Mount Burns Ridge - Alberta
July 15th, 2021
Three years without climbing a single mountain. A year and a half of an upside down pandemic world.
Border closures. Lockdowns. Travel restrictions. Curfews. Confusion. Division. Fear. Anger. Isolation. Etc... Etc... and on it goes.
Man, did we ever need a trip like this. And what better place to go than the one province in Canada that was finally feeling like a normal place again.
Initially, it was going to be a solo trip. A trip on my own to get in a better head-space by returning to the mountains that always refresh my spirit. But after testing out my youngest sons endurance on a long hike through the Gatineau Hills, I decided he was ready to give some real mountains a try as well. Maybe he would find as much joy and spiritual healing in the mountains as I did. For all I knew, this could be the seed that begins a lifetime of such exploration.
And so after some months of picking over a selection of mountains near the general area we would be staying (Black Diamond), we settled on three possibilities that I figured we would be lucky if we could squeeze in two within the short week we were there. Mount Burns was my first selection, which I knew was probably too ambitious for Fynn's first mountain hike, but I thought it could just be fun to see how far we could get along the ridge.
We made a reconnaissance trip the day before to the trail head parking lot at the end of highway 546... just a short 40 minute drive from Black Diamond. This whetted my palette immensely. To finally be in big mountain country again was rejuvenating and joyous. Despite the smoky views which abounded (BC wildfires were particularly bad at that point), it could not stop my growing excitement for the climbs that were in our immediate future. I especially loved witnessing the awe and excitement growing in my son. This is what I had hoped for.
We arrived at the parking lot at about 9am, stoked and ready for an adventure. With bear bells and spray on-hand, I admit there was a slight anxiety at the rare possibility of running into a Grizzly, as we were going to be bushwhacking for a portion of the hike. Normally I wouldn't have given it a second thought, but bringing my 9 year old with me seemed to trigger a protective reflex. I didn't let it override the main feelings I was experiencing though, which were all positive. Fynn was ready to go as much as I was.
So we found our way to the wide equestrian Sheep River Trail near the parking lot and walked for about 800 meters along the path before entering the Pine dominant forest. As part of this trip, one of my goals was to compare this environment to the one back home, especially in terms of allergies, mosquitoes and real-estate. I can pronounce here to all the easterners that the mosquito population (at least at that time of year) is practically nonexistent compared to the swarms we encounter when entering the forests. As I get older, these "little nuisances" are standing out more and more for me. I love the outdoors. I want to enjoy my time in it. But the incessant harassment by mosquitoes, black flies and now even ticks... it's wearing on me. Not that it's perfect in the forest of the Rockies. One does have to contend with the horse and deer flies.
We basically were following a GPS route through the forest I had found on-line by another hiker. There's no trail, just a steady uphill climb through the woods, which thankfully wasn't filled with too much dense underbrush or fallen trees to block our way. Still, this was probably the hardest part of the climb as there were no views and it felt tedious. It was about 1.5 hours of slogging through this portion of the hike with multiple breaks along the way. For Fynn, this was a challenging exertion for his shorter legs trying to bypass the fallen logs and stay motivated in the absence of any views. The expected questions of "how much longer" would inevitably come and I would do my best to encourage him.
Since he was carrying his own water supply, I figured I should take on the load to help lighten his backpack, which seemed to help him. As we progressed I kept updating him on our GPS location and how close we were to tree line. The thinning density of trees and extra light coming through also pointed to the fact that we were getting ever closer. These are the motivating signs we all need when we are struggling towards a goal. I had gone through these mental games so many times already on my past hikes, I knew it would be no different for him. We both needed that motivation, as it was a hot day and the smoky air increased the level of difficulty. Still, we pushed on and he was a trooper, as always.
As expected, as views of mountains in the distance began peeking through the thinning trees, our willpower to keep pushing upwards increased. We were soon rewarded with the immensity of Junction Mountain to the southwest slowly revealing itself as we ascended. Yes, this is what we love to see. This is why we come. Just a little more climbing and it will soon open up in all directions!
