OK so that’s a really, really bad pun. But you should know that about me by now :-)
I fully expected the night to be frosty – clear skies after rain and camping above 2000 m – but it wasn’t until around 5 am that I began to feel the cold. Fortunately it was not enough to stop me sleeping, and I dozed for the next couple of hours until it was time to get up. Well, no one really wanted to get up and it felt a little bit like a game of wait-and-see who would move first. Eventually I dragged myself out of my downy comfort and into the chilly frosty morning to meet the others just doing the same.
Jack Frost had left his calling card: the puddles were iced over, shards of hoar frost and ice decorated every leaf and every flower. I took the camera on a short walk to capture some of the morning beauty, but didn’t stray too far in case that grizzly was still around. We retrieved our food bags and stomped our feet to keep warm as we boiled water for coffee and breakfast. Our gas bottle was covered in ice by the time we were ready to eat.
The sun was a long time coming. It first lit up the peak behind us and all too slowly crept down the slope, reaching us only as we began to pack away our gear. Shaking out our tent fly, we were enveloped by a stinging shower of ice pellets. Ouch! But we had to get off as much as possible so it wouldn’t be put away sopping wet. We did our best, and laid it out in the first patches of sun in the vain hope of drying it.
An hour later than decided the night before, we were finally all packed and ready to leave. The cold start had taken its toll, and I think I was not alone in feeling a little anxious about the distance we had to cover today. But that was a minor matter as the weather forecast was right for the first time this week: not a cloud in the sky. What a contrast to yesterday! My spirits could not have been higher as we shouldered our packs and set off on the best part of the trip.
We passed through the remaining patch of trees defining the campground and emerged into warm sunshine with the full Snowbowl laid out before us. It’s impossible to put into words the view that greeted our eyes. I thought the meadows we’d seen yesterday were big enough, but in front of me lay the largest, most expansive meadows I have ever seen. Bigger than Sunshine Meadows at the start of our Mount Assiniboine trip, and far bigger than anything we’d seen in the Coast Mountains – four kilometres long, at least 2 wide and just carpeted with (the remains of) all manner of flowers. The bloom was long over, with just a few paintbrush, arnica (especially near creeks), and purple asters and daisies doing their utmost to prolong the flower season. I was stunned, and in heaven with the gates shut. I would dearly love to come back in early-to-mid August to see those meadows at their best: at least, I think so, as the mosquito population is of legendary voracity…
But for now it was the easiest thing in the world to walk through this landscape with all my needs on my back, the sun on my face, and my eyes filled to the brim with this most wonderful scene. We ambled along, chatting, taking photographs and drinking in our surroundings. The trail was muddy again after yesterday’s rain – a scant few millimetres of greasy mud, but enough to slip on if you weren’t careful. At one point we encountered a small brown rodent, lying dead right on the trail as if it had expired there on the spot. No sign of any other prints in the mud, so it had yet to be found and preyed upon. We discussed the identification of the poor creature, but ultimately drew a blank. One for looking up later. We left it resting in peace and continued along our path.
The trail wound onwards, over a couple of creeks and gradually began a gentle ascent to Big Shovel Pass. Looking behind us we could see the tips of snow-covered shark-tooth peaks from the range on the east side of Maligne Lake. The trail steepened only for the last couple of hundred metres to the pass, and then, two hours after leaving the campground, we reached Big Shovel Pass. We dropped our packs and took in the view. To our left the last quarter moon hung over Curator Peak. Ahead of us we caught the first sight of what awaited us at the Notch.
The landscape changed abruptly at the pass. Behind lay meadows of grass and flower. Before us there was barely a thin cover of grass, with small patches of flowers here and there. The terrain was a gentle slope of fractured shale. As on Indian Ridge, the recent snow and rain had saturated the ground, and in places we walked on mushy “quick shale”. Which reminds me, the route ahead was obvious, and to our immense relief, all the recent snow had melted: our way was clear! I had visions of route-finding and slogging through a foot of fresh snow. The reality was that it could not have been easier.
One thing about the shaley ground was that it preserved tracks and trails quite well. Up the slope to our right we could see a handful of criss-crossing trails leading to the peak. At first we thought they might be from hikers, but none came near the main trail. My best guess is mountain goats or bighorn sheep.
We continued on, feeling relaxed and with high spirits. I spotted a few arctic harebells, a purple flower which such a short stem it appeared to be resting on the ground. Downslope from us, a hoary marmot made a waddly getaway. It stopped momentarily while I took its photo with the Notch behind it. A bit further on we came to a crater that could easily have been caused by an artillery shell – a good 10 feet across and a foot or so deep. But no gunnery ranges here, only hungry grizzlies in search of a plump meal before hibernation. They really can dig a large hole.
A couple of hundred metres beyond the pass we came to a junction, a side trail zig-zagged up the hill to another pass which led into the Watchtower Basin. We dropped our packs again and climbed the short distance to yet another magnificent view. Such vast amounts of open terrain to explore, including some very appealing-looking ridges. It would be easy to spend a week or more just on this trail to take the time to find every possible vista. The descent was much easier as we could almost plunge step into the soft loose shale. Less than two minutes after leaving the Watchtower Basin viewpoint, we were back at our backpacks, hauling them on to our shoulders again.
We still had some ground to cover, and my mental clock was beginning to get behind. I wanted for us to take the time to explore, but I was also conscious of the fact we had 18 km to cover. We moved on and soon reached the intersection for the trail down to the Curator campground. The Copelands really don’t like this campground, but in the midday sunshine it was hard to see why. I guess we’ll find out for ourselves if we stay there at some point in the future. It’s the logical place to camp in order to spread out the journey. The main downside I saw was the hundred metres or so of elevation to lose to get there – and consequently gain on the return.
