Sunday, 29 July 2012

Red Basin and Rock Glaciers

I am an admitted geology geek (30+ years of working with them rubbed off on me), and as a result, hikes that have geological interest are big with me. There's one in Kananasakis that features rock glaciers. A rock glacier is like an pure ice glacier except it's much slower. Eroding rock falls into an accumulation zone, and gravity causes it to flow down hill. The accumulation zone can also filled with ice, and the ice inside the rock glacier assists in making it move. More rock accumulates than flows, so the flows last a long long time. While ice glaciers move meters a year, rock glaciers move centimeters a year.

The only trouble with the rock glaciers in Kananaskis is that getting there isn't half the fun. They're in a place called Red Basin. I've seen the ends of them back when we hiked Red Ridge. But I have always wanted to get a better look. The trouble is, you have to bush bash your way to the top of the shoulder of Mt. Buller to see them. There's really no trail. Today, the weather forecast was for perfect bush bashing weather. The topo map said it would be a 3.5 km hike climbing ~425 m. Gillean Daffern's latest edition of her fantastic Kananaskis Trails Guide said 4.9 km and 686 m height gain. A man with two watches never knows what time it is.

We started off searching for trails. The Pest Management dudes had been through here flagging trees and burning infected ones, but the "trails" they left didn't go anywhere. The game trails we found mostly went across the hill, not up it. We ended up following a weak occasional trail on the cliff edge above the creek for the first 45 minutes and 1.25 km. There were a couple of overlooks of the creek valley...
The deep creek valley. Trail to Red Ridge on the other side
...that enabled views up the Spray Valley.
The Windtower and West Wind Pass
Closeup on the Windtower. Trail to the top visible
But generally, it was just finding your way through very dense bush with ridiculously soft moss underfoot that made walking nice but full of tripping hazards -- covered in flies. The woods were full of flies, mostly ones that didn't bite (except for the odd horsefly). No mosquitos, but at one point I had ~25 flies on me and KC had the same.

We finally ran across a weak trail heading generally upwards away from the creek's cliff edge. When I say "weak", it was tough to find it in the sunlight streaming into our faces, overgrown with bushes, and we lost it a dozen times or more. But the GPS said we were heading up correctly, and we checked it regularly. Then we ran into the densest collection of bear sign I have seen in a while.
Bear scat 
Rub trees 
Bear dig 1 
Bear dig 2
Over the space of a kilometer, we saw probably 15+ bear scats, 3-5 rub trees and half a dozen trees that were scratched and clawed. All of it was fairly fresh, though some of the scat was probably a month or so old. So we started making LOTS of noise, and did so for the reminder of the hike, both up and down.

Suddenly we popped out on an open ridge edge above the basin we were heading for.
This wasn't really expected. While we had climbed up ~410 m by this point, we were too far left on the ridge we were climbing, so we bush bashed for 10 more minutes towards the right. The trail description referred to "massive gashes filled with spruce". I'm not sure we knew they were there, but looking at the sat imagery, it's clear we ran the crest of 2 of them. They didn't look like gashes; they looked like creek drainages down into the basin. But by that time, we had no trails at all and the crests of them were easier to cross than the gullies.

Suddenly we hit the right side of the ridge, telling us we were near the top. And boy did the views open up.
The last pull up on the ridge's west side
Then we popped out onto the grassy ridgetop.
South down the Spray Lakes. Cone Mountain in the middle 
The ridge flanking Mt. Buller. We climbed it after lunch
The giant boulders in the basin below Mt. Buller 
Mt. Nestor & Old Goat Mountains across the lake
And the piece de resistance? The two rock glaciers.
Two lobes. Really big.
The views from this point (after 4.7 km, 530 m climb and 2:15 of hiking), were stellar. We sat and ate lunch, then decided to climb a bit higher up Mt. Buller's flank to get even better views.
Up Spray Lakes. The tall one is the Big Sister. Rundle on the left. West Wind Pass in the middle  
The boulder field 
KC on top 
Mt. Sparrowhawk (Read's Tower and Red Ridge in the foreground)
We only climbed up for about 15 minutes, and it was clear we could have gone higher and closer to Mt. Buller without much difficulty. But we wanted to see the boulders in the basin, so we headed down, dropping in from the col as instructed by Gillean, though finding no trail at all. We just generally kept right going down, and turned left when we saw rock though the forest. And when we stepped out, our jaws dropped again.

