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.

 

 

 

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