Monday, November 12, 2012

Ski Touring in Paradise Valley

It's November in the Canadian Rockies and cross-country skiers are flocking to Lake Louise in droves for the season's first ski trip.  The Destination:  Moraine Lake via the paved summer road, snow covered, groomed and track set by mid November most years for classic and skate skiing.  It's always the first trail in condition for skiing each winter and the parking lot fills up quickly on weekends.

We'd originally been planning on ice skating this past weekend until early snow fell and pretty much ruined any chances we'd have for a November skating season in Banff.  Never a family to let snow ruin our weekend though, we decided that hey, we could go skiing instead of skating!  Skiing on November 10th!  That could almost be a record - and probably is for us anyway.

Last November's ski trip on the Moraine Lake Road was less than desirable with a cranky two year old, weather cold enough to crack the plastic on our ski pulk, and us having to turn around after only an hour or   so of skiing.  This year we were able to have a very different experience though after hearing my mother say that she had four days off work - and a free weekend.  That was all the encouragement we needed to beg for a day pass off to ski at a happy adult pace, free from crying, screams to get OUT of the pulk, potty breaks and a miserable toddler yelling at Daddy to ski faster!  (Apparently anything less than a wicked down hill run is not fun anymore and God Forbid Dad should have to slow down to herringbone up a hill!)

We made a very wise decision to leave our son with Grandma as the weather dropped below -15C on Saturday with wind chill and she used the opportunity to take him shopping instead for more winter clothing.  (Two new pairs of ski socks - yay!!)

Meanwhile, we packed up the car with skis, a great friend with a bubbly personality to keep my husband awake while I retreated into my post-ski "too tired to talk" shell, and made our way to Louise.  And had we have skied the Moraine Lake Road, the story would have ended here with a brief description of the slow boring plod up the road with views across to the Louise ski hill and Transcanada Hwy.  Our story does not end here though because in less than half an hour on the road, my mind was already going numb and I needed more challenge.  We were child-less after all.  Why ski something on a solo day that could easily become a family trip some other weekend?

Enter Paradise Valley to the story!  A glorious 20km return backcountry ski tour (if you do the full distance, go equipped with full-on backcountry skis and avalanche beacons, and have a tad more experience than I do perhaps.  However, in 10km return (or less), you can definitely reach Paradise Valley, cross Paradise Creek a couple of times on snowy picturesque bridges straight out of a painting, and have a relatively easy day of ski touring within the capabilities of most cross-country skiers.  We all used light touring skis with metal edges and definitely appreciated them because of their extra width and design for powder.  Our path was certainly not groomed and we had to break trail the whole time following some old ski tracks that had been covered over by the most recent snow fall.

Paradise Creek (Photo:  Brielle Rosa)

Directions to Paradise Valley:

  1. Park in the parking area for the Moraine Lake Road (between the Village of Lake Louise and the actual lake above)
  2. Follow the groomed track set trail up the road for about 2km until you reach a wooden sign and the junction for the Fairview ski trail. (usually track set and groomed by December)
  3. Follow the Fairview trail until it veers off to the right.  You'll see a short steep hill in front of you (most likely skier tracked).  This is your hill and where you leave the official trail - up you go!
  4. Gain the ridge crest and follow it until you reach the first bridge (on your left) over Paradise Creek.  You won't go over the bridge unless you are taking the summer Highline Trail to Moraine Lake.  It's worth going out onto the bridge though for the breathtaking views and your first glimpse of Paradise Valley. You'll also find a large wooden sign here pointing the way to Moraine Lake (left) and Lake Louise (right).
  5. Your trail goes to the right rather than crossing the bridge - on the Highline Trail leading back to Lake Louise.  It will feel like you are going in the wrong direction and your partner may tell you that you are on the wrong path.  This is the right way though!  After a short distance, you will reach the signed junction with Paradise Valley and you'll leave the Highline Trail (popular with snowshoers heading to Paradise Creek from the Upper Parking Lot of Lake Louise.)
  6. You are on the official summer hiking trail to Paradise Valley now and after climbing for a short distance (longer if you are breaking trail or don't have skins on) you'll descend gradually to reach Paradise Creek again - and the second bridge.
  7. This makes for a great lunch break and if you started late (as we did) a good turn-around spot.  Otherwise, cross the bridge and continue up valley to another bridge within very short distance.  If you are on AT or Telemark skis, you can easily continue to the junction with Lake Annette or continue on towards the Giant Steps and views up valley towards the Grand Sentinel below Sentinel Pass.  I've never made it past the Lake Annette junction on light touring skis and I can assure you that should you decide to continue past this point you'll need skins!!  
Leaving the Moraine Lake Road for Paradise Valley (this is the beginning of the Fairview Trail - normally groomed)
The junction with the Highline Trail (left for Moraine Lake and right for Lake Louise)
First Bridge (going over the bridge would take you to Moraine Lake - hence we just took photos and turned around)
The official trail into Paradise Valley off the Highline Trail heading back towards Louise (Photo:  Brielle Rosa)
Reaching the second bridge over Paradise Creek (Photo:  Brielle Rosa)
A perfect Day in Paradise Valley!

