Wow, I am so far behind on my blog. There have been several significant life events since Steep Dreams, and I’m not even sure where to start. Let’s forge ahead in point form and get into more detail later.
Run training was going well through April even though spring snow and cold temperatures limited my ability to get much steep mountain running in. Dobby continued to grow into the best mountain running dog ever. I could feel my fitness improving, and I was feeling happy and optimistic.
In May I organized Run for the Braggin’ Rights. This is a free run event in Bragg Creek which I host every year to raise money for the trail association. Dobby and I ran 75km together over two days, and then I did a 3rd day on my own. I was feeling strong and my 100 mile legs were starting to make an appearance. Two days later I was sick and I’m fairly certain I had COVID. This knocked me off my training schedule for about two weeks, and although I don’t think it impacted Hardrock training much, it definitely derailed my training for Meet the Minotaur.
The snow finally began to melt in June, and Patrick and I got out for an awesome day of ridge running at Moose Mountain. Dobby joined us and she was such a delight. I came home floating on Cloud 9. The next morning Dobby seemed to be in discomfort, and within an hour it was clear that her condition was worsening. I took her to the 24hr clinic, expecting a urinary blockage or something similar. I was mentally prepared to pay $1000-$2000 dollars for emergency surgery, but the diagnosis was much worse than I imagined. She had a diaphragmatic hernia and she required immediate surgery. The cost quoted was $6000-$8000 and it was likely that she could have complications going forward due to organ tissue death (some of her intestines and part of her liver had floated out of her diaphragm). Matt had just lost his job the week prior and we couldn’t justify the cost given our financial situation. We also knew that Dobby’s quality of life may be permanently affected going forward. Letting go of Dobby was so hard, and I still question the decision. I’ve always aimed to be very pragmatic about my animals, but that pragmatism has eroded over time. Moxie, and then Dobby, became part of our family unit. Dobby was the sweetest dog I’ve ever interacted with. She had a heart of gold and enhanced my life in ways I never imagined.
A week after Dobby’s death I ran Meet the Minotaur. I wasn’t sure how that race would go. Dobby never did anything halfway; she loved hard, played hard, chewed hard and chased hard. I decided that I would aim to channel Dobby’s spirit and adopt her “full send” attitude. I raced well and surprised myself by squeaking into a top-10 finish.
The hard racing at Meet the Minotaur resulted in a serious case of DOMS and I basically took the next week off for recovery. I was happy about the muscle soreness, since I figured it would be the perfect training stimulus for Hardrock which was 3 weeks later.
At the end of June I also had follow up imaging on my bone graft. I’m happy to report that it is looking healthy and the TIMF saga is nearly behind us.
I’ll save my Hardrock race report for another day, I didn’t feel right writing about it until I’d caught up on the last few months. Until then, I hope you are adventuring outside and give your doggos an extra squeeze from me.
I was nervous and excited heading into the Steep Dreams ski mountaineering (skimo) race at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. I had won a race entry to any of the skimo events through an Instagram contest last year, and I chose to compete at Steep Dreams because it was at an ideal time of the year. I figured that a race in late March would give me plenty of time to learn how to ski steep terrain without interfering with training for my summer running events.
Going into the event I had two main concerns:
Finishing within the time cutoff.
Not getting hurt.
The race course covered about 13km of distance, with 1700m of vertical gain. The time cutoff was 4.5hrs. I did a few 1700m days in the backcountry in the weeks leading up to Steep Dreams, and finishing within the cutoff was going to be tough but doable. I really wanted to be safe on the descents, but I worried that if I wasn’t fast enough on the ascents I wouldn’t have time to take the descents as slowly as I wanted.
I was not willing to get hurt at this race. I made a pact with myself that if I didn’t feel I could descend a route safely, I would DNF the race and find a route down that was within my ability level. I was particularly concerned about exposure to cliffs, icy slopes and moguls.
I recruited my friends Sean, Jamie and Colin to join in the weekend fun. Sean had some friends with a house on the hill who generously allowed us to stay with them, so we were able to have amazing accommodations only 1km from the chairlift. It was fantastic to have access to a hot tub, kitchen and hot shower so close to the resort.
Race morning arrived and I was very nervous. My stomach was gurgling with anxiety and I hoped I wouldn’t have to find a washroom mid-race. The ski down to the race start from the top of the gondola was a bit spicy and I found myself 2nd guessing the entire event. The slope was steep and moguled, and the snow had been scraped off the rocks on the entrance. It was clear there would be no powder on this day, but my worst-case scenario of icy moguls might be coming to fruition.
I made my way carefully down the steep slope to the groomed run below, side-slipping most of the way and feeling very unsure of myself. WTF was I doing??
The race start was at the Heaven’s Gate Yurt, halfway up the mountain. We hung out there for an hour while we waited for our final pre-race instructions. While we waited I met Nathalie, another racer with undeveloped downhill skills. She had previewed the entire course the previous day, and she gave me the low down on all the descents. Talking with her was reassuring and gave me so much confidence that I wasn’t in over my head. I can’t thank her enough for sharing her course knowledge and positive attitude.
