Backpacking the Iceline Trail, Whaleback, and Little yoho Valley

The Iceline Trail, Whaleback, and Yoho Valley trails make for a great two-four day backpacking circuit in Yoho National Park. Beginning at Takakkaw Falls, we headed up  Yoho Valley. The first of many sights along the trail is Laughing Falls. There’s a backcountry campground here if you wish to explore the area more before you continue. Seeing as it’s only about 3.5 kilometres from the trail head, we continued on.

We trekked up towards Whaleback after stopping at a few more waterfalls. Once we gained more elevation and climbed up the Whaleback, we enjoyed the view of Yoho Valley where we came from, as well as the view to where we would be going the following day, Little Yoho Valley and the Iceline trail. The Whaleback trail descends into the neighbouring valley where we would camp until the next morning. 

With an early start, we left camp at Little Yoho Campground just before sunrise in hopes of having a nice sunrise from the top of the Iceline trail. 

The hike from Little Yoho campground ascends fairly quickly out of the trees and into the rugged alpine. The alpine reveals a number of nearby glaciers and glacial lagoons immediately next to the trail. The trail continues alongside these ancient glaciers for about 7 kilometres before descending down into the valley below. The valley eventually spits you out just east of Takakkaw falls.

Photos and words by Ryan Richardson    

                                       

Backpacking Limestone Lakes in Height of the Rockies

Limestone lakes in Height of the Rockies Provincial park is without a doubt one of the most incredible backcountry venues I have ever had the privilege of experiencing.

Limestone lakes in Height of the Rockies Provincial park is without a doubt one of the most incredible backcountry venues I have ever had the privilege of experiencing. It’s remote and difficult to get to location also keeps the flocks of tourist and backcountry users at bay. For good reason, route finding and proficient gps experience is required. Moreover, it’s prime grizzly country. I experienced my worst bear encounter on this trip.

On day one we followed a trail about 10km to our first cowboy camp. The trail runs parallel along the adjacent river most of the way up the valley. Then second day we ascended above the tree line. There’s an option to navigate around a large ridge line, but w-e opted to gain the ridge and then loose elevation on the other side. We thought the views might be worth it, and we were rewarded for our optimism.

After a full second day of bushwhacking and navigating limestone cliffs, we finally arrived at the stunning lookout above Limestone Lakes.

We spent another two nights at Limestone Lakes. The extra time and lighter packs afforded us the opportunity to explore the area a little more. We spend much of the third day swimming in the lake and enjoying the sun. We lucked out with weather, there was hardly a cloud in the sky the entire trip. The fourth day we hiked back out of the alpine lakes area and descended back into the valley below. We opted to go around the ridge climb, saving our legs for the 25km trek back to our vehicle.

Photos and words by Ryan Richardson.

Photo Guide: Saddleback Pass Larches Hike

Here’s everything you need to know about hiking and photographing Saddleback Pass for the larches in Autumn.

It’s no secret that Lake Louise is the gem of the Canadian Rockies. It’s far from hidden though, so be sure to get up early for this one. Either that, or be prepared to go late and potentially make it back down in the dark. The parking lot here has been disgracefully busy these past two seasons.

The extra distance from the city, and fighting for a parking stall is well worth it though! There’s a reason everyone wants to be around Lake Louise in the Autumn. Especially hiking up to Saddleback Pass. There is literally no more suiting name for this pass. It’s beautiful during the summer but it’s just spectacular in the autumn. The larches are abundant!

Distance from Calgary: 2 hours 2 minutes
Hiking time (roundtrip): 3-4.5 hours
Elevation gain: 660m
Trail Distance (roundtrip): 8.2

The hike up to the pass starts from the west side of Lake Louise. There’s also a lot of trail right from the parking lot that intersect with the first few hundred metres of the Saddleback Pass trail. The trail is heavily trafficked. There’s no way to lose it the entire way up to the pass.

You gain quite a bit of elevation right away. You’ll be surprised how quickly you’re ascending up into the clouds on this trail. There are a few breaks in the trees where you can look out towards the bow valley and Ski Lake Louise on the other side of the highway 1.

