Crash 5 at the Tour de Bowness

The 2015 Tour de Bowness saw the MEC Calgary Cycling Club send its largest delegation to a race yet, with John Pexman, Josh Denison, Brayden Dumanowski, and I racing Men’s Cat 5 and Kelsey Castro racing Women’s Cat 5. This race was especially notable since it was the first race ever for Kelsey, and the first race of the season for John P and Brayden.

crit montage

Each team member railing Turn 1 (aka “Crash Corner”)

We made a strong showing after the first two stages. For the Road Race, John and I were in the group that went clear the first time up the Horse Creek KOM, and he took 7th place and I took 10th. During the Hill Climb on Sunday, John took 3rd and I took 8th. This meant that we were “called up” for the crit and got to start at the front of the race.

I wasn’t surprised to hear John’s name called up, but it never dawned on me that I would get called up as well. Crits are my weakest discipline, and starting at the front meant I wouldn’t have to burn matches just to get to the front.

And I had every intention of finally being a contender in a crit rather than just another hanger-on.

The other thing I liked about the Tour de Bowness crit course is that it had only one straightaway, which meant my lack of top-end speed wouldn’t be as much of a handicap, and it’s a technical course with seven turns, a hill, and rough pavement, which further gives a bonus to agility over pure speed.

With enough focus, it was actually relatively easy to defend my position in the top ten. After a few laps, I decided to be more aggressive, and I tried to stay in the top five riders, but touching the wind as little as possible. The only time I got nervous was when Kaleb from Ascent Racing and another rider were off the front for a couple of laps, and I actually took to the front to help bring them back, making the catch on the finishing straightaway before letting someone else take the front so I could recover.

With our average speed hovering around 40km/h, nobody tried any serious attacks. Going into the bell lap, I was still in the top five, and I could not believe there was actually a chance of me being able to contest the finish of a crit. There was a lot of jockeying for position on the back section of the course, and I even got to rub elbows with a few riders as I tried to maintain my spot.

On the fifth turn, I hit a bump hard and heard an ominous hissing sound and thought, “I feel sorry for that poor schmuck.”

Oh how blissful ignorance is shattered painfully.

I realized when I was going into the final turn that it was my wheel that went flat. No, wait, both my wheels. I saw the finish line ahead, and being near the front, I committed myself to doing whatever necessary to get my top 10, even if it meant destroying my (cheap) rims. The bicycle gods had other ideas in mind, and my rear wheel slipped out from underneath me, taking me down to the asphalt and skidding towards the curb at 45km/h. Unfortunately, I also took down Suchet from Speed Theory.

A course marshal and medic were on the scene immediately, and they went through the standard first aid checklist. When they asked what hurt, I responded dryly, “My pride.”

Not seeing me at the finish, my teammates and friends made their way to me pretty quickly and took my bike while I got patched up in the ambulance.

Miraculously, my performances in the road race and hill climb meant I held on to 9th overall, in spite of DNF-ing the crit.

Even better, my teammates also put in strong performances, with Pexman taking 5th overall, and Kelsey taking 8th in the Hill Climb.

It’s amazing how racing can go. You can go from back-to-back top 10s to DNF to holding on to a top 10 overall placing.


I get by with a little help from my friends. Andrew and Brayden take my bike to my car and have a look at it while I got patched up.

The Team! From L-R: Josh Denison, Brayden Dumanowski, John Pexman, me, Kelsey Castro, and guest-but-to-be-future-team-member Arpad Soos.

The Team! From L-R: Josh Denison, Brayden Dumanowski, John Pexman, me, Kelsey Castro, and guest-but-to-be-future-team-member Arpad Soos.


Power demands: Why not all riding is the same

One of the lessons I’m learning in my nascent racing career is just how vastly different the power demands are between different cycling scenarios. Having not been a life-long competitive athlete (the most I ever did was lunch-time football and beer-league soccer), my sporting background is all from steady-state endurance activities like leisurely cycling, hiking, or cross-country skiing.

But, having been tuned into cycling by Lance’s reign in the 1990s/2000s, I’ve always had the desire to race, even if I had no idea what the demands of racing would be.

With a power meter, I can now quantitatively see what I’ve learned through feel and experience over the past few years–namely, that there is a big difference between going at a steady, uncomfortable intensity for a long time, and going so hard you want to throw up for a couple hours. I’ll post some of my power files as an example.

