The Iceline, 28-29 Aug 2011

Sunday: the Iceline

The Iceline. A dramatic name for a trail if ever there was one. And one of the top backpacking trips in the Rockies, according to the ever-opinionated Copelands. We had originally planned to spend a few days in the Lake O’Hara region but with two months to go we found that it was already booked up. As it turned out, our Plan B was hardly second best, as I hope to make plain. We cast around to see if any of our regular hiking companions fancied some time in the Rockies before we met my parents and Merewyn liked the idea enough to join us.

We drove up Saturday morning, leaving Vancouver around 5:30 am and reaching Yoho around 4 pm (Mountain time). We sought a camping spot at the Takakkaw Falls campground but were foiled by the busy weekend, and were content to spend the night at the Monarch campground just off Highway 1. Sunday morning dawned cool and clear and we packed up our backpacks and returned to the Tak Falls parking lot, setting off at a leisurely 10:30 am.

Our path ambled along the Yoho River, past the trail over to the base of the magnificent Takakkaw Falls, before crossing the road next to the hostel. From here we began our uphill grunt on a well-used and abused trail. What we didn’t know beforehand was that the first stretch of trail was also open to horse riders and we were soon cursing that, following the recent passage (so to speak…) of a healthy horse. We muttered to ourselves about how horse owners should be like dog owners and have to scoop up after their animals. I think that would get rid of stinky horses in the backcountry soon enough… ;-)

Despite the cool morning, we were working up a sweat as we dragged ourselves up the hill. We took it slowly but it was less than hour later that we were getting above the trees and treated to our first views across the Yoho River valley. And we began to see how Yoho got its name (Yoho is an exclamation of beauty and wonder in the Cree language). We paused for a rest break and looked out over the valley. Takakkaw Falls was still in shadow, but we had already gained enough height to see the Daly Glacier which feeds the falls. About 90 minutes after leaving the car, we were up high and directly across the valley from the falls, a gleaming glacier and cloudless azure skies above. If that was all we’d done, I’d have been happy. But more and better was to come.

Iceline Trail, 28 Aug 2011Iceline Trail, 28 Aug 2011Iceline Trail, 28 Aug 2011

We gained elevation more gradually now, passing through stunted subalpine forest at the treeline. Flowers bloomed in pockets with cheery yellow columbine and stately violet harebells. Soon we left the trees behind altogether and followed the rocky trail up, around and up again. At one point a series of steps had been created by placing a dozen or so flat rocks. We met someone coming the other direction and we exchanged greetings about this “Stairway to Heaven” which gave us a laugh. For a while our attention was drawn to Takakkaw Falls, but then we crested a moraine, turned a corner and the beauty of the Iceline Trail was revealed in its full glory.

We found ourselves in a wide open rock-and-boulder strewn plain, the President Range of mountains sheer to our left and a line of glaciers at the base of the mountain. We stood in awe and wonder (Yoho indeed) at the sight. Even now I have a hard time believing that I really saw that view, despite the gigabytes of photos on our computer. For the next several hours this was our world. With the warm sun at our back we walked along marvelling at the landscape we were in. We crossed a handful of meltwater streams and began to climb another moraine, half an hour after crossing the first.

Iceline Trail, 28 Aug 2011Iceline Trail, 28 Aug 2011

Leaving that first glacier behind, we dropped down the other side of the moraine to be greeted by a new glacier, this one with a series of stepped waterfalls. In any other location, these falls would have merited a trail all to themselves and would make a nice little feature. Here, they were dwarfed by the scale of the scenery and were little more than pretty meltwater cascades. The falls pooled in a green tarn before draining away over the edge of the valley. We were curious about whether they formed more waterfalls, but decided against investigating further downslope.

Half an hour after the second moraine, we reached the third and decided that it would make a good lunch spot. This moraine had a little peak at its end and we couldn’t resist heading up there for a look at the view. Sure enough, we had a clear view of Takakkaw Falls, now well below us. Even better, we could now see north up the Yoho valley to the icy-blue Yoho Glacier, snaking its way between the valley walls. We spent a few minutes taking daft pictures of ourselves and each other on the top of this mini-peak before sitting down for lunch.

Iceline Trail, 28 Aug 2011Iceline Trail, 28 Aug 2011Iceline Trail, 28 Aug 2011

Time to move on. We pulled on our packs once more and plodded on in the hot sun. Ahead of us was an amazing sight: the lifeless rock-strewn landscape ended abruptly at a rich green subalpine meadow. The contrast was quite stunning, especially as by now we were quite used to our rock-and-ice surroundings. We dropped down the moraine into another glacier neighbourhood before climbing again and passing a couple of blue, blue tarns by the next glacier. The trail continued its wending way, meandering through the boulders towards yet another moraine for us to climb to reach the high point on the Iceline. We descended into the next rock-strewn bowl (marvelling all the while at the glaciated landscape) to reach another tarn, the one that Merewyn decided she wanted to swim in.

