Across from the famous Columbia Icefields, there is a trail called Wilcox Pass Trail. The pass was discovered out of necessity by Walter Wilcox in 1896. He was travelling north along the valley that is now renowned as the Icefields Parkway when he was thwarted by the Athabaska Glacier. At the time, it reached right across the valley to the mountain that would be named Mount Wilcox.
Early one morning, we undertook the Wilcox Pass Trail on the recommendation of a Parks Canada agent.
The trail starts out in the forest. The path is a spider’s web of roots. On rises, they’re like a staircase that helps us along. Gradually, the trees get smaller. After some time in a forest of stunted conifers, we came out upon an alpine meadow and reached a ridge that provided our first vistas towards Mount Athabaska, Mount Andromeda and Snow Dome with its impressive icecap. None of these was on offer this morning, they were barely a hazy outline in the smoke. The more distant peaks were invisible.
That is the result of the terrible fires ravaging the forests of British Columbia this year. Yesterday, the air was crystal clear. The mountains and their snowy caps glistened in the sun. Overnight the winds changed and today we are shrouded in a smoky haze that smells of burnt wood. Without having seen any fires, we are reminded of their presence and their impact.
Even without views, the trail is beautiful. On the ridges, we experience the powerful winds rising up from the valley. They are katabatic winds and they are produced when the cold air off the glacier collides with the warmer air in the valley. In other words, glaciers create their own weather patterns.
From the first ridge, the hike meanders through an expansive alpine environment. Of course, alpine meadows are not flat, so there was still some serious climbing to be done.
At the end of the Wilcox Pass trail, there is a spur towards another ridge directly across from the Columbia Glacier. It is the most challenging section of the whole hike with some steep climbs and descents. The smoke wasn’t lifting and when we reached the end of the spur, there was only a hazy, smoky view of one of the most magnificent sights along the entire Icefields Parkway.
We were happy with our hike nonetheless and, although it was only 10:30, we sat down to eat part of our lunch. We found a spot sheltered from the katabatic winds and broke out our sandwiches. Our view was back across the trail we’d just come from.
While eating, we watched as one man crested a rise some distance away and walked towards us at a fast clip. I said to Ken, he’s going to be here before we’re ready to leave. Sure enough, he rounded the last curve as we were putting on our packs.
I said, you’re a fast walker, which made him chuckle. Yes, I work at that, he answered. And so started a conversation with Ken, a man a bit older than we are. He is a mountain man, has been all his life, although he still has a full-time job that he loves. He was on his way to climb Mount Wilcox. From where we stood, it was still an imposing peak to the north of us. He explained it’s rated as a “beginner” scrambling peak, which puts people off. In his opinion it’s a hiking trail with a hard rating.
Although we’d come to the end of the trail we’d planned on, we suddenly took an interest in Mount Wilcox. It is imposing, but several groups had passed us this morning and told us they were going to the top. We felt a bit like we were taking it easy by heading down after having only reached this point.
So, we decided to go a bit further. To the first ridge, I agreed. Once there, we went a bit higher, and then higher. We finally reached the base of where the pitch of the slope increases significantly, passed all vegetation, even the tiny plants that cling to life between the stones. My Ken was itching to go further, but not me.
We turned back and found our way across a field with no visible path, passing a gritty snow bank along the way. Eventually, we rejoined the trail and started down. Now passed noon, it was busy with trekkers. It’s quite a different experience to encounter a steady stream of other hikers. We had the trail virtually to ourselves earlier on. However, it is great to see people out in the mountains.
The smoke had thinned out somewhat while we’d been on the high ridge of Mount Wilcox. Was it because it lifted a bit or because we were higher up, I can’t say. As we descended it thickened up again.
Ken and I can chalk up another great trek in the Canadian Rockies along with a delightful encounter and a lesson in the effects of forest fires.