Safe haven B&B lives up to its name. Our hosts feed us and shuttle us around town, even to the brewery. Two other thru hikers are there for our first night and we’re excited to meet them. We’ve been following their Altra footprints for days. It’s nice to put a face to the tracks. We compare schedules and figure out we’ll share a few campsites after Banff. We’ll have friends for a section!
We get an early start. Smoke lies thick over Coleman, blocking out the sun. The fires are still far away, but they are already impacting our hike. We climb out of town through a neighbourhood, then on dirt roads that turn into ATV tracks. Coleman has a big population of off road enthusiasts, and we’ll get to listen to their engines all day. It’s annoying, but I’m slightly less annoyed when one clears a herd of cows for us.
We take the high rock alternate, climbing to above treeline and temporarily escaping the ATV noise. Eventually this route will be the official GDT, and it’s stunning. We contour around massive peaks, which drift in and out of the smoke. I’m tired from a night of bad sleep, restless in a hotel bed, so we take a nap in the shade of a tree on the edge of a wildflower meadow.
It feels like we’ve spent most of the day climbing, but we have one final ascent to complete. We scramble up to Window Mountain Lake. Hordes of dayhikers descend, leaving us with the lake to ourselves. We sit on the lake shore, looking up at the mountain bowl surrounding us. The sun casts shadows across the scree, while fish jump in the green water.
The world is apocalyptic in the morning. Smoke chokes the valley, and when the sun breaks through, it is bright red. We climb out of camp on steep talus, then descend to a dirt road where we follow massive mountain lion tracks. It’s our only stretch of the day where we’re truely above treeline, but we make plenty of noise anyway.
We ascend steeply to racehorse pass. I huff and puff, but there’s a surprise on the other side. Beautiful switchbacks that wouldn’t be out of place on the PCT lead through a gentle forest. The trail degrades slightly over the day, but it’s clear that trail crews are hard at work. We pass their camp and Shake’nBake leaves them a note thanking them.
We’re up and down all day. The trail follows a massive rockwall, the Chinese wall from the CDT on steroids. Everytime a shoulder shoots out from the cliff, the trail takes us right over the top. It feels as hard as any mountain pass. We do five of these climbs in a day and I’m exhausted.
We follow an old road bed in the morning and there are wild strawberries everywhere. Shake’nBake does his best bear impression and stops to scoop them up. It’s overcast for a change, but the clouds worry me. We have a difficult pass today, Tornado Saddle, which is steep, scree filled and totally exposed. By lunch, the clouds start to clear. We sit in a flower meadow, and Shake’nBake picks wild chives to add to dinner. A distant rock falls, loud as thunder. The mountains are crumbling down around us.
Tornado is just as difficult as advertised. We climb the steep scree, at such an angle I think I’ll tip over backwards and roll down the entire slope. For every three steps I take, I slide back two. Finally, we crest the pass, where the wind almost pushes me over. We spook a herd of big horn sheep below us, and they run for the cliffs. Then, it’s a long way down to camp on the shores of an alder choked river.
I have a difficult day for no good reason. I’m frustrated with my speed. In my mind, I’m still just coming off of a fast AT thru hike, not struggling to cross steep passes at less than a kilometre an hour. Clouds build over the mountains, bringing back my old thunderstorm fear, and adding to my bad mood. Nothing more than a light rain falls, but my feet ache and my mind just isn’t in it by the time we reach our buggy campsite on the edge of a swamp.
The wind howls all night, tossing down rocks from the mountains than sound like bears crashing through the trees. I don’t sleep much, but I feel strangely better in the morning. We have just as much elevation gain today, but the trail is better graded, and the climbs don’t seem as bad. Shake’nBake makes bacon burritos for lunch, and then we’re high on a ridge, parallel to the massive rock wall we’ve been following for days. The view is stunning. The high peaks here are too steep and rocky for thru-hikers, best left for rock climbers and mountain goats. Instead we follow parallel ridges, and climb up over the shoulders of these giants, scaling the grassy spurs that lead to cliffs, before dropping down to follow creeks.
