Vista useful with my Mac, I run a little free program called LoadMyTracks. All this allows me to do is upload and download .GPX and .KML files. Fortunatly, my friends at MMHikes have their files in .GPX format. Occasionally, I find other tracks in .GDB or other formats so use a little free program called GPS Babel to convert to .GPX format.

In short, I think the Garmin Vista Cx verges on useless. If you're a PC person who lives on the bald flat prairies, maybe. But for me, it's deadweight, and misleading deadweight at that.