Haig Ridge, 7 October 2018

Haig Ridge (left of centre; 2236m my GPS) from the summit of Gravenstafel Ridge.  What do you get when you mix a ton of early season snow with yellow larches and a clear, blue sky?  An awesome snowshoe trip!  While it normally would be too early in the year for a snowshoe trip, the huge dump of snow that fell on the mountains over the past week nullified any chance of hiking or scrambling.  Instead, I joined Andrew Nugara for a snowshoe trip up Haig Ridge in search of yellow larches.  What we found was a super fun winter destination – in early October – that provided amazing views and yes, lots of yellow larches.

⚠️ Hiking and scrambling are inherently dangerous activities. Please read my Disclaimer⚠️

This was my first snowshoe trip of the season, though to be fair, we probably could’ve worn them at times last week on “Gladstone’s Toe”.  I know, I know, it’s WAY too early to be breaking out the snowshoes, but with upwards of 60cm falling on the Castle last week, winter – or at least a sneak preview of it – is here whether we want it to be or not.  The good news is that even with the snow, there are still lots of fall colours on display, in particular, the larches which seem to absolutely burst when set against a white landscape and a rich, blue sky.  In fact, this trip will go down as one of those amazing experiences where you end up spending almost as much time taking pictures as you do hiking or snowshoeing.

Joining me on this inaugural snowshoe was Andrew Nugara.  Andrew had hiked up Haig Ridge only two weeks ago, but was “bitterly” disappointed that inclement weather prevented him from experiencing the vibrancy of the larch field near the summit.  Vowing on the spot to “return as soon as humanly possible”, Andrew had little trouble convincing me that Haig Ridge should be our objective for the day – even though I initially put in a strong case for “Gladstone’s Toe”, where I too, share a similar mindset about returning.  However, Andrew’s description of the larches (which I saw none of on “Gladstone’s Toe”) coupled with his overall enthusiasm, made Haig Ridge seem like the ideal choice for day.  And what a day it was!  A bluebird through and through!

Between the two of us, we snapped over 400 pictures, most of which were preceded by, “Whoa!  Oh wow!”  To add to the day’s perfection, a group of snowboarders had skinned a trail all the way to the summit, which made our ascent that much easier.  We even got a chance to thank them after meeting them on the mountain.  On descent, we broke our own trail through fluffy, deep powder along the ridge crest and were rewarded with a whole new canvas of colour and terrain.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever snowshoed among yellow larches before, as their needles tend to fall long before the snow gets this deep.  Therefore, I’m going to chalk this up as a rarity in my snowshoeing journal.  I also don’t think that it’s common to get the chance to snowshoe up Haig Ridge despite the Alberta government’s recent demarcation of an official hiking trail to the summit.  This is because the trail utilizes existing ski runs and Castle Mountain Resort may not want the additional hazard of snowshoers on the mountain during ski season.  If that’s the case, it may have to be like it was for us, a shoulder season snowshoe destination.  As an aside, if you want to see what it was like to snowshoe Haig Ridge before the ski hill expanded, read Bob Spirko’s report from February 2002.

All in all, this was a stellar trip that significantly lessened the blow of seeing winter arrive so early.  Finally, and as always, it was great to spend the day with Andrew, whose passion for the mountains is both contagious and invigorating.  Thanks Andrew!

Oh, and be sure to check out Andrew’s awesome trip report.

Getting to Haig Ridge from Lethbridge is simple…  drive to Castle Mountain Ski Resort (the road is now paved all the way) and find a spot in the parking lot.  Easy.  The trail begins on a road (a.k.a Round-Up Traverse) at the base of the Huckleberry Chairlift.  Easy again.  Follow Round-Up Traverse south for ~700m until you come to a Y-junction where it merges with the Ski-Daddle Trail.  Stay on Round-Up Traverse by sticking to climber’s right for another ~200 m until you come to the base of Pony Express.  From here, the designated trail (signed) to Haig Ridge follows a series of switchbacks that crisscross Pony Express all the way to the Tumbleweed run, which then leads to the apex of the Huckleberry Chair.  Straightforward enough. To save time, you could do what we did and simply go straight up Pony Express.

From the top of the Huckleberry Chair, follow the Giddy-Up Trail for ~1.3km until you reach its terminus.  Got it. Getting to the summit from here is merely a matter of following the ridge for another ~560m.  Perfect!  You can return the same way, or do what we did and follow the ridge crest for ~900m before rejoining the Giddy-Up Trail.  This was definitely one of the highlights of the trip and you could also choose to ascend using this route, though if you’re on snowshoes, saving it for descent may be preferable.  Once on Giddy-Up Trail retrace your route all the way back to the parking lot.  Yeehaw!

