There is only one Earth, a rather obvious fact that nevertheless constantly needs to be mentioned, and today, April 22nd, is Earth Day. In my opinion there is no better way to celebrate life on Earth than to get out and enjoy the beauty of the wilderness and the majesty of the Rocky Mountains.
One of the true classic ski tours in Kananaskis Park is the French – Haig – Robertson tour. Almost 20km long, it is especially popular in the spring, when the days are longer and the snowpack generally more stable. The tour begins and ends at the Burstall Pass parking lot on the Smith-Dorrien Trail, about 38km south of Canmore, Alberta.
With the exception of a very bad avalanche cycle in mid-March, Western Canada had a pretty good ski season this year, with a well-above average snowfall. With the warmth of spring, the snow pack instabilities that caused that cycle have stabilized, and the snow has kept on falling, with small but regular storms over the last month.
There are now over 2m of well-settled and fairly stable snow high in Kananaskis Country, and if you can convince yourself to still put the ski boots on, there is lots of excellent spring skiing to be found.
We are skiing at 8am, and are happy to see that there has been a solid freeze overnight, because hard frozen snow is solid and safe, and makes for quick travel through the forest and along the creek. The tour starts off by heading about 8km up French Creek, to the col between Mt. French and Mt. Robertson.
The valley bottom is complicated by several canyons and small waterfalls carved by the creek, and the normal ski route up works left around these obstacles, slowly gaining about 850m over 8km.
There is a stunning deep wind-scoop carved into the very northern edge of the Haig icefield at the base of the SE ridge of Mt. Robertson. Here the route crosses from Alberta into British Columbia and turns west, gently dropping a hundred meters to the base of a steep south-facing slope that rises 150m to the col between Mt. Sir Douglas and Mt. Robertson.
Once around the wind-scoop, the stunning, snow-plasterd east face of Mt. Sir Douglas dominates the view, towering 750m above us as we cruise down the gently sloping northern end of the Haig Icefield towards it.
As we continue cruising down the gentle slope the heat of the sun is intense, reflecting off the slope to our right and making us keenly aware of the rapidly warming and softening snow.
We are approaching the crux of the route, the steep slope leading up from the Haig icefield to the Robertson col. This slope faces south, and on a hot, sunny day like today the south-facing snow can become dangerously soft by early afternoon, when parties are usually starting to climb it. The sun has been on these slopes for at least five hours now, but has only softened the top 5cm of the snow.
We choose a boot-pack route up the slope that allows us to go straight up and minimize our time on the slope. Below the top 5cm of soft snow the snowpack is solid and strong, and we all feel comfortable with the avalanche stability of this slope right now.
Gaining the Sir Douglas / Robertson col we reach the high point of the route and enter back into Alberta. On the north side of the col is the rapidly-retreating Robertson glacier, a mostly-gentle slope dropping 1000m into the valley.
The skiing on the upper half is on wind-sifted winter-like snow, fast, grippy and very fun cruising between the near-vertical rocky wall of Mt. Robertson to the east and the steep slopes coming off of the long north ridge of Sir Douglas to the west.
After enjoying a mixture of small, tight turns and big, high-speed turns in the colder snow of the upper glacier, the slope angle eases off and we ski off the toe of the glacier into the lower valley.
As we descend, the snow gets warmer and heavier, and we basically straight-line down the low-angle slopes at the base of the valley, not spending any time in the narrow throat, which is threatened on left and right by large, steep slopes loaded with soft, heavy, sun-heated snow.
The sides of valley are littered with hundreds of snow-rolls, the biggest one almost 2m in diameter, that have fallen from the high walls and picked up mass as they rolled down through the heavy, sticky snow. The snow-rolls are a strong signal that the sun has heated the snow to the point of weakness, and we move quickly through this section of the valley.
After exiting the narrow part of the valley we take a food and water break before starting down the Burstall Creek valley and back to the parking lot. Approaching the parking lot, Mt. Chester and The Fortress are beautiful in the afternoon light as dark cumulus clouds form above them, the edge of the storm system that was forecast to come in late this afternoon.
We’ve been moving steadily but not hurrying today, and are back in the parking lot after 8 hours. What a fantastic day, with beautiful weather, fast touring conditions, and fun cruising down the Robertson glacier.
April may be the end of winter, but it is also the beginning of spring skiing!
Darren Foltinek, April 2017