Lately, our summer trips have turned to long-distance ultralight backpacking trips. This year we chose to section-hike a portion of the Great Divide Trail. Here’s Jon’s stunning photo essay. And you should really take a look at Ross’s report, which is much better than mine and includes some very good photography.
The GDT runs as close as possible to the continental Divide (the BC/Alberta border) from the US border adjoining Waterton Park to Kakwa Lake some 1200 km north. The section running north from Waterton Park to the south end of of the Kananaskis is probably most in need of improvement and protection since the provincial government has opened the area to logging.
For this trip we chose to hike a popular and well-travelled section in the middle running through two provincial parks and three national parks. This 150 km section of the GDT starts at Spray Lake, travels west to Mt. Assiniboine, then Sunshine Meadows, Egypt Lake, Ball Pass Jct., crosses Hwy 93, traverses the Rockwall Trail, and down the Ottertail R. to Hwy 1 just west of Field, BC. Along the way it crosses 11 passes: Assiniboine Pass, Citadel Pass, Simpson Pass, Healy Pass, Whistling Pass, Ball Pass, Numa Pass, Tumbling Pass, Rockwall Pass, Limestone Summit, and Goodsir Pass. Total vertical gain and loss is about 6000 metres.
I had identified this route as a possible solo hike option, but when both Jon and Ross expressed interest, we attempted it in 2013.That summer saw many trails destroyed by spring flooding and later some portions of the Rockwall were closed due to fires and bear problems. In addition, a worrying knee problem which I misdiagnosed as a torn meniscus forced us to abort our hike on the first day. Our 2014 attempt went much more smoothly: we kept to our planned itinerary and since we hiked in August we didn’t encounter the snow and high stream levels that we saw in the Brazeau area in 2012.
Hikers should carry sufficient gear to deal with rain, snow, heat, sun, insects, and accidents. The route has several exit points and is never more than 20 km from a major road. Hikers should also be aware of weather forecasts, trail closures, and special regulations set by the five parks: BNP, KNP, YNP, and Assiniboine and Kananaskis Provincial Parks. Late July, August and perhaps early September are the best times to hike this route, depending on conditions. Scenery is excellent with magnificent vistas of peaks and glaciers from the passes. The wildflowers in Sunshine were spectacular. All campsites we visited had tent pads, latrines, picnic tables, and bear-proof food storage (generally steel lockers).
The biggest obstacle we encountered on the trail was the occasional blow-down (worst in the descent from Ball Pass to Hwy. 93 along Hawk Ck.). The worst bit of trail was the descent of the north side of Whistling Pass through a tedious talus slope. The best-maintained segment was through Sunshine Meadows, since it is so heavily used by dayhikers. We were pleasantly surprised by the careful alignment of the trail descending the north side of Goodsir Pass. This little-used trail descends 700m down a very steep slope yet the trail follows a even and gentle gradient throughout. We did encounter some very large deadfalls with trunks approaching one metre in diameter on which trail crews had merely cut a notch rather than cutting through them. We had mostly good weather, and only hiked in 2 hours of light rain. Nighttime lows were about 6 or 7 *C. We weren’t unduly bothered by bugs and never felt the need to use DEET or bughats as we did on the Maligne. We never saw a bear (or warden) in 150 km of travel.
We hiked the route in 6 days in August 2014 in runners and carrying small packs (35-40 litres), averaging 25 km per day. Given our planned distance, we decided that our priority was to hike rather than to camp. Those who prioritize camping over hiking generally carry much heavier packs, suffer more on the trails, and cover much shorter distances each day. There is no virtue to picking either option, but one has to be aware that both options offer safe and comfortable travel. We nonetheless carried enough gear (spare clothing, two tents, tarp, extensive first aid kit, Spot emergency beacon, bear spray, extra fuel, etc.) to deal with most eventualities and were safe and comfortable throughout the trip.
Ross and Jon tried out the new Patagonia Ascentionist pack. At 35 litres and sporting a tubular aluminum frame this pack still weighed just over 900g. Once Ross hand-adjusted his frame, they both served very well. I carried my much less sexy SMD Swift. We cooked on a tiny MSR Microrocket and a 1.5 litre Ti pot and carried three 220g canisters of gas, which was more than enough for 3 persons X 5 nights. We packed Starbucks instant Via coffee and granola for each breakfast, hoping that would get us off to an early start. But despite 6 am wakeups, we never got on the trail before 745 or 8 am. We purified all water just in case and carried two bladders for extra water supply in camp and for dry sections of the trail.
We carried the usual bars, nuts, and gorp for lunch and snacks. Dinner was instant soup, a freeze-dried entree, and a hot drink. To save fuel weight, we never cooked any meals, instead relying on boiled water throughout.
Overall, our gear worked well. I adhered to the 343 method using a Tarptent Moment (900g) for shelter, an Enlightened Equipment quilt and Exped UL Synmat (500g + 460g) for sleeping and the Swift pack (700g). I hiked in trail runners and shorts, since we only had two hours of very light rain on the last day. My only changes would be to carry a light fleece sweater such as the Patagonia R1 hoodie instead of the merino wool top I used for sleeping, cool mornings and occasionally to hike in. It wasn’t quite warm enough and didn’t dry as quickly as a synthetic top. I might also consider using the aluminum tubing frame that came with my pack since at this weight I couldn’t get effective weight transfer to my hips. But no big deal nonetheless since my pack weighed no more than 10 or 12 kg..
While my food was adequate (2.9 kg for six days), I had nothing left when I reached the end of the trail. So I would carry some more lunch food and a bit of olive oil to add flavour and calories to FD dinners.
