⚠️ Hiking and scrambling are inherently dangerous activities. Please read my Disclaimer. ⚠️
Is it just me, or has winter seemed to go on forever this year? Not that I mind all of the snow, because we desperately need it and I do love it, but it’s been the frequent and prolonged stretches of sub -20c weather that have really put a damper on things. After yet another weekend of heavy snowfall in southwestern Alberta followed by more bone-chilling temperatures, Brad and I decided that enough was enough, and that it was time to be true Canadians and not let -25c temperatures get in the way of enjoying all that beautiful snow. After all, that’s why God made Gortex. 😉
Opting for a lower destination in either the Porcupine Hills or the Whaleback, we eventually settled on Black Mountain as our first choice, with the Porcupine Fire Lookout as our alternate. I’ve always been a little curious about Black Mountain, even though I knew from Bob Spirko’s 2009 trip report, not to expect much. However, I’m fascinated by the many small ridges and foothills in the area, and as we drove north along Highway 22, Brad and I identified several that we thought would make for a fun snowshoe.
Black Mountain sits within the Black Creek Heritage Rangeland and is part of the Whaleback Montane. In, The Whaleback: A Walking Guide, Bob Blaxley notes that, “the classic montane landscape includes grasslands, limber pine and Douglas fir forests, lodgepole pine forests and white spruce forests.” (11) He continues by stating that montane landscapes “account for less than two-percent of the land area in the province” and the Whaleback is perhaps the largest, undisturbed montane landscape in Canada. (16, 17)
As there are no views whatsoever from the summit, nor are there many from along the south ridge, Black Mountain somewhat forces you to become more appreciative of the forest and species such as the limber pine and Douglas fir. Indeed, the existence of mature limber pines makes the Whaleback Montane unique. These trees can live between 200 and 400 years, with the oldest specimen in Alberta officially recorded to be 642 years-old. (David Langor, Status of the Limber Pine (Minus Flexis) in Alberta, 2007, 2) Moreover, it’s highly probable that they can live even longer with the Whirlpool Point Pine near Nordegg, speculated to be close to 1000 years old. (Ron Hammerstedt, Alberta Trees of Renown: An Honour Roll of Alberta Trees (2nd edition, 1986, 8) Unfortunately, infestations of the mountain pine beetle and white pine blister rust have decimated many of the mature trees and only a few are left, thus the limber pine has been declared a species at risk.
Aside from being able to see trees that may have been around since the 19th century, I think it helped that we snowshoed up Black Mountain as opposed to having hiked it. Though the starting temperature was -25c, we had oodles of fresh snow and a beautiful blue sky as the backdrop. This perhaps gave the forest more ambience than it otherwise might have had – that and we weren’t in close proximity to hunters like Bob and Dinah were on their trip. All in all, both Brad and I enjoyed this trip, though to be fair, I’m not sure that either of us have ever met a mountain that we didn’t like. 😉
To get to Black Mountain from Lethbridge, we followed Highway 3 west until we came to its junction with Highway 22, just past the hamlet of Lumbreck. After turning onto Highway 22, we drove north until we came to the bridge over the Old Man River at Waldron Flats. From the bridge, we continued north on Highway 22 for another ~16.4km until we came to our parking spot on the west side of the highway. Another way to get here would be to follow Highway 520 west from Claresholm, and then turn south on Highway 22. From here it would be ~3.9km to the parking spot.
By and large, we followed the route used by Bob Spirko, however, deep snow in the grasslands prevented us from locating the road, so we began to follow some tracks post-holed by two hikers, but these turned back shortly after starting. Unable to see even a trace of the road, we decided to make a beeline to the pass at the south end of the mountain, which is known as the Whaleback’s Black Mountain access.
Once at the pass, we left the road and followed the south ridge of the mountain for ~2.5km until we reached the summit. While Bob and Dinah had continued on from the summit to more open slopes on the north end of the mountain before eventually descending down its eastern slopes, we had gotten rather chilly during our 15 minute lunch break and decided to head back the way we came.
The route up the south ridge of Black Mountain is quite conducive to snowshoeing as elevation gains are gradual. The steepest sections that we encountered were all within the first ~400m of the road.
Our total distance travelled was 9.1km with total elevation gains of 381m. Our roundtrip time came in at exactly 4 hours.
Gearing up at our parking spot next to Highway 22. The route follows the road up the hill in the background. Other than being -25c, it was a windless day under a clear blue sky.
Heading up the road. Black Mountain sits on the Waldron Ranch grazing lease and does not require contact with the leaseholder prior to access. However, as the sign says, hikers must use respect while accessing.
Looking towards Black Mountain after walking ~500m up the road. From this point on, deep snow made it impossible to discern where the road was, so we continued to follow fresh tracks left by a couple of hikers.
Perhaps tired of post-holing without snowshoes or the bone-chilling temperature (or both) our predecessors only made it ~800m from the highway before deciding to turn back.
