*I killed the phone which I brought along to take photos during this adventure. Hence, no photos 😦
I hadn’t done a ton of backpacking in my life, and all of the backpacking that I had done was with family, where someone else is doing all of the planning. But, the more I adventured and explored with my trail running, the more I wanted to try backpacking on my own. Still, I kept putting it off … I think I was scared.
Via Facebook I have watched as my friend Leslie adventures around the world on solo backpack trips. Following along with those excursions gave me courage to try a (mini) adventure myself. I bought a tent and a Jetboil stove, mapped out a route, and set out on an adventure. I didn’t have a lot of time, so here was my itinerary.
Friday – finish work at 6pm. Get out hiking from the Elbow Day Use Area by 7:30pm. Camp at the North Fork of the Elbow. (Distance and elevation were not calculated beforehand.)
Saturday – hike over Paradise Pass, through the valley and up over Piper Pass. Continue down to Little Elbow Trail. Follow Little Elbow down to Romulus Campground. Hike up to Talus Lakes to spend the night. 45km, 2400m+
Sunday – Scramble up Mount Cornwall. Hike back to the car via the Glasgow drainage and the Big Elbow Trail. 20km, 1000m+
I wasn’t really thinking when I came up with this plan. 7:30pm is very late to be setting out on a backpacking trip. Also, I was headed into terrain which had been heavily affected by the 2013 flood and I didn’t have any recent beta. I ran (shuffled) most of the first 11km, knowing that I would soon run out of daylight. It felt a little weird to run with such a large backpack, and there was definitely some chafing going on, but it wasn’t too bad.
I made it 11km to the Romulus campground before the sun had fully set. I briefly contemplated just camping at Romulus, but I was determined to random camp. In my eyes, tent pads and bear lockers were cheating. I couldn’t find a way to ford the Elbow River without getting my feet wet, so after wasting a few minutes I just walked across in my shoes. I knew that this meant I would likely spend 3 straight days in wet shoes, and I wondered how was that going to feel.
After a little bushwhacking I found a trail heading in generally the right direction higher up above the valley. I didn’t want to follow the official Evan Thomas Trail down in the valley because I was certain it would be covered in flood debris with multiple river crossings. The alternate trail I found was too steep/narrow/technical for running so I just hiked as quickly as I could. The sun set and I found myself tripping over roots. Time to take out my headlamp.
It soon became apparent that there was no way I could possibly make it to the North Fork of the Elbow tonight. It was time to find a place to camp in the woods. This proved to be tougher than I had anticipated as I was traversing across a densely forested steep slope. Finding a flat clearing big enough for a tent took me nearly 30 minutes! Now it was time to hang my food.
I had never set up a bear hang before, but before heading out on this trip I had practiced on our backyard tree. I put a rock in a sock and tied the sock to one end of the rope. I found the perfect overhanging branch over a dry drainage and succeeded on my first throw. Wow! I am a pro at this! My forest camping spot was surprisingly cozy and I slept like a log. Day 1 totals = 16km, 600m+
The next morning I woke with the sun and headed straight out on the trail, sights set on getting up Paradise Pass. I have only been to Paradise Pass once before, and it left a lasting impression as one of the most beautiful alpine meadows in Kananaskis. My trail continued to traverse across the steep slope towards Evan Thomas Pass, occasionally it would be interrupted by old avalanche paths. I would have to climb up and over the steep edges of these paths and across very loose rubble. I discovered that scrambling with a tent on your back is not as easy as scrambling with a running pack.
After what seemed to be an eternity I made it to the Evan Thomas Pass junction. Here I took a left and began my hike up towards Paradise Pass. The meadow was beautiful and I was in good spirits – it was time to reach my first obstacle. The area below the pass is a marsh filled with shrubs, and I soon lost the trail as the shrubs obscured the path. I could see the pass up ahead, so the lack of a trail didn’t bother me at first. Unfortunately the marsh proved to be very challenging terrain, with small, knee deep streams meandering their way around islands of of soft, muddy, shoe-sucking moss. I don’t possess the vocabulary to describe it accurately. By the time I made it to the other side I was very wet, very dirty, and maybe even a little grouchy. It was time for a break.
I took out the Jetboil and brewed up some instant coffee. It was amazing! This is when I learned a crucial backpacking lesson – do not attempt to navigate before drinking at least one cup of coffee. The coffee was accompanied by a few Oreos and some trail mix. Breakfast of champions!
The rest of my hike up to Paradise Pass was seamless. The views were as spectacular as I remembered and I took a few moments just to soak it all in. I ran down the steep slope with pure joy, filled with gratitude to be able to go on this grand adventure! Part way down the slope I found a very good horse trail which led me through the forest to the valley. In the valley there was more flood debris, so I spent some time bushwhacking, but I soon found a reasonable enough looking trail. The trail led me through alpine meadows, with mountains towering on either side. The bushes were loaded with bear berries so I sang as I hiked. Thankfully no bears were to be found anywhere.
