Summit Elevation (m): 1989
Trip Date: Sunday April 12, 2020
Elevation Gain (m): 775
Round Trip Time (hrs): 5.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 16
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain something
Difficulty Notes: I’m sure that on a clear day Johnson Creek Ridge is likely one of the better viewpoints in the Willow Creek PLUZ. I did not have a clear day.
Technical Rating: OT2; YDS (Hiking)
Map: Google Maps
I was going stir crazy, locked up in my house for the Easter long weekend thanks to Covid-19 and the worst spring weather we’ve had in my 20 years of living in Calgary (apparently the coldest April in over 50 years). It’s hard to explain but I was seriously losing my mind. In between the stress of the virus, working from home and waking up every f_cking morning to fresh snow and temperatures in the low minus teens in APRIL FFS my mental health was taking a beating from this terrible start to the year. I know it’s first world problems – I’m very fortunate to have a job and my physical health. But it’s still something I was struggling with as I woke up on Sunday April 12 and saw even more snow falling to the ground.
About an hour after waking up, I noted that the snow had stopped falling and the sky was showing some blue patches. I got excited and decided based on an (overly) optimistic SpotWx forecast that I’d give the Willow Creek PLUZ another shot despite being somewhat underwhelmed on Thursday evening with hikes of three peaks in the area, Stimson Creek Hills, Indian Graves Ridge and Willow Creek Ridge. I was pleasantly surprised with the ease of the drive down hwy 22 to provincial road 532 at the north end of the Chain Lakes. Here is where I was surprised in a less pleasant way. Hwy 532 was not plowed and right away I noticed that even driving my Taco 4×4 I was going to be pushing a lot of snow if I met any other vehicles along the way! Of course this happened promptly and I was relieved to note that my truck can drive through pretty deep fresh snow. After a somewhat nerve wrecking drive I finally arrived at the Blue Bronna Wilderness Camp and the bridge over Willow Creek where I parked on the side of the road.
Warm sunshine was peeking out of a cloudy sky as I started up a logging road from near the wilderness camp. Another truck was parked here with a father, two kids and a dog enjoying the relatively warm conditions. I said a quick “hi” and continued marching up the road on a fresh 6-12 inches of snow. The entire area was plastered in fresh snow and looked much different than a few days previous! I knew I’d be breaking trail all day and I slightly underestimated just how far Johnson Creek Ridge is from this access along 532. According to Bob Spirko, Gillean Daffern has a different access but this can’t be used with the winter closure of the road further into Kananaskis Country to the west. No matter, I was here for solitude and exercise and I knew almost right away that I was going to get a lot of both.
I’m not going to describe my route in any great detail – there’s no point. Since Bob’s been here there’s been a lot of logging and fresh logging roads are present in the area, vastly confusing things. I followed Bob’s route on approach and made up my own exit since I was going to be combining Johnson Creek Ridge with Cell Phone Ridge afterwards. For most of the way towards Johnson Creek Ridge I was on either logging roads or ATV trails. There was a traverse up a forested ridge just before arriving at the last logging road that led directly to the lower ridge. Up to this point I was enjoying the day on fairly supportive snow with warm temps. The distance was more than I was expecting for some reason. I also noted pretty snowy weather just to the west and even over the ridge.
I continued to break trail in a foot of fresh snow along a fresh logging road to the NE end of the ridge. After leaving the road I was expecting fairly deep, unconsolidated snow (being a north aspect) and indeed that was the case. I sweated, swore and waded my way up the steep slopes before finally heaving myself onto the ridge proper and realizing I still had a fairly long ways to go. No matter – at this point the views were decent and the snow was more supportive again. I made my way up and along the summit ridge before finally standing on the highest point with limited views in every direction thanks to trees and deteriorating weather conditions. I didn’t linger and started back down to the logging road far below.
Once I was down at the logging road under Johnson Creek Ridge I had a decision to make. I could retrace my tracks over the treed ridge towards Cell Phone Ridge or simply follow the road and suss out a route along the way. I chose the later option and as the world slowly became a snow globe around me (moderate to heavy snowfall) I picked my way along a confusing number of logging roads. As much as I wanted to hate my life thanks to all the snow and heavy trail breaking, I found myself strangely content as I navigated my way towards Cell Phone Ridge. The air temperature was warm, my muscles were singing and I was all alone in a world of white and green. The fresh snow covered the ugly logging mess and the mud that was clearly hiding just beneath the surface.
I suspected the west slopes of Cell Phone Ridge would have much less snow than the NE slopes of Johnson Ridge had, and I was bang on. I easily slogged my way up to the summit with the heel risers on my snowshoes making the ascent downright pleasurable. It was truly strange how much I was enjoying myself at this point considering how dull the weather was and how much work it was to break trail in all the snow. Sometimes I wonder why these things make me so happy. I seriously don’t have an answer other than to say that as I stood on yet another non-view summit in yet more crappy weather, I felt a strange sense of calm and satisfaction with my accomplishments. It wasn’t that the destinations were so great, it was the fact that I’d dragged my sorry butt out of the house on a crappy day and made something out of it. So far on the Easter long weekend I’d managed 5 new peaks and even 3 ascents of Prairie Mountain. Not bad for a weekend with fresh snow every day and crappy cold conditions. Not to mention Covid-19… 😉
I followed Bob’s route down Cell Phone Ridge back towards the egress road, choosing to go up and over an intervening hill just for fun. The snow continued to fall aggressively around me as I followed my approach track back to the road and my truck. I enjoyed this day out much more than I thought I would but I strongly caution the reader to wait for winter to do these objectives. I can only imagine how muddy and gross this area must get in the spring or summer with ATV traffic and logging activity.