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Mountains and moose: Cory Wallace’s 313-km Icefields Parkway adventure

Close calls and massive base-mile rides in Canada's Rocky Mountains

Cory Wallace Icefields Parkway 5 Photo by: Cory Wallace

You’ve no doubt heard the expression to be “stuck between a rock and a hard place.” Canadian endurance mountain biker Cory Wallace found himself in a very Canadian version of the classic dilemma recently while attempting a 300km ride from Jasper to Canmore, along Alberta’s mountainous Icefields Parkway. Over 250km from home and riding into the night, Wallace faced with the choice between the cold mountains behind him and an unexpected moose, which burst from the bush in front of him.

What many of us would consider a ride on Homeric scale – even without a wildlife encounter – is a walk in a (National) park for Wallace. In fact, he did the Icefields Parkway epic twice in three days. After riding the classic 235km route from Jasper to Lake Louise on January 9, he decided more was possible. On the 11th, Wallace covered an incredible 313km from his hometown of Jasper to Canmore, Alberta. That is where the moose enters the picture.

Cory Wallace shared details of the encounter and photos from his big week of base miles in the mountains. And, after spending much of 2020 stuck in Nepal, he also talks about what it is like finally being back home in Canada.

Wallace’s first ride, from Jasper to Lake Louise, was a bit brighter. Photo: Cory Wallace
Canadian Cycling Magazine: The traditional Icefields Parkway ride is Jasper-Lake Louise. You did that 235km ride on the 9th. Then, two days later, you extended that all the way to Canmore (313km). What happened on the first ride that made you want to go back so soon, and go bigger? And why try the extended route in winter?

Cory Wallace: I have been eyeing up riding Lake Louise to Jasper for a while. The opportunity came up when I was booked in for a doctor’s appointment in Banff for Tuesday, January 12th. Putting the pieces together, I drove my truck to Canmore on Friday the 8th, then had my buddy Leighton drop me off in Lake Louise Saturday morning for the ride. The plan was to ride to Jasper, take Sunday as a rest day then Monday catch a bus halfway back and drop me off for a 150-200 km ride. The bus was cancelled so I looked at Plan B.

After a day off at Mom’s, full of home cooking, and two good sleeps in my childhood bed, I woke up refreshed and with the urge to ride Monday morning. Not sure where I was going to get to, I just hopped on my bike and started riding. My buddy Leighton offered to pick me up somewhere on the Lake Louise side, but things went well and I ended up riding the whole 313 km to Canmore.

A light or a lifesaver? Is there a moose defense mode? Photo: Cory Wallace
CCM: It’s winter in the mountains, but you still found some wildlife on the ride. What happened with the Moose?

It’s winter in Canada which means most the wildlife is either sleeping or down in the lower valley bottoms. 235 km into the ride was the deserted 1A road from Lake Louise to Banff. There wasn’t a single car or person on this road as I cruised through the winter night. It was calm until out of the corner of my eye I caught a large brown object coming out of the woods. My first thought was a Yeti, but I soon realized it was just a big Moose. It came out on the road facing me, probably just as confused as I was. It was too late to slam on the brakes so I pinned it past the giant.

In my experience, Moose have been the most dangerous animal in the Rockies as you can never tell what they are going to do. They always have the same blank look on their face and are often quite aggressive. Luckily this one was blinded by my Sinewave bike light and didn’t have time to smash me!

Kona-branded 7Mesh jacket to stay warm on the descents. Photo: Cory Wallace
CCM: How do you set up your bike for this sort of cold, snow and ice, and distance? Is there anything you different?

I ran the Kona Libre carbon gravel bike. It was nearly my normal summer setup with Shimano Di2 GRX and Astral Outback wheels. The two changes were on the front wheel, in which I ran a Shimano Dynamo hub and a 700 x 38 C studded tire. This Dynamo hub powered my Sinewave light throughout the night portions and I was able to charge all my electronics throughout the ride. On the ride back I ran a normal Maxxis Rambler 700 x 40c. For packing my gear I took along a set of Apidura Expedition bike packing bags (saddle bag, top tube bag, frame bag and down tube bag)

Amazing views, abandoned roads. As long as you don’t mind a bit of snow. Photo: Cory Wallace
CCM: You said in an Instagram post that you’re “surprised more people don’t ride this road” (Icefields Parkway) in winter. I think most people who know the basics of the route – a mountain road running between peaks in the Rockies – might not jump to the same conclusion. Why do you think it works as a winter road? And what downsides are there to riding it in winter?

Yeah, I’m surprised more people haven’t ridden this in the Winter. I remember a few years back Ryan Correy from Calgary road the Parkway from Banff to Jasper, return, over 6 days, and came to the same conclusion. Yes, it is cold. But if you dress right and wait for a weather window in which it’s -20 Celsius or warmer, then things can be quite enjoyable. It’s still one of the most beautiful highways in the World rolling 230 km through the untouched Canadian Rockies. To me, it’s even more stunning in the Winter as all the mountains are covered in snow.

Wallace’s Kona loaded up for an epic day on the bike. Photo: Cory Wallace

The best part is how quiet the highway is. In the summer it’s often a traffic jam full of RV’s and tourists but in the winter sometimes you only see 1-2 cars an hour. It’s almost like one large bike path, which is plowed and paved, something which is pretty tough to find anywhere for such a seldom-used road through such a magical part of the World.

