After looking at our options for the weekend, Ben, Steven and I decided that it made the most sense to try for a hiking or snow shoe trip on Sunday, December 14th. Considering the snow conditions everywhere, we settled on Maze Peak in the Ya Ha Tinda Ranch area of the Rockies, west of Sundre Alberta.
Our initial plan consisted of meeting in Sundre on Sunday morning before driving to the trail head. As I was puttering around the house on Saturday afternoon I over heard something about meteor showers in the area for that night. I immediately went on the web and discovered that the Geminid Meteor shower was indeed occurring now, with the most intense shower being the night of December 13th. Ya Ha Tinda is an isolated place with very little light pollution. Since I was planning to be there the next day anyway, I couldn't think of any reason not to go the night before and try to witness some of these meteors myself. I contacted Ben and Steven about my plan and they agreed to also drive all the way to the (free) Bighorn Campground where we would spend the night meteor and star gazing before ascending Maze Peak on Sunday.
I was a little bummed about not being able to use "Bulb" mode on my camera yet - using my iOptron SkyTracker would have resulted in many more meteor photos, but I wasn't planning on this Geminid shower so any photos would be a bonus. (FYI - I tried downloading and installing the sky trails application on my A7S but I had to upgrade the firmware first and didn't want to risk that while being in a rush. I also have a remote trigger coming from China soon, so next time I'll be more prepared!) I knew I was going to be alone in the campground for at least 3 hours before Ben and Steven showed up, so I stopped at a gas station in Sundre and purchased some firewood to keep myself warm. After a long and uneventful drive to the campground, I managed to find a nice spot in the pitch darkness and set about getting camp ready and lighting a small fire.
Around 21:00 as I sat by the fire reading a magazine the howling started. Wolves or coyotes - I wasn't sure which but probably coyotes serenaded me as I waited for the meteors to start. I was a bit nervous because when I got to the campground the sky clouded over - this wasn't supposed to happen! For some reason the sky did this a few times for us that night and the air was quite humid even when the skies cleared. I think the nearby Red Deer River probably had something to do with low-laying cloud getting trapped in the valley near the campground.
By 21:30 the sky was completely clear and the first of many meteors was already streaking through the brilliant Milky Way above me. The next few hours were wonderful. I sat by my cheery, warm little camp fire and watched the Heavens above give a show, with the brilliantly visible Milky Way their canvas. I took many photos, but only occasionally lucked out by capturing a streak of light from passing meteors. It didn't matter much to me - the experience was amazing anyway! I felt very fortunate to be sitting there all alone with nothing but this moment mattering to me for a brief period of time. It felt truly timeless to be watching this natural event unfold as it has already for countless years. I'm no longer religious, but in these moments I feel the numinous in the sense of how tiny humans are next to the vast timelessness and expanses of the universe.
As the Geminid shower increased in numbers around 11:30pm, Ben and Steven pulled up. We all enjoyed the next few hours with well over 100 sightings and even the Aurora Borealis showing up to the north! I stayed up a bit later than the other guys, trying to see if the numbers of meteors would increase around 02:00 like predicted (this is when the Gemini constellation is right above). The meteors didn't slow down, but didn't increase either. By 02:40 I was exhausted and my camp fire was done - I was out of wood. I spent the night pretty chilly in my -20 bag in my truck.
[If scenes like this don't make you feel small than you're not seeing the 'big' picture! :)]
[I believe that Maze is the major peak in this photo from the Bighorn Campground]
[Amazing Aurora Borealis to the north]
We slept in 'til around 08:30 on Sunday and awoke to blue skies overhead. The humidity over night was fairly high and the other guys commented that their night was much chillier than they expected. I was happy it wasn't my imagination that the -15 temps felt much colder. After defrosting the trucks, we drove back to the trail head and geared up for our scramble up Maze Peak. The route was straight forward and there was only a skiff of snow over the frozen grass / scree, making things slick on the lower slopes. Maze is much more scenic than I was expecting. After going through thin forest we ascended a steep grassy / shale slope before heading up further to climber's left and following the ridge as it curved first north and then east to the main summit.
[Grunting up frozen scree / grass]
[This was going to be interesting on descent...]
[Looking back a Labrynth Peak]
[Following the ridge to tree line]
There were a number of height losses on ascent and we even ran across what I'm 99% sure is an active bear den! The cave was recently enlarged and is located right near tree line - the perfect spot for a hibernating black or grizzly bear. We didn't linger around the area very long. Steven was our choice to poke his head in and find out but he chickened out for some strange reason - what a guy! ;) The few down climbs were either tackled head-on or detoured on climber's right. Soon we were grunting up to a wonderful view from the summit in suprisingly warm and windless conditions considering how chilly our night had been. After snapping photos and enjoying lunch on the summit we back tracked to the trucks. Our round trip time of just over 4 hours was much quicker than we were expecting but since we had slept in we didn't have time for Labrynth, just across the river.
[Labrynth is entirely treed - not a very sexy peak. ;)]
[Our first nice view of the summit - looks much further than it is]
[Looking down at the Red Deer River as it exits the Ya Ha Tinda Ranch and the Rockies to the west]
[An active bear den near tree line]
[A glorious day!]
[Interesting terrain on the ridge]
[Finding some scrambly sections - we had to look though!]
[Nice looking summit]
[Great views towards Ya Ha Tinda Ranch off the ridge on Maze. ++]
[Looking ahead to the final summit push - Eagle Mountain to the left. ++]
[Avoiding slick slabs by traversing up on climbers left]
[More detouring - in the summer you could tackle most of the obstacles head-on. We had slick snow and ice so we avoided anything too slabby.]
[Vern descending a small cliff band - photo by Steven Song]
[Final push to the top]
[Eagle Mountain with Evangeline and Rum Ridge behind. ++]
[Vern on the summit of Maze Peak]
[Summit pano. ++]
[Descending the summit. ++]
[The road to Ya Ha Tinda]