Iceline Trail, 28 Aug 2011Iceline Trail, 28 Aug 2011

It was a brief swim by her standards, but by all accounts it was a relatively warm tarn (as glacier-fed tarns go…). We climbed up away from the tarn, backed by sedimentary cliffs and another dramatic glacier at the base of the Vice-President mountain. As we turned the corner, we began descending again, this time for the last time. We entered the forested meadows, initially following the boundary between organic and not, before dropping steadily into the Little Yoho River valley. Half an hour later, we reached the broad open flood plain of the Little Yoho River, crossed over on a small bridge and found ourselves at the front door of the Stanley Mitchell Hut, run by the Alpine Club of Canada.

Our campground was a few minutes upstream, and we headed off in the late-afternoon sunshine to find a couple of nice spots to pitch our tents. Tents pitched, we investigated our surroundings quickly discovering the state of the outhouse and the piles of TP among the trees which signalled that plenty of people had decided against using it…. :-( Yuck. Next job was to filter some water before returning to the sunny side of the river to cook and eat dinner.

Iceline Trail, 28 Aug 2011Iceline Trail, 28 Aug 2011

All too soon the sun dipped below the mountains and the chilly air convinced us that heading for our tents was going to be a good move. We hung our food, but then noticed a trail leading upstream and in the dimming light, we could see a small waterfall. Well, our tents could wait a little and so we went off exploring once more. The trail was narrow, and we ended up on what was little more than a boot-track on a steep hillside. We picked our way along, carefully negotiating a few tricky parts (we didn’t want to end up in the freezing river), and soon found ourselves next to the waterfall. It was perhaps a 10-m drop, but in the narrow valley it was quite spectacular. We retraced our steps and curled up in our tents for the night.

Monday: the Whaleback and Yoho Valley

A comfy night, and we dragged ourselves out of our tents as the sun rose over the mountains. We retrieved our food bags and ate breakfast at one of the picnic tables. We were packed and ready to move by 9 am but I couldn’t resist heading back up the river to the waterfalls to grab a couple of photos. OK so it delayed us setting off but I think it was worth it. We headed down the trail past the ACC hut and entered the trees. We weren’t looking forward to this morning because we set off gently downhill before a steep climb to gain 300 m up to the Whaleback Trail. Plus we had the majority of the distance to cover today (18 of the 29 km). But for now we just enjoyed the cool open forest, dotted here and there with flowers. The trail descended gradually, at times dead straight as far as we could see. Occasional views of the President Range opened up to our right.

Whaleback Trail, 29 Aug 2011 Whaleback Trail, 29 Aug 2011

An hour after leaving the hut we reached a junction, and dropped our packs for a minute to head down to the river and look at the view of the Vice President upstream. Back on the trail, we came to our turnoff only a minute or two later. Time to engage four-wheel drive and begin the plod uphill. It was steep, but the distance between switchbacks was quite short which made it easy to pace ourselves and we gained elevation quickly. The views opened up behind us and we took advantage of our rest stops to soak in the scenery. The trail skirted the edge of a large scree slope, on which we heard a few pikas squeak, and criss-crossed a narrow (and clearly violent in spring) drainage channel.

It didn’t feel like very long before the gradient eased and we could see the switchbacks coming to an end. The trail appeared to come to a small ridge with the prospect of good views. I dropped my pack to make my way down this ridge to get a clear view of the President Range and our hiking route from yesterday but I was stopped in my tracks by the view to the north.

Whaleback Trail, 29 Aug 2011

Oh. My. God. Doesn’t even come close to describing the vast and spectacular scenes that lay before us. Behind us lay the President Range, now completely unobscured by trees and we could see just how big some of the glaciers were that we walked beneath yesterday. Immediately towering above us was Whaleback Mountain, a narrow intimidating ridgeline from this angle. To the north lay the pointed summit of Mt Des Poilus and its blinding white glacier, the views finished off with the familiar sights of the Yoho Glacier and the Wapituk Icefield to the east. OMFG. Words don’t do it justice: you had to be there. Or you have to go there.

Grand scenery indeed. We set up a few group photos using the handy memorial cairn before hoisting our packs back onto our shoulders and beginning a steady descent along the Whaleback Trail. We set off through subalpine meadows rich in flowers, Mt Des Poilus dominating the view ahead. We were soon alongside Whaleback Mountain and could see all sorts of interesting strata, including some which looked like giant ripples in ancient sandy seabeds.

Whaleback Trail, 29 Aug 2011Whaleback Trail, 29 Aug 2011

A red-tailed hawk called overhead and we looked up to see one way up high, too high to hear its call so clearly. Then movement caught our eye and we saw a second hawk, soaring past barely at tree height. Other than that, it was virtually silent (barring the occasional pika or ground squirrel).

The trail reached the edge of a boulder field and skirted it in a few switchbacks, dropping us next to the raging milky blue-grey creek that went over Twin Falls. The guide book talked of exploring upstream into Waterfall Valley, though we didn’t really have the time (or energy) to do so. Instead we made do with taking off our packs and heading up as far as a pretty little waterfall (which wasn’t so little once we got closer) about 10 minutes away.

