Banff to Mt. Robson
Clearly I am handling some deep wounds, still. But that doesn’t mean I am not happy, or being present. Shit, being on the Great Divide Trail does not mean I am not processing what pains me. For months I have been spiraling in the eddy of the pain cave. Months I have been morose, pensive in a cycle bouncing off the tender walls of reverberation that inhibits me from moving forward. I have made progress, believe me. Just not at the clip my feet are walking. But I can tell you this, the route I am on is whatever I am on; whatever is is my path of life.
During the 3 week interlude between trail, work, then back to trail, I welled up inside with something foreign to me, something non-programmatic, determined to surprise myself, inspired to the accept the change I cannot control. I felt I wanted to squeeze the liver out of me, to parch the bile from the spleen to relieve any and all bad taste. I felt the need to embrace growth, to sear my skin with furtherance, the scab of healing, a mold of maturity, the eye booger of sanity.
I found that bright green light behind my eyes.
I found that bright green light to my surprise.
I crept in with caution. I did not want to shape my reality to fit any emotional beliefs. I tiptoed forward to ensure my reality was real and that reality only reinforced my beliefs. Is this all part of the story, this doubt? I also did not want my reaction to events to be a form of self preservation where I would ignore my emotions. So, that determination to surprise myself to hold, invigorated me. I felt that to surprise myself I would be living in the moment the most I possibly could.
Maybe the surprisement mentality rose about from the freestyle nature of this route instigated by my granny’s death when I least expected the event to occur. Heeding the signs around me, acknowledging what I really want rather than falling into the same choices of a self-imposed suffering, I have to be proactive in my changing of the story, I must break my own confinement. I want my eyes to open wider as I find myself in places least expected. I want to act different, in a positive way. I am a man of symbols, of romance, sensuality, a penchant of ease into overindulgence. But I am a driven man. It is not always easy for me to not be so individualistic, machine like. Because of my fall for romance, overindulgence, whatever word or phrase that serves purpose here, I need things to be different. If I can do things differently than I usually do while maintaining my constant drive that won’t ever leave me, why can’t I keep surprising myself? I don’t necessarily need to change who I am. I just need to attain my goals differently. And, to chill the fuck out.
The route I am on is whatever I am on; whatever is is my path of life. The Whatever aspect, a personal journey, a route not meant to be published, going wherever I want, whenever the time I have, whatever the whim, the want, and need—this equation sums up the element of surprise. The quotients unknown really, no constant, while using environmental, familial, and deeply subjective factors. I guess I want choices and decisions made of necessity and to be instinctual rather than of obsessive planning or the need to have control.
This is another preface of Whatever, hyping up to get my goat, a tirade of focus. And, then I stop. Look around me, lift my head up from underneath my hoodie. Snow dabbed on the still life around me, the larch resembling skeleton hat racks, the outline of trail meandering in the continuity of connection as the plant life on either side became smothered in snow. The clouds broke up on Healy Pass. Exhilarated, we skipped along. Oh the beauty of the Great Divide Trail, the whole spectacular Canadian Rockies. This is why I flipped up from my continuous route north. To see the beauty of the GDT I could not miss. The flip decision surprised me. And it was worth it.
Atop Whistling Pass another squall moved in. We could see it shuddering across the valley after squeezing through the ramparts of the peaks of the western side of the valley and smothering the open air smearing our vision with a tantalized beauty. My heart raced with excitement, with a fervor of love only attained in the mountains during a moving storm. The next morning, damp and cool, we hitched back to Banff to avoid the soggy day ahead, the clouds obstructing our views of the famous Rockwall.
I want to take a second, a break in scenery, to thank Pep for letting me hang around. The company really soothed me and took me away from my personal depths. He didn’t ask for it and I didn’t say much regarding those depths, but I felt like he carried the way and took a burden off of me. Whatever that means I am grateful for. I felt I enjoyed the Great Divide Trail more because of him.
The Rockwall did not disappoint. After a few long hours of pouring rain the clouds broke at Numa Pass. The Rockwall held an exhibit in front of us—the ramparts, the fortification of whatever was on the other side, the palisades of sheer steepness, the bulwark of intimidation. From our high camp we had a front row seat to the sunrise alpenglow on the rock screen. For miles in either direction the fortification angled on seemingly endless. It was very difficult to walk on in glee without walking on too fast. I didn’t want to miss anything or to walk passed the wall. I needed a people mover cycling over and over again, viewing the ramparts on repeat.