They're huge. Some are the size of houses.
Acres of rock 
Sauntering through 
The boulders with the glaciers in the background 
Home to pikas - sounds but no animals
Wandering around was a kick. It would have been a fantastic place to play hide and seek. But we were both struck by the lack of animals. The odd pika shrieked at us. But there was no deer, elk or sheep poop. No marmots. No ground squirrels.

We climbed back out of the boulder basin to our lunch spot and then headed back down, trying to retrace our route. We thought coming down would be easier, but the game trails were so weak that we could be 20' off the route we took up and not see them. So we stopped a lot to check the GPS, getting back on track to the way we came up (which may or may not have been on a trail). We missed the bear digs, but saw lots of scat on the way down when we weren't near the route we took up. We ended up in dense bush too far left/west on a fairly frequent basis (I have the scratches to prove it) I think because that was the slope's fall line and whatever trail we had found on the way up was more angled. Remarkably, I got us back to the overlook over the creek valley that we were at earlier in the day. But I'm still not sure how we got up to that point, so we just faked it going down, bashing willows, chest high shepherdia and soft moss all the way.

I'm OK with bush bashing; it can be fun. But a trail to the top would have made this all much better.

All in all, we walked 9.5 km today, climbed ~650 m (including returning from the descent to the boulder basin) and spent 6 hrs on the trail. An earlier start might have enabled us to explore the basin farther, including getting to the rock glacier's toe.

Considering doing this?

  • Take a GPS. I used both a map and compass and a GPS today. The GPS saved my bacon on several occasions.
  • Take bear spray. Yell a lot. Pretty sure it's their living room.
  • Know that you will spend 80% of your time off any trail, faking it though the woods. Don't be hesitant to just go for it, or you will waste lots of time wandering to and fro looking for trails that don't exist.
  • Word has it that hunters like the place during hunting season. Orange is a lovely colour. I'm sure it will look good on you.
It's an awesome spot, and one I'm sure you will have to yourself.
The ridge from the parking lot. We got to the flat bit in the centre.
Our route in Google Earth. Glaciers visible. Red Ridge on the left.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Old Baldy: Thwarted (but Pikas!)

The weather forecast for Friday (yesterday) was calling for sunny skies with some risk of afternoon thunderstorms, and so we opted to try and climb a mountain: The Old Baldy summit down south of Kananaskis Village.

Weather forecasts are often wrong. A thunderstorm moved through at 9 AM while we were still eating breakfast, dumping rain for half an hour. While the hike is a bit of a drive from our house, as the crow flies it's only ~34 km, and sure enough, the trail was part river when we got there. However, part river is good for making mud which is good for making animal tracks.
A wolf track. Going our way.
The trail starts by following a fire road for ~2 km, then turns up to follow a creek which was in full flow.
The creek comes down and flows along the road a bit
The creek valley was neat in the morning sunshine, as it was misty, humid and steamy, despite temps of only ~20°. I tried to capture the mists but couldn't get a good photo. We did see a set of rub trees, however:
Two rubs
The trail writeup said that the trail had to cross some very steep creek banks in a few spots. I suspect the description was written before the recent rains, for at one point, there is no trail. All there is, is a wall crawl above 5' deep fast flowing icy cold water.
The trail stops at the wall 
KC crawls the wall
There are other spots where the trail is 30 m above the creek on the side of the bank. The trail, while narrow, is OK, though turning right is not recommended.
Life on the edge
I suspect the trail would be less of a challenge if every rock and root wasn't so slippery due to rain we had today.

