In the fall of 2010, my good friend and running partner Carl and I decided to run the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park with a relatively unknown young lady named Heidi. Normally a three to four day backpacking trip, we felt the 44km route that spends most of its time above treeline would be a great training run in the mountains. Carl and I were gearing up to solo the upcoming Sinister 7 race in 2011 and were hoping to get this done in seven to eight hours, knowing there was some serious climbing involved. What we didn’t expect was that on Saturday, September 11th 2010 after many warm dry days in the area, that we would end up in over twenty centimetres of fresh snow in some spots, having completely lost the trail and hoping not to take a wrong step in the whiteout and fall off the ridge. Heidi started with us and was left behind at one point. After much mulling about whether to go back for her, Carl went back. Was it heroic? Was it a suicide mission? Was it worth the risk involved? This is our story…
The morning of September 11th was wet as we stopped for coffee and a bagel on Connaught Drive in Jasper townsite. It had started raining lightly overnight and was now coming down pretty steady. We had two vehicles with us and since the Skyline Trail is not a loop trail, we parked one at the end of the trail so that we had a quick and easy way back to town after. As we began the forty minute drive climbing up to Maligne Lake to start the trail we noticed the temperature gauge in the truck slowly starting to get cooler. What had been raining and plus five in town was now zero degrees celsius and sleet. Upon parking at the trailhead the discussion turned to “well, if its like this here and we are about to gain nearly a vertical kilometre in elevation today… what is it going to be like up top?” Best not to think about that too much is what we decided. Best to gear up and get going.
The Skyline Trail is one of the best known trails in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, and one of the oldest. Mary Schaffer took this route back in the early 1900’s as there was a great deal of exploration in Western Canada at this time. The south section of the Skyline was travelled by Schaffer on her way to Maligne Lake in 1911 while Fred Brewster, who started Brewsters Tours developed the northern section in 1937. Over the years, the trail has become best known for it’s exhilarating views along the ridge, seeing for miles and miles on a clear day. While most people choose to hike the route over a few days (as I have most recently done in 2017), it is not out of the question to trail run or fast pack it in a day. Long, slow climbs on the way up to the ridge are followed by long steep downhill switchbacks on the last stretch. There is no question that it is a long tough day out, but with the views that are promised on this trail, I saw no reason why it wouldn’t be a great day…
The trails were a little bit muddy as we started working our way up to Evelyn Creek campground, which is about five kilometres in. Still very much in the forest, the damp smell made me think of Vancouver Island as we followed a very gradual uphill to the campground. The uphill wasn’t the biggest challenge on this section, it was the mud. Although normally this section of the trail would be very runable, the mud made is a slippery mess in spots, slowing us down as we tried to tiptoe around the sloppy obstacles in our path. Evelyn Creek came into view and it was a short stop for a snack. We had planned to stop at each campground, as well as at the Notch, which was the high point of the trail, to get some nutrition. Looking back now, I realize how we were really not carrying much with us. If I were to do this trail again I would be much smarter. I had a few gels, beef jerky, some sort of powerbar chocolate balls and two litres of water in my bladder. In addition to the food, I had my bearspray and an extra long sleeve top. That was it. I was wearing capri tights rather than full length ones, so that got fun once I got into shin deep snow. No space blanket, no raincoat, no fire starter. Given what the circumstances we were about to face, I should have been more prepared for the conditions. Still we were hopeful leaving Evelyn Creek that the conditions would improve, as the forecast for that day in town was eight degrees celsius and sunny.
It got worse. So much worse. Leaving Evelyn Creek, we began a steep series of switchbacks towards Little Shovel Pass. It was all in the forest so we were somewhat protected by the wet weather. However as soon as we came out with a view of the pass we realized we were just getting started with the poor conditions. Snow everywhere. You could make out a bit of the trail we were heading down, but otherwise, it was tough to discern many landmarks.
