Updated: Jun 28, 2021
For most, the Canadian Rockies are synonymous with the town of Banff and Banff national park. However, from the first time I've visited the area, I've been more drawn to the town of Canmore, and the surrounding Kananaskis country. I find that I prefer the hikes in Kananaskis and the provincial parks within it to those found in Banff. There is also much less crowding here when compared to the national park, while also not requiring a park's pass (until very recently) to visit.
One of the most accessible summits in the area, is Ha Ling peak in Bow Valley provincial park that overlooks the town of Canmore.
Being a landscape photographer, my most sought after scenery in the Rockies has always been the views from a summit during sunrise or sunset. And this is also possibly one of the more difficult moments to be present for, because it entails the long and sometimes strenuous hike that precedes and follows it, and because we'd either have to ascend (for sunrise), or descend (for sunset)in the dark. And when you add that on top of being in grizzly country in the summer/fall (with possible cougar sightings), and facing avalanche risk in the winter/spring, it becomes clear that hiking with a friend(s) is really invaluable. Despite all that, the most restricting factor for golden hour obsessed photographers in the Rockies is weather. The weather in the Rockies is extremely unpredictable and not something that you can really plan for. You can spend 3+ hours getting to a summit only to see that it become completely overcast with no sign of light, making those times where you do experience it, even more rewarding.
And that brings up to this particular hike. On late winter weekend I decided that I want to be on a summit for sunrise for my first time during winter, and the most practical option seemed to be Ha Ling Peak. I was lucky enough to have a friend (and also photographer) living in Canmore to accompany me on this. With the the sun rising at 7:30 am, we met at the Goat Creek parking lot and started hiking at 4:30 am, giving us some extra time since I'm an exceptionally slow hiker (at least a handful of groups passed us on the way up :)). A great thing about this trail is that it's pretty heavily trafficked all year long, so you can always follow the footsteps and will seldom find yourself wondering if you're going the right way. From this experience I'd say there are two things to note in terms of gear. First is that the newly added staircases were completely covered in snow, and therefor pretty much a slide - so use the chains available for support, as well as your trekking poles and crampons. Second is that the winds at that altitude mixed in with winter temperatures = frostbite. I had two layers of (admittedly mediocre) gloves on, and after this hike I found that my right thumb and index finger (that I use for handling my camera) both had frostbite. In the future I'd invest in higher quality gloves as we all chemical hand warmers for my pockets.
We arrived at the summit with about 15 minutes to spare, and waited for the sun to poke over the distant mountain range, and had I not been frozen, I would've wanted to mini celebrate the weather working in our favour this time. By 8 am, the sun had completely cleared the horizon, illuminating the valley and all the surrounding snowy peaks.
After spending some time on the main peak and thoroughly freezing, we traversed to the other end of the ridge, and noticed some other hikers head that way too. Besides the wind, it wasn't difficult to head that way - just some minor downhill and then a climb back up, but the views made it worth it.
As we got closer to the other hikers we noticed that most of them were carrying ski gear. Though aware that back country skiing was common in the area, I didn't know that Ha Ling was a popular site for it, and watching the skiers take off from the ridge, made the hike up feel a lot more trivial.
Overall I'd consider this one a pretty successful trip for my first winter summit hike. We got the sunrise, did some exploring up top, and got to watch back country skiers. The worst that happened was a bit of frostbite, and that was a good learning experience. For anyone considering climbing Ha Ling in the winter, or anytime of the year for that matter, I'd highly recommend it. One of the best parts of having other photographers as friends is that they'll take your picture on these adventures.
I also want to give a shoutout to Marta Kulesza (https://www.inafarawayland.com/) for inspiring this post (and hopefully many to come) and for having one of the best blogs out there for adventuring the Rockies (and other places). I got the idea of summiting Ha Ling for a winter sunrise from her blog, and for anyone looking to do more than just driving to viewpoints, I recommend checking it out.
Happy trekking! -Ash