On our second day of X-country skiing at Banff National Park , Bob and I had decided on the Pipestone Trail system and were planning on tackling a trail of moderate difficulty for our second ski of the season. The extreme conditions forced us to opt for one of the easy trails instead.
We were staying at Lake Louise Inn in Lake Louise Village a short 10-minute drive from the trailhead for the Pipestone Trail system. Our location provided quick and easy access to a variety of ski and snowshoe trails as well as shopping, eateries, outdoor outfitters and skating at Lake Louise.
The mountainous area of Alberta is known for astonishing amounts of snow, and this January had seen new records set for the time of the year.
It was no surprise to wake up each day to a new dump of snow. Before setting off for the ski trails that day, I had to clean another 8 inches (20 cm) of fluffy white snow off our vehicle before loading our gear. We only had one brush so my arms were tired by the time I removed half of it.
This sign pointed us in the right direction as we cruised down the Trans Canada Highway. A light snow was falling when Bob and I pulled into the exit lane.
Given the overnight snowfall, we were really hoping that the ski trails would be freshly trackset but did not hold out much hope when we saw the road into the parking lot. Only one set of tire tracks told of another vehicle negotiating the deep snow that morning. We were grateful for our winter tires and 4×4 vehicle.
In order to begin skiing, it was necessary for Bob and me to pass through a gate system put in place to keep wild animals from leaving the Park’s forested areas and wandering onto the highway. This gate essentially controlled flow on what would be a country lane during the warmer months, and explicit instructions were affixed to it. Another break in the extensive fencing was just to the right of this gate, and it featured a stile with a narrow gate at the top for individuals to pass through.
Bob and I resigned ourselves to the fact that the groomer had not recently trackset the X-country ski trail, so we opted to use the section of trail called Hector (#21) which connects with Pipestone (#20) because someone had already skied in ahead of us. It helped that Bob was not required to break the trail, but it was challenging nevertheless because the snow was so soft and deep that our skis kept tipping sideways.
This is a view of The Beehive, aptly named for the shape of the mountain. We snowshoed in to the base of this mountain on a subsequent day.
One only had to look at the surrounding landscape to know that we were in for some blustery weather. The wind gusts repeatedly swept scads of snow from the thick alpine forest and carried it swirling into the air.
Throughout the morning hours, the snowfall increased in intensity, and Bob and I repeatedly had to dust the thick layer of flakes from our clothing. On top of that, my glasses constantly became fogged up and splattered with wet snow.
Every so often, the wind would get up, and mounds of snow would dislodge from the swaying evergreen boughs to mix with the driving snow. We found ourselves forging ahead in whiteout conditions that made it impossible to see the x-country ski trail for minutes at a time.
I finally removed my glasses rather than tolerate the steamed up lenses and drops of water from melting snow.
The winter wonderland was beautiful to behold, but the conditions were the most extreme that we had ever skied in. I began to worry that the snow might erase any evidence of the trail, and I did not relish being lost in the forest.
Whirlwinds of snow engulfed us every time a stiff downdraft swept through the trees.
Shortly after we branched off onto Pipestone (#20), we met up with the hardy x-country skiers who had been breaking the trail, 5 seniors who had slugged it out early in the morning. They went as far as the base of a big hill that required a steep uphill climb, at which point they decided to turn around and head back the way we had all come.
Bob and I continued on for a good distance before the snow essentially stopped falling, and we were happy to see that the sun was trying to break through the clouds. At the same hill where the other skiers had turned around, we did the same because breaking the trail with close to a foot of fresh snow on it would require too much work.
The return trip was quite pleasant because, by that time, twelve passes over the trail had tamped down the snow, but we only had, what I would call, one slightly good ride down a modest slope. Otherwise, the trail was pretty much flat (only a 95 m elevation gain). We paused beside Pipestone Pond for our lunch but had to stand on the trail because to step off the packed surface would have had us sinking right up to our hips in the deep snow.
As it was, we had to be careful not to place our ski poles too far to the side of the trail as they simply sunk so deep into the snow that major shoulder action was required to extricate them before they snubbed our progress and had us falling over.
I had a major problem with the foot bed on my skis icing up and developing frozen lumps of snow under my heel, so frequent stops were required to remedy that. Good thing Bob carries a knife in his backpack along with the various first aid and emergency supplies.
One remarkable detail that we noticed while skiing was that any depression in the snow revealed an aquamarine colour made evident by the modest sunlight passing through the snow crystals. We had not expected that.
In total that day, we skied only about 9-10 kilometres (5.5-6 miles) but it took us the same length of time as our 14-kilometre ski a day or two earlier – about 4 hours.
On our return to the parking lot, there was still no sign of the trail groomers having passed that way. The snowfall had ceased, and nearby mountains showed some indication of sunlight on them, but it was minimal. Still, we had enjoyed the challenge provided by the weather and trail conditions.
Frame To Frame – Bob and Jean