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Canadian Rockies Trail Guide

Snowpack in the Canadian Rockies’ high country

This July 16th photo of Curator Lake on Jasper's Skyline Trail shows the trail leading up to The Notch

This July 16th photo of Curator Lake on Jasper’s Skyline Trail shows the trail leading up to The Notch covered in snow and a large cornice lingering at the summit. On this particular summer, the highest sections of the Skyline still had a couple weeks before they were snowfree.

My Canadian Rockies Trail Guide co-author, Bart Robinson, recently received a query from American friends about the feasibility of backpacking the Rockwall or Sawback Trails in early July. That’s a time when we usually expect a fair amount of snow lingering above treeline and particularly on high, alpine passes. But each year is a bit different, and as spring approaches, we start second-guessing about when the high country will open up for snow-free hiking.

One of our favourite pastimes during late winter is checking the various snow plots maintained by the Alberta and British Columbia governments in the Canadian Rockies. These stations keep track of snow accumulations throughout the winter and plot the current year against the previous winter and average snowfalls at each site. British Columbia records this data via a rather ingenious method called “snow pillows”, which allows for remote readings (see What Is An Automatic Snow Pillow Station?)

Of course, the real purpose of these stations is to provide streamflow and flood warnings as well as information on downstream water supplies for urban centres and agriculture. But we like to use the readings as a means of predicting when the snowpack will disappear in the high country and when we might expect decent conditions for alpine trips.

Most stations started this winter with snowfall totals lower than average, but in the past several weeks those accumulations have risen to near average values or above.

What does this all mean for the start of the summer hiking season in the high country? Well, probably not too much. A lot depends on the next three or four months. Will it continue to snow? Will temperatures stay near normal or vary strongly above or below? Reading the snow survey charts is only marginally better at predicting the future than reading tea leaves. But nonetheless, it is fun to keep track of these stations and watch the rise and fall of this winter’s snowpack.

Photo by Brian Patton


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