Sweet Sixteen

Zosia Zgolak and I skied the Hero's Knob/Sweet Sixteen loop in Alberta's Peter Lougheed Provincial Park on 22 April 2023.  This popular backcountry ski tour is well-documented online, but one of the best reports can be found here.  Somewhat surprisingly, most skiers forego climbing to the very top of Hero's Knob, and we would find out why during our tour.  The big bowl on the north side of the col between Hero's Knob and the east ridge of Mount Smith-Dorrien grants 1600 vertical feet (nearly 500 metres) of gloriously open alpine skiing--hence, the name "Sweet Sixteen".  It is important to note that this ski tour travels through a lot of serious avalanche terrain, and stable snow conditions are a must.  The best place to start is along the west side of Smith-Dorrien/Spray Lake Trail (Highway 742) 49.9 kilometres south of the intersection with Three Sisters Drive in Canmore or 13.5 kilometres north of the intersection with Kananaskis Lakes Trail near Pocaterra Hut.  It is also possible to start from the Sawmill day use area (vault toilet) which is just opposite the usual exit point about half a kilometre to the north along the highway.

From where we parked on the side of the highway, Zosia and I followed a convenient skin track down a short embankment and into a corridor through the trees.  We then crossed the open flats of Smith-Dorrien Creek before re-entering forest and climbing steadily up an old exploration road.  This road led us without fuss into an open valley with lots of visible avalanche slopes.  At the back of this valley, we ascended a steep headwall before traversing below some cliffs to reach an open bowl.  The headwall is prone to avalanches and is not a good place to linger.  In the bowl, we headed northward, and after crossing a brief dip, we gained the crest of a treed ridge to climber's right which we followed most of the way up Hero's Knob.  Where the skin track veered off to climber's left to the aforementioned col, we stayed on the ridge crest and broke our own trail trying to get up as high as we could on Hero's Knob.  Unfortunately, the ridge narrows to a knife edge near the top, and Zosia did not feel comfortable continuing.  I ventured a little further and even ditched my skis, but after boot-packing for a short distance, I decided that the summit was not worth the risk of either a cornice collapse or an involuntary slide.  I happily rejoined Zosia for a short break.

From where we aborted our attempt to reach the summit of Hero's Knob, Zosia and I removed our climbing skins and dropped down to the col at the top of Sweet Sixteen.  Although several other groups of skiers had already descended before us, Zosia was still a little apprehensive about the steepness of the slope and the potential for an avalanche especially given the warm temperatures.  We discussed the option of returning the way we came, but in the end, we decided that the slope was probably safe enough to ski.  During our ascent, we saw quite a few spindrift avalanches come down from the east ridge of Mount Smith-Dorrien, but the snow along our route felt stable and unreactive.  I felt the same about Sweet Sixteen as we carved big sweeping turns down the slope.  At one point, we skied over the crown or fracture line of a previous avalanche, but fortunately, nothing above us moved.  Overall, the skiing was only so-so as the snow was a bit too heavy and grabby for my liking, but we both made it down to the bottom without any big wipeouts.  The ski out Murray Creek had its share of challenges including tight trees and drop-offs above open water, and there was one annoying uphill section that required either re-attaching skins or boot-packing.  We were also fortunate to be able to ski back across Smith-Dorrien Creek as many of the snow bridges were on the verge of collapse in the warm afternoon sun.  We finished our loop with an easy glide on a convenient track beside the highway back to our starting point.
Crux of the day? Heading for a corridor through the trees, Zosia muddles her way over a cruddy embankment at the start.
It's almost like playing Russian roulette at this time of year!

Zosia carefully crosses a snow bridge over Smith-Dorrien Creek.

On the road again... An old exploration road grants easy access through forested slopes.
Lotsa avalanche paths in this vigilant!

Zosia will head to the back of this valley and go up the forested slope directly in front of her.

Try not to linger here! Zosia climbs up a steep and partially open slope.  The bent over trees at bottom left show that this slope can be prone to avalanches.
Probably the most nerve-racking section of the ascent. Zosia traverses beneath a cliff face en route to a hanging valley.
Outstanding terrain for ski touring!

Hero's Knob comes into view at far right.

Skiing these cols might be a bit too advanced for Zosia and me, but they're at least worth thinking about! This is looking southward toward Purple Col (left of centre) which is sometimes skied in conjunction with the Hero's Knob/Sweet Sixteen loop.  The higher col further right also appears to be a popular ski tour.  Note the skiers at bottom centre coming up the usual approach for Hero's Knob/Sweet Sixteen.
Lots of spindrift avalanches coming down the slopes at far left!

The skin track gains the crest of the forested ridge at right.

This is ski touring at its finest! Zosia is barely visible ahead on the ridge crest leading to Hero's Knob.
I guess we're on our own now... Most skier's bypass the top of Hero's Knob here and head for a col to the left.
End of the line...

After ditching his skis, Sonny climbs as high as he dares up Hero's Knob.  The true summit is not visible here.

Photo courtesy of Zosia Zgolak

We don't need another hero... Snowy conditions on the knife-edged ridge puts the summit of Hero's Knob out of reach on this day.
We still reached an elevation of 2504 metres.

Sonny and Zosia are okay with stopping short of the summit of Hero's Knob.

The moment of truth... Zosia stands at the col above Sweet Sixteen.
No turning back now! Zosia commits to skiing down Sweet Sixteen.
But she still skied it like a champ!

Zosia is a little out of her comfort zone on the steep slope.

Yikes! It's a good thing we weren't here when that slope slid! Here is a look back up to the col.  Note the fracture line from a previous avalanche on this slope.  Fortunately, the snow is quite stable here on this day.

Almost seems like somebody plowed the corridor!

Near the bottom of Sweet Sixteen, Zosia skis a narrow corridor between two separate slopes of avalanche debris.  Visible in the distance are North Kent Outlier (left of centre) and Kent Ridge North Summit (centre).


Probably easier just to put the skins back on... Skiing out Murray Creek is challenging in itself.

Photo courtesy of Zosia Zgolak

That might just do it for our ski season... Zosia crosses a snow bridge on the verge of collapse in the warm afternoon sun.
Thank goodness this is mostly flat or slightly downhill! Zosia skis a convenient track alongside the highway to return to her starting point.
Fast becoming a classic ski tour, but wait for stable conditions. Total Distance:  9.4 kilometres
Round-Trip Time:  4 hours 59 minutes
Net Elevation Gain:  683 metres

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