*A quick note for those unfamiliar with power in cycling: power measures the force you apply to bike over a distance, and it’s how you measure your level of exertion while cycling. Exerting more power becomes more difficult to sustain for a longer period of time, (i.e relationship between power and the time one can exert that power is inverse). A key power benchmark is one’s “threshold”, which is the amount of power one can sustain for about an hour. Exertion above this level can only be maintained for a much shorter duration, while exertion below this level can be maintained for much longer than an hour.

Zone 1: “Active Recovery” (This is very easy spinning, and used when you’re recovering from intervals, or on a recovery ride)
Zone 2: “Endurance” (An “all day” pace)Zone 3: “Tempo” (The pace of a fast group ride, where you have to exert effort, but you’re not going cross-eyed yet; you can talk, but it takes a lot of effort)
Zone 4: “Threshold” (What you could hold for an hour, if you really tried; in practice, even 20 minutes at this intensity hurts)
Zone 5: “VO2Max” (An intensity you can only hold for about 10 minutes; your breathing is very ragged at this point)
Zone 6: “Anaerobic capacity” (Very hard effort that you can maintain for less than five minutes; you can barely breathe, and if you’re talking, it’s usually cursing)
Zone 7: “Neuromuscular power” (Very short, high-intensity efforts like standing starts, attacking, and sprinting)

Power file 1: A brisk group ride

cochranegrp power

This file is from a lively three-hour group ride with some fast friends, and included two hills that we attacked hard (COP and Cochrane). Spent some time at higher intensity levels (Zones 4 and above), but not that much. Came back from this feeling tired, but good.

Power file 2: “Easy” road race

velocity power

This file is from the Velocity Road Race in Edmonton. The race lasted 1:49, which is shorter than the group ride, but you can see how much more time I spent at the higher intensity levels. This race was on a flat course, so the time at a higher intensity levels is from moving up in the pack without a draft, responding to surges, and accelerating out of turns. While I still spent a lot of time in Z1 (likely from coasting while in the pack), I spent less time in Z2 and 3, since I was either “sitting in” behind a wheel and taking it easy, or responding to changes in pace.

The other thing about this race is that I spent most of my energy in the first 20 minutes moving from the back of the pack into the front third, and in the final 10 minutes, where I fought for position and sprinted for the finish. For the rest of the race, I just sat in and enjoyed the ride.

In total, I spent 45% of the race at threshold power or above, and 36% of it at VO2Max power or above at Velocity.

Power file 3: “Hard” road race

RMSR power

This is from the Rundle Mountain Road Race in Canmore–a hilly and difficult race. I spent even more time at the highest intensity levels. Because of how hilly this course is, drafting has less of an effect, and if you want to stay at the front, you had to be able to climb with the strongest. Unlike Velocity, I wanted to be near the front for the entire race rather than taking my chances climbing slowly and not having anyone to work with to get back to the front. So, I tried to keep pace with the best climbers, and I constantly worked to stay in a good position. This meant I could respond when the decisive move came (even if my response backfired spectacularly).

Comparing the two courses to each other–they’re both around 65km and I averaged 37km/h for both. The difference is that Velocity only had 200m of total elevation gain, whereas Canmore had four times that amount.

Power file 4: A crit

Rundle crit power

Criteriums are a race format unique to North America, and are cycling’s version of Formula One. They’re held on closed city streets and use short courses (~1km in length) with a lot of turns. Races are short (varying from 30 mins to one hour, depending on the level of racing), and are very spectator-friendly.

Because of all of the turns, there is much deceleration and acceleration that happens in the race. You have to sprint out of each corner, lest you get dropped from the pack. Thus, it’s no surprise that you spend the most time in Zone 7 in a crit (or at least I do, because I’m trying to hang on to the back, where the accelerations are even worse than at the front).

Summary Table

Ride Type Time @ Z4+ Time @ Z5+ Time @ Z6+
Hard group ride 39% 28% 17%
Easy RR (Velocity) 45% 36% 29%
Hard RR (Rundle) 52% 41% 32%
Criterium 65% 57% 51%

What I learned

One of my goals this spring was raising my threshold, and I would do at least one threshold or sweet-spot (high tempo zone) workout a week to do just that. The issue with that is there aren’t that many racing situations in Alberta where riding my threshold would put me in a winning position. Being 5’2″ and 120lbs (at least on a good day), having a high threshold would help me ride away on a long (20min+) climb, but would still make me a deadweight in a breakaway because bigger guys are way more powerful, but not that much less aerodynamic than little guys. In Alberta’s flat courses, the guys I’ve seen win tend to be great sprinters supported by a strong team, or breakaway artists with huge engines.

