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Winter Elbow Loop Successful Attempt.

We had some trouble deciding where to go on our father and son fatbikepacking trip. We’ve had some warm weather and some of our favourite trails are an icy mess. We debated trying a few new routes, but some of them were likely to be 90% what Scott refers to as, “hiking with an awkward cart.”

We were pretty confident that our old favourite, the Elbow Loop would be mostly free of the kind of ice that forms from lots of foot traffic, and since it is re-opened to snowmobiles this year, we had high hopes that a grooming crew had passed at least once. Tadhg’s main reluctance was the 12km of closed road that we would have to ride to get to the trailhead. Steep and varying between deep snow and treacherous ice, it is not our favourite.

[as always, click pictures to enlarge]

This variant of the road was bumpy hard snow followed by an exhilarating descent on 4km of bare asphalt. Once past it, we were on to the real riding.

The North side (Little Elbow) has a new bridge on it since September, and so we knew there would be no major obstacles. Tadhg was feeling pretty tired, but I encouraged him to dig deep in our attempt to get to the Tombstone campground where we had booked the night. The trail was mostly rideable with snow cover and not too much ice. Some spots were a little punchy, but we could still mostly ride. Tadhg was walking some of the steeper sections since he felt like his energy was low.

We passed the wreckage of Mt Romulus campground around 6pm, after sunset, but with enough twilight to see where we were going. Unfortunately, with the greater snow and steady climbing (and only 2 snowmobiles traffic this year) as it got dark, it became increasingly difficult to ride. Tadhg could ride some of the trail, but I was walking most of it. Eventually, we decided to stop for the night since we weren’t likely to make it to Tombstone before 10pm.

Since our camp spot was of questionable nature, we had no fire to roast our burritos. I was pretty certain that we would not be in any trouble since we were our usual no-trace selves and there were not likely to be anyone coming by anyway.

While the wind may have blown over both our bikes during the night, we were snug and warm in our tent. Tadhg was tired enough to get to sleep by about 9:30 and slept right through until I woke him after 9 in the morning. I knew the day ahead could be hard, and I wanted him in good shape to tackle it. I fed him some more burritos for breakfast, and we were on our way. The food and sleep had done its job and Tadhg’s energy and attitude were both refreshed. He was optimistic about the rideability of Tombstone pass.

What had been unrideable for us at night turned out to be mostly rideable when we had a better look at it. We were down to less air pressure in our tires than most people use, but still, we were riding [Mike Curiak explains fatbiketire pressure here]. Some of the steep uphill parts needed some walking, but that is often the case in summer as well.

Through Tombstone Pass was equally mostly rideable, there were some drifted in sections, but even some of those we managed to power through.

The descent from the pass was a combination of drifted in trail and crust hiding unknown depths of snow. We began the descent with Tadhg able to ride more than me due to his light weight, but even for me most of the trail was rideable. Where we punched through the crust, we came to a sudden stop in sometimes waist deep snow, but we were having a ton of fun. Our only concern was that we might have to push the bikes back up if there was no packed trail when we reached the bottom.

2017-01-28 14-21-34 1031.jpgAs we approached the Tombstone junction, my fears were confirmed when I could see no tracks heading in the Big Elbow direction. I was dreading the climb back over the pass. Fortunately, it was only a large snowdrift hiding the first 10m or so of the tracks and my stress was for naught.

The trail leading toward Big Elbow had not seen much traffic, maybe one or two snowmobiles, but it was nearly 100% rideable with the exception of the hills on the snowmobile route. In the summer, the bike route follows a different trail than the winter snowmobile route and since snowmobiles require almost no extra effort to climb grades that leave people on bikes pushing, the snowmobile hills can be steep and involve much more climbing and descending. I distracted myself from the brutal climb by trying to get Tadhg to swear, (he doesn’t)  but the most I could get from him was, “stupid hill!”

Though steep, the descents on the snowmobile portion of the trail were tremendous fun. The snowmobile route also avoided the double river crossing or cliff climb that is part of the bike route.

