Finding tours and turns away from critical caribou habitat
It’s December. Mother Nature has dropped her snowy bounty on Jasper National Park and for many of us, this time of year is when we tune up the backcountry blades and get out into the hills.
Alpine ski tourers in Jasper National Park face a new reality in 2015, however; to help protect threatened mountain caribou populations, many popular backcountry ski areas have been designated as no-go nodes. The largest hole in Jasper skiers’ collective hearts in undoubtedly the one left by the loss of the the Maligne Range, long ago picked by Jasper’s powder pioneers as the most snow-laden, accessible and beautiful place to skin up a slope. Of course tours around Whistlers’ and Portal Creeks will be yearned for until the ropes lift mid-February, but it’s the Maligne Range’s elevation, abundance of class one terrain and magic mix of traverses and turns that Jasper winter users will miss most. “The whole Maligne Valley is an incredible mix of terrain, travel and turns,” said Loni Klettl, resident trail expert and passionate skier. “It is the most precious, most unique Jasper ski experience we have.” But even though Klettl could wax lyrical about the creeks, peaks and treats that the Maligne Valley holds, the reality is that those vistas are off limits until March, when JNP officials have determined that the firmed-up snowpack will facilitate predator movement, whether or not it gets help from ski tracks pointing to caribou country. In the meantime, skiers have to get creative. By consulting a variety of users, and by cross referencing their experiences with the expertise of JNP public safety specialists, The Jasper Local is hoping to open some minds to skiing outside the closures. Here are some options to keep you exploring.
Maligne Area Alpine areas west of Maligne Lake Road are in caribou habitat, but to the east options still exist. Often it’s steep, tough terrain, but for the hardy adventurers and those who are nimble on their feet, there are turns to be had.
Opal Hills While not yet a proven alpine touring destination, Opal Hills should at least be on the list of possibilities. There’s a few things working against it, mostly that, depending on snow, the descent from the lookout can be pretty terrifying. Skiers will have to take this aggressive descent seriously, but as the only option above tree line in the Maligne Valley area, the views alone should make the hairy pitch worth the effort. Surprise Valley// Fossil Falls This has been a hot spot for dedicated locals for a few years. It’s on the east side of the Maligne Lake Road; skiers park near the old rafting pull out (that steep driveway that goes down to the river). There is a yellow diamond to help you get started up and over a massive boulder field. The trail follows old horse trails; when you get high enough you’ll see the real surprise: goat habitat and ski turns are not harmonious. Aggressive terrain and descents that’ll curl your toes make this a tour not for the faint of heart. Klettl considers this tour “somewhat of a desperate, nowhere-else-to-go kind of place.” Which is exactly why it’s on this list.
Icefields Area A lot of the touring spots near the Columbia Icefields are technically in Banff, but on a powder day, guess who’s closer? The Parkers/Hilda Ridge areas have long been stopovers on ski tourers’ powder highway, but a few places are perennially overlooked.
Hilda Creek Hilda has it all: tree skiing, alpine turns, huge views and opportunities to venture beyond into ski mountaineering terrain. Easy access means added onus on groups to make sure members have the skills and knowledge to assess avalanche terrain and make safe decisions. Parker Ridge Parker Ridge is where many Avalanche Skills classes head to now that the Bald Hills are no longer an early season option. The gentle, treed terrain and ample snowpack make for lots of learning opportunities. But don’t get lulled into complacency at Parker Ridge; there is plenty of avalanche terrain to keep you on your toes. Moreover, the winds get honking, helping the upper reaches regularly turn into slab-city.
Nigel Basin and Sugar Shots A big avalanche on the southwest aspect of Nigel Basin last year reminded JNP officials that the sleeping beast can be woken, so do your homework and keep your head up if you venture up there, especially since you’ll probably be exploring by yourself. Sugar Shots is the basin just northeast of the Hilda Parking lot, presumably named so because the yo-yo turns you get down the 170m pitch are so sweet. Public safety technician Deryl Kelly says the draw here is the sheltered snow—if it’s been blasted bare up high, you might be surprised at what you find looking down low.
Hidden Valley Located near the toilet bowl, Hidden Valley is located up the south drainage of Mt. Saskatchewan (rather than the west, which leads to the Saskatchewan Glacier). This is a relatively unexplored area, but Kelly has a hunch a new ski destination may be in the making. “It’s gorgeous terrain,” he says. “You can bump into the Saskatchewan slide paths or you’ve got this huge, wide open snow belt.” A long day tour, you’ll be earning your turns. “It’s the usual tree bash to get in,” he says.
Boundary Glacier Right on the border of Banff and Jasper lies one of the best ski touring secrets in either park. A quick ski into Boundary Lake provides a panorama of options: yo-yo tree skiing to the south, low-angle terrain on the moraine or a host of ski mountaineering adventures that require a more serious skill set. A full suite of options also comes with a full suite of hazards. Proceed with caution.
Sunwapta Area Churchill Slide Paths The Winston Churchill Range is located just past the turnoff to Sunwapta Falls; after noticing the two massive slide paths on either side of a great tree triangle, park on the road near the end of the guardrail. The north chute is the more aggressive of the two, both paths, however, are prone to top to bottom avalanches every year. Skiers can decide how much exposure they are comfortable with by navigating through the trees. While this terrain should be given the highest respect, when conditions are right and it maintains its structure, this is one of the longest ski runs you can find in the park.
Red Pass// Moose Lake Chutes (B.C.) When you’ve exhausted your options in JNP, it may be time to go west, young ski tourer. Similar to the icefields, the Jasper-west skiing isn’t technically in Jasper, but locals have been claiming Red Pass and Moose Lake as home turf for years. Accessing Moose Lake slide paths is a bit unusual as one has to shimmy over the CN right-of-way then cross the frozen lake. Obviously this is best done in the dead of winter when you know the ice is thick enough. The chutes themselves are steep and prone to slides so make sure the conditions are bomber before you make the trek. As for Red Pass, the access is from the spring water spout/truckers’ pull out. Head straight up, basically. The terrain is steep, rocky and challenging but it’s pretty cool to be able to ski right to the car.
Yellowhead // Miette Pass The proponents of a new ski cabin in the Miette Pass/Continental Divide/Yellowhead area talk of a veritable ski mecca in the west portion of Jasper National Park. Their photos show grand vistas, fat pow and gorgeous peaks. The trouble may be with the access. It’s long and, until you gain elevation, sparse of snow, hence the cabin proposal. Until that decision moves to JNP’s front burner, this will continue to be a place for die-hard powder hounds and strong, adventurous travellers. Got a tent?