This year it’s a bit less desirable to ride as all the hostels are closed due to Covid, but normally there are these amazing mountain hostels, on average every 60 km. These are great places to stay to break up the journey and to provide a bit of a safety net if anything did go wrong. Right now not a single thing is open on the 230 km stretch from Lake Louise to Jasper so you need to be prepared. Even water can be tough to find but there are two water pipes strategically situated along the ride which provide fresh mountain water, even in the depths of Winter!

Unpredictable weather is right. Photo: Cory Wallace
CCM: High mountains can be unpredictable, weather-wise. How did you plan for the weather, and what was the biggest challenge on the ride?

The high mountain weather is unpredictable and with this ride going over two 2050 metre high passes you need to be ready for anything. The weather is really the biggest reason why Canada is so uninhabited compared to a country like the U.S.A. If it’s -10 in Jasper, it will probably be -20 on top of these passes, often a lot colder once you factor in the windchill factor. I’m lucky to be sponsored by 7Mesh, they make high-quality cycling apparel out of Squamish B.C. For a ride like this, I dress in layers so I can easily take off and add layering to regulate my temperature. It’s important not to dress too warm as once you sweat, you will likely freeze later on. Thus I try to always be a bit chilled and save my heavy layers for the descents. Being chilled also motivates me to ride harder and not to stop for too long when I do.

The core is easy. Dressing with a breathable base layer, a windbreaker on top of that and then a breathable/windproof Gore-Tex jacket such as the 7Mesh Guardian on top. On the bottom, I wore a 7Mesh MK3 bib short (with pockets), so I could keep my phone and immediate food warm, on top of this was a breathable Gore-Tex pant. The biggest challenges are the feet and hands. For hands, I wore my insulated leather chainsaw gloves, until -8, then would switch over to a bigger glove with 3 fingers. On this ride, I used some gloves from 45 North, but have also found 2 finger gloves with a trigger finger to be really handy as well. For the feet, I wore Kamik winter boots and flat pedals. This eliminated the cold feet problem which can be a show stopper!

Still going, well into the dark.
CCM: You’re back home in Jasper now, but you spent most of 2020 in Nepal. How is it being home after so long away?

I’ve really appreciated being back home in such a stable country as Canada after nearly a year overseas in developing countries. I love Nepal and its people, and the adventures to be found over in the Himalayas and do look forward to returning soon. Trying to leave there I had nine flights cancelled between July and September so it’s nice to have a bit more stability in life for a bit.

Both countries have a lot to offer but they are obviously very different. I use to take for granted the freedom, the fresh air and the lifestyles we live in Canada, but now I appreciate them that much more after being in Asia for so long. There’s no doubt I’ll get the itch for some wild overseas adventures again soon but for now I’m just enjoying getting back to my Canadian roots and visiting family and friends.

CCM: While you were in Nepal, you did some serious work funding and distributing food to help people struggling during the pandemic. What is happening with that now? And are you able to keep in touch with what’s happening there? (and is there a way people here could help?)

During the Pandemic I did some fundraising and together with some friends we were able to supply 15,000 meals to those going hungry in Kathmandu. We were also able to raise over half the money ($4,000 CAD) to build a dry house for the Monks at the Chiwang Monastery in the Everest region where I was living during the Pandemic. The Monks plan to start building the dry house in April, before the monsoon season comes as, otherwise, they have no way of drying their robes. I have plans to raise the other half of the money ($4,000 CAD) and then, depending on the pandemic, possibly head back to Nepal to help with the construction.

LISTEN: Cory Wallace and the art of lockdown in Nepal

I’m also still in touch with my friends G-man and Apara. We plan to do another couple food distributions, these ones to help feed 60 kids at a school on the edge of Kathmandu. In the coming months, I will be posting a Gofundme for these projects for anyone that wants to help. I will make the announcements on my social media outlets. Instagram: @corywallace1122, Facebook and personal website, www.corywallace.com.

Ok, Icefields Parkway views are amazing. Photo: Cory Wallace
CCM: What happened with your old Instagram account? And where can people follow you now?

My old Instagram account, @wallacesworld, was randomly deactivated by Instagram for violating their terms. I’m unsure what term I violated as I have yet to receive any response from them in regards to this. Follow me at @corywallace1122

CCM: What’s on your calendar for 2021?

For 2021 I have some personal challenges on the schedule for the early season and then hopefully some racing from June onwards. If I end up in Nepal I’d try to go sub 20 hours on the Annapurna Circuit. After that, I would come back to Canada to try for the Off-Road Everesting World Record over 24 hours, towards the end of May. Currently, a Portuguese rider, Tiago Ferreira, a past World Marathon Champ, has this record at the height of a Double Everest (17,753 meters). Following this I hope to race Unbound (Dirty Kanza) June 5, and then move on to BC Bike Race, Okanagan24 and the Mongolia Bike Challenge in the summer.

In the fall I’ll be going for a fourth straight title at the 24HR World Champs in Australia, using the Crocodile Trophy as a warmup. If the season is a wash again due to the Pandemic I will be going after FKT’s and bike packing races such as the BC Epic 1000 and Tour of the Divide (if the border is open). With the Vaccine rollouts, I like to think we will be back in some race action by the summer! Fingers crossed.

For now, it’s back to winter biking here in the Rockies. It has been an amazing year for riding with not much snow and relatively warm temperatures. These past 4 weeks I’ve been riding 25+ hours a week, mostly on the trails around Jasper and loving it. My friends keep trying to get me out on skis but I’m not sold on the idea as two wheels still seems like the best way to go!