Our trail-breaker and my Sherpa

Notes about the current conditions:

There are a few natural hazards to avoid, small patches of water to step over, the occasional rock or exposed root, etc.  In general though, conditions are fabulous for so early in the year.

If you are used to doing this trail later in the season, the lack of grooming on the Fairview Trail may throw you for a loop.  I fell twice on this section of trail on the way down and I've never fallen here!  The short section of the Fairview Trail also felt a lot longer this time without the grooming  and we were thrown off when we came across another trail going off the the right within minutes of leaving the road.  Stay straight if you too stop for a moment to ponder the mysterious trail to the right.  I can assure you that it is very steep and not skier-tracked beyond a few metres.  (we tried it.)

Also, in the past, we've always followed the creek from the first bridge and didn't have to take the official summer trail to reach the second bridge.  Maybe conditions have changed over the years since I last skied this trail but right now anyway in November, you can't follow the creek until you reach the second bridge.  It is not frozen yet and there isn't room to ski beside it.

 

Want to snowshoe into Paradise Valley?

Start at the Upper Parking Lot at Lake Louise near the Chateau Lake Louise Resort.  Take the signed trail towards Sentinel Pass and the Fairview Lookout (different from the Fairview Ski Trail).  These are summer trails and are designated snowshoe trails for winter as well.  Continue past the junction for the Fairview Lookout and continue another 40 metres on the main trail.  Turn left when you see the horse trail sign - this is the Highline Trail which goes all the way to Moraine Lake.  This trail gains 60m of height gain and is 9km return to reach Paradise Creek at the first bridge mentioned above.

If you want to skip the first bridge and head further into Paradise Valley, leave the Highline Trail when you reach the junction and large wooden sign for Paradise Valley.  (number 5 above)  The views from either bridge are equally beautiful but you'll  be able to continue up valley further beyond bridge number 2.  If you follow the Highline Trail straight to Paradise Creek and hike right past the junction with Paradise Valley, you'll have to turn around as soon as you reach the Creek.

Alternately, follow the ski directions above and snowshoe up the Moraine Lake Road to access the Valley.

For more information on snowshoeing into Paradise Valley please stop at the Visitor Centre in the Village before starting your trip.  I have never taken the Highline Trail and can't really describe the trail.  You will cross one avalanche path on the Highline Trail from Louise at kilometre 1 but the risk is rated as Simple Class 1 Terrain because it is not a path prone to frequent avalanches.  If you are concerned, ask park staff about the risk as well as current avalanche conditions.

 

Planning on taking the whole family into Paradise Valley:

It's definitely possible to pull a ski sled, pulk, or Chariot into Paradise Valley via the Moraine Lake Road if you are on snowshoes.  Skiing would be much harder and myself, I wouldn't do it while pulling a sled.  Deep snow would cause the sled to flip on corners and the trail is single track at best in both summer and winter. Skiers choosing to try anyway might want to use AT or Telemark Skis for additional control on the hills.  I'd also heavily recommend skins for the trip in if you are pulling a heavy sled loaded down with tots.  Backcountry knowledge is a must along with advanced ski abilities, and knowledge of the area.  Families on snowshoes carrying children might do well on the Highline Trail but as mentioned above, check with Park Staff first for conditions and safety of the trail with kids.



Disclaimer:  The author takes no responsibility for your trip, the conditions, and the safety of your family or party.  As always, use your head, go prepared, and talk to knowledgeable park staff before you go if you have any doubts at all.  Conditions the day I skied the trail could be very different from those you will experience.  Know your gear, pack for emergencies, and remember that 9 or 10km in winter can take a lot longer than the same trip in summer if you are on snowshoes. This distance could very well be too much for young children on a cold day.



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