From alpine scrambling to mountain biking and beyond—nestled in the heart of the Canadian Rockies are world-class facilities and scenery so spectacular it’s hard to know where to start!
Story by Lena Desmond, Photos by Sergio David Spadavecchia | Outpost Expeditions
We were winding a corner, the Rocky Mountains covered by a blanket of clouds. At that moment, I could only imagine what their piercing summits would look like, how sharply they would impose themselves on the sky, for they were lost to the weather. In hindsight it was a good thing, or I might have missed what happened next, transfixed by their billowy peaks.
Delano and I were driving and instead of being immersed in the landscape or an email, we were talking about the joys of being disconnected, mutually thankful our phone reception was blocked by the forest which flanked both sides of the mountain highway. Delano was deep in articulating a thought about his love for the wilderness when he broke mid-sentence, pointing to the side of the road.
“There’s a bear! A bear! Look at that!”
Just metres in front of us, a juvenile grizzly stood sniffing the air, his nose peeking over the overpass, as he contemplated his crossing. We slowed and pulled over just as our velvety friend decided NOPE!—his shiny fur catching the sun like silk, his dowager’s hump ambling up and down as he bumbled back into the forest.
NOTE: For current (2020) travel parameters to visit and explore Canmore, see the Town of Canmore here. For parameters to Kananaskis Country, click here.
We didn’t have time to take a picture or a Snapchat. We barely had time to register his imposing disposition. It was a chance encounter, a fleeting hello.
Tucked into the Bow Valley, in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, Canmore is more wilderness than it is colonized by humans. Bookended by Kananaskis Country and Banff National Park, we were mere guests of the wild creatures who inhabit the surrounding forests, and the wilder people who call Canmore home.
While Canmore began as a coal mining hub, officially christened as a town in 1965, in today’s popular imagination—just as in reality—the town hosts more Olympians than any other place in the world. Skiers, biathletes, mountaineers, rock climbers, ice climbers and mountain bikers abound in this playground, sharing the land along with their unlikely neighbours. Black bears, with their pointy ears and dog-like snouts; grizzlies, with their crush-velvet coats, extra-long claws and shoulder humps; sly humourless cougars. This is their home too, among the more innocent elk and goats, day hikers and tourists.
To visit Canmore is to find yourself outdoors. It would take a lifetime to explore the infatuating alpine environment that is the Continental Divide’s Rocky Mountains.
They lure explorers to them like moths en masse to a campfire flame—Mount Assiniboine, Mount Yamnuska, Ha Ling, Lady MacDonald and Mount Rundle to name but a few. The area surrounding Canmore boasts some of the most attractive ranges in the northwest of North America, which is why, when I had the opportunity to come, there was no way I was going to say no.
“You ski, right Lena?” Well, I said—I snowboard. “How good are you?” I’m good enough. Some blacks. All blues. “And you’re into hiking, right?” Absolutely.
Our expedition promised adventure on the mountains and in the mountains, from trekking (with a world-renowned mountaineer, to boot!) to kissing the dirt on a mountain bike, Canmore made me believe there’s another way to exist on this planet.
On the Ground: at the Alpine Club of Canada
“This place feels like home,” Delano said to me, as we tossed our bags in the Alpine Club of Canada’s clubhouse common room. A man sat on one of the overstuffed leather couches, reading, in front of a hulking glass window that captured the entirety of the Bow Valley. The Three Sisters, Mount Rundle, Ha Ling—Canmore’s most iconic and revered mountains—poked through the weather like a reflection in a fogged mirror.
From the kitchen, a few sweatpants-wearing, merino wool-clad hostel-goers were calorie loading over Kraft Dinner, ramen noodles and potatoes. As I put our groceries into our designated drawer, I overheard a couple reviewing their day: the loop, wrap, poke-through dance of knots; something about makeshift wilderness first-aid; a cool debate on the best brand of bear spray. All while chopping vegetables and boiling carbs in various forms.
The Alpine Club is not the kind of hostel you hear about in usual backpacker tropes; cockroaches scattering through hallways, or inebriated patrons playing beer-pong on picnic tables, unaware.
No. While other mountain towns are popularly known for their ski villages and party scenes, Canmore’s Alpine Club hosts a particular outdoor-objective focused breed.
The chill ambiance created by these mountain-tired busybodies (I mean that in a literal and complimentary way) was disturbed only by a squeal. I jumped and looked over as one of the mountaineering students handed another a fork of macaroni straight from the pot.
“It’s her first time having macaroni,” he said, catching my gaze. “She just arrived in Canada from Japan for the first time for our mountaineering course.”
