A Compulsive Decision – Overcome Fear
This September Labor Day long weekend I made a compulsive-ish decision to solo hike/camp in the Canadian Rocky Mountains for eight days. It was compulsive-ish because I had never driven over 800km in one day, or hiked/camped at multiple locations for eight days all by myself. So many things could go wrong — eaten by grizzly, raped and killed by criminals, or fall off cliffs. Besides these tragic deaths, the most humiliating ending is I lived but sat around campsite doing nothing, going nowhere, totally paralyzed by the fear of the unknown.
I have to go, have to hike these famous trails. All is well planned. If I don’t go now, I would never go by myself – the rest of my life I would have to always rely on others. I would always be a slave to my fear. I told myself, “It’s now or never!”
The actual trip turned out to be much more fun and exciting than my worst projection. Guess that’s why wise people say, your worst enemy is your fear. Before I set out, my mental projection of all the possible wrongs was more real than real life. But once I hit the road, the beautiful weather and fresh air immediately gave me pleasant feelings. The drive from Vancouver to Lake Louise was pure enjoyment – the view got better and better.
Golden and The Other Side of It
I did stop at Golden and stayed at a friend’s place for the first night because I didn’t have camping reservation for that night. I wasn’t sure if I could get campsite at Hoodoo Creek or Takakkaw Falls — two first come first serve campgrounds. My reasoning was it was Sunday, sites were already taken on previous nights, and people wouldn’t leave until Monday Labor Day. The next day at Takakkaw Falls campground, looking at mostly unoccupied campsites I asked the warden whether the campground was full last night. He told me only twenty out of thirty sites were occupied. I asked, how so? He said, because kids went back to school. Ahh.
Life is full of surprises. If I didn’t stop at Golden, however, I wouldn’t know this beautifully named little town so intimately — I wouldn’t know the things that tourism websites and magazines wouldn’t tell you.
Golden boasts the cradle of Columbia River and Wetlands, a BC designated heritage river and the largest wetlands in North America. In the arms of surrounding mountains, it runs all the way to Oregon, United States, supplying significant amount of hydroelectricity. At sunset and sunrise, golden lights and shadows of clouds paint a beautiful tapestry on the wetlands. Once you get out of your car, however, it turns out to be the largest mosquito swamp. Applying after-bite on my whole back, my friend and her monastery sisters laughed and said, that’s why we never wear tight clothes, only loose clothes, and look how many bottles of OFF on the window sill? I said, Ahh, I see.
On Top of Mount St. Piran – Change of Plan
The rest of the trip was full of surprises. Things worked out magically, and better than I planned. As wise people say, even the seemingly perfect plan needs to change on battlefields.
On top of Mount St. Piran looking over Lake Louise, I met a retired hiking guide couple from Banff. They told me not to go down Mount St. Piran from west side — the scree slope is too steep and dangerous – go down the same way I come up and return to Lake Agnes. While taking a lunch break, I told them my next day trip to Lake O’Hara. Due to high demand, I only got to stay one night at Lake O’Hara campground. I was planning to do the lower circuit on the first day and the Alpine Circuit on the second day. After hearing my plan, they strongly suggested I should take the first bus next day, set up tent or leave it at the campground storage room, do Alpine Circuit the first day, and do Odaray trail and Lake McArthur on the second day. They assured me there would be enough time to do the Alpine Circuit if I took the first bus. Odaray trail goes through wildlife corridor. So the park has restriction, only allowing two groups a day. On the second day, I could get up early and do Odaray and Lake McArthur. They assured me Lake McArthur totally worth seeing.
