At first, I wondered if asking my girlfriend, an inexperienced hiker, to come with me on a three-day backpacking trip on the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park would be asking for trouble. A multi-day trek might be one of those things — like skiing or driving — best experienced for the first time with a professional stranger, someone who isn’t so close to home, someone whose suggestions could not be taken personally in the heat of the moment. I didn’t want the trip to turn into a mess. We’d only been dating half a year, and despite her thirst for adventure, I was skeptical whether she really understood what she was getting herself into. The wilderness tests everyone who ventures out into it on a nice day, let alone in the shoulder season of the Canadian Rockies, when the weather forecast consistently winks with the hint of snow. There’s a reason why tales of historic explorer couples are hard to come by. Going camping is one thing. Going on an expedition is another.
That’s not being dramatic. Jasper National Park is the largest park in the Canadian Rockies, stretching on for 4,200 square miles. Despite being significantly larger than its southern rival Banff (2,500 square miles), Jasper received about 1.5 million fewer visitors in 2014. Translation: more wilderness, less people. And its flagship backpacking route, the Skyline Trail, is 27 miles in length with more than half of the hike above tree line. This means that along with its beautiful views come tough, changing weather conditions and cold temperatures. It is very much a route where things can get uncomfortable in a hurry.
We left Calgary at 6 a.m. and turned onto the TransCanada Highway. It was the beginning of Labor Day weekend and most certainly the end of summer. The temperature was in the mid 30s, and some of the trees had already started to turn yellow. We could see the low-hanging clouds and the frost line in the forests that climb the hillsides, a magical sight when viewed from the warm car. I knew we would eventually go toe to toe with that frost, but for now, it was a harmless, beautiful world out there.
“Do you think there will be snow on our trail?” she asked.
“Maybe,” I told her. “But no worries. It might be tough in the moment if there is, but at least we will have an epic story to tell at happy hour.”
She did not say anything.
IF YOU GO:
Jasper National Park can be reached via Calgary or Edmonton. Both are four-to-five-hour drives. The drive from Calgary is much more scenic, winding its way through Banff National Park and the Icefields Parkway. Jasper’s backpacking season is short due to its weather; the Skyline Trail is best enjoyed in late June, July, August and early September. You can start the Skyline Trail from either the Signal or Maligne Lake trailheads, though Signal is the better route, getting the most boring part of the trail, a fire road with no views, out of the way in the beginning as opposed to letting it be an anticlimactic end to the trail. There are six total campsites along the trail, each requiring reservations. If you can, plan to stay at Tekarra and Snow Bowl, the most scenic, with a combination of pine forests, rivers and landscape views. Pencil in a night at the plush Fairmont Hotel to decompress and defrost after the trek.
I had decided that if this gal was going to wander off into the deep woods and attempt to survive for the first time, it should be me, not some stranger, leading the charge. I was romanticizing the idea of being in the backcountry with her. I wanted to find out if the wilderness could bring us closer together, if the giving nature of survival would swoon us into romantic oblivion. We would complete tasks together — cooking and carrying the load — but when it came to route planning, supply choices, morale and outright survival, I was the one who was experienced enough to make the decisions and weather the storms. She was happy about it, the notion of me being in charge. Most of that had to do with the fact that she was inexperienced. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make things even more whimsical for me. The thought of truly providing for her made me feel good. There in the car talking about it all, the sparks had already begun to fly, at least in my head.
The first day, we found out firsthand that the trail was named Skyline for a reason. From the Signal Trailhead, we climbed 3,000 feet and were met with cold fingers and runny noses, the type you get when your summer-conditioned body is greeted by the first chill of season. Compounding this initial shock was that we were tackling the most boring part of the trail, a rocky fire road filled with false summits and no views whatsoever.
“Fucking shit,” I heard her say.
This was not a good start for me, the romantic. But after three hours of miserable climbing, where I was thinking all the things she was saying, the fire road ended and we crested into the alpine valley. “Beautiful!” she said.