“So you’re showing her the best of Canadian food culture,” I laughed, turning to her. “What do you think?”
“It’s very good!” She said, digging her fork into the pot again.
People come to the Alpine Club of Canada from all over the world, and from those that I met their visits were never aimless.
From a week-long rope rescue course to several weeks of wilderness survival training, everyone was preparing for something. “And when I’m done my mountaineering course, I’m going to do a solo, unassisted crossing through the Rocky Mountains,” one adventurer told me.
“All by yourself?”
“Yep. Just me and the bears.”
The Alpine Club was made for people like this. Most known today for its mountain hut system that provides a base camp for mountain activities, since its inception in 1906 it has been the quintessential launch point for mountaineering in Canada, founded by two mountain-culture pioneers: Arthur Oliver Wheeler, an Irish land surveyor who was responsible for photo-topographical surveys along the Continental Divide through the Canadian Rockies; and Elizabeth Parker, a Canadian journalist known best for her wholehearted fight to preserve Canada’s unique mountain heritage as well as for her feminist contribution to alpine sport, which would become a distinguishing factor in the Alpine Club’s history.
In fact, it is known as the first national mountaineering club that was welcoming to women, a feat unheard of at the time. By the end of its first year there were 15 female members, and the dress code laid out provisions for gender-equal gear. One newsletter read: “No lady climbing, who wears skirts, will be allowed to take a place on a rope, as they are a distinct source of danger to the entire party. Knickerbockers or bloomers with puttees or gaiters and sweater will be found serviceable and safe.”
Indeed, in a time when women were most often breaking bread, the ACC had women breaking trails.
As I roamed the clubhouse looking at rusted crampons, wood-heavy icepicks and hemp ropes preserved in glass casings, and black and white images of attempted first ascents that adorned the walls, I thought of how lucky I was to be preparing to embark on my own first ascent, and how without a woman like Parker and a place like the ACC it might not be in my realm of possibility.
Alpine possibilities—I would learn all about that concept the very next day from a man who doesn’t know the meaning of limits. Turned out to be one of the best of my life.
By Foot: Trekking with a Legend
As we walked into Yamnuska Mountain Adventures headquarters, I had butterflies in my stomach, a feeling I can only equate to the time my eight-year-old self stood in front of Andre Agassi as he signed my purple Mighty Mouse autograph book.
I had just finished The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains, written by the very man waiting for us at the end of the hall.
As we entered the room and saw renowned alpinist Barry Blanchard sitting on a couch, with rosy cheeks, long locks and welcoming smile, it felt as if we were meeting a young Johnny Winter, a musician with whom he bears an uncanny resemblance—well, first impression, maybe. Humble and endlessly approachable, Barry stood to shake our hands. With his trademark silver ponytail cast over a shoulder and his fleece unzipped revealing a glint of chest hair, one might expect to see a drum set or Fender Stratocaster within reach; but instead there was a mess of harnesses, carabiners and helmets at his feet.
For a man who described his ascent of Nepal’s notoriously gruelling 8,000-metre peak Nanga Parbat as “having sex with death,” I was surprised to find Barry as lighthearted as he is tender about mountain experiences of any difficulty level, especially those surrounding his home in Canmore. We would be hiking the Yamnuska Traverse with him.
Mount Yamnuska stands at roughly 2,240 metres. Yamnuska is derived from the Stoney aboriginal word Iyamnathka, which means “steep cliffs” or “the flat-faced mountain.” While we would stick to traversing and scrambling our way to the summit, winding around its backside, the mountain is also home to more than 60 rock climbing routes, which range from easy (like King Chimneys), to hard (Ain’t Pretty But She’s 5.8), to the seemingly impossible and endlessly formidable, Devil’s Right Hand.
We began at the bottom, as most climbs do. Looking up, the trailhead snaked up Yamnuska through aspen and spruce trees until it reached a 300-metre vertical wall of sedimentary rock that hard-capped the mountain like a helmet. The green hillside cut sharply into rock wall, as if someone had taken a razor and shaved the trees off.
Like many of the Rockies, the mountain once pricked the landscape violently in a clashing of tectonic plates that thrust the Precambrian limestone upward some 80 million years ago. A bunched rug, a sedimentary tsunami frozen in space, these mountains have the look of earth colliding. But before their barren peaks they are bursting with life; the aspen trees, each a single organism, breathe together through their network of underground root systems, proving that despite the land’s harsh geological history, they do indeed have a gentle side.
As we moved up more steeply through the groves, Barry suggested we extend our walking sticks.
“Two walking sticks take 40 percent of the weight off your knees,” he advised.