The meeting with these two retired hiking guides set my whole plan straight. I was wondering how I was going to change my bus reservation for the next day. I would have to cut short of my Lake Louise hike, get down the mountain, run back to the village where there was phone reception, and make the call before 4pm the office closes. I tentatively turned on the phone and surprisingly on top of Mount St. Piran my phone had four bars of signal. I immediately dialed Lake O’Hara reservation office. Like before, the office girl tried to talk me out of it. She said, campground checkout time is 10:30am, even if you arrive early, you have to wait for the site to be clear and set up tent before you hike. You must set up your tent before you hike, do you understand? She repeated. But this time I wasn’t easily persuaded. I told her, I will take the chance, please change my bus to 8:30am.
That night Lake Louise had a terrible thunderstorm. The lighting lit up the whole sky, the thunder cracked right above my head, and I was sleeping alone in a tent. It lasted for about one hour. Laying in the tent, I couldn’t help but wonder what conditions were like in Lake O’Hara which was only 15 minutes drive from Lake Louise. But I couldn’t do anything, so I felt asleep.
Wiwaxy Pass – Wrong Turn
The next day the air was fresh, thick white clouds hanging in the blue sky, and no water residuals on the grounds as if the thunderstorm only washed the village clean. I arrived at Lake O’Hara campground before 9am and some campers had already packed and left. I set up the tent and immediately head to the Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit.
The rising sun was breaking through thick white clouds, casting a shaft of light on the turquoise lake, and the peaks blowing white steams from rising temperate. Lake O’Hara truly lived to its reputation, and the thunderstorm of previous night added extra drama to its natural beauty.
I hiked the Alpine Circuit clockwise. From Lake O’Hara shoreline trail I climbed up to Wiwaxy Pass, traversed Huber Ledge to Oesa Lake for lunch, continued on Hungabee Ledge to Opabin Lake, and took All Soul’s Prospect to return to the campground. The trail to Wiwaxy Pass was very steep switchbacks. After Wiwaxy Pass, the trail simply disappeared into rubble and stone walls. It didn’t look passable from afar.
I took a small break at Wiwaxy Pass. There were a few hikers resting and taking photos at the pass as well. But I decided to press on. There was no sign pointing to Huber Ledge, and there was only one visible trail going up the rubble and stone wall mountain. I assumed the trail would go up first and then somehow turn right to the invisible ledge. But after climbing up about a hundred meters, the trail simply disappeared into rocks, rubble and shale. Looking back I couldn’t see the trail I came from either, only rocks, shale and rubble, and people resting at the pass like tiny dots. I was strained on a rock wall.
Going down rubble slope was extremely dangerous. Rubble slid and rocks flew down with very step I took. I started cursing. I wasn’t sure how I made such a big mistake. One minute I was safe at the pass with others, next minute I was on the verge of falling of a stone wall, and it was too humiliating to shout at people below for help. Luckily after a few sliding steps I managed to return to the trail I came from and safely descended to the pass. Later I realized that trail was for scramblers ascending Wiwaxy peak.
The rest of the trail was safe and awe-inspiring. I met some hikers on the trail, had lunch at Oesa Lake, took hundreds of photos of the lakes, mountains, and marmots, and finished the loop in eight hours as I planned.
Communal Campfire – Form a Hiking Group
Lake O’Hara had the best organized campground I had ever seen. Cooking and eating wasn’t allowed in the tent area. There was a separate area for kitchens, washrooms, picnic tables, food lockers, storage shed, and a big fire ring. Everything other than sleep was done there – a communal square like village/town squares from medieval Europe where everything was discussed and resolved.
I shared a picnic table with a young couple who just got off the bus and assured them how beautiful the Alpine Circuit was. At one table people were cooking stakes and sipping wines. Eating my dehydrated meal, I was amazed how some people really knew how to enjoy their lives. At the big fire ring, someone already started the fire and quite a few people already formed a circle around the fire, some were roasting sausages, some sipping wines, others simply chatting and smiling. I found a spot and sat down with them. Having nothing to roast, I took off my boots, took out the damp insoles to dry over the fire. Another woman gladly joined me.
