Monday, September 13, 2010

Hiking to the sky: the Jasper Skyline trail

First, the stats:

Distance: approximately 43 km running from Maligne Lake to Maligne Canyon (or visa verso).
Elevation gained: 1,380 m, the highest point being the Notch, at 2,480 m above sea level (also, I believe, the highest trail pass in Jasper National Park).
Time to hike: 3 days, totalling approximately 16.5 hours of hiking over all.

A couple of years ago I received recommendations for various hikes to try in Alberta from a co-worker. I wanted serious wilderness-type hikes, not the front-country, touristy ones that are jammed full of people from June to September. Last year we went to Lake O'Hara, which I blogged about here. This trip provided a "gentle" introduction to backcountry camping where you could choose to hike to the site, or take a bus, and where there was no electricity, but food lockers and safe drinking water was available. We elected to hike to the site (approximately 10 km and around 700 m elevation gain) to see if we could carry our packs for that long. We managed the trek without much difficulty, and I certainly enjoyed the overall camping and hiking experience, so we were game to go for a full out point-to-point camping experience. Thus, we choose to do the Jasper Skyline trail.

Initially, we planned the hike for the Canada Day long weekend, as I had an extra day off from work. However, the trail report at that time stated it was "Not Recommended" and when we called the Jasper office they confirmed that deep (as in up to the knees) snow was still present on the trial. After 20 minutes on the phone (the Park employees were pleasantly patient with me) I was able to re-book the our trip for the Labour Day weekend. The one difficulty was that we couldn't get the same campsite for our second night (Tekerra), which made for a long day to get to the campsite we could book, Signal.

Okay, so without further ado...the hike.

Andrew and I rose at our regular (or at least my regular) work-week time, and were driving toward the Yellowhead (Highway 16) by 7:07 am Saturday morning. The sky started out delightfully blue and pretty, unfortunately that didn't last. The further west we drove, the grayer the sky became and eventually rain did indeed fall. I had hoped we might somehow managed to get away with good whether for the weekend, but considering the summer we've had (cold and rainy) I wasn't surprised. When we first arrived at the Maligne Canyon parking lot, the rain had abated, but as we rode the shuttle bus around to Maligne Lake it started up again.

Note to future hikers: We would recommend parking your car at the end of the trail you plan to finish at and take the shuttle bus to the opposite end. This way your car will be waiting for you at the completion of your hike and you can just drive away when you're ready. Although the bus runs at somewhat regular intervals, there's no guarantee that it will actually be on time.

When we got off the bus at Maligne Lake it was drizzling. I dug my gaiters out of my backpack and strapped them on, and Andrew grabbed out his rain pants. As it turned out, I wore my gaiters for all but the last day when our hike was only 8 km, and I was just too lazy to fight with the mud-caked zipper one last time. The trail was very muddy, as can be seen in the below picture. The sun came out not long after we started up the trail, causing us to stop to de-layer. The first part of the trail was rather pleasant (aside from the mud) as we trekked through a pretty forested section and occasionally caught glimpses of mountain lakes. Maybe half a kilometre before we reached the Evelyn Creek campground (5 km into the trail) it started hailing--yes hail--but it was fairly small so we kept on trudging. After Evelyn Creek the trail took on a steeper pitch, which kept us pretty warm despite the weather. Of course, by the time we reached the Little Shovel campground (8 km into the trail) the sun was back out again. We paused here for a short break and we also decided to fill up our water pack as we'd read there was no water supply at our destination campground, Snow Bowl (13.5 km into the trail).
The muddy trail. I was grateful for my gaiters for keeping my pants dry.
A pretty look out onto a lake early on in our hike.
Note to future hikers: Although Snow Bowl does not have a creek or river running immediately through it like some of the other campsites, water is not very far away (you might have to backtrack 1/4 of a kilometer to fill up). It's no fun carrying 4 litres of water over 5 km of trails.