I noticed how Barry articulated every step. Sure, he’s hiked Yamnuska some 500 times; but the care he put into every step spoke to a lifetime of walking uphill slowly. It was hard not to imagine that same surefootedness pawing the Karakoram glaciers on K2’s savage face, or pointedly driving a crampon into an ice wall on Alberta’s Twin Peak.
As we reached the prominence, the line where life ended and the barren rock face began, I asked Barry if he had any big upcoming climbs planned. As he moved through a crevasse, taking a large step up over a boulder aptly nicknamed Butt Polish Rock—after those who take the easy way and sit instead of walking over it—he mused: “Nothing over 7,500 metres—7,000 metres, sure. But not anything over 7,500 right now. Maybe later.”
“Sure. Understandable,” I said, trying to fully comprehend the gravitas of that 500-metre gap in the very high-altitude death zone of an eight-thousander. (There are only 14 peaks on the planet—and they’re the tallest of them all—that rise above 8,000 metres.)
As the terrain changed, so did the weather. The wet snow cried out of nowhere, making the scramble of rock we were stepping on slick. Moving steadily up the back of Yamnuska, we climbed a natural staircase of sediment and traversed across a thin rock bridge, tethered to the mountain by a mere set of chains. Not far from the summit the temperature dropped further, and we layered up before making our final trudge through a thin sheet of snow to the top.
As we reached the highest point Barry yodelled down into the Bow Valley, and for a few brief minutes the accumulation broke and the sun poked through the clouds. There we stood on Yamnuska’s summit, with Barry Blanchard, overlooking his backyard.
At the top, we stopped to breathe in the view and to warm up with a cup of tea, before making the decision to begin our descent; this high the weather can be unpredictable, and in the distance the blue skies were turning grey. The micro-climate created by Yamnuska and the surrounding Rockies flexing their strength.
From a scramble to the scree fields, we lowered through sedimentary rock flakes (also known as scree) that reminded me of a kid’s ballroom.
“We’re taking the escalator down,” Barry joked, as we floated down the scree, making our way to the bottom in a quarter of the time it took to get up. The scree lifts and lowers you like a buoy bobbing in waves.
Back at the clubhouse that night, I was collapsed on the couch journalling my day when I slipped into an easy conversation with a fellow traveller that clubhouses so often inspire. We talked about how Canmore was a hub for athletes and how here, access to mentors and heroes alike is possible.
“Climbing is the only sport where you can get to know your heroes,” said my new friend. “It’s not like you’ll be playing basketball and Kobe Bryant will shoot hoops with you. But you could be climbing in Canmore and you know, Barry Blanchard might be sitting at the patio table next to you.”
Some of the Best Mountain Biking in Canada
While our trek up Mount Yamnuska had allowed me to play within my comfort zone, the next day’s activity put me right out of it.
Canmore’s Nordic Centre is home to about 100 kilometres of mountain biking trails that range from wider collision-safe trails to bumping, bursting, burping cross-country ones, to single-track for the iron-willed adrenaline junkie. It was here we met Wanda Bogdane, owner and operator of the Canadian Rockies Mountain Bike Fest and president of the Canmore and Area Mountain Bike Association, also known as CAMBA.
Wanda has spearheaded much of the recent development of mountain biking taking place in Canmore, taking her 12-year-long love affair with it right to the trails, with the goal of bringing a once-siloed community together, all while wearing her trademark lollipop socks.
Delano and I would come to call her Wild Wonderful Wanda with Wheels. At first meet, I wouldn’t have expected her—probably because she’s so petite and sweet—to shred trails like I shred paper. (Which is ironic, because I’m petite, too.) When I asked her how her romance with mountain biking was sparked, she said it began as a gateway activity and served to fuel her thirst for mountain sports.
“It’s been a long 16-year relationship,” she tells me. “There have been some years where I climbed less and mountain biked more. Two years ago I had my fifth surgery, so now long days in the mountains are out of the question. The constant for me has been mountain biking. I feel free on my bike. Free from injury. Free from pain. What I feel on my bike is unlike anything else. It’s been a steadfast part of my life.”
This peace in the midst of activity is a common sentiment from a lot of the athletes I spoke to in Canmore. The intense focus, the adrenal rush, all lends itself to the perfect cocktail of brain inhibitors inducing flow state, addictive and so often associated with activities found in the mountains.
And Wanda is hell-bent on sharing that passion with others, which is why she’s so invested in the Canmore mountain-biking community and its initiatives.
