GDT Reflection: Day 7

After the first 7 days I thought I’d write down some reflections on the trip so far.

Challenges

The trip so far has had a number of difficult moments (and so early!), but day 4 has shown that every day can reveal yet another challenge for us to face.

On day one, our challenge was to hike from Waterton Lakes, at the official GDT start, but then through our own made reroute to get around the closed sections of the park. Waterton had just opening up some trails and sections of the park so we had managed to snake through the park, government access roads nearby and back through the north edge of the park back where it was opened to connect to the official reroute. The difficulty there was having to switch between road walking and bushwacking through overgrown trail. It was a long (more than 30km), hot (34C, exposed with very little shade) and strenuous. But not technical or interesting.

On day two we tried climbing a mountain pass to do a ridgewalk on Avion Ridge for the day, but turned back due to high winds. The winds were reaching 30km in the bottom of the valley we camped in that night (breaking our water filter hose and tearing our footprint). At the top of the mountain earlier in the day the winds were at least 2 or 3 times that fast. The wind threw both Natasha and I down every ten teps while we hiked up, and tossed and toppled us down the hill when we tried to do the pass. This was very scary not to have firm footing and control of ourselves so we turned back and camped at the base by the waterfalls.

Day three was our reattempt at the pass and ridge walk. The wind was much slower (less than 8km max in the valley, and just a gentle breeze at the top) and the hike was very nice. My personal challenge at his point was getting over my fear of heights (as I do every time we climb a mountain). Managing that fear is doable but can prevent me from enjoying it as much as I could.

Then on day four, the challenges made the last three days look like a cakewalk.

I started the day having difficulties getting food down and spent most of the day with far fewer calories consumed than I should. I ate some bars but mostly yogurt/ baby food and probably had only around 700 calories consumed by noon.

The day was meant to be a hard one. We we’re planning on doing La Coullette Ridge. This is supposed to be one of the hardest sections of the trail and has a lot of elevation gain and loss. Basically the day is completely off trail, hiking on ridges for hours, with five peaks (four saddles). The third ridge is meant to be the hardest, but I’ve never really understood why it has that reputation until now.

It was a struggle all day, especially without much food, but the the third peak was not only the hardest thing I’ve ever done but one of the most unpleasant. It has a steep grade, and is covered in loose shale. Every step slides out from under me, and the distance was great so it was just constant climbing, if not running, up loose rocks on an exposed mountain. I was running on adrenaline only at this point and was close to breaking down. I can’t explain in words how terrified I was. The peak isn’t even that interesting or technically difficult. It’s just steep, scary and long. I did not enjoy. However the fourth peak was more my style but I was too tired to enjoy it. Overall we got through this but I really didn’t enjoy it.

On day five and six the challenges were to manage blisters. Much of the walking was on durable surfaces; either road or ATV trails. This is hard on my feet and a less interesting slog. I came out with damp feet and blisters (new toes!).

Rewards

There have been plenty of rewards so far though. It’s not all bad!

I really enjoyed the fourth peak of la coullette ridge. The mountain was interesting and the view amazing. This was my jam!

The waterfalls and views by Avion Ridge were breathtaking.

The wildflowers throughout have been very pleasant and sometimes overwhelming! We once saw an entire hillside blanketed in pink!

My favourite though, is when we went past Sage Pass and went through the burn. Despite as devastated the area was from the fire, it was also regrowing. Walking through the area we had suddenly come across regrowth. In amongst the black husks of burned trees and black soot on the ground we found the ground suddenly covered in vibrant green plants carpeting the ground. The entire atmosphere changed. The colour was amazing and the air became much cooler and less dry. Just walking into this instantly put a smile on my face. I can’t help but feel refreshed and optimistic.

Takeways

The trip has been great so far, but I am really looking forward to more large rewards. I’m glad we are past what is considered one of the hardest sections of the trail but still hope the challenges don’t let up on us!

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Day 7 – Nero in Coleman (aka Alannah and Dan are wonderful)

GDT kms: 10.9

We made quick work of the roadwalk into town and then found our way to A Safe Haven – a very hiker-friendly bed and breakfast – by 9:30am.