Then, we left it behind. The wall was gone. We slept in the park in the tourist hamlet of Field. Leaving early we scampered up nearly ~3500ft to Burgess Pass. Huge peaks surrounded us, across the valley beneath the hanging glaciers scarring showed the path of receding ice. We passed through tourists and rocky trail in the Yoho Icefields, the glaciers so close you could see the innards. Kiwetinok Pass felt isolated, away from the mobs of tourists, and starkly naked with barren and crumbling rock. The route down proved to be annoyingly overgrown but the fight was overwhelmed by the reward of being up near the icefields and the craggy peaks. We didn’t care much about the overgrown obstacle and tackle the route down with happiness.
Eventually we made Howse Pass, which oddly held a clearing and signage. After all the overgrown paths coming up from either direction the clearing seemed ridiculous. Howse Pass held the sense that no official person, like a ranger or whatever, had been there in years. After a long day we finally stepped atop the bench of the Howse River floodplain. Extensive ribbons of milky water, murky with pearl, flowed within a wide glacial valley. Easy walking ensued and we felt eager to camp on the floodplain. The night started dreamily. Then, the wind came. Strongly the wind gusted and from inside my tarp I pounded in the stakes that needed extra pounding. I felt insecurely secure, a ship in the open sea, the wind howling, rain coming in waves. I yelled at Pep and asked him if he was doing ok. Lightning flickered mutingly, the thunder nonexistent. Under the electrical storm with the pulsing flashes warning the danger from the heavens above I continued to monitor and batten down the hatches as needed. Suddenly, the wind and rain stopped, the sky dead of electricity. Sleep consumed me from that point on. Feeling intensely fresh the next morning, we fought our way to the Saskatchewan Crossing, a resort where we would feed our faces like savage gluttons.
We encountered 3 high passes the day after leaving the Saskatchewan Crossing. So high above and in the alpine we picked our way between pass, basin, and pass. Such beauty, such starkness, such dramatic scenery...one of the best days on trail. We camped under Cataract Pass and watch the last rays of sun dance on movie screen of rock around us, the display churning out the spectrum of color over a vast landscape. The next day didn’t prove any different, our jaws frequently on the floor. That was the difference in this section, the constant jaw-dropping scenery. On the third morning we went for the 6-Pass Alternate. Pep gave me a pep talk in vying for the alternate with me being a tad nervous with potential soggy weather for the day. After the first pass, I couldn’t believe that I wouldn’t have even tried the alternate if I had been solo. I felt pretty grateful to Pep for the inspiration. The view from the first pass was incredible. The Endless Ridge Chain stretched for miles. We could almost see the whole route from our perch, five of the six passes in sight. A long alpine valley expanded away from us, a high and vast meadow of bright green. After easy cross country travel a fierce and cold wind blew in, about halfway across the valley. The the curtain of rain and suddenly we were in the middle of an intense storm. We moved as fast as we could as the rain felt like ice pelting our bodies. The thought of retreat crossed our minds, so we headed for cover from the treeless meadow. Miraculously we found an overhang of rocks right at about treeline. We shivered under the overhang and watched the rain come in sideways. After about 30 minutes of shivering, but dry, we had a conversation about what to do. We thought about exiting down the drainage to get to the overgrown trail we knew was below. We also knew that that overgrown trail would be exhausting, very wet, and painstakingly tough. We ate a warm lunch, then popped out from under the overhang with the intent of retreating. But, funnily enough, as soon as we stepped out we opted to climb the next pass, which was low and simple enough and right there. Up the second, then up the third. We were moving! In going for the fourth the rain began to fall consistently again. We hovered under the cover of tall spruce trees. Anxious to get going, I had summit fever and wanted to keep going. Pep pulled back and spoke sensibly about the position we were in. The valley we were in by far was the best bailout option. Smartly we headed down off the high country. Pep led the way navigating through the thick forest perfectly. We ended up at the ford of the Maligne River but on the fortuitous side. His expert navigation saved up the grief of further wetness. After the long and arduous day we slogged on over to the Lake Maligne Lodge to dry out. The sun poked through and I sat under the white-painted ticket booth soaking up all the warmth of the sun. I closed my eyes and let the light turn my inside light red. I didn’t care, I could have died right there in the sun and would have had a smile on my face. As we sat at a picnic table, the evening creeping in, the owner of the lodge brought out 2 hot chocolates for us 2 soggy hobo hikers. I felt so happy I dipped in the maple cookies the owner also gave us into my cup of hot chocolate. I don’t think I’ve done that since I was 10 years old. We slept dry that night, and slept in the next morning as the rain sprinkled on our tarps.