“When I first moved here 12 years ago, there were a lot of silos,” she continues. “The biggest change I’ve seen is the coming together of different shops to create a cohesive vision. It’s a culture shift. Groups and organizations coming together like they never have before. In and around that, the Canmore Area mountain-bike association, CAMBA, was formed. There was no maintenance body devoted to trail maintenance before that. [And] in combination with the inaugural Canadian Rockies Mountain Bike Fest in 2017, where everyone from amateurs to professionals will come to Canmore to celebrate mountain-bike culture, it’s a wonderful time for unity.”
Wanda handed us our bikes and brought us to the trailhead. I tested the springs nervously.
“It’s going to be like riding a couch,” she said with a wink, then placed a comforting hand on my shoulder as my nervous gum-chewing increased in volume. “Remember, keep your elbows soft, hips back and feet even. You’ve got this!”
Then she hopped on her bike like it was an extra limb and took off, her lollipop-like socks peddling into a blur as she bobbed through the ups and downs of the trail and out of sight. I tried to look ahead, analyzing the path for obstacles which promised to unhinge me. Trees canopied the dirt path. The only trace of sky was pockets of sunshine that cast shadows of their trunks down across the winding trail.
I took a breath and took off after her. She was right—it was like riding a couch. I imagined my body like a giant shock absorber, riding the wave of the trail in the same way a surfer flows with a break and not against it. I was buzzing, so much so that for a moment, I flew.
Then we paused for a break.
“Girl,” Wanda said. “You look so happy! Look at you! You’re smiling from ear to ear!”
And I was.
“Did you see how much air I caught? That was incredible,” I said back.
As we took off again, my confidence was up—maybe too up. And my adrenaline was climbing, maybe too high. In front of me, I could see Wanda and Delano stopped at the bottom. I could also see a large bump. Maybe I didn’t know how fast I was going. Maybe I knew and didn’t care. Maybe a bit of both.
Either way I felt when I went off that jump, it was a feeling akin to solving some great life mystery—I love this!—perhaps like Einstein solving some great equation. But then, as I began descending back to the earth, I remembered general relativity and that I had no idea how to land. I slammed into the side of the trail, somehow detangling myself from my flying couch mid-crash, as my bike went one direction and I went the other.
Wanda came rushing over. Delano checked me for injuries. A scratch on my chin, a little blood from my nose.
“You looked so happy that I laughed, and then I saw the realization come over your face. Are you OK?”
Winded, I choked out. “But yeah, I’m OK.”
The scene replayed in my mind, but the sense of flight was stronger. I brushed off my knees, tightened my helmet, and inspected my bike.
“Let’s go again!”
“Girl, you just kissed the dirt!” said Wanda, as we laughed off the fall and double-checked that my couch too had made it unscathed. I guess that’s how all great athletic love affairs start: a boost of adrenaline, a shock of blood, sunlight between the trees, bolstered by the possibility that one can fly.
On the Turquoise Water
Mere minutes into Kananaskis Country, we lose reception. And with it, all sense of time. While the skies were muted, they only served to amplify the vibrant green trees, so very alive against the backdrop of jagged, carnivorous peaks that just seemed to swallow all colour behind them. For a moment, the water was but a mirror of the surrounding mountains, a mix of silver and glass; but it didn’t hold. Rain soon shattered the reflection into a thousand pieces. The pitter-patter on my cap became a waterfall as I unlaced my hiking shoes, freeing my feet on the freezing wet sand.
The Spray Lake Reservoir is a tributary that connects seven waterways before feeding into the Bow River, which in the First Nation’s Peigan language is called Makhabn and means “river where bow reeds grow.” Just as many of the lakes in the Kananaskis are glacier-fed, the source of the river is the Bow Glacier.
You might hear rumours from cheeky locals that such glacial lakes are drained and painted yearly, but let me save you: the glacial lakes get their fantastic turquoise-greenish colour from glacier melt that carries particulate rock flour into the waterways, which in turn reflect sunlight. Yet while the colour varies in its intensity, the Caribbeanesque look of these waters are deceiving.
As Delano softly put it to me as we reached for our stand-up paddleboards: “Don’t fall in. It’s probably eight minutes to hypothermia.”
Walking with my paddleboard down to the shoreline, I took a breath as my toes touched the water. My brain hadn’t yet registered the temperature. I was focused instead on lumbering onto the giant plank of inflatable plastic without slipping, even as the rain continued to pour.
Once my knees hit the board, strangely I felt sturdier than I did on the shore. The water was not soupy and soft like the dusty lakes I know of are, but instead green and clear. I stood up and paddled forward, and while I knew I was supposed to look up I became entranced by some branches down deep. They reached toward the surface like an outstretched hand and had the look of the cotton-clad images you see of the Titanic covered in weeds. I looked for the trout which call these high mountain lakes home, but couldn’t see any.
