Early on a cold January morning we packed two fatbikes into the back of our Sprinter van and set out for the High Rockies Trail, located a 20 minute drive south of Canmore, Alberta.
It was well before dawn that we set out from Calgary with just one short stop for coffee at a Phil and Sebastian’s coffee shop. As a skier my entire life, I wasn’t unaccustomed to early mornings. My family’s policy growing up was that to get the most of the day on the ski hill, we had to be on the road by 7:00am. As such, even as I’ve grew older I’ve maintained that if we aren’t out of the city by 8:00am, we aren’t getting the most out of the day. That morning was no different, we had to be on the road before first light.
City dwellers, road cyclists, and runners like me have an affinity for pavement. Point A to point B is the easy way, the simple path of least resistance. Day to day we live in a world where the route we take is dictated by Google Maps as the stretch of asphalt that's the least congested. Usually, the best surprise you’ll get on your route through the city is an off-ramp that isn’t backed up.
So there’s something liberating about mountain biking. Sure there’s usually still a trail, but its a trail commissioned by adventurers, maintained by grit, and laden with dirt. On the mountain bike, while the city bustles at 8 am on a weekday, you can be the only one for miles and miles on the trail. Set out on that same trail in the winter, and suddenly you’re in a world like no other. A world reserved for those wandering souls that yearn for some escape from the ordinary.
Just 90 minutes from Calgary, something spectacular awaits riders. The High Rockies Trail is an 82km mountain bike trail that extends from the Goat Creek parking lot and trailhead, and continues south all the way to the Peter Lougheed Provincial Park here in Alberta. Its continuous single and doubletrack trail that’s especially accommodating to new riders. Rookie riders will find the lack of overly technical terrain welcoming, and seasoned adventurers will be won over by the jaw-dropping splendour and expansive views.
On this January morning, we kept driving about 10 minutes past the beginning of the trail to reach the Spray Lakes Reservoir. Frozen over in the winter time, sub-zero temperatures make the ice thick and safe enough to be passable three to five months of the year. From there we’d ride across the lake and hook back up with the High Rockies Trail.
The sun was just beginning to climb up towards the mountain line and we could see daylight warming the peaks of the snowy Rocky Mountains. But with the air temperature hovering just above -20C we were blindsided by how quickly our hands got cold. My riding companion wanted to hustle back to the van to warm up until we had a little more sunlight but I could see a ray of light moving across the frozen lake. I grabbed my DSLR camera and insisted we stay out a few more minutes before getting some reprieve.
The photos were spectacular.
It's said there are something like 50 words for snow in some languages. I’m not sure which of those words refer to snow that are perfect for fatbiking, but I can’t imagine that more than half of those types of snow are fatbike friendly snow.
I’d liken fatbiking to surfing. There’s a window for the perfect conditions. Too little surf, and too little snow, and you end up with a mixed bag day with a hit and miss experience. Too choppy surf, and too sugary or powdery snow, and your skill and fitness level may not be up to the task with the type of riding required. So like with surfing, you need to know where to go on which day. Riding with a local guide that knows the mountains, and knows the trails, is your ticket to a great experience.
Up into the trees on the High Rockies Trail that day wasn’t working out for us. The deep unpacked, untracked snow that skiers yearn for was being easily outmatched our 4.5 inch fat tires on that section of trail. After hiking the bikes up a couple hundred meters looking for a bit of reprieve, we descended back towards the reservoir and the van.
After turning north and riding some we eventually hit the jackpot with the type of snowpack we were looking for. Tracks left by snowshoers and cross-country skiers had yielded the perfect, crunchy snowpack for fatbiking. As the sun lent its warmth to the day, the experience went from delicate and slow to dynamic and fast. We were still making the time to get off the bikes and take photos, but the focus had shifted to experiencing the ride and the day.
Two hours of riding across the High Rockies Trail just an hour and a half from Calgary and we only saw one other person. An ice fisherman setting out early with his camera and gear to spend the first day of his 2018 in the mountains. This was bliss.
I tried to capture the entire ride in photos and as spectacular as the shots are, they don’t do the mountains the justice they deserve. While I rode with my companion we had a conversation about riding in the Rockies versus riding in the Alps, or any place else. Geographically, the Rocky Mountains are one of the youngest mountain ranges in the world. And while the Alps have been settled for hundreds, if not thousands of years, the earliest westerners to venture through the Rockies did so only in the past two centuries. The only whispers of civilization in the Rockies were left by indigenous peoples who are as much a part of the settings as the mountains themselves.
Rediscover your sense of adventure and wonder. Get on a bike, and experience the Rockies.
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