Onwards and upwards from Little Shovel Pass Camground towards Snowbowl. We started to notice leaving Little Shovel that many of the hikers we had seen that day were either moving slowly, ill-prepared (hiking in jeans in snow… I don’t recommend it!) or they had simply decided to stay put at their campsites where they could stay somewhat warm and dry. I do not have good memories of Snowbowl Campground. When hiking here in 2017 the rain was coming down so hard when we passed through that we had to hide in the trees to eat our lunch. At this point though, it was a quick stop for a snack and then carrying on and upwards. We were about two kilometres past the campground when we realized that we were breaking trail now. All day we had seen some form of tracks in the snow, mainly from hikers that had left their campgrounds that morning and began moving towards their next destination. But now there was a lot of snow as we climbed towards Big Shovel Pass and it was getting a bit tougher to determine the best route at times.
We made our way up Big Shovel Pass, which was a long steady climb through a lot of fresh snow. After a brief break at the top, we dropped back down the other side into some very thick clouds. There were no footsteps at this point and after dropping a couple of kilometres into the hanging valley between Big Shovel Pass and the Notch, not only could we not see the trail anymore, we couldn’t see anything. We had no idea what was to the left or right of us. Were we heading in the proper direction still? It was so difficult to tell. We came upon a group of nine hikers that had all congregated, trying to find the correct way forward. There was a trail somewhere, but no one could locate it in the whiteout.
One thing was very clear, we were carrying the least of the group and would be best suited to scout out the area to find the trail, or at very least the direction it travelled in. So, Carl and I in our matching outfits, which by the way was completely unplanned, set forth to find a route while the group stayed behind. What I recall about this experience was not knowing where a cliff may be. And I nearly found one. Having hiked this section in 2017 I now realize at that moment I was standing above the trail that drops down to Curator Campground. But at this point, I nearly took a step off the edge and likely would have tumbled all the way down to Curator. Carl and I spent about half an hour looking for the trail when the snow falling from the sky and the clouds lifted enough to show us the way. Upon locating a trail sign, we reported back to the larger group, wished them safe travels, and carried on our way. Once past the trail sign and heading towards the Notch, which is the high point of the trail, we started talking about our own journey on this “fine” day. There were two sidetrails that would take us off of the Skyline from here. One was down the Wabasso junction which would leave us quite a few kilometres from the town of Jasper and the other was down the Watchtower trail, which would plunk us down halfway between our vehicles on the Maligne Lake road. Either way, we were looking at an additional 10-12kms of hiking just to get off the trail on one of these routes plus then getting to town or a vehicle. Or… we continue to move forward knowing we have about 25 kilometres to go, but once we get down off the ridge section, there is a lot of downhill and descent should mean less snow. The other option was to turn around and go back the way we came… in itself nearly 20kms back. After much humming and hahing, Carl said, we’ve come this far and I want to earn my pizza and beer at the end. So forward we went towards the Notch…
Not only is the Notch the high point on the trail, it is supposed to give you your first glimpse of the many, many peaks that surround you. Upon reaching the Notch, you follow the ridge for about six kilometres. On a clear day, we were told it was one of the best views you will get on a trail in the Rockies. Well… first we had to get to the top of it. At first sight it was very intimidating, partly because of the sheer size of it and partly because we did not know which route to take to get to the top. With all of the fresh snow, and never having been on these trails before, we had to pick our way through what was at one point a rockslide I am sure with no markings. Not a soul had been up through here yet that day and we were certainly hoping to be the first. Then the sun came out… the glorious sun! It turned whatever despair and helplessness we were feeling into a feeling of hope and motivation. I do not recall how long it took us to get to the top, but I know it was longer than it normally would have. At least with the sun out, you could take breaks climbing and look back on the valley that we had come out of and see actual mountains! Not just clouds and snow.
