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Friday, 25 March 2016

10 Passes to Cross the Canadian Rockies

My preferred definition of a mountain pass is a low point that can be used to cross a mountain range between two drainages. Many of them are high notches between peaks or ridges that can be seen from miles away. Others are less well defined and one may cross them without really knowing exactly where the pass is (unless you carry a GPS unit or an altimeter).

If you want to hike across the Rocky Mountains, you must use a series of passes in order to do so. There are 10 passes that can be used to complete the “Walls of Stone” traverse of the Central Canadian Rockies. What follows is a list of them, with a brief description of each one.

1. Tombstone Pass - 2231 m, Alternate route; "Piper" Pass - 2553m
This pass itself isn’t very interesting, but if you divert to Tombstone Lakes they are very scenic. We had originally planned on the more ambitious crossing of higher “Piper “Pass (between the West Arm of the Little Elbow, and lovely Piper Creek) but bad weather and low clouds forced us to take the lower option.

2. Elbow Pass - 2100 m
More hikers cross this pass than any other in Kananaskis Country. The pass itself isn’t a destination, but it provides access from (or in our case, egress to) Highway 40. Some excellent subalpine and alpine country lies to the east of the pass. Most folks use it to visit pretty Elbow Lake.

3. North Kananaskis Pass - 2368 m
This notch between Mounts Beatty and Maude sits astride the Continental Divide and was my personal favorite of the entire expedition. A hoary marmot greeted me at the alpine meadows, next to Maude Lake. It provides passage between the Kananaskis River drainage on the Alberta side to the Palliser River in B.C. and is certainly a destination in its own right.

4. Palliser Pass - 2105 m
The area around the pass is interesting enough, with four lakes in the immediate vicinity. It sits on the Great Divide between the Upper Palliser River and the open valley of the Spray River in southern Banff National Park. It is close by to the more often visited Burstall Pass.

5. Wonder Pass - 2381 m, Alternate route; Assiniboine Pass -2193 m
Another highlight of the trip, this high pass is often visited as a destination in itself. It can be used to provide access across the Great Divide to Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park. Alpine flowers are in abundance near the summit and there are amazing views in every direction.

6. Ferro Pass - 2289 m
We had seen this as a necessary, but uninspiring route into the Simpson River drainage and Kootenay National Park, but we couldn’t have been more wrong about this less visited, but scenic pass. It was one of the surprises of our journey across the Rockies. The views from the interesting narrow pass were well worth the ascent. In late July beautiful subalpine flower meadows were in full bloom just to the north of the pass itself.

7.  Numa Pass - 2355 m
This is the pass that should have been the highlight of our journey, but terrible weather caused us to cut short our visit to these expansive alpine meadows. If the weather is good, I am sure a visit would be well worth the serious effort required to get to this spot along the Rockwall Trail. For us it was a day of drudgery.

8. Tumbling Pass - 2210 m
A tramp up a long avalanche slope leads to some high meadows surrounded by rocky scree and talus slopes, with views of the Rockwall. Waterfalls, glaciers, moraines and a glacial lake make all the effort involved well worthwhile.

9. Wolverine Pass - 2210 m
For us, this spectacular gateway through The Rockwall, was utilized to exit the Rockwall Trail and make our way down into the Beaverfoot Valley. The alpine area around this pass and leading to nearby Rockwall Pass looked amazing and would certainly bear more future exploration.

10. Harrogate Pass -2127 m
This virtually unused historic pass is one of the few ways that the Western (Beaverfoot) Range of the Canadian Rocky Mountains can be traversed. For our expedition, this is the infamous and uncrossed “Tenth Pass”. It was a question mark throughout our entire backpack trip and it still remains an enigma due to time constraints and lack of an obvious route. It appears to be unlike the other wind-swept, open passes. It looks to be clogged with trees and it is surrounded by cut-blocks and impenetrable British Columbia bush. I am determined however to revisit this location and attempt a crossing, in order to prove that my “Walls of Stone” route across the Canadian Rocky Mountains is viable. Stay tuned!