Future hikers – you definitely need to stop here! So far we’ve showered, eaten three tasty meals (which included Alannah picking up additional groceries to accommodate Kyle’s allergies), done laundry, been chauffered around town to pick up resupplies, and wasted too much time on their wifi. (As a side note, Alannah mentioned they are planning to sell, but the buyer will continue to host hikers.)

Looking forward to lazing around tomorrow and enjoying a full day off to rest our joints and hopefully turn our blisters into calluses.

Day 7 – Nero in Coleman We made quick work of the roadwalk into town and then found our way to A Safe Haven – a very hiker-friendly bed and breakfast – by 9:30am. Future hikers – you definitely need to stop here! So far we've showered, eaten three tasty meals (which included Alannah picking up additional groceries to accommodate Kyle's allergies), done laundry, been chauffered around town to pick up resupplies, and wasted too much time on their wifi (speaking of which, blog posts up until today should be up now!) Looking forward to lazing around tomorrow and enjoying a full day off to rest our joints and hopefully turn our blisters into calluses. 📍 Traditional territories of Ktunaxa, Niitsitapi and Tsuu T'ina

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Day 6 – Nothing to see here

GDT kms: 20.9

Another day of walking on ATV roads. We walked up to Willoughby Ridge though which would have been quite pleasant if I wasn’t feeling so bleh and dead slow all day for some reason.

Along the trail we ran into (almost literally) a mama grouse and her chicks which was quite cute.

We got to our campsite early and took advantage of the fact we will be able to charge things tomorrow by watching some of the Netflix shows.

If I was feeling better, we probably would have made it to Coleman as it’s only another 10km. It would force us to either take two zeros in a row or get off-schedule for our permits later on in the trail and we are trying to do our best to stick to them.

Day 5 – Roadwalking our feet to death

GDT kms: 32.5

We woke up from our campsite tucked in between the trees and realized it was far too bright out; we majorly slept in until nearly 7am. We had planned to sleep in a bit to recoup from La Coulotte, but not nearly that much. This late start meant we didn’t hit the road (literally for most of today) until 8am.

We descended our Jeep road as it gradually got in better and more drivable condition. Just as we got to an area with a clearing and signboards, we saw a large group of teenagers with huge packs off on a trip – the first people we’d seen since we left Rob at the top of Sage Pass. It was a bit shocking to see so many people all at once.

Our Jeep road then turned into a gravel highway. Thankfully it was a relatively cool day, so we weren’t getting too hot on the exposed roads. As we made our way down the road, a couple women in a Alberta Parks truck pulled over and offered us a ride. When we declined, they realized we were GDT hikers – so cool to actually encounter people who know what the GDT is – and told us there was a trail we could follow up the hill we were approaching rather than going straight up the cutline as suggested by the GDT app. (For future hikers, at km 99.7 don’t follow the app’s direction to go straight up the cutline, instead follow the road/trail a little bit further, you’ll see pink flagging tape, at the third or fourth flag, you’ll see a trail ascending the hill over your left shoulder, follow this up, it’s flagged and switchbacks up the hill and I assume is much more pleasant than the suggested route.)

At the top of the hill, we unfortunately had to get off our very brief trail and back onto a Jeep road. The roads are sometimes nice and honestly a very welcome adrenaline-free route for today, but they are killer on ankles and knees as they are often rocky, hard-packed and uneven in weird ways.

The highlight of today came at the very end when we got to walk through a cattle grazing area with several adorable calves in the herd.

Two more days until our first resupply in Coleman!

Day 4 – We’re going to die

GDT kms: 14.7

“Fuck fuck fuck. We’re going to die” was my inner monologue for a large portion of today.

It started out as a pretty slow day; we slept in more than planned and Kyle woke up with no appetite. We knew we had a big day ahead of us though, so we tried to get on our way.

When I heard La Coulette would be difficult, I was expecting lots of elevation gain and exposure. The first two peaks gave us exactly that. On the third peak, however, we also got bonus helpings of very unstable talus underfoot.

As we were climbing the third peak, I ended up wandering a bit too far off the ridgeline and was immediately kicking myself for not paying attention. I’m not sure if being on the ridgeline is any better, but being off it and trying to get back on felt like we were taking one step and slipping back one and a half steps. I just had to focus on taking step after step and not looking back (and seeing how far we could fall) or looking forward (and seeing how far we still had to go).