It was only after I realized the rain had stopped that my concentration broke. Looking up, the clouds had broken too, and Old Goat Mountain and Mount Nestor were poking their heads out, looking gloriously down on us. Already at about 1,700 metres above sea level, they stood some 1,200 additional vertical metres above us.
I paddled into the centre of the lake and thought of a conversation I had had at the clubhouse the night before.
“Sometimes you wish for a rainy day just so you can take the day off and rest.”
Resting is hard in Canmore. There is so much to do! Rain be damned, it would take a lifetime of days to do this place justice. I’m just so glad, for the briefest of moments, it was clear skies here on the glass-like water. We had worked for it.
Underground Exploration—Canmore by Cave
“There’s this one section. Man. I hope you guys do it. It’s called the Laundry Shoot. What happens is, you get to this tiny enclave and you’re like, ‘where the hell are we going?’ And then the guide just pops down this hole, head first, and you have to wriggle yourself forward, like an inchworm. But you gotta be careful because there’s a bunch of deathtraps along the way, so one wrong turn and kersplat! Make sure you follow your guide.”
While Canmore is usually visited for its sites above ground, deep below the surface of Grotto Mountain alpine caves twist and turn in an intestinal-like network that reaches far into the bowels of the Earth’s crust. Bowels, we were warned, that can rumble, upset by blasting at a nearby quarry.
“But don’t worry,” guide Diana Kirkwood, of Canmore Cave Tours, has been reassuring us. “It happens for a moment. Your heart stops. You open your eyes. Realize everything’s fine, and keep going. Remember a six-year-old has done this. And an 80-year-old has done this.”
One of the largest cave systems in North America, the Rat’s Nest Cave runs approximately four kilometres long. Along the way, there is an 18-metre (or six-storey!) rappel. You might just encounter landmarks like “the wedding cake” or “rat skeleton with skin” or “the treacherous slab.” Or you might pass through “the birth canal.”
While the cave is named after the bug-eyed pack-rats who inhabit it, bones of creatures some 40,000 years old have been found deep in the hollows. Outfitted with denim onesies, headlamps, helmets and joint pads, I entered the cave with the same feeling as one enters a haunted house. My headlight illuminated the swirling dust that threatened immediately to clog our cameras.
Down we went, with the aim of approaching the Grotto, an opening deep within the cave, where ancient complex minerals were hard at work, slowly dripping into existence.
The path was anything but short and narrow, I learned quickly as we slithered down a slick rock, bracing ourselves with a few footholds and a rope. I also learned my depth perception isn’t what it used to be, as I bonked and knocked my helmet on overhangs as we headed deeper into the earth. So far so good. No bat poo. No rat poo even, although we did see a gregarious little nest put together haphazardly at the cave’s entrance.
When we entered the grand ballroom, it opened up to us like an amphitheater, an underground colosseum. It was here, Diana told us, that they strung up lights and sang carols during Christmastime—some 30 metres underground. I imagined the cave as a theatre, coloured with light, harmonies echoing off the walls, before we all turned off our headlamps for a moment just to take in the darkness.
Down to the grotto room, where a cold-looking pond was the only exit. The temperature of the cave is the same year-round. No matter how cold or warm above ground it gets it maintains its five degrees Celsius as a constant. In this part we saw decades of chemistry in the making. As we noted the thin soda straw-like structures that lined the cave’s roof and swooped low, Diana urged us to not touch anything other than the path.
Those delicate crystalline stalactites are formed by the slow dripping of water, growing one centimetre every hundred years. In their presence, I suddenly became hyper-aware of my movements—an elephant in a china store—but also appreciative of the hard work these little particles go through to simply exist.
We spent four hours overall milling through the catacombs of the mountain, admiring the little consequences of nature that otherwise might go ignored. When we emerged, the air tasted sweet and the sky was bright and we were in one piece.
I left with a new appreciation for mountains. While we spend much time on top of them, few can say they’ve actually been inside one. Now I can say I have. And thankfully, no bat poo.
Just How Spectacular are the Rockies by Flight?
Mountains are so often described by their temperament, as if anthropomorphizing them might make them more predictable. Marked temperamental by their micro-climates, it’s easy to take an accusatory view of their moods. Some liken days spent on them to enduring the wrath of a scorned lover; others equate them to spending a day with their best friend.
As luck would have it, the day we were set to take an aerial tour through the Rockies, the mountains were in a forgiving mood. They welcomed us. It was almost what I like to call a bluebird day, save for a few willowy clouds hanging loosely in the sky.
