“Prairie Storm”, 09 November 2019

“Prairie Storm” (right; 2092M; my GPS)) is one of three unnamed foothills that sit between Victoria Peak (left) and Prairie Bluff Mountain. Though Brad and I had previously completed the other two foothills (which I’ve nicknamed, “Prairie Fire” and “Prairie Sky”), we’ve never gotten around to “Prairie Storm” until today.  Fitting to the name, our ascent was done amidst low cloud cover and fog – until we reached the summit where we experienced an amazing inversion and views!  A great winter/shoulder season destination, the crux of “Prairie Storm” is the recent, unexpected access restriction at the Victoria Ridge trailhead.  Though not insurmountable, the usual route through the gate and along the gas road now has to bypassed either to the north or to the south. So heads-up if you are heading out to this area!

Disruptive is the best word that I can think of to describe this trip.  I say this for two reasons: first, it was a little over a week ago – specifically, 36 years to the day that my dad passed away from cancer – that I found myself sitting in a specialist’s office and being told that I too, have cancer.  This is definitely not what anyone wants to hear, though I’d be lying if I said that a small part of me hadn’t been preparing for this since I was a kid.  The good news is that I apparently have one of the better cancers to get in thyroid cancer.  However, since I haven’t won anything since my name was called as the winner of an Ian Turnbull poster in 1977, I’m not sure yet if this is good or bad.  😉  Thankfully, I have a an amazing wife who is walking beside me along with my hugely supportive adult children and daughter-in-law.  I’m also incredibly thankful for my faith.  So, as this was my first trip since I heard the news, it was a great respite from a sudden and major disruption to life.

The second reason this trip was disruptive, is because there are now, ‘No Trespassing’ signs on the gate at the Victoria Ridge trailhead.  As people have accessed the area for decades through this gate, both Brad and I were taken aback.  I thought for sure it had something to do with the recent sale of the Shell Waterton Complex and all of the surrounding gas wells to Pieridae Energy of Calgary.  However, after we returned home, I emailed Pieridae to ask why the signs had been placed and if more access roads were going to be closed.  Within days, I received a response back from Pieridae that they had not posted the signs, but rather, it was the rancher who owns the quarter section that the first kilometre of road passes through before entering the park.

I’m not sure why the landowner has chosen to do this, but it is his or her prerogative, and it meant that Brad and I suddenly had to find a legal way onto Crown land.  We found it, but because I wasn’t expecting this and because we had our bikes, it was very awkward and time consuming.   EDIT 24, November 2019: I returned today with Andrew and mapped out a way entirely on Crown land that only had one small creek crossing (read, not Pincher Creek).  However, this route and all the others that I can see, make bringing in a bike next to impossible and so, I hope that the landowner eventually changes his or her mind.

Finally, about the mountain itself.  “Prairie Storm” is my nickname for this wonderful little destination that sits immediately to the northeast of Victoria Peak.  In fact, it is one of three, unnamed foothills that comprise the ridge between Victoria and Prairie Bluff Mountain.  Both Brad and I had previously climbed the other two – which I’ve nicknamed “Prairie Sky” and “Prairie Fire” in keeping with the theme – but for whatever reason, “Prairie Storm” wasn’t on our radar until recently.  From a distance it looks smaller that the other foothills, but this is because its summit sits further back.  Indeed, because of its location, it actually offers great views and a fairly easy ascent.  We timed it perfectly and hit an inversion on the summit that presented us with incredible views across the valley to Pincher Ridge.  If you decide to give it a whirl – or any mountain in the vicinity – be prepared for the disruption of the new, ‘No Trespassing’ signs at the trailhead.  It is possible to get around this small section of private land, but it will not be as quick as simply hopping on your bike and riding in.

Some old friends on the front range of the Castle: Victoria Peak (far left); “Prairie Storm” (left of centre);  “Prairie Sky” (centre); “Prairie Fire” (right of centre); and Prairie Bluff (far right). EDIT 24, November 2019:  Normally I start my trip reports with a map, graph, and a detailed route description.  To keep with the theme of disruption, I’ve decided to remove these from this trip report in favour of deferring to my return trip on November 24th, which I think provides the better way in for now.

Gearing up at the Shell pumping house at the trailhead.  The sky was clear when we arrived and within minutes of gearing up, dense cloud and fog enveloped the landscape.

