“A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.”
We had come a long way. Starting at the eastern front of the Rocky Mountains we had crossed the Front Ranges and followed the Elbow, Kananaskis, Palliser and Spray Rivers. We had entered the Main Ranges near Mount Assiniboine and departed them via the “backdoor” of Wolverine Pass. We now had only to cross the narrow Western Range. It was only a few more kilometres across the Beaverfoot Range, to complete our journey across the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Nine high mountain passes had already been traversed, now Harrogate Pass was all that divided us from the Rocky Mountain Trench, the Columbia River and the end of our journeys.
I hardly slept at all that night, camped next to a cut-block. I knew we were in trouble. As soon as the sky began to lighten, I got out of my sleeping bag. I think this astounded Don, who was always the first to rise. We took down the tent, rolled up our sleeping gear and stuffed our backpacks. I choked down some Ibuprofen and we put a tensor bandage on my right knee. Protein bars would have to do as breakfast. Off we went. For once the sky was clear. It was 5 a.m. It was agreed that if we couldn’t make good progress by ten o’clock, we would abandon our efforts. We needed to be at the pass around noon.
Our footsteps from the previous evening had to be retraced, which was galling but necessary. We turned at the small logging road we had debated the day before. It looked seldom used, but improved in quality as we followed it south. It seemed to be bringing us closer to the mountains and Harrogate Pass. Then it switched back just before we drew level with the pass and went in the other direction, towards the mountains but north again. We followed it for a ways, hoping it would switch back again. We were gun-shy and it didn’t look like it would. We turned around and on the way back we noticed a decent road that traveled south. We followed the road until we drew even with the pass at a “clearing” containing mostly fireweed, which was just beginning to sport late-summer’s magenta blooms. This was the spot I had marked on my maps to begin our traverse. It all looked reasonable on Google Earth! We were probably less than 5 kilometres from Highway 95.
|The dotted line at bottom-center shows a trail across Harrogate Pass|
I must admit that Don objected, but I insisted that we attempt the uphill traverse of the old cut-block. It was chock full of thick “B.C. bush”. I had experienced similar things before, but during times of hot weather and dry conditions. This proved to be another experience entirely. The vegetation was as wet as a recently tossed salad. It wasn’t more than a minute before we were entirely soaked.
Things continued to get worse. The bush got thicker and more treacherous. A dense fortification of thorny shrubs, fireweed, burdock and thistle pressed in on us. An understory of hidden boulders, trenches and pits acted as booby-traps which could easily break one’s legs. At one point I stumbled into a pit and looked up to see just a small window of blue sky framed by vegetation. We tried traversing into some trees, but they were clogged with windfall. Don took the lead and I marveled at his tenacity. He picked up a bit of a trail. I had hoped we could find one, but it soon petered out when the trees ended. We thrashed on a bit further. At what was probably a third of the way up, we looked at each other. “Fuck this!”
We had to admit defeat. Time had run out. There was no time to feel remorse, because we now had to find our way back to the road. We tried an alternate way down, which turned out to be even worse. We clambered over fallen and leaning trees, shrubs, weeds and rocks. “We should be back at the road by now!” Don called out. I could hear the frustration and perhaps even panic in his voice.
“Just keep the sun on your right shoulder” I encouraged, trying not to panic myself.
I lost my trusty weather-worn Stampeders cap. At one point, as I pushed my way through a wall of trees, a branch ripped off my eyeglasses and launched them into the bush. I looked for a minute, but had to concede their loss.
The impenetrable bush shat us back onto the logging road to the north of where it had swallowed us up. We stumbled back to the gravel road and took stock of ourselves. I was covered in welts and bruises. We re-bandaged my knee and Don helped me make a kerchief for my head. Don looked tired and gaunt as he stretched his legs. It was an emotional moment, but relief began to wash over us. We were both alright. Then slowly that was followed by acceptance.I told Don, “I’m sorry, I had to try.”
A couple from Canmore kindly gave us a ride north to the Kootenay River Runners base camp on the Kicking Horse River. Their employees were good enough to let us use their phone. I called my wife, Bev on her cell phone and diverted her from Harrogate to the TransCanada Highway east of Golden, B.C.
After the phone call, we stepped outside and shook hands. Don said, “This isn’t the way I imagined doing this” I could have wept. We walked up the road to Highway 1. I couldn’t resist self-mockingly yelling out one last “Hhhhey! Ohhhh!” in the tunnel under the highway. Then I laughed.We finally enjoyed our coffee in the trees next to the road. After a few hours, we emerged into the hot sunshine, sat on the shoulder of the road and waited for our ride to come.
Don and I have discussed all that happened that day. I have spent time comparing maps to reality and browsing Google Earth and I see a way that it can be done. People have crossed the historic pass in recent years – one party even carried a canoe. What a portage that must have been! One day I will return and try again, perhaps with a GPS unit next time. I just want to prove that our “Walls of Stone” traverse can be made in its entirety and perhaps establish it as a route others will follow.
We both agree that under the circumstances we did the best we could. I told Don that I just couldn’t walk away from at least making the attempt. I would have always regretted not trying that final push. He agreed.
The “Walls of Stone” project is not over. It’s become more than a hike. I will post a map of my route and I hope others will follow. I am writing, of course. There will be a script, soundtrack and more filming. There is even a song. Eventually there will be a film. In many ways the journey continues.
Unlike my last big trip, which ended with no further plans, I am already looking forward to my next great journey. I want to return to my birthplace to attempt a traverse of Great Britain. That will be some ten years away, though. Perhaps that will be my final trek. Perhaps this one was. Maybe I will be like Don and there will be others!
On July 30th, 2015 we ended up just 3 – 5 kilometres short of our destination, after hiking non-stop over 250 kilometres, through 8 watersheds and over nine high mountain passes. I have no regrets. Maybe you will be inspired to follow my route across the Canadian Rocky Mountains. I have found a passage between the walls of stone.