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Discovering Luxury in the Backcountry

Mention an overnight stay in the BC Backcountry in January and many think of hardened mountaineers huddled inside a small lightweight tent in sleeping bags designed for Antarctic expeditions. This kind of scene from a North Face Steep Series advert leaves many a mere mortal weekend skier heading for the après bar comes dusk rather than a chilly night under canvas surrounded by a howling icy wind.

However, this does not have to be the case. There is another option for the aspirational overnight backcountry adventurer that involves a log burning fire, a 3 course dinner, a pool table and a warm cozy queen bed all served up at 4500 feet surrounded by a cauldron of mountain peaks. The solution for those that fear frost bite or being uncomfortable close to their friends is a night at the Journeymen Lodge in the Callaghan Valley.

Journeyman Lodge

The wooden Journeyman Lodge is situated in the Solitude Valley where the tree line meets the alpine all set against the backdrop of the impressive Solitude Glacier. The lodge boosts 8 bedrooms, a well maintained living room (including pool table), kitchen and dinning room. Despite the location, the lodge has all the amenities expected in a city hotel including hot showers, heating, electricity (hours are limited) and a constant supply of freshy made cookies!

 

The development of the lodge is a fascinating story of human vision, strength and perseverance. With no road access, local craftsman (living in tents) built the lodge using materials delivered by helicopter or snowcat between 1996 and 1998.

Getting There

Entry to the lodge is through the Callaghan Valley, which is located about an hour’s drive from North Vancouver on Highway 99. The lodge base facilities can be found in the Ski Callaghan car park (turn left at the junction with Whistler Olympic Park).

Check in is between 9am and 11.30am at the Ski Callaghan base where a luggage transfer is provided. The ski into the lodge is between 12.5 to 13.7km km depending on your desired route– a blue run or a black run (Wild Spirit). The later is shorter but involves the steepest pitch for a Nordic run in North America (average 11%). Just remember though it is all downhill on the way back as you claw back your 580m elevation gain!!

Activities

Once you are up in elevation, there are some gentle green cross country routes that take you around Conflict Lake. The highlights are some up front and personal views of Solitude Glacier. You can also take out the complimentary snowshoes and break your own trail!

For those that like to earn their turns (ski touring), the surrounding powdery alpine offers some fantastic skiing opportunities without the crowds found at the local ski resorts. The lodge contains a guide on suggested lines to ride.

With tired legs, the lodge boast a rustic wood fired sauna a short 5 minute walk from the front porch. The warm ambiance is complimented by the traditional glacial creek drip and /or snow bank body roll with refreshes both body and mind instantly!!

Dining & Entertainment

While weary backcountry campers are tucking into a can of half heated beans, the guests of Journeyman Lodge are served up a delicious tray of appetizers by the wood burning fire at 5.30 in the lounge.  This is followed up by a 3 course dinner served in the candle light dining room!

Post dinner entertainment is by way of good conversation with other guests, a pool table, cards or numerous board games. The lights go out at 10pm literally as the generator goes off to be replaced by lanterns!

Top Tips

  • If you plan to visit on a winter weekend, book well ahead at the lodge is a popular destination. There is currently much more availability midweek.
  • If you are just heading up for 1 night, it’s worth getting a sled transfer in so you can enjoy the pristine alpine cross country skiing and touring.
  • Bring swimwear for the sauna, torches for lights out and your own tipple (no liquor is sold on site).

What makes this lodge unique beyond the luxuries not usually found in the backcountry, is the friendliness of the staff. From Brad the owner, to Darcy who manages the base operations, everyone takes the time to make you feel welcome and answer any questions you have to make your trip as memorable as possible. A truly unique backcountry experience which we intend to make an annual trip!