The trailhead sign and map that has been at this location for decades.  Note the very new, ‘No Trespassing’ sign on the side gate.  There is another sign in the middle of the main gate, but they are not present anywhere else.  The side gate has also been padlocked.  For whatever reason, the owner of this quarter section has decided to no longer allow people to use this route to access the Castle.  Fortunately, it is surrounded by Crown land, so there are a couple options for bypassing from either the north or south.

Inside the yellow square, obvious cutlines and well-maintained barbed wire fencing clearly demarcate what is now a ‘No Go’ zone for hikers.

A screenshot from the Alberta Environment and Parks, Recreational Access Internet Mapping Tool.  The little white square in the centre is the private land that the gas road runs through and which is now restricted.  The yellow borders indicate Public Grazing Leases, and the large brown section is the Forest Reserve.  According to the mapping tool, the holder of the grazing lease to the south has stipulated that he requires 2 days notice prior to accessing the land.

Okay, back to the hike.  Since visibility was so bad, I’m going to just start off with a shot of Brad ascending a small ridge from the road because there is not much else to see.  The route is really straightforward, though we could not see it at the time.

Arriving at a short section of forest.

After entering the forest, we soon came to a small clearing where we kept to the right to avoid deep snow.  The slope steepens significantly at the far end and also to climber’s left.  Regardless of where you decide to head up, the slope will take you to the main southeast ridge that leads to the summit.

With impeccable form, Brad powers his way up.

My turn to take the lead, but without the suave stylings of Brad.  😉  (Photo by Brad Wolcott)

Now on the southeast ridge and hiking more gradual terrain.

Brad approaches a short, but narrow section of ridge.

The elusive, ‘Brad-of-the-Mist’. 😉

A dense individual heading into dense cloud cover.  😉  (Photo by Brad Wolcott)

Wait, what’s this?  Blue sky?

A brief break in the clouds allows for a tantalizing glimpse of Victoria Peak.

Closing in on the false summit.  The actual summit still sits ~275m away.

A neat view with Brad silhouetted against the clouds.

Another momentary clearing of the sky…

Before we are suddenly enveloped once again.

Still wondering where the summit is…

Another break in the clouds allows us to finally zero in on the summit (right).

The summit of “Prairie Storm” (2092m; my GPS) offers a great view of Victoria Peak.

A pano to the south with Pincher Ridge on the left.

A pano to the west as clouds pour into the adjacent valley and up the other side.

A telephoto to the west of “Mill Creek Mountain”, “Mill Creek Peak”, North Castle, and Mount Gladstone.

Gazing northwest at “Whitney Creek Mountain” (right) which looks like an island in the clouds.  In the distance on the left is Table Mountain.

Prairie Bluff sits to the northeast.

For good measure, a telephoto back to the northwest and a closer look the Flathead Range.

With the inversion now settled in, we were treated to a wonderful view across the valley and all three peaks of Pincher Ridge.

For a foothill, this is pretty stellar!

Brad on the summit.  I had initially started calling it, “Prairie Fog” because of the cloud we experienced on the way up, but I later decided that “Prairie Storm” was more fitting.  Besides, it sounds way cooler… but really, nothing is as cool as Brad.  😉

One glovin’ it on the summit.  You should see my moonwalking skills!  😉

Another view to the northeast reveals “Prairie Storm’s” kin with “Prairie Sky” on the right, “Prairie Fire” in the centre, and Prairie Bluff on the left.

Heading back.

Brad pauses on the false summit to take a picture.  In fact, we stopped here for quite some time as it was such a stunning scene.

Because still photos can only capture so much…

A sweet view of the whole valley with Victoria Ridge on the far right.  (Photo by Brad Wolcott)

A very cool shot of Victoria Peak.  (Photo by Brad Wolcott)

The view back to the northeast from the false summit.

And just like that, cloud begins to envelope “Prairie Storm” and our views are lost.

Heading back into the abyss.

It didn’t take us long to arrive back at the trees, and then the road.  In fact, the entire trip including the detour at the beginning was just over 4 hours.  I’ve made it a point to return as soon as I can  to document a better bypass route into the area.  Edit: 24 November 2019:  I returned today with Andrew and mapped out a route to the north.

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