On June 26, T and I wandered back into civilization after persevering through (and often enjoying) a very difficult 210 km (130 mile) third section of the Great Divide Trail. As usual, see T’s account if you want a well told version of the story.
Thus far winter has been the dominant plot element of our GDT thru-hike. Several GDT veterans advised us to start later, including the author of the GDT guidebook who knows better than most what June is like in the high Rockies. Indeed, we struggled through 50+ kms of snowpack in section one and were fortunate the weather was forgiving during the toughest stretches. In section two we made good time through relatively little remaining snow and thought we had escaped into summer.
Those thoughts were premature. In this third section, we encountered not only long stretches of remanent snow with the toughest post-holing conditions yet, but also several nights below freezing and a day of high winds with new snow accumulation.
The first day we climbed through forest to 2100m where the snow got patchy. I was sure once we got over the ridge to sun exposed alpine meadows, we’d find snow-free conditions up to the pass. The opposite was true, and we hit 6 kms of continuous deep snow. Making things tougher, it had rained much of the night and was raining now, so the snow was very soft and we post-holed even with our MSR Shift snowshoes on. It took us about 4 hours to cover those 6kms to North Kananaskis pass at 2350m.
Eventually we did make it over the pass and onto the steep but bare NW side, which was a relief. For a while we weren’t sure we were going to make it that day, and had started preparing ourselves for a night on snow. While the snow was tough, we also enjoyed several parts of it. Near the pass an avalanche has separated an alpine lake into several different small pools – each it’s own shade of blue or green.
The next day we awoke to sunny conditions, and headed up to Palliser Pass, which I thought would be snow free. The pass was only 2050m – lower than we had first hit snow the day prior. To my surprise, we again hit several kms of snow around the boundary into Banff National Park. The snow itself wasn’t too bad, but snow at only 2050m was worrisome because nearly half of the remaining ~170kms in this section is above this elevation.
Our next pass was Wonder Pass near Assiniboine Lodge. T and I talked at great length about how good the snacks were at the lodge when we were there 2 years ago, and how unfortunate it was that we were arriving 2 days before they opened. The conditions were better going up Wonder Pass, and we thankfully didn’t hit snow until near the 2400m pass. We snowshoed several kms down to the lodge and ran into the first group of hikers we had seen in this section. We expected they were staff that had flown in to help open the lodge, but they were actually a school group from Hong Kong that had hiked in because they weren’t as aware as most how snowy it was up there. It was great to see school kids and their teachers out post holing while all the locals waited for the snow to melt.
At the lodge, the staff confirmed there was no tea or cake today but they would sell us a beer. We bought two of those, and chatted with several of the staffers. When the word got out that we were on the Great Divide Trail and had already hiked over 400kms in the Rockies that month, they were quite interested and friendly. One of the owners even slipped us a bag of scones and cookies, which we accepted like giggling children.
The lodge owner told us that it was supposed to freeze that night, with a high tomorrow of only +5 C (40F), which we didn’t believe. It had been about 15-20C the past couple days (60-70F) and it felt like summer was back in full swing.
Well the next morning we awoke to frozen shoes, which we timidly put on as we headed up Citadel Pass. Thankfully the pass itself was snow free, but fresh snow started to fly as we crested. The snow blew harder, and T made it clear that she wasn’t impressed. She had been a trooper through the post-holing and cold temps, but fresh snow accumulating with high winds wasn’t the kind of hike she envisioned. It was supposed to be summer now. I tried to assure her that the sub zero temps can last long, but my arguments were muted as it continued to snow or hail all day. We set up camp early after 20 kms north of Sunshine Ski Resort.
The next day we made better time in reasonable conditions. The sun peaked out occasionally and we encountered only moderate snow as we moved over Healy, Whistling and Ball passes. We couldn’t find anywhere to camp over Ball pass, so we ate dinner and then hiked another 7km to hwy 93.
With only 75kms left, we started thinking we had this section in the bag. I lamented that we weren’t going to be able to camp at Floe Lake that night, which is a highly regarded spot but was too close. As we climbed up to Floe Lake, we hit a substantial amount of snow 1km before. The entire campground that I had wished to stay at was actually under the snow – several feet deep stretching from the lake to the pass and beyond. The sun was out, so we slathered on the sunscreen and hiked over the pass and down to Numa campground where we took an ice cold but badly needed shower – our first in 5 days. Or was it 6?
The next day was one of the snowiest, but coolest on the hike. This section is known as the Rockwall Trail, and for 50kms it lies in the shadow of incredible cliffs. With these cliffs to the north, the area often isn’t snow free until August. We didn’t realize this going in, and there are simply too many miles to this trail to do proper research on any of it, so until I reviewed this section the night I didn’t know we might have some tough going.
Fortunately the weather was good, so we pushed hard all day over 3 passes to get 20 kms. There was scarcely a snow free bit of ground as we snowshoed and glissaded over Whistling, Rockwall and a third pass. The entire area was glaciated previously, so we enjoyed hiking atop the old moraines and around the impossibly blue melt water pools on the snow. Unsurprisingly, no one else had been out on this trail this year, and we hardly could find the trail with all the snow, so I navigated our own path through the debris, moraines and lakes.
That night we descended to the Helmet Falls campground, which amazed me by having still a substantial amount of snow at only 1750m. We were thankful that the weather had been good for this section, with nothing but blue skies, because the rain we had on day 1 and the snow on day 4 would have been tough to deal with in an alpine environment as exposed as today’s was.
On the final day of this section, we again donned the snowshoes as we climbed over the final pass (Goodsir). We had worn them the majority of the last 50kms, so it was fitting end to the section. Over the pass we descended on good trail and then old road to Hwy 1 and the halfway point (550km) of the northbound leg. It was neat to drop from 2200m down to 1400m and see plants hardly started at higher elevations in full bloom down low.