The further I hiked, the more faint the trail became. Soon the trail was indistinguishable and I found myself bushwhacking up very steep terrain. I checked my map – it showed the trail heading straight up the drainage, so I angled right and soon found myself hiking along a gurgling stream. The valley narrowed, with cliff walls on either side. An avalanche had come through here earlier in the spring and the drainage was choked with the remnant, very icy snow. It was August and I hadn’t thought to bring my spikes. I scrambled over the steep snow very carefully. I could hear water rushing through underneath me and I envisioned myself falling through the snow into the icy water at any moment. When I reached the top of the slope I breathed a huge sign of relief.
I scrambled up into the bowl below Piper Pass, my mind set on relaxing for a few minutes and enjoying some lunch. I looked across the mountain tarn and was surprised to see people?! I hadn’t seen or heard anyone all weekend. I think we were all equally shocked to see each other. The group continued their hike up to the pass while I enjoyed some coffee and Oreos dipped in pistachio pudding. It was heaven.
I still had a long way to go before reaching Talus Lakes so I couldn’t take too long for lunch. I scrambled up to the top of the pass, passing the group of backpackers and ran down the other side. At one point my path was blocked my a family of bighorn sheep. They did not seem at all interested in moving out of the way so I walked straight through the middle of them. It was my only wildlife encounter of the weekend.
I knew this part of the route well and it passed quickly as I combined a mix of running and walking, depending on what my legs felt like doing. Soon I was down on the Little Elbow Trail and headed up to my 4th pass of the day. I stopped and chatted with a couple of mountain bikers before jogging the 5km down from the pass to Romulus Campground. This trail is quite boring, but if you run it is not so bad. From Romulus I only had 4 or 5km up to Talus Lakes. By this point I was tired so I stopped for a dinner of Triscuits with mozzarella cheese and pepperoni sticks. Some cyclocrossers stopped by and we compared notes. I had hiked 40km, with 2000m of climbing – they had cycled from Canmore all they way over here and around the 42km Elbow Loop! An epic journey which combined pavement, gravel and trail. Honestly, I didn’t even know covering that kind of terrain in a single day on a bike was possible. I was (still am) very impressed.
I reached the Talus Lakes at sunset and set up my tent on the edge of the upper lake. I had it in my head that I would wake up to an amazing sunrise on the lake, like I’d seen on Instagram. I soon learned that there is a reason why campsites are normally set back in the trees. The trees provide shelter from the wind. I was exhausted from one of the longest days of hiking in my life, but I hardly got any sleep because my tent was blown sideways in the high winds. The Talus Lakes are a beautiful backcountry camping destination, but I highly recommend that you camp at the lower lake, back in the shelter of the trees.
Sunday morning came, cold and smoky. The wind had blown in the forest fire smoke overnight, and I could taste it with every breath. Having learned my lesson from Saturday, I took the time to drink a couple of cups of coffee before breaking camp.
I wasn’t sure how today’s route was going to go. Would scrambling with a large pack prove to be too much? I decided to ration my food in case going over the mountain proved to be too difficult, and I would have to turn around and detour around the mountain. Going around the mountain would add many kilometres to my route.
Scrambling up Cornwall ended up being one of the highlights of my trip. The rocky bowl was beautiful with interesting rock formations, a gurgling stream and breathtaking views of the surrounding peaks. Even the scree was not particularly challenging, and I reached the col between Cornwall and Outlaw without issue.
The hike up to the summit of Cornwall was cold and smokey. The air was thick and I could barely see the sun. My spirits began to lag a bit, but then the smoke eased off just as I reached the summit. I was able to enjoy my final Triscuit sandwich in the sun before my last descent.
The scree run down was fun, and I crossed paths with some scramblers who were headed up to do the Glasgow-Banded Peak Traverse. They seemed to be starting quite late in the day (and a little off-route) but I’m sure they figured it out.
The hike down the drainage was terrible. It just dragged on … and on…. and on… Down-climbing the waterfalls with my backpack also didn’t seem like a very intelligent option, so I spent significant time route-finding in the brush. Note to future self: there is no reason to ever hike this drainage again. Just stick to the Glasgow ridge and everything will be better.
Eventually I reached end of the drainage. Now it was just a few kilometres back to the car via the Big Elbow Trail. I was out of food and eager to get back so I jogged the rest of the way.
Overall, a very successful weekend out. I’m really looking forward to building on this adventure!
This was a very enlightening trip for me.
- My Saturday hike was a BIG day, and I am certain that I could not string many days like that together. I don’t know how Leslie does it. I definitely need more practice.
- Scrambling/bushwhacking with a bigger pack is not terrible. I wouldn’t want to be on difficult scrambles like that, but moderate terrain is okay.
- All food tastes amazing when you’re backpacking.
- Surprisingly, I didn’t miss not having a fire. There was fire-ban during this trip, but I don’t think I would have taken the time to build one anyway.
- I’m looking forward to getting out for more trips like this, but going longer. The longer you go, the more opportunities to problem solve.