We made reservations for Parks Canada backcountry campsites through BNP and were able to adhere to our planned itinerary. All distances, times, and vertical gains/losses from my GPS. GPS data available for Basecamp (free download) on Garmin’s website here. Travel times include rest breaks en route. YMMV.
11 Aug: Mt. Shark trailhead to Og Lake campsite via Assiniboine Pass.
28.6 km, 8h37m, +780/-470 vertical.
We camped at Two Jack Lake the night before and after a generous breakfast, drove to Canmore for a last latte and to collect Erin who would drive our vehicle back from Mt. Shark. We were on the trail by 930 am and had no problems as we passed by the Bryant Ck shelter where we turned back in 2013. We reached Og Lake just before dinner as the campsite filled up.
12 Aug: Og Lake to Howard Douglas Lake via Citadel Pass. 16.5 km, 6h56m, +780/-570m vertical.
Our shortest day. No water from Og Lake to Citadel Lake atop Citadel Pass unless you make the detour to Porcupine Camp. We were happy to arrive early and used the balance of the afternoon to rest, wash up, and tend to our feet. HoJo Lake camp is well-situated and protected, but some of the tent sites were dished or not level.
13 Aug: Howard Douglas Lake to Ball Pass Junction Campsite via Simpson Pass, Healy Pass, and Whistling Pass.
28.7 km, 10h20m, +1020/-1360m vertical.
The trail climbs immediately out of the HoJo campsite to Quartzite Saddle. Once one crosses the summit, the trail shows immediate signs of extra grooming and this good trail continues all the way to the turnoff for Simpson Pass north of Rock Isle Lake. The wildflowers are abundant and spectacular in this area, no doubt explaining its popularity with dayhikers. Just north of Rock Isle Lake, we veered left to Simpson Pass, an unimpressive location, given its historical significance. From we continued on easily over Healy Pass to the Egypt Lake campsite, where we failed to actually locate the lake or any water source.
Undeterred, we continued to climb up to Whistling Pass, where the trail was as steep as advertised. From the top of the pass, the almost non-existent trail winds down through a talus slope reaching treeline about the end of Shadow Lake where it becomes a bit boggy. Here met SOBO hikers bound for Egypt Lake with preteen children in tow. It was 4 pm and although the kids appeared in good spirits, I knew climbing the pass would exhaust them, so I gently suggested that they consider random camping where we stood, since there were no suitable places for camping for several hours. “Well”, replied one of the fathers, “we’ve got to do it today or tomorrow.” And with that, we bid them good luck and made our way the final few kilometers to Ball Pass Junction, where we found excellent tent pads on fresh wood chips. Thanks, BNP!
14 Aug: Ball Pass Junction to Floe Lake via Ball Pass.
21.9 km, 8h27m, +1090/-980m vertical.
We were a bit nervous about the length of today’s hike and the vertical gain to Floe Lake, but it worked out Ok. I was here in the early eighties climbing Mt. Ball but remembered nothing of our descent down Hawk Ck 30 years before. As it turned out, there were some pleasant meadows near Ball Pass but few views down Hawk Ck, which had been burnt out and was littered with deadfalls. Not much water. We were happy to reach Hwy. 93 and the Floe Lake trailhead 600 m later where we rested, had coffee, and dropped off our trail garbage in the dumpster.
We set off on the 700m vertical gain to Floe Lake, again seeing few spots to obtain water.
By the time we reached Floe Lake the site was almost full and it began to rain lightly. We quickly found tent pads, pitched tents and a tarp, and hiked to the kitchen area to cook. After a hot drink and discussion of tomorrow’s plans, we turned in at 8 pm.
15 Aug: Floe Lake to Helmet Falls via Numa Pass, Tumbling Pass, Rockwall Pass, and Limestone Summit.
30.9 km, 11h20m, +1680/-1920m vertical.
Our longest day, in terms of kilometers covered, vertical gain and loss and hours on the trail. But also the most spectacular.
Each of the four passes we climbed offered fabulous vistas. We stopped on each pass and at each campsite for short breaks. Tumbling Ck. campsite is crisscrossed by a spider’s web of trails connecting tent pad, cooking area, and latrine. And this was the only time on this trip where we were (momentarily) unsure where to go. Like one other party we met, we explored several trails (to the the west and northwest) before we discovered the correct (but unmarked) route leading southwest to the Wolverine Pass trail.
By the time we reached Helmet Falls, it was again raining lightly, but I think we were too tired to pitch the tarp.
16 Aug: Helmet Falls to Ottertail Trailhead on Hwy 1 via Goodsir Pass.
26.6 km, 8h10m, +484/-1050m vertical.
We knew this was our last day, and were eager to sip a beer at trail’s end and have a real dinner. We quickly found the trail leading up to Goodsir Pass past the Warden’s cabin and continued over this low, unspectacular pass. It was tricky deciding exactly where we actually crested the pass. We knew, however, that the trail on the other side descended down a very steep slope to the Otttertail. We were pleasantly surprised to see that the trail was easy to follow, well-graded, and devoid of rooty and rocky sections. But we had to wade through rain-soaked bush all day long.
At the bridge crossing the Ottertail, half way home, we stopped for our last snack and coffee. From, it’s just a few hundered metres to the warden’s cabin and the McArthur Ck campsite and the beginning of the road. We sauntered down this 15 km section in 4 hours. Super happy to find Jon’s car undisturbed at the trailhead. We dropped our packs, pulled off wet shoes, changed, raised a beer and headed for the hostel cafe in Lake Louise for a good meal.
All in all, a memorable trip well-executed. I remembered once again why these trips are so important to me and why I continue to cherish Ross’s and Jon’s friendship.