Despite being an avid hiker, scrambler, and car camper, and despite having wanted to go backpacking for some time, this 2012 Canada Day Long Weekend was my first backpacking trip.
And what a trip it was.
The destination: Cataract Pass, 2484m, on the border between Jasper National Park and the White Goat Wilderness Area. We started on the Nigel Creek Trail (which is part of the larger Continental Divide Trail system) in Banff National Park. At Nigel Pass (which is on the border between Banff and Jasper National Parks) we followed the Brazeau River to its headwaters just below Cataract Pass.
The group: Mostly alumni from VIRG Edmonton’s Thursday Night January to March 2012 ASPIRE climbing class.
Our group on Cataract Pass on Day 3
On paper, the trip seemed straightforward. A distance of 13 kilometres and an elevation gain of 650 metres are not Herculean targets, but I underestimated the effect of pack weight, and our group collectively underestimated both how much snowfall the Continental Divide receives and the terrain we would encounter. I made a liberal estimate that the hike in would take six hours. It ended up taking nine.
After Nigel Pass, the rest of the route was above treeline in the Brazeau River Valley and heavily snowed in.
I wasn’t kidding about the snow. This is the Brazeau River at Nigel Pass.
Pretty much the entire Brazeau River Valley was snowed in.
The terrain was also quite rough, and we had to cross a boulder field filled with fridge- and shed-sized talus. This section was my favourite, since it was pretty much a scramble, minus the elevation gain.
The boulder field
After the boulder field, we trudged through a snow field and then up a mix of snow and scree up to the pass. Even doing the ‘rest step’, I still had to pause for breath here and there, and a recurring thought in my mind was, “Next time, I won’t be this tired!”
Looking back from just before Cataract Pass. This doesn’t look like summer to me.
Chris was the first to summit (the group has since concluded he is a machine) and the rest of us arrived in intervals of a few minutes. More than eight hours after leaving the Nigel Creek trailhead, we had reached our objective. My contribution to the group was to build a fort out of our packs, so we could huddle together and take some shelter for the wind. After a short break for a snack and to catch our breath, we descended more snow and scree slopes towards the Cataract Creek Valley in order to find a place to set up camp.
Descending into Cataract Creek Valley
We reached the creek in a little less than an hour, only to find that Mother Nature—having covered most of the valley with snow—had already chosen our site for us.
The neat thing about camping in a wilderness area is that you are not limited to designated camping sites. On the flip side, there are no outhouses, and you have to carry in a bear canister to store your food. After setting up camp and having a quick meal, Rachel taught us how to play Kaiser. We managed to play a few rounds before the sun set and we decided to call it a night.
No one had much energy the next day. Well, at least none of us mortals—Chris “The Machine” went for a stroll up to the ridge above our camp. Garvin had brought some art supplies and did some painting (there was no shortage of inspirational vistas). Tony brought the second book to the “Game of Thrones” series. We played some more cards, shared some stories, watch avalanches on the neighbouring mountain, and take naps.
An avalanche on the mountain above us. Avalanches would occur about every half hour.
We also drew up an exit strategy. Knowing that the hardest part of our return trip was at the beginning, we decided to leave for Nigel Pass the next day and decide then whether we would stay an extra night or push all the way back to the cars.
The conditions on day three were less-than-ideal. It was cold, windy, and raining, I led the assault on the snow slope above camp, kicking steps along the deceptively steep slope.
The ascent back to Cataract Pass
Front-loading the difficult portion meant we were back on the pass in a little over an hour. The best part about the descent back into the Brazeau River Valley was that the snow-covered slopes made for fun glissading.
We made quick progress across the snow and boulder fields back to Nigel Pass. Tired, and lured by the prospect of hot food at the Saskatchewan Crossing café, we decided to finish our trip that day. Seven hours after packing up our camp, we were packing our gear into our cars.
Reflecting back on the trip, I am happy things played out as they did. Had the weather been hot and the route free of snow, we would have been fighting dehydration, heat stroke, and hordes of insects. It is also rare to have a trip with as much varied terrain as what we encountered. We started off on a muddy trail, crossed a river, scrambled on talus, and trudged through snow. Depending on which pictures you look at, the trip could have been in either summer or winter.
However, a trip is about much more than just the terrain you conquer (or, rather, Mother Nature allows you to endure) or the destination at which you arrive. Unless you are Ueli Steck, you are probably travelling with companions, and hearing a buddy make a funny joke is a welcome morale booster when your toes are sore from kicking steps up a steep snow slope. Even more than that, when you are in a remote area in unforgiving terrain, who you have with you could determine what the outcome would be if things were to take a turn for the worse. Other than some slight delays and some gear problems here and there, our trip went smoothly. Having belayed and been belayed by my companions, I think there was a certain level of trust that existed between us that not all friendships are not able to cultivate.
Perhaps I speak only for myself. Perhaps I am romanticizing the mountains, which I must admit is one of the places I love the most. The entire drive home, I thought about the trip and hatched ideas about the next adventure.
The last thought I had as I crawled into my warm bed after a hot shower was, “This is nice, but huddling in a tent playing Kaiser and passing around a bottle of Fireball whiskey would be even nicer.”
Thanks to Chris, Tony, Rachel, and Garvin for an epic trip.