Monday, August 3, 2009

A hiking good time: Lake O'Hara

Andrew and I spent the last 3 days (July 30th to August 1st) camping at Lake O'Hara, a very scenic area in Yoho National Park. To camp at Lake O'Hara you must make a reservation. And to make a reservation you have to call at 8:00 a.m. MST 3 months (to the day you want to arrive) in advance and keep calling until you get through. Otherwise, you'll be out of luck. This is a very popular campsite, with only 27 spots per night. Since we made our reservation back in May, Andrew and I have been planning what we were going to take with us. Also, Lake O'Hara, is a back country campsite (albeit pretty "cush" i.e. it has running water and non-smelly outhouses). This means you cannot drive all of your stuff up to your site. You can either take the Lake O'Hara bus, or you can hike the 11 km access road.

Thursday, July 30th: Day 1
In the morning Andrew and I both went to work. We left our respective offices at 11:00 a.m. and met back at our car. We were on the road around 11:20 a.m. We arrived at the parking lot of Lake O'Hara (Yoho is in B.C., by the way) just before 6:00 p.m. We pulled together our packs and started up the road on foot. We completed the 11 km, 450 metre elevation gain, in 2 hours and 15 minutes. Unfortunately, it started to rain just after we passed the 9 km mark. Not a complete torrential down pour, mind you, but plenty hard enough to soak us and some of our gear strapped to the outsides of our packs. We put up our tent as quickly as we could (putting the fly on inside out in the process) then hid under one of the shelters as we sorted through our food and clothing, etc.

Aside from arriving in the rain, we also ran into a bit of confusion about where our campsite and food locker were. Since we arrived after the park warden had left for the day we were assigned the extra (and no longer regularly used) campsite 3. The site wasn't labelled and so we wasted a lot of time (in the rain) trying to figure out where it was. We also didn't have a food locker (Lake O'Hara is in bear country and food lockers were a must), which added to our confusion. Thankfully, another couple who were headed out the next day allowed us to share theirs for the night. The rain let up and before going to bed we took a quick walk down to the lake (probably 1/2 km). We were snuggled in our sleeping bags shortly after 10:00 p.m.

All of our stuff in the back of our car.

Friday, July 31st: Day 2
Our second day started early. I think I was awake around 6:30 a.m. (Andrew woke up at this time too). Since it was light outside and I wasn't overly tired I got up. We set to preparing breakfast not too long afterward: boiling water for tea, preparing the pancakes (I put together a mix at home) and pulling out our lunch things. We ate standing, sharing one pancake at a time as they came off the pan. We didn't head off to the hiking trails until after 10:00 a.m. We wanted to speak with the warden to sort out our campsite and locker issues.

Cooking breakfast on our light-weight camp stove.

Our tent re-installed at site 13, fly readjusted so it faced the right way out.

We were on our way by 10:30 a.m., walking along the edge of Lake O'Hara until we came to the trail leading up the Huber Ledges/Wiwaxy trail. Now, let me pause here for a moment. I spent some time trying to figure out what to say about the hiking at Lake O'Hara. First off, the scenery is beautiful: mountain peaks in every direction, crystal clear lakes and streams, and lush forest foliage. But, I'm not sure it's the place for everyone. Most of the hiking trails take on a sizable elevation climb. Lake O'Hara is located at 2,035 m above sea level. The hike up to Wiwaxy took us up to 2,530 m above sea level (it took us around 1 1/2 hours at a leisurely pace). The trails are narrow and at times difficult to figure out where they lead. We enjoyed ourselves immensely, but we're also active people.

The trail on the way up Wiwaxy.

Us at the edge of Wiwaxy, stopped for lunch. Lake Oesa is in the background.

After lunch we headed on to Lake Oesa where we stopped, took off our socks and shoes and soaked our feet. The water was freezing, but it felt good on our tired toes as it was sunny and hot (+25C). From Oesa we carried on to the Yukness Ledges, mostly rocky terrain. We accidentally strayed off the path at one point and spent 10 or 15 minutes wandering around trying to figure out where we were supposed to go. When we reached a point where we could see the trail below us, but had no safe way to get down to it, we decided it was best to turn back to the last known marker. From there we managed to get ourselves back on route and continued around the mountain side to Opabin Lake. We took another short rest at Opabin, but found the bugs to heavy to want to stay for long. Once on the trail again we headed down East Opabin trail (thus not completing the full Alpine Route) and back to the campsite. The decent along the trail was steep at points (really engaging the quadriceps), but lovely amongst the trees. We returned to the campsite by 6:00 p.m.

Saturday, August 1st: Day 3
Having heard the night before about the adventures of a pair of guys who had climbed to the top of Yukness Mountain we thought we might give it a try. The trail up Yukness is not maintained. It is for the more avid hikers who don't mind sorting their way up by scouting for cairns (small man-made rock piles). We had been told by the two guys we needed to head back up to the Yukness Ledges and look for the trail that climbed up instead of down at the point where you descended. We reached the Ledges via West Opabin and without too much difficulty identified a thin trail working its way up the south side of the mountain.

Climbing the first stage of Yukness.

After a short detour to check out a lake on the first ridge of the mountain we followed the cairns around the southeast side, at which point the trail markers promptly stopped. We had been told the cairns at times were difficult to find, so when we made it around to the rock-covered southeast side of the mountain we were a little concerned. After consulting with our limited map and making some educated assumptions that we couldn't possibly go another way, we carried on further east hiking over the massive rocks for maybe 20 to 30 minutes. We broke for lunch still uncertain of where exactly we were going next when Andrew notice other people on the mountain. They were climbing up a ledge farther east of us, right up against a sheer mountain wall. We quickly finished off what we were eating and continued to cut across the mountain until we reached the ledge where we'd seen the other hikers. We caught up with them after a little ways as they'd stopped to eat. After a brief chat they pointed us in the right direction: farther up along the scree, switch backing until we reached (what I believe is called) the crux gulley*

It was here in the crux gulley that we were no longer mountain hiking, but actually mountain climbing. I think Andrew and I both enjoyed this section of the trek, but at the same time experienced a good healthy dose of terror. One miss-placed hand or foot could have left us tumbling down the mountain; however, this section wasn’t too difficult as neither one of us have done much wall/rock climbing and we were still able to clear the gulley without concern. Once we got over the gulley we realized that reaching the peak of Yukness would probably take us close to another hour and we had already been out 4 at this point. We sat on a small ledge to finish our lunch and decided that this would be the peak of our climb. The summit of Yukness reached 2,847 m above sea level. By our guestimation we probably made it to around 2,700 m to 2,750 m.

Andrew at our stopping spot at Yukness

We returned to camp via Opabin Lake, through the Opabin Highline and back down through East Opabin. It rained that evening, but not until almost 9:00 p.m., well after when we'd finished up with dinner so simply returned to our tent. We were pretty tired after two all-day hikes anyway.

Sunday, August 2nd: Day 4
Day 4 was home day. You're only allowed to reserve spots at Lake O’Hara for 3 nights and I'm not sure we would have had the energy for much adventurous hiking this day anyway. We did, however, walk the road back down to the car, rather than taking the bus. We met a number of tourists (mostly Asian for some reason) heading up the road for a day-hike.

I think we would probably be happy to return to Lake O'Hara again sometime. Maybe we would try to get right to the top of Yukness Mountain. Next year, we're thinking about trying the Jasper Skyline Trail.


*Not being a mountain climber and not knowing the lingo, I am not sure if crux gulley is the right term. After a quick online search the reference appears to match the terrain, but I'm not sure if this is a general or specific term.

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