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Walls of Stone Chapter 12 – The Tenth Pass

“A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.”

John Barrymore

We had come a long way. Starting at the eastern front of the Rocky Mountains we had crossed the Front Ranges and followed the Elbow, Kananaskis, Palliser and Spray Rivers. We had entered the Main Ranges near Mount Assiniboine and departed them via the “backdoor” of Wolverine Pass. We now had only to cross the narrow Western Range. It was only a few more kilometres across the Beaverfoot Range, to complete our journey across the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Nine high mountain passes had already been traversed, now Harrogate Pass was all that divided us from the Rocky Mountain Trench, the Columbia River and the end of our journeys.

I hardly slept at all that night, camped next to a cut-block. I knew we were in trouble. As soon as the sky began to lighten, I got out of my sleeping bag. I think this astounded Don, who was always the first to rise. We took down the tent, rolled up our sleeping gear and stuffed our backpacks. I choked down some Ibuprofen and we put a tensor bandage on my right knee. Protein bars would have to do as breakfast. Off we went. For once the sky was clear. It was 5 a.m. It was agreed that if we couldn’t make good progress by ten o’clock, we would abandon our efforts. We needed to be at the pass around noon.

Our footsteps from the previous evening had to be retraced, which was galling but necessary. We turned at the small logging road we had debated the day before. It looked seldom used, but improved in quality as we followed it south. It seemed to be bringing us closer to the mountains and Harrogate Pass. Then it switched back just before we drew level with the pass and went in the other direction, towards the mountains but north again. We followed it for a ways, hoping it would switch back again. We were gun-shy and it didn’t look like it would. We turned around and on the way back we noticed a decent road that traveled south. We followed the road until we drew even with the pass at a “clearing” containing mostly fireweed, which was just beginning to sport late-summer’s magenta blooms. This was the spot I had marked on my maps to begin our traverse. It all looked reasonable on Google Earth! We were probably less than 5 kilometres from Highway 95.

The dotted line at bottom-center shows a trail across Harrogate Pass
I must admit that Don objected, but I insisted that we attempt the uphill traverse of the old cut-block. It was chock full of thick “B.C. bush”. I had experienced similar things before, but during times of hot weather and dry conditions. This proved to be another experience entirely. The vegetation was as wet as a recently tossed salad. It wasn’t more than a minute before we were entirely soaked.

Things continued to get worse. The bush got thicker and more treacherous. A dense fortification of thorny shrubs, fireweed, burdock and thistle pressed in on us. An understory of hidden boulders, trenches and pits acted as booby-traps which could easily break one’s legs. At one point I stumbled into a pit and looked up to see just a small window of blue sky framed by vegetation. We tried traversing into some trees, but they were clogged with windfall. Don took the lead and I marveled at his tenacity. He picked up a bit of a trail. I had hoped we could find one, but it soon petered out when the trees ended. We thrashed on a bit further. At what was probably a third of the way up, we looked at each other. “Fuck this!”

We had to admit defeat. Time had run out. There was no time to feel remorse, because we now had to find our way back to the road. We tried an alternate way down, which turned out to be even worse. We clambered over fallen and leaning trees, shrubs, weeds and rocks. “We should be back at the road by now!” Don called out. I could hear the frustration and perhaps even panic in his voice.

“Just keep the sun on your right shoulder” I encouraged, trying not to panic myself. 

I lost my trusty weather-worn Stampeders cap. At one point, as I pushed my way through a wall of trees, a branch ripped off my eyeglasses and launched them into the bush. I looked for a minute, but had to concede their loss.

The impenetrable bush shat us back onto the logging road to the north of where it had swallowed us up. We stumbled back to the gravel road and took stock of ourselves. I was covered in welts and bruises. We re-bandaged my knee and Don helped me make a kerchief for my head. Don looked tired and gaunt as he stretched his legs. It was an emotional moment, but relief began to wash over us. We were both alright. Then slowly that was followed by acceptance.
I told Don, “I’m sorry, I had to try.”

