Every time I plan a hike, I try to check all the variables. We’re very fortunate in the Canadian Rockies to have a lot of resources: various weather reporting services, trail reports, road reports, not to mention a lot of blog and web resources about the trails. In spite of this advance research, sometimes the hiking gods just don’t feel like cooperating, and something goes wrong. All you can do is be prepared and do the best you can with what you’re handed.
In 2012, I planned a loop around Upper Kananaskis Lake, a 16km full day hike. The weather forecast called for sun and blue skies all day. I was fairly new to organizing hikes at the time, and the three of us on this hike all decided to leave our rain jackets behind in the vehicle. We had almost completed the loop and had about an hour of travel to get back to the trailhead, when the skies to the west turned black with fast moving storm clouds. The wind turned cold, and then it started raining and hailing. Our last leg to the parking lot required crossing the top of the dam, and we were halfway across, soaking wet and freezing cold, when lightning struck the end of the dam ahead of us. We were fully exposed, with nowhere to go. All I could think was “please don’t hit us, please don’t hit us.” We got safely to our vehicle, thank goodness. But I’ve never hiked again without a rain jacket in my pack, and a last minute check of the weather.
I had a couple of trips go sideways in 2016. The first was in winter, heading out to do the Water Tower trail and Johnson Lake. We encountered some black ice on the highway approaching Banff, which is never a fun experience, and on the trail the winds coming off Mount Rundle were high, and blowing enough snow around to create almost blizzard conditions whenever we moved out of the trees. Approaching the Water Tower, one of my hikers was a little ahead, and barely visible in the blowing snow. We persisted, and by afternoon, the wind had dropped, the skies cleared, and we had a nice, sunny drive home on dry roads. Go figure.
The second trip happened in October. Plan A was to hike from Lake O’Hara parking area to the Great Divide site, located along a now-closed road, and then up to Ross Lake. We were trotting along the road chatting when one of my hikers said, “Bear!…OK, keep talking out loud, slowly back away…” I looked up and a good-sized grizzly was ambling across the road, a good half kilometer away from us. There was no question we were leaving the area, but I took the time to snap off a quick shot at full zoom on my little camera, which turned out a little blurry. OK, bear, Plan B it is. (On reporting this bear to the Parks Canada line, they told me they were pretty sure this was Bear 122, known locally as The Boss, one of the biggest and most dominant male grizzlies in the area. Luckily, he’s not known for negative interactions with people, but still…)
2017 was a summer of wildfires in Western Canada, and a lot of our hiking was curtailed by smoke that year. For my friend Muriel’s birthday, however, we decided to try our luck in Kananaskis. We drove the length of Highway 40 and then turned up the Smith-Dorrien road, and everywhere we went was dense smoke, nowhere clear enough to attempt even a short hike. We ended up back in Calgary and did a short hike in Nose Hill park instead.
During an extended cold snap in 2018, I decided to try doing a series of shorter hikes in Banff, a set I usually call Waterfalls and Canyons (Johnston Canyon to the Upper Falls, Silverton Falls, and Marble Canyon). The forecast said temperatures would get to -9C as a daytime high. What it didn’t tell us was that the temperatures were starting at -30C. On the drive there, a chip decided to crack all the way across my windshield, we had fogging problems in my van, and all sorts of fun trying to clear that well enough to drive safely. We hiked anyway, and the saving grace that day was that there was no wind. We all took pictures of one another rimed in frost around our hoods and hats, and I took a very rare selfie. Lunch happened in the vehicles, as we drove from one parking area to the next – a good thing, as my sandwich was frozen solid and I had to thaw it in front of my heating vent before I could eat it.
I have a number of other cautionary tales of things that went wrong on hikes, but I’ll save those for another blog post. In the meantime, I hope all of you have safe backcountry travels. Remember, be prepared, and always have a Plan B.
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