We hunched low as we boarded our bird at the Alpine Helicopters base, propellers circling overhead. Taking our seats, Delano and I placed our headsets on. It was his first time on a helicopter, and this really pleased me because so far, I’d been the one having all the near-firsts—first grizzly sighting, only second time on a mountain bike.
I watched Del as he took in the launch events, looking up through the window at the propellers, watching as the air traffic controller waved us back, the flash of recognition that crossed his face when we lifted from the ground heavily; then suddenly we were floating. Helicopters, unlike planes, feel clumsy at first. Like a June bug, we waffled and bobbled up into the sky before buzzing straight toward the mountains.
The town of Canmore was lost from view quickly. As we rounded the shoulder of one of Canmore’s most iconic images, the triple-peaked Three Sisters, I imagined sticking my hand out the window to brush snow off their faces. Only by helicopter could you come this close to so many peaks in a single instance. We passed the Spray Lakes Reservoir and I squinted down looking for paddleboarders—we had just been there. More turquoise glacial lakes passed us by, until the landscape shifted into an entirely alpine environment.
Mount Assiniboine seemed to thunder into existence out of nowhere, cutting through the earth as if it just arrived, as so many of the Rockies appear to do. But really we rounded a corner and the mountain came into view. Known as the Matterhorn of the Rockies for its pointed appearance, Assiniboine received its name when cartographer George Dawson was sent to map out the Canadian Rockies.
The clouds emanating from the head of the mountain reminded him of the plumes of smoke coming from the teepees of indigenous Assiniboine people. First climbed in 1901 by James Outram, Christian Bohren and Christian Hasler, simply looking at the mountain from above, I wondered how it could ever be possible.
Outram once remarked: “It towers 1,500 feet above its neighbours, commanding attention and admiration.”
And, I thought, for those who venture onto it, it commands hubris. Long shoots of unstable looking snow flanked the bottom, as seemingly sturdy as a sandcastle. From the air, the debris of a recent avalanche seemed to pepper one side; but surely up close those ice chunks would have been the size of refrigerators, maybe even cars.
Practically silent the whole ride, so focused on the window and the view below, I heard the buzz of my radio and Del’s voice emerging out of the fuzz:
“Lena, look! Bear tracks!”
From above the prints seemed tiny. Like a breadcrumb trail, I tried to trace them with my eyes to see if I could spot their maker; but we thrust forward, then came to a hover as we prepared to land on a helipad. As Del and I walked to the edge of a small cliff looking out on Marvel Pass, I imagined Barry Blanchard confidently trudging up the slopes of Assiniboine as surefooted as he was on Yamnuska.
In Shining Mountains: Land of Riches, a documentary series about climbing that included the story of his winter ascent of Assiniboine, he said: “You willfully go up into these situations where risk is amplified. To take life for granted is a huge assumption a lot of the time. Perhaps the purpose of risk is to wake you up to the fact of what a gift life is and to hang on to it as best you can.”
Looking over the Marvel Pass was a first for both Del and me. And here, indeed, we marvelled. How lucky we were to have helicoptered in, eye to eye with some of the most beautiful mountains in the world. As most great vistas command, we stood silently for a minute and I made myself a promise that in my lifetime, I would make the long trek in and attempt Assiniboine.
The mountain is never violent, or angry. The mountain is uncaring. It is up to those who venture onto it to tread gently. It is up to us to make a point of pursuing firsts, so perhaps we can maintain that innocent awe we experience when we remember what a gift life is.
By Tastebud: The Art of Progressive Cuisine in Canmore
“I was passing through on my way to Squamish. Nine years later, I’ve never left,” said Manu, another new friend made at the Alpine clubhouse, as he spooned more salsa onto the makeshift taco dinner Del and I had schlepped together, hoping to trade taste for stories.
Indeed, the tale of “getting stuck” in Canmore is seemingly a common story.
Now sitting around the table, we had cooked up a Mexican feast for our new friends, all of whom had come to call Canmore home. At this point in our adventure we still hadn’t actually met anyone born and raised in Canmore. All of our encounters had been with transplants. Our guests, Manu and Kara, had all landed in Canmore and gotten purposefully stuck here—ever more involved in their sport of choice, ever more involved in their communities.
If mere access to the mountains, the crazy energy vortex of adventure-motivated communities and the lifestyle weren’t enough to get to you, the fact that Canmore’s downtown core feels less like a small town and more like a subdued city borough could. Indeed, Canmore is still a small mountain town with big city tastes, especially when it comes to its culinary scene.
