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Great Divide

Aaron met my eyes as we leaned against our trekking poles, catching our breath as a summer storm poured driving rain down on top of us.

"I think we need to change our plans," he said. "I don't think we can do this."

I didn't answer right away. Beside us, the tastefully named Owen Creek churned its way down from the alpine, still somewhere high above us. We'd been following its course for five hours--the first early steps of a planned five-day adventure. The weather had turned; we were cold, and wet. Around us, the Rocky Mountains loomed out of the clouds like citadels.

"Lets just keep going," I told Aaron. "We've been planning this for months. I don't want to trash it all so soon."

Aaron took a breath. Nodded. Adjusted his hood to ward off the rain. And we shouldered our heavy packs and continued our climb.

I've known my friend Aaron for more than half of my life. We met on a cultural exchange when we were teenagers, and he's remained one of my best friends ever since, no matter how time and geography have conspired to keep us apart.

We've lived together, traveled across the country together, and counselled each other through good times and bad. He's a wonderful person, an incredible father to three amazing girls, and his wife, Mellissa, happens to be one of my dearest friends as well.

Actually, it was Aaron who first got me into backpacking in the first place. We did a three-day hike in Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta eight years ago, before I'd ever done any backcountry camping or had any wilderness experience whatsoever.

I caught the bug after that trip, and these days I try to do a few big multi-day hikes every summer. I owe that to Aaron. And though we've seen each other plenty since that first Waterton trip, we hadn't hiked out into the wilderness again together since this particular trip.

The adventure had begun the day before, when I picked Aaron up at the airport in Vancouver and we set out in my truck for the Rockies, on the other side of the province. We spent a pleasant day meandering east, skirting lakes and rivers and mountain ranges under blue skies and sun.

That night, we slept in a hotel in Golden, British Columbia, not far from the gates of Yoho National Park, and in the morning we rose early and packed up our trekking backpacks and drove a couple hours further northeast, across the Alberta border, into Banff National Park and up the Icefields Parkway about halfway to Jasper.

There, where the Parkway meets the David Thompson Highway at the Saskatchewan River crossing, we pulled the truck over at a nondescript trailhead, suited up and, after stashing a couple of beers under rocks in nearby Owen Creek, set off down the Great Divide Trail.

Our plan--honed by months of text messages, phone calls, and links shared across the Internet--was an amalgamation of two independently spectacular hikes in the Banff/White Goat Wilderness area in western Alberta.

We intended to hike up Owen Creek to the twin alpine jewels of the Michelle Lakes, then continue north along the GDT through Pinto Lake and up Cataract Creek, where a 3300m peak named Mount Stewart beckoned.

We'd read that the mountain could be hiked to its summit, though judging from the scarcity of trip reports, it wasn't a feat often repeated, and probably never from the Owen Creek approach, which would require that we cross three high mountain passes and hike for two full days before we'd reached Stewart's base on the Cataract.

Still, we're nothing if not ambitious, and we'd both spent the preceding months training for the challenge. So it was with optimistic hearts that we set off up the Owen that morning, with blue sky above us again and fairly flat ground to cover, at least in the early going.

Just as we were starting to feel confident in our plans, the terrain began to grow steadily steeper. This wasn't a surprise; we knew we had to get up and over Owen Pass at 2500m above sea level before we reached Michelle Lakes.

We did begin to encounter some gnarly sections of trail, including a sandy, eroding bank above the (now raging) creek with a flimsy length of climbing rope strung up to assist hikers across. It wasn't an easy traverse in full packs, particularly when a misstep would mean certain injury. We made it across without incident, but I don't think either of us relished the idea of making that same traverse again--especially after the weather turned.

And boy, did it turn. Any trace of that lovely sunny morning seemed to vanish in minutes, and soon we were pulling on our rain gear and buttoning up against a bitter, damp cold that seemed to race down from the alpine, chilling us as we fought our way upward along the riverbank.

The trail wasn't easy to follow here, but we knew we had to follow the river and so pressed on, and as we reached the alpine and the pass opened up ahead of us, the weather turned again, and blue sky and sun once again graced us with their presence, just in time for a relaxing break for lunch.

But the weather wasn't done with us. As we struggled up those last few hundred meters toward the summit of Owen Pass, the clouds fell over us again, limiting our visibility and bringing snow this time--harsh, biting, morale-sapping--as we crested the pass and began to pick our way down the other side to the lakes.

By the time we did reach the lakes, Aaron was pretty shot. The climb and the weather were taking their toll, and I think he was feeling that kind of loneliness that you sometimes get in the wilderness, when you're acutely aware of how far away you are from the people you love most.

He missed Mellissa, his daughters. He worried about an accident happening up here, or on that sketchy riverside traverse, and leaving him unable to care for his family. I could see in his eyes that this had stopped being fun, and when he suggested again that we call an audible on our plans and make camp at Michelle Lakes, I was ready to listen.

Our initial plan had been to bypass the lakes on the outward leg, and continue over the next mountain pass to a campsite on the other side. We would enjoy the lakes on the way back, after we'd climbed Mount Stewart. But there seemed no sense in torturing ourselves if we weren't having fun; it was nearly five in the evening, after all, and the lakes were beautiful and would make a fine objective in their own right.

Just as we'd finished picking out our campsite, however, the sun came out again. And Aaron, feeling rejuvenated by our break or maybe just peer-pressured, let me convince him that he could conquer the next pass, as we'd planned.

Whatever gave him that new burst of energy, Aaron crushed that next section of trail. I could see it wasn't easy for him and that the scope of the hike was probably beyond what he'd been expecting when we plotted it out on paper. But man, did he conquer that pass, as challenging as it must have been physically and mentally. And he did it with the relentlessly positive attitude that has always been his trademark in trying times.

By five past six we were standing atop Michelle Pass, at 2590m the highest point on the entire 1130km Great Divide Trail. The clouds had come back, but the snow was holding off, and we stood there for a few minutes, exhausted but proud of ourselves.

Ahead of us, the terrain descended again into Waterfall Valley, where we'd planned to set up camp for the night, and over the next couple of hours we dropped again steadily in elevation, until we'd arrived at a flat spot at the bottom of the valley and decided to make camp.

One thing that I've picked up from Aaron and our first Waterton hike together is a fanatical adherence to bear awareness. The Rocky Mountains are grizzly country, and though I've camped in grizzly territory plenty, I'm still very much aware that this is *their* turf, and we're just (smaller, weaker) visitors.

So I was glad to have Aaron with me as we cooked our dinners and set up our tents, and looked for sensible places to stash our food for the night. Then, confident that we'd taken all necessary steps to avoid any unwanted visitors in the night, we crawled into our sleeping bags as the last light of day disappeared behind the ramparts of the mountains, and the temperature outside steadily dropped.

It felt like it could snow again, and I was glad I'd sprung for a posh ultralight, ultrawarm sleeping bag for the trip. We'd had a big day, and tomorrow would be more of the same: another mountain pass to conquer, a few river crossings, and a preparation for an assault on Mt. Stewart's summit.

But those would be tomorrow's problems. Tonight, I lay my head down, snuggled into my sleeping bag, and fell quickly asleep, tired but so very content. I'm never happier than when I'm in the wilderness, and it was all the greater comfort to have accomplished so much with a dear friend, and to have so much more fun ahead of us.

To be continued...


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