Ascending slowly toward the summit of Sunshine Village in Banff National Park, Alberta, we were easily entranced by the imposing Canadian Rockies, whose snowcapped peaks dominated the skyline. The wind, brisk and forceful, shook the gondola to and fro, so that it resembled a pendulum perpetually swaying. A cramped chairlift completed the climb, elevating nine adventure seekers to 8,900 feet above sea level.
With snowshoes in hand the first threesome, anticipant of the prospective trek, scampered clear of the disembarked chairlift. The mercury had dipped below – 22° Fahrenheit. The wind, howling like a wolf trying to rally its pack, accosted us without restraint.
“Get your snowshoes on as quickly as possible,” bellowed Michael Turcot, his voice muffled by the prevailing gale. “Then we can get moving.”
Before most of us had our snowshoes on, my father, Raymond Pearson, discovered first hand the callous nature of extreme weather at high altitude. Turcot, a snowshoeing specialist and guide working on behalf of White Mountain Adventures, noticed a pronounced, ghost-like whitening of Pearson’s earlobes. Early stages of frostbite had commenced. Pearson’s toque had failed to cover the entirety of his ears, leaving his lobes vulnerable after only minutes of exposure. Since he was the only one to have fitted his temporary appendages, Turcot saliently sprang, like a snowshoe hair, to my father’s aid.
“Rub your ears as quickly as you can,” implored an urgent Turcot. “Time is of the essence; you need to build some friction.”
The group’s attitude had already visibly shifted from exuberance to skepticism and uncertainty. Pearson had thought a first snowshoeing adventure would be a unique and memorable way to commemorate his 60th birthday, which sounded a desirable proposition before this tussle with the Mother Nature’s wrath. I wished my father’s February birthday hadn’t coincided with winter’s harshest fury.
Boundless thoughts of relaxing in one of Banff National Park’s many soothing natural hot springs infiltrated my mind, propelling me into dreamlike state. The stinging blasts of wind-driven snow, however, hastily whipped me out of reverie.
Although Pearson’s ear was swollen, gruesome and of ashen complexion, Turcot confidently assured the frostbite-stricken 59-year-old that his lobes, if properly attended to, would heal completely and regain their pinkish undertone. I would have offered words of encouragement had my jawbone not felt like it was frozen in place.
“It will get warmer once we descend and get out of the open air,” said Turcot, instilling the group with hope through positive reinforcement. “With the weather and the snow it changes everything; every time you come up here it is a different day.”
Snowshoeing: a centuries-old pastime
Straddling the border of Canada’s farthest-reaching western provinces, I took a moment to fit the gigantic flipper-like shoes before crossing the Continental Divide into British Columbia. Modern snowshoes – consisting of lightweight metal, plastic and synthetic fabric – are easily fastened. Once a strap is pulled snug against your heel and clasped shut on both snowshoes, you’re set to partake in a centuries-old pastime experienced by adventurers, hunters, fur traders, trappers and explorers alike. In fact, snowshoes can be traced back to pre-Christian days when Armenians are said to have used an antiquated version – comprised of a clunky hardwood frame with interwoven rawhide lacings – to scour the snow-laden Caucasus Mountains in search of food, fur and refuge.
“They’re easy to use, cheap and need almost no maintenance,” said Turcot, whose fervent enthusiasm for the great outdoors, like an airborne contagion, started spreading throughout the group.
Making an impression
After ensuring everyone had his or her bumblebee-hued appendages secured, Turcot set forth across the unmarked 16-foot snowpack. He trampled the fresh and feather-like snow, making an impression with every step. The rest of us, like a herd of elephants, fell in line and followed our entrusted chief. Adapting to our elongated feet – to everyone’s bewilderment – was fairly seamless. Snowshoes disperse weight over a large area so as to not sink deep into the snow – a process called flotation – making it possible to cross the easily compressed surface.
“Try making your own trail,” said Turcot without breaking stride, his technique encompassing a wide gate that allowed for balanced strides. “Now that’s when the work really kicks in.”