I’ve broken down in tears on hikes on three occasions now: (1) hiking up to Tin Hat Mountain on the Sunshine Coast on what I would previously have classified as my hardest day of hiking, (2) when we weren’t able to summit Mt Whitney at the end of the John Muir Trail, and (3) today when we summited the third peak of La Coulette ridge. The adrenaline finally stopped, we were no longer in immediate danger, the tears of relief were overwhelming.

We couldn’t really enjoy the view at the top though as we were well aware that we had to make the long way down to the next saddle and then had another two peaks after that. We quickly signed the logbook, “Easily the hardest thing we have ever done,” and then started making our way along the rest of the ridge.

The rest of the ridge was thankfully much more tame and we were able to relax and enjoy the rest of the day, very thankful when we reached a Jeep road that promised boring, adrenaline-free walking for the next few days. Four days in a row of the most intense hiking you’ve ever done is overwhelming and we are definitely ready for a break.

Day 3 – Holy exposure Batman

GDT kms: 13.8

Daily kms: ~30

Today we set out nice and early to conquer the pass and ridgewalk we weren’t able to do yesterday due to the wind. On our way up the pass, we encountered our first other GDT hiker, Rob! We wound up leapfrogging with him throughout the day which was nice.

When we reached the pass before the ridge, we were happy to find there was barely a light breeze. It was a stark contrast to yesterday when we were getting blown down in close to, if not over, 100 km/hour winds. We weren’t quite prepared for the level of exposure of the trail that connected from the pass to Avion Ridge. The path traversed a loose scree slope at an alarming angle. I’m normally pretty good with heights, but I had to force myself to not look off the trail at all as looking down made me light-headed and dizzy. Kyle was having the same issues, but we didn’t have much of a choice but to keep advancing.

Making slow, but consistent progress we were able to reach the actual start of Avion Ridge which had more solid footing. We were finally able to both take a breath and take in the amazing views all around us.

After the ridge, we descended a bit before joining the official GDT and going up and over Sage Pass. It was surreal walking through this area as it was burnt in last year’s fires and had a very post-apocolyptic wasteland feel to it.

One of the coolest parts of the day was walking through a mini-canyon type area that had strong Star Trek vibes – they should film along the GDT 😋

Our day ended at the last water and campsite before La Coulette Ridge which we will be doing tomorrow – this is supposed to be one of the most challenging parts of the GDT, so maybe we’ll end up 4 for 4 of the most challenging hiking days of our lives.

Day 2 – Scariest day of our lives?

GDT kms: 0

Daily kms: ~7

We woke up a bit before 5am to the sound of rain falling on the tent and we quickly closed the vestibule doors and tucked our packs and shoes under cover. We kept dozing for a bit more until 5:30am or so when we deflated the sleeping pad and started packing up. Unfortunately for us, it decided to start raining quite hard right at this moment – I don’t think either of us were particularly pleased to encounter rain on our second day on the trail.

We were quite happy to be on an actual trail today, but less pleased that the rain turned it into a car wash as it was relatively brushy along the sides. Thankfully the rain only lasted an hour or so before letting up.

We reached the falls at the start of Yarrow Creek around 9am and then started the climb up to Avion Ridge. This is when the scary portion of the day started. It was pretty windy at the falls, but we were expecting it as a couple of horse riders yesterday said it would be a windy day. What we weren’t expecting was just how much windier it would get as we climbed. Kyle and I both got blown over by the wind multiple times on our way up and when we reached the top, the wind was so strong that we couldn’t really stand up. It seemed unlikely that we would be able to safely walk along the ridge in these conditions, but neither of us were quite ready to call it. We took a break by a rock that provided some shelter and looked at the map and talked over our options – we could either (1) go forward and hope the wind subsided on the ridge, (2) wait at the top and hope the wind subsides, or (3) turn around and go all the way back down to the falls and try again tomorrow when it would hopefully be less windy.

We decided to try to continue forward. We made it about two steps forward past our shelter rock before we both got blown over. There was no way we could continue without getting blown off the ridge, we had to turn around and make our back down in the wind.

When we reached the bottom, we were both shaking from the adrenaline wearing off, but thankful we got down safe.

We checked the forecast on our inreach and there is a lot less wind forecasted for tomorrow, so hopefully we’ll be able to get over the ridge.