The race began with Colin, Jamie, Sean and myself positioned at the back of the pack. The uphill pace was intense and I didn’t do much passing during this ascent. Jamie and I stuck together, while Colin pulled ahead and Sean dropped behind. I considered pushing harder (I’m not used to being at the back of the pack) but I knew that if I increased the effort I’d implode.
After a short bootpack up the Stairway to Heaven it was time to descend Whitewall. Nathalie had warned me that this was a spicy entrance. It was a vertical drop off of a cornice onto a steep slope. I remembered my promise not to get hurt so I sat down on my butt and scooched forward until I could just barely get the edge of my ski into the sidewall. The volunteers were amazing and very encouraging as I gathered up the courage to drop onto the slope. I dropped in without incident, and then slowly picked my way down the firm (but not icy) moguls to the more friendly terrain below. I was so slow that everyone passed me on this descent, but I made it down unscathed and stopped to take a breather. My first double-black diamond, cornice dropping descent was over!
From there the race course meandered on a narrow trail through some trees (my favourite part) and then a short but icy mogul run (yuck!). By the time I reached the transition zone I was feeling a lot more confident in my downhill skiing and ready to tackle the next climb. I drank some water and ate some candy in transition before beginning the next ascent. I was feeling very good, and now I was passing tons of people. I passed Sean on one section (and managed to photobomb his selfie) and then Nathalie a little while later. Then it was time for the second bootpack of the day. This one was longer and steeper than the first one, but I enjoyed it. Bootpacking feels very natural to me.
The next descent was steep (another double-black diamond), but I don’t recall having any issues with the entrance, and once the grade mellowed a bit I actually enjoyed a few turns. Soon it was time for the 3rd climb.
After more snacks and water in the transition area I headed out for the 3rd ascent. It was somewhere around this point in time where I passed Jamie. He looked like he was bonking so I asked if he’d eaten any candy yet. He said, “good idea!”
This climb included many kick-turns followed by a longer bootpack up to the summit of T2. I passed a few more people and marveled at the speed of the individuals near the front of the pack who were blowing by me on their second ascent of this climb. We were sharing the course at this point so it was a bit crowded, but I found it energizing. From the top of the bootpack we were warned by the race director that the ridge ski down to Truth Couloir was awkward, and it was. I slowly maneuvered my way down towards the entrance of the couloir, frequently running into the vertical sidewall on the icy track.
Nathalie had told me that this was the toughest descent entrance, and I mentally prepared myself to quit if I wasn’t able to safely get into it. The main entrance involved a vertical drop of several feet into the steep and narrow chute. It was definitely beyond my pay grade; I don’t “drop” anything. The volunteer was helpful and pointed out a more mellow option which involved side slipping some rocks, but no air time. I carefully made my way in and then “skied” down the chute. Ski in quotations because I side-slipped the narrow section, only turning 3 times. The fan of the chute actually had some nice snow and I enjoyed the rest of the descent.
I looked at my watch before the final transition and realized I had tons of time to finish the race. I could relax and celebrate the final climb and descent. This transition was a bit comedic. My bindings had iced up, and I found myself rolling around like a turtle on the ground trying to get my skis off. I knew that Jamie wouldn’t be far behind me so I lollygagged a bit until he caught me. We completed the final climb and descent together. Up all the kick-turns, but this time turning right at the top away from the bootpack and towards the final descent to the finish line. This is the same descent that we’d gone down earlier in the day to get to the start line. For some reason it felt much easier this time around.
Jamie and I finished in 3:45, 45 minutes ahead of the cutoff time. Colin was waiting at the finish line, having finished his race 30 minutes earlier. Soon Nathalie crossed the finish line, with Sean a few minutes after. We were all elated to have completed the event and stoked on our “speedy” times. In reality our times were not speedy at all, we were at the very back of the pack! I’ve never been so happy to finish almost in last place.
Some after thoughts:
This was a very fun event that made it possible for “regular” people like myself to push our limits in a relatively safe environment.
The course was well-marked, something I was nervous about since I was unfamiliar with how course flagging works at skimo races.
The volunteers were attentive and knowledgeable, enabling “mediocre” skiers like myself to navigate the technical terrain safely.
The cutoff times were appropriate for individuals who had good fitness, but didn’t have skimo gear and weren’t expert skiers.
I’d love it if more recreational backcountry skiers took part in these events. I think it would build the community and create a party atmosphere, similar to what you find at old school ultramarathons. Training for, and completing this event was a highlight for me. I’m fairly certain I’ll be back next year, hopefully with less fear and more stoke!
P.S. I realize that I’m not “regular” or “mediocre” in terms of my fitness. I’m just trying to convey that I’m not an expert skier. I’ve never skied a couloir before this event, and while I’m comfortable on black diamond resort runs, I found these double-black descents to be at the very edge of my comfort zone.
This will be my 4th year running Meet the Minotaur. Each year has been on a different course, and every year I’ve loved it. Without fail, the courses have featured steep climbs, epic views, and technical descents.