Remember when I mentioned that we had hoped to do this trail in seven to eight hours? Well, lets just say that was completely out the window at this point. We just hoped to get off the trail period. In one piece. And preferably in daylight. Things were looking up now that the sun was out and we were nearly at the high point of the trail. As we took our last steps to the Notch, our excitement turned to, well….COLD. We had been protected from the wind on the other side of the Notch the whole time, but once we hit the top, we now got the weather system from the adjoining valleys. And of course, the clouds rolled in at the top, taking away what would have been an amazing view. Still spirits were high as we stopped to take a few pictures before moving on, because it was just too cold to stay put for too long
Along the ridge was frigid. It wasn’t snowing anymore but the wind and low laying cloud made for a tough stretch of trail. Every now and then the clouds would lift enough so you could see some trees down below, or at one point I could see Highway 93 south of Jasper townsite. But these were few and far between and did not elicit any “highs” as we struggled to make our way forward. The positive thing at this point was that we were actually able to do some running after spending the previous couple of hours simply hiking and route finding. That was what we had come here to do after all…
I would like to say that the ridge was memorable and that we were able to really enjoy it, but that would be a lie. We were at a point in our day where we just wanted to get out of the snow and out of the wind. There was a sketchy section that we had to climb up and over that involved many large, slippery rocks and a quick drop off on either side if you took a wrong step. The funny thing about this section is that when hiking it in 2017, I found the actual trail went below it. There was no rock climbing needed at all. But with all the snow and low laying cloud, we hiked into an area that we shouldn’t have even been in. And it definitely could have ended poorly. In 2017, I said to myself on the ridge (which was a clear day) where is the extra climb we had to do up here? And when I saw what had to be it, I was kicking myself repeatedly but also smiling a bit at the humour of the situation now.
Ahead, we could see the sun teasing us down in the valley where Tekarra campground was located. And we could see green, real green. Not just white everywhere. Things were looking up, I just knew they had to be. We started the long winding climb down to Tekarra which was quite nice compared to what we had just gone through. Most noticeable was that getting off of the ridge meant getting out of the wind.
It is fair to say that this is where our trip turned around and some smiles started to come out. We were serenaded by a group of hoary marmots once we got near the campground, and shortly after passing the very muddy campground, the sun came out again. But this time we weren’t near the high point of the trail in snow. We were starting to see some dry trail and were out of the wind. A point came where we actually were able to take off our coats and begin the process of drying out.
Now you have to realize that since Carl first brought up pizza and beer when we were route finding around Big Shovel Campground, he had been randomly yelling out “beer” and “pizza” about every twenty minutes. Knowing how good that would taste and knowing that the food I had with me tasted nothing like that made it hard to hear. Well it was safe to say that when we started descending more and more and nearing the old fire road at the end of the trail, I could finally think to myself that yes, I would have beer and pizza tonight. And it will be glorious!
Once you hit Signal Campground it is a downhill from there. Nine kilometres of downhill. Nine kilometres of knee knackering downhill switchbacks. With no view but the trees. Where every corner looks the same and you start thinking “the end of the trail must be around this next corner” every few minutes. It was great to be able to run on such a wide and dry trail but after about six kilometres of downhill our knees were starting to rebel. It had been a tough day on our bodies and our knees were now crying out to us… After a short walk break we continued onwards and would you believe that finally, around one of those corners, was the trailhead at the north end of the Skyline. Packs off, high fives and one last picture. What was supposed to be an eight hour day ended up being over a ten hour day. Back to the hotel for a shower, a change of clothes and off to Jasper Pizza for that well deserved pizza and beer that Carl had been chanting about so much today!
Oh but wait, what about Heidi? I completely forgot to tell her story. About two kilometres past Snowbowl Campground, Carl stopped running. I looked back and he was looking all over the place, near frantic. I asked him what was the matter. He said Heidi was gone and he didn’t know where she was. Now remember this was the section where it was getting difficult to find the trail and we were getting socked in by snow. “I’ve got to go back” exclaimed Carl. “I think we left her at the campground.” “Are you sure you want to do that” I asked, sounding like a horrible friend I am sure. “It’s just going to get worse from here and you’re going to have to put on some extra mileage going back and what if she’s not there?” Carl looked at me and firmly said “I have to go back for her, I can’t leave her here.” And so Carl went back. I have to admit I didn’t think he would find Heidi. I actually thought I may not see him again if he decided to go back further than the campground. What a day, what a day…
Then the incredible happened about twenty minutes later, I could see Carl coming back down the trail. And he had Heidi with him! “I found her just before I got back to the campground, she must have fallen.” And just like that, he showed her to me, yup she was a bit dirty but in one piece. It was great to have our “third” back with us as we moved back along the trail at a pedestrian pace. I would have been fine leaving Heidi, but Carl, he’s a good man and he was determined to bring Heidi back home. After all, Carl’s daughter would have been devastated if her doll hadn’t come back home with him…
One thought on “The Day We Left Heidi Behind…”
Quite an adventure!