Safe(r) Winter Routes – National Parks

October – April

I recently wrote about safe(r) winter routes in Kananaskis Country. If you are new to snowshoeing or winter hiking, I would recommend starting in Kananaskis Country because they do a great job of spelling it out for you – it is safe to snowshoe here!

There are lots of great places to snowshoe in the National Parks too, but they use a different system that puts much more responsibility on the individual backcountry user to select an appropriate trail and to manage the risks of avalanche and other winter hazards.

Winter Safety

Here are some things to consider if snowshoeing or hiking in the winter.

Avalanches

Avalanches are very common in the Canadian Rockies. The weather, snow patterns, and steep mountains all contribute to an incredibly touchy snowpack. If you are going to stray from the established snowshoe trails, then take an AST1 course, buy all the gear like a transceiver, probe, and shovel, and learn how to use them. If this doesn’t thrill you, or you just want a casual day out in the mountains, there is more than enough non-avalanche terrain to explore.

I personally know three people who have lost loved ones to avalanches: a brother, a husband, and even a son who was an ACMG mountain guide. Prime Minister Trudeau lost his brother in an avalanche in British Columbia. A doctor from Canmore died last year, and her husband is a mountain guide. Avalanches happen. All the time!

You need to recognize prime avalanche terrain, and know how to avoid it. If you do have to cross an avalanche slope, do so very quickly, and one at a time.

There has already been one avalanche triggered by a hiker this year, which I unpacked in detail on my Facebook page.

Avalanche
This hiker-triggered avalanche on Grizzly Peak is a textbook area to avoid. Click this link to my Facebook page to learn all the reasons why you should avoid a slope like this.
Overhead Environment

In addition to watching for obvious avalanche slopes, you must also be aware of your overhead environment. This is tricky, because quite often the real danger is thousands of feet above you. Unless you are in a relatively wide valley, you must be aware of what is above at all times. It might seem quite safe on the trail (eg: no obvious slide path), but you could easily be buried from a cliff above. An example of this is Moraine Lake Road. The ski track setting stops at the top of the hill, because Mount Temple sheds avalanches all year long. You would never see it coming.

This is a view of Moraine Lake Road from The Tower of Babel. The ski track setting ends far to the right. What you cannot see while on the road is the absolutely massive avalanche funnel far above on Mount Temple. We saw dozens (!!!) of avalanches spin down during our trip in June. I’d hate to be under that in the middle of winter.
Cornices

A cornice is a build up of snow due to wind patterns. They happen on the lee side of mountains, and are unsupported mounds of snow. They look solid from the top, but are not actually ‘on’ anything. Hikers die every year because they accidentally walk out onto these snow shelves, only to have them collapse.

This is an area aptly named Cornice Ridge. From above, these unsupported snow shelves look like solid ground. While on the slope, it is actually very difficult to tell if you are walking on solid ground, or an unsupported shelf.

Cornices are also dangerous if you are hiking below them. A cornice can collapse at any time. If it lands on you, you could die. Plus, a cornice breaking off can trigger an avalanche.

This absolutely massive cornice is at the President Col. My husband Mike is dwarfed by it. The danger is that cornice collapsing, and causing an avalanche that would take out the entire slope, us included.

ATES – Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale

The National Parks use the ATES (Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale) to rate their trails in the winter. This is a hugely valuable resource, because it breaks trails down into Simple, Challenging and Complex categories. This is all about being situationally aware of your surroundings, and managing the avalanche risks yourself. If this is not you, then you need to get the training to recognize (!!!) and manage avalanche risks, or you need to stick to trails with zero avalanche risks.

Simple terrain is usually low avalanche risk, ideal for novices gaining backcountry experience. Please do not be lulled by the Simple rating. You still need to be able to recognize avalanche conditions, and how to read avalanche bulletins.

Challenging terrain requires skills to recognize and avoid avalanche prone terrain – big slopes exist on these trips. You must also know how to understand avalanche bulletins, perform avalanche self rescue, basic first aid, and be confident in your route finding skills. AST 1 is a minimum.

Complex terrain demands a strong group with years of critical decision-making experience in avalanche terrain. There can be no safe options on these trips, forcing exposure to big slopes. The recommended minimum is at least one member has their AST 2, and has several years of backcountry touring experience.

Where to go – List of Trails and their ATES

Parks Canada rates most of their established trails using the ATES. All trails are broken down into the Simple, Challenging and Complex categories. This is done for the following mountain National Parks: Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, Yoho, Glacier, Mt Revelstoke, and Waterton in a handy brochure, which you can download here.