I found the ascent to be fairly quickly and only needed to catch my breath maybe once or twice before reach the pass. The elevation it steep but I thought it was still fairly gradual. It helps that the trail is pretty wide and even.

As you climb higher towards Saddleback Pass, the golden larches will begin become more obvious. The orange and yellow needles will are a beautiful contrast from the other trees around. There were a lot of photo opportunities along the trail right before you actually gain the pass. The last bit of elevation before the plateau has endless compositions waiting to be captured!

Once you get up into Paradise Valley pass, you can see stunning views of Mount Temple. Mount Temple is incredible from any angle, but especially the angle from Saddleback Pass. There are tons of larches in this area too. The larches here make for great foreground before Mount Temple.

Being down in the pass is spectacular, however there is a trail that continues up Mount Fairview. There’s still quite a bit of elevation to gain from the valley, but if you have the time, it’s worth it! The views ascending up Mount Fairview open up to incredible views of the entire valley with countless larches below.

It isn’t even crucial to summit Mount Fairview. Even if you ascend just part way, you will have amazing views of Paradise Valley and Saddleback Pass below.

Photo Guide: Chester Lake Larches

Everything you need to know about viewing and photographing the stunning larches at Chester Lake.

Kananaskis Country is home to a handful of family friendly and approachable hikes to view and photograph the larches each fall. The larches only grow 1800m above sea level though, so you need to find hikes where you you can gain a lot of elevation. Luckily, Chester Lake hike trailhead starts at a fairly high elevation along the Smith-Dorrien “highway”.

Distance from Calgary: 2 hours 3 minutes
Hiking time (roundtrip): 2.5-4.5 hours
Elevation gain: 420m
Trail Distance (roundtrip): 9.3

Photographing the larches at Chester Lake is really quite beautiful. I would recommend avoiding the area on the weekends if you can. It’s a very busy destination for a lot of families. You should have the place mostly to yourself during the week.

If you’re limited to the weekends only, you might have clone-stamp a few people out of your photos along Chester Lake. I was limited to visiting during the weekend and had to get a little creative to select compositions that didn’t have too many people in the background.

The weather can be a little “touch-and-go” during autumn in the mountains. Be prepared to get rained on without notice. If you’re bringing all your camera equipment, be sure to bring some weather protection for your kit as-well.

From the trailhead, the heavily trafficked path gains a gradual elevation before eventually flattening out once you gain the plateau leading to Chester Lake. The path is very wide and obvious, there is no reason you should lose your way at any point. Once you get to a clearing in the plateau before the lake, you’ll begin to see the larches.

There will be more larches along Chester Lake once you arrive to the lakeside. Once you get to the lakeside you can choose to continue along the path to the left of the lake. This path will circle around the entire lake and affords a bunch of nice photo opportunities.

The detour is well worth the extra time on your feet and it won’t take you long to get around the entire lake. On the far side of the lake, there is an opportunity to gain a little bit of extra elevation. The view of the backdrop looking back towards Chester Lake is stunning. You don’t need to climb very high to see what I’m talking about.

Take the same way back to the parking lot. There is apparently another trail that runs parallel which is less trafficked. However, I was looking out for it and I didn’t end up seeing it.

My shots were all taken during the middle of the day. I had pretty spotty weather where I lucked out with nice light for some photos and had pretty flat light for others. It would definitely be worth going for sunrise or sunset. There are many bears in the area so be loud, groups are always encouraged, bear spray is not a luxury, bring it.

We Explored the badlands by Jeep and never expected this

The Canadian badlands boast much more than just fossils however. It’s a great place to break in a new 4×4 and get a little dirt underneath its’ tires.

Alberta is a driving province. Everything is relatively close, so long as you have a vehicle to get you there. The mountains, the prairies and everything in between are all easily accessible. After a lot of deliberation, my partner Hailey and I finally pulled the trigger on our own vehicle. Our first destination with our new wheels might come as a bit of a surprise.

Alberta’s badlands are located around the usually sleepy town of Drumheller. Drumheller is about ninety minutes from Calgary. The town is known for the famous Tyrell Dinosaur Museum. The badlands around the town are famous for being the dinosaur bone capital of the world.