At 2236m, the summit of Haig Ridge offers an impressive view of the east and northeast faces of Mount Haig.  It also offers great views of many of the surrounding mountains including Gravenstafel Ridge and Barnaby Ridge.  Tucked beneath it are Haig Lake and Paradise Lake, the latter of which, Andrew incorporated into his trip two weeks ago.  My GPS pegged the summit at 2236m but this doesn’t jive with the last contour line on the topo map above.  Andrew indicated in his trip report that the summit was ~2186m but has since told me that the last contour line on his topo map is 7300′ which equates to 2226m.  So for now, I’ll leave the elevation at 2236m.

We completed the trip in a total time of 5 hours and 28 minutes, of which, I’m sure 45 minutes to an hour was spent taking pictures.  Our total distance travelled was 8.2km with total elevation gains of 837m.

Gearing up at Castle Mountain Resort shortly after sunrise.  Haig Ridge is illuminated by sunlight behind Andrew, while Mount Haig is the distinctive peak in the centre.  The lower slopes of Gravenstafel Ridge are on the far right.

The trail utilizes Round-Up Traverse to reach the bottom of Pony Express.  Approximately ~700m from the base of the Huckleberry Chair, we came to this junction where the Ski-Daddle Trail (left) merges with Round-Up Traverse (right).  We would remain on Round-Up Traverse.

Now that it’s inside a provincial park, the route has been signed – though if there’s an alternative downhill route, I’m totally up for that!  😉

Looking up from the near the base of Pony Express.  The trail uses a series of switchbacks to crisscross the ski run, but we just went straight up because we’re just that tough.  😉  At this point, we were still hesitant to put on our snowshoes.

Morning sunlight peeks over the summit of Barnaby Ridge.

Up to this point, we had stuck to the trees where the depth of the snow remained manageable.  That however, only lasted for ~300m before it became an exercise in futility.  Translation: the post-holing in the trees was not as bad as it was in the middle of the run, but it was still post-holing and post-holing sucks.  😉 

Waiting so long to put on our snowshoes demonstrated a subconscious refusal to admit the obvious.  😉  (Photo by Andrew Nugara)

Nearing the top of Pony Express.  The tracks immediately in front of Andrew were left by an inhabitant of the mountain who, like us, was probably wondering what’s up with all this snow.

That inhabitant of course, being a fairly large grizzly who had wandered through sometime in the past 24 hours.

The hind footprint.  You can tell by the tiny Nike Swoosh…  😉

Once we reached Tumbleweed, the views really began to emerge.  Here, Andrew pauses to admire Gravenstafel Ridge.

Looking north along Tumbleweed towards Castle Mountain Resort as Andrew adjusts his snowshoes.  Syncline Mountain is on the far left and Southfork Mountain is on the far right.  Its junction with Pony Express is on the lower right.

The view south along Tumbleweed to the apex of the Huckleberry Chair.  From this point on, we were able to follow the tracks of snowboarders who had skinned their way up on split boards.

From the top of the Huckleberry Chair the route follows Giddy-Up Trail (centre) for 1.3km.

Here’s where our attitude of gratitude to the snowboarders became front and centre.  (Photo by Andrew Nugara)

The terrain near the chairlift is quite steep.   (Photo by Andrew Nugara)

Giddy-Up Trail goes through the gap to the left of centre.  (Photo by Andrew Nugara)

The view from the entrance to the gap and the beginning of the yellow larch field.  This is where I began to sense that it might be an incredible day for scenery.  The summit of Mount Haig is in the distance.

Yup, that’s some deep snow for October 7th!  We would later encounter drifts along the ridge that surpassed the height of our poles.

Andrew made a short detour to a scenic high point.

A cool panorama of me on the same high point.  (Photo by Andrew Nugara)

Looking to the upper section of Haig Ridge from the high point.  Giddy-Up Trail is in the foreground.

Andrew loves yellow larches so much that he even dresses like one!  😉  Seriously though, here’s a guy who has climbed nearly everything around and yet still exudes immense wonder and awe for the scenery on diminutive Haig Ridge.  That’s inspiring!

We were surprised to be overtaken by our snowboard heroes (and their two beautiful German Shepherds) near the terminus of Giddy-Up Trail. We made sure to thank them profusely.

