The next day dawned bright and clear, it was hard to believe our luck with the weather! Sure it was hot, and we spent a lot of time filtering water and soaking our shirts, but it was amazing to be able to sleep without the fly and with no need to dry anything out. I had been really nervous about severe thunderstorms heading into this hike, but so far we hadn’t even seen a cloud in the sky!
Alicia was doing everything she could at this point to bring her feet back to health. She would get up an hour early to tape and lubricate, but her feet were still in a lot of pain. We discovered that she was wearing wool socks (which I’ve found are a disaster in hot weather), so I suggested that she send a message via the InReach to Brian so that he could purchase new socks for her at Spry (the local running store). We were meeting Brian for a resupply later that afternoon and she could get new socks. It was hilarious to be online shopping via InReach text, but you do what you have to do. I was impressed with Alicia’s willingness to explore every option to fix her feet, and optimistic that we were getting over the hump and would be able to find a solution.
The High Rock Trail (HRT) is gorgeous, with steep climbs leading to gorgeous viewpoints of the eastern slopes. The trail was a mix of “barely there” steep single-track, and machine-cut switchbacks. I loved the relentless up and down, and had to resist the urge to frolic in meadows filled to bursting with wildflowers.
We met our first GDT hiker a couple of kilometres from the end of the HRT, I think his name was Paul. He was hiking solo northbound, and was taking a break in a cutline filled with daisies and wild strawberries. As we continued our hike, we realized that there were strawberries everywhere! If Alicia and Nicola weren’t there I definitely would have taken a seat and enjoyed at least an hour of grazing. I will definitely be returning to this section of trail and enjoy it at a more leisurely pace.
A short bushwhack brought us to the northern terminus of the HRT where Brian was waiting for us with the resupply. We were predictably a couple of hours behind schedule, and we were very happy to finally see him. After enjoying a lunch and repacking our bags, we set out towards Tornado Pass. I had run this section a few years ago enroute to a scramble up Tornado Mountain, and I was excited for familiar trail. Soon we were at the avalanche debris section that I remembered from that run so long ago. The debris still had not been cleared, but a bit of a path had formed going up the wrong side of the valley. We followed the path, assuming it would wrap around the debris field, but we soon found ourselves bushwhacking in the woods. Paul had passed us during our lunch break, but we caught up to him in the debris field and we all enjoyed the bushwhacking together. Thankfully, I knew where we had to go, so we got back on track traversing to the other side of the valley without too much wasted time.
On my previous ascent of Tornado Pass I had found that the switchbacking paths were quite useless. I think they are game trails, never actually switchbacking, just traversing horizontally. This time around I set a course straight up the very steep slope. Alicia and Nicola, following behind me, were not impressed with my route choice. And that’s how I earned my trail name, “Horribilis”.
The route becomes rocky and a bit exposed with loose rock just below the pass. Nicola did an excellent job coaching Alicia through the terrain, and I marvelled at their teamwork. Soon we had crested the pass, and enjoyed a quick dinner before descending into the valley.
It was getting late in the evening and we needed to set up camp soon, but we were determined to make it as far as possible before stopping. Alicia’s feet had her near tears, so I gave her a T3 that was left over from my June surgery. We put some tunes on speakerphone and began fast walking/jogging down the trail. We were all in great spirits, and it was amazing how fast we could move when motivated by darkness and cheesy music. Thus began the tradition of “Power Hour”. Our last hour of everyday was almost always our fastest. Encouraged by good tunes and the thought of a warm sleeping bag.
Approximate Distance/Elevation Gain – 52.6km/2372m
By this point we were moving about 1/2 a day behind schedule. I think we had underestimated the terrain a bit. I thought the trail north of Crowsnest would be primarily quad trail, but it actually was mostly single-track with a lot of elevation change. The views throughout were incredible as we traversed across high-alpine cirques bursting with wild-flowers. The Beehive Natural Area made my heart sing and I knew I’d be back to explore more as soon I could carve out the time. We met a few more GDT hikers, and it was nice to feel like we were part of a larger team of adventurers.
Alicia’s feet continued to get worse and the painkillers were no longer effective. The 3 of us slowly came to the realization that she may not be able to continue for the entire journey. At one point Nicola and Alicia stopped to embrace and have a little cry. It felt like we were saying goodbye. For the first time (but not the last) I found myself tearing up with emotion.
We pushed on, stopping only when necessary. The bugs were motivation to keep our breaks short. That evening we came around a corner and surprised a pair of grizzly bears. We hadn’t seen any wildlife at all up until this point so it was very startling. Alicia screamed in surprise and turned to run. I put my arms out to stop her from running and grabbed my bearspray, safety off. Thankfully the bears crashed into the woods, and we followed up the incident with a brief safety talk about bear encounters. Of course, it would have been better to start the hike with a refresher on bear safety, but better late than never.
That night a thunderstorm boomed in the distance so we slept with the fly on for the first time. I envisioned golfball sized hail pummeling the tent, but thankfully my imagination is much more severe than reality and we escaped with just a sprinkle of rain.