Five hours later, we had gone six miles. The cairns all looked like the bases of fat snowmen.
As we walked through the trees, it started to snow, soft and beautiful. We were both very happy, having accomplished the climb, and we arrived at camp in good spirits. But things quickly changed. Frozen snow on the picnic tables made it uncomfortable to sit and eat our dinner. We stood while we cooked the rice and beans, then rebounded with a glass of wine beside the river. But then two men trounced into camp, exhausted. They had come from the other direction, the one we were headed tomorrow. “Knee-deep snow at some points,” they told us. “Everything above the treeline is covered.”
It was hard to believe it, sitting there in the green forest beside the peaceful river. Sure, a little frost here and there, but deep snow? Yet as the sun dropped behind the mountain, the temperature began to plummet. By the end of dinner, there was frost forming on my backpack, and the cold cut through my layers and got under my gloves. Before it was dark, we were in the tent trying to get warm. Our three-season bags were no match for the damp cold front. I started to get worried. As I pondered our next move, she called an audible herself, slipping into my sleeping bag and wrapping her arms around my chest. We laid together, and soon we both felt warm and were comfortable. Here we are laying together in a frozen forest keeping each other warm, I remember thinking. Oh, the romance!
This small victory pleasantly overshadowed reality when we woke up in the morning. Despite the fact that there was a layer of frost on the tent, morale was high. The stories the men had told us of ice and snow the night before were brushed off. We gleamed with the confidence of a couple who had overcome something. We enjoyed a long, relaxing hot breakfast. I laid out my tent to dry and we sipped coffee by the river. We talked about whether the men had embellished the reports, expressing doubts that the snow would slow us down. We strolled out of camp around noon feeling awfully good about our chances.
Five hours later, we had gone six miles. The cairns all looked like the bases of fat snowmen. The only thing keeping us on the trail was that the night had frozen the men’s footprints and left a path to follow. I made staircases in the snow with my footprints, pounding down and flattening out the top layer of snow. Still, we slipped and fell on snow-covered rocks and stumbled and slid on avalanche-prone embankments. She was not having a good time. Behind me, I could hear her struggle each time she lost her balance, the long, tedious, one-step-at-a-time march wearing her out. It sucked the beauty out of the environment for her — which was tough for me to watch, because boy was it beautiful. We walked the spine of Amber Mountain at 8,000 feet, several hundred feet above treeline with the entire valley there out in front of us. Each time I felt she was about to boil over, I would point and marvel at something in the distance. In total, the 12 miles took us 9 hours.
Sometimes the stress of being in charge can overwhelm the rewarding nature of guiding.
When we came out of the snow and started our descent down below treeline into the forest and found that Snow Bowl was wet but without snow, it was like I had led her to the promised land. Suddenly, our morale exploded. It’s amazing how an accomplished and rooted mind can turn a pot of boiled noodles into something much more. The frost on the picnic table might as well have been a white table cloth. We were warm that night right from the start, cuddled up in my sleeping bag.
When we reached the end of the trail the next afternoon, we stood admiring the map and how far we had come. I said, “That snow storm feels like forever ago, doesn’t it?”
She nodded her head. “Some snow, some sun, some hard climbs and some beautiful scenery,” she said. “I think I felt the full spectrum of human emotion.”
“Yeah, it’s good for me,” she said, “It means I’m alive.”
Looking at her and all we had endured, I realized that our hike had condensed all the bliss and piss of a relationship into a three-day walk. I was very proud of the way we had come together through it all. I also felt remorseful for all the skeptical feelings I had at the start, for thinking that she would, for whatever reason, place the weight of her frustrations upon my shoulders. Sometimes the stress of being in charge can overwhelm the rewarding nature of guiding. After all, a backpacking trip is where you will see the best and worst of someone. But it’s also where you give the most. My gift was introducing someone to something I love. In the end, she loved it too.
I can’t speak for you, but for me, that’s pretty damn romantic.