Whiteout on Pulsatilla Pass
THIS IS THE WEEK WE really get our wakeup call from Mother Nature. When Daylight Saving Time comes, it feels like a huge release to me. It’s time to screw our garden heads back on after all this cold wetness we’ve endured these past few months. I’m a hot weather person. It can get as hot as it wants, and it won’t bother me, but I don’t like being bundled up for too long. In Jackson, we have gotten used to this date being the mark for all of us to come out of hibernation, loud and proud, with the St. Paddy’s Day parade. It’s the annual parade that usually causes us to drag out our shorts for the first time to see if they still fit, after a long winter of debauchery.
I try to keep myself in somewhat respectably good shape during the shorter days, because I know that when the days get longer, Mimi and I will use every minute of sunlight that we can steal, so we don’t fall behind in our yard. This year, we are extra excited about this spring, because we have agreed to host a wedding party in our garden at home for two of our favorite people. We want everything to be perfect for the mid May bash, so our course of attack will be to hit the yard every chance we get. There will be a stage for the band and a dance floor, so I know where most of the action will be, but I still want the surroundings to be mind blowing beautiful.
Having a party every once in a while is a great way to force you to take care of the details. We love throwing parties at this house because there is plenty space for lots of people, and parking a lot of cars is easy with good flow. If I can just keep them off my sprinkler heads...
During the ice storm Mimi and I were reminiscing and flipping through some photo albums while we kept a fire roaring for seven straight days. We came across an album Mimi gave me for our one year anniversary that reminded us of one of our favorite trips we took during our first year of marital bliss. We didn’t have any kids yet, so we were feeling pretty brave about what we could do. We packed up our backpacks and caught a flight to Calgary in Alberta, Canada. From there we took a bus for an hour and a half to Banff, which is perched in the Canadian Rockies at around 5,000 feet above sea level.
We had already chosen our route to hike out of Banff that would wind up at Lake Louise. Lake Louise is a gorgeous mineral blue lake that can be accessible by car only 36 miles from Banff. The route that we chose would take us up high above the tree line for 130 miles. Of course we couldn’t just take the road most traveled… what fun would that be?
We had one night in the town of Banff to gather enough provisions to get us through 10 days of hiking. We knew we would most likely not see another person and would definitely not cross any towns or roads to restock. Banff is a gorgeous ski town, crowded with people from all over who come to see the cool town with elk wandering around like they own the place. The entire town is planted up that time of year with beautiful annuals that we are accustomed to seeing in the early months of spring here. The average temperature during June is the high of 65 degrees and the lows are around 40 degrees, so you can imagine the colorful show that the pansies, petunias and lobelias were putting on.
There are some great drives around that area, where your chances of seeing bears and other wildlife are very good, since the bears are coming out of hibernation and are hungry enough to descend down the mountain where the snow has melted and the berries are ripening.
The crowds are not what we came to Canada for, and we had no time to waste, for we had to make the entire loop in time to catch our flight back home.
It was time to check in with the local ranger station to get our wilderness permit and ask about reports on the trail conditions. When we asked, he looked at us kind of funny. He told us he didn’t know about the trail conditions, because no one had attempted the route we had chosen. There was a high elevation pass on that route called Pulsatilla Pass, that no one had yet attempted that season. He did give us the permit we requested, but he also asked us to come back to see him if our attempt was successful, so he would be better informed to advise the hikers coming after us. We really didn’t like the sound of that, but forward we marched.
OUR FIRST MOVE was to hitchhike to the trail head, which was maybe a 30 minute ride once someone picked us up. The guy who gave us a ride was so nice. I’m pretty sure he was genuinely concerned about our safety. I think the pairing of our southern accents and the fact it was way too early to be doing what we were about to do, had him questioning our abilities as well as our sanity.
He questioned us about our knowledge of bear safety, river crossings and other things that we might have not thought about. We muddled through that conversation to the best of our experience, and did wonder briefly if we were in over our heads. But we had invested much to be right where we were and weren’t changing our plans. He seemed very worried as we unloaded ourselves and our huge backpacks out of his truck. That made three of us.
Our first day of hiking was on a horse trail that was steady headed up and away from the norm. We were relatively low at this point, so the mosquitoes kept us moving at a pretty good pace, while we danced around the horse poop and the deep tracks that the pack horses left behind. We were anxiously awaiting the moment that we would separate from the horse trails and head onto the backpacker’s trail in one more day.