Due to wildlife corridor and berry season, the restrictions for Odaray trail was two groups a day and at least four people per group. During conversations, I found out a young couple were going to hike Odaray trail next day as well. We agreed to meet at the fire ring at 8am next day. According to the forecast, the weather would be perfect next day. We were all excited and looking forward to taking lots of good photos.
Odaray, Lake McArthur, and All Soul’s Prospect
As a trail name, All Soul’s Prospect is very unique and mouthful. And true to its name, on All Soul’s Prospect, you could see the whole Alpine Circuit clearly. I decided to hike that section again after Odaray and Lake McArthur – I wanted to see what it looked like on a cloudless day and wondered if the pictures would look better with a pure blue sky – and then come down from West Opabin Trail to Lake O’Hara lower circuit. I planned to do it in eight hours and catch 4:30pm bus.
Odaray was at north of Lake O’Hara and Lake McArthur. When I reached Odaray viewpoint, I could see Lake O’Hara and Lake McArthur cradled by surrounding giants. But the timing was wrong for photography. The sun blared through my camera lens and the lakes were in dark shadows from towering mountains. When I reached Lake McArthur, it was the same situation. An overcast or cloudy sky would be better for photos. Later I compared the photos I took on All Soul’s Prospect on two different days, and I liked the ones taken on the first day with thick clouds better.
Lake Moraine – Change of Plan, Again
At the planning stage, most information I found about Lake Maraine was its stressful parking situation. People claimed you had to get to parking lot before 5am and the Moraine road would be closed by 6am. So I planed to get up 4am.
However, on the day I met the retired hiking guide couple on top of Mount St. Piran, I also found out that there was another non-stressful and cheap way to travel to Lake Moraine. On Lake Louise parking lot, I asked a bus staff about the bus to lake Moraine. She told me I could drive to Ride & Park to catch “Early Bird” bus for Lake Moraine. Free parking, plenty of parking spaces, and bus schedules were 6am, 6:30am, 7am, and 7:30am, and the last return bus was 5:20pm.
It really took a lot of stress of my shoulders. I arrived at Park & Ride before 7am, and the huge parking lot was mostly empty. It took me a few minutes to find a makeshift ticket booth. Only a few people were in the line. Someone was brushing teeth. I asked if I was in the right line. They said yes. By the time I was going to pay for my return ticket, the cashier told me the credit card machine died and she gave me a free return ticket.
The bus arrived at Lake Moraine’s tiny parking lot before 7:30am. I could see cars parked at every possible corner. I was glad how smooth my trip was. The downside was I didn’t see the sunrise. When I got there, the big crowds were scattering out. Some were still lingering on top of Rockpile. An East Indian family asked me to take a family picture of them. In exchange I asked them to show me the sunrise picture I missed. It was truly beautiful. Lake Moraine locates at the Valley of Ten Peaks. Above the turquoise lake the peaks were all lit up in red light by the rising sun.
After coming down from the Rockpile, I saw some people waiting outside of Lake Moraine Lodge Cafe. It was almost 8am – its open time. I though it was a great idea to grab a coffee and muffin. When I was checking out, the cashier looked at me and said, were you at Lake O’Hara two days ago?
I said, yes.
He said, I was there with my girlfriend. We saw you on the trail.
He told me they came back that day. They didn’t have reservation. I told him I was planning to do Sentinel Pass in one day, Eiffel Lake and Consolation Lake next day. I told him I wasn’t sure if I had time to do both Sentinel Pass and Eiffel Lake in one day. He assured me that I could do both trails in one day as most elevation was gained at the beginning of the trail before it split to two directions, one to Sentinel Pass and the other to Eiffel Lake. From the fork to Eiffel Lake was mainly flat.
I thanked him and headed to the trail immediately. I decided to do Sentinel pass, Eiffel Lake, and Consolation Lake all in one day. The trail to Consolation Lake was only 6km out and back, moderate. It wasn’t worth coming back next day.
I told myself, it’s my training day and I’m going to run the trails.
