Spring Camping in the Rockies

by Donald Cheeseman

It was in the spring of my youth and of the year 1956. I lived on the edge of the Rocky Mountains in my youth. I camped almost every weekend that I got off of work. In those days I kept a logbook of all my hikes. In the late 1950's, I camped the year around and walked hundreds of miles in the Ghost, Bow, Kanninaskis, and Waiparous river systems. I have kept these hand-written logs over the years. When I had "one thousand miles" of hikes logged I applied for the Rover Scout award called "The Golden Oak Leaves or Rambler badge" I believe I was the one of the first to receive this award in Alberta, possibly Canada. Now I am in my seventies, I recall one hike that I logged in my scratchy handwriting when I was about seventeen.

I had been working for the telephone company for about seven months. I arranged some time off by swapping shifts with a fellow worker. Ross Purvis, the Rover Scout crew leader, Bryce Scratch, Errol Dunlop, and I all arranged to climb in the Rockies Mountains behind "Yamnuska" mountain and walk to Broken Leg Lake to camp for the weekend.

After work, we set out by means of the Greyhound Bus to Silver Bridge that was close to Camp Chief Hector that is now called Nakoda and is a Morley Indian Convention Centre. My notes showed the fare to be $1.85.

Added later photos of Yamnuska in early winter

We started to climb North onto the slopes of Yamnuska Mountain. The spring weather was very warm, shirtsleeve weather. There was not a cloud in the light blue sky. The wind blew from the northwest. We walked north, away from the Trans-Canada highway and up the side of Mount Yamnuska until after dark. At about nine o'clock, we stopped at a small flat spot on the trail, to throw up a hasty camp. We laughed and joked and sang around a cheery small campfire. We went to sleep with all our food, clothing and general gear all strewn around. (Not good Boy Scout protocol at all, but at seventeen....?).

We just pulled out our sleeping bags under the stars. We had a large fallen tree as bit of a heat reflector and windbreak behind us and the fire in front of us. We turned in about ten o'clock under clear skies. Life was good.

Each of us awoke at about three o'clock in the morning. It was still not cold, but is had rained and it was snowing very heavily, so that we were all soaking wet and covered with four or five inches of snow on top our sleeping bags. No one wanted to get up and put on wet clothes and restart the fire. We debated it while shivering and getting wetter in our sleeping bags that were starting to soak through to our naked skin. It was pitch dark and we could not get a fire going, as we had no dry wood in camp, no dry clothes and sleeping bags that were getting wetter by the minute. We started to realize the seriousness of our predicament that we had caused by breaking all the good camping rules. We had only blue jeans and no waterproof or warm clothing. We all decided that we must leave and get under cover soon. We knew that we could not get warm just lying there getting wetter.

We got up and broke camp. Now all our camping gear clothing and foodstuffs were wet and covered with six inches of snow. The temperature was about at freezing and dropping. We could not even find all our belongings lost in the snow and darkness. Each one of us tried to start a fire and gave up in favour of packing up quickly and walking the seven or eight miles back to the highway. We had taken no compass or maps and could not see four meters in any direction.

We found that we had not even taken particular note of how we had entered the mountain valleys that we were now in and we did not know the best way back out to the road with no sight of the towering mountain to the north or the horizon to the south.

We all agreed that if we took the direct way out we had a high possibility of becoming disoriented and walking in circles. We knew we could not see stars or moon now. By the time we got packed up we were cold, wet, hungry, and a bit scared. The snow was coming down so fast that it got in our eyes, nose and mouth as we worked to pack up the camp. My glasses were continually fogged and icy from my breath and continuously rewetted from the big stick snowflakes.

By four in the morning the snow was about a foot deep and in places nearly doubles that. We felt that we were in danger of starting an avalanche on the steep slopes and therefore could not take the same route that we had climbed, coming in to this spot the previous evening. We walked with each of us taking the lead and breaking tracks through the snow. We had trouble even standing up on the slopes as it was very slippery with all the new wet snow.

We knew that we would have to walk to get warm. Walking in that heavy wet snow was very hard work with packs that now weighed twice what they did the day before, due to the added weight of the water in the soaked contents. We knew that if we had to stay in bivouac that night we would be in big trouble as all the sleeping bags were somewhat wet and we did not even have a tent along. We tried to walk down hill until noon and we were all tired and were traveling very slowly as we were now pushing the snow that was above our knees. My blue jeans were soaked and rubbing on my skin and the fronts of my legs were sore from the chafing of the frozen rough blue jean material rubbing on cold bare wet skin.

At the time, I took a single picture of the group at this point on my old camera. This photo is taken from an old ektachrome 35mm slide. It is too dark with age spots on it, but it still serves to re-sharpen the memory I have of this time.

Ross Errol Bryce

About noon, we had to stop to rest and eat a meagre meal. We decided that we would make a bivouac camp here in a spot where we had firewood and shelter from the wind. We had to try to start a fire to dry out and cook some food.

