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Outdoor Adventure

How Lake O’Hara’s Alpine Circuit Ended Up Being Yellow & Blue

Trail markers on the alpine circuit.

Trail markers on the alpine circuit.Have you ever wondered who painted the trail markers on the “Alpine Circuit” at Lake O’Hara? There’s red and orange squares side by side, as well as blue squares with two vertical yellow stripes. Sometimes you see all of them on the same rock.

Who painted them? How were the colours chosen? It turns out it’s a multi-generational story, with a handful of cast members who ought to be celebrated for their efforts to keep us hikers in the right place on the mountainside.

Famous Lake O'Hara trail builders Carson Simpson and "Tommy" Link.

Lake O’Hara trailblazers – literally – Carson Simpson and “Tommy” Link.

First up in our cast are trail builders George “Tommy” Link and Carson Simpson. Through the 1940s, they worked to create most of the alpine circuit we enjoy today, putting up the routes to Wiwaxy Gap and All Soul’s Prospect, as well as the Huber and Yukness Ledges. Since there was little to indicate where the trails were, Tommy decided to mark the route with red and orange squares of paint. He had researched the colours, and believed that they would be easy to see for people who are colour-blind.

In 1969, the legendary Tim Auger started working as the district warden at O’Hara, and became a protege of Tommy, who was by this time in his 80s. Tommy took Tim out to all the trails he had built, and since the paint squares were fading, Tim repainted the red and orange in the early 1970s.

Park Warden Tim Auger painting route markers at Lake O'Hara in the early 1970s.

Park Warden Tim Auger painting route markers at Lake O’Hara in the early 1970s.

Fast forward to the 1980s, when my friend Edwin Knox, now retired from the Waterton Lakes National Park Warden Service, got his first trail crew job… at Lake O’Hara! He started in 1984, and spent three summers up at O’Hara. Edwin overlapped the era when the trail markers were changed. I interviewed Edwin for a couple of hours this spring (thank you, Edwin!), and got the whole story. In 1986, it was decided that the orange and red squares needed an upgrade: they looked too similar to the brightly coloured lichens on the rocks, and they weren’t ideal for those who are colour-blind.

Rob Hemming painting alpine markers in 1986

Rob Hemming painting alpine markers in 1986. Photo by Edwin Knox

That summer, Edwin was on a crew that included Rob Hemming and Diny Harrison (who later became the first woman in Canada to become a full mountain guide). Diny had studied fine art in university, and from her knowledge of the colour wheel, she knew that two colours from opposite sides of the wheel would give the highest contrast and be the most visible – even to those with colourblindness – so she chose blue and yellow. In the first week of August that summer, Edwin, Diny and Rob went on a mission to paint the new squares on the alpine route. They had little stencils, small paintbrushes, and a couple of cans of paint.

Rob Hemming and Diny Harrison painting alpine markers in 1986.

Rob Hemming and Diny Harrison painting along the Huber Ledges in 1986. Photo by Edwin Knox

Edwin provided me these photos of Rob and Diny at work. I love the Parks Canada “uniforms” circa 1986: blue or pink shorts and bare chests or bikini tops!

When you next do the alpine circuit, make sure you tip your hats to Tommy, Tim, Diny, Rob, Edwin, and all the other great O’Hara trail crew members who have followed in their footsteps. Without them, we’d almost certainly get lost up in the high country!

Tommy And Lawrence book coverIf you want to dig into the history of Lake O’Hara’s trails, I recommend Tommy & Lawrence: the Ways and the Trails of Lake O’Hara, by Jon Whyte, edited by Chic Scott.


A Via Ferrata Adventure

The Via Ferrata at Mt Norquay

“You’ll be clipping and unclipping these 220 times.”

This is what John Thornton (‘JT’ to everyone in the Bow Valley) tells us as we look down at the carabiners attached to our climbing harnesses.

We are at the base lodge at Mount Norquay, about to embark on a four hour adventure on the cliffs above the ski resort, and everyone is excited to be trying something new. That something new is Norquay’s Via Ferrata, first launched in 2014, with JT playing a major roll in its development and operation.

Guide John Thornton, happy in his natural habitat.

I’ve been wanting to try it ever since, and yesterday I got my chance. As a bonus, JT is leading our group. I’ve known JT ever since I arrived in Banff, and am keen to see him in his natural habitat.

