Cycling in the Snow

A mountain storm hits when one family is biking the Canadian Rockies

By Vivien Lougheed

Mount Robson loomed before us, its distinct horizontal striations underscoring the glaciers gushing down from the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. We took the obligatory photo of Robin, our 11-year-old granddaughter, gazing at the monolith, then headed east to Jasper National Park to meet her school chum, Josh Thomas, and bicycle the Icefields Parkway to Banff, 180 miles away.

Josh had moved six months ago and Robin missed him. Our six-day, summer bike trip was a reunion of friends. Robin also loved a challenge — and this was something her friends had never done. The right to brag is a major motivator for adventure.

Josh's parents found us in the campsite and traded him for our vehicle, which they took to Banff so we could drive back after the trip.

Gramps hitched the bike trailer behind his bike and hauled the tents, sleeping bags, and extra clothes just in case we hit rain, or even worse — snow — which was always possible in the high northern mountains. Our panniers were packed with granola bars and fruit leather.

The trip started with photos at the Athabasca River where the sun blazed onto the [photo josh max-width=150 align=left]diamond-clear water. The river, first explored by mapmaker David Thompson, begins as a trickle at the Columbia Icefield some 43 miles south, and forms the largest river system in the park. After three hours of cycling we stopped at Athabasca Falls where the river narrows and drops 80 feet, carving potholes and hollows into the walls of a deep sandstone canyon.

We snaked our way up the valley by the majestic Roche Miette peak. By the time the kids finished eating burgers at Sunwapta Falls, another 15 miles down the road, the mountains were shrouded in cloud. That evening in camp, we needed jackets to keep warm.

Climbing Sunwapta Pass

The following day was overcast for the biggest challenge of the trip: the ascension of Sunwapta Pass, a 1,300-foot climb up a 12 percent grade to the Icefields sitting at 6,775 feet above sea level. We rested at Tangle Creek and laughed at the thought of long-skirted women during the last century, hiking down the steep waterway littered with rocks and tree trunks. Bighorn rams chewing their cuds peered down from their perch ten feet above us.

At the top, we took the Snowcoach onto the Columbia Glacier, one of the eight glaciers that make up the 125 square miles of Icefield. The Columbia is a fairly smooth glacier, nearly four miles long and more than half a mile wide. We warned the kids not to go off the trails in case the surface gave way and a crevasse swallowed them up, as had [photo josh_rob max-width=150 align=right]happened to a young boy a few years ago. He died of hypothermia before rescuers could get him out.

Robin and Josh enthusiastically explored the creek and bush behind our campsite on the pass. After setting up the tents, Gramps and I dropped, exhausted, onto a picnic table.

"The wind's increasing," I observed.

"The clouds are greyer."

During the night, rain fell. As the temperature dropped, the patter went silent. I hunkered down into the sleeping bag thanking the mountain gods that the rain had stopped and for Robin's warm body, curled into my legs.

In the morning, I peered outside and saw white. About six inches of snow had fallen forming an ice layer over the road. Gramps made a huge pot of porridge and encouraged the kids to add lots of sugar.

"Let's make a snowman!" Robin cried and Josh instantly went into action.

Icy roads ahead

Coffee in gloved hand, I searched the campsite for plastic bags to cover the kids' running shoes and mitts. We had a wind-swept plateau to cross and then a three-mile downhill run, both of which might trigger hypothermia. Plastic-bag mouse ears stuck out of Robin's helmet, and plastic-bag duck feet flapped off Josh's runners.

"Go slowly!" I warned. "The road will be slippery and cars can't stop if you fall." Gramps led the pack and I brought up the rear.

The hill was no problem; the kids took care. At the bottom we cycled around a flood plain into a gentle uphill climb that helped warm us. The grey, snow-laden clouds hung like grapevines. Then came sleet.

"Eight kilometers (five miles) left to the next restaurant," Gramps called. We cycled in silence.

"Five klicks (three miles) left."

Finally with freezing hands and tingling feet, we could see Mount Wilson hovering above The Crossing resort. After plates of burgers and fries and uncounted numbrs of hot chocolates, I peered outside at the worsening weather. It was more than six miles, uphill, to the next campsite and another cold night.

I whispered to Gramps, "Have we got an extra 150 bucks?" His face lit up like the Aurora Borealis.

"Yup," was all he said.

I made certain there were rooms available and then ordered the kids to the motel [photo jasper max-width=150 align=left]entrance. They stared at me quizzically but complied. Silence was rare for our curious Robin.

Soon the kids were clued in and animation returned. They whispered and poked but mostly giggled.

Within half an hour, our wet gear was unpacked and drying around the room. Robin put a heap of wet clothes into a dryer in the laundry, and Josh put his feet into dry socks.

"Can we try the gym?" he asked.

The motel break turned our luck. The following morning, the sun sparkled off the melting snow and the temperatures rose faster than the kids. We climbed over Bow Pass within eight hours, and the rest of the trip was downhill.

As we approached Banff, Robin stopped cycling.

"We're not finished, are we?" she wailed. "Can't we keep going to Radium Hot Springs?"


We think you'll like this article: Get Started Biking With Your Grandchildren. You may also enjoy the travelogue Mayan Caves and our fun motorcycle-adventure story Hot Wheels.

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