(Yes, I know I could HTFU and train more to get my threshold up to 300W, but that’s a little difficult working two jobs, seven days a week.)

What I did in the lead-up to Rundle is less threshold training and more sessions doing VO2Max and anaerobic capacity work. Those power levels are the ones used for the make-or-break moves that decide races. Though I failed to get a good result at Rundle, I was foiled more by my stomach than my legs, and I was consistently in the right place at the right time, which provides some affirmation that my training has been paying off.

For my friends who are looking to race, your takeaway should be to incorporate intervals into your training, and to work on generating higher 1-5 minute peak power and being able to repeat that over and over and over and over and over until you can’t.

The remaining two road races this season (Bowness and JLap) are both flatish courses that, if you’re not in the breakaway, degenerate into “sit-n-kick sandbag festivals,” so I’ll likely play the same hand I played in Velocity. But, the Banff GranFondo will provide a chance to see if my improved ability to ride at higher intensity levels will mean I can stay with the main pack for the entire race.

2016 Update:

Both Bowness and JLap were less flat than I thought. Bowness featured a short-but-steep 5-minute power climb, and JLap had a bunch of rollers. In both cases, they produced a selection, with JLap reducing the finishing field to about 20, and Bowness, down to less than 10.

I can definitely say that the work I did on VO2Max-level efforts, recovery from such efforts, and explosiveness helped me to top-10 placings in both races.

Redemption at Rundle, or not

This past Sunday was my “A” race for the season–the Rundle Mountain Road Festival. I did this race last year and got dropped on a descent, so this was a much-wanted do-over. As well, it features a hill climb time-trial and a very hilly road race course, so it was a race to which I am well-suited (or so I thought).

However, poor planning on my part meant I was riding a three day cycling tour (loaded with camping gear) the Monday-Wednesday before, which meant I would be going into the weekend high on fatigue and low on form.

Stage 1: Silvertip Drive Hill Climb

The fabled Mur de Silvertip is one of the most painful 2km. In that distance, you gain over 150m of elevation. The main portion of the climb is this (with the maximum grade shown):


Dat grade! Hurts so good.

We would start in groups of four at two minute intervals. A quick look at the others in my group gave me some confidence–I was the smallest one there. When we got the go signal, I quickly distanced them on the false flat and wouldn’t see them again. Halfway up, I saw one of the guys from the group ahead of me and thought, “Yesssss, this is looking verrrry good,” and it gave me a quick jolt of energy to pass him and finish strong.

I would be rewarded with a 15th place finish out of 34th with a time of  0:06:42, 43 seconds behind the winner.

Clearly, I had vastly over-estimated how well I did. The more important statistic is that I was 15 seconds away from getting any points, and it’s highly unlikely that I would have been able to make up 15 seconds, even if I was on-form.

What a sobering realization. Oh well, that’s bike racing. I consoled myself with a plan to take it easy during the crit to get legs “primed” for the road race the next day.

Stage 2: Canmore Crit

Not much to say here, other than I kept it upright and would have finished with the same time as the pack, were it not for a crash in the bell lap, behind which I got stuck.

Meh, it’s not like I’m gonna win a pack sprint anyway. (Wait, there was that one time at Velocity where I got 6th.)

canmore crit

Cat 5s trying to keep it upright.

Stage 3: Three Sisters Parkway Road Race

I woke up to the intermittent splattering of rain on the roof of my car. I hit the snooze button twice and finally acquiesced to the urgency of the moment at 06:15 and drove across the street to get some McDonald’s pancakes. My stomach was already turning–likely a mixture of post-race regret, pre-race jitters, and lingering stress from the week prior. I struggled to eat my pancakes, but managed to finish, which would be a harbinger of my experience to come at the race.

I drove to the Nordic Centre in silence, unable to get into my usual warm-up playlist. Made some small talk in the parking lot, signed on, did a quick warm-up, shed-my layers in the parking lot, and then lined up and rolled off, hoping the fire would come to me as we got going.

