Pocaterra Ridge - Summer
Date Walked: 19th July 2012
Distance: 7.1 miles (11.3km)
Actual Ascent: 2664 ft (812m)
Time Taken: 5 hours
For some reason I had struggled to get myself interested in a hike this week, I actually went jogging on Monday (shock horror) on Tuesday I went out on the Mountain Bike locally. Wednesday I had a work related phone call right in the middle of the day that effectively closed that day and suddenly the week was almost over.
On Thursday morning I struggled to get going but eventually got myself organised. I took the familiar route along the Trans-Canada highway to its junction with highway 40 South. It was a long drive along the 40, the furthest South I had been along here since our arrival but after 65km I reached the 'Little Highwood Pass' parking area, happy to see I am the only one there.
it took me quite a while to get myself ready and I confess I still didn't feel much like it, not sure what that is all about but eventually I set off back across the highway to what my guide book describes as the 'obvious path'. After wandering up and down the road a few hundred metres in each direction I still couldn't see the 'obvious path' so I just walked into the forest directly across from the car park entrance. Fortunately I found the trail just a few metres from my entrance point.
after a brief spell of twisting and turning through the forest I came across a wide creek, I looked upstream for any kind of crossing point and then downstream for the same, I found this cluttered area which crossed the creek in two stages, first to a small island then to the opposite bank, both using pretty thin and knobbly dead-fall. I didn't fancy taking the boots off so early in the hike so I took to the balance beams. The first was easy enough. As I crossed the second my GPS unit somehow undid itself and made a dash for the water, fortunately the tether caught on one of the knobbly stubs leaving it dangling just above the flow. With the speed of the flow I didn't expect to see it again should it make the water, I then had to perform a squat on the balance beam to reach the damn thing and retrieve it (all the time expecting an early bath). Remarkably both me and my GPS unit made it to the other bank still dry.
it was incredibly hot in the forest and there wasn't a breath of wind to help cool things down. I followed the very narrow and infrequently used trail along the creek until it turns inland toward the ridge. It soon begins climbing very steeply and continuously up through the trees. The first few hundred yards is absolutely solid with Menziesia bushes, the trail still exists beneath them but it takes a keen eye to follow it, in the shot below the path is almost central in the image and heading toward the dark shaded area at the base of the conifers.
There is no respite as I climb within the forest, normally I like a short steep ascent but this one is a real slog. The heat is almost unbearable and the ascent rate is incredible....and it just keeps going. Occasionally I get a view out above the forest looking back to the car park.
another good excuse to stop is to capture some shots of the beautiful flora dotted around the forest
after almost 2km of continual ascent I finally break out of the main forest and feel some cooling and incredibly welcome breeze. Looking back to the north from the breakout point shows the carpet of forest running along the Kananaskis valley
to my left (East) as I ascend is Elpoca Mountain (the highest peak on the far left of this shot) to the right of shot there is the opening of the Elbow Valley not quite visible in full yet.
there is a well worn trail here and closer inspection shows it to be a coal seam, the Yorkshireman in me wants to grab a pick and shovel and set into it. Up ahead I see the first summit, still just a grassy knoll even though it stands at almost 7500 feet (2286m)
out along the ridge here with a lovely strong breeze blowing I begin to cool off at last, stopping to capture some more of the flora gives me more opportunity to recover. It really was a slog through the forest, maybe the heat and my lack of real interest today added to that but even my guide book refers to it as a 'strenuous flog'.....I think that is still an understatement.
as I gain more elevation the views back along the valley are staggering, the pointed peak of Gap Mountain dominates the centre frame and to the right the southern end of the Opal Range including Elpoca Mountain standing tallest in the frame.
to the left is the start of the Elk Range, steep cliffs that fall into 'Little Highwood Pass'. It was my intention to drop down from the summit and return along this pass to the car park but the incredible amount of rock avalanches pouring down these cliffs and thundering into the pass below is putting me off that idea....to say the least.
turning back to the hike it is a much more gentle ascent now toward that first peak. Down to the south-east I can see the open end of the Elbow Valley and the car park for it cut into the trees, from the number of cars there I suspect that is the place to be around here. The valley actually cuts through the mountains for 26km to the 'Little Elbow Recreational Area' south-west of Bragg Creek. I hope to cycle the whole trail at some point in the future but need to get my cycling fitness up to speed first, 50km off road with a couple of thousand feet of ascent is quite a ride.
finally I make the summit of the ridge and can take a moment to sit and relax on the lush green grass, up ahead I can see my intended target for the day shaded under a passing cloud and still some way off. Just visible in the valley on the right is the appropriately named 'Rockfall Lake'. As I sit here enjoying the views the avalanches continue to pour down from the Elk Range and I'm already sure I'm not returning that way.
