Summer Solstice Madness

Training for Sinister 7 has been going very well. Almost too well.

100 mile races are all about suffering, and none of my training runs have really forced me to dig deep. I want to remind myself of what it’s like to be deep in the pain cave before I hit the inevitable wall on race day. With that in mind, I came up with a crazy idea.

There is a new trail in Kananaskis called the High Rockies Trail. This trail parallels the Spray Lakes Road and intersects with several routes which lead up to the mountain summits. Wouldn’t it be cool to run the High Rockies Trail and see how many peaks I could tag in the process? I looked at a map and sketched out a route. Then I looked at a calendar and realized that I didn’t have any appointments booked for June 20th, which also happened to be the summer solstice. I booked the day off and Summer Solstice Madness was born!

The plan was to run from sunrise to sunset (5:30am-10:30pm). I slept in my van at the trailhead so that I wouldn’t have to get up at an ungodly hour. My alarm went off at 5:15am, I rolled out of bed and off I went. First on my list? Big Sister.

I had been up Big Sister once before, but my friend Jamie had lead the way so I hadn’t been paying too much attention to the route. Now I was on my own so I was hyper-vigilant to keep an eye out for cairns and markers. I knew there was a short downclimb that could be easily missed so I found myself frequently stopping and looking over the edge of the rib I was climbing up, is this where I go down? I didn’t need to worry, because the actual down route was well-marked with a cairn.

The second concern I had about the Big Sister route was the snow section which I knew I would encounter just before reaching the summit ridge. It was warm enough that I had done most of the scramble in a singlet, and I was hoping that temperatures had stayed above freezing up high. But as I neared the crux it got cold and I needed to put my jacket back on, I began to have doubts. I noticed small rivers of ice on the rocks from melting the day before. My heart sank but I held onto a faint glimmer of hope. Maybe the snow had melted so much that there was a rock path through it.

The band of snow was not long or deep, and at first glance it looked like I might even be able to go around it if I wasn’t able to go through it. I stepped onto the snow, it was hard as ice. I tried to kick my foot in to break through the top crust, but I barely even made an imprint. There was no way I could go through the snowband without sliding off the mountain.

I attempted to go below the snow, but the rocks were covered in frozen meltwater. I started climbing the cliff above the snow, but then paused and thought more clearly. Did I really want to have to downclimb this? I was certain I could get up the cliff, but just as certain that I would not want to come down via that same route. If I climbed up there I would have to wait on the summit ridge until the sun rose high enough to soften the snow. I looked at my watch, it was 7:20. The sun wouldn’t hit that slope until close to noon. I turned around.

I recently listened to an audiobook called “No Shortcut to the Top”, an autobiography by an American mountaineer who climbed all of the 8000m peaks. The mantra he quotes repeatedly during his epic quest is “reaching the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory.” Wise words.

Getting down from Big Sister was slow. The scree up top was frozen and I had to watch out for the small ice rivers. I took my time and made sure to pick my route carefully. Soon I got back to the soft scree and I was able to enjoy some faster progress. I remembered Jamie mentioning that it was easy to miss the climb back out of the gully, so I kept my eyes open for a cairn.

Once again, I shouldn’t have worried because the cairn was highly visible. I smiled and gave myself a mental pat on the back for my awesome navigating skills. Once I got up onto the rib I found an obvious trail and fell into a nice rhythm on the downhill. It wasn’t until I was deep in a gully that I realized I was not on the trail I had ascended on. I debated climbing back up, but when I scanned below I couldn’t see any obvious cliff hazards. I took a risk and continued on my trajectory down the gully. The gully was easy going and I soon found myself back at my starting point.

I dropped my toque off at the van and ran down the trail towards my second objective for the day – Windtower. I should have filled up my water at the van, but to be honest I didn’t think of it. The next 5km or so were on the High Rockies Trail and I embraced the opportunity to get some running in on good trail. As I approached the trailhead for Windtower I noticed my water was getting low, so I began to ration.

I have been up Windtower a couple of times before and it has a good trail so I was not at all nervous about navigating. I turned my focus towards just putting one foot in front of the other as I power-hiked up the steep hill. Soon I burst above the treeline and I was rewarded with phenomenal views of the valley below. I had never been up here in good weather, so to be there on a cloudless, windless day was amazing!

The hike up the scree towards the summit seemed to take forever. I kept my eyes peeled for any patch of snow that might still be around so that I could refill my dwindling water supply. Eventually I saw a patch and I went over to melt the snow in the little bit of water I had still remaining. This is where getting up early came back to bite me again. The snow was still frozen!