It was mostly downhill for the first few kilometers, and when we hit the first short climb, it felt much better than last year, which gave a nice lift to my spirits. Seeing the dodgy handling of some guys on the climbs, and remember how I got dropped because of poor position last year, I made my way to the front dozen or so riders and resolved to stay there and out of trouble.

Rundle is the most challenging road race of the year because it is the only one with any significant elevation gain, and the difficult became more and more apparent as the race went on.

There was the usual failed attempt at forming a break, with one very strong rider continuing to attack off the front at the worst moments.

Then, there was the usual cavalcade of riders who think thrashing their bike from side-to-side is an efficient way to climb.

And what bike race would be complete without the guys who can’t hold a straight line to save their life, brake randomly, and don’t shoulder check or signal when they change lines?

I managed to avoid any incident until the second lap when one rider drops a chain (shifting rings mid-climb…really?) and stalls out a handful of other riders behind him. I touch the wheel in front of me, but manage to keep myself upright by unclipping my left foot, only to fail to clip back in multiple times as the pack rolls away. Thankfully, I managed to catch back on, but paid for the effort with more nausea and dry-heaving as we tackled the main climb of the route. I briefly entertained the notion of pulling out early to avoid an accident, but dispelled the thought quickly, preferring execution rather than surrender.

The third lap brought some needed recovery, and some excitement when I hit a pothole and was almost thrown off my bike.

Well, and that one time Andreas from Speed Theory decided to take a flier on a short kicker. That kinda hurt.

Just before the turn-around point, we saw that one rider managed to get away on the final climb and attack at the turn-around, which you would think would wake up the pack and get them motivated to chasing. Not this pack though–everyone seemed to want to keep their tinder dry for the expected attack-2km-away-at-the-final-climb tactic. “Would-be-Jens” took to the front, and we all thought he would put his power to good use, but, no, he tried to bridge up rather than helping with the chase. A minivan that found its way into our rolling enclosure and seemed confused by the concept of a bike race slowed us down further, helping the lone escapee gain time on our disorganized bunch.

About 5km to go, I saw Andreas moving up again, and braced myself. Sure enough, he went, and the pack was jolted back into action. By this time, though, it would be too late to pull back the break, and we all were just fighting for second place.

2km to go, we turn left onto Spray Lakes Road and it kicks uphill straight to the finish. I knew this was my moment, so I put it in the big ring and used the turn to move up to the front group of riders, so I could get a front seat to the inevitable. It came, as expected, from Spencer from Speed Theory, who stretched and quickly broke the elastic holding the pack together. Half a dozen of us jumped to latch on, and I looked behind me to see a gap forming.

And that’s when my stomach lurched again–this time, sending up a foul mixture of my hydration mix and stomach acid into my mouth. I thought, “Shut up, stomach,” and swallowed, but I had to concentrate and didn’t notice that the two wheels I was on were falling back from the select group that had formed. I took matters into my own hands and tried to shut down the gap, only to have my stomach lurch and my legs tell me, “Shut up, Santos,” and that’s when I knew I didn’t save enough bullets for the final shootout. Fighting to not make a mess all over myself, I pulled off the the side and watch the pack roll by just as I passed the 500m-to-go mark.

I quickly found myself in no-man’s-land, but with the fragments of the similarly shattered gruppetto gaining on me. I had just enough wherewithal to make it up the finishing kicker and join an RMCC rider just past the finish line who was doubled over in the recovery position, suffering the same fate as me.

Oh, to have come so far, have been in the right place at the right time, and to have initially made the final selection, only to get shut down in the final kilometer…it’s even more crushing than last year when I was dropped one third of the way in.


In hindsight, I think there is little I could have done differently.

The Rundle Road Race, while hilly and difficult, is a surprisingly balanced course. There is a lot of climbing, but none of the climbs are long or severe enough to force a selection. While the climbers could pull away when the road did kick up, none of them wanted to pedal the descents, so the big sprinter types could climb at their own pace and then use their power to catch up on the descents.

Analysing my power files provide some affirmation that I was pretty much at my limit.

RMSR summaryRMSR power

I was at or above threshold for half of the race, and my normalized power for the full 1:45 of suffering was 200, or 3 watts below my threshold. I am even more surprised to see how much time I was anaerobic (Zone 6 and 7), which provides some affirmation of just how hard the race was (for me, anyway).

