20151205: Fatbike Highwood Pass (How To Feel Like A Weakling)

Here are real-life testimonials on winter cycling:

  • “Holy power requirement! The effort that it took to churn this thing along the flat was substantial, keeping me working pretty hard to sustain a pace of around 7 km/hr! The human body just doesn’t produce enough steady power to run a snow-bike…”
  • “Pant loads of resistance…”
  • “The bike is VERY heavy and hard to ride. I wanted a work out and this is a total workout. When I’m done I’m totally burned out, but I feel great, it will make me that much stronger when the summer racing season begins…”

Ok, ok, so these people are talking about ktrak bikes  (p.s. the correct term is ‘Inuit’ friends) not fatbikes but I guarantee they weren’t riding sticky snow and ice-covered 30% grades in 65kph headwinds on fully loaded fatbikes up to Highwood Pass. The instant I stopped pedaling my bike would come to a dead stop. So much for momentum. It was kind of hilarious how much energy it took in a we’ll-laugh-about-this-later way. We being J and me.

Highway 40, Kananaskis Highway
This is why ‘nobody’ does it in the winter.

By the time I reached Highwood Meadows at 2200m elevation, the highest public road in Canada, it was 5hrs or so after starting from Highwood Junction and dark enough to warrant a headlamp. J had gone on ahead as I turtle inched up the last stretch at barely faster than a leisurely walking pace; my heartbeat was hammering away rapidly, letting me know I was getting dehydrated – and also a weakling.

I would count out 40 pedal strokes and then stop and rest for 15 counts. After a few rounds of this tiresome activity, I got off and hike-a-biked for the zillionth time that day, and saw by the prints in the snow that J had done the same. My sole consolation was that the wind would likely be a tailwind on the way back tomorrow.

Finally at what appeared to be the top of the infernal hill and what I guessed was the pass (we discovered later that the sign had blown over), I saw a couple headlamps off to the left.

A voice through the wind shouted out, “further down the highway!” I figured it was a couple of campers letting me know J was up ahead. It did occur to me that it would be unusual for other people to be out here. Highway closure was in effect Dec 1st and the backcountry campsite reservation list showed absolutely nobody else in all of Kananaskis tonight.

I continued over Highwood Pass and down the other side. The map showed about 5km to our target trailhead at Elbow Pass, and as I descended I looked for J’s tracks in the snow.

There’d been much more traffic on this side of the pass as it’s closer to the other side of the winter gate, and it was hardpacked by the wind. Letting gravity take over and the bonus of the harder surface was loads of fun. It gleamed in the headlamp. I whizzed by Rock Glacier and knew Elbow Pass was coming up and thought I’d probably see J at the trailhead.

The exhilaration of downhill however was replaced with uncertainty as I sensed I’d gone far more than 5k. This was confirmed when I pedaled by the Little Highwood sign, which meant for sure I’d overshot and missed Elbow Pass. What the… And where is J??

Now that I was in deeper softer snow at lower elevation I could clearly see that there weren’t any fatbike tracks ahead. I turned around (Grr! Back uphill!) and shortly afterward saw a headlamp coming towards me, which was kind of eerie in my tired-but-wide-awake state of mind. It was J (who else); he’d stopped to make tea – wearing two headlamps – and had shouted out “further down” to indicate that I should turn in a bit down the road. He’d had this idea that I might try to bushwhack straight across towards him through the snow.

After a quick “oh good I found you” on both our parts J offered some tea for which I was grateful. We made our way back up the road and saw that the Elbow Pass sign had blown over too.

We turned into the trailhead and hike-a-biked up Elbow Pass to 2100m, which was steep enough that there are a couple “Caution” signs posted. It was kind of miserable with my too-big boots (meant for colder weather and thicker socks) and slippery snow so thank goodness it’s very short.  I couldn’t wait until morning to see what it would look like in daylight; I’d heard stories of how stunning the area is.

Elbow Pass
I’m sure this photo will convince everyone how much fun this was. Elbow Pass.

At Elbow Lake we bivvied to a view of stars in a clear sky, framed by the tops of the evergreens. I’d brought my new MSR Reactor stove instead of the XGK as usual and I’m quite happy with how un-fussy and compact the new stove is. In winter the XGK with liquid fuel takes a bit of babying to keep up sufficient pressure, but it’s probably more reliable at colder temps. Appetizer was cheese and jerky, and I had beef-mushroom-noodles with extra veg while J cooked up his circa 2003 dehy’d chili. Snow-melt water tasted like the forest due to the lumps of moss and various bits of pine needle and tree debris. It wasn’t unpleasant.

The inversion from last week was over and a chinook was coming in; we had a breezy but warm night with a bit of damp precipitation. J and I had both brought -32C sleeping bags. I usually sleep with two duvets and prefer sleeping toasty warm and plush and cozy. J nearly suffered “heat stroke” in an “inferno” (his words) from the mega-puffiness of his kit and had thoughts of splaying his limbs outside of his bivy. Undoubtedly any passing bear would have mistaken him for a zombie apocalypse corpse haphazardly wrapped in makeshift siltarp.

The next morning we had the apple crisp that we’d forgone at last night’s dessert (gooey and far too sweet at this hour of the morning) and some leftovers reheated with more water to a soupy consistency.

We attempted to get to Tombstone Junction 6km away. Now imagine that probably nobody has been on this trail recently. 50lb+ of bike falling on your thigh, on a side slope, in soft snow, takes some exhausting extrication work.  J had an indescribable look on his face. Maybe it was another version of a we’ll-laugh-about-this-later expression or  I-can’t-decide-whether-this-crosses-hardcore-territory-into-pointless-masochism. We turned around.

Wheeee! Elbow Pass descent – it is indeed pretty – and all too soon reached the road junction. We were surprised to see fresh tyre tracks. When we reached Highwood Pass there were a couple Parks/ Search And Rescue trucks strewn on the road the way people would probably park during zombie apocalypse, like as though they’d been abandoned in a hurry. One of the windows was rolled down and the trucks were facing each other. Were the drivers conversing when disaster hit?

Not sure what it is about this weekend that reminded me of zombie apocalypse, maybe it was the evidence of civilization in the absence of humans: a highway devoid of people, empty campsites.

As we fooled around taking mock “highwood pass power pose” photos in imitation of road cyclists, a couple SAR guys came out of the trees and we chatted a bit; they were skiing up to re-set the weather station (blown over, probably, as sometimes happens).

The 42k back to Highwood Junction was relatively fast with the promised tailwind realized. Extended downhills got us going faster than I ever have been on a fatbike and so stable as to go hands-free. A good amount of the snow had melted leaving our tracks the day before in writhing ghostly white ropes on the wind-blown road. Having a whole highway to ourselves felt luxurious. Seeing the scenery in the daytime now was a gift. It was almost as though we’d planned it this way.

Here is some information on what it might be like to bike this route on a good day in the spring.



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