Losing our Backcountry Virginity at Sundance Lodge, Banff

Having skied various hills in BC and Alberta for the past 5 years, we decided that for the 2015/16 winter season we were going to change up our mountain activities. Inspired by watching mountaineering movies at the Banff Mountain Film Festival, and armed with new packs and an unlimited supply of hand warmers we decided we were ready to explore the Canadian Rockies backcountry!

However, with limited avalanche training or experience of the true Canadian winter wilderness, we knew that our first tentative backcountry steps would need to be taken carefully into terrain where the relative risks were low.  We did our research and found that the Sundance Lodge in Banff National Park would make for a great first trip given the limited avalanche dangers on the route in.

Getting to Sundance Lodge

There are two starting points to get to the Lodge – either from Banff Trail Riders Stables (16km one way) or from Healy Creek car park (10km). We chose Healy Creek as we had hiked the Sundance Canyon Trail along the banks of the River Bow in the Summer – nothing to do with it being shorter!

We chose snowshoes as the main means of transport for our trip; the tortoise of winter travel methods – slow, steady and safe for unknown routes! Other viable options include cross country skiing with tracks set for the classic technique. Given that the route is packed snow thanks to skidoos ferrying supplies to the Lodge daily, another popular approach is using fat bikes that can be hired from Soul in Banff.

We took about 3.5 hours on snowshoes going at a leisurely pace to reach the Lodge, while those on skis / fat bikes beat us to the best fireside seats at the lodge, taking somewhere been 1.5 and 2 hours.

The Route

Starting from Healy Creek Trailhead at the base of the Sunshine Village Access Road, the route starts with a 2.5km flat trek to the junction with Brewster Creek Trail. This initial part of the trail opens up in a couple of sections to provide some great views along the the Bow Valley.

The hard works starts at the junction of Healy Creek and Brewster Creek trails, with a 2km continuous elevation gain of around 175m through the trees. We stopped for a few “rest photos.”

The trail then flattens out, and the winter sunshine starts to hit the route. Anywhere along here is a great time to stop for lunch.

The trail then drops into Brewster Creek, which suffered a lot of damage during the 2013 floods creating a large washout area over which 2 bridges have been built.

With a final 20 minute push, you round the corner to the sight of a warm cozy lodge with smoke bellowing from the chimney against the magnificent backdrop of the Sundance Range.

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Sundance Lodge

Our friendly host Steve, greeted us at the door with the welcoming offer of freshly baked cookies and hot chocolate / ice cold beer.

Room selection was on a first come first serve basis. Luckily for us (last to arrive), the 10 rooms in the lodge were only occupied by 3 other groups so we had a good selection of inviting rooms to choose from.

With feet warmed by the fire, a bottle of red purchased and acquaintances made with other guests, we headed to the dinner table for a culinary treat. A creamy mushroom soup, was followed by braised beef finished off with a Lodge made lemon meringue pie. The food was delicious, which was not a surprise when we learned Steve, a gregarious local character, has spent many years working as an executive chief in Canada and the US, and this was now his retirement gig!

The combination of board games, a good book and conversation with the other guests made for an enjoyable evening around the fire, which heats the whole Lodge.

Although the bedrooms had no heating the super thick down duvets kept us very warm in our comfortable beds, while strategically placed lanterns provided assistance to find the washrooms on the bottom level.

For those feeling brave enough to venture out at sunset, the light offers some gorgeous photos of the forest. Given  that the Lodge is 16km from the nearest town, the stars on a clear night are also a sight to behold. (nighttime photo credit: @travelswithjonny)

Breakfast was served around 9am – the pancakes, bacon, scrambled eggs and the best sausages we have tasted during our 5+ years in Canada, set us up well for the return journey!

Top Tips

  • There is no phone signal at the Lodge (or wifi) – the only communication with the outside world is via CV radio (for emergencies only).
  • Bring spare camera batteries as there is no way to charge them, and you will take lots of photos!
  • The winter hours are short, with the sun disappearing around 5pm during December, so make sure you give yourself enough to get to the Lodge before you are in need of a headlamp!
  • Only carry what you need – food and water for the trek in, a toothbrush and some Lodge clothes! A tasty lunch is provided for the journey out!
  • Remember to turn the lights off to conserve power as the Lodge is powered by solar power!
  • You need a Parks Canada pass for your parked car
  • Bring layers and hand/toe warmers as the journey in during winter can be a bit chilly!

