Bow Peak

After a gorgeous hike up Tent Ridge the previous day, we thought we’d take advantage of the lovely weather and smoke-free skies to bag another Rockies summit. The air quality forecast looked surprisingly promising, and after such a clear day down in Kananaskis the day before, our hopes were high for some more stunning views along the Icefields Parkway. Unfortunately, though, those views were not to be. While the area around Canmore and Banff remained at least somewhat moderate in terms of air quality, one hundred kilometers north it was a different story.

Under a flawless morning sky, we parked at a small pullout along the Icefields Parkway and headed a few hundred meters south along the road until we reached a discreet trail that dipped down into the forest. About a kilometer into the hike, we reached the outlet where the Bow River exits Bow Lake. There’s only one way across here, which was by taking a quick dip in the chilly water. Depending on where we stepped (and time of day), the water was between knee and thigh high. It was an invigorating start to the morning for sure and, for Sanchez, easily the crux of the hike. She’s not a particularly confident swimmer, and the current was strong enough here that she needed a human assist. As you can tell by the look on her face, she was duly unimpressed with the way this hike was unfolding.

While Sanchez was wholly dissatisfied at this point, Stephan and I were loving our ford of the cool water. The gorgeous light and clarity of the peaks rising over Bow Lake gave us a fleeting optimism that we’d have some crystal-clear summit views.

As the trail reentered the dense forest, it briefly skirted the nascent Bow River. While we were only about 500 meters downstream of its origin, the flow here was incredible, pounding through a narrow gorge with the strength of a mighty waterway.

As we continued ascending through the pine forest, there were a couple more creek crossings, but no more than ankle deep. A few slippery logs offered some precarious assistance, but we just waded through the water. When you’re already soaked, who the hell cares if you get wetter. Sanchez enjoyed a quick splash here, beyond pleased that she could now pass under her own power.

About 3 miles (5 km) from the trailhead, the trail opened up onto Crowfoot Pass. As we approached the pass, the smell of smoke now filled the air. We turned back to check out the views north toward Cirque and Dolomite Peaks and, indeed, a slight haze now filled the sky. It doesn’t take much smoke of any type for me to end up with some minor respiratory effects, so the rapidly intensifying particulate count did take the fun factor down a notch.

Atop the pass, we passed a pair of pretty little tarns as we made our way beneath BowCrow’s banded ramparts and the rubbly slopes of our objective. While we’d hoped to get some nice shots of the colorful pools against the distant turquoise waters of Bow Lake, the growing haze had slightly dulled the vibrant lake and obscured the more distant landscape.

From the pass it was about a mile (1.5 km) to Bow Peak’s summit. We followed substantial boulder slopes until we hit a series of rock bands towering overhead. From here, we continued following the wall east (hiker’s right). After a short distance, the bands petered out and we scrambled over more boulders until we reached what turned out to be a false summit.

From the false summit, we walked along the ridge for about half a kilometer until we reached the true highpoint. Bow’s summit ridge is comprised of large quartzite blocks, which always makes for some nice scrambling. A short time later, we reached the massive cairn marking the top of the 9,448-foot (2880 m) summit – a masterwork that sufficiently dwarfed our littlest scrambler.

The views from the top were fantastic, but difficult to capture and fully appreciate given the combination of harsh sunlight and smoky haze. The former didn’t lend well to photographing Hector Lake’s striking turquoise water, thanks to the fact that we were shooting due south into the sharp glare. The latter snuffed out any view to the north and also muted the colors of normally vibrant Bow Lake. Not only did the conditions not bode well for pics, but it was also a disheartening reminder of the destructive consequences of our world’s rapidly changing climate.

Despite our unfavorable shooting conditions, however, we still enjoyed the views. Rising above Hector Lake, we could make out the hazy silhouettes of Pulpit Peak and The Preacher in front of Mount Balfour and the glaciers of the Waputik Icefield. Across the Icefields Parkway, we gazed over at a very hazy Noseeum Peak, Mount Andromache, and glaciated Mount Hector. Just up the parkway, the summits of Dolomite and Cirque Peak were still visible, while everything further north was now shrouded in smoke.

It was kind of astounding to see the difference in air quality to the north versus south. Although the light was glaring, the skies were still beautifully blue looking south to Mount Balfour and the Waputik Icefield. Looking north up the parkway, however, the ribbon of grayish-purple haze that had swept in from the BC fires had now enveloped the peaks and valley beyond Bow Lake and Mount Jimmy Simpson.

After a brief stay at the summit, we made our return. As Bob Spirko and many others who have come before us have done, we chose to descend a scree gully further south rather than pick our way back down through the unstable boulders. It seemed to make for a quicker descent, and before we knew it, we were back at the pass. The only thing standing between us and the car, much to Sanchez’s chagrin, was one last fording of the Bow River. The water was now noticeably deeper and the current a little stronger, but it felt much more refreshing after a hot day on the trail.

Between the smoke-filled skies, temperatures approaching 80F (26C), and some grossly stagnant air, conditions on Bow Peak for sure could have been better. But in the end, a day in the mountains is a day in the mountains, even if you don’t get exactly what you came for.

Total distance: 8.5 miles (14 km)
Elevation gain: 3,397 feet (1040 meters)
Scramble rating: Easy

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