Topaz Creek, on the west side of Kootenay Pass along the Crowsnest Pass in BC.

A Tale of Two Passes

September 25–26, 2016

over-the-hill-tocWhen I biked over the Going To The Sun road in Glacier National Park at the beginning of my journey, I thought I had faced the most difficult climb of the trip. My first day on the Crowsnest Highway showed that I really should do better research.

Leaving Creston, BC, I knew I had about an 85 km to ride to get to Salmo, and I knew there would be a mountain pass along the route. But the mapping app on my iPad didn’t show elevation profiles, and the first couple of hours of riding just contributed to complacency.

First I crossed the wide Kootenay River valley, then started climbing at an easy pace. I cruised for a long time thinking, “this road is great, it’s almost like a rail trail! With such a gentle incline, I feel like I could climb all day!” But after about 25 kilometers of this easy climb it wasn’t feeling so easy any more.

With the benefit of hindsight and a better mapping app, I now realize that I had picked a very bad time to get tired.

The elevation profile shows a 1238 meter (4061 feet) gain in elevation, from the Kootenay River up to the point where the road reaches its highest point and starts down the other side. This is almost twice the elevation gain I had struggled with on the visually spectacular but comparatively gentle Going To The Sun road.

Elevation profile of Kootenay Pass climb, east side, on BC Highway 3 (Crowsnest Highway)

Elevation profile of Kootenay Pass climb, east side, on BC Highway 3 (Crowsnest Highway)

But the biggest part of this climb happens in the final 12 kilometers – that is, after the point at which I realized I was getting tired.

Final section of climb to Kootenay Pass, east side.

Final section of climb to Kootenay Pass, east side.

While I had climbed 590 meters over 25 kilometers, I had to finish by climbing 648 meters over 12 kilometers. The air temperature dropped from about 7°C at valley bottom in the morning, to about 4°C near the pass. There was no rain or sleet, nor was there any sunshine, just a damp breeze that seemed to cut right through my jacket, rain pants, wool jersey and tights, which were damp with sweat long before I stopped climbing.

The road curved endlessly, never affording a long view forward or backward, so I couldn’t gain any sense of how far up I had come or how far I still needed to go. Each .1 km – the smallest increment on my odometer – marked a pathetic, hard-won victory. At last I had to admit that as I was only biking at 6 kph, and even then stopping for a rest at least twice per kilometer, I might as well get off and walk.

Pushing the loaded bike up the hill was slower than pedaling it, but barely – I managed 5 kph as a pedestrian. “A change is as good as a rest”, some say – and after walking for a kilometer I was able to get back on and pedal with slightly renewed vigour.

Shortly after getting back on the bike I rounded an embankment and came to the most wonderful sign a weary cyclist will see: “Check your brakes, 600 m”. It was just over half a kilometer to the top! So it turned out that the kilometer I had walked was the second-to-last kilometer in the climb.

There is a small pond at the pass, and a cook-shelter at a trailhead for Stag Leap Provincial Park, whose primary role is to provide sanctuary for the dwindling numbers of woodland caribou. I sat down just long enough to eat an energy-rich snack, pull out the last layer of wool clothing from my panniers and put that on underneath my rain suit. And then I pushed off, hoping I’d get no colder than I already felt.

Just a couple of kilometers down, I rounded a curve to see a small group of Bighorn Sheep standing in the middle of the road. They jumped a concrete barrier and started climbing an almost-vertical rock face as I rolled by. Though I briefly considered stopping, struggling with my over-tight gloves, getting my camera out, and trying to get some pictures, that would have meant going back uphill a little ways. No way was I reversing course! – it could have been the Sasquatch scrambling up that cliff, and still I wouldn’t have gone back up the hill to take a photograph.

Thirty kilometers later when I reached the valley floor it was sunny and 18°C. I was still wearing three long-sleeved wool shirts and two pairs of wool tights under a full rain suit, and I was still cold. It was only after I had pedaled for a half hour on level ground, at the outskirts of Salmo, that I took off my wool hat, gloves, and rain suit.

Finding a warm and cozy shelter was first priority, and the Reno Motel more than fit the bill. The 1950s-era motel looked like it had never been renovated – just like me!

The room had a fridge, microwave, and original art on the walls. The guest services booklet in my room also had a long writeup of the Kootenay Pass from a cyclist’s perspective – including the news that I could have avoided the climb altogether by going north from Creston and taking a free ferry across Kootenay Lake.

But it was pure luxury to soak in the deep claw-foot bathtub, and my dinner of tinned soup was special, served in such a cheerful bowl.

Soup bowls with soup.

Fine dining at the Reno Motel.

September 26, 2016

While the Kootenay Pass nearly finished me off, the next day’s climb over Bombi Summit seemed almost too easy to be true.

About halfway between Salmo and Castlegar, the Bombi Summit is at 1214 meters above sea level (compared to the Kootenay Pass at 1775 meters). As I pedaled uphill I didn’t realize my climb would only be half as big as the previous day’s climb, and it was a beautiful warm sunny day besides. When I saw the “check your brakes, 600 meters” sign I couldn’t believe I was really at the top of the hill already – perhaps, I feared, I’d go down a short steep hill and then start climbing all over again.

sign warning "Steep Grades Ahead"

Yet the “Steep Grades Ahead” showed 7 km of steady downhill, so I had finished the climb before breaking into a serious sweat. This mountain riding can be a breeze!

A sign detailed the proper procedures for truckers:

Brake Check Advisory sign.

I couldn’t help but notice the omission of any procedures for bicyclists, so I took the liberty of adding a few lines:

Check Your Brakes sign including procedures for cyclists.

Check Your Brakes sign including procedures for cyclists.

The road downhill was smooth and wide, and it wasn’t long before Castlegar appeared in the distance. By early afternoon I crossed the Kootenay River near its juncture with the Columbia and rolled through downtown Castlegar.

That night I was hosted by a Warmshowers member just across the Columbia from Castlegar. Richard proved to an exceptionally knowledgeable cyclist as well as a great gardener and cook. He shared lots of information about the Columbia & Western and Kettle Valley rail trails, which were next on my itinerary. To our delight we were also joined that night by a Spanish cyclist who was nearing the end of a cross-Canada bike ride.

Pablo Pedroche, Richard Roussy and yours truly in Robson, BC, near the Columbia River.

Pablo Pedroche, Richard Roussy and yours truly in Robson, BC, near the Columbia River.

Twilight falls on the Columbia River.

Twilight falls on the Columbia River.

Top photo: Topaz Creek, along Crowsnest Highway on the east side of Kootenay Pass.