Josie Hartlin is a Mountain Adventure Skills Training (MAST) program student at our Fernie campus. The following blog post is her account of an educational five-day hike that her and her classmates embarked on in September, an experience made all the more challenging when smoke from wildfires in the region, and from Oregon and Washington State rolled in.
The first of many multi-day trips happened early in the semester. On September 7th we set off into the mountains having only known each other for one week. It was sure to be a trial of our teamwork and a great way to get to know each other quickly. We were about to grow from individuals into a team with a network of strengths.
Our destination was The Steeples, just a little less than a two-hour drive from campus. Loaded up in the truck we had our backpacks that we spent the previous days packing and repacking, and packing again. Given that this was the first trip of the season, a few of us were bound to have packed some luxuries we could have gone without. If you were well packed, your bag weighed in at around 45lbs. The vans held the students who were masked up and anxious to get off the highway and onto the trails.
Guides were assigned to each group of six. JR, a French-Canadian mountain guide who owns an adventure tourism company was assigned to one group. Megan, an inspirational woman who is head of the Ski Patrol at Fernie Alpine Resort went with another. Last, but certainly not least, was our fearless MAST leader, Brian Bell. Some may call him our instructor, but that doesn’t quite do him justice.
The plan was to spend five days and four nights in the hills. Ultimately, we would end up doing a loop of the Tanglefoot trail. However, we were challenged to venture off trail to practice route finding, map and compass skills. There were day hikes planned to Dibble Glacier, Reto (Secret) Lake, as well as Cliff Lake. We initially planned on only moving camp once; this would bring us closer to the vans for the walk out on the final day.
The second day of the trip we split up with two groups opting for an off-trail round trip of Reto and Cliff Lakes; the remaining group ventured over Bear Pass to explore Dibble Glacier- the southern-most remaining glacier in Canada. Two of the groups arrived back to camp early in the evening to rest and recharge after a day filled with glacier exploration and dips in crisp blue water. The third group arrived back only minutes before darkness.
The terrain which brings you from Reto Lake to Cliff Lake is without an established trail and not as simple as just walking from one to another. What you are unable to see using the contour lines on the map is that there are ridges of 15-30m cliffs which funnel you to the far side of the lake if you do not stay high and left on approach. The students realized this far too late and were forced to add in a couple extra kilometers and hours, with a side of bush whacking. Arriving back at camp was a relief after a challenging day filled with hands on problem solving and navigation. History repeated itself this day because the same mistake happened to a group of MAST students years prior when they, and their guide Reto, attempted the same route.
It is always expected that things will change. Although we entered the week with well detailed route cards, and a seemingly definitive plan, the week did not unfold in that order. After two nights of base camp at Windy Pass Lake two groups decided to pack up camp and move to Dibble Glacier for the second last night. This additional camp move allowed us to experience what it is like to relocate base camp mid trip. Waking up earlier, followed by a day hike with heavy packs toughens you up both mentally and physically.
Hiking to Dibble Glacier involved one mountain pass and two steep descents. Luckily for the group who had the unexpected adventure the day prior it was only a few hours and mostly on-trail. At the crest of Bear Pass, we noticed something unusual happening in the sky before us. Faint, but distinct smoke was starting to creep in from the forest fires of Washington, Oregon, and our neighbouring Kootenay towns. Noting this, but not worrying, we hiked on toward the glacier through the sepia toned atmosphere.
Base camp was quickly established at the toe of the glacier and we scrambled up the moraine to get our hands on the glacier. For many, this would be their first time experiencing such a phenomenal chunk of ice. Gazing upon frozen water the colour of blue cotton candy and drinking from streams of fresh melt felt as if you stepped onto an unknown planet. To feel alien on earth is a humbling experience only those who seek it will know.
Day four was set to be a big one for all parties. The plan was to make it to Mause Tarns and camp for the final night. Hiking from Dibble Glacier was roughly 10km, with hopes of taking a shortcut through an avalanche pass. The group coming from Windy Pass was expecting to clock nearly 13km to the Tarns.
Unexpected challenges were faced soon after waking up. The smoke from the day before had rolled in hard, fast and heavy. Where once were mountains became a gray horizon with little to no distinguishing elements. It smelled as if someone nearby had lit a campfire; unfortunately, this was no marshmallow roast. Smoke presents many challenges. Breathing in smoky air at high altitude while trying to push through a difficult hike is a recipe for discomfort. To make things harder, the anticipated avalanche pass shortcut did not turn out to be as clear and easy as expected. Two groups opted to take the Tanglefoot Loop to the final camp. One group decided to trail blaze and found a route that was shorter, but challenging and through thick woods.
The smoke continued to make our trip difficulty and we were unsure of whether to continue, as smoke exposure can create health issues. A meeting was called to discuss and decide a plan as a group. Since we were at our final campsite the vans were only a little over an hours’ hike away via an on-trail and downhill route. It was equal parts defeating to leave early, and exciting to know we were going to sleep in our own beds.
On this trip we grew as a team both in our mini groups and as a whole. We learned hard skills such as route planning and navigation. Risk management was taught first hand when we chose to cut the trip short. It was an invaluable experience with its challenges and rewards leaving us all left eager to see what MAST and the mountains had in store for us next.