After a quick ride up the trusty North American chairlift — built in 1948 and still going strong — we are ready to clip in and meet the “iron road.” Via Ferratas were first developed in Italy, and are an ingenious way to get up steep mountain-sides. Steel rungs for your feet and hands are attached to the cliff, and you clip your carabiners to steel cables adjacent to the iron steps. The combo allows you to climb easily, and be protected in case you fall.

JT leads the way, offering tips and encouragement, and we climb up and up, over steep bluffs, through little chasms, even across a suspension bridge. Below us is a fabulous view of Banff and the Bow River, and from north to south, a glorious panorama of Banff’s two signature mountains, Rundle and Cascade.

I’ve done a lot of rock climbing, scrambling, and even a few alpine climbs, so I shouldn’t be having so much fun, but the Via Ferrata is pure happy time. It gives you an eagle’s eye view, camaraderie with your new cablemates, and the joy of being up where the clouds can go.

People often ask me what I like to do on my days off, and what other things there are to do in Banff park. Yesterday the answer to both questions overlapped, and I highly recommend Banff’s Via Ferrata.


The Great Boiling Water Ice Experiment

Guide Joel Hagen conducting boiling water experiment on cold day.

Last week, Arctic air parked itself over the Rockies, and on many mornings, temperatures were as cold as -35 C. That’s not so fun for skiing and snowshoeing, but it’s perfect for trying a neat winter experiment – turning boiling hot water into frozen steam in just a couple of seconds.

Here’s how it works. You fill a thermos with boiling water, and then, making sure you’re not facing the wind, you throw the hot water into the cold. Amazingly, none of it makes it to the ground as liquid water. Instead, it appears to turn into an instant cloud of frozen steam.

So, what is going on here?

Boiling water, being so close to steam, is very energetic, so when you throw it out of the thermos, it splits or breaks into tiny droplets. The droplets now have a large surface area compared to their size, which allows for a lot of evaporation. Each teensy hot droplet is trying to turn into steam.

But the air is really cold, and cold air simply can’t hold very much water vapour, so the freshly made steam condenses back into a liquid. But each bit of “condensate” is still really small, and in the cold, all those little bits quickly freeze. Once that happens, you get an ice cloud that is, literally, very cool!

Check out this video of the whole thing in action. From emptying the thermos to the ice cloud disappearing takes about ten seconds!

Thanks to Mistaya Lodge (a great place to go backcountry skiing!) for a few thermoses of boiling water and the great sunrise venue for the experiment. And thanks to Mark Finlay for exposing his fingers long enough to take the pictures and the video.

Boiling water wasn’t the only thing to freeze last week. It was cold enough that your breath and even your runny nose would freeze, especially for a bearded guy like me.

In case you’re worried, we’re back to normal temperatures this week, so it’s safe to get back out on the snowshoes and enjoy the outdoors.

Ice Walking at the Athabasca Glacier

guests and guide on the Athabasca Glacier

Midway between Lake Louise and Jasper is one of the wonders of the Canadian Rockies, the Athabasca Glacier. A literal river of ice, it flows down from the Columbia Icefield towards Highway #93, and is a must-see destination in the Canadian Rockies.

Last week, on a field trip sponsored by our Interpretive Guides Association, I got to join Master Guide Peter Lemieux and fellow interpreters on an ice hike all the way up to the top of the glacier, where it tumbles off the Icefield in a series of ice falls. What a spectacular place, and what a unique experience!

A pool of mysterious “cryoconite,” made of wind-blown dust and microbes.

We passed millwells and crevasses, ice-scraped bedrock and sub-surface ice tunnels.

Along the way there was so much to look at, from the mysterious “cryoconite” deposits on the surface of the glacier to the massive side moraines that showcase what a beast the Athabasca Glacier was in the 1800s.

Peter and his dog George led us across the ice surface, chopping the occasional step, offering the occasional hand, and stopping to share stories of the changes he’s seen at the glacier over the 30+ years he’s been leading trips there.

Most shocking is the speed at which the glacier is receding. Peter stopped at one of the metal research poles in the ice, where, at the end of May, he’d put a piece of yellow tape around the pole where it came out of the ice. In less than a month, the ice surface was melting away quickly, and he said that the glacier will lose 5 – 8 metres of ice from its surface this summer. It was a powerful reminder of climate change in the Rockies.

The piece of yellow tape by guide Peter’s hand was wrapped around this pole in late May, right at the surface of the ice. In less than a month, almost a metre of ice had already melted away.

The highlight was getting to the icefall, where chunks of ice the size of houses cartwheel down from the icefield above.

All in all, a top-notch experience, and highly recommended: