For part of the trip, I couldn’t decide which was the tougher scramble: Crowsnest Mountain or Mount Sparrowhawk. That debate was conclusively squashed in the crux of Crowsnest: picture a gully a few metres wide but a good dozen meters tall, filled with loose scree that makes grinding up the channel a slog, and sprinkle in a few upclimbs just to further piss you off. Those two metal chains did indeed make the near-cliff at the top of the gully easier to exit, but there was an awkward section between them with few good footholds. The angle of the rock strata was down-slope, too, which I noted would make that section extremely dangerous when wet.
I didn’t know the half of how treacherous it could get.
Weather reports in the mountains are like the Pirate Code. The mountains themselves cause weather and redirect the wind, and tend to be more prone to moisture and wind than the surrounding valleys, making forecasting difficult. I ruled out hiking in Lake Louise or Banff due to 50% chances of rain, but I thought Crowsnest Pass had a 0% chance of rain that day, which didn’t offer much room for a weather surprise. I later learned I’d misread the report and there was a 20% chance in the afternoon, but at worst I’d just have been more slightly more alert to the weather. I would have been on alert anyway, as the high winds of the Crowsnest Pass only make weather surprises more likely. Reading the conditions while on the hike is far more reliable, for obvious reasons, but when scrambling a mountain you spend most of your time with half the sky blocked by said mountain. As unreliable as they can be, weather reports are still vital.
Alas, the forecasts were wrong even before we stepped out of the vehicle. Webcams from the Crowsnest Pass region showed smoke-free skies the previous day, another plus over Lake Louise/Banff, but we arrived to find quite a bit of smoke in the air. To understand why that’s annoying, consider the view when there isn’t much smoke about.
This is a small slice of what you see from the top of Mount Sparrowhawk. That long “lake” on the left is actually the Spray Lakes Reservoir, while the stubby one is Goat Pond. There’s a bit of Mount Lougheed in shadow, and dead behind it are The Rimwall (7km away), the Three Sisters (10km), Mount Rundle (25km), and Cascade Mountain (38km). All of those are beneath you! There may only be two mountains higher than Sparrowhawk visible here, Bonnet Peak and Mount Temple, and the closest of them is 70km away. That’s not my record for mountainspotting, but you get the point: clear air on a mountain top earns you spectacular views of distant scenery.
Smoky air is more like this. The pretty boomerang is the Seven Sisters (2km away), the sun-kissed mountains are Allison Peak and Mount Ward (7km), and that black mass behind the Seven Sisters is part of the High Rock Range (no more than 15km). It doesn’t have the same impact, right?
It was a lot more alarming, though. This shot was taken above those chains, about 200m short of the summit, and the more I looked at it the more worried I got. The biggest tell for rain is dark tendrils coming down from puffy Cumulus clouds, because that’s precisely what you’re looking at. All that smoke in the air led to deep dark cloud shadows and poor visibility, though, blocking my view. I had to rely on more qualitative tells, which fell outside the frame of this shot: really tall Cumulus clouds and “smearing” that blurs normally sharp boundaries. Overall, I figured there was maybe a 30% chance the haze was hiding rain. On the other hand, those clouds had been building for hours and slowly marching towards us from the North. Shortly before taking this shot, I called an audible: we should turn back. The risk side of the equation outbalanced the reward, even though the flag was waving at us from the summit. There was no way I wanted to be caught between those chains in the rain. We were all hungry and tired from the grind, so I recommended a quick break for food and photos before we retreated.
Shortly after taking this shot, I saw a lightning bolt over Allison Peak.
As we raced back down, I first saw the first clear signs of dark tendrils rapidly coming at us from the High Rock Range, as well as an ominous white “fog.” The rest of the group were pressuring me to find shelter immediately; I agreed and had a place in mind, but it was past those chains. Maybe five minutes before reaching the pair, the wave of rain hit. It really brought down the temperature, and made it tough to navigate through wet sunglasses. There wasn’t much lightning, thankfully, but we couldn’t be more exposed. I almost led us into another gully to the West of the chains, but caught sight of a cairn and was able to steer us true. I was shouting directions to the rest of group as they descended down, as by this time the wind had really picked up. The white fog chose that moment to reveal it was actually pea-sized hail. Fortunately, I saw a ray of hope: there was a bright spot behind Allison Peak, where the sun appeared to be shining through the clouds. This nastiness would pass shortly, and if only briefly we’d have a window of better weather.