This year, Meet the Minotaur is moving to a permanent course. I’ve had the pleasure of exploring portions of the course over the last few years, and last year a group of us completed the entire route as a “fun” run. This latest version of Minotaur is much like the earlier editions except about 50% longer. Here are a few photos from the course
If it isn’t obvious from the photos, I want to stress that this is not a “running race”. The course covers steep, rocky and remote terrain. Your ankles and knees must be very strong and stable. Most of the descents are not on nice scree that you can ski, rather the descents are on ankle busting rubble that requires more control.
Here are my top tips for preparing for the 2022 Minotaur Skyrace:
Build gradually. Don’t wait for the snow to melt to start training. Start now, so that you can build up your stamina gradually. When it comes to steep vert training, many of the physiological changes are from strengthening your connective tissue rather than your aerobic system. Make sure you get some studded shoes or microspikes to help with traction, then head out to some steep trails to get your joints accustomed to the slope. While the trails are still snow and ice covered, stick to non-technical trails and build up your volume methodically. Some trails in the Calgary area I’d recommend are Prairie Mountain, Mount Lady Macdonald (to the heli-pad) and Cox Hill. You only need to program one vert day per week in these early stages, the rest of the week you can train as you would for a normal trail race.
Get comfortable with verton rough trail. Aim to get in a couple of outings with ~2500m of climbing in the final 4 weeks leading up to the event. These training sessions should be on steep terrain with marginal trail. Some good options in the Calgary area would be Mount Lady Macdonald (to the ridge top), Grotto, East End of Rundle, Mount Baldy (bypass route), South Opal and Midnight Peak. In my opinion, routes like Ha Ling, Prairie Mountain, or simply repeats of Mount Lady Macdonald to the heli-pad are too runnable. Wherever you get your vert, make sure at least 50% of it is rocky (like in my photos).
Prepare for the elements. Test your gear out in real world scenarios. The Minotaur course has minimal aid, so you need to be self-sufficient. Dial in your gear so that you’re prepared for wind and freak thunderstorms. At a minimum, you should have a windshell, gloves, hat, space blanket and waterproof layer. I use gardening gloves from Rona, and a rain jacket that I’m able to fit over top of my run pack. If you aren’t able to place your jacket over your pack, your pack and everything in it could get soaked. In the first aid section of my pack I carry bandages, pain killers, asthma medication, antihistamine, safety pins, duct tape, and an extra buff. And yes, I carry all this stuff with me both in training and during the race.
Dial in your gear.
The Minotaur course will destroy your shoes. You want to wear shoes with a robust upper, excellent grip, and cushioning for the rocks. I’ve experimented with a lot of shoes over the years, and my best success has come Goretex fast-packing shoes, or from Nordas. If you decide to go the Goretex route, make sure you test them out on long days beforehand to see if you’ll get blisters. Goretex is horrible for shoe breathability, but it does add a durability aspect. Norda makes its upper from Dyneema, so the upper is incredibly strong. However, Dyneema doesn’t stretch much so the upper tends to gap at the ankle. A gaiter is absolutely essential if you don’t want to be stopping frequently to empty rocks from your shoes. Nordas have excellent cushioning and grip, as do most fast-packing shoes.
Make your mind up about poles, and then practice accordingly. Much of the climbing on this course is steep enough that you can bend over and put your hands on the dirt/rocks. Personally, when terrain is that steep I prefer to go without poles, however you may feel differently. The 2nd descent is on awkward rubble, where poles can definitely help. Poles may also assist for portions of the 3rd descent. If technical descents are not your strength, I’d strongly recommend training with poles and using them for the race. But if you’re a strong descender you may find them to be more hassle than they’re worth.
Practice with your pack full of gear. Get comfortable wearing your pack loaded with all your race gear during training. This will help you to efficiently access and stow the items you use most frequently, and help you to troubleshoot any potential chafe points.
Dial in your nutrition. When we completed the course last year, it took us nearly 11hrs! We all ran out of water on a very hot day, and called in Susan for emergency support at the bottom of the last descent so that we could recharge with some cold Cokes before jogging to the finish. Don’t underestimate your hydration/fuelling needs for the Minotaur Skyrace. During the race, I would aim for about 500ml of fluid/hr, while also making sure to arrive at the start line well-hydrated. On a hot day I might bump my fluid intake up as high as 800ml/hr. Make sure to have some electrolyte (or at a minimum have some food) with your water. This will enhance the absorption of your water so that you don’t just pee it all out. I’ve been really enjoying the Xact hydration tabs at half strength on hot days. In addition to water, you’ll want some simple sugars to eat on the run. Choose foods which are easy to swallow and digest. Unlike in a typical running race where you can zone out, your brain will be very active during the Minotaur Skyrace. There will likely be times when your adrenaline is elevated on exposed ridgelines, and you will need to be coordinated and nimble while moving efficiently on the rocky terrain. With this elevated adrenaline, you’ll want to intake sugar at regular intervals (sorry keto athletes, fat and protein won’t help here). I find Dino Sours and Muir energy gels work well for this. I usually will have a few candies every 15-20 minutes on the ascent, a gel at the top, and then I normally don’t fuel on technical descents because I’m too focused on my footing. I have at least 5 mouthfuls of water every time I eat. Nutrition is very individual. Practice it in training on similar terrain and at a similar intensity to what you would expect during the race.
