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Frigid Canadian Rockies

Irina's workshop in Banff seemed like a perfect excuse to spend a few days in the Canadian Rockies. With the beauty of the area still on my mind from a summer camping trip years ago, my expectations were high. While the coldest snap of 2019/20 winter certainly made this visit a memorable experience, the dull cloudy weather did not bring out as much of the mountain sparkle as I was hoping for. There was still plenty of beautiful winter scenery and having the Icefields Parkway virtually to myself was a surreal experience.


Gallery of my favorite photos


Calgary to Banff

Having flown into Calgary late at night, I was going to spend the night at an airport hotel. It was a cold 15 degree Fahrenheit when I picked up a rental car at the airport in the middle of the night. Little did I realize at the time, this would be the warmest it ever got during my five day stay in Alberta. The forecast called for more cold and I came prepared.

As I started my drive toward Banff in the morning, the sun was peeking through the clouds. Unlike Denver some thousand miles to the south, where the mountains border the city on its west side, Calgary is separated from the mountains by some 50 miles of rolling prairie. It is an easy drive on the four lane Trans-Canada Highway. The first view of the Rockies is impressive and the scenery gets only better as the highway follows Bow River toward Banff.

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Bow Valley Parkway

This quieter alternative to Trans-Canada Highway winds its way along Bow River between Banff and Lake Louise. Right past the entry sign, bighorn sheep on the road made for the first highlight. An SUV getting pulled from the ditch near Castle Junction reminded me to take it slow, and keep my eyes, that kept wondering off to the scenery around, on the road. With all the fresh snow on the trees, it was a winter wonderland.

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Morant's curve

Named after a Canadian Pacific Railway photographer, this iconic photo spot along Bow Valley Parkway features a beautiful view of a curve of the railway next to Bow River with peaks of the Rocky Mountains providing a scenic backdrop. I noticed a train going up the valey when I was still a few miles short of the curve. I raced to beat it to the curve which was easy even on the snowpacked road. A few photographers had been waiting there for more than an hour for a train parked in Lake Louise. They were happy to hear there was a train coming even if it were from the other direction.

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Lake Louise

As I drove up from Bow River valley to Lake Louise, I made a stop to watch dog sleds setting up on the side of of the road. All the barking made for a noisy atmosphere that fit the snowy mountain scenery around. For a little bit, it seemed I was in Alaska.

At the end of the road, the luxury Fairmont Chateau overlooks the lake. Mt. Victoria and other peaks surrounding the lake were hiding in the clouds, but the frozen-over lake was busy with skaters, many of them playing ice hockey. Not Alaska, this was Canada!

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Lake Louise morning

It got substantially colder still overnight with temperatures dropping below -10 F. The mountains were still shrouded in the clouds, with light snow falling on and off. I searched for a photo op before my afternoon drive to pick up Irina at the airport in Calgary. I made a stop at the Banff National Park visitor center in Lake Louise, drove a few miles up the Icefields Parkway, and finally spent some time at a bridge across Bow River near Castle Junction. It was hard to believe the river was not frozen considering how cold it was. Water vapor was rising from the river and a hazy view of Castle Mountain formed a backdrop of the frigid scene.

The afternoon drive to the Calgary airport on a snowy freeway seemed to take qute a bit longer than my trip in the other direction a day earlier. Blowing snow and a snowpacked highway made for tricky driving.

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Banff

The next day greeted me to more of the same weather. It was very cold with temperatures close to -20F. Light snow was falling on and off from the gray skies as I walked on the main street.

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Skiing Lake Louise

After a morning walk on the main Banff stret in frigid conditions and gloomy overcast skies, I saw a ray of hope when I logged in to the Lake Louise Ski Resort web site. The skies were clearing up there. I gathered every piece of clothing I had, jumped in the car and drove toward Lake Louise for a short afternoon of skiing.

I was up on the mountain shortly, and had just enough time to explore it and enjoy the views. In spite of the sunshine, it was bitterly cold the whole time with temperature around -15 F and dropping. My mittens rated to -20 degrees proved their value and kept my hands warm. To my surprise my new Canon Eos R kept clicking through the afternoon.

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Sunset skiing

Cruising down the World Cup downhill course was a treat I had been looking forward to. From high up on the mountain, I observed an impressive halo, punctuated by an ice crystal rainbow on its sides.

When the sun finally dropped behind the horizon, it got colder still. I made a final ride up the gondola into the sun and enjoyed my final run down the mountain.

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Banff side of the Icefields Parkway

A drive on the Icefields Parkway was supposed to be a highlight of my trip. I read all the warnings about winter travel there -- the highway is maintained in winter but there are no services along its 150 miles. Having driven it in summer and remembering its mostly mild grades, I felt I was ready to do it in winter too. I waited for a clear day and the forecast kept teasing me every day, yet every day with the exception of the afternoon of skiing proved to be much cloudier than the forecast had called for.

It was my last full day in Canada and I was driving toward Lake Louise from Banff, set on driving the Parkway regardless of the weather. It was snowing lightly, and the snow was drifting across the highway. I held out hope the forecast would be right but the cloudy conditions with poor visibility persisted all the way to Sunwapta Pass, 2,035m (6,677ft). The higway was snow covered but virtually no traffic made driving easy.

When I stopped at the Athabasca Glacier viewpoint, it was -32F (-34C). The views of the peaks to the west rising above Columbia Icefield were mostly obscured by clouds and haze. Observing a herd of bighorn sheep was my reward for getting out of the car.

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Jasper side of the Icefields Parkway

Shortly after I started the descent from Suwapta Pass toward Jasper, I passed a pickup towing a large camper. It ran off the road in one of the tighter curves. As I descended lower, the temperature kept dropping until it reached -38.5C (-37F). It was noon and the sun was peeking through an icy haze. I pulled over in the quiet, frigid landscape, and admired the way back toward Tangle Ridge.

I continued toward Jasper through more frozen, snowy landscape. The sky became clear and the sunshine invited to explore more. I finally turned when I reached Athabasca Falls to make sure I would make it back before nightfall.

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Back to Banff on the Icefields Parkway

The weather deteriorated again on the Banff side of the park, but the sunset generated some red hues above the mountains on the western horizon not long before I reached the Lake Louise end of the parkway.

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Lake Louise again

It was my last day and the weather stuck to its frigid, cloudy form. Since Irina was going to be car-less after my departure, we went to Lake Louise in spite of the weather. After enjoying the ice castle next to the lake, we warmed up a bit inside the Fairmont Chateau.

Back in Banff, the sky was clearing just as I was starting my drive back to Calgary. The forecast called for much warmer weather and sunny skies in the days ahead. This seemed to be the worst of weather luck I had since visiting Milford Sound in New Zealand in summer 1996 (where the bad weather is the norm though).

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Epilogue

Go when it is not -30F.


Last updated: April 27, 2021
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