Imagine having to cook a complex, healthy yet carb-heavy meal after a 10-hour hike, or a day spent ski touring or climbing. Appetite voraciousness at its maximum, energy at a minimum. Even the thought of turning on a stove is too much energy.
Good thing it’s easy for anyone to make the five-minute drive into downtown Canmore and have more than 25 restaurants at their fingertips. Hankering for Brazilian barbeque? Chinese? Mexican or sushi? Check on all four counts, and then some. How about good ol’ fashioned pub food? You got it.
As a bonus, because all the restaurants recognize the needs of an extremely food-conscious active culture, almost every one we visited catered to an array of dietary needs. Gluten free, dairy free, hormone free, locally bought—the common culinary mantra is buy local, eat organic.
Even Gaucho Brazilian Barbecue, where Angus rump steak, rosemary-spiced porkloin and chicken hearts are paraded around on a spit before being delicately sliced onto your plate, has a robust salad bar and non-meat options to cater to vegetarians. For visitors with limited time who want to get a tasting of a multitude of Canmore’s cuisine, we just had to test out the progressive dinner series for you. (Hard life, Del and I have.)
The progressive dinner series brings visitors on a custom, four-course food tour through downtown Canmore; it’s a fantastic way to try a bit of this cuisine and a bit of that one, without breaking the bank. Though I can’t promise anything about your zipper. (Important tip: wear stretchy pants, if you can.)
With all the outdoor access of a mountain town plus its big-city tastes, it’s no wonder so many transplants and wanderers find themselves happily “stuck” in Canmore: there’s nothing left wanting. *
- Canmore Kananaskis was an Outpost Expedition. This post was updated in June 2020.
How to Do a Canmore-Kananaskis Trekking Adventure
Canmore, Alberta lies along the Bow Valley at the base of the eastern Rocky Mountains, about five minutes southeast of Banff National Park and an hour west of Calgary. Surrounded by breathtaking scenery and nestled amid some of Canada’s most spectacular peaks and valleys, we have it on good authority that the town’s 13,000 residents consider themselves the luckiest in Canada.
By Air: The closest major airport is Calgary International Airport, just 88 kilometres to the east (approximately 1.5 hours from Canmore by road). Calgary is served by Air Canada, WestJet and other domestic, charter and international carriers. From Calgary International there are private transfers as well as airport shuttles to Canmore, Banff, Kananaskis and Lake Louise.
By Car: It takes about one hour to drive from Calgary to Canmore along Trans-Canada Highway #1. Canmore is located 20 minutes from Banff, an hour from Lake Louise and about four hours from Edmonton. The route is incredibly scenic—but watch for wandering wildlife, especially young grizzly bears!
By Bus: Bus services are available from Calgary “connecting Calgary to Banff, Canmore, Kananaskis, Lake Louise and Jasper.” Also, The Banff Express, a local operator, now offers travel “between Banff, Canmore and Calgary from just $35+GST each way.”
By Train: Although named Canmore in 1884 by an employee of the Canadian Pacific Railway (after a town in Scotland, and which means “Big Head”), there is no passenger rail service to it. But it is possible to travel from Vancouver to Banff on the world-famous Rocky Mountaineer, then continue by shuttle or taxi for the short ride to Canmore.
WHEN TO GO
Whether you prefer mountain biking in the spring, SUPing in summer, hiking in the fall, skiing or snowboarding in winter—as one of the world’s great outdoor adventure capitals, Canmore has every adventure you could imagine on tap, is open for adventure business year-round.
WHERE TO STAY
There are a multitude of accommodation choices both in the town and surrounding area. In addition to its Canmore clubhouse, the Alpine Club of Canada has 23 backcountry huts in Alberta and British Columbia. The clubhouse itself offers hostel-style lodgings with rooms that sleep between three to seven people, and additional facilities for groups of up to 15 people.
It has a fully equipped kitchen and includes free WiFi, coin-operated laundry, a deck with barbecue, and all sheets, blankets, pillows and towels. Located 4.5 kilometres from the centre of town, with easy access to all amenities. Rates begin at $15 per night for children and $30 for adults ($40 if not a member of the Alpine Club).
Elsewhere, Canmore offers everything from luxury spas and lodges to hotels and motels, from furnished condominiums to campgrounds and cozy B&Bs.
WHAT TO DO
Trekking: Whether you’re a casual ambler or hardcore hiker, there are options for every walker. Trailheads within easy distance of the town centre, often right outside your hotel door, and marked trails heading off in every direction. With views that include turquoise waters, alpine meadows, fields of wildflowers, forests, valleys and snowcapped peaks.
