When a Fall Backpacking Trip Becomes a Winter Adventure

October 18, 2016 § 1 Comment

The 14 day forecast for Banff looked like the following when we checked 2 days before our 10 day hiking excursion: Sun ————— Sun. You couldn’t ask for better conditions. Sun in the valley doesn’t necessarily mean sun in the high country, but it shouldn’t differ by much. Typically weather can be highly localized in the mountains, and an afternoon shower or snow shower should be expected in the middle of September. I had chosen this time of year for two reasons. The first being cold temperatures means NO BUGS, and second, cold temperatures means fewer humans. It was two weeks past the normal season end, and we should enjoy a certain level of isolation once we got far enough into the back country.

By the time we arrived there was a weather alert for Monday and Tuesday. Rain was the forecast, however that was in the low country, and really, what are we going to do? Of course we are going in. Sites reserved, and all of us are experienced back country people, and we did come prepared for the cold. There might have been variations in how prepared we were, but we were prepared.

In the illumination of this light, we received a coating of sleet/freezing rain the first night. I awoke 3 or 4 times that night for personal relief, and noticed that the roof of my tarp was hanging extremely close to my face. Further investigation revealed a coating of sleet adhered to the topside of that tarp, and a series of hard palm slaps to the underside loosened a considerable amount of this frozen detritis and combine that with tightening up the guy line supports I was soon well within a zone of open air freedom that I had begun the night with. When we all awoke the next morning, I was greeted with “Was that you pounding on your tarp at who the fuck knows when in the morning?”. That was me. “Did you hear the fucking train as well?”. I did.

I made a deal with Mike Barris. He was our oldest member, and he made a decision to haul his 4 season tent into the wilderness, and I thought he looked like he was struggling with it, so I offered him a trade. My 1 pound tarp and associated ropes for his 7+ pound tent. I am bigger, and I have the lung capacity and the stamina to take the load. He agreed and I upped my ante. We pulled out and headed for Red Deer Lakes under partly cloudy skies, with a West wind.

I think it is fair to say that it is the big passes that you notice on a map, but it is the little ones that you notice with your legs. The hike to Red Deer Lakes included one monumental Deception Pass (Remeber, there is always something in a name), but as it turns out there were actually 3 passes on the docket that day. Boulder Pass, Deception Pass, and Jones Pass. It was a 3 pass day! Now technically, to get to Deception, you had to go through Boulder, and the loss of elevation after Boulder was minimal. In fact I have never seen a pass with such a large body of water on any side, as Boulder Pass. Lake Ptarmigan sits about 50 meters below the pass, and once you lose that 50 meters, then it is elevation gain to Deception Pass. Jones was really nothing except that it meant that the Merlin Basin didn’t really drain anywhere. It was a giant bowl. Nice place for a lodge, and if you think that lodge hiking would be fun, then certainly check out Skoki Lodge.

I would say that we reached Red Deer Lakes without much issue. It wasn’t a long day, but since our packs were still near maximum, and mine was now heavier with Mike Barris’s tent, we were all ready to unload, make camp and enjoy our second night in the woods. No sooner had we established camp, and gathered enough wood for 3 days of fire, then the skies opened up and 2+ inches of fresh real not-sleet snow fell upon us. It was heaven. No wind, just light large flakes falling from the sky, and within an hour it was over.

Unbeknownst to me, Drew Butler had ventured out into the meadows after establising camp and fire wood and captured some android panoramas, and once we filtered/steri-penned enough water for the evening and morning we all decided to go back out into the meadow to see how the landscape had changed. The before and after was remarkable, and when Drew Butler posts his pictures, I will import them into this album as a reference point. Spectacular! Awesome! Mind numbing in a good way (Donald Trump #FuckTrump2016 and his supporters are mind numbing in a bad way). The sheer beauty of it all. Drew Butler was psyched, being a snow boarding youth, and he came up to me and thanked me heartily for this experience. His spirits as well as our spirits were over flowing.

While we were out in the meadow, we heard a human sound to the East and looking across the meadow we saw a human, and we both waved wildly to each other. Wildly is a strong term, and perhaps my readers will all conjure an image of wild men in the back country waving their arms like lunatics, but we were happy to see them, and they were happy to see us.

After returning to the warmth of the camp fire, Rich and Christine walked in and we greeted them warmly. Fire is a great friend maker, and a fire with scotch and beer is an even better friend maker. We met, we introduced, and we let them go set up camp and we went to make dinner. Let me say something about the camp sites. Each camp site has capacity for roughly 8-10 tents, though the Parc Administrators will only issue reservations for minimum of 5 at most sites. This allows for the unexpected as sometimes (we would learn first hand) planned plans don’t always go as planned. For Rich and Christine, their unplanned hurdle occured when Christine stepped on a 2×4 that had 16 penny nails nailed though one side and placed around a back-country ranger cabin that had had pretty frequent nuisance bear activity, and though the authorities did sign the area with warnings, Christine didn’t see any of these warnings and stepped upon one of these deterents and injured her heal. So they were moving slower than they normally would and therefore they were our camp mates for the evening even though I held all the reservations for that site.