My camelbak closes with a hard plastic slider, so I used the slider to chip away at the snow. 20 minutes later I had finally filled my pack. My “water” was the consistency of very thick slurpee, and I hoped my body heat would melt it before long. I continued my hike and soon I was at my first true summit of the day. It was time for a summit Oreo!

I hung out for a few minutes and then turned my attention towards Rimwall, my next objective. I had never been up Rimwall before but everything I’d read about it made it sound very straightforward. I didn’t have any majour navigation issues on the way up, but I definitely made the scrambling a lot more interesting than it had to be.

The climb up to Rimwall was significant and I was surprised at how much elevation gain/loss there was between the two mountains! I met a couple of other scramblers on top of Rimwall and we talked for several minutes. They were fun guys and one of them mentioned that he had been up Lougheed on Thursday. Lougheed has been on The List for a couple of years now, but I always put it off as being too “big” and “scary.” My new friend assured me that it was not scary and that it was virtually snow free. I still had tons of daylight left, so I decided to throw out the route I had originally planned and give Lougheed a shot.  I posted my change of plans on Facebook.  You know, in case I didn’t make it back 😉

I refilled my water with some slushy snow on my way down Rimwall and made my way back to the High Rockies Trail. Now I had another 5km-ish run over to the trailhead for Lougheed. The trail for Lougheed turned out to be very good and I had no problems finding my way into the HUGE meadow behind Lougheed’s three peaks. The meadow was magical and very distracting. I didn’t run much – instead I enjoyed watching the marmots play and stopped frequently to inspect wild flowers. The stream flowing down the middle of the meadow had carved out several bathing pools which were separated by small waterfalls. I will be back here on a hot day for sure.

Huge cliffs towered above me to my right and the sound of rockfall and avalanches echoed throughout the valley. I didn’t have a helmet so I stayed on high alert and stuck to the left side of the valley, far from the rock and snow hazards. My friend had told me to go up “the bowl” but now I found that there were two bowls. I decided to go up the far one, since that route seemed to be have the easiest scrambling.

By this point the trail had disappeared and I found myself groveling my way up a huge rubble slope. I don’t think I’ve ever climbed up that much rubble, but maybe I was just tired. Along the way I came across some metal scraps which were too big and sharp to pick up and place in my pack. I grumbled about people littering. I have since found out that these were remnants from a plane crash.

Eventually I made my way to the summit ridge. The view was amazing and I found myself looking down on Centennial Ridge and Mount Allan. How cool is that?! Then I looked further along the summit ridge and my heart dropped. I was not near the summit. I still had to run down a scree slope and up a second slope on the other side! Suck it up you whiney baby.

The down and up climb wasn’t actually that bad once I got moving. I had given up on trying to move quickly and simply focused on putting one foot in front of the other. The 360 degree view on the summit was so amazing that I just sat down and smiled like an idiot. How lucky am I?!

I don’t normally sign registers, but I signed this one and then continued along the ridge to the alternate descent. The scree on the way down was a fantastic change from the rubble I had crawled up. I really enjoyed this route which was filled with soft scree and waterfall traverses – I even got to watch a mini avalanche let loose across the valley! When I finally reached the meadow I stopped to empty my shoes and soak in the beauty of it all. 3 marmots were hanging out on a rock, 2 of them cuddling as though it was date night. It was a magical sight. I shuffled my way down the narrow path back towards the High Rockies Trail. I was feeling stiff but I thought I could still maybe run a bit once I got back on good trail. Needing a boost, I turned my phone on speaker for the run home. The deal was that I would run for 3 songs and then take a walk break while I ate a couple of Swedish Fish and drank some water. This seemed to work and I ran the whole way back, including all of the uphills.

I have been very consistent with making sure that I finish my mountain outings with some running. I want my legs to be able to run no matter how tired they are and I think I am getting there. Less than 3 weeks to go, and I am ready.

56km, 4700m of gain. 15:30 total time. 11hrs moving time.

  • Gear:
  • Swiftwick socks
  • Ultraspire Velocity pack
  • Icebug Anima shoes
  • Icebug Buff
  • Sauce toque (Tri-It)
  • MEC jacket
  • Walmart brand shorts and singlet
  • MEC mitts
  • MEC windproof pant shell (didn’t use)
  • Fuel:
  • Water (8L)
  • Salt Stick Caps (9)
  • 100mg Life Brand Caffeine Pills (3)
  • Mars bars (several)
  • Oreos (several)
  • Swedish Berries and Fish (1.5 packages)
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3 thoughts on “Summer Solstice Madness

  1. Pingback: Going for Broke | Joanna Runs

  2. Pingback: The Journey to 200k | Joanna Runs

  3. Pingback: Peak #3 – Rimwall | Joanna Runs

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