Dolomite Circuit, The


Trip Details
Attained Summit?: 
Trip Date: 
Sunday, March 2, 2008
Elevation Gain (m): 
Total Distance (km): 
Trip Report

Trip Report

On Saturday March 02, 2008 I completed the Dolomite Circuit on skis with TJ, JW, Ken, Ian and Kathy under a mixed bag of weather. The day didn't start out on the Dolomite Circuit though...

Originally we had a much loftier (both figuratively and literally) goal; namely to summit Mount Hector. This is a detailed trip report of how the day actually panned out.

Saturday started out on a halting gait with JW arriving half an hour late to the parking lot. He claims innocence; that he thought it was a 06:30 start but no-one is sure if he actually just slept in or not... ;-) Martin Siddles was also supposed to join us but thanks to his condo neighbor's love of work boots and dancing he only got one hour of sleep and begged off for the day.

On the way to the trail head JW and I went over the ALPTRUTH acronym to determine what our odds of summiting Hector should be that day, or if we should even bother making an attempt. ALPTRUTH is an objective strategy designed to assist back country users in their terrain and trip making decisions based on 7 'yes/no' questions. Three or more 'yes' answers and you probably should reconsider your trip choice. Here is a breakdown of our trip assessment before even leaving the parking lot for Hector:

  1. - Are there signs of recent avalanche activity? No (although there was one slide across the valley on an opposite aspect due to cornice failure - so maybe a half yes?)
  2. - Is there recent loading of the snow pack? Yes (wind up high)
  3. P - Will you be crossing or skiing any avalanche paths? Yes (we would be going straight up one and crossing several more)
  4. - Are you going to be in any terrain traps? Yes (the headwall section is a terrain trap on this trip as is some terrain through the valley bottom above the headwall)
  5. - Is the avalanche rating considerable or higher? Yes (the rating was 'considerable' on Saturday)
  6. - Is there obvious signs of unstable snow? No (we haven't left the parking lot yet!)
  7. TH - Was there recent thawing temperatures? Yes (although it's been that way for over a week so maybe not exactly recent...)

So before even leaving the parking area we knew that we probably shouldn't even attempt the trip with 4 or 5 'yes' answers. So why did we? I believe that we all wanted the peak pretty badly and it just didn't seem that dangerous. There was nothing really sliding around us (although lots of evidence of recent past slides) and the weather was beautiful and calm down in the valley. I really think that no-one wanted to call it quits without first heading up the trail and 'seeing for ourselves'! 

Not everyone in our group agreed with the ALPTRUTH assessment. I agree that if you use ALPTRUTH religiously in the Alberta Rockies you will almost never do any interesting trips in the winter. The reality of the mostly shallow Alberta snow pack and winter weather pattern is that the danger scale seems to always be at or near the 'serious/extreme' level on the avaluator. Experience and good judgment is still paramount for actually getting out and enjoying a good winter trip - even if the avaluator may indicate that you should stay home on your couch for the day!

So off we headed - just to check out what the headwall area looked like. JW led the way up Hector Creek at a good clip. I knew right away that I was in for a tougher day than I had hoped. My legs didn't have their usual energy reserves but I managed to keep behind JW. The snow beside the hard-packed ski trail was absolutely AWFUL. It was the worst snow I've ever had the 'privilege' of experiencing. Imagine skiing in a slurpie and you'll know what it was like. There was no supportive quality in the snow pack and if you slipped off the trail your skis would sink all the way to ground. The unusually warm temperature of the past few weeks had done it's damage and we were stuck with a late-spring snow even though it was still early March.

Eventually we came to the headwall and re-assessed our objective. I think it was at this point that I suspected we would be turning around. Nobody committed to abandoning our attempt but we weren't exactly enthusiastic about it either. There was a lot of "yeah, maybe" answers to "should we keep going then?" JW led the way up the headwall on rock-hard avalanche debris. This stuff had slid within the last week - probably due to the very warm temperatures. The problem with the route up the headwall is that it's a true terrain trap. You really can't see the slopes above you and even a small sluff would do some serious damage coming from high up the cliffs above. You should move quickly and alertly through this area. We tried to go quickly but it became a challenge once we hit waist-deep slush above the most recent slide! :-)

It was at this point that I thought things were getting a bit desperate - wading in waist-deep slushy snow is not that much fun! Six more hours of wind-loading and warm spring sun would make things much more unstable and the skiing even worse than it was already on the lower section of our route. I yelled back down at Ian (who's done this route a bunch of times already) asking his opinion. He wasn't very enthusiastic either. So I called for a vote. Everyone had to give a 'yes' or 'no' answer (no 'maybe' allowed). I started off with a 'no'. JW quickly backed me up and everyone grudgingly admitted that this wasn't the best day to be bagging one of the best ski descents in the Alberta Rockies. We all wanted good snow for this one! So we promptly turned back. The 'ski' back down to the parking area was dubious at best. I did a beautiful face plant on the hard, icy slopes near the avalanche debris which provided some great entertainment for everyone but myself. My face still feels like carpet burn on the left side and my left arm is a bit stiff. On the bright side, I now assume the nickname 'Yardsale' from JW. He got it after a spectacular crash on the French-Haig-Robertson traverse the weekend before. In order to gain this honorary title you have to lose at least one piece of attached equipment in a unique way while skiing (poles don't count unless you're Raff and are actually a Pol...). 