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The Canadian badlands boast much more than just fossils however. It’s a great place to break in a new 4×4 and get a little dirt underneath its’ tires. It had been about seven years since I last visited the area with my old 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee. I couldn’t imagine a better place to christen our brand new Jeep Cherokee.

We drove around the town for a while. Turning down just about every dirt road we could find. There were a few roads that elevated quickly out of Drumheller which opened up to beautiful views of the town below.

After making the rounds around town we decided to head to Horseshoe Canyon. It looked like on Google Earth we might be able to drive off road a little bit and park next to the edge of the canyon. We didn’t quite know what to expect but that was part of the adventure!

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Horseshoe canyon use to be a lush habitat for the dinosaurs that once roamed its’ surface. It’s not hard to imagine what it might have looked like to see a dinosaur there as you look into the layers of ancient layers of sediment that make up the canyon.

We found the perfect spot to park our new Jeep to enjoy the setting sun together. I brought my small acoustic guitar to pass the time until the sun set closer to the horizon. Once the sun lowered in the sky, it cast all kinds of incredible shades of colours into Horseshoe Canyon.

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I took full advantage of the fleeting sunlight and snapped photos of our temporary setup at the edge of the canyon. We were parked right on the rim and had the entire view to ourselves. The sun slowly faded into a gentle purple hue until the stars began to fill the sky.

When living in Alberta it’s easy to overlook the less visited towns and regions that make up our beautiful province. The Canadian Rockies steal a lot of the thunder. The badlands reignited a spark in me that enjoys discovering completely new places – especially the adventures where I can explore on four wheels.

Photos and words by Ryan Richardson

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Glacier Running in Trail Shoes (VIDEO)

Glacier running is something I knew nothing about until a few weeks ago. Crossing a glacier without a rope, what kind of crampons would I even wear?

Glacier running is something I knew nothing about until a few weeks ago. Crossing a glacier without a rope, what kind of crampons would I even wear? All of my concerns would quickly disappear with the reassurance of navigating this terrain with the guides at Canadian Rockies Running Adventures.

Blue ice crunched beneath my feet as I carefully ran on the Wapta Icefield. Surrounded by towering mountain peaks, I feel as though I’m a character in some kind of alpine fairytale. Crossing a mix of solid ice and melting ice for the next 8 km. I fill up my now empty water bottle with the melt water pouring off the melting glacier as it heats up from the afternoon sun. I feel as though I’m sipping a piece of Canadian history.

There’s a group of 10 of us runners having the time of our lives, running with micro spikes on our trail shoes, jumping over flowing water and avoiding the occasional crevasse. The sound of the river systems beneath the glacier echoed so loudly it was as if we were standing next to the Niagara Falls.

So it’s Safe Right?

This area of the of the Wapta Icefield is unique because it’s a “dry glacier”. That means that if the conditions are right, there’s no snow hiding the otherwise dangerous cravasses. That means there’s no risk of falling into the glacier never to be seen again. That doesn’t mean there’s no risk at all though! That’s where the guides come in.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when Canadian Rockies Running Adventures invited Ryan and I to come along on their Wapta Icefields Run. “Crossing a glacier? Don’t you need to be roped up for that?” I nervously thought to myself.

Don’t you need to be roped up for that?

Having this kind of glacier adventure without mountaineering experience is nearly impossible for the average runner and adventurer. However, My fears quickly disappeared in knowing that our friends and certified mountain guides James (IFMGA / ACMG MG) and Emily (ACMG AHG) would be leading the way!

Running alongside glacial pond.
The running group approaching the Wapta Icefield next to a glacial pond.

Running to New Heights

We started running lakeside from the edge of the Bow Lake. Bow lake sits along the Icefields Parkway in Banff NP. We ran around the lake and then up a relatively flat trail through the trees behind bow lake. We gradually ascended alongside the flowing melt water from the glacier that we would soon be running on. Leaving bow lake behind us, a beautiful scene down the valley began opening up. I had never experienced so much eco-diversity in such a small area.

