Winter Back-Country Adventures on Kootenay Pass Snowshoeing. It sounds like an arduous stroll in the winter for no good reason, but don't knock it 'till you try it. Today our starting point is Stagleap Provincial Park at the top of snowy Kootenay Pass in the heart of the Selkirks, famed for being North America's highest highway pass open year-round and infamous amongst unseasoned truck drivers travelling it. Jesse, Mel, Theresa and myself are turning a commuter's crux into a fun and rewarding snowstravaganza. But what's a trek without a destination? Our's is Ripple Ridge & Lightning Strike Cabins - A pair of volunteer maintained back-country cabins just outside the park boundaries that can be rented overnight. That said, a night's stay here is a hot commodity - the cabins are now so popular with back-country skiiers and snowboarders that they are usually fully booked until mid-April. However, the cabins and amenities are still available to day-users willing to traverse the refreshing 1.5 hour hike along Ripple Ridge Trail to reach them. Here you'll be greeted by a warm fire and stunning views of the Selkirks - the perfect spot to enjoy a break with a thermos of hot soup or coffee. Kootenay locals never stop talking about this hidden gem of a winter destination. Let's see what the big fuss is all about. Budget: $17 snowshoe rental. $20 snacks. Difficulty: Moderate (Shortcut: Hard, see below) Commute: 30 minutes each way, starting from the Creston Visitors Centre. Excursion: 90 minutes up and potentially 45 minutes down on snowshoes. Hyper-speed on back-country skis and split-boards. Highlights: Snowy Dr. Seuss trees, cozy cabin retreat, 100% chance of a sasquatch sighting Where: Kootenay Pass, Stagleap Provincial Park, & Ripple Ridge Cabin. Location made easy thank to the Ripple Ridge Recreation Association. Just follow this link.
10:30 AM: Grab supplies and herd the cats
Daniel helps me find the right size of snowshoe. Basically, the heavier the load... the larger the shoe.
Don't ever put something off because you don't have the gear... especially if renting it is dirt cheap. On our way, we stop by Summit Cycles and Sports, where owner Daniel Secor helps outfit us with the perfect pair of rented snowhoes for this winter adventure. Being my forgetful self, I totally neglect to pack gloves. Sub zero temperatures up on a mountain pass? Who needs 'em?Well luckily for me they have an abundance of gear ranging from water bladders to hand warmers. Having just moved to their new Canyon Street location, there's now way more space to display their wares. Other gear is also available to rent including nordic skis, winter sport safety gear like helmets and even bikes, which we took for a spin when CKVL Route Blogger Ilana Cameron led us on her Saturday ride with friends, wine and sunshine.
11:00 AM: Grab some treats
Located on Northwest Boulevard, this unassuming local favourite is 100% on route to the Kootenay Pass!
Fact: Food always tastes better the higher your elevation (the only exception is airline food). By now all of our crew is here taking note of what else we packed. You know, the bare essentials like cheese, salami and half a carrot cake. We all agree that this excursion will rile our appetites, so we make a pit stop at the quaint Retro Café. The French chef and owner really knows what she's doing - This small 25 seat eatery smells of home cooked meals made with love. While Jesse chats with an old timer about the virtues of small town living I grab a few coffees, gluten free cookies and a delicious Spiced Squash Soup to fill our thermos. Good call. The soup will blow our minds in a few hours from now.
11:30 AM: Avengers assembled and we are on the road. It's overcast in the valley, but where we are going we will likely be IN the clouds. As the trademarked saying goes from a certain brand of outdoor equipment... There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. Upon writing this I learn that it's actually a Scandinavian saying. Makes sense! Theresa volunteers to drive as she has 4 wheel drive and winter tires. We cross the flats heading West along Highway 3 towards Kootenay pass and have a moment to take in the unobstructed view of the Selkirk Mountain Range looming in front of us.
The flats are such a treasure. The landscape in contrast with the mountains make you feel tiny in comparison to the valley. The drive up the Kootenay Pass is always an adventure in of itself in the winter with changing conditions throughout a single day. When the sun hits the icy roads they get slippery. When the sun goes down the wet roads freeze. Then it snows! It's always a good idea to to check the highway cam on Kootenay Pass before you go for current weather conditions and road information.
12:00 PM: We arrive at Stagleap Provincial Park, gear up and start our trek to Ripple Ridge After a 30 minute adventure and at an elevation of 1,775m (5,823ft) above sea level we arrive at the top of Kootenay Pass, stopping in the parking area beside small Bridal Lake. You can't miss it. There's usually a few semi trucks parked beside a few bathrooms and small cabin on the lake - it looks like a bonafide mountain outpost. Lots of parking too so that's a bonus. Note that if you are planning to stay overnight at the cabins, there is also a smaller parking area east of the lake for your use, leaving the main parking area for day-users and travelers. From the main parking lot you can choose your own adventure - staying close by and cross-country skiing around Bridal lake, or heading up Cornice Ridge just behind the lake for some easier access back-country skiing and snowboarding. Instead we cross Highway 3 to the highway maintenance yard, climbing over the snowbank just to the west, and finding the Ripple Ridge Trail. We strap on our snowshoes and begin the trek.
If you don't see this trailhead you are going the wrong way. There isn't a compass on earth that can save you. Pay attention to avalanche updates posted too!
The path itself is used by skiers, backcountry split boarders and snowshoe-ers alike. This means the path is fairly compact so you wont have to worry about watching your step too often. Just keep your head up and yield for the skiers who follow distinct tracks.