And so it was. What a difference it made once we crossed the tree line and found ourselves on the desert like landscape of Mount Burns ridge line. Beautiful and desolate. Completely alone and nothing but the cooling breeze as company. It was perfect and the effort now all seemed worth it to both of us. Fynn was impressed with the outstanding views he was witnessing for the first time in his life and experiencing some pride at the accomplishment of getting this high. There was much to distract him here though. As a lover of rock hunting, the talus slopes offered an abundance of possible treasures to find.
Both of us weren't content to remain here though. Ahead were some obvious scrambling sections that looked like a lot of fun and not dangerous. Plus it would take us to another high point which would extend the view westward significantly. Amazing how fatigue can vanish with the right frame of mind!
Having spent many days and hours climbing the hills, rocks and cliffs in front of our house back home, these scrambling sections were no match for Fynn's confidence and climbing skills. We worked our way up another 400 feet until we reached the crest of this section of the ridge. The view from this spot initiated an especially strong calling in me. Ahead lay the entire view of the route along the ridge all the way to the Mount Burns false summit (which at the time I assumed was the true summit). I stared ahead feeling that all too familiar pull towards a peak, a growing excitement building as I imagined our path along the ridge. It looked like an incredible hike from this vantage point and I was itching to keep going. Then I heard the words. "Can this be as far as we go, dad?"
I had prepared myself for this eventuality. I knew the chances of us completing this trek were slim. Yet, the view was so compelling and I was having a lot of trouble letting go so soon of a goal that was clearly visible ahead of me. But I had told him, and myself, beforehand that whatever choice he made I would just go along with it. I wasn't going to push him beyond his limits or turn this adventure into a grueling task to satisfy my own desires.
In all honesty though, it took some internal wrangling to accept it. "Peak fever" had took hold upon seeing the false summit. Like chum in the water for a circling shark. I was still hungry. Unsatiated after a 3 year dry spell. Maybe I could convince him to go further? Maybe he could hang back and I would continue? Maybe...? Maybe...?
As quickly as this internal battle began, it ended. I just had to accept it wasn't going to happen. Instead, I told myself I would be back (next year?) and will no doubt finish this epic hike on my own if I have to. Besides, we still had many more days ahead of us to do another hike. It was a wonderful warm-up for both of us.
Before heading back down we stopped for lunch and found a little cairn to spread some of my fathers ashes on (a new routine I have on all my big hikes now). By noon we were on our way back down through the forest, though not really following the GPS route anymore. It was pretty straight-forward and we often times came across some trails to follow (not sure if human or animal). We simply headed down the path of least resistance and knew it would eventually cross the Sheep River trail, and so it was about an hour later. By 1pm we were back at the parking lot and ready to go celebrate the first big climb of Fynn's life (our highpoint was about 6800 feet).
As a lover of the mountains and of hiking in general, there is nothing more pleasing than to have shared with my sons one of my great joys in life and to see that same joy reflected back. I am proud of them both for pushing themselves to new limits (including Ocean's last climb in extreme desert heat) and can't wait to experience more hikes with them in the future.
Download my Google Earth burns-ridge.kmz file [1.26 KB] to see my basic route to the beginning of the ridge. To use this file, download and install the free Google Earth software, then once it's up and running, choose File --> Open... and select the "burns-ridge.kmz" file that you downloaded from here. A "Burns Ridge path" placemark should now be in the Places tab.
Round trip distance from parking spot to highpoint: Approximately 3.2 miles (5.1 km)
Burns ridge highpoint for us: 6,856 feet (2090 m)
Elevation gain from parking area to highpoint: 1,525 feet (465 m)
GPS Coordinates of our highpoint: 50º36'22.07"N; 114º45'59.98"W(NAD83/WGS84)