Whaleback Trail, 29 Aug 2011Twin Falls, 29 Aug 2011Twin Falls, 29 Aug 2011

We sat for a few minutes by the waterfall and rushing creek, enjoying some cooling spray, before returning to our packs and finding a lunch spot at the edge of the cliff next to Twin Falls. The book warned of the sudden drop and, yup, there was indeed nothing stopping you opting for the short descent, other than a couple of small trees to hang on to in order to peer over the edge… (Yeah, you guessed it – we all did that ;-)

We left our lunch spot behind and, much to our disgust, the trail began to climb again (albeit gradually) through flower-dotted forest. Thankfully the climb didn’t last long and we came to the first of the steep switchbacks for our descent into the Yoho Valley. I was glad to be coming down this stretch of the trail: it felt it would like harder work to climb, but that may have been my tired legs talking. Down and around, around and down into the forest. I kept expecting the trail to level off but it didn’t, and it felt like a long time before we reached the next junction with a view of Twin Falls from the creek below. The falls looked fantastic from down here, the photos unable to do it justice as the sun was now almost directly behind them.

We continued on and were distracted by a sign pointing to the historic Twin Falls chalet which claimed to be serving tea and coffee. Well, I was feeling in need of a pick-me-up and so we took the detour and went to go in, only to be greeted by a sign apologizing that the chalet was closed today because the host was hiking back down the valley to pick up more supplies! Nooo! My hopes of a soothing mug of hot coffee were dashed and my energy levels dropped even more :-( But we soldiered on, crossing the creek and descending again, soon coming alongside a lake.

Yoho Valley, 29 Aug 2011Yoho Valley, 29 Aug 2011

We passed the far end of the lake and the trail became quite overgrown. Something didn’t feel right. Wait a minute – what lake is this? We consulted the map: Marpole Lake. We re-read the trail description and were horrified to see that we should not have been tempted by a side trail which went past Marpole Lake…. Oh bugger. So back we went, up the hill again, past the chalet again and turned right at the junction to continue on our merry, if somewhat demoralized, way.

The trail ambled on through the forest without much in the way of views and it was another half hour before we reached the Twin Falls campground – which, incidentally, has absolutely no view of Twin Falls but does have an outhouse fully barricaded against porcupine attack. We found a log bench to sit on, dropped our packs and enjoyed a short revitalising stop, seeing off a Clif Bar and the rest of our Gatorade. Moving on, we found ourselves going uphill again – much to our disgust – but it wasn’t for long as we skirted a bluff and came alongside the river again.

For the next forty-five minutes, we hiked through peaceful forest, the river rushing by on our right hand side, before reaching a bridge. We crossed and a scant five minutes later, we reached the campground by Laughing Falls. We didn’t think much of Twin Falls campground, but this one was nicer, located on a sparsely-tree outwash plain next to the Yoho River. Laughing Falls are really pretty and we noticed that they were where the Little Yoho River flowed into the main Yoho River. So there we were, seven-and-a-half-hours later only just rejoining the river we’d camped next to…

Yoho Valley, 29 Aug 2011Yoho Valley, 29 Aug 2011Yoho Valley, 29 Aug 2011

Now we finally felt that the rest of the trail was within our grasp. A few minutes beyond the campground, the milky-grey river squeezed through a lovely little gorge, reminiscent of a smaller version of Mather Gorge on the Potomac River in Virginia. We stopped to explore and take a few photos, and marvel at the way the rock was eroding and how what we were standing on would eventually drop into the raging torrent below.

Not far beyond here the trail turned from a pleasant backcountry surface to a hard-packed, sole-punishing road of a trail. For a significant stretch, we walked along on something the Romans would have been proud of (if a little twistier than your typical Roman road). Ugh. Then down a long series of awkwardly-spaced steps and back onto the hard trail. I think I’m glad we got this at the end – I think it would have been demoralizing to experience this end of the trail first. But it was damn hard on my feet. At times we walked on the softer ground alongside the trail, breaking all trail etiquette in the process.

Nothing to do but grit my teeth and plod on. We were counting off the distance and I was delighted when at 5.30 pm we crossed a small floodplain which I knew to be close to the Takakkaw Falls campground. Within minutes we were at the edge of the camping area and we split up to search for campsites. We needn’t have worried: we managed to claim a superb site at the north-east corner with an empty spot next door and a great view of the falls.

Phew! What a relief it was to have somewhere to pitch our tents! I was so happy to get a spot here, as we had to be up and at a meeting spot for 7.15 am the next morning…! An hour later we were set up, we had running water from a tap, and it was time to open the wine we’d saved for this moment :-) Dinner was delicious and when the tent finally beckoned, we had a very comfortable night’s sleep. A blissful ending to two superb days on the trail!

Distance: 11 + 18 km
Elevation gain: 700 + 400 m

Photos on Flickr: the Iceline and the Whaleback.

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