Venturing into the playground along the Continental Divide – Chickadee Boom January 2017
Another cold weekend in the Canadian Rockies, but this did not deter a hardy band of skiers from Parkland Cross Country Ski Club on the first weekend of the New Year. The skiers met up at the Lake Louise Alpine Centre on the Friday night and enjoyed a bit of socializing before retiring. There were eight of us that evening, but two needed to bow out of the back-country tours arranged.
Chickadee Valley was on the agenda Saturday morning. After a good breakfast in the kitchen of the Lake Louise Alpine Centre (LLAC), we fired up the vehicles in the rear parking lot while the CP Rail diesel locomotives idled on the siding beside the mainline. It was -23° Celsius. Another beautiful blue-sky day in the Rockies!
We backtracked along the Trans Canada Highway to the turnoff for Radium and headed south, climbing out of the Bow Valley. Chickadee is the first valley across the Great Divide.
We were led by Ivan D. and assisted by Dion B., with Amanda B., Margo and George C., and Bill F. rounding out the complement. The trail was firm, having been packed down by various users including snowshoers. Eventually Ivan deviated from the hard pack to the left hand side of the valley, leading us on a trail-breaking exercise through the trees. Dion took a turn breaking trail and finding a path, and when it was Bill’s turn he remembered how much work breaking trail through deep soft snow really is. Ivan enriched the sharing of his knowledge of many years of back-country skiing by telling us how guides think and what they do for their clients. A guide will lead his or her clients directly across a frozen creek by sidestepping down the bank (and in so doing preparing an easier surface for climbing back up on the return journey). A guide will bring down snow on the opposite bank if need be with his or her ski poles so the clients have an easier time climbing up. Being a guide is hard work! We eventually found our way out of the trees and joined a main trail along the creek bottom. As the valley opened up with views of the surrounding peaks, we continued upstream until we reached the lunch spot. I think we overshot by about 10 m according to Ivan’s GPS.
Lunch was quick, and eaten standing up, as we were still in the shadow of the mountains. One of the party expressed a desire to look for a sunny spot, but this didn’t happen. Bill amused the group by pulling out his trusty thermometer, which registered – 23.5° Celsius air temperature and – 23 ° C snow temperature. Unfortunately, it was too cold for Bill’s iPhone to capture the image for the trip report. Not soon enough for some folks, Ivan donned his signature poncho and led us back down the valley to catch up to those skiers who had already begun the ski out.
Ivan offered a couple of coaching tips to Bill, who has only had to pay for one skiing lesson in his life. When skiing out through the trees, remove your hands from the straps of your ski poles to prevent dislocating a shoulder. You might drop a pole once or twice and have to retrieve it, but this is preferable. Bill took Ivan’s advice after catching a basket a couple of times. The second tip has already proved its weight in blueberry tea. Ivan told Bill he was leaning too far forward which affected his balance. His descriptive analogy was to pretend “your ass is over the toilet” or as Bill considered this, “your royal bum is over the throne”. This resonated and Bill is still utilizing the technique even on skinny skis from Great Chief Park to Heritage Ranch. On the last part of the ski out, Ivan led Bill through more soft snow through the trees, which was way more fun than clattering down the hard pack.
Back at the hostel, Bill tucked into the rest of his lunch and poured out some tea from his thermos. Ivan asked, “Would you like some real tea?” And so marked Bill’s introduction to Ivan’s blueberry tea! Bill had a pretty good idea what Ivan was like based on phone calls discussing options for mountain tours, so he was gratified his assumptions proved correct. After the tea party, we “tea-toured” over to Bill Peyto’s Restaurant for our Saturday night feast.
Sunday morning dawned even colder at minus 27 Celsius. At least one of the vehicles registered – 29° C in a cold pocket on the way back to the Continental Divide. This time we parked at the Boom Lake trai lhead on the Alberta side.
It was cold gearing up in the parking lot, but those finished first found a sunny spot by the Parks Canada sign. A group photo was taken and then Bill’s iPhone went into hibernation for the rest of the winter. On the ski in on the hard pack, Ivan entertained us by teaching us more guide logic. You might think a guide is just being chatty, but every time a guide meets someone coming out of the back country they inquire about conditions. An outgoing snowboarder told us that the slopes at the head of Boom Lake had already avalanched. Avalanche conditions were moderate as Bill recalls, but with persistent slabs and deep buried slabs being the main considerations along with terrain features to be cognizant of. Along the way in, Ivan stopped and asked how many avalanche slopes had we already crossed. Turns out we had crossed one already while in the trees. This led to a lively discussion about runout slopes, tree scarring, etcetera. We reached the end of the hiking trail and skied onto Boom Lake which was just gorgeous. Of course no photos could be taken. Ivan shared the 10% angle rule of thumb for judging the extent of the runout zone.
After lunch in the trees to get out of the light breeze on the lake, the skiers headed out. Bill kept his skins on for the duration to maximize control on the ski out, which included crossing some icy patches on the trail where springs were continuing to flow. Ivan amused himself and stayed warm by skiing both ways several times so he could keep an eye on Bill. Bill felt safe knowing the guy with the first aid kit had his backside. Upon reaching the sunshine along Highway 93,
Bill noted “Gandalf” cut quite a figure with helmet, goggles, white beard, and flowing purple poncho. In fact, Parks Canada driving by took a second look at him to make sure it wasn’t Gandalf.
If you are lucky enough to go skiing with Ivan, expect to learn lots about safe touring in the backcountry and how to improve your skiing if you are up for it. If you’re really lucky, you might even enjoy some of his infamous “blueberry tea”!