the view back along the ridge never gets boring. I took a good 10 minutes here for tangerines and juice before dragging myself to my feet and starting off again. The sun was relentless and its a good job the cool wind blew across the tops or it would have been unbearable.
along the Elbow Valley to the north-east I can just see Elbow Lake nestled within the trees there, another spot for Sarah and I to go (as long as I carry a picnic)
it's disappointing to see the route drop down so far, by the time I am adjacent to Rockfall Lake I will be right back to the forest level, I really don't feel like it today and the thought of dropping down to reascend does little for my enthusiasm.
as I descend to the forest I get a great view south along the highway before plunging back into stifling heat, the cool strong breeze is gone and I am back to overheating very quickly., at least the trail through the forest remains good and easy to follow.
I was pleased to get through the forest again and out where the breeze could reach me, the remaining ascent was more gradual than the steep lumps so far and in some ways reminded me of the grassy mountains of home. Plodding on I maintain a steady pace toward my target that doesn't appear to be getting much closer.
another hump goes by and I'm now beyond 'Rockfall Lake' and looking back over an incredible scene, a host of mountain ranges and passes with crystal lakes and lush green forests spread across the horizon as cloud shadows dance across them, it is truly beautiful.
to the south Highwood Pass disappears into the distant ranges, to the right of this shot is the short ascent remaining to reach the target for the day.
as I reach the modest cairn at the summit I feel a sense of relief, it really has been a slog today but I kept going and can now reap the reward for that effort.
Almost the whole ridge can be seen now as well as a great view up the Elbow Valley to the right and across the ranges ahead, it is a wonderful scene that is the archetypal Canadian Rockies.
zooming in gives a great view along the Elbow Valley toward Tombstone Mountain with Elbow Lake shimmering like a jewel in the dark green of the forest
a zoomed shot to the north across the summit to Gap Mountain shows the peaks of the Opal Range to the right, the Kananaskis Range to the centre, the Spray Range at the left rear and the Elk Range on the near left....a stunning array of summits and potential future challenges.
I used a second smaller cairn as a tripod to take the evidence shot, I'm happy it is a distant shot as I was so dishevelled at this point from a combination of heat and fatigue that I was not a pretty sight up close.
I considered going further south and descending the ridge at that end and turning to the road for an easy flat hike back to the truck but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I'd rather face a drop and re-ascent going back the way I came than hike the road
I tucked myself into the rocks behind the summit cairn and had my lunch before getting myself comfortable for the summit siesta, at 8300 feet (2529m) I was still 'huffing' the thin air as I closed my eyes and leaned back on the cool rocks.
after a refreshing 20 minute nap I awoke feeling a little chilly. On opening my eyes I was greeted by a view of Mount Rae rising above the range opposite my position. Mt Rae provides sufficient shade to maintain a small glacier on its northern flanks...another target hike at some point.
to get rid of the 'just woke up' chill I get my stuff together and set off along the trail, retracing my steps I considered dropping down to the left into Little Highwood Pass from the lowest col in the trees ahead, I calculated that this would bring me out beside Rockfall Lake, but with rocks still pouring down from the Elk Range I was going to have to evaluate it later before making a firm decision.
before descending to the trees in the col I looked across the considered route, there were a number of moraines staggered along the valley, and I felt I could drop down the one that butted up to my ridge and walk out along the pass, but, even as I planned the route rocks fell into the lake and some bounded down the long slopes and across the pass before clattering into the moraine on my side. I quickly decided that reascending a little way was better than dodging rocks for 3km...I stayed on the ridge top among the mountain flowers.
there are flowers everywhere now, all different types spread across the mountain in nooks and crannies with smaller short stemmed ones carpeting the top of the hill.
the ascent back to the final bump was as hot as ever and reappearing on the grassy ridge was a blessing as the wind returned to cool me down one more time.
I sat on a small rocky outcrop at the top of the final descent looking north along the Kananaskis valley as I chomped away my last two tangerines of the day.
The good thing about that hideously steep ascent at the start is that it makes a hideously steep descent at the end. I bounded down the hillside and ploughed through the forest and Menziesia bushes in no time at all, on reaching the river I picked a reasonable looking spot and strolled across 'boots n all' as the water came over the top of my gaiters I realised just how bloody cold it really was, though it did feel fantastic on my feet. I was soon safely across and back through the forest to the highway and my truck parked directly across in the parking area.
This was a strange day, I never really got into the hiking but absolutely loved the incredible views along the way. It's a shame the circular route was not possible due to falling rocks, but I'll definitely be back out here to Highwood Pass. It is a stunning area (but then aren't they all) just a little further south I have seen a hike to a spot called Paradise Valley....now that has got to be worth a look.