My wife Susan gave me a bunch of 600mg Ibuprofen and I offered Christine a few for her obvious pain. For me these were get-out-of-pain free cards. That statement reads a little excessive. Discomfort is probably the better word. At this point in my trip I was really bearing down tightly on the hip belt adjusters clinging to the old school advice of “Let your hips carry the weight” and use your shoulder straps to stabilize the load. That is good adivce if you have hips! I, weil, not so much. What I ended up doing was creating sore spots on my hips from lack of circulation, and I solved this later by tightening my shoulder straps to shift the load a little higher. The ibuprofen help with this discomfort, and I brought enough for the whole trip and then some, so I was happy to extend some of my supply to Christine. Rich, her husband was so damn Canadian in his politeness I practically had to fight him to take more than 1!. “Please take 3! That will get Christine out of the park”. In Canada, 400 can be purchased over the counter, and Andy had given her a bunch of those as well.

After we both had supped, we all gathered around the fire to tell some tales, extend friendships, smoke some smokes, drink some drinks (Scotch and Beer), and throw drying wood upon the fire. The sky was clear, stars were noted, Northen Lights never appeared, and yawns began to permeate the crowd, and soon we all turned in for the evening. Food was hung, and sleep was enjoyed.

Since this is a posting about snow, and weather, I will fast forward into Wildflower. After finding Wildflower

we probably should have verified and scouted the trail that we would follow the next day, but we set up camp, built a fire and executed our dinner needs all while I mixed up batches of black and tans with robot like efficiency. We smoked some smokes and drank some drinks, and before long the night was old and we retired to our tents for the big day. Pusatilla Pass awaited us.

Funny thing about snow. It makes a noise when it hits the tent fly, but once it accumulates, it no longer makes any noise. Winds were non-existent, and once it started around midnight, the only clue that it snowed all night was that because of the “Drinks were drunk” clause in the previous paragraph, I had to get up at night to pee 4 times, and each time I felt the snow upon my exposed neck, and of course, I could see the level of the snow rise around me, and secondly, my warm pee holes got deeper and deeper in the surrounding snow. It was snowing.

Tuesday morning we awoke to a steady and solid snowfall of huge flakes. The temperature was just around freezing, and there was no wind. We concluded that we should skip breakfast, but we should down energy bars, and we should break camp as quickly as possible. We had a relatively long way to go, but there was 10″ at least on the ground, and that number would only rise as it continued to snow, and as we gained elevation. I feel like we did a good job getting camp broken down. Our third night out, my second night sharing a tent with Scott Hellier, we all did well breaking everything down. Mike Barris and I exchanged our tent loads, and we all suited up in our gore-tex shells and pants. Those with gaitors put them on, and soon we were heading out.

Out the East side of camp where there was a strong “switch” (or ax mark in the tree) which was followed by another strong mark and etc until etc petered out. Hmmm. Where the hell is the trail? It was too damn early for the trail to be lost already! Word came in that a blaze sighting had been made on the opposite side of the creek, and since this was a crossing that was considerably East of where we had crossed the day before, it seemed like the right thing to do. The map indicated we had to gain elevation quickly, and once across the creek we gained elevation quickly. I should note here that at this point all seemed good. We had expectations, and those expectations were met by the trail conditions we encountered. We followed blazes, and we followed folds in the snow that indicated a trail, and though our ability to orient based on the surrounding peaks was compromised by the falling snow, we all felt good. We pressed on with Jim Kirby, Drew Butler and myself alternating the role as lead and breaking trail. When Drew wasn’t leading he was second in line as his vision, and trail reading abilities was second to none, and he helped us stay on course. There were more than a few instances of wandering off course only to have Drew get us back on course, but none of these diversions ever amounted to a huge amount of time.

Eventually we arrived at a meadow. When it comes to meadows in the back-country they usually mean one thing, and one thing only. It is too damn wet for anything significant to root, and the trail should hug the edge, rather than venture into the morass. Remember Frodo and Sam? Stay out of the meadow. Our trail appeared to do just that, sometimes gaining elevation but always returning to the edge, but at some point the edge disappeared and we could see in the middle of the meadow, a lone tree with 1) branches cut back, and 2) a bigger clue, a sign. So across the meadow we ventured, to the sign. Clearly we were meant to cross the meadow here, so even though we couldn’t see another blaze, or tree, or sign, we crossed, and it was fine. Minor water hazards crossed, but we found ourselves on the other side, and we found a blaze. All is good until we walk about another 40 meters, and the trail disappears again.

This time it is different. We have been hiking 3 hours so far. There is no obvious direction, the mountains still cannot be seen, however ahead we could make out a hill that had slopes to the left and right. The trail could go either way. It looked enough like a flat spot on the map, but it wasn’t a dead ringer. So I went right, Scott Hellier went left, and Larry and Drew went forward, leaving Mike and Andy to “Hold the fort”. Jim came with me. I walked about .4 K up this open rock strewn snow covered expanse but never found anything that looked like a blaze, or had any branch trimming. Scott didn’t get far, and Larry and Drew came back with some hopefull signs.