Hopping over some rocky terrain, small streams, and tree roots. We reached the famous backcountry hut, Bow Hut. We stopped to have some lunch and take in the gorgeous alpine scenery. After a quick bite of gourmet protein bars, we continued to ascend up to the toe of the glacier beneath St. Nicholas peak. Bright turquoise glacial ponds formed right at the toe of where we would start our “glacier running” adventure. We spiked up and got ready to take on the Wapta Icefield!

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Runners poses for photo on glacier.
Hailey is all smiles. Ice beneath her feet, and camera on her shoulder.

Glacier Running Across History Frozen in Time

The Icefields along the parkway are dwindling in size each year. The adjacent Columbia Icefield tracks the regression of its’ glaciers with great detail. The regression is shared with the public and shown by placing markers along the moraine with the dates at which the glacier still reached the markers, indicating the glacier’s retreat and the timeline at which it’s retreating.

Two runners running on glacier.
Our glacier running ACMG MG, James, runs ahead to assess the terrain and incoming weather.

The climate crisis can be overwhelmingly large and intangible at times. Spending time near glaciers and on glaciers is the best way I know how to get a “crash course” on our climate and the rate at which our planet is getting warmer.

Glaciers around the world are receding at an alarming rate due to our current climate crisis. It’s sad and sobering, however it’s a fact, and it makes me appreciate our time on the icefield, as it lives and breathes, even more special.

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Man helps woman cross river.
The warmth of the afternoon sun caused the glacier runoff to engorge the rivers. James helps Hailey safely across to the other side.

How Glacier Running Helped Grow my Comfort Zone

It’s true what they say. When you do something outside of your comfort zone, your comfort zone grows. This glacier running adventure is a low risk opportunity to put that theory to the test. Having professional ACMG guides blazing your trail and upholding an uncompromising ‘duty of care’ ensures your well-being.

Having your safety looked after, you can focus on enjoying a brand new experience. Pushing your personal boundaries and exposing yourself to a brand new experience that might otherwise be unachievable or dangerous. After this glacier running adventure, I have become even more inspired to push my safely boundaries and personal development moving through the mountains. I hope to explore new and exciting terrain that before I thought to be unachievable or out of reach.

How to Stay Motivated While Walking a Marathon a Day for Two Weeks Straight

Ryan and I are athletic, but we are NOT professional athletes. We have never competed in any kind of organized race including marathons, ultramarathons, nor a 10 k. So what compelled us to average a marathon per day for 14 days straight?

Desperation.

Seriously. We did not willingly choose to take on such a daunting objective. We had a goal and chose to adapt to our situation rather than have an out and calling it quits. What I’m referring to is our 420 KM Iceland expedition that ended up tacking on over 100 KM extra. Using Google Earth as our only reference, we mapped out our entire route thinking we only had a maximum of 300 KM to walk. To our surprise, and dismay, that route turned out to be incredibly off base. Hitting our pre-planned daily pinpoint targets was nearly impossible. What was supposed to take only one day often quickly turned into a two day haul, sometimes even three days.

We really did not want to ration food so we made the decision that we would just walk for longer each day. Our days went from 10 hours to 15 hours real fast. We were hauling as hard as we could and putting every ounce of what we had left in us into each step. Just when the days would start to feel long, weather greeted us and always had something in store. Sometimes we would experience all four seasons in the span of 2 hours. Mother Nature would roar her brains out and shower golfball sized hail stones down on us. It really felt like she was trying to get the best of us.

It is by no means a stretch of the imagination when I say that our Iceland expedition was the most mentally and physically tough challenge we had ever experienced.

Getting Through

So, how did we keep it together when we just wanted our joints to stop crying and the pain to end? How did we keep walking after getting cold rashes on our legs from sub zero glacial rivers or blisters on our feet bigger than our toes?

…OREOS.

No, literally oreos! Ryan and I relied on the cookies so much that we created a little acronym about how we were able to get this expedition done.

(Side story, we came across a few mountain huts along the way that sold Oreos so we would seriously eat them as some of our meals so we could preserve all of the food that we could).

Alright, enough cookie talk.

OREOS stands for Objective, Resilience, Empower, Optimism, Strength. These five words truly did allow us to complete our mission and kept our heads up when times got tough ( which was all of the time).