Approximate Distance/Elevation Gain – 57.6km/2922m
We were now “only” 60km from Kanananskis, and I was excited at the prospect of seeing Matt. It felt like we were transitioning to the next phase of our journey. Matt also had new shoes for me, and I couldn’t wait to get out of my blister-inducing Goretex trail runners. I was familiar with every step of the next section of trail: over Fording River Pass, down Aldridge Creek, suffer along 30km of gravel road, and then up and over Elk Pass.
I knew from a previous trail run that the next ridge we’d climb would have cell phone reception, and it felt like getting there was a major turning point. When we reached the ridge we all called our loved ones, and Alicia was convinced by her husband that she needed medical treatment for her feet. We developed an exit strategy; we would all hike to the gravel road together and then Alicia would hitchhike into Elkford while Nicola and I carried on to Kananaskis. The plan was bittersweet and I felt a knot in my stomach, knowing how hard Alicia had worked towards this dream and now having to step off the trail so early on.
When we reached the Baril Creek Junction, I mentioned to Alicia that she could exit there instead of continuing over Fording River Pass. The route out was 9km and straightforward, leading to a busy access road only 90 minutes from Calgary. We could probably even just call a friend with the InReach for pick up. Alicia wasn’t comfortable hiking the 9km on her own, and I regret that it never occurred to me that we could have accompanied her for the 9km trek. Although adding an extra 18km onto a 60km day is a pretty big ask …
Anyway, we decided to continue up and over Fording River Pass together. The views in the early morning light were as spectacular as I remembered. The descent from the pass is very long, ending with a rocky trail which included multiple creek crossings. This terrain was not foot friendly and Alicia was in tears, while Nicola and I watched feeling completely powerless to help. Eventually we reached the gravel road and we found someone random camping there. We told him our predicament, and we felt a lot better knowing that there was someone there to help Alicia out if she had trouble hitching a ride. We also sent a message to Julien (Alicia’s spouse) via InReach, letting him know her location and what the plan was. Minutes later we got a message back that Brian was on his way from Crowsnest Pass to pick Alicia up. Our minds at ease, knowing that Alicia would be taken care of, the two of us headed down the road. As we left Alicia yelled at us. I wasn’t 100% sure what she said, but I was pretty sure she said she had cell reception!
The walk up the gravel road was hot and miserable. Nicola set a quick pace and my feet ached. I wanted to slow down and take breaks, but I also knew that we still had another 50km of walking before we’d reach our crew. We couldn’t afford to break. Thankfully, Nicola and I worked well together. Every time I was about to speak up to say that I needed a break, she would suggest we stop. We never wasted time, stopping only to filter water or lubricate hot spots on our feet. At one point we tried to get off the hot road and take a parallel side trail. However the alternate trail turned out to be a bog. Our shoes filled with mud and we were forced to sit in a creek to wash off. This was my favourite part of the whole road.
When we finally reached Elk Lakes I was wrecked. Looking back, I’m pretty sure we had minor heat exhaustion. How could we possibly continue on to Upper Kananaskis Lake in that condition??? We sat on a bridge and ate our dinner, trying to muster up the will power to continue. That’s when I realized we could meet our crew at the Elk Pass parking lot instead of Upper Kananaskis Lake. It would shorten our day by 5km and make the evening seem more manageable. I messaged the crew via InReach to let them know the new plan, but in the back of my mind I knew the crew was likely out of cell reception and would never receive the message. Still … I had hope.
As soon as we got off the road and back onto trail our legs were rejuvenated. Smiles appeared on our faces and the foot pain faded. This is when I began to fully understand the dangers of road walking. Sure, it’s fast but it can destroy your feet and your psyche.
We descended the trail to the Elk Pass parking lot, and spotted a mountain biker riding up the towards us. I couldn’t quite recognize who was on the bike from that distance, but somehow I knew it had to be my friend Jamie. He had been waiting with Matt all day to crew us and we were so relieved to see him! He let us know that Matt had managed to score a campsite at Interlakes campground and was waiting for us there. We told him of our plan to stop at the parking lot, and he rode off to the campsite so that Matt could drive back and pick us up. We sat down in the parking lot, refusing to walk one step further. It felt so luxurious to be lounging on the pavement.
While we were waiting, a couple of GDT hikers walked over to us in the parking lot. They hadn’t been able to find a campsite and so they were trying to random camp near the parking lot. A bear had disturbed their camp area and now they weren’t sure what to do. We had room for another tent at our site so we invited them over to join us. It felt great to be able to help out other hikers.
Minutes later, Matt arrived to pick us up and drive us the short distance to the campsite. Matt, Jamie and Jamie’s family had prepared a feast of bacon, pancakes, sushi, beer and probably many other delicious items I can’t remember. We ate until well after dark, and enjoyed a restful sleep in the back of our camperized Forerunner, while Matt agreed to sleep in the tent.
Approximate Distance/Elevation Gain – 62.4km/1500m??
(watch died on Fording River Pass, so elevation gain is a guess)
I made a YouTube video about our trek from Waterton to Kananaskis. Check it out!