Lake Louise larch #wonderfall

Larch season beckoned.

Sometimes you just need to go.  To the mountains.

It doesn’t matter that it’s not planned or perfect or comfortable. It’s about throwing it all to the wind, getting in the car and driving.

Screw the 10K race I’d signed up for.  I’d already missed a weekend hike in Lake O’Hara with M. due to a cold, and knew this might be the last chance to hit the backcountry before the snow flew.

Hugh said he’d come with me, along with his friend, Migs.

We didn’t end up leaving the city until 8:00 pm on Friday night. Normally that in itself would be discouraging… the boss keeps you late, the boys are’t packed, etc. But you know what? I wasn’t going to let that slow us down.

Driving under the starry skies, along the long lonely roads of David Thompson country and then through a wild rain storm, we reached Lake Louise around one o’clock in the morning.  We pitched up to the campground in the downpour, and snagged an empty campsite in the darkness.  The boys slept in the car, and I curled up in Hugh’s pup tent.  ZzzZZzzzZzzz.

The next morning we fuelled up at Laggan’s deli and bakery in the village – one cannot have too many pizza bagels and brownies for the trail – gulping down coffee for a quick pick-me-up. We left the bakery quite content, and took our time adding in granola bars, cheese and chocolate to our packs before hitting the road again for a quick drive.

Parking at the Fish Creek trailhead near the ski hill, we began the monotonous ascent up the gravel access road that would take us up and around to the back bowls where we found the trail marker to Skoki Lodge.

Lake Louise wonderfall

Having hiked through Boulder Pass and Skoki Valley with Hugh just a few months ago, I was in awe of the magnificent change in scenery.  While Alberta doesn’t get the brilliant red hues like Canada’s east coast, the larches pretty much make up the difference.  The back bowls were scattered with towering golden larch trees, burnished in the autumn sunshine, standing out against a bluebird sky.

Boulder Pass itself transformed from green to gold.

Boulder Pass wonderfallThe air was crisp. Our moods were light.  I was a broken record: “This is sooooo beeeooootifullll.”

We made good time up the pass and around Ptarmigan Lake. We didn’t meet too many people at all along the way which was surprising given that it was the weekend, and such a short window for the larches.

Ptarmigan Lake wonderfall

This was a little slice of heaven.

Atop Deception Pass, the siren call of a scramble beckoned the boys skyward towards Ptarmigan Peak.

Scrambling near Ptarmigan

They disappeared and reappeared for about 45 minutes, each time popping up higher and further away than the last. I hunkered down in a nest made of backpacks, wearing all my gear to keep warm, watching through the zoom lens on my camera.

After the scrambling break we headed down into Skoki Valley, looking back over at the Wall of Jericho, and to the ridge they’d explored.  A drove of mountain sheep sprang out of a gully and near scared the life out of us, and trotted up the slope for a brief survey before disappearing.

Mountain sheep Skoki valley

Onwards into Skoki Valley, the trip was still lovely, but not as pretty as Boulder and Deception with all the larches. By the time we’d reached Skoki Lodge we were getting tired. Only one more kilometre to Merlin Meadows, our home for the night.

We decided to pop our heads into the lodge to see if they had any hikers’ tea left. Despite it being after the given time, the Skoki staff loaded up plates of muffins and three kinds of cakes for us, plus all the tea we could drink. I was grateful for being so spoiled, and more appreciative of this hospitality than ever when I’d actually stayed as a paying guest at the lodge.  After being warmed by the wood stove and hot tea, and stuffed with baked goods, we needed to get moving.

Merlin Meadows was only a short distance from the lodge, and it didn’t take long to set up our tents. The weather was still pretty cool, and nobody wanted to go for any more day hikes, so we packed it in for the night.

Merlin Meadows

Migs and I worked on starting a fire, but it was a challenge, as the backcountry campground had been picked clean over the summer of all the natural deadfall. What bigger pieces of wood remained were soaked. At least we killed some time, and soon enough we all went to our tents.

For breakfast I hauled out the big guns: Starbucks instant pumpkin spice lattes (so we could all feel like teenage girls), biscuits, bacon and eggs.

Backcountry breakfast

Can I just say BACON?  Why didn’t I do this every trip? I guess I felt a little indestructible on a one-night backcountry trip…normally I wouldn’t want to haul bacon/bacon juice around through the woods.

It was a slow and easy start to the day, savouring our last morning in the backcountry. Once we hit the trail we made for Skoki Lakes.

Across the bridge at Skoki Lodge

Another crisp, cool morning, and the walk to the lakes was nothing short of magical.

