It was a good idea at the time. It was a sunny spring day in the mountains and a highway still closed to traffic. What could possibly go wrong. Not a lot. But enough.
At 2206 metres in elevation, the Highwood Pass in Kananaskis Provincial Park an hour west of Calgary is the highest paved pass in Canada. Cyclists love it because of the wide shoulders, low amounts of traffic and the stunning landscape. The best part of all – 25 kilometres on either side of the pass is closed to vehicles annually from December 15 to June 15th to give the wildlife a chance to do wild things in private.
Usually there are a few weeks before the gates open when cyclists enjoy the width of the entire road. So, with only three days left of cycling bliss we headed off to K-Country. I wanted that picture of us holding our bikes over our heads at the sign – just like everyone else has done.
Parking at the base of Nakiska Ski Resort we gauged the weather. I foolishly left my rain gear and my mountain sense in Calgary. But it didn’t look too bad – a little overcast, but manageable. I decided I’d ride in my lightweight cotton (yes – cotton) jacket to be on the safe side.
Off we went. The plan was to ride 50 kilometres to the crest of Highwood Pass with an elevation gain of about 766 metres (2513.12 feet).
There isn’t much development; a ski resort, a few hotels, the golf course flooded out in 2013 (and now reopened) and campgrounds. It’s just a beautiful ride through the trees, past creeks and rivers.
The headwind was pretty strong so as usual, I tucked in behind my husband. At the road block at 25 km people were milling about. Many riders pulling children in chariots park there to enjoy the open road.
Passing Grizzly Creek, I looked down into the bushes in the road allowance and saw movement. Sure enough, it was the silvery hump back of a huge grizzly less than ten metres away. He heard us and turned around.
When staring at a massive grizzly its amazing what goes through your mind. First I thought, “That red tracking collar really looks nice with his chestnut fur.” Then I thought, “Is it true that a grizzly is faster than a race horse?” I didn’t ponder anymore. Jeff hadn’t noticed the bruin until I powered past him pointing into the ditch saying, “That’s a bear! That’s a bear!”
The bear had no interest in us and resumed dining on fresh leaves. I figured the bears on my socks must have scared him off.
As we continued going up, it was fun to see riders enjoying the ride out. They were reaping the rewards of that long climb by sailing past us in full tuck. But something was nagging at the back of my mind. Why were many of them wearing so much clothing – seriously – most of them had winter gear on. I still hadn’t clicked my brain into mountain gear.
With only about 2 kilometres to the pass, the rain started – quickly turning into pelting full on horizontal hail. Our summer jackets and shorts were no match to the wind and the hail. We had to turn back. But that’s where the storm was coming from.
Going downhill suddenly was not the reward we anticipated. Shaking from the cold only made the bike vibrate and I couldn’t see through the sleet sticking to my glasses. My fingers were turning to ice making it impossible to squeeze the brakes. That’s about when it dawned on me that I was that suddenly the unprepared idiot the search and rescue people are often called in to recover. How did I let that happen?
Like a true mountain summer storm – it stopped as abruptly as it started. But we were soaked and still frozen. We pulled into the parking lot at the Fortress Mountain corner still shaking. A girl in flip-flops and shorts fueling her 4X4 looked at us like we’d stumbled out of the ice age – ummm I guess she was perceptive.
Inside we poured hot chocolate and assessed the situation. Cursed by a bad frostbite episode while backcountry skiing many years ago – my toes were white and had no feeling. It would take forever to warm up – or would it.
Jeff picked up the empty beverage cup, squished my wet socks in, tossed them into the microwave to nuke them for 20 seconds. The instant warmth was bliss. I stuffed my feet into my shoes and headed for the door. It still rained as we peddled the last hour but I laughed most of the way.
I’m disappointed that we missed the photo at the top but I’m more disappointed in my lack of good judgement. I grew up in the mountains and would never have dreamed of hiking or climbing without the proper protection. I guess road cycling has steep learning curves.