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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.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Walls of Stone Part 10 – Vermillion River

“It isn't the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it's the pebble in your shoe.”
Muhammad Ali

Two nights and one full day at the Kootenay Park Lodge were a much needed break after two weeks of hiking. I needed a rest and some food, though the menu at the Lodge was limited. I had lost ten pounds since I left home. Most of my time was spent eating and sleeping and tending to my feet, which brings me to the problem I was having.
I had done my best to prepare for any potential problems. The two things I worried about the most were my chronic back problems and my knees. My back was fine for the whole trip. Ultralight backpacking was a concept that seemed to be working so far, and I was very happy about that. My knees sometimes fail me when I do a lot of downhill hiking, but on this trip I had no problems at all. All of the walking that I did before the trip was paying off. The problem that I did have was with my feet.
Quite early on, I began to get blemishes – reddish marks on my feet. Blisters tend to occur in one spot, but these occurred all over my feet. A new one formed almost every day. I tried Band-Aids and some of Don’s moleskin, but neither seemed to help. My boots were over a year old and well broken in. I made a point of wearing them whilst walking every day that spring, with no ill effects. Don said that carrying a backpack was a different story and that certainly was true. The last time I had foot problems was while wearing old-style leather boots. That was back when I was a teenager. Now it threatened our traverse of the Rockies and it was a bit of a mystery. I soaked my feet in saltwater at the lodge. I had taken to treating any blemishes with Polysporin, which did help. I also took to consuming Ibuprophen about mid-afternoon. There were blisters too and Don was rightfully concerned, but I had nursed my feet this far and I didn’t see a reason to stop now. Upon reflection, I believe the combination of poor quality boots and eczema were the cause of my unexpected problems.

Don had taken a cache of food and clothes to the lodge the week before we set out, so we replenished our backpacks. We washed our wool socks and hung them at the fireplace to dry. I recharged a multitude of camera batteries, cleaned lenses, filters etc. and went over my camera gear. There was plenty to do between food and naps. I also perused the maps at the visitor centre and tried to figure out a route across Harrogate Pass. This seldom used pass seemed to be the only way to cross the Beaverfoot Range and was a major concern.

It poured rain most of the time we were at the lodge. There was a group of hikers taking advantage of a break in the weather to dry out their gear in the parking lot that afternoon. They had been to Floe Lake that day. It had rained so hard that they decided to bail and head back down the mountain. They were off to Canmore to hot-tub and stay at a friend’s condo, which seemed sensible. We wouldn’t have any such options when we headed out to Floe Lake the next day. We were playing for “keeps”.

On July 26, we departed Vermillion Crossing in better weather and made the walk up the highway to the Floe Lake parking lot. The hike up to the lake is the usual beginning of “The Rockwall” traverse, which is billed as one of the great hikes of the Rockies. Consequently, it is very popular and I had made sure to book our campsites early that spring. We stopped to eat in the parking lot and Don mugged for the camera, doing his “old man” routine with a crooked stick which he used as his cane. The next day was to be his 70th birthday!

Vermilion River on Floe Lake trail
I had heard from somebody that Don Wales was like “a little mountain goat” and I had seen nothing to dispel that perception. I knew Don from my involvement with the Red Deer River Naturalists. He seemed easy to get along with, but we really were complete strangers in many ways. I suppose that was a bit of a gamble, but we got along well together. Of course there were a few disagreements, which are only natural on a major adventure like the one we were on. I was lucky to have him there. His experience, his knowledge of plant and insect life, his dry wit, quirky sense of humor and (not least of all) his food all made the daily challenges seem easier. He had prepared and dehydrated most of the meals we had with us. Not having to consume freeze-dried “factory” meals everyday was a major factor in the success and enjoyment of our trip. Don had 15 years on me and yet he outdid me on the trails every day. I think that says a lot about the type of person he is.
The Rockwall

The trail to Floe Lake is a demanding one, with a steep climb up switchbacks on the final stretch to the lake. With 8 kilometres of road walking before we even began the hike, it made for a long day, but we both did well. My legs were feeling strong that day.
Floe Lake courtesy Don Wales
It was foggy and rainy when we set up camp. After supper, I shot some video of the clouds and fog drifting up the Rockwall, which gives the trail its name. It is an impressive cliff of Ottertail Formation limestone that provides a backdrop for the lake and indeed much of the trail. Gulls flew to and fro, perching on high ledges. The scene reminded me somewhat of nesting cliffs that overlook the ocean in Atlantic Canada. We were drawing nearer to the end of our journey, but there was plenty of beautiful high country and many challenges ahead. So began the third and final leg of our tour of the Rocky Mountains.