The climb up isn't so bad really. A few switchbacks but not so many that your body starts to hate you. No lies from Jesse when he says "this is that last one I think."
The pace you set is all up to you.
I like to reward myself with a little water and nut breaks at every other turn up the trail. I can imagine spectacular views. However, for this excursion there's only the muffled silence of a foggy winter wonderland.
Have a chat! Mel, Theresa and I catch up while also taking one of our many, many breaks.
At the "top" of the trail we arrive at Ripple Ridge and a fork in the road, with trails going up either the right or left sides or continuing straight south. Do you have all the touring gear and avalanche training to go up the mountains? If so, knock your socks off and head either left (east) to Baldy Rocks or right (west) for some spectacular back-country adventuring and fresh powder! For detailed information on safe and accessible areas to tour in Kootenay Pass, be sure to check out this link from Backcountry Skiing Canada or purchase one of their informative guide books.
We continue on the main flat trail heading south along the ridge, which is a nice break since my glutes are engaged like nobody's business! The walk is a breeze. No really - The wind picked up a little bit and I'm glad I bought those gloves.
Signpost for Ripple & Lightning Strike Cabins
1:45 PM...ish. Lunch Break at the Cabins. Before I know it we spot a signpost for the cabins, turn right, and walk for a few hundred meters before hitting the bucolic cabins, a few outhouses and a well stocked wood chopping area. Overlooking the edge of the ridge, the older Ripple Ridge Cabin has stunning views looking west over the Selkirks. With a small main room and loft, this quaint cabin comfortably sleeps 6 people. Set farther back from the ridge, the much larger and newer Lightning Strike Cabin has ample space for day users and up to 8 overnight guests. We late-lunch at Lightning Strike, sharing the space with some local kids. The beautiful log cabin is filled with all the kitchen necessities needed to cook, a collection of cards and games like jenga for entertainment, a wood stove to stay warm, and a guest book filled with many stories from past visitors. For detailed information about ammenities in both cabins check out the Ripple Ridge Cabin Association's website here. We enjoy our lunch, relax for a bit while warming up and drying our gear by the wood fire while chatting with the kids about the area. They built a ski jump over the outside picnic table and practice tricks. Jesse caught some air - no big deal. Before long we realize what time it is and decide to head back down the mountain before losing daylight.
Lightning Strike Cabin - Be mindful of sharing the space during the day with several guests who've paid to stay the night.
3:00 PM: We make our way down. But this time... SHORTCUT! We cut through the first switchback, keeping an eye on the existing ski tracks. Do not veer too far eastward or westward to ensure you get back to the main trail if you do decide to cut through the switchbacks. Hiking back up in the dark does not sound like a good time.
Shortcuts are clearly marked on the way up... but harder to find on the way down. Best to do this with people who've done it before.
Each downward step is a giant leap. It feels like I have bionic legs powering through powder. Might there be an errant branch? Yes, but no pain no gain. You could walk down the the mountain but where's the fun in that? In this state I realize that a sort of "drunken stagger" is an efficient way to walk in these clown feet
I'm dashing through the snow. Knee-deep, but that's okay. Off the trail we go. Face plant on the way!
Full disclosure: This is somewhat dangerous. Play at your own risk. Never do anything you don't feel comfortable with and make sure you stick to the buddy system. 4:00 PM... ish. Back on the Road Home. We made it down in one piece! Only a slight detour back to the main trail. The sun has officially set and our legs have turned to jelly. We hop in the car and head back down to the Creston Valley feeling exhausted, but content after a bit of adventuring in the fresh mountain air on Kootenay Pass. In 30-40 minutes we're home and happy to be in warm, dry clothes and ready for the rest of our Saturday evening! Not a bad way to spend a winter day in the Creston Valley. The Verdict: 10/10. Would snowshoe again. How to Prepare for Winter Recreation In the Backcountry: 1. Plan Your Communications - Make sure you know where you are going and let others know too. There is no cell phone service on the Kootenay Pass. Bring a map and some alternate communication devices like walkie talkies and back-country beacons if you are planning to go off trail. 2. Check the Weather Conditions - Be sure to check the road and weather reports. And of course if heading in to the back-country be sure to check in with Avalanche Canada for conditions as well. 3. Wear Layers & Seasonally Appropriate clothes - The weather may change at any given moment. Think of it as a day of skiing. You might work up a sweat and want to take a layer off too. One of us decided to wear jeans (not naming names). When it comes to clothing, cotton kills. You lose up to 70% more body heat wearing wet cotton versus non-plant-based fabrics. 4. Bring Lots of Nutritious Food - Warm soups and high-protein snacks are always a good call. You will be surprised by how big your appetite is after snowshoeing. 5. Pack Emergency Supplies - Always a good idea to come with some useful items like a first aid kit, mulit-tool, headlamps, a lighter, fire-starter, etc. 6. Start Early - An earlier start is key, especially now that the sun is going down around 4:30 PM. You allow for more time to enjoy the hike and the drive back on the Kootnenay Pass will be better lit. We suggest leaving Creston by 9:30 local time. 7. Make sure your vehicle is winter ready - Be sure you have winter-rated tires, lots of gas, and a fully charged battery, jumper cables, an emergency blanket, and first aid kit just in case. 8. Take your Time Driving - Driving in the winter in BC requires taking your time! Give yourself lots of time to get where you are going and be sure to look out of wildlife and traffic. Otherwise have fun and make sure you get out in the snow lots this winter!