by Lee Green
March 10, 2018
Our small (3 people) but hardy band of Nordic touring enthusiasts arose shortly after 6 am Saturday at the Maligne Hostel. Food was packed, thermoses were filled with hot tea, gear was sorted into one car, and off we went to the trailhead - via the Bear’s Paw in Jasper. (A Veggie Sunrise bagel sandwich makes a good breakfast for a long day on the trail.)
We were early enough to be ahead of the traffic up the road toward Marmot Basin, so we quickly arrived at the Portal Creek trailhead, the gateway to our objective: Maccarib Pass. It was -10C and clear when we walked across the bridge to set out on the winter trail at 8am. The sun was on the mountains above us, but not reaching into the Portal Creek valley yet. Avalanche conditions were unusual: green in the alpine, yellow at tree line, and orange in the subalpine. Beacons were on, and our route was low risk.
The trail started with a short, steepish, somewhat icy drop to creek level, then a nice steady rise through the subalpine fir along, and sometimes over, the creek on snow that was a bit crusty and glazed but passable. We steadily worked at it, enjoying tantalizing peeks at the surrounding peaks, until Peveril came clearly into sight. One of us, skiing on wax, put on skins; the other two continued on their fishscales. About that level the snow improved, the crusty trailsides and glazed tracks giving way to quality powder. The temperature had risen perceptibly, and we dropped a layer. A bit more climbing, past the entrance to Circus Valley into the narrow stretch between Peveril and Lectern shown on the topo maps as “The Portal,” and we reversed that process. The breeze coming through the narrows had a bit of an edge to it, down around -15 to -18. Layers went back on.
Past the midpoint of The Portal, the trail leveled out and we cruised along in the sun, dropping layers steadily. We paused briefly for a snack and sip of tea at the campground, where someone had thoughtfully shovelled out the picnic table, and pressed on. The climbing resumed after a bit, mostly gentle - but in a few spots we left some tracks left that resembled the skeleton of a commonly available fish. The scenery was awesome, accented by the Boreal Chickadees that showed up along the trail foraging for insect eggs and larvae in the bark of the rapidly thinning subalpine firs.
Then began the climb up into Maccarib Pass proper. The trail, skied just the day before by a large party going in to the Tonquin Lodge, had blown over for the most part. It was still visible, but required modest trailbreaking in fresh powder. The goal was in sight though, so no heed was paid to that! We topped out the high point of the pass, and took a Google 360, at 12:30. The scenery was all we’d hoped for - another “why isn’t everyone here?!” moment in the high country of the Canadian Rockies winter. Bluebird sky, warm, no wind, sun on snow on mountains; we took pictures but pictures never do it justice!
About face, and down the trail. Mostly straightforward down the modest grade, but one of us had to angle off to pursue slightly steeper lines and weave tele turns through the sparse trees. One deep-powder face plant was involved, when the snow that a clump of trees shaded from the sun turned out to be a lot deeper and looser than it looked. Too bad there was no video. It was quite a cloud.
We broke for 20 minutes for late lunch when we reached the campground again. By that point it was very warm, with snow melting off our skis as we sat comfortably in the sun eating. Then on back through The Portal.
Looking at the slopes on either side, we saw several small avalanche slides that hadn’t been there in the morning. Clearly things were coming loose in the warmth. The trail is routed to minimize exposure, for which we were grateful. There were only a couple places where a large slide could reach the trail. We didn’t hang around there.
There were also a fair number of large holes off the side of the trail, because we were following the creek. Mostly they were no problem, but the trail did skirt a few of them pretty closely. We re-routed the trail a bit to get further from one, as it presented a choice of snagging skis or poles in brush or dropping into the pit when cruising downhill at speed. Not into the river, fortunately, as one of us did drop in, prompting the re-route. No harm done though.
The descent was mostly a steady and enjoyable cruise. The lower section, not the greatest snow early in the day, had softened in the warmth and was quite tractable. We were back at the car at 3:45, smiling with the joy of a beautiful day in the mountains and 24 km under our skis.
Upon returning to the hostel we found Maligne Rd above the hostel closed. There was an avalanche near Medicine Lake, and more were expected. Word was they didn’t expect the road to open until about Thursday. So our plan for a half-day ski up to Summit Lakes had to be abandoned. (The trailhead is at the south end of Medicine Lake.)
Sunday morning we set out on Plan B: just a low-key ski and sightseeing morning up the Palisades Overlook trail, above Jasper. The previous day’s warmth had glazed the trail, so conditions were pretty icy, but it was a reasonable consolation prize. The views were indeed nice. We wrapped up just before noon.
So with our primary objective, Maccarib Pass, achieved, pleasant weather and awesome views enjoyed, we counted it a very good weekend in the backcountry, and headed for home.