Immediately following his advice, I excused myself from the group to make new tracks. Friend Shira Hutton and my brother, Kevin Pearson, followed suit, sprouting off in different directions. I sank like a hapless soul in quicksand, my legs smothered by powdery snow. But the more effort you put in – unlike when sinking in quicksand – the better the results.
“Keep your knees high,” reiterated Turcot, who broke free from the shackles of his office job in Mississauga, Ontario – his hometown – to travel west in pursuit of this adventurous life.
I quickly realised Turcot was not embellishing. Trudging through deep snow is gruelling work. Gasping for air, I could see that Kevin and Hutton shared my sentiment. We took a moment to admire the incongruent trails we had made, acknowledging that our handiwork would vanish with the next snowfall. As we gradually descended, Turcot pulled up just shy of a steep hill.
“Those wanting to try test their skills, here is where you can do it,” he said, grinning ear to ear. “Try running down the hill. Just remember to keep your knees high.”
Hutton, Kevin and I responded with gusto. Our skills, or lack of, almost immediately shone through. Maintaining high knees we accelerated down the hill with reckless abandon, all of us toppling head over heels. It was like falling onto a goose-down duvet. The unsullied snowpack broke the fall, its composition much more forgiving than our travel companions. Our entourage laughed in unison as we came to terms with trying to stand up in the cumbersome shoes, a task more difficult than I thought possible.
After clambering to find steady footing, the majesty of the environment with which we were enmeshed emerged. We were situated at the foot of a valley on the British Columbian side of the provincial border. Encased by hills, we were sheltered from the wind’s might. For the time being all of its merciless power and rage had been quelled like a sedated cougar.
Other than some barely discernable snowshoe hare tracks, the landscape appeared undisturbed. Welcoming the silence that had enveloped the group, I scanned the terrain, admiring its uncompromising beauty. Lodgepole pines, whose branches sagged from the weight of freshly fallen snow, stood eminent across the vast expanse. The trees stood unified and defiant, resilient to winter’s torturous touch.
“I rarely see anyone else out here,” Turcot pronounced, breaking the serene silence. “Usually we are on our own back here – it’s fabulous that way.”
We moved forward like nomads of yesteryear, exiting the valley’s comforting and sheltered enclosure.
Walking on water
As the land flattened, so too did the snow beneath our tennis-racket-like shoes. The snowpack hardened, each step accentuated by a loud crunching sound. The landscape, with no imperious trees in sight, assumed a form more desolate and barren.
“Let’s cross the bridge,” said Turcot, momentarily confusing us. “We’re in Assiniboine Provincial Park and you’re standing on a lake.”
We began crossing the sizeable, frozen body of water. Walking on water – albeit water frozen solid to a depth of at least four inches – felt surreal and empowering, like a mystical right of passage.
The group forges forward in the blizzard conditions.
“A lot of people visiting Banff don’t make it up here,” the outdoor enthusiast quipped. “And they definitely don’t get to walk across a lake. If you don’t get out and appreciate what is here, you can’t see what you’re missing.
“We have people snowshoeing into late June; hikers wonder when they get their turn. It truly is a winter wonderland.”
Spiritually regenerated, the entourage began its gradual ascent towards the Alberta border. The gales had dissipated, warming the conditions considerably. Minutes later we reached the hill’s summit, all of us visibly weary from the arduous climb as we crossed back into Banff National Park.
“It’s mostly downhill from here,” said Turcot, an outdoor extremist who prefers uphill challenges, like the time he had to make camp in a self-built igloo in the Yukon Territory.
Before continuing downhill for the remaining half mile of our three-mile voyage, I looked upon the snow-swept, frozen ravine with adulation. I felt relieved that the group had swept aside its trepidations and eventually embraced the spiritually enlightening pastime. Snowshoeing atop the Canadian Rockies left the collective yearning for subsequent encounters with one of the worlds’ most humbling and mystique-endowed environments.