Still unable to locate the road, we decided to head straight towards the pass that can be seen in front of me. This is where the road leads and is known as the Whaleback’s Black Mountain access. (Photo by Brad Wolcott)
Looking back to the east and the Porcupine Hills.
We found an old lean-to in the trees, but nobody was home.
Approximately ~1.8km from the highway we rejoined the road at the entrance to the pass.
The Black Mountain access to the Whaleback. Our route went up the slope on the other side of the fence.
Brad leads the way up. The route up the south ridge of Black Mountain is quite conducive to snowshoeing as elevation gains are gradual. The steepest sections that we encountered were all within the first ~400m of the road.
Heavy snowfall over the previous two days set the stage for a gorgeous wonderland.
Snowshoeing past a limber pine (left). (Photo by Brad Wolcott)
A fallen limber pine sits partially on the fence.
Looking to the west at Whaleback Ridge. Almost all views occur near the start of the ridge.
Heading into more typical terrain for the ridge.
Despite the lack of views, we found ourselves fascinated by incredible trees such as this very old interior Douglas fir.
Brad stands next to the large Douglas fir from the previous photo. I showed this to my colleague Ron Hammerstedt, who is an experienced forester and asked him why it was all by itself. Channeling a lifetime of experience, he stated, “it is a relict from a fire and is now surrounded by a young, post fire stand. It survived because of the thick, corky bark that is fire resistant. If you looked carefully, you would almost certainly find char marks somewhere on the trunk from the old fire. The new stand around it might be 40 yrs old or so… There was likely a fire in the area about 1970ish…”
I then asked him how old he thought it was, and he postulated, “it looks like it may have lived through more than one fire. We have seen them with up to 11 fire scars over a couple of hundred years. It is pretty old anyway… maybe in the vicinity of 200 years. Not sure though.”
If you are interested in some of the very old trees in Alberta, I’d encourage you to read, Alberta Trees of Renown: An Honour Roll of Alberta Trees (2nd edition, 1986), that was edited and written by Ron. This book highlights trees in our province that are famous for characteristics such as great size, old age, survival, and historical value. For example, the oldest living Douglas fir in the province began growing in the year 1310, making it 674 years-old when the 2nd edition of the book came out in 1986. (page 11) Wow!
Gazing skyward from the base of the the same tree. It’s wild to think that this tree might have been alive while Napoleon was conquering Europe!
The snow became progressively deeper the higher we went. (Photo by Brad Wolcott)
Brad treks across a rare clearing.
Our alternate route for the day, the Porcupine Fire Lookout (centre), sits directly to the east.
A narrow beam of sunlight finds its way through the forest canopy.
Wading through knee-deep powder. (Photo by Brad Wolcott)
Brad’s 200 year-old beard matches the trees!
Sasquatch tracks! 😉
Nearing the summit.
In the summer this would be an easy hike, however, the snow made us work for every metre. On the flip side, it also meant that we stayed warm. 🙂
We had to cross a wooden fence to reach the summit.
The summit of Black Mountain (1669m) in all its glory.
If there is a cairn, it’s buried somewhere beneath all that snow.
This is the best view we could find.
Brad enjoys a quick lunch on the summit.
The difference in ambient temperature between sun and shade was noticeable. We weren’t stationary for too long before the cold began to make its way through our layers.
Heading back. While Bob and Dinah continued north from the summit to an open ridge some ~500m away, we were so chilled from our brief time on the summit, that both of us were content just to tag the summit and return home.
Considering that the forest areas in southwestern Alberta were closed last September because of an extreme fire hazard, all this fresh, fluffy powder is a welcome sight.
Brad enjoys the rare chance for a view.
Looking east at Whaleback Ridge.
I thought the snow and sun on these fir trees made for a striking scene.
Brad checks out a large limber pine along the ridge. These trees typically live between 200 and 400 years with the oldest specimen in Alberta recorded to be 642 years-old. (David Langor, Status of the Limber Pine (Minus Flexis) in Alberta, 2007, 2). I asked Ron how old he thought this one was and he replied, “You can’t tell age of the limber pine without an increment bore. I would guess it is pretty old though, based on the contortions.” So who knows, maybe this tree dates back earlier than the 19th century?
The view to the south.
Arriving back at the pass.
Our snowshoe tracks standout on a landscape of fresh snow.
Following our tracks.
Arriving back at my 4Runner after 9.1km and 4 hours – and a temperature that had risen to -18c! Despite the lack of views and the bone-chilling temperature, both of us enjoyed our snowshoe up Black Mountain. As I mentioned previously, if you’re fascinated by limber pines that are hundreds of years old, and you enjoy the ambience of walking through a forest of snow-covered Douglas fir (provided the conditions are ideal), then this might prove to be an interesting trip. If the temperature had been more favourable, I would have liked to have made the ~500m trip from the summit to the open ridge on the north side of the mountain as Bob and Dinah did. This way, we would’ve been able to enjoy at least some semblance of a view. All in all though, it was a fun day.