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Pocaterra Cirque

Nov 2022
3-5 hours


Open until the end of November, Highwood Pass is a popular early season option that's often skiied in October and can offer midseason-like conditions with lucky timing. A myriad of route options exist including the potential for some boot packing up and over Highwood Ridge and some steeper gully lines coming off Pocaterra Ridge. Although the open bowls are tempting to pick up speed, remain cautious of early season hazards. Past sharks have broken arms and tibias.

Route Access

pocaterra cirque ski tour map
Click for .gpx and additional details


Park at the Highwood Meadows parking lot and follow the trail northwest.


Following the trail north, make your way through an open meadow before dipping into the trees. Slog through the undulating off-camber terrain until you emerge from the trees. From there, you can head up between Grizzly and Highwood Ridge or continue further into the cirque and access some nice slopes west of Pocattera Ridge. There are some nice turns to be found on the east face of Mount Pocattera but there's some overhead hazard that exists with early season warming and chinooks.

Skiing a Summer Classic

A few weeks prior, a sudden storm system brought sequential overnight storms of 20+ cm of fresh dry powder into Highwood Pass. Little did I know at the time that the accompanying abnormally frigid two week-long cold snap heralded the worst snowpack in 23 years (according to reports). The blower early season conditions also meant a thick layer of facets would persist throughout the season. This would later cause slides to occur all over the valley, even on low angle terrain. Blisfully unaware of the conditions to come, I was more excited to take Michał, my new brother-in-law, out and explore the area together.

backcountry skiier looking at pocaterra cirque photo by luca li

The previous time I visited the area was during larch season when the valley was alight with golden pine needles and Baloo was still bagging his first few summits. The gentle scree marbled slopes were replaced with a pristine white that made the area feel much more expansive and alpine. Gone was the conga line up to the summit. Eager skiiers had replaced them instead, skinning up and bootpacking every direction we looked. We decided to play it safe and head for the summer highpoint.

3 backcountry skiiers skinning on uptrack in pocaterra cirque photo by luca li

On the opposing aspect, another group was lapping the lower half of Mount Pocaterra. Another skiier who had just finished his session there warned us about the overhead hazard as temperatures rose to 5C. Recent activity from the weekend prior made us decide to revisit that slope another year. Michał and I took a quick break to admire the scenery and proceeded towards the top.

backcountry skiier bootpacking up pocaterra cirque photo by luca li

As the snowpack gradually thinned out, it made less and less sense to continue skinning and we transitioned to bootpacking. "Now I feel like real mountain man" giggled Michał as we emulated what we had only seen in YouTube videos to that point. I echoed the sentiment as I threw my split on either side of my pack somewhat apprehensively. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it didn't make the pack feel that much heavier.

Poking around to climbers right, the east aspect had a number of tracks going down towards a gully but looked much more scoured with no small amount of dorsal fins playing peekaboo. After scouting our options, we threw a karate kick and clumsily 180'ed back towards the uptrack. With the winds picking up as we neared the top, we transitioned shortly before the peak and got ready to pick our line down the west aspect.

backcountry skiier skiing down pocaterra cirque photo by luca li

Avoiding the rocky slope skiiers left of us, we skiied down towards the bench before cutting left to valley bottom once we were clear of the rocks. The snow quality was excellent and the early turns quickly reminded me that I had been slacking on my pre-season conditioning. Joining a chorus of woohoos at the bottom, we briefly skinned back up towards the ridge before cutting east and enjoying a few more turns as we skiied towards where we emerged from the trees.

Before transitioning again, I tried split skiing towards the lake with a new pair of heel lockers from Spark. If any other splitboarders are reading this, I can't say I'm too enthused about the heel lockers. As someone who can also ski, they do not make it feel like skis. I felt much more stable telemarking on my splits, something I was forced to practice much more the following month.

Another surprise came with the afternoon sun, which revealed some previously unseen gnarly turns coming down the face of Little Arethusa. Goals for another year. We were quite fortunate in our timing for this outing. A large series of chinooks rolled in during the following weeks, and wind slabs made the area much more reactive. Returning to Calgary, I began preparing in earnest for my first hut trip in December.

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