Prairie Mountain will always hold a special place in my heart because it was the first mountain I ever climbed, back in November of 2005. That hike fueled the passion for getting out of the city and into the mountains at every opportunity.
This was my fourth trip to the top of Prairie. My primary purpose was to replace a Geocache of mine which apparently had gone missing at some point last summer. Today was a good day to tackle this maintenance run because I needed something close to home that could be completed relatively quickly so I could get home early enough to host some company at a BBQ at our house in the afternoon.
Prairie Mountain taunts you almost every step of the way. All the way out Highway 66 she offers views of herself, showing you what is to come. Daring you to challenge the more than 700m of elevation gain she will throw at you in less than 4km of hiking.
Thanks to an early start the dog and I arrived at the trailhead around 08:15. The thermometer in the car was showing the outside air hovering around -6C — not ideal, but I knew that the coolness would not be a factor for long. There was only one other vehicle at the trailhead, which until May 15 is the locked gates at the Elbow Falls turnoff. It really isn’t very far from the gates to the trailhead proper so that doesn’t make a huge difference.
I have likened hiking Prairie much like learning to swim by being thrown into the deep end of a pool. As soon as you leave the pavement of Highway 66 you are thrust into a quick vertical climb up a rocky slope. There is no chance for a warmup, she just comes at you with everything she’s got right from the get go.
The good news is that the first section only lasts about 500-600m before you reach the ridge and begin to work your way north towards the summit. The bad news is that Prairie throws roughly 100m of elevation at you in that first section. I don’t hesitate to tell you that my lungs were burning with the combination of effort and the cold morning air.
For the next while you have it pretty good. You will have nice views of the mountain ranges off to your left in the distance while the Prairie Creek valley is in the foregound. And, remember how I mentioned Prairie likes to taunt you most of the way? Well, along this stretch you will have nice views of the snow-capped summit ahead of you — so close, yet so far.
Eventually you return to the steeper terrain. You will lose the views as you ascend through the trees. The path at this point is mainly dirt and somewhat braided as there is no real “best” route — as long as you are heading up you are heading in the right direction. There was some light snow on the trail but the conditions were excellent for this early in the season.
The steep ascent continues and the trail will change from dirt to much more rocky. The constant elevation gain takes its toll on you, but you can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Once you hit the treeline and emerge onto the final approach to the summit it all becomes worthwhile.
The last couple hundred of meters before the treeline were quite slippery as this section of the trail is exposed enough that the ice has thawed and refrozen several times. I was able to detour off the path and use the trees on the way up but took a bit of a slip on the way down, landing on my back. (No camera damage to report though!)
From here on in it’s a relatively gentle ascent to the summit which is now just over 1km away. You will have a lot of open ground and thus the wind starts to be a factor here. I had to put the dog on his leash because the cliff to your right was still snow-packed and I didn’t want him to venture out too far and have it give way on him. A fall would likely be survivable but unpleasant. That summit which has been taunting you since you were at Bragg Creek is now yours for the taking!
I was very impressed with my performance on this hike. Back in 2005 it took us three hours to reach the summit, followed by another 1.5 hours to get back down. This year I reached the top in 1 hour and 26 minutes, or roughly half the time. I was back down at the car in about 2.5 hours from the time I left.
This ascent seemed much easier than the one I did last year, which makes sense considering there was about 50 lbs. more of me to haul up there last time. The one nice thing about revisiting the same hike multiple times is that it makes comparisons easy — it is clear to me now that while I still have another 30-40 lbs to go before I am where I want to be, at least I know it is working!
Oh yeah, as for my Geocache which needed replacing? It’s here.