What an insanely beautiful day!  In the background are Barnaby Ridge (far left) and the awesome ridge walk that is Lys Ridge (far right).

“It is hard to explain how this sunlit land was different from the old Narnia as it would be to tell you how the fruits of that country taste… The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more. I can’t describe it any better than that: if you ever get there you will know what I mean.”  C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle   Not quite the redemption of creation that Lewis is hinting at, but a foreshadowing.

It is an enjoyable snowshoe from the end of Giddy-Up Trail to the summit.  (Photo by Andrew Nugara)

The proximity of the east (left) and northeast faces of Mount Haig provide an incredible backdrop.

The north face of “Middle Kootenay Mountain”.

Approaching the summit of Haig Ridge (far right).  (Photo by Andrew Nugara)

A closer look at the summit.  The snowboarder who passed us can be seen on top.

Another snowboarder from the same party passes us en route to the summit.  Seriously, is skinning that quick?  Tell me why are we snowshoeing again…?  😉

While the snowboarder (left) from the previous picture climbs onto the summit, Andrew (far right) heads to an overlook beneath the summit.

Andrew on the overlook with St. Eloi (left of centre) and Gravenstafel Ridge in the background.

Andrew’s view of the summit from the overlook.  I can be seen ascending to the left of centre.  (Photo by Andrew Nugara)

The summit of Haig Ridge (2236m my GPS) is guarded by the two terror dogs from Ghostbusters.  😉

A pano to the west.  The tall peak in the distance to the right of centre is St. Eloi – an objective that I have yet to get to…

A telephoto of St. Eloi and the start of the connecting ridge to Packhorse Peak (not visible).

The view to the north includes Gravenstafel Ridge (far left), Syncline Mountain (left of centre), and Southfork Mountain (right of centre).

Southfork Mountain and Barnaby Ridge sit across the valley to the northeast.

Gazing southeast at Barnaby Ridge (far left), Lys Ridge (long flat ridge in the distance to the left of centre), Rainy Ridge (slightly to the right of centre), and Three Lakes Ridge (right of centre).

Paradise Lake sits to the southeast.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t see Haig Lake from the summit.

Andrew and I on the summit.  What an awesome day for a snowshoe!

Our snowboarding friends leave the summit.  They used their split boards as skis until they reached the beginning of the run they wanted to use.  That’s when they assembled their boards.

Rather than retracing our route, we decided to follow the ridge crest as far as we could.

My turn to stand on the overlook.  😉  (Photo by Andrew Nugara)

Leaving the summit.

Andrew’s all smiles as we begin our descent along the ridge crest.

Entering the larch field.

I think it took us 15 minutes to get to this point from the summit (right of centre) because we kept stopping to take pictures.  (Photo by Andrew Nugara)

One of many “Whoa!  Oh, wow!” moments.

Admiring a larch along the ridge.

Andrew looks towards at Mount Haig from inside the larch field…

… and why not with views like this!

Making my way along the ridge.  (Photo by Andrew Nugara)

Our descent down the ridge was one of the highlights of the day!

So much deep, fluffy powder!

Heading towards the prominence to the left of centre.  (Photo by Andrew Nugara)

A telephoto of me ascending the prominence.  (Photo by Andrew Nugara)

Standing prominently on the prominence.  😉  (Photo by Andrew Nugara)

A telephoto back toward Andrew (centre) who is almost camouflaged among the larches.

The impressive cliffs of Haig Ridge.

Another picture of yours truly.  (Photo by Andrew Nugara)

My perspective of the previous picture.

Andrew’s loving it!

And so am I!  (Photo by Andrew Nugara)

Leaving our vantage point on the prominence (right of centre).

After venturing further down the ridge, we finally had our first view of Haig Lake (lower right).

Almost at the end of the larch field.  (Photo by Andrew Nugara)

The ridge crest eventually joins the Giddy-Up Trail back at the gap.  (Photo by Andrew Nugara)

A powdery descent.  (Photo by Andrew Nugara)

Looking back to the entrance of the gap.

I tried out some slalom snowshoeing on Tumbleweed. 😉  (Photo by Andrew Nugara)

A lone cowboy descends Pony Express.  😉

Arriving back at my 4Runner after 5 hours and 28 minutes, of which, I’m sure 45 minutes to an hour was spent taking pictures.  This was another fantastic day in the mountains!  The unexpected chance to snowshoe in early October was a great gift as the snowy landscape and the rich, blue sky made everything – including the yellow larches – burst with colour.  It was also great to spend yet another day with Andrew in the mountains!  Thanks Andrew!

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