Deprivation ‘tanks’ – Jasper Skyline Trail

Aug. 1999

Jasper Skyline Trail is listed by Gadd the best hike in the Canadian Rockies. But, to me, it seemed a disaster loomed. These jots were first posted in a friendship newsletter called the red-eye.

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rick_mugTruth is, I’m a city boy. I like a VCR, recliner rocker, comforter, “munching high up the food chain”.

I used to ridicule my Saskatoon friends when they dragged back into town, hypothermic & mosquito-welted from their latest canoeing fiasco.

In those days I didn’t like to walk any farther than from my car to the 7-11.

This summer, back from the under-indulgences of Asia, I’ve been overindulging bagels, ice-cream, & hot tubs. Forget my philosophy of “Voluntary Simplicity”. Deprivation tanks!

I tried a compromise once, joining my Calgary hiking buddies on a Waterton Park trip — while carrying a Sony “Watchman”. As we “trekked”, I gleefully called out the golf leader board to my grumbling companions. Greg Norman was winning the British Open!

Yet during the summer of ‘99 I spent as much time in the wild as I could, returning from overseas specifically to hike.

Actually, there’s more adventure to be had in Canada than Asia.

I had been enthusiastically anticipating the JASPER SKYLINE TRAIL; “the best hike in the Canadian Rockies”, asserts Ben Gadd, our premiere mountain naturalist.

The Skyline is high, over half above the tree line, with some long ridge walks. Panoramic vistas!

We could see Mt. Robson, the “biggest” mountain in the Rockies (from base to peak) though not highest in elevation.

However, recall our miserable “late” Spring. When we phoned from Calgary to see if the hiking trails were clear of snow we were advised that “ski conditions were poor”. (This was mid-July!)

The Skyline problem looming was “The Notch”, a high, steep, windy mountain pass. If snowed-in, it would probably be impassable due to avalanche risk.

I was the most vocal nay-sayer; beefing all the way up during the drive from Banff, complaining in the toilet at the trailhead where we fussed with our packs out of the drizzling rain.

(I only agreed to participate because I couldn’t resist the chance to hike with a manly ice ax. Picture the “blue haze of testosterone”.

We rented those axes. We didn’t actually know how to use them.

One of the guys had lifesaving instructions scribbled on a napkin. But those of us who had seen IMAX “Everest” preferred to innovate in the manner demonstrated by the Jr. Tenzing Norguay. It was great fun “glissading”, boot skiing, steep slopes then falling into an ice ax brake-stop just before the jagged rocks at the bottom.

The rain turned to snow. We slogged through slush. Waded creeks.

My spirits improved when we pulled-out the Tequila & lemon-lime Crystal Lite, clearly superior to the 100 proof Vodka & powdered Gatorade.

The Skyline is a marvelous hike. Wild and beautiful, the mountains somehow more rugged this far north.

We saw mountain sheep, a statuesque mountain goat, and even glimpsed a moose dash across the path ahead.

By the time we reached “The Notch” the weather had cleared, the morning sunshine brilliant.

This was more bad news. The sun softens the snow. We’d been strongly advised to ascend by noon latest.

No matter. It was obvious the snowy pass “would not go”. Winnibago-sized chunks of ice poised ready to come crashing down from the overhanging cornice.

No one had ascended yet this year. The only 2 other hikers (Gita & Lars from Denmark) were dissuaded to “Notch” by an unwelcoming resident wrangler. Instead they proposed to bushwhack AROUND the mountain. This stratagem was seriously crazy, as we told them.

We loitered, indecisively debating our options, watching marmots duke it out (“The Rumble in the Rubble”).

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Suddenly John Long charged up the slope. He had had enough gab. I couldn’t catch him — “he was that damn fast”.

I have to commend John (a bachelor) for route-finding, kicking steps into the snow up the entire uncertain and potentially dangerous climb. We had consensus that one of the married men should lead. A single guy still has too much to live for.

We made it!

At the pass we were euphoric, scrambling to the top of the dry adjacent peak, posing for “outrider” cliff-edge photos.

Then — the most outrageous thing I’ve ever seen in the mountains. Two tiny specks appeared on top of the even more monstrous icy cornice on the opposite side of the pass.

It was Lars & Gita, the couple who had disdained to follow us. They had short-cut to the very worst possible spot on the mountain!

Somehow, by continued improbable dumb-ass luck, they were able to descend to the pass.

We back-slapped, had a big lunch boil-up in the sunshine.

The big, bad “Notch” was conquered. But, like many other victors, we suffered more hurt at the post-hike celebration than in battle.

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Rick Mc

Career gymnastics coach who loves the outdoors, and the internet.

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