As far as birthdays go, Canada’s is often celebrated in a backyard or campground over hot dogs and beer. And in all fairness, it’s a perfectly enjoyable way to spend the July 1st long weekend (minus the mosquitoes).
But this year, I spent Canada Day doing something a bit more special than that, something that highlights the splendor of this nation in a very glorious fashion.
I, along with 14 others, hiked to the summit of Crowsnest Mountain, one of the most iconic peaks in Southwest Alberta.
There’s a lot of talk about Crowsnest Mountain, about how difficult it is, how scary, how dangerous and, of course, how magnificent. I concur only with the last claim. Any mountain can be all of those things if unprepared and reckless. But with the proper gear, trustworthy hiking companions and basic mountaineering know-how, this mountain, too, becomes conquerable.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still difficult! Totalling 14 km round trip, an elevation of about 2,700 m and tricky footing on loose scree and rock, this certainly isn’t a mountain to hike willy-nilly. We had experienced hikers and scramblers guiding us and everyone had helmets, proper footwear, plenty of water and layers. We were prepared, and that’s what made Crowsnest Mountain an enjoyable, challenging and rewarding hike.
On the drive up to the base that morning, the Crow was almost completely cloud-covered, making us a bit worried that all we would see is a smoky haze when we reached the summit. But hey, we’re not a bunch of Negative Nancys, so of course we kept going with a spring in our step!
You start your way in the Atlas Staging Area precisely at marker for kilometre 7. The first third of the route, you’re walking along a clearly defined path through forest where Thimbleberry bushes grow left and right in abundance.
At the end of the forest is where, quite abruptly, the view opens up to reveal the Seven Sisters Mountain, the rock-scattered backside of Crow. The first uphill bit is climbing up a scree slope where one step forward is equal to two steps back. But take it slow and steady, try to secure your footing as much as possible on the bigger rocks, and your journey will go more smoothly.
The most daunting part of the hike, and the section that is Crowsnest Mountain’s most defining feature, is the gully. A chain at the end of the gully is a comforting help to get up the slope. Our group didn’t really use it on the way up, but coming down, was it ever helpful!
After that, it’s much of the same hiking along a fairly well-defined rock path to the summit and by the time we reached it, the sky had cleared (mostly) and while the clouds in the distance looked pretty threatening, we got clear 360 degree views for miles and miles, as far as Chief Mountain all the way in Montana, right by the Canada/US border. In fact, looking southeast, you can line up Turtle Mountain, Table Mountain and Chief Mountain in a straight line. I’ve heard that these three peaks, along with Crowsnest, were used as wayfinding landmarks by Indigenous populations.
At the summit, you get a spectacular look at the Seven Sisters Mountain to the north and a bit west of that, there’s Mount Ward and the window in Allison Peak. Turning southwest, you can also see Chinook Lake and, farther back, Crowsnest, Emerald and Island Lakes. It’s just sky and mountains for days on end.
After a break, a snack and hanging a Canadian flag on an empty post at the summit (it was Canada Day, after all), we started our descent. The way down went much more quickly than the way up, save for one section: the chain. See, we strategically started the hike at around 7:30 a.m., so we were the first ones on the mountain that day. When we reached the chain, our group went up one by one to avoid rockfall for a person below.
By the time we were coming down, however, there were groups who had started much later than us and were just coming to the chain section to go up as we reached it to descend. So a bit of a traffic jam formed, you might say. We spent at least an hour at the chain as we waited for other groups to climb up, and then for our own group to climb down, again, one by one. And let me tell you, climbing down is a lot more difficult than climbing up!
Slow and steady, as they say.
We reached our vehicles just as a light rain started to fall and couldn’t help but think, “Perfect timing!” The Crow certainly is a mountain I’d prefer to visit with in good weather only.