I feel awful leaving Banff in the morning. Keith and Leslie have been amazing and have taken such good care of us, but I’ve lost the ability to sleep in town. Lack of sleep makes me nauseated and I gag my way up the trail. I can feel the smoke today too and my chest is tight. I struggle up to Egypt lake, where we’re distracted by a helicopter flying low. Jaded from Assiniboine, where tourists fly in, I make a comment that as much as I don’t want it to be a rescue, I hope it’s not a flight seeing trip.
It isn’t. A parks crew is surveying the old shelter. We chat to Kyle, who’s sitting in a bug net, leafing through plant identification books. We’re as fascinated by his life as he is by ours: he wants to thru hike the GDT soon. He wants info about our hike. I just want to know how I can work in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
We climb up over Whistling Pass, admiring the glaciers and listening to the marmots call back and forth. We drop down to Hayduc lake: deep blue waters under a pink scree slope. Fish jump and the water is clear enough that we can see their red gills. It’s not far to camp, where Tanya and Oliver, the hikers we met in Coleman, arrive shortly after. It’s still early so I nap fitfully in the hot sun. We have a big day tomorrow.
Our big day is 40km. Not so bad- that’s only 24 miles. But it also features 2,500m of elevation gain. Maybe that doesn’t sound like much if you’re used to feet, but it works out to two and a half kilometres of climbing. We’ll go over four high mountain passes. All because we somehow managed to time this section with a long weekend and couldn’t get the permits we needed.
It’s barely light as we leave camp. We climb up and over Ball Pass, our first pass of the day. A single bear print adorns the crest, but the only animals we see are marmots.
We run down towards the highway. Shake’nBake slows us down for a change. There’s berries everywhere. Every time i look back to see where he is, I find him bent over a bush, his fingers red and a guilty look on his face. It’s just as bad on the other side of the road. Jammy thimble berries line the trail, and we can’t resist. We climb up and up, stopping by snow ringed Floe Lake for lunch. We still have so many miles and three whole passes ahead of us. Numa pass is hot and shadeless, and the trail drops us almost as far down as we just climbed through a smoke filled valley. My shirt is soaked with sweat and I can feel the beginning of chafe where my pack sits on my hips.
The sun ducks down behind a mountain as we climb up to Tumbling Pass, although we still have hours of daylight. We eat Pad Thai on the bank of a river shooting straight down from the mountain. The temperature drops and I start to perk up. We climb up and up, to walk on the other side of the valley from a decent sized glacier. Then back down to cross the creek spilling from deep within it.
It’s 8:30 pm when we reach the campground at the bridge. I just want to go to bed, but we still have 4km to do and 500m to gain. The campground is overwhelming. It’s supposed to be a backpacking site, but it’s so overrun with people it could be a car campground. Kids run around yelling and we get lost amongst the jumble of tents trying to find our trail. Finally, we stagger up the hill away from the noise. We make Wolverine pass at 9:30, just as the sun, which has been hidden behind mountains for hours, starts to go down. Exhausted, we throw up our tent and fall down. Before we go to sleep, I clean and dress my chafe. Shake’nBake doesn’t sugar coat it. “That looks bad,” he tells me, while he dabs polysporin on my back.
We sleep in the next morning. It’s 7:30 by the time we stir and a full hour later by the time we leave camp. We walk over stunning Rockwall Pass, where a meadow meets a sheer cliff. A glacier runs along a snowy band across the bottom, feeding a milky lake. We’d already done most of the elevation the night before, so all that’s left to do is try and hike and not take photos every few minutes.
We drop down to Helmet Falls where water shoots hundreds of feet down a crack in the mountain. Then, back up over Goodsir Pass. The climb should be easy; it’s well graded and switchbacks gently up the slope. But the humidity builds till sweat runs into my eyes and we are wiped from the day before. At the top, blue icefields hang below mountain ramparts. We lie comatose in the shade- it’s not far to camp now, and we’re still in a national park, where trails are good. That’s a lie though. The trail routes us through avalanche fields, where splintered blowdowns alternate with alder choked gullies. Finally, on the banks of a milky river heavy with glacier silt, we stop for the night.
We lie down in our sleeping bags, and a few seconds later, the first real rain of the trip starts to fall. It showers off and on all night, and I sleep well under the soft white noise. In the morning, we have 22km to Field, where Steve’s cousins are putting us up for the night. It’s still raining, but the thought of being warm and dry is a powerful motivator. We hustle out of camp and fly down the old road bed. About halfway to the highway, we startle something white and furry. I see tall, straight horns. Mountain goats! We seem far too low in elevation for them, but a mum and baby scamper off down the steep earthen river banks. The old road spits us out on the very busy highway, full of long weekend vacationers returning home. We dodge the spray kicked up by tyres, then turn into a quiet dirt road. A few kilometres later, Bruce and Marilyn are walking towards us, ready to welcome us into their home.