OverviewThe Mackay Hills, and its highest point, Mount Mackay, are a pleasant grouping of three highpoints separating Evan-Thomas Creek from Rocky Creek. These hills are along the northern edge of the Opal Range connected to The Wedge, and further along to Limestone Mountain, by a shared col. The Opal Range is in the heart of Kananaskis Country. These three minor summits are not officially named, but referred to as the ‘Mackay Hills’ by local hiking guidebook author Gillean Daffern.
Walter Grant Mackay had a coal mining claim on these hills in the early 20th century. The nearby Cloudburst Coal Company did some coal prospecting south of the Mackay Hills in the 1950’s. The name of Cloudburst Pass is applied by Daffern to the highpoint that divides the drainage between Rocky Creek and Evan-Thomas Creek, south of these hills.
I have assigned the names ‘Mount Mackay’ to GR 323350 (summit elevation 2455m), ‘Mackay Hills – centre’ to GR 333341 (2440m) and ‘Mackay Hills – south’ to GR 340335 (2320m). GR refers to the grid reference coordinates of the Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) National Topographic System of Canada (NTS).
Getting ThereEasy highway access from Highway 40 along the western edge of the Opal Range provides the best approach. Highway 40 does provide access from the Trans Canada Highway in the north, and continues south to the Longview area, but the southern section is closed for wildlife protection from December 1 to June 15 each winter/spring. Best vehicle access from Canmore/Banff or Calgary is via the Trans Canada Highway, south along Highway 40.
From Calgary or Canmore, access Highway 40 (Kananaskis Trail), from Highway 1 (Trans Canada Highway). Drive south along Highway 40. 16 kilometres south of the Barrier Lake Visitor Centre park at the Evan-Thomas Creek parking lot.
Red Tape / Camping and BivouacsThe ‘Mackay Hills’ are located in the Elbow-Sheep Wildland Provincial Park. No permit is required to park or climb in this park. The ascent of the ‘Mackay Hills’ does require a long approach, and in summer conditions, a bivouac or camp maybe required.
Backcountry camping permits are required at all designated backcountry campgrounds anywhere in Kananaskis Country. Random backcountry camping without a permit is allowed in most Wildland Provincial Parks, including Elbow-Sheep Wildland Provincial Park. Permits can be purchased in person at Barrier Lake Visitor Information Centre and the Peter Lougheed Provincial Park Visitor Information Centre during normal hours of operation.
When to Climb/Hike/SkiTypical Canadian Rockies situation with July and August providing the driest conditions, but my ski ascent and traverse in April 2012 was a great ski day trip option for this fairly remote location.
ApproachFrom Calgary or Canmore, access Highway 40 (Kananaskis Trail), from Highway 1 (Trans Canada Highway). Drive south along Highway 40. 16 kilometres south of the Barrier Lake Visitor Centre park at the Evan-Thomas Creek parking lot.
Walk or ski up the obvious wide trail for about 1.0 kilometre, at the first intersection and take the right hand trail which drops sharply down hill to Evan-Thomas Creek. At the bridge continue on to the main trail (usually ski set in the winter) along the Wedge Connector Trail for about 1 km. Approximately 1.0 km from the Evan-Thomas Creek bridge, head north through light bush to eventually gain the treed North Ridge of Mt. Mackay.
Only Gillean Deffern’s guide books describes a route for the Mackay Hills. She describes a nasty bushwhack hike up the North Ridge of Mt. Mackay and a pleasant alpine meadow walk up from Cloudburst Pass to the summit of Mackay Hills – south; then a traverse of the three hills.
After reading these descriptions, I thought a ski ascent and traverse would be best way to avoid the heaviest bushbashing and the give the chance for some turns.
- North Ridge, Mt. Mackay, Traverse of Mackay Hills
The winter of 2011/12 is likely the snowiest in modern history in the Canadian Rockies and there was a healthy and deep snowpack, even in the normally dry front ranges. The spring of 2012 was a great time to attempt the Mackay Hills on skis.
The ski approach from Evan-Thomas Creek parking lot starts out simple on a well packed trail, then a turn south onto the Wedge Connector Trail ends the simple portion. About 1km from Evan-Thomas Creek, turn south-east and head for the North Ridge of Mt. Mackay. Light bush for about 3 km ends in the steep uphill climb on the North Ridge. Thick trees and steep angles finally relents at tree line, then a pleasant ski to the summit of Mt. Mackay (2455m). On my trip, bare, windblown slopes dropped to the col between Mt. Mackay and the central Mackay Hill. Steep slopes, snow loaded rockbands, and strong spring sun forced travel to the southern slopes of the central hill. Hike up easy boulders to the summit of the central hill (2440m).
Skis back on, low angled slopes, but fast snow to the col of central hill and the most southern hill. Quick skin up to the most southern summit of the Mackay Hills (2320m). Awesome turns on sun baked sun crust to tree line, then fabulous deep and steep powder to creek. Follow drainage between central and southern hill back to Evan-Thomas Creek (was a great ski for my descent). Ski out ETC or find old logging road north of main creek drainage.