The big takeaway for me is that I have probably been working on increasing my threshold too much and I’d be better served by working on being able to consistently deal with all of the Z6 and Z7 bursts that happen in a race.

Oh, and I probably should remember not to do three days of cycle touring the week before a race.

Hanging on: my first crit race

Clipipty-clop, clippty-clop, whoosh! I almost slipped on the tile floor of the swimming pool lobby as I dashed out of the bathroom and back to my bike. Fighting off a cold and dehydrated, I had chugged a bottle of Gatorade half an hour before, and, of course, the need to pee didn’t arrive until right before my group was supposed to stage. I clipped in and rode the three blocks to the start line just as other riders in my group were finishing a warm-up lap. My Garmin watch told me my heart rate was at 160bpm. I guess I’m warmed up.

It was my first criterium race.

Criterium races (or ‘crits’) are like cycling’s version of Formula One: riders race around a circuit for a set time, and then a set number of laps after the time has elapsed. Being in the beginner ‘C’ group, we were to go for 20 minutes and then three additional laps. While this wasn’t a formal race (but, rather, a ‘midweek’ race that is more for training and practice), I was sick, thirsty, tired, and jittery.


A photo from a Midweek Mayhem race I watched in 2013.

I made a mental checklist of everything the race organizers covered at the orientation session the day before.

“Keep your head up and your hands in the drops.”

“Don’t overlap wheels.”

“Pick your line and stick to it.”

The race manager gives us the go-ahead, and we were off to a neutral start for the first lap.

We took off at what seemed like a reasonable pace. (I had my watch, but I was smart enough to not look at it during the race.) After the first turn, I checked in with myself. “Priority one is to not crash out. Priority two is to hang on as long as you can before you get lapped.”

We quickly rounded turn two–the 80 degree one–and came a slightly downhill sloping section of the 1.2 km course. The pace seemed to quicken ever so slightly.

Two more turns and we passed the start line, and then one rider immediately attacks. The pack gets stretched out, but I see a handful of riders take off after the attacker. There are two riders in front of me who didn’t seem like they were going to give chase, so I passed them on the outside to try and hold on to the chase group.

I lost track of what happened after that. All I can remember are sensations and fragments of thoughts–my heart racing, my ragged breathing, my parched throat, the burning sensation in my legs.

I stayed more or less in the same area of the pack throughout the race. I traded places with one guy from Dead Goat and another guy from Speed Theory a few times.

When we passed the twenty minute mark, and the pace picked up for our first of three final laps.

Going into the second lap, I noticed myself feathering the brakes more often. Were we going slower? Are these guys tired, or holding back?

Bam! As soon as we rounded the first turn of the final lap, someone jumps again. I don’t see who, just a thinning pack in front of me. I jumped on the pedals and passed a couple of riders who weren’t as quick to respond. Things settled going into turn three.

I remembered that I should be near the front for the final sprint, so I moved up right before turn four, and as we rounded that final turn, I stared pedaling harder, only to see more than a handful of bodies pass me through to the finish line.

Still dizzy from the effort of the final lap, I laughed. “Still not much of a sprinter,” I say to myself.

But the sprint training can wait another day.

The pack settled back together for the warm-down lap, and there were smiles all around as we congratulated each other on a great first race. I was pleased that I managed to not be lapped–at least this time around.

Looking at the stats afterwards, I was surprised–not with how fast the pack was going, but that I had been able to keep up. In less than half an hour, we covered 16km, and averaged 37km/h. On the final lap, we were averaging 41km/h, which is still a far cry from the Strava record set on that course, which had an average speed of 51km/h, but, given that I hadn’t even participated in so much as a Gran Fondo, I’m happy with how I managed.

I stayed around to be a course marshal for the ‘B’ group, which was amazing, given that they were going noticeably faster than us. As I watched them zip around the course, I recalled how, last summer, I went to watch one of the midweek races and thought wistfully how amazing it would be to do that. Less than a year later, and less than a year after I started cycling again, I had done my first crit.

Maybe it seems overly sentimental to write about participating in an informal midweek race, but I learned a lesson that day that has nothing to do with cycling: even if I had come in dead last that day, I would have still been ahead of not starting the race. Racing sports only ever have one winner, but there is a reward for pinning the numbers on, lining up at the start line, and suffering beyond money or trophies or fitness or health–the value of starting something that’s difficult and finishing it.