Training to compete vs training to complete. If you are training to complete the race in the time limit, you do not need to do much running and would be better off spending your time learning to ascend/descend steep terrain efficiently. If you are training to compete for a top spot you do need to practice some fast running in addition to power-hiking. The first 1km, about 1km between the 1st and 2nd climb, and final 5km are all runnable. The last 5km is mostly downhill and very fast, make sure you have the leg speed to take advantage of this stretch if you’re looking to place in a top spot!
Because people were asking: my typical training heading into Minotaur includes about 5000 – 6000m of weekly vert and 80-100km. This volume includes a lot of scrambling, and I usually try to bookend my scrambles with longer run approaches on good trail. This is an effective way to learn how to run on tired legs.
It is not necessary to do this much training in order to be competitive at Minotaur. I train like this because it makes me happy, and that’s why I do this sport.
So get out there, increase your volume in a methodical manner, train on race-specific terrain, and have fun!
Actually, this story started more than 3 months ago.
I noticed that I was struggling with motivation early in the summer. It’s never been hard for me to maintain an active lifestyle. I love physical activity and being outdoors makes me feel alive. But I noticed that my drive was waning, and the joy I normally felt when I was out adventuring was not so bright.
Also around this time, Moxie really began to struggle. She didn’t cuddle much any more. I think the lap dog position she normally maintained was not as comfortable. Intuitively I knew whe didn’t have much longer with us, and in retrospect I wonder if my flagging mental health was tied to my realization that we were going to have to say goodbye.
During my 8 day adventure hike in September I embraced the solitude and adventure, but I was frustrated with my inability to push myself like I normally do. I spent more time in my tent then I did hiking. I wondered what was wrong with me.
On September 26th Moxie passed away and I sunk down into a world of grey. Any remnant of motivation was gone. I cried daily, without warning and unprovoked. I could not push myself to do anything other than easy wanders on the trails, and attempted road runs left me in a puddle of tears. I haven’t felt that world of grey since my 20s, and it was terrifying. I remember the struggles I had back then, bawling my eyes out in the shower for no perceivable reason and I refused to go back there.
I had my annual physical with my doctor in late October. She asked about my mental health, I started crying and said it was shit. I didn’t feel like I should be grieving for Moxie anymore, after all she was “just a dog.” My doctor assured me that grief takes time and to give it a couple more months, we could follow up if I was still struggling.
Matt and I had discussed maybe taking some pet-free time after Moxie to see how we enjoyed the freedom of a pet-free life. Our desire to live pet-free didn’t last long, and I began scrolling through the adoptable dog postings at the local rescue shelters. Matt was fully on board with the idea of getting a new dog, and I soon began filling out adoption applications.
I emailed the Cochrane & Area Humane Society (CAHS), asking about a dog named Oreo. I thought it was very suitable that I could enjoy my #summitOreos with my adventure partner, Oreo! In my adoption profile I mentioned that I’d prefer a dog with a low prey drive, since this was one of our biggest challenges with Moxie. Moxie would run off for hours, and was uncontrollable when it came to the chase. Thankfully, she had a great sense of direction and always came back … but I got used to doing a lot of waiting at the parking lot. CAHS said that Oreo also had a very strong prey drive, but had I considered looking at Poppy?
Honestly, I hadn’t really considered Poppy. I’d seen a video with her doing tricks where she seemed very smart and food oriented. Those traits seemed obsessive to me, like a border collie obsessing over a ball, and I am not interested in having a “robot dog” with a one-dimensional personality. But, after talking on the phone with adoption services for awhile I thought I might as well go in and check her out. Adoption services mentioned she had a “mouthing” issue, and that she loved to run so much they had her running on a treadmill at the shelter. I don’t think I had any appreciation for what “mouthing” is, and I was intrigued by the treadmill running.
My friend Arielle and I met Poppy at the CAHS after a run in early November. Poppy had tons of personality, was very affectionate and was clearly a naturally happy dog. She had those puppy dog eyes that melt your heart, and was definitely not a “robot dog.” We took her for a little walk, and I caught a glimpse of what “mouthing” was when she excitedly chomped my arm. I was wearing my best down jacket, which thankfully didn’t rip.
I went home and talked over my experience with Matt. I was clearly smitten, but I was desperate for another canine companion so I wasn’t being very picky. The next weekend Matt and I went to visit Poppy together. We were hoping that we could adopt her and take her home that day, but CAHS was adamant that we do more training with her before we could adopt her. On this visit the trainer showed us how they were muzzle training Poppy, and some techniques they used to distract and interrupt the mouthing when it happened. They did not sugar-coat the mouthing issue, and emphasized that Poppy had broken the skin with her enthusiasm.
Matt and I thought that most of Poppy’s mouthing issue stemmed from her being cooped up in a shelter most of the day . She clearly had a high need for stimulation and exercise, something we thought we could provide since I intended to bring her on all my trail runs. It was obvious that CAHS was doing all they could to support Poppy, but from our perspective we didn’t think the mouthing habit could be broken until she was in a home.