Eventually, the trail arrives at a "fork" in the creek. It's hard to call it a fork, because only one of the two merging valleys has a creek in it. Anyway, a cairn says "stay left" in the valley with no creek, and the dry (occasionally creek filled) valley eventually opens up.
Still challenging walking
Finally, after 2 hours 45 minutes of hiking and 710 m of climbing, we arrived at the basin below the summit. We expected to see a tarn. No tarn.
Who took the tarn? Mosquito breeding ponds abound
Still, the basin was pretty, and we were starved. So we grabbed a rock, ate some lunch, and watched the pikas and marmots (and the odd columbian ground squirrel) while wrapped up to avoid being bitten by the numerous mosquitos and deer flies.
My favourite animals 
Hiding in the rocks
From our lunch stop, we contemplated the route to the top, only ~150 vertical meters above.
Head to the trees on the right, then climb the grass slopes up
However... see that white sky? It was the edge of an oncoming thunderstorm.
Ominous black clouds appear
Before we finished lunch, it had started to rain. We debated the merits of doing a steep, slippery grassy slope in the rain. Then we saw lightning and heard thunder. Don't want to be standing on the top of a mountain with metal hiking poles in a lightning storm. So rather than climb the hill, we decided to wander around in the basin in the rain. And we found the tarn, which was tucked around the corner from our lunch spot.
The tarn and the back of the basin 
Note the cairns marking the route up

Cool rock formations, caused by a little thrust fault in the area
We spent an hour wandering around in the rain and thunder, and found a vertebrae of something, probably a sheep.
You gotta have backbone to live up here
We looked back on the hill that we planned to, but didn't climb.
The last 150 m. Easy peasy.
Alas, we decided to head down, giving up just shy of achieving our goal. The rain was lightening up when we saw more pikas and a family of marmots. I often see solo marmots, but have never seen them being this social.
Two playing 
A third arrives 
Mutual goofing about 
Two head off
The two that headed off climbed straight up the talus slope about 100 m in about 2 minutes. Wish I could do that.

On the way down the skies cleared...
An unnamed peak south of Mt. McDougall (see below)
...but only for a while, as another thunderstorm moved in.
Ominous dark clouds arriving over The Fortress
Sure enough, it started raining just as we got to the wall crawl (which for the record was much easier coming down than going up).

That unnamed peak in the above photo, by the way, is referred to as "Volcano Peak" and is an "easy" scrambling destination according to Andrew Nugara in his book "More Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies". He uses it as an approach route to Mt. McDougall, but considers it a good destination all on its own. Bob Spirko calls it "Little McDougall" and his write up of getting up there can be seen here and here.

Socked in and raining lightly in the creek valley, it was nonetheless a pleasant walk, as the creek opens up in spots, and there's interesting stuff.
Woodpecker holes 
Lush and green 
More lush and green
Once again, rain = mud, and mud = tracks. We looked for tracks on the way in this morning, and saw only one occasional set of human footprints, plus some horse tracks and the single wolf paw print I posted above. Coming back we found two mountain bike tracks, some deer and a wolf (or two). The wolf was heading north on the short stretch of trail leading from The Wedge Connector trail along the Evan Thomas fire road. He was easy to follow; he left lots of tracks.
Big feet 
One? Or two?
As if we hadn't had enough rain for today, a final thunderstorm appeared just as we made it back to the car.
Socking in to the west
I was really disappointed we went all that way (15 km round trip, 700 m climbing plus 6.5 hrs on the trail) but just missed the summit. As we fell just ~150 vertical meters short, it's tough to assess this hike. I don't think it's worth it if you don't make the summit. The tarn is nice, but so are Rummel, Chester, Tryst and Rawson Lakes, and their trails are a lot nicer. The basin around the tarn is OK, but Sparrowhawk is much better, and it's easier to get to and offers more wandring potential. The creek is pretty, but so is the creek below Old Goat Glacier and it has a nice waterfall at the end. So unless you're heading to a summit back there, I wouldn't be in a rush to get back up there.
The car & the mountain we didn't make it to the top of
BTW, we made it to treeline in the above photo. Frustrating, that.