We descended the creek bed, off trail, and this wasn't the best idea we had all day. The snow was so crappy that unless you had some speed you would sink wayyyyyy down. Not cool. Eventually everyone made it back to the vehicles and it was time to decide what to do with the rest of our day. The weather was very warm and sunny at this point and I really wanted to rescue the day by doing something of value (i.e. not just yo-yo ski some slope off the highway).

Eventually everyone agreed to ski the Dolomite Circuit so we headed off to get some exercise! The circuit is about 19-20km and forms a loop around Dolomite Peak, which I've summited before. It was supposed to have great views and is popular enough that we suspected there would be a nice packed trail to get around the crappy snow conditions. We were right on both counts.

After dropping off a vehicle at the end of the loop (it's not a perfect loop I suppose) and taking all the glacier gear out of our packs (Hector has a large glacier and we didn't need all our crevasse rescue gear for Dolomite), JW led the group on a blistering pace up the trail. Since I was the one pushing the others a bit to do this circuit, I couldn't complain about the pace too much - but part of me wanted to! :-) I knew right away that I was in trouble to finish the circuit at this pace. My legs had absolutely no energy and my breathing was way to heavy to keep it up for 19km! I wanted to cut my pace in half or even bail on the trip totally but forced myself to dig deep and keep at it. I honestly don't know how I managed to survive the trip but at least I wasn't the only one doing some huffing! I'm pretty sure that Ken, Ian and Kathy had their moments of deep breathing as well. Of course TJ kept up to JW no problem.

When we got up to Katherine Ridge, above Katherine Lake the weather deteriorated to the point that we were all feeling a bit blue about our second choice of objective for the day! The ski run to Katherine Lake from the highpoint on the ridge was great snow but no visibility at all! It was a very weird sensation skiing down that slope. Our eyes were playing tricks on us and the whole world was blindingly bright - even with sunglasses and goggles. Once at the bottom of this slope I quickly skinned back up and headed off around the north end of Dolomite because I knew I needed a head start on the others before we climbed back up to Dolomite Pass - where they would all pass me again. At this point the weather cleared up nicely and I took tons of pictures on the traverse around the east side of Dolomite and up to the pass. As I suspected, everyone managed to blow by me before I hit the pass but thankfully I didn't slow the group down too much - I'm not used to being the slowest one in the group and I didn't like it! :-| (I see lots of running in my near future.)

The ski run back around the south end of Dolomite varied between fast and smooth and faceted terrain in dense forest. Most of it was fun except for the slightly uphill traverse around the southeast end of Dolomite which really sucked on our freshly waxed A/T gear right Ken?! We ended up doing the entire circuit, including the extra height gain on Katherine Ridge in just over 4.5 hours. That partially explains my exhaustion as I haven't heard of any faster time for this circuit, although on lighter gear I'm sure someone's done it.

I felt really good about completing the route, even though I felt like vomiting for almost half of it. It's a great feeling when you push yourself to your physical limits and make it back in one piece! It's been a while since I was pushed that hard. Thanks (I think) JW!

Struggling up the avi slope beneath the headwall on Hector - our original objective for the day.
JW prepares for the dash up the avi terrain to the headwall.
On the Dolomite Circuit! The trail starts out nice and steep in the trees.
You lose some elevation to get to the dolomite meadows - this is exactly the same route as the scramble route. You can make out Mount Hector in the far distance.
Ian and Kathy pass me on the steep grunt up Katherine Ridge.
The group pushes up Katherine Ridge, above Katherine Lake which is in the lower right of the photo. You don't have to ski up the ridge to do the circuit but it was the best snow / skiing of the day so I think it's worth it.
At the top of Katherine Ridge the group de-skins. The weather moved in at this point and we lost all visibility.
After the nice run to Katherine Lake we are now coming around the northeast end of Dolomite Peak.
Looking back north at the great scenary tucked in behind Dolomite on the east side of the Parkway.
TJ and JW head up towards Dolomite Pass.
Again, TJ and JW are ahead of me. The climb gets steeper as you near the pass.
Ian and Kathy are catching up to me on the steep part - I was sucking wind this particular day!!
Ken and the ski track along with part of Dolomite Peak on the upper right.
The group de-skins for the second run of the day down from Dolomite Pass.
JW looks ready to rock 'n roll! :-)
The group heads down from Dolomite Pass.
JW skis out of a small gully. The ski down from the pass is quite fun in sections.
Skiing past the east face of Dolomite.
TJ skiing backwards - I was hoping to catch a trip! (But sadly he didn't and I didn't...)
Most of the fun skiing is over but the views are still steller near the south end of Dolomite.
Done for the day! (Almost - we still have about 1km back to the cars.) At least we managed to do a classic ski traverse even though Hector shut us down.

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