En route to Skoki Lakes

Hiking with Hugh and Miguel 08

Hiking with Hugh and Miguel 13

Hiking with Hugh and Miguel 11
We spent the rest of the day lounging at Zigadenus Lake, and the boys scrambled the ridge up to the glacier. They were gone forever, and I only had a minor panic attack in their absence…haha.  Next time, I’ll scramble, too…

It was late Sunday afternoon when we slung our packs back on and headed up over Packers Pass.

View from Packers Pass

Every moment – so worth it. By the time we got to the Fish Creek parking lot, it was evening. It was ridiculously late.  But it felt amazing. Talk about maximizing a weekend and disappearing into the woods.

We drove home in the dark, watching the reddish glow of the lunar eclipse, and crept into the house well past midnight.  Back in the city.  Tired. Happy.

Tonquin Valley tales & toenails

I finally lost those two toenails.

It is, after all, November.  The toes had it coming. They were crushed, mashed, marinated and stomped during an August hiking weekend through Jasper’s Tonquin Valley.

I should’ve pulled them off when they were still bendy and juicy.  Instead, I had high hopes they’d hang on.

No such luck.

So, I pulled both of them this morning.

Hiking Jasper’s Tonquin Valley brought long distances, frozen feet, mucky bogs, and unexpected wild beauty. It was actually the most sensational yet challenging hike for me all summer – one of those ‘perfect storms’, I guess you could say, to assault the senses.  There were times of great beauty wrapped in an exquisite sense of loneliness and mental exhaustion.

Tonquin Valley can be explored in a loop, but for a one-car quickie weekend hike, M. and I parked at the Portal Creek trailhead, where we’d return in a few days, and began our trek in towards the Maccarib backcountry campground.  Hiking into Tonquin up and over the 7,100 foot Maccarib Pass is reputedly the more scenic of the ways and we weren’t disappointed.

Towards Portal Creek

The route began with a slow ascent along Portal Creek, through the forest and up across rock slides. After the first 8.5 km and 350 m of gained elevation, we stopped for a break at the Portal Creek campground. I was cooked. And surprised.  I didn’t expect to be that wiped out after only a few kilometres.

TV cowgirlsAfter a break to refuel, and to discover the al fresco toilet options, we started the climb up Maccarib Pass.  We passed a handful of other hikers, and a convoy of supply horses.  Not too many folks on the trail.  I stopped a lot to take in the views and catch my breath.

Reaching Maccarib Pass was a total rush, and it was heady to soak up the expansive alpine meadows and multiple peaks. You could even see the lovely Mt. Edith Cavell from the top.  From there on it was a downward jaunt out of the pass, down through the next valley, all with a teaser of our first glimpse of the Ramparts. Total shot of energy, like the first 8.5 km didn’t even happen.

First glimpse of the Ramparts

We reached the Maccarib backcountry campground around the 19 km mark, to wrap up our days’ hike.  M. and I chose sites across from one another – both with a wonderful view of the tips of the Ramparts. The evening was spent eating and talking, and going for a walk to the lake to check out the mountains, which were truly magnificent in stature, and fantastical in name:  Drawbridge Peak, Bastion Peak, Dungeon Peak, Parapet Peak, Thunderbolt Peak, to name a few. Essentially the Ramparts is a sub-range of a dozen or so impressive, towering peaks upwards of 10,000 feet ringing the Amethyst Lakes.

Evening walk Tonquin Valley

Early the next morning, I woke up to the delicious patter of rain on my tent fly. Which then became the vaguest whisper of snow.

I pushed out of my tent to the most exhilarating blanket of white covering the ground, the tent, the trees, the view. The soft, heavy, wet snow plummeted down. I walked alone through Maccarib, absorbing Mother Nature’s amazing display.

Summer wonderland

My affection for the summer storm, however, began to wane as the morning progressed. We weren’t done with Tonquin. We’d only just arrived, and it was time to pack up and move on to the next campground, Surprise Point, about 9 km away. My tent was wet. My mittens and boots were wet.  And if I stopped moving, I was going to get cold.

I really hate being cold.  My mind hates being cold. It becomes a little obsessive.

What ought to have been an easy valley walk to Surprise Point became a bit of a snowy slog, with no view, no perspective.  The low clouds and swirling snow hid the Ramparts, in addition to covering the path.  M. led the way, breaking trail.  For me, it was mentally exhausting to tramp through the snow and squishy mud.  My feet were absolutely soaked through, and the inside of my shell was wet and clammy against my skin. I could feel my overall body temperature dropping even though we were on the move.

We broke our rhythm for quick look at the Amethyst campground (apocalyptic in the snow – flattened, with not a sign of civilization) and then for lunch at the Clithero campground, which seemed even more socked in (M. raised my spirits by sharing his chicken soup = lifesaver).  The snow lightened up and eventually stopped, but we still couldn’t see a single mountaintop despite being surrounded.  The last bit to Surprise Point was across uneven terrain beside the lakes, where occasionally the path bordered small but deep, black pools of water.