For beginners or those in a hurry there is the Bow River Loop at 2.4 kilometres, which follows the river before crossing an old railroad bridge. More experienced trekkers can tackle the Lady MacDonald Trail that runs 6.6 kilometres and goes right to the 1,200-metre summit of Mount Lady MacDonald. The trail is a six- to eight-hour trek but the views are worth every groaning muscle.
If you’re looking for something in between, Canmore has a plethora of options—check here for more info and for great tips for doing it safely.
Backpacking: There’s no better way to discover the beauty of Canmore and Kananaskis than by heading deep into the backcountry by foot for a few days. If you’re an experienced backcountry backpacker, you can just pick your trailhead and plan on camping along route. Thankfully, Canmore wants beginners to feel just as welcome as pros, and there are a number of companies eager to teach or tell you what you need to know.
Yamnuska Mountain Adventures—who guided Team Outpost on our day trek with Barry Blanchard—offer fully equipped and expertly-guided hikes, from full-day jaunts to five-day hikes, and can throw in survival lessons like avalanche training. (Contact Yamnuska for info on your own opportunity with Blanchard.) The adventure operator also offers a range of single-day and multi-day courses for amateurs to those seeking employment in the guiding industry.
Climbing: So much is possible!—from an afternoon of rock climbing to your first go at ice climbing to a serious attempt at a decent summit. With at least eight crags within a 20-minute drive of Canmore, there’s never down time for the average rock climber. If you’re looking for a real challenge, try the 550-metre north face of Ha Ling Peak, which is scaled via the longest sport route in Canada or the United States. If trekkable summits are your thing, in addition to Mount Lady MacDonald are the famed Three Sisters (2,694-2,936m, also called Faith, Charity and Hope), Mount Lawrence Grassi (2,685m) and Grotto Mountain (2,706m). And of course, there is mighty Mount Assiniboine, at 3,618 metres.
Winter Sports: Chosen to host the Nordic Ski Events for the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics left Canmore with a legacy of world-class winter-sport amenities, most notably the spectacular Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial Park. Cross-country skiing, biathlon, snowshoeing, ice skating, fat biking, tobogganing, winter disc golf(!), downhill skiing, snowboarding and telemarking (and more) are all on offer. You can also hang up your long-johns by a cozy fire and enjoy some fantastic food.
Mountain Biking: Speaking of world-class, Canmore is also one of the world’s great mountain-biking centres—not just for its well-developed trails but also for the number of bikers who train here and call it home. In fact, Nordic Centre Provincial Park has more than 100 kilometres of trails for novices to technical riders looking for a buzz, from wide dirt roads with scenic lookouts to wild downhill tracks. At the Mountain Bike Skills Park you can try jumps, drops and other MTB challenges, and overall choose a short ride on a rough track or long haul on easy surfaces. And put this on your calendar for 2017: the first and highly-anticipated Canadian Rockies Mountain Bike Fest (2017), the brainchild of renowned biker Wanda Bogdane.
Still Not Enough? Try These: Follow Team Outpost’s lead into the depths of the world with Canmore Cave Tours or into the skies for one of Canada’s best aerial views with Alpine Helicopters. Spend a day exploring the wilds by ATV or dog sled; try horseback riding in alpine meadows; play golf; take a dedicated wildlife, painting or photography tour.
Canmore’s fantastic rivers and lakes are ideal for canoeing and kayaking, whitewater rafting and SUPing. (We were guided by Brandon, operator of Bow Valley Stand Up Paddleboarding.) You can also cast a line in river or lake—with or without a fishing guide—or cut a hole in the ice and drop in your lure.
No matter the outdoor activity—whether hiking, climbing, mountain biking, quad-biking or backpacking—always tell someone where you’re heading and when you expect to return. Stick to marked trails, take plenty of water and other supplies, even if only planning to be out for a short time, and pay close attention to all wildlife warnings, particularly bears and cougars.
If there in the summer, be sure to check out the Canmore Mountain Market—a farmers’ market, with fabulous locally grown or produced foods (fruits, vegetables, meats, baked and preserved goods), and a crafts market combined, with a variety of local vendors selling wares.
Even the most intrepid of climbers, hikers and backwoods explorers need to unwind after a day of adrenaline and invigoration. Canmore’s town centre hums with warmth and fun, and there’s never a shortage of live bands, entertainment, and great restaurants and pubs. In addition, the town hosts major local and international events year-round. Check here for a full list by month.
DID YOU KNOW?
That The Revenant was partly filmed in Canmore, as was 2014’s Interstellar, and one episode of The Amazing Race Australia? And that the town is home to 1,645 dogs and 1,140 cats? Yes, they actually know that, though it’s highly possible that by the time you’re reading this that number has changed!