Matt met with a trainer at CAHS for a third time while I was at work, and this time he was able to fill out the adoption paperwork and bring her home. We were so happy!
Life with Poppy was total chaos. She chewed the furniture, shoes, my car seatbelt, our ankles, feet and arms … the list goes on. We gated off the house so that she only had access to the living room and we learned not to leave anything out that we valued. On day 2 she chewed my arms so badly on a walk that I thought she may have to be muzzled for all future adventures. Looking back, I wonder why we were so confident that we could manage this behaviour. Matt and I aren’t dog experts by any stretch, and Poppy had a very big problem.
Poppy was also hilarious, joyful and eager to please. She made us laugh constantly, and when she wasn’t chewing our arms off she was very cuddly. I felt the grey clouds begin to lift. I needed the chaos. The chaos felt like it was bringing me back to life.
We weren’t intending to rename Poppy. But she is such a ridiculous goofball, and when she stole Matt’s sock from the bedroom we knew that her name had to be Dobby (after the house-elf from Harry Potter).
3 months later, after a lot of time, attention, love, and ongoing support from CAHS I am happy to report that I have no Dobby teeth marks. The house is no longer gated and the furniture has not been chewed in weeks. Recently, I’ve even been able to have Dobby sit in the back of my car unrestrained, my remaining two seatbelts are intact. My mental health has improved dramatically, and my drive to push hard, adventure and explore has returned. Running with Dobby is a daily joy, recall is excellent, and she is just so happy!
I know we aren’t out of the woods yet. Dobby still mouths occasionally, but the episodes are infrequent and short. Every evening she gets rowdy and feels the need to rip shit up. We call it rip-shit-up o’clock, and we prepare for it with stuffed animals, tug-of-war and various dog toys. The evening antics never fail to make us laugh, it’s a good way to end the day.
I always knew that Moxie was an integral piece of our family unit, but I don’t think I fully understood the impact she had until she was gone. I am so grateful for the time we had with her, and I am excited to have a new monster in our lives. Dobby, you have some big paws to fill!
I awoke in the dark on Day 8, confused about why the sun was taking so long to rise. That is when I finally clued in that my watch/phone had switched over to Alberta time.
I had been concerned about waking up to rain and snow, but the day was calm and conditions were dry. I thanked the universe with gifting me an extension of the good weather.
The next several kilometres of trail traversed cross-country over mountain passes and across alpine bowls. There was no trail, but travel was relatively straightforward once you figured out which spot on the horizon you were aiming for. Although there was no scrambling, the terrain was surprisingly treacherous, with very little flat footing. Plant growth concealed boulders and holes that could easily result in a turned ankle or broken leg. Travel over the cols usually involved hopping along very large rocks. It took all my concentration to ensure I didn’t slip or overturn a boulder. In this remote terrain, rescue would be very slow and it was unlikely anyone would find me to provide assistance.
The awkward footing was made worthwhile by the incredible views. I was never bored and always in awe of my surroundings. At one point I slipped and snapped my pole, but I continued onward. The weather remained perfect until my final climb up to the Holmes tarns. A cloud bank rolled in and suddenly I was in a whiteout. Thankfully, I was well-practiced with this routine and I had all my layers on before getting hit by the storm.
The initial storm was short-lived and I was able to enjoy views of the tarns, and catch a glimpse of a couple of nimble mountain goats before the rain returned in earnest. I was now only a few kilometres from rejoining the main GDT trail, and I hurried across the rocky terrain. The weather was nasty and there was no shelter. Thankfully my pack was very light (I had eaten all my food except a handful of trail mix) so I was able to move unencumbered.
I was in and out of the rain for the rest of the hike. The Blueberry Lake trail had deteriorated into a total mud pit due to the wet weather combined with equestrian traffic. I wiped out several times on my descent, and tightened my shoes so that the wouldn’t get sucked off in the bog. I ran into a couple of horseback riders halfway down the trail and we had a good chat. They knew the equestrian girls who were riding to Grand Cache, and had come in to do a little maintenance on the Jackpine Valley trail. I was concerned about my car, leaving it for a week in the wilderness was nerve-wracking for me, but they assured me it was undisturbed.
Finally, I reached the Blueberry Lake trailhead. I was covered in mud and soaked to the bone, but my soul was full. I had left a towel, dry clothes, snacks and Coke in my vehicle. It felt incredible to put on a clean pair of sweats and stuff my face with all the high-calorie foods.
Surprisingly I never felt lonely on this trip. I became very comfortable talking out loud to myself and discovered that I’m perfectly capable of carrying on a one-person conversation.
I think I could enjoy even longer solo trips, but food weight is a limiting factor. I don’t enjoy carrying a heavy pack, and this trip was near my max weight/bulk. If I want to explore further, I’ll need to either have a resupply point or travel in warmer weather when a stove/fuel isn’t necessary. Even in that scenario, stove and fuel probably only take up the space of one day’s food.
I’m not a huge fan of stoves, but I’m glad I was convinced to bring one this time around. I would have been miserably cold without it.