Once back on the main route, we found a feature that was normally a small stream crossing in summer, was in fact a treacherous ice flow at least this winter. As I looked back to take some pictures of Tadhg crossing the ice, I stepped poorly and started sliding quickly down the cascades of ice. By using my bike pedal  as an ice axe, I stopped my descent after about 20m. Tadhg wanted to go for a fun slide after he got his bike across, until we investigated where the cascade ended and it was the river.

A while later on, we came to the first of the missing bridges from the ’13 flood. It has not been replaced, but there was a convenient natural ice bridge across the river.

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After the short climb and descent on the far side we came to the bridge that several people, including a park ranger told me had been replaced. It was in no way replaced, and the ice bridge that happened to be nearby seemed on its last legs. I had brought my overboots in case there were water crossings, so even if there hadn’t been ice bridges, we would likely have made it across with dry feet.

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This is not the new bridge we were told about.

The Big Elbow campground is a familiar haunt for us, and we settled in for some dinner. I read to Tadhg for over an hour since we had gotten to the campground so early and we slept through a very windy night.

The wind continued in the morning, and though it made coffee and breakfast preparation a little more difficult, it was in the direction we were headed, so we had high hopes of tailwind for our ride back to the car.

The wind, being a Chinook, was warm and dry and had visibly sublimated some of the snow on the trail out as well as the road. The tailwind was strong enough that we pedaled up the road hill with ease (except for getting blown off once). We were somewhat fearful that the downhill side of the road would be a bumpy sheet of ice, but it turned out to be treacherous in only a few spots, and though it was teeth-rattling bumpy, we were at least riding.

 

 

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Wet, Cold Bikepacking Weekend.

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A very sodden bikepacker.

It isn’t every day that you line up three consecutive days for bikepacking with your son, so when it happens – you take it, even if the weather calls for a very wet and cold start to the trip.

We have done the Elbow loop as a day trip, hiking trip and bikepacking trip a number of times now.  It was time to move on to something a little more challenging.  I cobbled together a potential route that had a large number of alternates in case of troubles.  I thought it was going to be a stretch, but might be possible.

Thursday evening we set out from the parking lot in moderate rain.  Tadhg wasn’t feeling his best and felt sluggish on the climbs, but was happy enough.  The rain wasn’t excessive, but there was a consistent drizzle.  We had planned to make Tombstone pass by sundown but ended up only halfway, near where the Romulus campground used to be before the ’13 floods.

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Watching the very camouflaged pheasant round up her chicks

As we set up the tent, the rain got serious.  Then it got worse.

By morning, the rain had tapered down to a steady shower.  Neither of us were in a big hurry to get out into it, so we stretched breakfast and coffee till nearly 11 and hit the trail around 11:30.  The plan was to get 45km further down a couple of trails before settling down for the night.

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Deep in a washout with a wet camera.
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Squishy trail.

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I often say that single digit temperatures and rain are much colder than temperatures below freezing and this was no exception.  We struggled with rain-softened trail and low energy.  Tadhg wasn’t hungry, which is usually a sure sign of trouble.

By 5pm, we had made it less than 20km and had crossed only the smallest passes – hardly worthy of their name.  We came to a river crossing and decided to look for a place to camp – conveniently, there was an old horse camp exactly where we were.

The rain let up as we were setting up camp and things started to look up.  I revised our route plan to remove the second half so as to avoid getting too far away from the car to be able to get back on Sunday.  We left the camp better than when we started by burning the garbage that had been left in the fire pit and surrounding area.

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Saturday morning started sunny and warm with about half a dozen river or creek crossings and then a major washout.  I scouted the trail and there was a clear way through, it was just going to take time.  If we had been able to estimate how much time, we would have continued.  I just didn’t think it was prudent to move away from the car down an unknown trail to possibly put us out of reach of our sunday evening deadline.  We thought about it for a while and even though we were both in a better mood and Tadhg had energy, we decided to turn back the way we had come and ride out the remainder of the Elbow loop as a very easy 2 days.