My grandmother, the mountains, and being tough

Sunday, February 9, after a five hour slog across Bow Lake, onto the Wapta Icefield and up the unnamed glacier behind Crowfoot Mountain, I trudged up the ridge to its summit, looking down at the Icefield Parkway a kilometer below my feet. Despite the -30C temperature, my exhaustion, and the host of other thoughts that circulate in a mountaineer’s mind, what stuck out most for me was how much I missed my grandmother, who had passed away late in 2013. My mind drifted back to three-and-a-half years ago when I stood on top Mount Athabasca, just half an hour up the same road. What was different (beside a much more agreeable temperature in 2010) was that, then, she was in a hospital, and, now, she is no longer of this earth.

It would be trite to say that I was inspired by my grandmother. Who wouldn’t be inspired by a person born into poverty, was unable to complete primary school due to her mother falling ill, farmed and sold produce at the local market, survived the horrors of World War II while running a safe house for the Philippine Resistance, managed to send several of her ten children to university, and lived long enough to help raise her grandchildren and to see the birth of her great-great-grandchildren?

Growing up, I intermittently shared a room with my grandmother. At first it was so she could keep an eye on me, then it was because we had no other rooms in the house, and, by the time I was in university, it was so I could keep an eye on her. To say I was close to her is an understatement.

While many remember my grandmother’s hospitality, or her sense of humour, or her devotion to her family, what always sticks out in my mind is her silent determination. Perhaps it was the product of her generation, which experienced far more hardship than my generation could fathom, or perhaps she was just one of those people who was tough as nails (it is likely a combination of both), but she never complained. She could gripe about other things, but she never implied that she had been hard done by.

Simply put, she is the hardest badass I have known.

She also loved the mountains and loved that she had several opportunities to visit the Rockies during her time in Canada. She was too old, too physically scarred from a life of hard labour to see them as close as I have seen them, but I had started venturing onto the mountains early enough that she could see the photos from my trips.

…which brings me back to Crowfoot Mountain.

The view of the Wapta Icefield from the ridge of Crowfoot Mountain. Kelly and Ted can be seen descending.

The view of the Wapta Icefield from the ridge of Crowfoot Mountain. Kelly and Ted can be seen descending.

For the first couple of hours, all I could think about was how incredible the scenery around me was, or how much I was looking forward to getting in some turns. By the time we hit the glacier, I was cursing my lack of training.

And the cold.

And the wind.

And how I was not eating enough that day.

But on the summit ridge, as I was looking across the Waputik Icefield towards Mount Temple to the south, I muttered to Ted, “Holy shit, this is amazing,” to which he replied, “And this is in our backyard!” It made me think about the joy that being on a mountain brings me and how my grandmother was content enough to gaze at them from a crowded tourist vista. That got me thinking about how soft I had been on the ascent, and how people fly from across the world and hire guides to take them up the same routes I enjoy with friends on my days off.

Having no children of my own, I cannot claim to live a life of noble self-sacrifice as my grandmother did. However, having begun to process how the loss of her has affected me, I can strive to live the virtues that she embodied, and she embodied many. I used to think her generosity was her greatest one, but I am seeing more and more that it is from her iron will that everything flowed. Without it, she would not have lived to 97, raised her family or helped as many people as she did.

She was a hardwoman, if I ever knew one, and I’d be tougher than most people if I was half as tough as she was.

Canada Day 2012 at Cataract Pass

Despite being an avid hiker, scrambler, and car camper, and despite having wanted to go backpacking for some time, this 2012 Canada Day Long Weekend was my first backpacking trip.

And what a trip it was.

The destination: Cataract Pass, 2484m, on the border between Jasper National Park and the White Goat Wilderness Area. We started on the Nigel Creek Trail (which is part of the larger Continental Divide Trail system) in Banff National Park. At Nigel Pass (which is on the border between Banff and Jasper National Parks) we followed the Brazeau River to its headwaters just below Cataract Pass.

The group: Mostly alumni from VIRG Edmonton’s Thursday Night January to March 2012 ASPIRE climbing class.

Our group on Cataract Pass on Day 3

On paper, the trip seemed straightforward. A distance of 13 kilometres and an elevation gain of 650 metres are not Herculean targets, but I underestimated the effect of pack weight, and our group collectively underestimated both how much snowfall the Continental Divide receives and the terrain we would encounter. I made a liberal estimate that the hike in would take six hours. It ended up taking nine.