We cut boughs and built a lean-to. We managed to get a fire going and got some shelter from the snow. We all crouched together near the fire to conserve heat. Errol built the fire as big as possible at the entrance to the lean-to where the fire was not being snowed upon so much. We now took shifts at being in the shelter and gathering wood and cooking. I tried to hang sleeping bags and wet clothes up and Ross cooked hot food that would give us the most energy. Luckily the temperature was holding around freezing. We ate lots of Kraft Dinner of macaroni and cheese and drank mugs of hot tea.

Our clothes dried very slowly as the air was wet and the heat of the fire melted the snow in places.

The melting snow caused water to drip through the boughs of our bivouac re-wetting us. We had to regulate the size of the fire as not to melt the snow over our heads too much. To get warm, the others of us took turns cutting more boughs for the floor and the sidewalls of the bivouac. It was still snowing hard. We constantly discussed trying to walk out now until dark, with the chance of being lost, as we could not see four meters in any direction or spending the night here. We had used up a lot of daylight time. It was about four o'clock by now. We were a little better prepared for the second night. However we were all still damp through to our very souls. The clothes we were wearing were now steaming on the side facing the fire and freezing stiff elsewhere. At the same time as we were trying to dry out in the bivouac we would get all wet again if we went outside. We brushed each other off the best we could at the entrance to our temporary home.

We had food for several days; sleeping bags that were drying slowly and we were now thinking calmly. There was no shortage of snow water for tea. We were not looking forward to the prospect of spending the second night in the cold and wet. Our own body heat seemed to dry our clothes to a state of dryness balanced between dry and wet as the body heat dried and the body sweat made dampness.

That night we huddled together. I do not think I dozed more than a few minutes at any one time. If anyone moved we all awoke. We had not really built the bivouac big enough for all of us to lie down together so we sat up and on each other. Some parts of each of us hung out enough to catch the wetting snow.

And still it snowed hard all night. When we greeted the first wisps of grey dawn, the snow had built up to about one metre and drifts of much more. We had added piles of cold wet wood to share our humble shelter last night. It was all used to try to keep the fire going until morning.

The snow won another battle. The snow wetted and cooled the fire so that it hardly burned. The smoke and steam, from the fire blew into the bivouac. That caused us to have smoke in our watering eyes a lot of the time. If we had put the fire farther inside then the water would drip through the bough-roof, plus there would be no room for us. We managed to build the fire up again from small twigs that we collected from the lower limbs of large standing spruce trees. We could hardly walk in the deep snow around the camp.

We all vowed that we must walk out this day or perish here from the cold. One of the problems was that we were not sure where we said we were going. This was because we were now trying to get back to the Trans-Canada highway by a route that would give us the best chance of arriving at the road safely without getting lost.

We knew we could not take a second night of no sleep and freezing cold. We packed up and started walked out in frozen boots, pants and coats. I wrapped my tee shirt around my ears, as they were cold. I had brought only my Boy Scout hat with a wide brim that kept the snow off my neck, glasses and face. We started to travel any way that was down with no idea of direction in the swirling snow. We could not trust our senses, but knew that if we went downhill we would come out to the South and the streams and gullies should come out somewhere in the Bow River valley. We wandered over terribly rough terrain as we followed the lowest path and knew it would wander all over before going out to the road. It did just that and after ten miles of following gullies and dry streambeds, we kept going downhill as felt foot by foot with our feet. To judge the horizon was useless, we could not see anything. We still could not see more than four meters. The snow was now hiding all of the deadfalls, rocks and holes. We fell and stumbled slowly along. We walked all day in territory that did not look at all promising. We were tiring. We knew we had to make the road by night or stand the chance of serious frostbite as we were soaked through with no dry clothes. Our legs were now all oozing blood from being chaffed by the wet pants that pushed through metre plus snowdrifts. We each took turns except Errol Dunlop who was the shortest and weakening fast. We struggled at about half a mile an hour and could not stop, as we had no way to keep warm in the wet snow. By five o'clock it was getting dark.

At that moment we broke out of the trees at road. But! It was not the Trans Canada highway to Banff. It was some dirt trail, but it was a road. It had no traffic along it. Not a single track! We did not know which way to walk along it to get back to civilization. At this point any warm dry shelter would do. It would be completely dark in about an hour so we made an educated guess which way to turn. We turned and walked right down the middle of the road to the main Trans-Canada highway in about two winding more miles. We could see that the highway had been closed with the big snowfall. There were only a few dual truck wheel tracks on the highway and no cars tracks.

We walked to Camp Chief Hector where a group of Baptist Boys Brigade (BBB) happened to be camping. We introduced ourselves and explained the circumstances to their leader. He got us into one of the vacant camp cabins for the night.

The small cabin was very welcome. We were able to rest and get warm once we got a fire going. We all stripped off our wet clothes and spread them about to dry as a fire roared in a small tin stove meant only to keep the chill off during the normal camping time of summer. We all fell into wet steaming sleeping bags and were all sound asleep in no time.

We later learned that it had been a record snowfall in the Canmore area and that the road had been closed to all traffic most of the time we were gone. We all had made it back safely, but had we panicked we might have been still lost.

At seventeen years of age, I learned a very valuable lesson: To respect the awesome power of nature and the importance of proper preparation and observation of basic camping safety rules.

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