Mount Assiniboine Day 2, 16 Sep 2019

Day 2: Allenby Junction to Lake Magog: 9 km, +370 m, -85 m, 3 h 20 m

  • Allenby Junction campground to Assiniboine Pass: 4.75 km (2 hr; +280 m)
  • Assiniboine Pass to Mount Assiniboine Lodge: 2.5 km (50 min; +40 m, -60 m)
  • Mount Assiniboine Lodge to Magog Campground: 1.75 km (30 min; +50 m, -25 m)

Morning peace
I came round as the sky lightened around 7 am and rolled over, reluctant to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag, just feeling content to lie there enjoying the peace and quiet of the morning. After about an hour, we began to move; I got up first, crawling out of the tent to greet the day. The sky was bright despite the heavy cloud cover, with promising gaps here and there. I couldn’t help but stand in awe of the view around me, the vast meadows to the south and the high mountains either side. The scale of the Rockies was overwhelming and yet welcoming. It felt so good to wake up here, despite our reservations of yesterday.

As I stepped into the meadows, signs of an overnight frost caught my eye. I stooped to admire (and of course photograph) the crystals adorning the strawberry and willowherb leaves, some decorated with frozen drops of rain or dew. I was surprised to see the frost as the night hadn’t felt cold, the trees clearly providing a little extra insulation. The walk to the outhouse still seemed a long way even in daylight. I retrieved our food and set about boiling some water for breakfast. Maria soon joined me and we stood around the low table again enjoying some hot oatmeal and drinks, my instant coffee tasting pretty terrible as always and yet so welcome. As always!

We returned to the tent to begin the repacking of our backpacks. Despite all the years of backpacking, and having a bit of a system, it never ceases to amaze me how differently gear ends up going back into my pack. I was having trouble repacking it all, which was frustrating as it all went together quite well in the end yesterday, and I must have spent a full half-hour unpacking and repacking my bag. Then we noticed something was wrong with the tent: in two places along the hem of the fly sheet it looked like it had been chewed and/or raked with claws. (Thankfully small claws!) The damage was such that there was no way that it would hold under tension, and we were concerned that we might have to abandon the trip.

We looked at each other a little dumbfounded and unsure what to make of the damage. Neither of us could work out what had caused it or why (we had no food anywhere near the tent), or when. It was fine last night and I hadn’t noticed anything in the morning. Could it have happened while we were at breakfast? And what could it have been? The damage seemed too extensive for a mouse, but it could have been a squirrel (though we hadn’t seen or heard any). Perhaps it was a porcupine? They were clearly in the area given that the outhouse was covered in wire to prevent it being chewed. They are known to chew on salty surfaces – were our fingers so salty when we put up the tent? Who knows.

Such pondering was academic: the reality was we had a tent that was potentially no longer able to shield us properly from the elements, and we knew that we’d likely be facing some elements in the coming days. But for now we knew our best bet was to pack up and deal with it at the Magog Campground where we had shelter if necessary. It was approaching 11 am and it was time to get moving.

Under way once more
We pulled on our packs and started walking, soon rejoining the trail and taking in the sheer cliffs of Gibraltar and Cascade Rocks high up to our left. The trail came back to the creek where we hopped our way across the shallow water, not thinking about the fact that we needed to get our boots wet. A short distance later when we came to a bridge at which point we realized we’d followed the horse trail and missed the fact that the hiker trail remained on the east side of Bryant Creek. That would explain the ford we splashed through! We had wondered why we hadn’t seen any signs warning of the seasonal closure on the Assiniboine Pass hikers’ trail (which is closed during August and September to allow grizzly bears to feed up in time for winter), nor where that trail forked to the right. Crossing the bridge to check we now saw both where the hikers’ trail came in from the direction of our camp site.

But for now we had to return to the horse trail. The narrow trail led us through thickets of yellow willow, cut back on either side to make it easier for horses with the additional advantage of offering longer sight-lines in case of wildlife encounters. At first it wasn’t as muddy as we expected and the hiking was easy and enjoyable. About half an hour after setting off we came to a clearing at the base of a huge rockslide below Cascade Rock. Large cuboid limestone boulders were scattered everywhere, while tiny pikas squeaked their displeasure at being disturbed. We caught a glimpse of one perched on a rock nearby before it darted away. We also spotted our first larches and, to our delight, there were hints of yellow about them.

We returned to the trail, the cliffs of Cave Mountain now ahead of us with its dark caves high up on the sheer walls, and were soon back in the forest. Now the trail began to get muddy. Except not really muddy, more like mucky, made worse by the fact the trail had been worn into a foot-deep trench by countless horses. We pushed on, putting one foot in front of the other as the trail wound its way through the forest, gaining elevation as we went. Occasional views offered sightings of the surrounding mountains and a few late wildflowers cheered our spirits, in particular one perfect arnica flower was being visited by a bee making the most of the last few flowers. Like yesterday, a multitude of fungi were all around us ranging from fresh to putrefying: puffballs, grey velvety mushrooms, dark brown, sandy-coloured, tiny pinheads, corals, and classic little parasols.

What seemed like an opening in the trees turned out to be an avalanche path full of small trees bent over at acute angles, as if they have been combed flat and then sprung up again. We continued on, criss-crossing the now tiny creek several times as we passed through a mixture of flattened trees, slide alder, and mature forest. Such small distances can make the difference between a mature stand and a clear-swept avalanche path. More flowers kept us company too: strawberries, cranberries, arnica, purple asters, and a lone gentian in the sun. Of course that sun happened to pierce the clouds at the very moment we encountered our steepest climb up through a series of switchbacks on a treeless slope. Suddenly it felt like the middle of summer again!

