Heather Ridge

Summit Elevation (m): 2636
Trip Date: February 1 2014
Elevation Gain (m): 1000
Round Trip Time (hr): 6.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 23.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain something
Difficulty Notes: There are few dangers even in winter. A few of the west facing gullies could slide with the right conditions.
Technical Rating: OT4; YDS (Hiking)
GPS Track: Gaia
MapGoogle Maps

On Saturday, February 1 2014 I was joined by half of Calgary and part of Deadmonton for a ski / snowshoe ascent of Heather Ridge in Skoki – behind the Lake Louise ski hill in Banff National Park. Ok – it wasn’t quite half of Calgary, but close! It started with Steven, Wietse and I and ended with Steven, Wietse, Raf, Andrea, Mike, Sonny, Spencer, Brandon and myself. We met up in the Skoki Lodge parking lot in chilly temps of -28 degrees Celsius. Yikes. After laying up it was time to warm up with a ski up the ski out from the Lake Louise Ski hill. The last time I was on this road was way back in September 2005 when cousin Jon and I managed to knock off all the Kane scrambles in Skoki within a 72 hour period.

Heather Ridge Route Map

Wietse set a furious pace up the ski out – he was listening to some serious Euro techno-trance music or something similar on his headphones! Whatever it was, it worked! Unfortunately for Spencer and Brandon, who were on snowshoes, and Sonny who was on skinny skis, those of us on AT gear ended up quite far ahead and remained that way until the summit. Due to the cold weather we didn’t stop for long breaks, but maintained a pretty steady gait to Boulder Pass. The views back towards Lake Louise and the Valley of Ten Peaks was getting better and better all the time, and when we crested Boulder Pass the views into Skoki were stunning. Two of my favorite Skoki peaks, Douglas and St. Bride dominated the eastern skyline as they always do from this angle.

We made the short descent from Boulder Pass to Ptarmigan Lake and crossed it to the SE shore and the valley leading up to the base of Heather Ridge. Initially we were convinced that we’d be stumbling up a wind blasted scree / boulder slope from the base of the ridge to the summit. As we skied closer, however, a route up a west facing gully opened up for us. We decided to see how high we could follow this gully system and amazingly enough it went all the way up to the false summit.

Part of our group heads across Ptarmigan Lake. Douglas on the left and St. Bride above them in the distance. Heather Ridge is visible on the right.

As we worked our way up on an incredibly supportive crust (with about 2cm of soft slab on top) we were blown away by the views of Redoubt’s east face looming over a frozen Redoubt Lake and the increasingly clear view towards the Lake Louise giants across the Trans-Canada highway to the south. Just before we topped out on the false summit we skied through a boulder garden. With a brilliant sun beating down and the body warm from working out we all felt the winter magic that made us realize once again why we enjoy backcountry skiing so much. I mentioned to Mike that I hate winter all week when I’m at work and then I love it again each weekend. As we topped out on the false summit we could see that any further skiing was going to be pushing our luck. Too many rocks were showing on the wind hammered ridge so we proceeded on foot for the last bit of ridge to the summit. Walking was pretty easy but a bit slick on the quartzite – kind of like Bow Peak but much shorter and easier.

The group approaches the false summit. We dropped the skis there.
Wietse comes up Heather Ridge with Redoubt in the background.

The views from the windy (and cold!) summit were fantastic and we enjoyed them while waiting for Brandon and Spencer who were right behind us at this point. We felt bad for Sonny who didn’t quite make the summit due to his skinny skis not being able to ascend where our fatter and skinned alpine skis could. After taking our “rainbow” group shot at the summit, it was time for a quick run down to the parking lot – something we were really looking forward to.

Heading from the false to the true summit with crazy views in every direction.
Summit panorama including the Valley of Ten Peaks (L) and Skoki (R).

The initial descent down the rocky gully was a bit tricky since we didn’t want to fall onto a rock and the slab under the 2cm of fresh snow was very hard. The lower half of the ridge provided us with our best turns of the day. Mike counted 5 but I managed about 8.5 before running out of room. The rest of the way back was mostly a quick pace, except Mike was having a rougher go of things after snapping one of his poles on the summit ridge. He did manage to keep up though. A funny thing happened after crossing the Lake Louise ski slopes back to the beginning of the ski out. I was cruising along pretty good and had just managed to weave my way through a group of snowboarders when I saw the two ropes stretched across the ski out and the access road just beneath it. I didn’t have time to aim for the neat little gate between the two roads so I desperately attempted to sweep the rope up and ski gracefully under it.

Mike cruises the only real skiable terrain near the bottom of the rocky approach gully.

“Graceful” wasn’t in the cards and instead of sailing smoothly on I stopped dead in my tracks and piled into a mess of equipment and moderate curses! Mike did a classic slow clap as he cruised easily through the open gate beside me! It was not my finest moment on skis, but it would have made the Banff Film Festival is someone would’ve caught it on tape – the blooper reel! The “super g” run down the ski out was a perfect capping to a perfect winter day in the backcountry. These are the days that make the long Canadian winters worth living through. The company, the exercise, the views and the 8.5 turns of actual skiing were sublime.

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