Ha Ling – December 10, 2011

Ha Ling, as seen from Three Sisters Parkway. (This picture was taken after the climb).

Flicker set: here

Having been away from the mountains for too long (my last scramble was Carlo and I’s attempt up the north peak of Mt. Kidd back in August), I decided to do something I’ve always wanted to do: scramble in the winter. Given that scrambling can be a dangerous enough activity on its own, adding winter into the mix is not something to take lightly. Enough can go wrong on a mountain without having to worry about snow, cold, avalanches, cornices, etc. As with any outdoor pursuit, research and judgement are needed, and I caution anyone against peak-bagging in the wintertime with a caviler attitude.

That said, why would I proceed, given the danger? Because the danger on Ha Ling is rather minimal.

Ha Ling is located near Canmore, AB, and is part of the Eahagay Nakoda Range (along with Miner’s Peak and Mt. Lawrence Grassi). Because of geography and the mountain’s structure, the section of the mountain above treeline is blasted free of snow by strong winds. This minimizes avalanche danger, allowing the mountain to be climbed in the winter. Snow remains on the approach trail through the forest, so, unless someone has already broken trail, you’ll need snowshoes for the approach. Furthermore, Ha Ling is rated as “easy” (it’s largely a hike), which means it’s free of significant exposure (or the potential for deadly falls).

I wasn’t about to take any chances on a solo winter trip, so I brought my axe and crampons just in case. I ended up not needing either. I also brought my helmet, which I wore on the first part of the descent. (Slipping on an ice patch above treeline and knocking myself unconscious against a rock and then freezing seems like a crappy way to die, but that’s just MHO).

The trip was uneventful, which was a nice change from the last trip where Carlo and I got lost and almost ran into bad weather. Despite not having exercised for three months, I managed to summit within a couple of hours, and I descended in a little over an hour–slow, but not embarrassing times.

Almost no snow above treeline!

The section above treeline was very interesting to travel. Those who have been up Ha Ling (or any other mountain, for that matter) know that you’ll find scree above treeline. Scree is loose rock that can be the size of pebbles up basketballs. The first time you walk on scree can be a little unnerving because it always shifts under your feet, but, after getting used to it, you’ll find that it makes for an easy descent off the mountain. The opposite is also true: it makes ascending difficult because for every step uphill you take, the scree causes you to fall half a step downward. This changes in winter. I found that the scree was mostly frozen together, except for some sections where the top layer of pebbles sat on top of the frozen rocks like ball bearings on a floor. I tried to avoid these sections as much as possible, and–just in case I did fall–I strapped on my helmet.

Another observation I had is that I can see the approach trail becoming icy as winter progresses. As this was only December, the snow was just becoming compacted. In the late winter and early spring, when the temperatures occasionally go above freezing, there is potential for ice to form, which would necessitate the use of crampons to navigate.

Finally, no post about winter scrambling is complete without mentioning the conspicuous absence of the hordes of people. I’m not saying that I don’t want people to enjoy nature’s splendor–quite the contrary, actually–but it’s hard to get the feeling that you’re “getting away from it all” when you’re in the mountains in the summer because there’s always a ton of people out there. Come back to even the most popular trails–like Ha Ling–in the winter, and you’ll likely have the trail to yourself. While being alone on a mountain in the winter dos pose some risks, with appropriate precautions, you’ll be treated to spectacular views and a feeling of peace and tranquility that is seldom experienced in the summer.

Still, as long as you’re comfortable in the mountains and out in the winter, this is a trip that I would recommend to most people.

Obligatory summit photo!

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About jbsantos
Polling, politics, PR and outdoor pursuits.

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