But that was only the first half of the treachery.
I have a reputation for being impervious to cold. But I’ll let you in on a secret: there’s nothing special about my body. I was that kid who had to come indoors after ten minutes in the cold, and eventually it pissed me off enough to try to find workarounds like how to dress in layers. That was so effective, I wound up ditching my winter coat in favor of a thin raincoat I’d layer over one or two sweaters and a shirt. I could easily adjust for the conditions, or swap out layers as they got wet. And it was cheaper than a proper coat! Nowadays, my standard hiking clothing is a thin exercise T for moisture wicking, a beat-up puffy fleece sweater for insulation, and said raincoat for wind protection. For the lower half, I wear convertible pants as shorts for the outer layer, with some thick tights for insulation and a pair of thick wool socks for either feet or hands.
My record for remaining comfortable in a T-shirt and shorts is 0 Celsius. But I managed that while snow-shoeing in a dense forest on a sunny day; there was no wind to accelerate the loss of heat, the sun was warming my skin, and the physical exertion was just able to compensate for what I was losing to the surrounding atmosphere. When you’re a cardio junkie with the resting heart rate of an athlete, “keep moving to stay warm” is easy advice to follow. It’s one reason why I rarely throw an extra layer on when I stop for a snack, because I know that any chill I get will be gone fifteen minutes after we move again. Conversely, if I threw on the layer I’d overheat at roughly the same time and be forced to stop and change.
So when I snapped that photo on Crowsnest Mountain, I was wearing only my wicking layer and shorts. By the time we reached the chains, what little body heat I’d earned from that exercise was canceled out by my wicking layer dutifully using the rain to rip heat from me. I instinctively stuck to the back of the pack, thanks to years of experience, but that also meant I had to sit tight while the rest of the group descended the chains one-by-one. I could feel my core temperature dropping.
Alas, the layer system has flaws. If there’s only a drizzle, throwing on just the rain coat may temporarily keep you dry, but as moisture accumulates the coat will cling to your skin and suck the heat out of you. The sweater usually fares better in the short term, but offers no protection from the wind and will eventually get wet enough to suck heat even faster. Combining both will overheat you and build up sweat, which again sucks the heat out. I’d wanted to try out a new coat aimed at this middle space, and intended to use it as my insulating layer in case things went sideways; instead, I forgot the coat at home. Everyone else had all their layers on, so my only option was the rain coat destined to cool me down.
And there was no place to run. I could try to work up some heat by marching up and down the mountain, but that would increase my exposure to a lightning strike. To my left and right were cliffs, and the descent would be slow, methodical, and destined to generate little heat. Chilling down isn’t just dangerous because it slows your movement or causes shivering, it also saps your brain power. You become less observant and make more mistakes, which could prove fatal when descending slippery rock. The rest of the group was also counting on my experience to lead them back down the mountain, so I had to stay sharp. And the cooler I got, the longer it would take to warm back up.
I was faced with a difficult decision: I could launch down the chains ASAP, or I could pause to throw on my rain coat and tights. The former sacrificed some cognition and increased the risk of an accident, while the latter allowed the rain more time to wet down my footholds and increased the anxiety of the group below. I let the hail bounce off my helmet for a few seconds as I weighed each option, and cursed my rotten luck.
A puny hail storm that I’d have shrugged off below treeline had just put me in one of the most dangerous situations I’d faced.
I reached for my coat. It felt wonderful to be protected from the wind. Unfortunately, trying to pull my tights over my pants and hiking sandals cost me a fair bit of time, and I could hear shouted inquiries from below when I finally reached for that first chain. I debated what to do about my gloves. They were intended to protect your hands while belaying, but had proven useful for scrambling. Now, they were waterlogged and cooling off my hands. I decided to leave them on anyway, as the rain was slacking off and they’d help me on the chain.
I wrapped the first chain once around my dominant arm, to maximize friction, and began carefully inch-worming down the line. I shouted back commentary as I descended the chain. Dangling off the end, I probed the very top of the awkward section. I found an unappetizing mixture of mud-like rock dust and slick footholds. By this time the hail had stopped and the rain was dwindling. The distant bright patch wasn’t the Sun breaking through the clouds, but it was still a rain-free oasis of thin cloud rapidly advancing on us. I called down to the group: I was going to wait between the chains for fifteen minutes, to give the rock some time to dry.