The mountain National Parks also have a fantastic website dedicated to winter safety. Please visit that site, and educate yourself as much as possible.

Please be aware that many if not most of the trails in the National Mountain Parks are more for skiers. Please try and be considerate, and only hike or snowshoe on trails that already encourage that activity. Do not needlessly destroy a ski trail when you can hike that same route in the summer.

Finally, please do not blindly follow any Simple terrain trail. For example, the ATES lists the Moraine Lake Road Track Set as simple terrain. What they do not mention is once you go past the track set you are now in intense avalanche danger. Same with Lake Louise Shoreline Trail – one you are past the shore, the avalanche danger starts.

Avalanche Terrain Maps

To make life even easier, Parks Canada has prepared a series of avalanche terrain maps for various areas. These are the typically the areas that see the most amount of people traffic, usually by new or inexperienced people.

Click here to link to these maps.

Gear

As with your usual day pack kit, bring knee-high waterproof gators, snowshoes/micro-spikes, and poles with the big round ski baskets (the small round ones will sink through the snow).

You also need to wear more layers, including a quality base layer (long underwear). Also bring a down jacket with a hood for lunch stops, as it is amazing how fast you will cool down in the winter.

I will probably do a detailed blog on what to wear in the winter, so keep an eye out for that.

Winter Etiquette

Always practice Leave No Trace. Dropping your used tissue in the snow because it will be soon be covered up is NOT an option. Come spring, that tissue (and all your other garbage) will still be there.

Never walk on ski tracks. This goes for the professionally set ski tracks, as well as tracks that skiers have put down themselves. Skiers invest quite heavily in their tracks. It takes a lot of effort to break trail, and flatten a route. When you walk on a ski trail, the skier has to basically break trail all over again on the way back. This is exhausting and dangerous.

A hiker made deep post-holes on a narrow ski track. This is dangerous for skiers because we cannot herring bone, and must rely on our skins or wax to ski uphill. When there is a hole beneath our ski, we cannot get purchase.

I once did a massive 30 km trip, and was relying on the ski tracks I put in earlier to get me home safely. Instead, a group of hikers smashed my trail to pieces. This extra work caused me to be late, and I finished in the dark. If you are out in the winter, be prepared to do the hard work and break your own trail. Do not destroy someone else’s hard work and needlessly endanger them.

I also got severe whiplash from a hiker on a ski trail. I was going up a narrow track, so I had to rely on my skins as I could not herring bone up. Unfortunately, someone put big post-holes in the trail. I could not get purchase on the snow due to the holes, fell backwards and whacked my head. There are consequences to walking on ski trails. Do not do it.

My Winter Trip Reports

You will find several winter hiking trips on my website. Unless they are established winter snowshoe trails, all of these routes require winter travel skills like avalanche training and route finding. All trip reports are for information only, and none of my reports should be blindly followed. All travel is at your own risk.

It is going to be a long winter, so get out there, have fun, but most importantly,  be safe and come home alive.

If you found this post useful, please do me a huge favour and click the Star button to “Like” it. You can also follow my blog, follow me on Instagram, or join my FaceBook page Al’s Adventurers.

Alisen

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Posted in Adventures, Hiking
4 comments on “Safe(r) Winter Routes – National Parks
  1. As always, highly informative. Thanks for all the details you include in your post. I don’t tend to walk in areas where people xcountry or back country ski. However, I had never heard anyone say “Never walk on ski tracks.” Thank you for pointing that out. It’s not something I would ever have thought about. And now I know …
    On a slightly different note, we skied at Lake Louise today (having picked up our pass in Banff last week – thanks for the recommendation). It wasn’t too busy, the conditions were good, and almost everyone was adhering to the COVID requirements/ restrictions.

    • alisendopf says:

      Hey – that is fantastic news about skiing at Louise. Glad to hear that you had a great day, with no hassles getting your pass. I’m Ski Friending there most Wednesdays in December. Maybe you can come out and take a tour with me.

      • Our days are weather dependent but I can always look out for you, or let you know if we’re going to be there. We’ve had season passes at Louise for quite a few years now. We used to alternate with Sunshine but now we always go to Louise. We like the longer runs there. My husband was excited to try out the new summit chair😊

      • alisendopf says:

        Sweet! I haven’t even been on that. I’m impressed. I hear it’s all black runs. I’m heading there on Wednesday and can’t wait.

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