Growing up, my family didn’t camp. Don’t get me wrong, I was extremely hashtagblessed to go on some pretty incredible vacations as a kid, but we were strapping goggles to our face instead of tents to our back and playing Clue in my aunt’s garage instead of playing “let’s pretend dad actually knows how to build a fire” in the woods. If you had told 16-year-old me, “Hey, when you’re 34 you’re going to hike twenty miles deep into grizzly bear country and then sleep in a tent during a snowstorm”, I would’ve flipped my streaked hair and laughed as I walked away in my leopard pants. But then 26-year-old me married a Minnesota boy, discovered her love of the outdoors, and did just that last month in Jasper National Park.
Jasper is just north of Banff and was the second camping destination on our Canadian Rockies road trip. When we were planning, we decided that the best way to experience its incredible scenery was by foot. Since we’re not Bear Grylls, we needed supplies beyond the basics (tent, matches, etc.) we already had. I followed El’s lead when it came to packing because he’s basically Paul Bunyan at heart, and I contribute about as much to that task as a big blue ox. Our living room was soon filled with Amazon Prime boxes, and El would excitedly show me the stuff he bought. Some things were for necessity (camping stove), others were for convenience (mini-fold out stools so we didn’t have to sit on the wet ground), and some I think he bought because it looked f**king cool (a knife that Rambo would have been jealous of). We were ready to tackle the mountains of Jasper National Park or Sheriff Teasle if need be.
We arrived in Jasper Town after our bucket list worthy ride on the Icefields Parkway and were greeted by a less-commercialized, and therefore less-crowded, version of Banff Town. Jasper Town has that old-timey frontier town feel to it, and I half expected an old prospector to come out of nowhere banging his pots and pans. Following the town’s lead, our campground, Wapiti, was less posh but no less awesome than our front country site in Banff. It’s one of the biggest campgrounds in the park, so it was another comfortable night of basic bitch s’mores and running water before our backcountry experience to come.
We got an early start the next morning, filling up our water and packing up the tent in the dark, before setting out for Maligne Lake. The early hour allowed us to see some normally people-shy female moose having a snack on the side of the road. Once we got to Maligne Lake, it was too dark to fully appreciate its beauty but you could tell it was a stunner the way its water looked just like glass. We parked in its lot, cooked up some hearty breakfast skillets, and packed our bags to the brim before setting off on the Skyline Trail. A few of my coworkers had recommended that trail as the best in Jasper, and the Watchtower campsite, supposedly 22km away, as the best backcountry experience. We knew that we were in for a tough hike with the trail length and elevation gain, but we were willing to face the elements in order to reap the scenery benefits. In addition to our Osprey backpacks, each of us had a smaller backpack strapped to our front. Although it balanced out the weight we were carrying (about 35 lbs on me and 40/45 on El), it made it difficult to watch our step. Not a good omen for a klutz like me.
The trail started in the forest on relatively flat ground and was already a lot more peaceful than the trails we’d hiked the days previous. Everything was so quiet and incredibly beautiful that we often had to stop and just stand and enjoy the view. After we passed Evelyn Creek (about 4.8km into the trail), we started gaining in elevation and did a steady climb until we reached the next campsite, Little Shovel (8.3km from Maligne Lake). A woman loaded up with gear who introduced herself as Jenny was at the site eating breakfast, and we chatted with her while we enjoyed a few blissful moments with our gear off. She was just finishing up and hit the trail again shortly after we arrived. We didn’t know then that we had just met a guardian angel in Keens.
The elevation really started picking up from there, and the line “one foot in front of the other” from that Walk the Moon song, “One Foot“, was on repeat in my mind. That and “left cheek right cheek left cheek right cheek” from the JASON DERUUUU-LOOOO (gotta type it like he sings it) song “Tip Toe“, only I substituted “foot” for “cheek”. The cadence put me almost into a trance and made the heavy climbing bearable. We eventually made it above the treeline and were surrounded by colorful alpine tundra. Fall was already on the decline this high up in the mountains, but we still were treated to bright yellow and orange leaves livening up the otherwise stark landscape. Even though the Little Shovel Pass wasn’t as lush as the rest of the park, it more than held its own. The trail flattened out at that point but also narrowed to only a foot wide, so we were forced to hike it like we were on a tightrope. The best way I can describe it is it was like walking in a narrow ditch. As we were walking, Elliot spotted a marmot following us in the distance. It would stop in its tracks when we did and would continue following us when we got moving again. He didn’t cause us any trouble but he did spark both of us saying, “Nice marmot“. Thankfully, he didn’t jump into a bathtub with us.
For the most part, the Skyline trail had been pretty standard stuff. That changed when we followed the trail to a small waterfall that fed into a creek. The only way to continue was to climb down the slippery rocks. As someone who finds a way to trip by just standing still, you can imagine how gingerly I climbed down that 20 feet. I somehow made it down without wiping out or peeing my pants, so I guess we’ll call that a win. We stopped for lunch at the Snowbowl campsite (12.2km in) and laid out the ground tarp from our tent to rest up. We probably wouldn’t have done that if we knew at the time that we were in the heart of grizzly bear country, and Snowbowl has the highest concentration of grizzlies during berry season. Which is in September. Which is when we were there. Upon reflection, it was like we were taunting the grizzlies: we were eating food, we laid out our bodies like a snack platter, and I couldn’t find the privies and had to mark my pheromones on a nearby tree.