Thermal tights are amazing. Rather than bringing waterproof pants, I just brought winter tights. These tights are fairly thick, and still insulate when wet. They kept me warm, packed small, and didn’t snag or tear on branches. I don’t think I’ll bother with rain pants in the future.
I woke up super late and super puffy on Day 7. Take a look at my face in the video, I’m a total marshmallow. I eventually did get going on my hike, and it was an absolutely beautiful morning.
I took the Meadowlands alternate because I’d been told it was easier than the Loren Lake High Route. I would love to hear from someone who’s done the Loren Lake route, because Meadowlands was a very dense bushwhack. I was not precisely on track, and I’m certain this route would be much easier coming down through the brush than fighting your way up it. It’s possible my experience was worse than it needed to be. Suffice it to say, it was a VERY slow hike to get above treeline. I’ve never been so excited to get out of the trees so that I could side-hill across avalanche slopes.
Eventually I did get onto the ridge, and it was such a treat. The views were insane, and I could not stop commenting out loud to myself about how amazing it was. This was a definite highlight of the entire trip.
Travel along the ridge to Perseverance Mountain was slow. I felt like I was moving well, but the map told me otherwise. The ridge was exposed in places, and there was occasional route-finding. There was one downclimb which was sketchy, and I wished there was someone with me who I could pass my pack down to. A fall there would have resulted in broken bones for sure. I don’t think this section would have been nearly as difficult to upclimb, and it’s possible there was an easier way that I didn’t find.
When I finally reached the summit of Perseverance I was overjoyed. Very few mountains have given me such a sense of accomplishment. And looking back along the ridge I’d travelled which seemed to go on forever added to the feeling.
Looking at my watch, I couldn’t understand how it was already so late in the day, it didn’t feel that late. I debated pushing over the next high point before setting up camp, but if I ran into difficult terrain I risked being caught out in the dark. Once again, I decided to set up camp early and enjoyed a double dinner.
I checked the forecast using my Zoleo and it did not look great. I crossed my fingers and hoped that I wouldn’t be waking up to fresh snow. The sun seemed to take forever to set, and it wasn’t until the next day that I realized my watch and phone had temporarily switched back over to Alberta time.
I spent extra time in bed because a violent storm came through overnight and continued into the morning. Thankfully it tapered off a little after sunrise, and I was able to pack up camp in just a bit of a drizzle.
The day started off fairly smoothly. It was overcast and chilly, but not raining. The route was now familiar and I made very good time. Headed back over to Morkill Col I was again harassed by the falcons, but this time I ran up above the trail to get away from them. They seemed to be fine with letting me through the area as long as I wasn’t on the trail. Bushwhacking back on route was a bit of a chore, but the detour was worth it.
I met up with the equestrian girls at Morkill Pass Camp and joined them for lunch. They had a fire going, and it was lovely to sit and have a chat. I was hoping to do the Perseverence High Route the next day, and they told me they had just run into a solo hiker who’d been up on the route the previous day. The hiker had been caught on the ridge in the rain, apparently it was very the slippery and the girl seemed a bit traumatized. Having just been through my own close-call the day before, it was good for me to hear this information so that I could make an educated decision about my route back to Blueberry Lake. The girls also asked me if I needed anything, and I mentioned that I was out of oatmeal. They gave me some extra packets which were very much appreciated.
The rain began soon after leaving the camp, picking up in intensity until it was a steady downpour. I put my head down and just focused on putting one foot in front of the other.
I met with a pair of NOBO GDT hikers huddled under a tree at the base of Big Shale Hill. They were looking at a map and debating doing the Talbot alternate. I had also considered doing this alternate, but the equestrians had thought it was unlikely that it had been travelled frequently. The weather was poor, so I’d decided to avoid it in case it was exposed. The hikers were planning to continue their hike all the way to Grand Cache and then return to Jasper via an eastern route. I was very impressed.
I mentioned my intention to do the Perseverence High Route, and asked if they had any beta or knew the weather forecast. They mentioned the forecast they had received via their InReach device, and I realized that I could receive a weather forecast with my Zoleo! I’m not sure why I hadn’t thought of that before, but it gave me a huge sense of relief to be able to get some weather information before committing to an alpine route.
I continued up Big Shale Hill in the now torrential rain. I was in the alpine, but I had layered up carefully and wasn’t feeling chilled. As I hiked, I reflected that everyone I’d met on this hike had been female; the equestrians, the solo hiker they told me about, and the two ladies I’d just chatted with. This was very remote, and sometimes very difficult terrain. I’m new to thru-hiking, but I was surprised that it seemed to be dominated by ladies.
Visibility was poor on top of Big Shale Hill and as I came over the top I was hit with a wall of wind. It was very cold and wet, with sideways rain. I ran down the other side, careful not to get disoriented in the cloud. Soon I was back at treeline, but I had made another rookie mistake and I was paying for it. The flap that covers up the zipper on my rain jacket had been open, and the sideways rain had come in through the zipper. I was soaked to the skin.
