During the last 10 days or so of my stay in the Canadian Rockies I decided to concentrate my efforts on trying to improve my skiing. With fresh falls of snow the conditions changed from the ‘hard-pack’ with which I had become familiar, exposing my lack of proper technique. Change of conditions, change of emphasis, change of sky from blue to less photogenic grey resulted in more skiing and fewer photographs.
But there were still ‘days-off’. One of the reasons I like Banff is the opportunity to walk winter trails on days when I’m not skiing. I try to include a mix of routes which I have enjoyed on previous visits and others new to me. Coming towards the end of my stay I realised that there were more trails I wanted to explore than days available. Snow shoeing in Marble Canyon? The Hoodoos Trail with the prospect/risk of running across a bunch of coyotes again? A nostalgic jaunt up Tunnel Mountain? Walk up Sulphur Mountain Trail?
In the event one decision was made for me by friends who I met last year and again this who had bought tickets for the Sulphur Mountain Gondola, not used, and very generously left in an envelope for me at the hotel.
I had wanted to go up Sulphur Mountain which at 2260 metres (7,415 ft) is 570 metres (1870 ft) higher than Tunnel Mountain which I blogged about previously. The longer walk-in, longer climb and heavier going in fresh snow, together with the prospect of the impact on my legs for days of more skiing to follow, had put me off.
There was also a far more daunting prospect, a darker cloud than the one overhead leaking snow profusely: the need to go shopping, presents to find for the grandchildren. I can’t buy just any old tat, I have to find something which I think appropriate, which will be appreciated, and which can be encompassed times four within the space and weight limits of my flight baggage.
The gondola tickets provided the ideal solution. With the morning snowfall forecast to clear by afternoon I could tackle the shops first and then for light relief walk to the gondola base near ‘Upper Hot ‘Springs’, ride to the top and wander on up to the Observatory.
I was exhausted when I returned to the hotel after trolling around 15 or 20 prospective sources of gifts in Downtown Banff. Resisting the temptation to sit down ‘just for a minute’ to recover, because I knew that if I did I would doze off in the seductive warmth of the hotel, I changed into full winter kit and set out.
The first part of the walk is to Bow Falls, always a pleasure, and once the cold air hit me I freshened up. The expanse of open water between the Town Bridge to below the Falls which featured in my walk along the Bow River in the unseasonably mild weather at the end of my first week had changed dramatically with over a week of minus 35 degree mornings and minus 20 afternoons. Most of the river had now frozen over and was snow-covered. The Spray River joined the Bow below the ice. The sky was nolonger blue but graphite as the snow continued to fall.
The Bow Falls Trail climbs a crag and in winter is chained across with a swinging ‘TRAIL CLOSED’ sign, mostly ignored. It is certainly passable with care in good boots but I had put on my cleats which made the steep, snow-filled wooden steps easier and safer, taking them off once down at river level.
I found the onward trail to the Upper Hot Springs at the far left of the top car park of the love-or-hate-it self-styled ‘chateau’ of the huge (alright, the luxurious but architecturally monstrous faux-Gothic) Banff Springs Hotel. The trail climbed, sometimes steeply, sometimes gently, up a through the forest. I regretted having removed my cleats as in places the hard-pack below the fresh snow was sheet ice. With rising temperatures I soon got very warm and also regretted being in full winter gear.
There were only two sets of prints in the fresh snow on the trail ahead of me, one the boots of a young teenager or small woman, the other of what I hoped was a dog not a coyote.
When in half an hour I reached the massive 5-star Rimrock Hotel adjacent to the Upper Hot Springs I thought that the architecture of the Banff Springs wasn’t that bad after all.
The large car park at the base of the Gondola was virtually empty, fewer than ten cars, parked prominently in the middle the very chunky red and white Brewster Ice Explorer with its monster-wheels, ready to take visitors onto the Columbia Icefield when called upon to do so.
The gondola base station is impressive, with a Starbucks offering a tantalising caffeine–fix. I decided to defer the pleasure until on my way down. Anticipation heightens the experience. The turn-round of the 4–person gondolas is, very surprisingly, dependant on fit young things with backs bent pushing the cabins around the loop, unlike the similar–sized gondolas on the ski hill which are fully automated.
Ten minutes to the top and a different world. The upper station of the gondola is older but just as impressive as the bottom, with a high level ‘viewing deck’ above the flying saucer shaped ‘Restaurant at the Top of The Universe’, offering an all-round panorama.
Once outside it was significantly colder and windier. Now I was glad of my winter gear and, with significant wind-chill, only regretted having sweated on the way up from the river. I soon warmed up again as I followed the extremely well constructed half a kilometre-long board walk across the drifted snow down into a col and then up to the 1903 Meteorological Observatory. There was 20cms of fresh snow in places, even on the boardwalk, with deeper drifts. The snow-blasted, thick-walled, stone-built observatory now has a sturdy telecom mast on top, presumably replacing the manual observation and reporting procedure of the 30 years it was used principally by Norman Bethune Sanson after whom the small peak was named in 1948.
The cloud had lifted off the peak for the time I was there but I could see the dark mass of another snow cloud creeping inexorably along the length the Spray Valley from the far end of Mount Rundle. Neighbouring peaks were lost in the clouds, not photogenic but the views were still impressive.
Back at the base an exceedingly enjoyable caffeine-fix sitting in an armchair by the fire, then eschewing the prospect of taking the twice-hourly ‘Roam’ bus back to the hotel, I strapped on my cleats and headed down the trail, a real spring in my step as the peak of the mountain disappeared once more and the snow shower finally overtook me.
Shopping completed successfully. An 8 mile walk, just over half a mile horizontally and 698m (2,292 ft) vertically on the gondola. Yet another great day. And it snowed, so the next day skiing would be good.