An impressive cairn marked a turn in the trail, and we found ourselves in a boulder-strewn marmot village. We spotted three or four marmots sunning themselves on rocks, or waddling between sunning spots. The phrase “fat lazy bastards of the alpine” has never left me.
The trail began to climb once more, albeit gently, but I have to admit I found the ascent unwelcome. Suddenly it seemed a bit harder to keep up my momentum, and I think I wasn’t alone. Brenda and Susannah’s response was to knuckle down and just go for it, to get the climb over and done with, and they plodded on ahead of the rest of us. We paused a bit at the beautiful Curator Lake to refuel on a Clif Bar before beginning the hardest part of the trail.
Ah yes, the trail… It soon became an exercise in boulder hopping, hard work with a full pack. And then there was the gradient, which steepened and steepened, until we were slogging back and forth on short switchbacks. Every other step I found myself losing my rhythm as a rock shifted beneath my feet. OK now I understand why this is the hardest part of the trail, and on looking around, it was also clear to me that this slope would be treacherous when still covered in snow. I was suddenly very thankful to be tackling this on a fine sunny day in September!
We leap-frogged a group of four hikers a couple of times, and then finally the Notch was almost done. Mount Edith Cavell rose over the pass, a small permanent snowfield wedged in the lip. This was one of the photos in the Copelands’s book, and, looking at it again, their photo must have been taken at sunrise. The last few victorious steps and we were there, greeted by a strong northerly wind to knock us back a peg or two. We were half-way to our next campground and it was 2 pm, four-and-three-quarter hours after leaving Snowbowl. By my reckoning, we were 30 mins to an hour behind my mental schedule, which made me a little anxious that we would make it by sunset.
We spent some time taking photos, and sat down for a well-earned lunch. Brenda had found shelter behind a small cairn and she fitted perfectly in its lee. The view from the pass was spectacular, if distant. The snow-capped peaks by Maligne Lake shone bright white in the afternoon sunshine. In the opposite direction, the white triangle of Mount Robson stood head and shoulders above its neighbouring peaks. Below us, Curator Lake took on a gorgeous glacial green.
Half an hour was all we allowed for lunch and all too soon we were on the move again. The next few kilometres were the definitive Skyline experience – an alpine ridge-walk along the spine of Amber Mountain. The trail again followed the west-facing slope, which was damn tiring on the ankles as they were always tipped the same direction, putting a lot of strain on our left feet. I think we were all wishing for an opposite slope.
We walked on into the headwind, taking in the vast scene before us. After a while, the trail hit the centre line of the ridge, rewarding us with views both left and right. Wow! We looked down into another basin with the Watchtower on one side and the pyramidal peaks of Centre Mountain and Excelsior Mountain on the other. Such glorious scenery. Ahead of us, Mount Tekarra came into view and I began to believe that we’d make it to the campground before dark.
The hiking here was so easy; I could have carried on for miles and miles, had I not already hiked a dozen kilometres with an overnight pack. I think we were all beginning to tire, but as we began our descent into the valley, it felt like we were getting close. Alas, that was an illusion as the trail wound its way all the way to the head of the valley to cross a shallow creek. The never-ending switchbacks were, shall we say, a constant source of surprises which not all of us found pleasant. We joked about it, but we were getting a bit frustrated at the circuitous route. I guess it was because the trail was blazed for horses – I’m pretty sure that hikers could have tolerated a steeper and more direct approach. The marmots did their best to provide light relief by racing us across the switchbacks.
Looking on the map it’s hard to believe that the switchbacks felt never-ending – the number of switchbacks is small, but it felt like we changed direction a dozen times or more. Eventually we reached the valley bottom and began our trudge towards the campground. It’s only partly true that our enthusiasm was waning – I was beginning to feel the distance, but I was determined not to let it get to me like yesterday. Every time I stopped, I made sure to look around and take in where I was standing, and to take a moment to think about it. In truth, I was loving every minute of being out there but I wouldn’t have minded if the campground had appeared a bit earlier…
The warm late afternoon sunshine was welcome as we followed the creek on the open valley floor. The cliffs of the eastern face of Mount Tekarra became more imposing as we got closer. Finally we reached the treeline once again where we fully expected to find our home for the night – only to be greeted by a sign saying NO camping! What a laugh that was. Brenda – normally so energetic – dropped her pack, and laid out flat on the grass, looking absolutely done for and letting out a loud expletive in the process.
To be honest, I too felt a little dismay – partly due to an irritating pair of hot spots on my feet (where shifting my weight to deal with one only aggravated the other) and the fact we were now in full shade behind the mountain and would soon lose the day altogether. With a deep breath and a mental kick up the behind, we pulled on our packs for the last time and continued on towards the campground.
Barely 2 minutes later I heard a “Woohoo” from Maria as we came to the first tent spots. We found four together and each claimed one. Maybe it was because it wasn’t raining, but this campsite felt a little better than one at Snowbowl. Even more of a relief was the outhouse, which – although of the same design – was in much better condition, less exposed (so you wouldn’t be surprised by another hiker) and didn’t require a trek through slippery mud to get there. Tired, but happy to be here, we set about pitching our tents and laying out our bedding before heading off to find a table to cook dinner. We pulled out all our remaining food and gorged ourselves on chocolate. And I have to say it all tasted great!
We finished up in the fading light, hanging our food on the pyramid of poles, and were all very happy to make our way into our respective beds for the night. Our long day was done, and I must admit I was a little sad because it meant the best part of the trip was over. I even said to the others that I would happily walk that section again tomorrow if I could, despite how tired I felt. I got the impression that I probably wouldn’t have had too much company.
And so to sleep, before moving on to day 3…