The trail back down to Pauline Creek was a bit of a mess. The horses had torn it up, and the rain had added to the mud. I have a love/hate relationship with horses. I think they are necessary on these trails for maintenance and also to create a visible route. The hiking traffic is so minimal that the trail basically disappears whenever it exits the forest. Horses are needed to pound in a path. However, they rip up the trail in the forest and they poop everywhere.
I arrived at the camp area at Pauline Creek. I had been planning to hike further, but I was very cold at this point and was focused on setting up camp so I could snuggle into my sleeping bag. It was early to be stopping my hike, but the rain killed any desire to hike further. I enjoyed a double serving of mashed potatoes, while I hugged my hot water bottle.
I hiked with a 3 person tent (the only lightweight tent I own), which came in handy when I needed to dry out my clothing. I utilized the extra space as my laundry area to dry out my clothes. I intend to purchase a smaller tent at some point, but I do really enjoy having all that space to myself.
I used my Zoleo to check the forecast before going to sleep. Only a 3% chance of rain tomorrow! Decision made, I was doing the high route!
As nice as it was to sleep indoors, I actually wound up having a terrible sleep because a porcupine decided to sharpen it’s teeth on something underneath the cabin. The sound echoed, and it continued from about 1am-2:30am. This is when I learned not to like porcupines.
For once I got up at a reasonable hour, and I was on the trail by first light. I was heading back along the GDT, but taking the alternates, starting with the Providence Pass alternate. This route began with a climb up to Ruth Shoulder on a well-marked trail. The views on the shoulder were nice, and the route continued with easy cross-country travel past very scenic tarns. I saw my first ever caribou, but unfortunately failed to capture them on camera. It was a really cool experience. My only complaint on this alternate route was the side-hill traverse across a talus field. It was awkward, and required careful foot placement to not roll an ankle. As usual, I was slightly off-course so it may be a bit easier if you follow the GPS route precisely, I’m not sure. There was no mud or bogs on route, and for that reason I think it wins over the main GDT trail.
I briefly rejoined the main GDT at Broadview Camp before heading up Wapiti Mountain on the Surprise Pass alternate route. I didn’t want to do this route in poor weather since it is entirely alpine, however the main GDT route along this section sucked and it was only lightly raining at this point. I justified it in my mind.
The intensity of the rain increased as I climbed until it was an absolute downpour, and visibility was reduced to near zero on the summit block. I became disoriented, my GPS was scattered and unreliable, and I found myself wandering in circles on the flat, featureless summit. It was very cold, but there was no way I could set up an emergency shelter in the wind and rain to wait out the storm. I couldn’t stop moving or I would risk hypothermia. I thought back to my limited orienteering experience, what could I do? I found a topographical feature (a cliff) and followed it. This way I knew I was travelling in one direction. Eventually it would have to intersect with another feature, and then I would be able to pinpoint myself on a map. The cliff led to a little descent and a climb, this was the summit! A brief break in the clouds revealed my descent route and I ran down below the clouds to safety. It was a terrifying experience.
Eventually I made it down to a grassy meadow just before Surprise Pass. It had stopped raining so I changed into dry clothing and took out my stove to make some hot food and apple cider. By the time lunch was done I felt good as new.
I was headed up to Surprise Pass, debating how to cross a small snow patch, when suddenly an animal came running over the pass and down the snow. It was a wolverine! I’ve seen many wolverine tracks, and one dead wolverine in some avalanche debris, but it was really cool to see one alive!
The rest of the day went super smoothly. Back on the main GDT, I was familiar with the route and travel was fast. I didn’t have any trouble finding the trail in this direction. I’m not sure if it’s easier to see the route SOBO, or if it’s because I was on the trail just the day before, but navigation was a breeze.
In camp that night I filled my Nalgene bottle with hot water. It was a tip my mom had suggested, but I’d never tried it since I’m rarely cold when I sleep. On this trip I was constantly wet, and I found myself struggling to get warm at night. The Nalgene worked super well and it had the added bonus of providing fresh water that was ready for making breakfast in the morning. If you camp with a stove, I’d highly recommend this trick.
Day 4 started out really well. I made great time to Sheep Camp, but the one water source along the way was all dried up so my choice to set up camp early the previous day proved to be a good one. Most of the route from Sheep Camp to Surprise Pass was well-defined and maintained. It was a joy to move along a relative super-highway and the views headed up to the pass did not disappoint. This was another area I would love to return to and camp out at for a few days.
I enjoyed a snack break on top of the pass and weighed my route options. I could take the alternate route over Wapiti Peak or I could take the main GDT. The alternate route was very exposed and it looked like some weather may be coming in, so I took the main option in the hopes I could explore the alternate on my return trip.
The main route quickly became overgrown with some of the thickest willows I’d experienced the entire trip, I felt like I was in a battlefield. Thankfully, the willow groves were relatively small and intermittent compared to the Jackpine Valley. Or maybe I’d developed a tolerance by that point.
The willows alternated with very muddy and slippery trail. I had to practice my zen and just focus on one step in front of the other. I caught a view of the brilliantly blue Cecilia Lake and became very excited at the thought of a lakeside lunch. The excitement was quickly subdued by the extremely slick, muddy trail as I slowly made my way down the path. I did several involuntary bum drops in the mud, but cheered myself up by helping myself to handfuls of the delicious, fully ripened berries which lined the trail. Berries are always accompanied by bears, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t even seen so much as a bear print to this point.