The rain faded away. The damp rain coat slowly sucked away my heat. I kept up a conversation with the rest of the group, unseen below. It soothed their nerves. It soothed my nerves. And it helped me assess my cognitive abilities. The others had made it down safely. They weren’t in the place I’d called a shelter, but they had sheltered and could wait. I meditated over the awkward few metres of rock below me. I hadn’t realized how narrow the walls were on the ascent. I could use that.
I grabbed the end of the chain again and probed. There was a teeny bit less moisture, but more importantly I could see my first few steps. My core temperature was cool but OK. I paused for a bit, contemplating, then called down: I was descending the tricky section.
I’ve never been interested in climbing, but I used to boulder a fair bit and had absorbed a few tricks. When faced with a chimney just wide enough for their bodies, climbers wedge themselves sideways and used friction to overcome missing footholds. The vertical rock was much less likely to be wet than the horizontal footholds, though the friction is strong enough that any wetness didn’t matter. I keep typing “footholds” instead of “handholds” because climbing is really about your feet. Your hands are there to help steady you against the wall and help distribute the pressure a bit, but to a first approximation climbing is just standing in places no sane person should.
Carefully, I tried to examine the rock for a potential foothold. I slowly probed with a foot until it touched potentially-friendly rock. I looked where it landed. I scraped around a bit, to clear off any water or mud-dust, and assess what sort of friction I could get out of the rock. I braced against the sides of the little canyon. I eased myself onto the foothold, not fully trusting it. When I was confident, I did the entire process again. And again.
Three metres down, I noticed the little canyon was getting wider. Bracing against the side was increasingly less viable, yet I was still a good two metres from the chain. A small wave of panic passed over me. I looked up and down the length of the mini canyon, debating if I should head back up or continue on. With a deep breath, I had a look down for my next foothold.
Then I blinked and was standing next to the chain. I’m not sure why I don’t remember those next few metres; I had successfully fought back that brief bit of panic, and while I was cold I still felt mentally sharp. Maybe I was so focused on the rhythm of easing myself down that I lost track of time? Whatever the case, I announced I was at the second chain and eagerly grabbed it. Thus began another rhythm: release dominant arm, awkwardly slide it down the chain, grip, release the other hand and slide it to meet, look for a place for one foot, look for a place for the other foot, repeat. Within a few minutes, I could see the rest of the group huddled below. Alas, it felt like forever until I was next to them; had someone moved the footholds I used to get up this section? It wasn’t a big deal given my body temperature, so I ambled down like I was pondering chess moves.
I checked in with the group, this time face-to-face. They were in much the same shape as I was, chilled but unharmed and calm. They had blasted through the awkward section without trouble, as they’d been too busy concentrating to let fear overwhelm them. I gave some pointers on how they should descend the rest of the gully, as scree made it terribly easy to send rocks flying into any person below. I took my time to grab a quick snack and readjust my gear, deliberately letting them get well below me. I could descend scree a lot faster than they could, though I kicked up a lot of rocks in the process. As started down I grumpily noted they weren’t sticking to my plan, but they had enough distance between them to be safe.
We reconnected at the base of the gully. The danger level was rising again: the trail split into multiple similar-looking paths, the bright horizon had again been replaced with dark shadows moving in our direction, yet we had one more down-climb left to do. This wasn’t over yet.
Just kidding, it pretty much was. That second rain burst was shorter and less intense than the first, with no hail and barely any lightning. It finished before we hit the second down-climb, and that section of rock was surprisingly dry. The rest of the group did try to pick the wrong trail, but after a bit of shouting and wild gesturing on my part I got us all back on what I remembered as the proper track. And my memories proved true.
As we made the final descent down steep scree to the safety of the trees below, the clouds parted and that smell you get from a freshly watered forest wafted up to us. The Seven Sisters were bathed in a beautiful light, the greenery was lusher than we remembered. I tried to rain on things a bit by pointing out that there was a chance the creek we needed to cross had become bigger, but it was unchanged from earlier.
We spent the hike back to the vehicle debating which mountain to try next week.