We spent more than an hour at this loss point and were considering moving on. Drew and I decide to pull out our phones and turn them on. No there was no service, but we could potentially get a GOS reading. The GPS device that I did bring, I apparently left it on and drained the battery, and without spares that was lost. The phones however were charged, but it is a funny thing about them. Once powered up, it takes a while for them to orient themselves. For example, when asked the day before how much further we had, I powered up my phone, and it took nearly 5 minutes before the blue dot moved from the last position that phone had known to our current position at that time. And since I had downloaded all the google map terrain tiles it was enought to “know” were we were. Well, I expected the same treatment today. Phone on the blue dot was where we were yesterday, and I was waiting for the unil to lock in and orient itself. It didn’t appear to do that and I concluded that the moisture was the issue, and I turned it off. Drew’s device said the same thing.

It was at this point that I felt I had to exert my authority as the trip planner. Democracy is fine and dandy, but when it comes to safety, I invited all these people to come with me, and though they may not feel like I was responsible for them, I felt like I was responsible for them, and so I said, we are done with Pusatilla Pass. At best we are 3K from the top and then 3K from the camp below the pass, and that is 6K navigating where so far we haven’t been navigating all that well in 3K. We would retreat to Wildflow, build a fire, dry out, and decide there what our plan would be.

Agreement reached we headed back. I just didn’t want to be “That Group” that thought they had the skills, and then did stupid things. I think we were far from danger at that point. The conditions were clearing, the temperatures were near freezing, and there was no wind. We could have camped right there, but based on the nature of the park, it was best to retreat to a designated site where the facilities, tent, food, and hang were superior to our current location.

Once heading back, it didn’t take long to get back. Trail was broken, we simply followed our own footsteps back. Within an hour we were clearing snow from the tent sites, and setting up the tents. With my sleeping pad inflated, and my bag out, I reasoned I could get warm by dressing in my dry clothes and crawling into my bag to recover, however once I was in my bag, I realized that was the wrong thing to do. I should be outside helping to gather wood and to get the fire going. That act alone would keep me warm, and once the fire was started I could dry out the clothes I was wearing. If I wore my dry clothes outside and they got wet, then where would I be? By the time I got up, the snow had stopped falling, and I grabbed my wet clothes and headed for the camp fire where to my pleasure, a fire was settled in and my comrades were drying out. Socks, shoes, under garments, jackets, pants, headbands, gloves all being dried at various times. I found that with my height I could hold a shirt above the fire pit and the thermals rising off the flames would inflate the garment, and it would dry from the inside out. Very fast. My undershirt, my compression long sleeved, my pants, all dried out quickly and picked up that unique camp fire smell. Socks, boots, and boot insoles dried out. Personally, on this day, my boots and socks were not that bad. Not like others in the group. We eventually gathered water and boiled enough for dinner. I wasn’t feeling like beer that night but I did take some Scotch. After dinner I helped Mike dry out the rest of his things and before the night was over we had come to a conclusion.

Wednesday we would get up early, and have a traditional Oatmeal breakfast, and then we would hike out the way we had come in. The logic being that we couldn’t find the trail yesterday, what made us think we could find it today, and what lay forward was unknown whereas what lay behind us was at least known to us, and we could be out in 2 days. We would hike back to the halfway hut, and damn the rules, we would stay in the hut all night because no one wanted to setup their wet tents again. Then we would hike out Thursday and if the weather was good, get a car camp site, build a fire and dry everything out, including the tents.

I will conclude this story with the following summary. We walked back to our Monday creek crossing and Jim and I with the aide of Drew broke trail back up the horse camp passing a key logistical item on a small Lodgepole Pine. An argyle sock tied to a branch. Now Shelby Mills rightly informed me today that socks come in pairs, but in this respect, this was the same damn sock instance that we passed on Monday. We reached the meadow, the edge of which contains the Baker Creek Horse Camp, and in the middle of the meadow we came upon a well trodden set of footprints. Horay, we wouldn’t have to break trail to get out because some day hikers had come down from Baker, and it would be easy to hike out. Now that we could see, it was clear we simply followed the path to the left side of the meadow and up into the ravine and before long we would emerge back in the big high valley. The day hikers did a great job of breaking trail, and all was good until we came to a point where the foot prints stopped and there were 3 directions, left, right and straight and behind us was a very recognizable switch mark in the tree. Drew was the first one to say “Wait a minute, I recognize this, this is where we were yesterday!”. “What?!” How could that be we were definitely coming out the way we came in, so how could we be in the same spot as yesterday, but then it all made sense. We weren’t where we thought we were yesterday, and the people that had broken trail for us was US. Drew had noticed to himself that the Solomon Boot pattern in the snow looked familiar as 3 of us were wearing Solomon boots.

What this meant was that we weren’t lost today, but we were yesterday, and though we would have figured it out eventually, turning around was the right thing to do the day before, but had we pushed on, we simply would have ended up in the high valley, and would have pushed on back to Red Deer because Baker was camp fire free. This day though, we pushed forward, and for the next 6 kilometers I broke trail with Drew telling me where to go when I had a question, and we all walked out of there. We were tired yes, but we were safe, and we knew we would be safe, and we would have one hell of a yarn to tell.

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