A couple from Canmore kindly gave us a ride north to the Kootenay River Runners base camp on the Kicking Horse River. Their employees were good enough to let us use their phone. I called my wife, Bev on her cell phone and diverted her from Harrogate to the TransCanada Highway east of Golden, B.C.

After the phone call, we stepped outside and shook hands. Don said, “This isn’t the way I imagined doing this” I could have wept. We walked up the road to Highway 1. I couldn’t resist self-mockingly yelling out one last “Hhhhey! Ohhhh!” in the tunnel under the highway. Then I laughed.
We finally enjoyed our coffee in the trees next to the road. After a few hours, we emerged into the hot sunshine, sat on the shoulder of the road and waited for our ride to come. 


Don and I have discussed all that happened that day. I have spent time comparing maps to reality and browsing Google Earth and I see a way that it can be done. People have crossed the historic pass in recent years – one party even carried a canoe. What a portage that must have been! One day I will return and try again, perhaps with a GPS unit next time. I just want to prove that our “Walls of Stone” traverse can be made in its entirety and perhaps establish it as a route others will follow.

We both agree that under the circumstances we did the best we could. I told Don that I just couldn’t walk away from at least making the attempt. I would have always regretted not trying that final push. He agreed.

The “Walls of Stone” project is not over. It’s become more than a hike. I will post a map of my route and I hope others will follow. I am writing, of course. There will be a script, soundtrack and more filming. There is even a song. Eventually there will be a film. In many ways the journey continues.

Unlike my last big trip, which ended with no further plans, I am already looking forward to my next great journey. I want to return to my birthplace to attempt a traverse of Great Britain. That will be some ten years away, though. Perhaps that will be my final trek. Perhaps this one was. Maybe I will be like Don and there will be others!

On July 30th, 2015 we ended up just 3 – 5 kilometres short of our destination, after hiking non-stop over 250 kilometres, through 8 watersheds and over nine high mountain passes. I have no regrets. Maybe you will be inspired to follow my route across the Canadian Rocky Mountains. I have found a passage between the walls of stone.


Friday, 19 February 2016

Walls of Stone Part 11 – The Rockwall

"There is absolutely nothing in the city to give us the same feeling as the great, mysterious things of nature even though they be stone and ice. It is only among them that we feel the utter helplessness and insignificance of ourselves."
- Jimmy Simpson

Numa Pass was one of the destinations that Don and I had both been looking forward to exploring the most. The day ought to have involved less hiking time and I had visions of video-wandering the high alpine meadows and exploring them at our leisure. It should have been one of the highlights of the trip. 

It poured rain all the while we had our breakfast at the Floe Lake campground. For once we decided to delay setting out and we both had an extra hot coffee and tried to relax a little bit. That totally went against the grain with Don. When I am backpacking alone, I tend to lie in if I hear the pitter patter of rain on my tent. You are in danger of having the tent torn down around you, if you try that while hiking with Don. 
Floe Lake from Numa Pass trail
The rain let up a bit around 11:00, so we took down the tarp and headed up the mountain to Numa Pass. We were hoping for a continued break in the weather. As usual, Don was ahead of me and I stopped to get some shots of Floe Lake and the Rockwall from the trail above the lake. When I got up to the meadows at the pass, the rain was blowing into my face and I couldn’t see very well. 
There was a black tombstone looking thing in the middle of the meadow. When I got closer to the “tombstone”, I could see it was Don sitting on a glacial erratic with his black pack-cover sheltering him from the north wind. When I got up to him, he stood up and we both turned directly into the wind. The wind became a tempest and the rain came down harder and turned to groppel. We got off the ridge as fast as we could and back into the trees. . I felt bad because it was Don’s 70th Birthday and I was hoping it could be spent enjoying alpine meadows – his favorite place in the world.
Don crossing greasy bridge at "soggy bottom"
It was quite a march downhill to Numa Creek campground – the worst stop on our entire journey. We were lucky enough to get a break in the weather to setup our tent, but I took to calling the place “soggy bottom”. We were both grumpy about losing so much hard won altitude and being stuck down in the trees again. We went to bed early that night, as it began to pour once again. It was a disappointing day.
Meadows below Tumbling Pass - melt-water lake in background