I sleep poorly yet again, but we have miles to make. We’ve slightly miscalculated distance on this section due to alternates and now we have an extra 10km to do to stay on schedule for our permits. We climb up to Fording River Pass, where the wind almost knocks me over. We lose and find, lose and find the trail leaving the pass, bushwhacking through alders to get back to it. A long descent drops us to a river valley, where we pick our way among the river rocks, fording back and forth to find the trail that hasn’t been washed out. The river spits us out on a dirt road, and we rush to make miles. We camp under a powerline.
It’s a long 30 km to Kananaskis in the morning. We set an alarm and we’ve just started drinking our morning coffee when Shake’nBake yells. I turn and see the cutest black bear ever. It’s an adult, but incredibly fluffy, with the biggest ears I’ve ever seen. It stops, looks at us, then ambles off.
Apart from that, the hike is uneventful. We’ve been warned about a grizzly hanging out on a pass, but we make so much noise we don’t see him. Then we’re running down to the sprawling campgrounds on the valley floor. We find a walk-in spot with a friendly host, then hike the two kilometres to a tiny camp store. We plug in our battery bricks to an outside plug and a clean man looks at us funny. We order pizza and hot dogs and see the clean man go to mess with a jumble of electronics plugged in to another outlet. “You must be doing something epic.” Shake’nBake tells him. He tells us he’s hiking the GDT. His wife and another couple with a baby trickle in. There’s seven thru hikers in total, if you count the eight month old. I can’t believe how many of us there are. We all have different schedules, but it feels pretty great to hang out with other hikers.
We’re up early in the car camping campground. Our neighbors have left out all of their food, and we shudder to think of all the bears we’ve seen already on the trip. The trail is flat to start, and we make good time, arriving at the first campsite just as the weekend hikers are finishing their breakfast. We climb up and up to North Kananaskis pass. Every time we climb a pass, I think it’s more stunning than the last one and this is no exception. We drop down steeply to camp after a river ford. The site is unremarkable: buggy and wet at the bend of a river. But Shake’nBake finds the safety plastic for a bear spray canister under a tree. He lost his almost a week ago, and has been using a stick leukotaped in place. The trail provides!
Shake’nBake wakes me just as it’s getting dark. His hand on my shoulder, he yells into the dusk. Nothing moves, nothing crashes away into the bushes. “Sorry, I thought I heard something,” he tells me. I’m groggy in the morning. We climb up and up, through thick underbrush, to Paliser pass. Tiny alpine lakes dot meadows full of flowers. We cross into Banff National park, and suddenly the trail is amazing. We cruise through meadows and forests all afternoon, making better time than we have all trail.
We wake up in a sea of tents than weren’t there when we went to sleep at eight PM. Guess I’m starting to get tired. We climb up to Marvel Lake, watching the smoke blow over distant peaks. It adds a blue light to everything, so the far off glaciers are even deeper colored. We climb up to Wonder Pass. Two thirds of the way up, I feel like I’m on a highway as hordes of clean backpackers head the other way, smelling strongly of soap. We loop down to Magog Lake, and catch our first view of Mount Assiniboine.
Assiniboine has a special place in my heart, even though I’ve never been here before. On the CDT, my friend Wildland wanted to finish his hike here. He invited me to head north from Waterton with him. I eventually bailed: all backcountry trail was closed due to wildfires and he wanted to walk roads to get here. He made it in the end, waiting for snow to put out the fires. It’s taken me an extra four years, but now I’m here too. I wave hello to the mountain. She waves back: at least I assume that’s what she means to do. High on her flank, a glacier calves, sending down an avalanche of powder. The roar fills the valley, and the run out almost reaches the lake.
We cut down towards Lake Ogg, smoke drifting over distant peaks. Then through a jumbled rock garden. We have to stop frequently for other backpackers: this is a popular route. Finally we make it to porcupine campsite, our last night before Banff.
We’re meeting our friends Tour Guide and Keith at the trailhead, so we’re up early. We climb Citadel Pass before the sun has even crested the ridge. It’s nice to do a big climb in cool weather: even though the extreme heat from earlier in the summer has dropped, it’s still much hotter than we expected. We pass little alpine lakes and wildflower filled meadows, then drop down thousands of feet on a dirt road running through a ski resort.