Sundance Lodge was a fantastic location for our first backcountry foray combining a moderately challenging trek with the comforts of a comfy warm bed and tasty home cooked food!

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Top 10 Accessible Banff Photography Spots

It’s not hard to take a good photograph when visiting Banff – simply look upwards, point and shoot. However, without too much effort you can turn some good holiday snaps into great ones. All you need is a set of car keys (and a car) or if the temperature allows, a bike.

1. Vermilion Lakes

The entrance to Vermilion Lakes is situated just by the Mt Norquay road junction with Highway 1. The 4.3 km road winds along the shoreline of the 3 shallow Vermilion Lakes against an unspoiled Canadian Rockies backdrop. Sunrise or sunset both make a magical time to visit in any season.

A top tip for those looking for that elusive reflective shot of Mt Rundle in winter is to drive to the 2nd lake and find the permanently open stretch of water just by the road.

2. Mt Norquay Access Road

If you want to get a bird’s eye view of Banff without having to climb up 3000m or pay to go up the Sulphur Mountain Gondola, there is a great viewpoint off the Mt Norquay road. From the Highway 1 junction it is about a 10 minute drive up a series of switchbacks (we recommend winter tyres between November and April) until you reach the lookout, which offers spectacular views of Banff below and the surrounding mountain vistas!

3. Lake Minnewanka

A must see for any Banff visitor, Lake Minnewanka is a 15 minute drive north east out of town – just follow the signs! During the summer months Brewster offer guided boat tours, while winter offers the chance to walk across the vast frozen lake, just wrap up warm as the wind can pick up!

4. Two Jack Lake

Neighboring Lake Minnewanka is Two Jack Lake, which offers phenomenal shots in any season. Top tip is to park up and head left along the lake shoreline at sunset to get shots of the red glow over Rundle and Cascade mountains!

5. Johnson Lake

On the same road as Two Jack Lake, but a little more hidden down a 3km paved access lane is Johnson Lake. The circular lake walk offers the opportunity to capture the Banff ‘skyline’ from a variety of angles!

6. Hoodoos

The mysteriously named Hoodoos can be found by heading up the Tunnel Mountain road and pulling into the car park opposite the camp site. While the elevated views of the Bow River are great, a scramble down to the pointed rock formations is well worth it!

7. Bow River

You don’t need to leave the Banff Town site to find some great shots. Simply join the river walk that starts near the railway crossing and follow this for an hour so down to Bow Falls, crossing the river at either the foot or road bridge.

8. Sundance Canyon Trail and Marsh Loop

For those feeling a little more adventurous the Sundance Canyon Trail and Marsh Loop offer the chance to walk by the river west of Banff. Park at the Cave and Basin (free) and follow the signs. The clearness of the Bow River makes for some absorbing reflective shots!

9. Surprise Corner

Many don’t realize that you need to cross the Bow River to get the best shot of the famous Banff Springs Hotel. Follow the road signposted to the Banff Centre until you reach Surprise Corner, and can look down on the majestic castle in the mountains!

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10.Banff Avenue

For those who are not interested in leaving the comforts of downtown, then the easiest shot of all is on the town’s only road bridge across the Bow River. Wait for a gap in the traffic, and once safe simply shoot the iconic image of Mt Cascade overshadowing Banff Avenue!

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Happy Banff snapping!

Icefields Parkway – Road Trip

The 75 year old Icefields Parkway is without doubt one of the most spectacular mountain driving roads in the world as it traverses the rugged Canadian Rockies. A trip along Highway 93 in winter (very quiet) or summer (much busier) is an assault on the senses which will leave you breathless and in awe of truly how amazing Mother Nature can be!