The next day was a bit better, though it involved a brutal climb up a long avalanche chute to Tumbling Pass. We enjoyed the environs of the pass (our second in two days) and the trip down the other side was quite interesting. We hiked past a glacier and lateral moraine and finally a melt-water lake. The descent wasn’t nearly as deep as Numa Creek and the Tumbling Creek campground was more open, with views of the surrounding ridges, summits and hanging glaciers.
Don and me at Tumbling Creek
One of the nice things about hiking the Rockwall Trail was that you would see the same people every evening and chat with them. There was a fairly large family group from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan who were all very accomplished hikers. There were some fellows from Salmon Arm, British Columbia who we shared our picnic table and tarp with. One of them volunteered to take our photo. It rained on and off the whole time we were at Tumbling Creek. I took some time-lapses of clouds coming across the Rockwall between rain storms.

The next day was our last in the high mountains. After the brutal ups and downs of the past few days, the climb toward Rockwall pass seemed quite reasonable. We enjoyed the scenic meadows below Rockwall Pass. This was the Wolverine plateau. In my estimation, it was the nicest section of the entire Rockwall Trail. If I ever return, I will probably make the ascent straight to this part of the trail from the Paint pots parking lot.
The final push to Wolverine Pass
Our immediate goal, Wolverine Pass only became visible as we drew right up to it. The pass is a narrow gateway through the 500 metre high Rockwall. We veered west and headed through the spectacular gap. There wasn’t much point in dallying. Heavy rain began to come down, soaking us both as we departed Kootenay National Park at the summit. I looked back as we began our descent to see the Saskatchewan hikers waving farewell at us from the pass. I waved back and we began the long descent, out of the Main Ranges of the Rocky Mountains and into the massive abyss of the Beaverfoot Valley. We announced our presence, “Hey!  Ohhh!”  Our voices echoed off of the surrounding limestone summits of the Vermillion Range.
Drying out
The trail down Dainard Creek was slippery and tricky. The bush surrounding the path got thicker as we lost altitude and it sometimes hid the trail entirely. We crossed several precarious, makeshift bridges along the way. The rain stopped and it began to warm up for the first time in days, but the wet vegetation along avalanche chutes soaked us to the bone. I slipped at one point; tweaking my right knee. For the first time we began to see cedars. At a clearing on a logging road, we stopped to dry everything out, including my camera and lenses. I changed my socks and pants. The sky was blue!

We trudged down the logging road and finally came to a T junction. We were confused about which way to turn. I looked at the maps once more and had an epiphany. “If we go left for a kilometer or so, we will come to a right-hand turn-off, which will take us across a bridge”. We tried it and that is exactly what happened. The bridge took us over the fledgling Kootenay River. It was hard to imagine that this swampy trickle was the headwaters of the mighty river I know so well! 
Headwaters of the Kootenay River
We stopped at a B.C. Parks campsite for supper and then began walking again. A nice fellow, who Don had talked to earlier, stopped his truck and gave us some fresh spring water for our bottles.

The low point of the Beaverfoot Range (in the center) is Harrogate Pass
This is where the wheels began to come off of our plans. We came to what I thought was the turn-off to get to Harrogate Pass. We needed to be in position for the next day’s traverse of the Beaverfoot Range. It didn’t look like much of a road and Don said he didn’t think that was what we were looking for. In retrospect, I should have insisted that we stop and camp near the intersection. Instead we kept walking up the gravel road, hoping for a turn off which only came at dusk. That turn-off dead ended in a cut-block below Castle Mountain. We were too far north and worse, my injured knee was killing me.

We camped at the edge of the cut-block. I donned my headlamp and reviewed all of my maps and Google Earth snap-shots. After an hour, I turned out my light and fell into a fitful sleep. We were off-course and lost in a maze of disused logging roads. We were running out of time, but now I had a plan.