Objective

Not only does objective refer to the actual mission of the trip, it refers to knowing your ‘why’ and always keeping it in the back of your mind. I learned this practice from my mentor, ultra-marathoner, Leanne Richardson. Leanne always knows her why and uses it as the fuel to keep going when times get hard out on the course.

In our case, our ‘why’ was Iceland’s Highlands. It was the very environment that we were walking through. It was the ground beneath each step we took, remembering how vulnerable it is to human threat. There is nothing that compels you to protect a place more than reminding yourself you are just a passenger voyaging through a potential once- upon- a- time wilderness oasis.

We had a job to do. Not only were we walking to raise awareness, we were also filming ourselves doing it to assist the Highlands Project to create noise so their government will listen. When times got tough we no longer had to get through for ourselves, we had to keep moving for the planet.

Resilience

If I had to pick one word to sum up our expedition it would be this one. We pretty much had every obstacle thrown in our way. Going from 25 km walking days to over 50 km, injuries and unpreventable blisters, learning that there was no way to get our food supply to our pre planned drops, the list goes on. We had so many hurdles and set backs that could have prevented us from continuing.

Crossing rapidly moving glacial rivers at 2:00 AM during a rainstorm and having to camp out for 3 days to combat injuries so we could finish the last 80 km were two of my biggest obstacles. These were moments where that inner voice of self doubt came out and broke me down. It called me unspeakable names and made me question myself and my actions.

I heard and listened to the voice, but then I would get a spark of my true self and remind myself how badly I wanted to accomplish this. I knew there was no way out. I told myself that I would live off of plain Lays chips for 7 days straight if that meant we could have enough food to finish our expedition.

There was no way we were giving up.

Empower

I am so thankful to have had my partner, Ryan, with me on this expedition. I truly have an appreciation for people who are able to do these kinds of things solo. It helped having the person I love with me and we were really able to get each other through. Ryan didn’t even know how much he helped me until the expedition was over and done.

I was able to get through because of his belief in me which made me believe in myself. I’m not sure if you’ve ever experienced ‘imposter syndrome’ but I felt like I suffered from it often during the trip. When the journey got difficult, I would say things like “I’m not an athlete!”, or “how can someone like me be doing something as crazy as this?”. Ryan would always respond positively with comments like “well, you did an ultramarathon yesterday, did you not?”

I would laugh and shake my head in disbelief but it was truly those comments that reassured me that someone like me CAN dream big and accomplish their goal.

Even if you don’t have a partner to empower or who can empower you, saying nice things to yourself while you’re out on your journey makes a huge difference. Treat yourself like you would treat a friend. Would you ever tell your friend that they are weak and out of their mind for attempting such a wild objective? Most likely you would not. You are allowed to experience self doubt but remember to pick yourself up and keep moving even if it’s at a slower pace.

Optimism

Optimism is a funny one. This word can make or break your expedition because if you have too little of it, it’s a game ender but if you have too much of it, things can get dangerous. A healthy balance of optimism and realism is the key ingredient to a successful expedition recipe.

Being too optimistic can lead people to put themselves in dangerous situations because they didn’t properly assess the risk. Knowing the risks, your capabilities, and being prepared will combat this.

Ryan and I are naturally optimistic people so there was never a moment where we didn’t think we had a chance of crossing the island. I appreciated this characteristic after the fact because I know how damaging negative talk and disbelief can be. If you don’t believe you will be successful, you most likely won’t be.

Strength

For this expedition specifically, it really came down to our mental strength. I personally believe that mental strength is trainable and it is something you can work on and get better at. For me, mental strength was the combination of OREO. Knowing our objective, being resilient, empowering one another, and being unapologetically optimistic truly built the foundation.

Mental strength is difficult to train without putting yourself in uncomfortable situations to achieve a goal. You know you’re mentally strong when you feel like the world is working against you but you don’t let that stop you from getting the job done.

I hope you can take this acronym and apply it to your own journeys. If there is anything I have learned from our Iceland expedition, it’s that you are so much more capable than you think you are. Whether you want to run a marathon or achieve a first ascent, you have the power within you to accomplish whatever it is you put your mind to.