Curator, the next campsite, was only 7km away which meant that we were only 11km from our final destination, Watchtower. Even though we were making good time, we didn’t rest for long at Snowbowl because the clouds were looking ominous. Although we started double timing it on the trail, we didn’t make it far before the sleet started. We didn’t mind so much because for a while the trail was pretty flat, and our cold weather gear protected us from the sleet that soon turned to rain and finally turned to snow. That’s when the cannibalism started. JK It was something much worse: the elevation started.
We started climbing a hill just as the snow started picking up and blowing into our faces. The summit was in sight though, so I knew it would be short-lived. But as we continued to climb, I realized what I was looking at was a false summit. Tired and cold at this point, for reasons I can’t explain, I just kept saying “Tenzing Norgay” over and over again in my mind. I dunno if I was trying to conjure him to guide us, if I was praying to him, or if I was just plain losing my shit, but thinking his name kept me calm. Sort of. After the third or fourth false summit, all while the snow was coming down harder, I started to think that we were doomed to keep climbing this effing hill like some Patagonia-clad Sisyphuses. Despite the driving snow and never-ending hill, we kept our heads down and tuned out our surroundings. When we finally reached the top, known as the Big Shovel Pass, I saw that we had two route options. The one to the left was a flat trail, and the one to the right led up yet another steep mountainside. Although I knew what he was going to say, I asked Elliot, “We’re going to the left, right???” I tried to sound calm and collected, but it came out sounding hysterical and desperate. Knowing his wife all too well, El calmly gave it to me straight: we were going right.
After more snow, more climbing, and what seemed like 10,000 Tenzing Norgays later, we were past all the false summits and finally walking along flat ground. We saw someone walking towards us and were surprised to see Jenny, the hiker we talked to back at Little Shovel. She was supposed to spend the night at Curator Campsite but decided to head back to Snowbowl when she saw there wasn’t much shelter at Curator. Although the snow had finally stopped and the sun was peeking through the clouds, she thought it best not to be too exposed that evening. We wished her well and shortly after saying goodbye to Jenny, we saw a second couple walking towards us. We caught up to them at a sign saying “4km to Watchtower” and learned they were also staying at our campsite. They said that it was just a little farther away, so we followed their lead. That lead, however, entailed climbing up the side of one last steep hill. Even though it wasn’t that high, my body was about to mutiny and it felt ten times longer than it actually was. We were blessedly rewarded at the top with an incredible view of the Watchtower basin below, and the sun illuminated everything and made the view that much more stunning.
Exhausted and thrilled that we were so close to our destination, we stopped to take a few pictures and allow ourselves to be proud of a job well done. The only problem was there was no clear way to get to the bottom of the basin. The other couple said, “Oh, you just go down the side of the mountain. It seems bad but it’s actually really easy.” When I peeked over the side to see what they meant, I saw a narrow (about a foot and a half wide) trail that cut diagonally across the mountainside. My knees instantly got wobbly and visions of me sliding down the mountainside on my ass clouded my thoughts. It dawned on me that we didn’t have a choice at that point, so we very very gingerly and very VERY slowly inched our way down the loose gravel and slate rock of the mountain. How I made it without turning into a human tumbleweed, I’ll never know
We made it to the bottom of the mountainside but had lost sight of the couple ahead of us. We walked through marshy bushes, past bubbling creeks, and through pockets of evergreen trees where I got whacked in the face more than once by the branches that El’s backpack launched at me like a catapult. Despite clearly being bear country, everything around us was beautiful. Unfortunately, the longer we walked, the crabbier we got, and we didn’t enjoy it as much as we should have. Although the sign said “4km to Watchtower”, it must have meant “as the crow flies” because we were walking for-e-ver. It felt like someone was f**king with us and moving the campsite further back whenever we got close. Finally, we heard voices that in our exhausted state sounded like angels singing and saw the other couple eating dinner at the picnic tables of the campsite. We just had to cross one last creek, and we would be home free. It was at that moment, despite miraculously not falling the entire hike, that I wiped out, causing Elliot to burst out laughing because of course I would eat shit when we’re in sight of our destination.
We dropped our packs like a sack of potatoes and sat at the tables to rest up. Although the map showed the Skyline Trail to be 22km (13 miles), it absolutely seemed way longer, a feeling that was confirmed by my Fitbit, which clocked in at 32km (20 miles). While El and I were setting up our tent and changing into dry clothes, we heard a familiar voice back at the tables. Imagine our surprise when we saw Jenny talking to the other couple (can you tell me never got their names?)! She explained why she didn’t make it to Snowbowl: Apparently, shortly after we crossed paths she saw a bush moving in the distance. She pulled out her binoculars and realized that it wasn’t a bush moving: it was a grizzly bear. A grizzly bear that was right beside the snowy path we had just come from. We were so “heads down, let’s get through this snow” mode that we passed a grizzly bear without noticing. When we learned we avoided a “Jon Snow and his motley crew take on a wight bear coming out of nowhere” moment, my outside laughed nervously while my inside went:
The other couple was from Sonoma and was going to take off before sunrise the next morning. When we asked why they were leaving when it would still be dark, we learned that the Watchtower trail continued another 10km before opening up onto one of the main roads. From there, they had scheduled a pick-up by one of the tour companies to take them back to the Maligne Lake parking lot. Knowing that there was another way out of Watchtower besides the way we came (which included going UP the loose gravel mountainside) was music to our ears and we made tentative plans with Jenny to hike it the next morning. Since they were getting an early start, the other couple said goodnight early and we had dinner with Jenny. Despite the warm food and great conversation, our bodies were screaming for sleep. El and I collapsed in our tent and rested up for day two of our backcountry adventure. Because boy, were we gonna need it…
Next up in our Jasper backcountry adventure: multiple falls, moose droppings, and German guardian angels.
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