The sub-alpine road is filled with so many easily accessible highlights, places to stop and memorable moments that a 3 hour drive can turn into days of adventure. The golden rule on this road is to triple the time you think you need and then add a few more hours just to be safe!

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Getting there

Most travellers will access the Parkway from Highway 1 just outside the village of Lake Louise. The 232 km journey through the pristine mountain environment starts in Banff National Park, and ends in Jasper National Park so make sure you purchase a Parks Canada Parks pass before you hit the tarmac – there are checks!

In the winter months, the road is a frozen wonderland so it is good to ensure you have decent winter tires. The road has no cell phone signal so make sure you pack everything you need, and let someone know where you are venturing to!

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Crowfoot Glacier

The first major highlight of the road trip greets you in a few minutes of your journey. Heading north look left to view Crowfoot Glacier. There is a rest spot at which your camera will make its’ first of many appearances!

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Bow Lake

Twenty minutes up the road  you are in for a real treat. Avoid the temptation to stop on the road pull out and continue on to the left hand turn road which leads to a set of washrooms and the historic Num-Ti-Jah Lodge.

From here you will be able to appreciate the true wonder of this location. The Bow Glacier which is part of the Wapta Icefield is easily visible from the shore of Bow Lake. This glacier forms the source of the Bow River which flows via Calgary to Hudson Bay! There are also plenty of hiking trails including Bow Glacier Falls.

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If you thought Bow Lake was an eye opener, wait until you see Peyto Lake! If heading there in winter you will probably need snowshoes to make the 20 minute walk up the snow covered access road to the viewing platform. You might also be lucky enough to capture the Northern Lights, and even a little snow art!

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If arriving in the summer months, it’s a pleasant 15 minute stroll up the hill to view one of the undisputed jewels of the Rocky Mountains. Significant amounts of glacial rock flour flow into the lake, and these suspended rock particles give the lake its unique bright, turquoise colour.

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Best to go early or late to avoid the tour buses that stop by to wonder at this true beauty of nature in the summer months. Indeed, the lake is best seen from Bow Summit, the highest point on the Icefields Parkway so don’t forget your hiking boots!

Saskatchewan Crossing

The river crossing is also home to the only services on the highway between Lake Louise and Jasper. If you need gas, be prepared to pay a higher price given the isolation of this location.

For those more interested in the huge Saskatchewan River, there is a view point and picnic area just across the road.

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Athabasca Glacier

At the highest point on the road lies a confluence of 5 glaciers fed by the largest ice sheet outside of the Arctic Circle, the Columbia Icefield, which is about 325 square kilometers (125 sq mi) and up to 325m thick.

What is unique about this location is that you are able to walk upon the Athabasca Glacier via travel one of Brewster’s monster wheeled ice explorers. Be prepared for an 18% degree road (the 2nd steepest in North America) that drops you onto the glacier! Once on the glacier you are able to sample fresh drinking water and take as many photos as your memory card and the allotted 20 minutes will allow.

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Glacier Skywalk

A recent addition to the Brewster family of Rockies attractions is the Glacier Skywalk. This cliff hugging pathway extends via a glass path over the valley to leave those with a fear of heights clinging to the railings. The walk offers unrestricted views of the valley and the Columbia Icefield above, and is a nice add on to the “must do” glacier tour if time allows.

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Wildlife

You might be also lucky enough to encounter some of the locals. Give them some space and they might give you a smile!

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Summary

There are many more highlights on the Icefields Parkway which we will leave up to you to discover such as Helen Lake, Parker Ridge and Mistaya Canyon – we don’t want to ruin all the Parkway’s surprises!

Our advice is take your time, bring a tent or even ride your bike if you don’t mind uphill climbs. Whatever happens don’t rush the Icefields Parkway – it’s a magic place to evoke your sense of wonder!

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