The end of the horse trail wound up at a tipi village where a group of five or six cowgirls lived while they waited on the next group of dude ranchers to arrive. They cooked meals on giant cast iron skillets over open flames and generally hosted groups that would see the splendid area from the back of a horse. It sounded like a fun trip and something we would consider doing later in life.
We were more interested in what it must be like to live the lives of pioneers way out there in the wilderness of the Canadian Rockies. I was also interested as to why the entire camp was surrounded by electric wires powered by solar energy. They looked at me like I was crazy. Of course, the answer was to keep the grizzly bears out of their camp. I jokingly asked if we could borrow a few feet of wire and a solar panel so we could keep bears out of our camp. We had seen plenty bear tracks on our way to their camp. These constant reminders about bears was beginning to worry us. We’d camped in bear country before, but never where they were so plentiful. The cowgirls cooked us up some pancakes and sausage before sending us on our worried way.
We had bear bells on our packs, and we talked and sang loudly enough so we wouldn’t surprise a bear family as we rounded a corner or accidentally find ourselves stuck between a sow and her cubs. I can tell you that I didn’t sleep much during our nights out there. We cooked away from our camp, washed our dishes in another location, and we hung our food and any other smellable items in trees at night until we started sleeping above tree line where there was nowhere to hang things high enough. In those cases we put all our smelly stuff in a bag a far distance from camp.
Our days hustling through those mountains were filled with telling stories, playing word games and some long bouts of silence, while we took in the solitude that the wilderness offers.
Some of the days we would be on snow and had lots of river crossings, which are a pain. Unless you want wet socks and shoes (and you definitely do not), you have to take off your boots and use your sticks to cross some pretty fast moving snow melt rivers. The water is ice cold and you know that to fall in is, at best, a lot of wet gear, or, at worst, not being able to get out of the rushing water with the weight of your backpack holding you down. So we puckered up every time we came to one of these all too frequent crossings.
We saw two guys hiking in the general direction that we were headed. They were blazing their own trails and were much faster than us. We tend to stay on the marked trails when we can. After a couple of days crossing paths with these guys, we never saw them or anyone else for the rest of the trip. It’s exactly what we were shooting for, but it was pretty scary, because we had not spent much time in the snowy outback. We would lose the trail from time to time, which is a hopeless feeling when you are that far out.
WE FINALLY REACHED Pulsatilla Pass named for an anemone that grows in the area. The pass sits at 8,000 feet. There were definitely no boot marks in the snow. That ranger wasn’t kidding about us being first over the pass that year. The trail was completely hidden in the snow, and the only route that we could choose was right on the ledge above one of those gorgeous blue lakes, that at this point, looked more like an icy death trap, if someone took one wrong step. We sat down and discussed the route, who should go first, what one would do if the other slipped. And then we prayed that we would make it to the other side of the pass together. We sat there figuring a little too long, and during that time, it started snowing really hard, really fast. We were going to have to make the crossing during a white out.
We couldn’t see two feet ahead of ourselves, and the snow was stinging any exposed skin. We couldn’t stay there and we couldn’t go backwards, so forward it was. I can speak for both of us when I tell you that was our single most frightening and most dangerous experience in the wilderness. To make it even more dramatic, when I was about half way across the long traverse, my Nalgene water bottle became unattached from my pack and we both watched it slide down the steep drop down into the slushy lake below. We knew we needed to hurry up and get this over with. It seemed like the longer we lingered, the worst the conditions were getting. That moment set an even more sobering tone to our situation, and we focused with everything we had and walked on.
We both made it to the other side of the pass, completely spent from the climb itself but also from the tension. I wish I could describe the feeling we experienced upon getting that behind us. We felt jubilant, but we also felt dumb for getting into the situation. We also felt like two people who were being smiled upon.
We had a few more days to go to Lake Louise. When we arrived at the iridescent blue lake, we were way up high on Ridgeback Mountain looking down on one of the most beautiful mountain lakes we have ever seen. We were also looking down on the hustle and bustle of campers and cars and people seeing this great area from a different perspective. We were excited to have made it, but at the same time, not that excited about joining the masses and getting back to the predictable world that we had just briefly escaped.
I know these trips must sound a little crazy to you, and quite frankly, to us. As I write about them and read these articles to Mimi before submitting them, we look at each other and wonder what we were thinking. Over the years, both of us have forgotten about the intense need we once had to get into the world and wilderness so deeply. I guess we must have found whatever it was we were looking for. My hope is that everyone has their own level of adventurousness and experiments with their own limitations on whatever level that may be… it makes life worth living.