All-Mountain Trail Running Shoe: Norvan VT 2 Review

Arc’teryx recently launched the ultimate trail running/ scrambling shoe. The Norvan VT 2 shoes are thought to be the best trail shoes on the market. I brought them to multiple ranges in the Canadian Rockies to field test them and see what all the hype is about.

Rocky Mountain Approved

I had the opportunity to put Arc’teryx’ new Norvan VT 2 trail shoe to the test in a couple of different Canadian playgrounds. I first tried the Norvan VT 2 shoes during a 3-day helicopter assisted trail running trip in the Purcell Range of British Columbia. I then wore them on the rugged terrain of the Opal Range in Alberta a week later.

Initial thoughts: The Norvan VT 2 can definitely take a beating while allowing you to feel agile and supported.

When I first learned that the shoe is designed for both trail running and scrambling, I almost didn’t believe it. Holding the shoes for the first time, they felt too light to be durable enough for a solid Rocky Mountain scramble. Weighing in at 10.1 oz per shoe, these trail runners are super lightweight, however, I was pleasantly surprised by how robust they are.

Purcell Range, BC

During our heli-trail running excursion, I was seriously gliding in the Norvan VT 2 shoes. I was transitioning from the new Salomon Speed Cross 5’s and my feet instantly felt at ease when I first started running. There was something that felt so right about the shoes, perhaps it was the grip or how breathable they are. It was important for me to be able to keep up with my trail running group (I’m generally a slow poke) so I could photograph them as well. We were there to do a job that required being on our feet all day, so I found that the shoes provided outstanding comfort. I was able to continue running for hours on end.

I could not stop raving about the shoes throughout the trip. I felt like a lightning bolt as I ran the narrow ridges of the Purcell Range. I loved how agile I could be while I was both running and filming.

I continuously thought to myself that these were the best shoes I had ever worn.

Opal Range, AB

A 6 hour jaunt up and down Gap Mountain in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park helped me truly determine my stance on the shoe.

Our ascent was an incredibly steep 713 m elevation gain with sheer exposure and gullies to be mindful of. There were a few sections that required conscious footing in order to pass safely. I was always confident in my foot placement and appreciated just how grippy the VT 2’s were against the loose scree.

When we were up, the narrow ridgeline made for a super fun traverse to the summit and I again felt sturdy as I glided across the rocks. When I was ridge running on Gap, there was never a moment where my feet couldn’t keep up with the ground beneath me. This is something I have found to be common in other runners that have made me feel completely defeated by the terrain.

Though the shoe is thoughtfully designed with scramblers in mind, there are a few issues that I discovered during this second adventure. For scrambling specifically, the shale and loose rock do pose a problem with such a low ankle cut. I found that there were numerous times I was taking the shoe off and dumping out handfuls of sharp pebbles. Gators could be a fix, but I also found that my ankles were getting completely bruised and badly cut up this time around by the sharp rocks. On both the ascent and descent, we had to bushwhack some of the way and in these instances my exposed ankles did not stand a chance against fallen trees and shrubs.

I have decided that the Norvan VT 2 shoes are a ‘time and a place’ kind of shoe. If you are looking for a higher ankle cut with the same capabilities, I highly recommend checking out the Aerios FL Mid GTX instead. The Aerios has similarities to the Norvan VT 2 shoes but instead is built with a collar above the ankle to seal out debris. Additionally, I felt great using the Norvan VT 2 shoes for ridge running and well mapped out trails. On the contrary, I would be wary using them for tougher alpine running objectives.

Why I Love the Norvan VT 2 Shoe

  • You can’t feel sharp rocks/roots/ or other ground objects below you thanks to the mid-forefoot TPU film which provides underfoot protection
  • The shoe has an 8 mm heel drop
  • The shoe is breathable and keeps your feet cool
  • It’s grippy as hell

Concerns

  • Low ankle cut
  • Abrasion resistance could improve

To put a bow on it: for general trail running, the Norvan VT 2 Shoe is hands down the best trail shoe I’ve ever worn. For scrambling, I personally will go with a shoe that has that higher cut next time.

I’m stoked to continue using the Norvan VT 2 shoe for some smaller mountain objectives coming up in August!

Happy trails!