The Skyline Trail did not disappoint the next day. High above the valleys below singletrack meandered along or just under the ridgecrest, dreamland for a hiker where you can see miles upon miles ahead over pristine country, the gaze of a long distance travelled transfixed by the future of where you might be, who you might encounter, and where will you lay your head. And we laid our head near the town of Jasper which set us up for an early morning entry in hopes of a feast for breakfast.
I spent the long day in Jasper trying to figure out logistically my end point of this trail, as well as what I wanted to do. I ended up deciding on a Grande Cache exit. Since I was up here—why not! I loaded up with 7-8 days worth of food and we walked out of town under grey skies along a busy highway. Oddly enough, I surprised myself the next morning. I was going to end the Great Divide Trail at Mt. Robson, which had been my initial intention. I knew I had an easier exit back to Columbia Falls to reconnect with my route down south. Plus, I knew I needed as much time as possible to finish that route down south. I felt at ease with my decision. I knew it was the most right choice.
Brazil Nut found us idling by a stream coursing through green hillsides and tumbling down from the rocky peaks above. So energetic and positive, it felt great to have her beam of light infect us on our travels to Mt. Robson. We slogged through the muddy Moose River valley with the forest so saturated your foot sunk almost a foot through the spongy moss. We saw a blonde grizzly trot across a lush hillside across a valley, the bear’s rump stained with mud clearly visible from our distance. The sun light radiantly reaching with rosy fingers across the facade of rock, the Divide of light where one side is in shade, the other aglow. The Smoky River ford proved to be a challenge only hyped up. For us, not a big problem.
Massive glaciers careened all the way to the treeline beneath the flanks and from all the cleaved drainages off of Mt. Robson. I slept heavily that night feeling ready for the next phase. The end of the GDT occurred but I just know I’ll be back soon enough to connect the route up towards Alaska and the Arctic Circle via feet or pedal means.
Here’s a quick synopsis of how I made my way back to Columbia Falls:
•hitched a ride with Pep to Jasper. A few beers there to celebrate and I got a ride with the same hitch we rode down with from Mt. Robson, which he dropped me off at the junction with Highway 93.
•a big, burly dude in a giant turbo diesel dually trailing a scrap trailer who drove with his hands awaving and puffing on a joint faster than a vacuum. I only felt scared once when he attempted to pass an RV as the RV cut him off after leaving a parking lot. He slammed on the brakes and the dually almost hopped up he broke so hard. He yelled as he passed: Fuckin Japs!
•spent the night in Radium Hot Springs. In the morning I got a lift from an old dude from Winnemucca Nevada on a month long kayak road trip, his kayak tied to the roof of his early ‘80s BMW sedan.
•after he dropped me off after an hour, I got picked up by a skinhead, rock climbing, off-the-grid living carpenter who was quite friendly. He got me within an hour of the border.
•next up, I got a lift from Cheston, randomly enough an aspiring PCT hiker. Young Chestin gave me a beer and got me down the road further.
•my hitching luck ran dry about 35 minutes from the Roosville border crossing. I called my homie Cliff who lives in Kalispell. In minutes he left and arrived in about 1.5 hours to my stranded rescue.
I am very close with Cliff. I consider him one of my best friends. After spending a fun night out with him, kicking it with his family, and planning for the next phase, we sat down for dinner the night before I was to leave. Every time the Kipp family has dinner they hold hands, linked together as a string family, and say what they are thankful for. Not necessarily a prayer but a belief and affirmation in each other. On the GDT I had thought about this moment, as a month earlier while scrounging through my thoughts and feelings on a shrinking family I had been sorting through my doubts of family. And now, strung together as a unit I kept my tears in. I said:
‘I’ve thought about this moment deeply for a month now. My blood family has shrunk to a point I do not know what a family is. But as I sit here with you all I realize family is more than blood. Family is friendships, connection, and community. And I thank you guys for that inspiration.’