Unusually warm winter weather has been convenient for getting around Jasper, but it’s created the opposite scenario for outfitters trying to access the backcountry of Jasper National Park.
Whether you call it climate change or El Nino, Gilbert Wall and his crew of trail packers were calling it much worse than that as they creeped, crawled, swam and slogged through solar-affected snow in the Tonquin Valley February 16. “That was a tough one, it was the hardest trip I can remember,” Wall said a few days later. Wall owns and operates one of two backcountry lodges underneath the iconic Rampart Mountains, 19 km into the renowned alpine mecca, the Tonquin Valley. Typically, as soon as the tape lifts on the delayed access zones in Jasper National Park (implemented for caribou conservation), Wall and a group of volunteers use snowmobiles to pack a trail for skiers and for resupply trips. Typically, the mission takes no more than a few hours. This year, it took 13. “We were dealing with conditions we normally have during the first part of April,” Wall said. “There were sections where we were literally walking side by side for a hundred metres, shovelling the trail.” Baked rotten by warm temperatures, the snow was faceted and isothermal. Instead of gliding on top of the snow, the sleds plunged down into it, causing the team innumerable stops and starts as they tunnelled their way into the Tonquin. “As soon as you stopped, you sunk,” Wall said. Snowmobile access to Wall’s backcountry lodge is via the Astoria River. In a typical year, by February, enough snow has fallen that there are snow bridges over the two dozen or so river crossings. This year, there were no such snow bridges; Wall and his team had to build their own from wood. “I was as pooped as I can be,” he laughed. While the warm winter weather in 2016 could likely shorten the outfitting season, climate change is affecting the Tonquin Valley in other ways, too. The ice loss on the face of the Ramparts has been exponential over the past few years, Wall has observed, and alpine meadows that were once open vistas are being overrun with spruce trees. “There are huge growth shoots on the spruce trees which are more like valley growth,” Wall said. “People who’ve been coming into the Tonquin for years can’t believe how little of the views they can see compared to before.”