It takes a lot more effort and equipment to get up into the high country in the winter season and even during early spring than it does in summer. So I, like a few others, and for the most part, leave mountain hiking to mid-July and August. There are a few of the hardy type who head up on snowshoes or skis and even camp up there in the winter landscape, even on top of Mount Thompson.
In late spring and early summer, early access to higher elevations becomes easier because open, south-facing slopes are free of snow earlier than other exposures. Access is also easier because most remaining winter snow pack, in open areas of higher slopes and ridges is firm enough to support a person’s weight except beside a snow covered rock or tree where a space is covered over, then, you may go through, perhaps, even up to your waist. Usually it is only one foot that breaks through.
It was in these conditions that I joined a group of other adventurers on one of the spring hikes in Stagleap Provincial Park up Kootenay Pass. Leaving snow-free forests and greening fields far below we hiked up the slope and ridge north of Bridal Lake. There is a trail there but we probably missed most of it, which lay five or more feet below us, underneath the snow. Compared to trail hiking, trekking over snow is often easier because windfalls and rocks and the trail are all smoothed over.
We got up unto the nearly treeless ridge where, in every direction, we beheld a rugged snow-covered mountain and valley landscape. Occasionally the sun would warm us between light breezes. For the most part we walked on top of the snow, sinking only two or three inches. One precaution to avoid serious consequences is to stay away and off of steep and open snow covered slopes. We didn’t trigger any snow slides. A second precaution is to stay off of cornices, snow hangovers that build up from drifting snow on the leeward side of ridges. (I hope you watch out for this next spring.)
Standing on the snowy ridge, I gazed down into the open basin below where two small tarns, which I knew were there, and surrounding rocks and shrubbery still lay covered by snow. There it would be a month before the blanket of snow would disappear and plant and small animal life would respond to the warm sunlight. In this shaded north exposure, flowers would come later than to the south facing mountain slopes.
A year ago, I realized how much of the landscape I was missing because a lot of hiking was done on the south sides of mountains, that is, if the terrain was negotiable. While the north sides of some mountains are treacherous to manoeuvre, many can be hiked. So, last fall, to become better acquainted with mountain landscape, I specifically aimed to hike and explore the north sides and northerly exposures of several mountains that I was somewhat already acquainted with. These were Mount Thompson, and Haystack, Sphinx and Akokli mountains. It was hard to work this out because summer on north, east and level exposures doesn’t happen till late July and early August. And, because the season is so short in the alpine, events are like bang, bang, bang, one right after the other. A botanist acquaintance once told me that to see and study the alpine flower showing, one must visit any given location at least every two weeks. So I aimed to do that and, at the same time, take care of other unrelated responsibilities. It resulted in a tight schedule.
The orientation of Mount Thompson and the range, north to south, doesn’t provide vast areas of northerly exposure but there are a few mini north and northeast faces having their own delayed summer. On several of these rock faces where, initially, moisture was still dripping or seeping from crevices and from the base of the rocks, while the ridge was already dry, I found Merten’s and also rusty saxifrage at the prime of flowering. Two weeks later, they were all gone to seed. The seedpods of saxifrages are often as colorful as the flower. They form two or three red “horns” that curve out from each other. (Too technical?) One of these plants occurred somewhat earlier, when moisture was available, on some now dry east slopes.
Haystack Mountain has a large meadow that has many characteristics of life on a north-facing slope with a later summer than its south-facing exposures. The snow piles up in this meadow and doesn’t melt, some years, till late July. And, because a number of brooks and underground water courses drain into the basin from surrounding mountain slopes, the meadows stay wet for a prolonged time, keeping the area cool and thus retarding the arrival of the vast array of flowers often seen there. But when they do respond to warmth, the meadows become a place comparable to Idaho Peak. I have visited these meadows many times so I made no new acquaintances. But there was one surprise waiting for me.
About five years ago, while touring the meadows with a friend, we came upon an alpine white bog orchid in full bloom. It had three flower-laden stalks. But then each year I returned to the meadows after that, I didn’t see any blooms nor did I locate any plants.
Survival in the alpine is tough both for plants and animals. The season is short, the soil is often devoid of nutrients, sometimes the snow melts away early and sometimes late, and there are sometimes cold rainy spells and late and early frosts. So plants that grow there are tough. This became strikingly evident to me as I squatted and stared at that bog orchid that I finally found this past summer. There was no evidence that it had bloomed this season. And it may not have bloomed since I last saw it with those pure white blooms. If the snow stayed late it may not have had time to bloom or, perhaps, available nutrients and warmth may only permit it to bloom every five or so years.
On south-facing slopes at higher elevations, more available moisture will sometimes increase productivity; however, in reflecting back, where there is sufficient soil, lushness, abundance and diversity are three words I would use in describing north, east and level exposures. This is one aspect that makes our mountain landscape so interesting and beautiful.
Ed McMackin is a biologist by profession but a naturalist and hiker by nature. He can be reached at 250-866-5747.