It was here my right foot slid left in the slippery snow, and I wiped out hard, backpack swinging out and gravity pulling me towards the pools.  I was going in, I was sure of it. It took every ounce of energy to fight my body weight.  I ended up in a heap on the snowbank, my face suspended above the water.  M. paused and looked around. He took a few steps towards me and cocked his head.  “Well, what are you doing down there?”  Then he turned and kept walking.

Undecided as to whether I should laugh or cry I rather ungracefully pushed off my hands and knees to get to my feet, and struggled to catch up.

Surprise Point

We arrived at Surprise Point as the clouds began to lift.  I was relieved to be home for the night, and both M. and I hung our gear out to dry on the trees around the campground. Once we’d set up camp, we walked over to the lakes to check out the Ramparts once again.

I could spend a week just watching the sky move and the light change.

The Ramparts

Tonquin Valley

M. was set up to take photos for a while, but I was slowly losing steam. My feet were still soaked to the bone, and my skin was cold. I had to throw in the towel, despite the beautiful surroundings.  I hustled back to the campground and got my stove going. I needed to eat something and get into my sleeping bag before I froze to death.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t actually cold outside. If I’d had dry feet I think the situation would’ve been different. My boots just had no defence against the wet, wet snow.  I ate something, and filled my Nalgene bottle with boiling water to use as a mini furnace inside my sleeping bag. I stored my food in the campground food locker and headed off to my tent.  I put on all my long underwear, warm layers and hat.  It took me almost two hours to stop shivering. Miserable. Seriously.

Despite a restless night (with many thoughts of “why is it that I do this??”) I woke to a brilliantly sunny, happy, bluebird day.  The world had essentially transformed from snowy chaos.  I stuffed plastic bags bags in my boots and slid on a pair of dry socks. We were out for three nights/four days, and I’d brought three pairs of socks. I had to ration accordingly.

We left our camp set up and hit the trails for a day hike to check out the local glaciers.  A couple of ladies we met who were staying further along the trail at the ACC Wates-Gibson hut admired our tenacity to camp in the snow. I simply had cabin/roaring fire envy.  The Alpine hut was a few kilometres down the trail…Even though the day was sunny and warm, I had that cold misery imprinted on my being from yesterday and my mind was struggling to shake it off.

Back at Surprise Point around midday, we packed up our gear and returned down the trail towards Amethyst campground.  The terrain we’d travelled through was unrecognizable from the previous day: grassy meadows, 360 degree views of the mountains…. By now, the frozen paths had thawed into some serious mud pits.  Most of the time it wasn’t a small muddy patch where you could skirt around the edge; rather, it was a full-on mud fest, with deep churned guck which comes as part and parcel when you trail-share with horses. There was no way to fight it. Just walk through the middle. Get dirty, get wet.

Amethyst campground had melted back to normal with only small moats surrounding the tent pads as evidence of yesterday’s snowfall.  We set up our tents across from yet another glorious view of the Ramparts. Regardless of the close proximity to the lake, we had no bugs on this summer trip. I’d even packed a bug net, having read accounts of voracious mosquitoes, but I didn’t need to use it at all. Not only bugs, but we didn’t see caribou or bears, either.  Quite a quiet trip for wildlife, really.

Tonquin Valley teeth

While Maccarib had a handful of campers and Surprise Point had been deserted, Amethyst was actually full to capacity.  It was a real treat to visit with others on the trail, but also a little trickier to plan trips to the (open-air) loo…ha.  That night, when nature did come calling at 0200 hrs, I stood outside in amazement to watch dancing ribbons of the Aurora Borealis morph across the night sky.  The green bands of light held steady in the north for as long as I watched.  How can you bottle that feeling? Finally, I crawled back into my tent, zipped up my sleeping bag, and dozed off.

The next morning, an equally stunning display welcomed the day while we ate breakfast.

TV sunrise

A liquid gold sunrise in the Rockies.

Liquid gold sunrise

And home time. My last pair of dry socks sunk into wet boots.  It was a long haul out of the mountains that day, at about 25 km, but a gorgeous journey retracing our steps out of Tonquin Valley.  I felt quite humbled by this trip. My feet were in rough shape from all the long distances and being constantly wet. I was so appreciative of the fact that summer was winding down, and this was going to be one of my last hikes of the year.  On every hike I’ve had this year, I’ve bumped into fellow hikers from out East or overseas who make a trip to the Rockies as their one big annual vacation, with months of planning and preparation.  How spoiled was I to just get an email from M. saying, “how ’bout Tonquin?” and we could zip away for the weekend?  So lucky.