Not long after setting out from Little Shovel we broke the tree line for the first time and spent a good stretch of the remaining distance to our destination hiking across alpine meadows. If memory serves correctly we saw our first glimpse of snow for the hike during this section, it was also a tad on the cool side as we traversed this mostly open section. As we approached Snow Bowl we lost some of the elevation we'd gained earlier as trees re-appeared. The campsites are all nestled within wooded sections of the trail, and so we found Snow Bowl a bit of a maze trying to find our way between the cook area, the toilet, and our campsite. We were one of the last sets of campers to arrive at Snow Bowl (around 6-6:30 pm), and at first we were worried that all of the tent pads had been taken. This was reminiscent of our trip to Lake O'Hara where we spent 20 minutes running around in the rain trying to find a spot for our tent. At Snow Bowl we found an open one after only a few minutes,got our tent pitched and set to work on dinner.
Me, holding one half of our water filtration system, Andrew stood down stream of me.
Andrew unloading at our campsite at Snow Bowl. We were extremely relieved to take our packs off.
Camping Note: We make our own backpacker's meals. You can buy them at places like MEC, or you can just pick up cheep noodle/soup packs (as a group of young men we met at Snow Bowl had done), but we prefer to make our own. Since we were only out for 2 nights, I made the same thing, a sort of dahl-like meal including: rice, red lentils, dried peas and tomatoes, and spices. I pack them into a zip lock bag and they take up very little space. When it comes to dinner time, you just add water! I make up similar packages for desert too.

Since it was rather cool, we didn't bring any books/cards with us, and it was getting dark, we went to bed early, around 9:00 pm. I had little difficulty falling asleep, although I woke up a couple of times during the evening. We managed to coax ourselves out of our sleeping bags around 7:45 the next morning. We ate quickly (oatmeal and tea), struck our tent, packed our bags and were off again by 9:30 am. We had a sizable distance to cover on our second day (21 km) and wanted to get a good head start. Unfortunately, we made a number of stops early on in our morning. We had to get more water for our bottles, we got too hot so we had to take off our long johns, etc., and so made somewhat slower progress than what we would have liked over the first stretch of the trail. Additionally, we got confused when we came to a sign pointing to the Watchtower mountain. One trail lead up, way up to the mountain, the other kept on in the direction we'd been traveling, but the sign didn't tell us what was on ahead. After some humming and hawing we (correctly) decided we didn't want to trek up to Watchtower, and kept going onto the Curator campground turn off (19.5 km into the trail, plus an extra 1 km off the trail to the actual site).
Looking up toward The Notch from the trail turn off to the Curator campsite. next came The Notch. Truth. It sucked. It's a pretty step incline (another blogger suggests the elevation gain is approximately 345 m) that requires some scrambling at the top, and in our case we had to do it through snow. Truth (again). As we stood at the turn off for Curator and stared up at the Notch in despair we thought we might not be able to make it to our designated campsite, Signal, by dark. Andrew was also suffering with a cold and so his lung capacity was slightly diminished. At this point I actually wondered if I'd gotten us into something we weren't going to be able to handle. Truth (for the third time). The climb is a challenge (even for a couple of people who had been training for a marathon), but it's doable and you don't need any special equipment. I was actually glad that the sun had gone in (it had been a sunny morning up till now) as otherwise I would have been sweating like crazy as we climbed The Notch. It look us an hour to cover the 2 km distance, but we did it, and we sure felt good afterward. Plus, once you've mastered the ascent you get several kilometres of relatively flat hiking as your reward.
The mountain lake, about 1/3 of the way up The Notch.
Still a long way yet to go (aiming for the snow covered peaks) but on our way.
By the time we'd reached the top of The Notch it was snowing. Despite only having a long-sleeve shirt and a wind proof vest on I didn't really feel the cool temperatures as we hoofed it hard across this stretch. As I mentioned before, we thought we weren't going to make it to Signal so we took advantage of the "rest" and powered ahead. Had it been clear, we might have taken it a little slower to enjoy the scenery, but as it was we couldn't see much.

Note to future hikers: A couple of points along this section of the trail are not as well marked as the rest of it. You have to look for the carins up there, although I think it unlikely you could get too far off track as at least on one side of you there's a big drop off the mountain.