After Nigel Pass, the rest of the route was above treeline in the Brazeau River Valley and heavily snowed in.

I wasn’t kidding about the snow. This is the Brazeau River at Nigel Pass.

Pretty much the entire Brazeau River Valley was snowed in.

The terrain was also quite rough, and we had to cross a boulder field filled with fridge- and shed-sized talus. This section was my favourite, since it was pretty much a scramble, minus the elevation gain.

The boulder field

After the boulder field, we trudged through a snow field and then up a mix of snow and scree up to the pass. Even doing the ‘rest step’, I still had to pause for breath here and there, and a recurring thought in my mind was, “Next time, I won’t be this tired!”

Looking back from just before Cataract Pass. This doesn’t look like summer to me.

Chris was the first to summit (the group has since concluded he is a machine) and the rest of us arrived in intervals of a few minutes. More than eight hours after leaving the Nigel Creek trailhead, we had reached our objective. My contribution to the group was to build a fort out of our packs, so we could huddle together and take some shelter for the wind. After a short break for a snack and to catch our breath, we descended more snow and scree slopes towards the Cataract Creek Valley in order to find a place to set up camp.

Descending into Cataract Creek Valley

We reached the creek in a little less than an hour, only to find that Mother Nature—having covered most of the valley with snow—had already chosen our site for us.

Our campsite

The neat thing about camping in a wilderness area is that you are not limited to designated camping sites. On the flip side, there are no outhouses, and you have to carry in a bear canister to store your food. After setting up camp and having a quick meal, Rachel taught us how to play Kaiser. We managed to play a few rounds before the sun set and we decided to call it a night.

No one had much energy the next day. Well, at least none of us mortals—Chris “The Machine” went for a stroll up to the ridge above our camp. Garvin had brought some art supplies and did some painting (there was no shortage of inspirational vistas). Tony brought the second book to the “Game of Thrones” series. We played some more cards, shared some stories, watch avalanches on the neighbouring mountain, and take naps.

An avalanche on the mountain above us. Avalanches would occur about every half hour.

We also drew up an exit strategy. Knowing that the hardest part of our return trip was at the beginning, we decided to leave for Nigel Pass the next day and decide then whether we would stay an extra night or push all the way back to the cars.

The conditions on day three were less-than-ideal. It was cold, windy, and raining, I led the assault on the snow slope above camp, kicking steps along the deceptively steep slope.

The ascent back to Cataract Pass

Front-loading the difficult portion meant we were back on the pass in a little over an hour. The best part about the descent back into the Brazeau River Valley was that the snow-covered slopes made for fun glissading.

We made quick progress across the snow and boulder fields back to Nigel Pass. Tired, and lured by the prospect of hot food at the Saskatchewan Crossing café, we decided to finish our trip that day. Seven hours after packing up our camp, we were packing our gear into our cars.

Reflecting back on the trip, I am happy things played out as they did. Had the weather been hot and the route free of snow, we would have been fighting dehydration, heat stroke, and hordes of insects. It is also rare to have a trip with as much varied terrain as what we encountered. We started off on a muddy trail, crossed a river, scrambled on talus, and trudged through snow. Depending on which pictures you look at, the trip could have been in either summer or winter.

However, a trip is about much more than just the terrain you conquer (or, rather, Mother Nature allows you to endure) or the destination at which you arrive. Unless you are Ueli Steck, you are probably travelling with companions, and hearing a buddy make a funny joke is a welcome morale booster when your toes are sore from kicking steps up a steep snow slope. Even more than that, when you are in a remote area in unforgiving terrain, who you have with you could determine what the outcome would be if things were to take a turn for the worse. Other than some slight delays and some gear problems here and there, our trip went smoothly. Having belayed and been belayed by my companions, I think there was a certain level of trust that existed between us that not all friendships are not able to cultivate.

Perhaps I speak only for myself. Perhaps I am romanticizing the mountains, which I must admit is one of the places I love the most. The entire drive home, I thought about the trip and hatched ideas about the next adventure.

The last thought I had as I crawled into my warm bed after a hot shower was, “This is nice, but huddling in a tent playing Kaiser and passing around a bottle of Fireball whiskey would be even nicer.”

Thanks to Chris, Tony, Rachel, and Garvin for an epic trip.

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!