We gained height slowly, pausing to look back whenever we had a view. Across the valley, the route to Allenby Pass was clear, with the pyramidal form of Mount Allenby rising high above it. Our path steepened as we neared the pass and we met the (closed) hiker’s trail once again. More steep switchbacks led us upwards, past another superb view of Cascade Rock, complete with a ring of yellowing larches, before levelling off in open larch forest. We took a moment to notice that were surrounded by mature larches, most of which were still green but quite a few had a hint of yellow. At that, I thought we had crested the pass but no, not so. We walked on through a lumpy tussock-filled meadow and then had one last short climb before we reached the pass itself – with views of nothing but trees. I have to say I was a little disappointed, which is, of course, more than a little disingenuous! After all, we were in a stunning place.

At the pass we met the same group of four whom we’d seen at Bryant Creek shelter yesterday. They had stopped for some lunch before continuing on to the campground. We exchanged greetings before moving on, crossing the continental divide back into BC. The trees opened out before us as we descended towards a meadow and we were greeted by the most stunning of views.

A return to a familiar place
Words simply cannot express how it felt to walk into the open and see that mighty mountain again. Even now, months later as I write this, I can relive the emotion of that beautiful moment and it overwhelms me all over again. It was breathtaking, my heart soared, and even though Mount Assiniboine had its head in the clouds, we could see the lower slopes bedecked with glaciers and a tell-tale hint of that Matterhorn-esque profile.

The views were immense: expansive burnished meadows stretched away to the north in the direction of Og Lake, spectacular mountains in all directions. So far it had felt like we were merely enjoying a lovely hike in the Rockies but now it felt amazing to be back here, almost like coming home as those familiar peaks came into view again. (How is that possible having been here only once before?) And the satisfaction of making it this far by foot made it all the more special.

We took many photos as we crossed the meadow, giddy at the sights all around us, passing a hole carved into the ground where a grizzly had gone after ground squirrels, before bouncing across plank bridges. An unwelcome little climb greeted us at the far side and the sunshine faded as the clouds built up once again. The trail was now almost completely flat and we wandered on through mixed forest full of larches and pines, with a surprising number of late flowers still holding on all around. It would have been superb hiking were it not for the fact that I was beginning to run low on energy. We paused for a snack, but in retrospect we should have had lunch.

We pushed on, thinking we were close. Not close enough though. We reached the junction with the trail to Og Lake and headed for the direct route to Magog Campground only to be stopped after a couple of hundred metres by a sign saying the trail was closed. My already low energy ebbed a little lower at the prospect of having to backtrack. Sure it was a bit demoralizing, but after a deep breath we retraced our steps and took the trail towards the lodge, turning down towards Lake Magog. Seeing that glorious view again was uplifting, and with Mount Assiniboine in the clouds, Mount Magog itself stole the show. It was true wide-angle scenery.

The dull conditions worked in our favour as we weren’t tempted to stop and take a thousand photos, and we allowed the scene to unfold before us. The hiking was beautiful through open meadows dotted by small larches and spruce. But it felt like the campground was still a long way off, our sense of time distorted by our low energy levels. With one final steep little climb, we reached the edge of the campground at last. We stopped to take a look at the map to try and orient ourselves but in reality we simply needed to walk around the campground to find a vacant spot.

We dropped our packs at the shelter and ventured off in different directions. A couple of open sites looked okay in a pinch but after a few minutes we found the perfect site at the end of a spur trail that would ensure no one would be walking past us. (For some reason that really bugs me.) We set up the tent as best we could given the state of the fly sheet, unpacked our sleeping gear and retraced the 100 m or so back to the shelter for a long overdue lunch.

Recovery and setting up home
I felt wiped out, and despite the elation of being here my mood was low because of the tent. With clumsy tired fingers we ate some food and boiled water for a hot drink and gradually felt our energy levels being replenished. We chatted about how to fix the tent when the idea of using safety pins came to mind. I knew our first aid kit would have some and sure enough we found two, large sturdy pins. We were grateful for the tough fabric of the hem which allowed us to pin the edges together and still withstand the tension. With some trepidation we tried it out and it seemed to work. We were able to tighten up all the straps and guy ropes and it looked like the safety pins would stay in place. That felt like such a victory! Suddenly all was right with the world again and I began to relax.

Our timing was impeccable. A few drops of rain began to fall, and with no other plans for the day, we just made ourselves comfortable inside the tent. Within moments the rain was falling more steadily and we felt glad of our cosy little shelter. Over the next 2-3 hours the rain fell, poured, and drizzled. Maria read, I made some notes, we dozed and recuperated from the efforts of the past couple of days.

Feeling refreshed, we pulled on our rain gear around dinner time and returned to the shelter. Hot food and drinks warmed us up again. The rain continued off and on but less intense than earlier, and the clouds provided atmosphere as they drifted around the neighbouring peaks.

The park ranger came around and checked in with the new campers, giving a short introductory talk about the amenities of the campground (as well as the ‘hiker tea’ at the lodge every afternoon). He claimed the weather forecast was improving, and we spoke with him about our booking as we were due to move to Og Lake in a couple of nights. Thankfully it looked like we’d be okay to stay as the campground hadn’t been full for a while (and the weather forecast had probably put off a few) but we were told to check in at the lodge tomorrow afternoon.

With that encouraging news, we finished off the evening with some chocolate and a soul-warming nightcap before returning to the tent to settle down for the night. Our repair was still holding, and it looked good enough for us to relax and get some well-earned sleep.

We had arrived and it felt good to be back in the shadow of the Matterhorn of the Rockies.

Day 3…

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