I came to a creek crossing and realized the trail was not going to head down to the lake shore as I’d hoped. The creek made a nice consolation lunch spot. Beyond the creek the trail traversed across steep avalanche paths. I was distracted by the views and almost stepped right on top of a porcupine which was concealed among the overgrowth. After some negotiating, the porcupine eventually ambled off the trail and allowed me to pass. The route continued up to Providence Pass. It was easy going and stunningly beautiful. I’d love to come back here in wildflower season, I’m sure it would be mind-blowing.
For some reason, I thought the trail would be in good shape from Providence Pass to Kakwa, this was not the case. The trail was intermittently muddy and completely disappeared into bogs. I spent way too much time peering into the distance for trail markers, and scanning the bogs for trampled grass which could indicate the trail. Eventually I got my phone out so I could follow the GPS track. I noticed a note about a km ahead on the route which stated “trail reappears”. Oh, so that’s why I couldn’t find the trail! I took some deep breaths and practiced more zen.
From Providence Pass all the way down to Kakwa, bear prints appeared on the route. Initially it was just one set of prints, but over time the trail began to look like a bear super highway. I took to having loud conversations with myself, and made up some trail tunes. Check out the YouTube video to hear a sample.
Eventually I made it down to Kakwa Lake, and it was incredible! I had thought I’d find lots of people here, so I was intending to just have some dinner and then continue my hike up the Mt Rose shoulder. However, the place was completely empty and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to dry out all my gear and enjoy a sleep in the public cabin. This was my first (and only) day with no rain on this trip, and what a treat it was to enjoy an entire evening at the cabin. It felt like a total reset on the whole trip.
I woke up on Day 3 puffy-faced and ready to tackle the day. The day began with a long climb up Big Shale Hill. The trail was well-maintained, and the views above treeline were spectacular. Big Shale Hill definitely felt like more of a mountain than a hill, and I’ve decided to include it in my 2021 Summit Project. The views on this summit were a definite highlight for my day.
I jog/hiked down the shale on the other side. The route was fairly well-defined, and the footing was perfect for a little trot. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The route off Big Shale Hill ended in a bog, and I temporarily went off route before spotting the GDT trail marker. Bogs were my nemesis throughout this trip, and I eventually learned that I should check my bearings whenever I encountered one.
The route to Morkill Pass was easy to follow, but a bit overgrown with branches. I noticed many half-eaten mushrooms along the trail and I wondered what animal could be making such a mess, I didn’t think it was a bear. Soon I came across my first porcupine of the trip and I had my answer. The porcupine was super cute, and at this point in my trip I hadn’t learned to dislike them yet.
The trail down from the pass was muddy with intermittent bogs, but if you stayed on route it wasn’t too terrible. The Morkill River valley and Morkill Pass camp were lovely. I enjoyed a nice stop for lunch in the sun.
Travel up to the col on Mount Morkill was easy going and so beautiful, Day 3 was turning into one highlight reel after another. I could see myself camping in this area for several days and just exploring. Coming off Mount Morkill the trail was fairly well-defined, but I soon found myself harassed by a pair of falcons. The falcons squawked and dove at me while I ran from one group of trees to another to try to take cover. The birds never made contact, but it was pretty scary. I was happy when they finally relented as I began to make my way up to Fetherstonhaugh Pass.
It was during the grind up to Fetherstonhaugh that I realized there was no way I was going to be able to stick to my arbitrary itinerary. I was just moving way too slowly. In retrospect, I think I underestimated how much it would slow me down carrying a heavier pack loaded up with warm weather gear, 8 days of food and a stove/fuel. I never weighed the pack (I don’t own a scale), but it definitely made the climbs more challenging. I also was slowed by the mud and route finding. Although it wasn’t too terrible on Day 3, there were frequent occasions when I’d lose 5 minutes or so wondering off into a bog or following a game trail. Lastly, I’d just been kind of lazy. Not getting going early in the morning, stopping well before sunset, and enjoying my breaks.
The view at the top of Fetherstonhaugh was lovely and I sat on a rock for a bit reflecting on my inability to make more daily progress. I made peace with a revised, more conservative schedule. I texted my friend using my Zoleo to let her know I was going to take an extra day on the trail, and that I wasn’t going to be able to meet up with her as planned. It felt really good to let go of expectations.
A hail storm chased me off the Fetherstonhaugh ridge. I was running and laughing as I got pelted by Moher Nature. This trail was wild! The storm subsided and I was greeted by another incredible rainbow. I made good time to Casket Creek, following a trail which I sometimes lost in overgrown willows, or became so faint as to almost be invisible in the long grasses.
It was still early when I reached Casket Creek, however it didn’t look like there was a reliable water source to camp at prior to the next marked camp at Sheep Creek. I didn’t want to get lost hiking in the dark so I enjoyed an extended dinner and promised myself I’d push further tomorrow.