Shoulder season is a funny time of year. The weather is super hard to predict when it’s fall in the mountains. It could be warm and sunny, or it could be super snowy and that can change on a day by day basis.
It’s a season where skiers head to high glaciers hoping it’ll dump and the climbers go to the gym or dry tooling.
Me? I went biking and hiking. And I dragged 6 ACCers with me.
The ACC’s Stanley Mitchell hut is a beautiful, comfortable retreat in Yoho National Park that sits at an elevation of 2055m. It’s the last stop on the Bow-Yoho traverse and I’d never been there before. There’s a road that takes you from the Trans-Canada Highway up to the Takakkaw Falls and from there it’s a mellow 10km hike into the hut.
Having never been to the hut and looking for a way to kill a shoulder season weekend, I called the ACC to book the hut. While on the phone with the ACC, they warned me that the road was subject to a winter closure and therefore instead of a 10km approach we were looking at a 23km approach. That would make things a bit of a longer day but I decided that we could just bring bikes with us – even if there was a light dusting of snow we could ride up the road to the trail headway faster than walking it.
I was right. But barely.
The excellent, excellent people at Bike and Brew in Calgary recently sold me a Kona Sutra LTD that I’m totally, bonkers in love with and I’ve been looking for any excuse I can find to ride it. Some shoulder season fun seemed like a great way to extend the season a bit.
I was fortunate enough to have a great group sign up for the trip. Fortunate because the impending shitshow would have been enough to have most people murder me.
The week before the trip snow started coming down everywhere. I monitored the forecast and obsessively watched the traffic cameras on the highway and managed to convince myself and everyone else that the roads would either be dry or just coated in a light skiff of snow and that everything was going to go according to plan.
I’m a big believer that optimism guarantees a great weekend in the mountains.
The morning of, we started the drive to Field. The roads were great until we got to Lake Louise where snow started coming down and accumulating on the shoulders. As we passed Lake Louise we came across a jackknifed tractor-trailer in the shoulder. As we approached the Spiral Tunnels we passed a rolled tractor-trailer. Felipe, sitting next to me in the car, had gotten off a plane from Brazil less than 24h prior. He’d brought a narrow tired road bike with him and he'd started to look a little panicky.
You lose a lot of elevation on the hill down from the Spiral Tunnels though and by the time we were at the parking lot, my optimism was back. There was some snow on the grass, but the road? It was totally clear. Perfect.
With a motley collection of bikes ranging from beater mountain bikes to a Felipe’s road bike with freshly installed aero bars, we started riding up the road. Everything was going exactly according to plan.
Then we hit the switchbacks. At the bottom of the switchbacks the road was clear. Two short switchbacks up it was covered by snow. At first it was just a dusting – if we payed attention we were fine, it was just a bit greasy. But it kept getting deeper. Before long, it was a couple of inches deep.
I was in heaven.
Our tires would cut through the snow down to the pavement and all the snow did was give the road an eerily smooth feeling. Even Felipe on his road bike was making it work.
But then the snow got deeper.
By the time we hit the Takakkaw parking lot – 10km into the ride – any appreciable uphill was forcing a chunk of our party off their bikes and they’d have to push. A few of us who had the right bikes and experience in crappy conditions were making it work though and despite feeling just a touch guilty about leaving almost half our party for dead, we kept riding even once the road stopped.
Suddenly, we riding trails covered in four to six inches of snow. We were riding log bridges covered in that snow, desperately trying to not plunge off the side as our tires tried to wash out. I honestly don’t think I’ve smiled as much before in my life unless skis were involved. I could not believe what we were managing to ride through.
Eventually though, the trail goes from following the valley bottom and starts to gain elevation. At that point we abandoned the bikes – there was just no way to ride techy single track with that much snow.
On foot, another problem presented itself. The snow was deep. We didn’t have skis. We started post holing.
Our incredible crew of ACCers had just ridden 13km of mostly snow-covered road and now they were post-holing up a trail, taking turns breaking trail, and no one looked like they wanted to murder me for dragging them into this.
The snow kept getting deeper. By the time we hit the hut, the snow was almost hip deep. 13km of riding through snow followed by 10km of hiking through snow ranging from ankle deep to knee-to-hip deep. I love that this group kept going instead of throwing in the towel.
The best thing about a hut trip is that there’s a hut at the top. We stumbled through the door, tired but with mostly smiles on our faces. We got a fire going, strung our gear up to dry, got some snow melting for water, busted out some victory beers, and then basically just collapsed. There were shit-eating grins, forced grins and blank faces. Felipe looked like he was going to die. I feel like the fact that the day before he’d been in 36C weather probably explains a lot of that. A ~50C temperature swing is tough.
The Stanley Mitchell hut is beautiful. We spent the evening in this amazing hut eating food, sharing war stories from the mountains and more or less all agreeing that this had been worth the slightly tougher than advertised approach.
In the morning though, there were concerns. It had snowed overnight. Yesterday had been tough. Today would be tougher.
We ate breakfast and started the slog out. The snow was now legitimately hip deep and our trail from the day before had mostly filled in. The upshot is that gravity was working for us instead of against us this time so with a rotating cast breaking trail we made surprisingly quick time back to the bikes.
The ‘ride’ out was even more full-on than the ride in. While some of us could ride most of the time, people with tires not up to the task ended up pushing their bikes a fair bit and none of us could make it up the hills. I’ll be honest, it was pretty tough going. Once again I was super impressed that despite pushing their bikes the better part of 10km through boot deep snow, everyone maintained good spirits and didn’t try to murder me.
When we got back to the switchbacks, the quick drop of elevation once again brought about a dramatic change in conditions. There was still snow, but thanks to the mellow incline of the hill, it was rideable for everyone.
Arriving back at the cars turned smiles from slightly forced and a touched haggard to genuine. A lot of people would have revolted given the tough conditions. But there’s something awesome about people who truly love being in the mountains. Doesn’t really matter what they’re doing, if they’re getting tired, surrounded by mountains and feeling like they’re accomplishing something – even as futile as riding a bike through snow to get to a hut – they’re happy, and I love getting to be a part of that.
I'd like to make a quick shout-out to Calgary's Bike and Brew - the incredible staff not only helped me pick out my Kona Sutra LTD, but they spent ages with me the night before this trip chasing down an annoying creak in my bottom bracket. If your bike needs love or you need a coffee, go check them out.
Grumpy, cantankerous, wildly opinionated and so much more! Getting really tired on skis is what makes me happy.