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Sun really improves the mood

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Though we were taking it easy, it was early when we got back to Tombstone campground.  We filtered water and ate a bunch of candy.  Then we met up with a couple of fatbikers out on a day trip.  We set out down the Big Elbow side of the trail knowing that the washouts would slow us down by quite a bit, and thinking we would ride for a couple of hours and then camp for the night.  The washouts weren’t as bad as we expected, and Tadhg was riding really well – easily clearing the many rock gardens and rough trail patches.  We took lots of breaks and stopped frequently to chat with the fatbikers, but we were running out of trail.

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As we started to set up camp, Tadhg pointed out the futility of camping less than an hour from our car and so we re-packed and hit the trail.  We rode full out on the last section, passing some unladen bikers on full suspension rigs (much to their dismay). We were home shortly.

Overall it was a very successful bikepack even though we got less than a third of the planned route completed.  This was the first time I had my Krampus with the suspension fork out for bikepacking and it was close to ideal.  The miserable weather at the beginning let me us have a taste for hardship, and was a great gear test.  By not forcing Tadhg to continue we managed to keep the ride fun and improve the chances of his coming back for another attempt.

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Minnewanka fatbikepacking microadventure.

“More food please.” We had been in the car for an hour and a half. He had eaten 2 pears, 2 oranges, an apple, a sandwich and a granola bar. We were popping in to get our camp permit anyway so I picked up a pair of masala dosas to go and we headed out of the Banff townsite with Tadhg stuffing his face.

After packing the bikes, we were on the trail by 3:30, our plan was to bike 11km along the Lake Minnewanka trail to the very originally named LM11 back country campsite (actually, it has a name, it is numbered to avoid confusion). The trail starts out with a bit of climbing, but most of it is rideable by Tadhg since he has been riding to school this year and is super fit.

The trail is not so snow covered that we need the fatbikes we are riding, but they aren’t totally overkill either. Tadhg has grown over the last couple of years so he now carries his own clothes and sleeping pad, as well as the 3 liters of gatorade that he loves so much.

Several snack stops down the trail, we come to the LM8 campsite. Though it is now twilight, we decide to press on, but not for long, as dark comes early this time of year. By LM9, it is full dark and we decide to camp. Unfortunately, we have neglected to bring a book, since dinner and food hanging is done by 6. After a bit of walking around, we decide to turn in around 7.

With the temperature forecast to only go as low as -9°C, I have no concern about the cold. I didn’t even bother to zip my sleeping bag, since using it spread like a quilt lets me move much more freely. Several times during the night I am awakened by the pitter patter of unwelcome little rodent feet as mice or voles seem pretty convinced that they will find food in our tent. Where are the owls and martens that we love so much?

Even our properly hung food bag does not escape attention as one of our granola bars is 90% eaten and another few have been opened and sampled by some sort of critter capable of robbing food from a bag suspended by a metal cable.

Since we now have the whole day to ride, we decide to head further away from the car. After 5 km and several snacks, we turn back. Tadhg’s riding continues to impress me, there are some rock gardens and technical sections that he would have been walking just this summer, but they are trivial to him now.

 

 

As we got to the LM8 campground, we realized that one od Tadhg’s mittens was missing from his bike. Though we rode back to look for it, we did not find it, but we did get some more riding done on this wonderful trail. We also ate more snacks.

This last picture is a movie, not just a boring picture:

Even with the one mitten lost, we did have a great overnight ride and both Tadhg and I called the trip a success.

The final stats ended up: day 1 – 9.5 km, day 2 – 27 km. The only climbing that seemed significant was the 100m gain at the car end of the trail.

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Chilcotins Gun Creek Lakes Tour Day 1

The kids and I got back recently from our trip to the Chilcotin mountains of BC.  We tricked my friend Vik into coming along and carrying some of our heavy food.  Our plan was to take from 5 to 7 days to make a loop up Gun Creek, over Deer Pass and down past Spruce Lake and back to our original parking spot.  Having kids along meant a lot of extra weight in gear and food since they eat similarly to and adult and sleep in a sleeping bag at night.

wpid493-2013-07-23-14-25-16-7230317.jpg Continue reading Chilcotins Gun Creek Lakes Tour Day 1