Mount Robson and Snowbird Pass

Mount Robson and Berg Lake, from above Toboggan Falls

A few days of R&R and some substantial driving following our kayaking adventure in Desolation Sound, we kicked off a 4 day backpacking trip in the Berg Lake area of Mount Robson. Coming from the south and west, Mount Robson remains well hidden amongst other mountains until a turn in the road suddenly reveals this snow covered giant (it is the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies, at over 13,000 feet high). It looks huge, is huge, and every tourist on the road promptly screeches to a halt in the layby to take a better look. Explorers 150 years before us described it as a “giant amongst giants” and they were spot on – it really hits you between the eyes on a clear summer day.

First glimpse of Mount Robson, approaching from the west
First glimpse of Mount Robson, approaching from the west

After registering for our trail passes at the information centre and watching the obligatory video on 10 ways to die/100 things not to do in the park we were set free to find our way into the backcountry of the Rockies, hopefully avoiding the bears along the way.

At the information centre, to collect our trail passes
At the information centre, to collect our trail passes
On the bridge marking the start of Berg Lake Trail
On the bridge marking the start of Berg Lake Trail

It was early afternoon and very hot as we made our way along the first few miles of the trail, weighed down by our rucksacs but otherwise happy enough on a fairly easy track. Up to Lake Kinney it was fairly busy, mainly with day hikers returning to the car park, but from there on it was quiet with only the occasional backpacker all the way up to the campsite at Whitehorn. At the 11km mark this campsite is not too far along the trail and I’d originally planned on heading straight in to Berg Lake, but the damage done from a broken leg back in March made a reassessment seem sensible, and I was quite glad to split the journey in over a couple of days.

Blue skies and emerald green water
Blue skies and emerald green water

I wouldn’t say Whitehorn was an exceptional location, but it does exemplify the care that BC Provincial Parks take with their campgrounds – each tent pitch is set out nicely with a proper tent pad and access is controlled to prevent overcrowding. I have to say that I was consistently more impressed with the Provincial Parks such as Desolation Sound and Mount Robson than with the National Parks like Jasper and Lake Louise.

Mike on the steep, narrow trail between Kinney and Berg lakes
Mike on the steep, narrow trail between Kinney and Berg lakes
Steeper than it looks, this is a serious haul in the sunshine
Steeper than it looks, this is a serious haul in the sunshine

Day 2 meant a steep hard climb from Whitehorn to Berg Lake, past a series of waterfalls (“Valley of a 1000 falls” is the exaggerated official name!). The most impressive of these is the Emperor Falls, and the cooling spray from this was most welcome after a long slog up the hill.

Thick spray from the Emperor Falls blankets the forest
Thick spray from the Emperor Falls blankets the forest
A chance to cool down in the mist from Emperor Falls
A chance to cool down in the mist from Emperor Falls

Twenty minutes later we burst out into the flat open braided streams just downstream of Berg Lake and into the full heat of the sun as we made our way along the rocky trail. By now Robson was truly dominating the skyline, almost 3km above our heads.

An area of bare rock and scree, close to Berg Lake
An area of bare rock and scree, close to Berg Lake
Simple wooden bridges make life much easier on the trail
Simple wooden bridges make life much easier on the trail

Berg Lake gets its name from the small icebergs that calve off the Robson Glacier as it runs into the water, and over the next few days we were treated to the regular rumbles and thunderous noise of ice protesting as it was forced down the mountain side. Being fed by meltwater also gives the lakes the very distinct turquoise colour as light reflects off minute particles of silt ground down by the ice and suspended in the water.

A stunning location for some lunch
A stunning location for some lunch
Feed Me! - a campsite visitor
Feed Me! – a campsite visitor

We set up camp for a couple of days at the Berg Lake campground, on a tent pad with a spectacular view of Robson, and close to the river below. A short snooze later and we were climbing well up the trail above Berg Lake, making for the Toboggan Falls and the Mumm Basin beyond. It was extremely hot in the sunshine and we were using water at an alarming rate, so we dropped the more ambitious plan of completing the Mumm basin trail (which would have taken several hours) and turned back an hour or so above the Toboggan Falls. Even at this point we were above the tree line and could see the route of the Snowbird Pass on the valley opposite us – our target for tomorrow.

View of the glaciers feeding Berg Lake
View of the glaciers feeding Berg Lake

Day 3 saw us going for my personal goal – the Snowbird pass. This 23 km trail only opens on the 1st July each year and we went for it on the 3rd. The first few km are very easy, flat, walking but you then start to climb up the side of the Robson Glacier moraine which is pretty hard going even in the morning sunshine.

Just about to get steep - we head up the left side of the glacier
Just about to get steep – we head up the left side of the glacier
Even travelling alongside it is pretty hairy in places...
Even travelling alongside the glacier is pretty hairy in places…

Once on top of this huge lateral moraine, you try not to stumble over the edge as the trail takes you along the steep and pretty unstable scree slopes. Most of the trail is fairly well marked, but there are a couple of areas where it’s both easy and dangerous to lose your way – I’d be wary here if the weather turned poor! It’s easy to see why the trail is described as “challenging”

Lush greenery thriving above the tree line
Lush greenery thriving above the tree line

That said, the lush and very green alpine valley at around 6,500-7,000 feet is both a surprise and stunningly beautiful. We saw quite a bit of life here, mainly marmots and ground squirrels, but the valley is also a caribou calving area and has a population of wild goats.

The reddish, bare scree of the actual top of the pass can’t quite compare to the valley below, but it does afford a spectacular view of the Reef Icefield beyond the crest of Snowbird. At 8000 feet it was a little chilly even in the sunshine so we didn’t linger too long before starting the long trek downhill.

Looking over the icefields on the far side of Snowbird
Looking over the icefields on the far side of Snowbird
Bare rock and snow at the crest of Snowbird
Bare rock and snow at the crest of Snowbird

Next day saw us break camp and prepare for the hike back to civilisation, some 21km away. Robson’s peak was covered in cloud, but I managed a few shots of the icebergs drifting across the lake as we marched along making good time for the first few km.

Small icebergs that give the lake its name
Some of the small icebergs that give the lake its name

As the sun got hotter and the packs heavier we were glad to take the chance of a break where the forest and trail allowed – even with sore feet the whole place is simply awesome.

The icy Robson River tearing through the forest
The icy Robson River tearing through the forest

 

A rather defiant looking rodent keeps watch
A rather defiant looking rodent keeps watch

We were back at the trailhead for lunchtime, although definitely feeling the pace a bit and looking forward to a cold drink just down the road.

Wildlife-wise we didn’t see anything bigger than a marmot in Mount Robson, although a few bears did materialise as we headed south along the Icefields Parkway towards Calgary and our flight home.

The only grizzly bear we saw - captured on a camera phone
The only grizzly bear we saw – captured on a camera phone
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