The Pass to Paradise Valley and Others
Both Lake Moraine and Eiffel Lake locate in the Valley of Ten Peaks, with Lake Moraine at the mouth of the valley and Eiffel Lake at the end of the valley. Lake Moraine and Sentinel Pass are connected by the Valley of Larches – a beautiful open larch trail, most popular when larches turn yellow from mid September to early October. On the other side of Sentinel Pass lies Paradise Valley.
I power hiked up to the fork. After that the trail started to open up. You could see Sentinel Pass ahead of you, with Mount Sentinel spiking up on the left and Mount Temple on the right. Looking back you could see the ten peaks above the tree line.
The trail up Sentinel Pass was very steep switchbacks but totally worth all the effort. Once you reached the pass, what lied ahead of you was breathtaking. The pinnacles of Mount Sentinel pointed at the sky like needles. It was my favorite trail of my entire trip. From the pass the trail continues down to the Paradise Valley. But I had a long day ahead of me and the steep descent would be very hard on my knees.
Resting at the pass, I saw a few hikers wearing helmets. I realized they were scramblers trying to summit Mount Temple. High up there a few dots were moving and a tiny red dot almost reaching the peak. Canadian Rockies are paradise for scramblers.
Going back from Sentinel Pass to the fork was all downhill. The trails to Eiffel Lake and Consolation Lake were pretty flat too. I ran most of them. By the time I finished them all, it was 30km and took me seven hours. I finished it earlier than I thought. On the way back to the campground. I stopped at Lake Louise village and grabbed some eggs and vegetables.
Lake Helen to Cirque Peak – Extra Day
I finished two days hike in one day. Now I had one extra day to explore. I remembered on top of Mount St. Piran the retired hiking guide couple told me one of their favorite trail in the Canadian Rockies was Lake Helen to Cirque Peak. I googled it and it was only twenty-five minutes north of Lake Louise. I decided to go there.
When I arrived at the parking lot after 8am, only a few cars were there. What a contrast to Lake Louise and Lake Moraine. The hike before the lake was uneventful. I only met a mother with her teenager son and her dog. The trail was moderately steep winding through woods. Like Consolation Lake Trail, it was a mushroom paradise.
Close to the lake, the trees suddenly cleared up and the view opened up. Mountain Dolomite, named after Italian Mountain Dolomite for the same rock formation and their resemblance, stoop up at the right side with a halo from the rising sun at the back.
When I reached Lake Helen, a few people were already there. The trail going up Cirque Peak looked formidably steep and my legs were tired from previous days’ hike/run. I could see a few people on the pass, some were climbing up the ridge to the peak. I continued on. From the pass the view was already great. The higher you climb up the ridge, the more you can see the surrounding lakes, mountains and glaciers. Two thirds up the ridge, the scree slope became so steep and slippery that climbing up with hiking poles was difficult. Although the ridge was wide enough that it didn’t pose actual danger, I decided to turn back. I was satisfied with the views I saw. Going down was surprisingly easier than I thought except that extremely steep section I stopped.
On the way down, a group of clouds suddenly blocked the sun and cast beautiful shadows on the landscape. I immediately took out my camera and snapped more photos. When I reached the pass, many people were climbing up. One father with his teenager son saw me hiking alone and warned me that someone spotted a bear on the trail.
I didn’t see the bear but two rangers investigating the area. Someone reported the bear encounter and the rangers surely acted seriously and fast.
I returned to Lake Louise campground in the early afternoon. The shower room was empty. I took a long hot shower, charged my batteries, cooked a great noodle soup with leftover vegetables, read my book. The whole campground was quiet and peaceful. I wished I had brought my hammock.
I got to bed early that night so I could have an early start. Usually the highway from Hope to Vancouver became very busy on Sunday afternoons. But that day the traffic wan’t bad. After nine hours drive, one stop at Tim Horton’s and another at A&W, I got home safely.