We covered this mountain top section of the trail without break partially due to our hurry, but also partially due to the fact that there isn't anywhere to rest and be sheltered from the weather. The snow eventually stopped and the sun tried to come out. Around 2:00 pm (I'm not sure what the distance was at this point, we were just about to start our descent down to Tekerra) we came across a couple of hikers taking the trail in the other direction. We swapped information for a couple for minutes, which helped put "wind back in our sails," as it were. We would be down this section of mountain in under an hour and on to Tekerra (the next campsite, 30.5 km into the trail) in about that time again. Suddenly things looked rosy again, we were hiking down hill, the sky was cheering and we indeed made it to Tekerra before 4:00 pm, where we took a short rest.
The snow covered trail on the mountain top.
Andrew taking a breather at Tekerra, we were relieved to reach the camp and take a break.
Note to future hikers: If you only have 3 days, 2 nights to do the Skyline Trail, and are not an insane backpacking nut, I would recommend making your stops at Snow Bowl and Tekerra, regardless of the direction you hike the trail in. They're each positioned roughly 1/3 of the way along the route. We managed the trek all the way from Snow Bowl to Signal, but it made for a very long day. I imagine if it had been sunny and warm it would have been a challenge to keep ourselves sufficiently hydrated.

The last section of our second day was 5 km from Tekerra to Signal. The trail between these two points does a couple of ups and downs, which when tired is a little trying on one's constitution; however, there are no terribly steep climbs, and the scenery is very pretty. Once you've crested the last hill, the trail is all down hill to Signal, and to your car (if you parked at Maligne Canyon). We reached Signal around 6:00, set up our tent and began preparing dinner by 6:30 pm. By this point the sky had return to a mass of gray clouds, which resulted in a couple short bursts of hail/snow, but we were able to eat most of our dinner in peace and without getting wet.

Note to future hikers: They're no shelters at the campsites. Many have limited tree cover, but if it starts to precipitate you're going to get wet/snowed on. If you can spare the space, it probably wouldn't hurt to bring along an extra tarp and some rope so you can set yourself up a small shelter for cooking and eating.

Again we went to bed with the sun on this night, and again I fell asleep pretty quickly. I heard a little pitter-pattering of rain at one point over night, which turn out to have been snow. Winter came early to the mountains. Snow covered everything on Monday morning, although it was fairly light, and maybe a centimetre thick at best. We stood to eat breakfast, re-heated the leftovers we couldn't finish the night before (nothing like dahl and brown sugar pudding cake for breakfast), then packed up as quickly as we could. We were only 8 km from our car and all down hill. We were off at 9:40 am on our way down an old logging road (I think, or it might have been a fire access old road at any rate). This last stretch was still a pretty hike, although it was mostly trees, etc. It also wasn't quite as steep as we'd expected. We'd been warned that one could easily end up with bruised toes by the time you get down to the parking lot, but we didn't find this the case.
Our tent, Monday morning. We were actually nice and cozy inside.
The last stretch of the trail, on our way down to our car. Really very pretty!
The last section took us a little less than 2 hours, making it to our car around 11:30 am. Although we enjoyed our experience on the Skyline trail, we were also happy to see our car and get out of our hiking boots. We took our time loading up, made a pit stop at the nearby Magline Canyon teahouse/gift shop then headed home.
Andrew and I at the end of the trail.
Last thoughts/recommendations for future hikers: Worth it. Absolutely worth it. You do need some level of physical fitness; however, to take on the Notch and the general alpine surroundings. Definitely not for a first-time backpacker.

*I don't think I mentioned this explicitly, but you need some kind of water treatment system, whether it's a filtration unit, or purification tablets I don't think it really matters, but you need something as there's no potable water up there.

*Be prepared for the weather! We saw rain, hail, snow, and sun. A rain/wind resistant coat is necessary, as are waterproof boots. We had frequent river/creek crossing and lots of mud which would easily soak canvas shoes/boots. Having a waterproof cover for your pack would also be a benefit.

*Hiking poles are a nice extra if you can afford it. I don't think they're absolutely necessary (Andrew and I actually shared one set between the two of us, I had the left, he had the right), but it's a comfort to have something to put a little weight on and pull you along when heading up hills.

I think that's about it. Enjoy the slide show, and feel free to ask questions. Next year's plan: The Rockwall in BC!



1 comment:

Jenn said...

Hey Andrea,

My name is Jenn and I'm with Explore Magazine. We mentioned your hike in one of our trending articles. I'd love to share the link with you. Can you get in touch with me - I can't seem to find an email address. Mine: - or twitter DM: @jennlarsenMPM

Ciao for now