Friday, January 9, 2015

The Great Divide Trail

In late spring 2012, I was doing some work for a long-standing client in Saskatchewan.  Normally, I'd fly through Denver, but recently WestJet had started offering some routes through Calgary.  As I passed through the Calgary airport, I passed a window display showing a photo of the Canadian Rockies.  This lit a fire in my belly.  I'd been casting about looking for a big trip idea for 2012, and wanting to top 2011's Wind River excursion.  Having bought the ticket to Saskatchewan, I realized a trip to Calgary was not unaffordable.

Within a week, I was juggling multiple guidebooks from Amazon, piecing together a route through the heart of Banff and other mountain parks.  As quickly as I could I put in for a permit, and was approved.  Only after getting the permit did I pluck a GDT guidebook off my shelf (bought long ago, when the thruhiking bug had bit me), only to realize I had re-duplicated the route of the GDT.  It was a spectacular route, piecing together 170 km of trail through the heart of Mt Assiniboine, Banff and Kootenay.

It required juggling all sorts of logistics.  I'd need to use a combination of shuttle bus, taxi, and hitchhiking to get to and from the trailhead.  I'd need to arrange airline tickets and hotel rooms for before and after.  I'd need to pick up supplies in Canmore that I couldn't fly with.  10 days of food needed to be bought and packed.  It was the most logistically difficult trip I'd planned since my thruhike, but the logistics came together surprisingly easily, and in August I was off to Canada.

The taxi dropped me at a remote trailhead on the edge of Banff.  This was fully committing in a way I hadn't experienced in some time.  Most trips I took were loops, meaning I could and sometimes did cut them short rather than completing the full loop.  That option was not available to me now.  I had no car to bail out to, and even if I did, I'd have to wait until my plane ticket out anyway.  Bailing was not an option, so here I was, a foreigner in BIG wilderness, with nothing but 10 days of backpacking stretching in front of me.

I'd follow Bryant Creek 9 miles in the first day to the first camp.  Bryant Creek was not all that scenic, but just being out in deep forest WAY different than the terrain at home was amazing.  It was made all the more spicy by the fact that Bryant Creek is one of the three prime breeding areas for grizzly bears in Banff.  This was my first time hiking in grizzly territory, and I was both thrilled and terrified of the possibility of running into one.  I must have cried out "hey bear" every 2 minutes that first day.  I'd later relax as the trip continued, not yelling out so frequently, but I never lost the awareness that this was serious wilderness, where man was not at the top of the food chain.

(I wouldn't actually encounter a bear on this trip, a fact which brought relief along with a small tinge of disappointment.  I would, however, hear wolves howling across two separate lakes).

The other thing that happened the first day was that I split my hiking shorts when bending over at a rest stop.  This doesn't sound like a big deal, until you realize that like most long-distance hikers, I tended to strip my load down to the bare minimum necessary.  In this case, that mean one shirt and one pair of shorts.  I stopped to sew them up, a task I would repeat each night, getting more talented at sewing as each night passed.  The shorts ended up holding out for the entire trip, but barely so.

The next day, the trail climbed up into the high country for the first time, climbing over Wonder Pass to enter Mt Assiniboine Provincial Park.

Mt Assiniboine was absolutely stunning.  Called "the Matterhorn of the Rockies" for its distinctive, pyramid-shaped peak robed with glaciers, the mountain and its environs was home to some of the finest alpine scenery I've ever seen.

I ended up spending two nights in the park.  The beautiful lakes, summits, and scenery were too good to rush through.  I climbed Nub Peak on the layover day, which afforded even better views of the park scenery.

Eventually, it was time to leave the idyllic area around Mt Assiniboine, and start to really grind out the miles.  I headed north, back into Banff National Park, climbing up over Citadel Pass and to Howard Douglas Lake in a rainstorm.  This would be the only inclement weather of the trip.

I passed near a ski area the next morning, which afforded me the opportunity to detour down to a little restaurant for the first fresh food in five days, and a cell phone call to my girlfriend (now wife).  From the ski area, I continued on over Healy Pass, into the heart of Banff National Park.

Healy Pass delivered me to the Egypt Lakes area.  From there, I climbed over Whistling Pass, named for the numerous, huge marmots that populate the area.

From Whistling Pass, I descended to Haiduk Lake, where I spotted a bald eagle cruising the currents of air above the lake.  From Haiduk, the trail descended along a string of lakes.  It was an endless procession of marvelous scenery, and I had been out long enough now to slough off the worst of the harried, stressed thinking that you pick up when you spend too much time in the city.  I was "walking with beauty," as the AT thruhikers call it, cruising along without a care in the world, open and free.

Eventually, I arrived at Ball Pass Campground, where I had a choice.  In the national parks of the Canadian Rockies, you are required to stay in the designated campsites.  Its a good way of ensuring bear safety, and concentrating impact, but it makes for some awkward itineraries, and this was the most awkward of them all.  I had walked a total of 5 miles, and it was only 1 pm, with hours of daylight ahead of me.  Moreover, my "official" permitted itinerary for the next day had me hiking 15 miles, over Ball Pass, down 2500 feet to the highway, then back up 3000 feet to Floe Lake campground.  It was nearly like trying to cross the Grand Canyon in a single day.  Unfortunately there were no official campgrounds between the two, forcing the short day followed by a long day.

Add to that the fact that I was hiking alone, without much to do to fill the long afternoon, and my decision was relatively easy.  I ate my dinner at Ball Pass campground so that any food smell wound be minimized, then packed up to cross Ball Pass and descend most of the way to the highway.  I set up a stealth camp, cutting the distance for the next day nearly in half.

The next day, I left Banff National Park behind and entered Kootenay National Park.  Although I made the day easier by stealth camping, it was still a long, hot push up 3000 feet from the highway to Floe Lake.  The work was worth the reward however, as the scenery at Floe Lake was stunning.  Even walking in beauty day after day, it somehow never gets old.  At Floe Lake, the Rockwall starts - a set of thousand foot cliffs that extends north for miles, which I'd be following for the remainder of the trip.  If I had to say goodbye to Banff, this was the way to do it.

The next morning, I continued on the Rockwall trail, crossing over Numa Pass.

The final days of the hike on the Rockwall passed like a dream.  The trail rocketed up to a series of passes, then plunged down to pass alongside waterfalls, meadows and glaciers.  Chris Townsend, one of my favorite outdoor writers, called the Rockwall one of the finest hikes in the world, and I'm inclined to agree.  The scenery and wilderness setting was as good as it gets.

The final night of the trail was spent under Helmet Falls, the tallest waterfall in the Rockies at more than 350 meters.  It was a dramatic and appropriate way to end one of the finest hikes I've ever done.

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