The Longest Day, Gannett to Lake Louise

We went to sleep under the blazing sun yesterday at 6pm after spending most of the day cooking food and otherwise getting ready for our adventure. We probably would have baked in our sleeping bags if the wind hadn’t been whipping down from the Gannett Cirque in a steady bluster. My hat, pulled down over my eyes, gave a thin illusion of darkness and I drifted in and out of sleep, having odd dreams about roping up with my two friends for a perilous, crevasse filled descent of the moderate, grassy slope beneath our camp.

My watch started vibrating, shaking me awake a hair before 11pm to a cloudless but still windy night sky. The pale, just waning full moon had risen and was casting faint light over the Cirque to the west, illuminating Gannett and the rest of its companion peaks, showing off the striations and veins in the rock, snow, and ice in a low-key splendor. I rose, packing my bag & pad, careful not to let anything get caught in the still gusting wind. My things secure, I went to dismantle our feeble bear hang – just a rope slung over a boulder – and grab our stove. Our breakfast we had made yesterday, a super-dense amalgamation of mashed potatoes, couscous, and hashbrowns with some pumpkin seeds, sausage, and spices so all we needed this morning was some hot water.

The Gannett Cirque Under the Moonlight

I finished packing as the water boiled, my pack seeming particularly spacious with only a four days worth of food left. With the water boiled and my precious hot drink in hand I packed up the kitchen, the last of my load, and prepared to depart. Out of curiosity I wandered over to the small stream by our camp to check the water levels. There was a cascade that flowed over a rock when the stream was in moderate to high flow that was great for filling water bottles. Now, in the middle of the night, the cascade was conspicuously absent and the stream seemed to be flowing at little more than a trickle; It was a good sign for our first and largest river crossing of the day, Dinwoody Creek.

We were all packed now and ready to depart. Sergio, Jake, and I did a final sweep to make sure nothing got left behind, slightly complicated by only being able to see small portions of our camp at a time through the limited beam of our headlamps. Confident we had everything, we started off. We hit our intended departure time, 12 am, exactly, as we started down the grassy slope with, thankfully, no cravasses to be found. We dropped towards the large river flowing down from Gannett and it’s surrounding glaciers and snowfields, heading to an easy crossing we had scouted the day before. It turned out impossible with headlamps to pick out our exact path, as the rocky banks looked similar for a long stretch, but the water was so low it was easy to hop our way across, each of us taking a different path. Just on the other side we picked up the Glacier Trail and turned northeast, starting towards Lake Louise some 26 miles away by our intended route.

Looking down the Dinwoody Creek drainage, a couple days before our journey

It had been over a week since we had been on trail, and the easy striding was a welcome change of pace. The trail continued for over a mile along the high, wide alpine valley. In the moonlight I turned my headlamp off, observing the textures of ground and mountain surrounding us amid the harsh shadows cast over the dark landscape. As the trail continued down we slowly worked our way into the trees, a novel sight after being above treeline for the prior two weeks. The darkness closed around us then, with only occasional shafts of moonlight piercing the black. We talked to each other more now and, when conversation dwindled, whistled or spoke to the night so as to alert any wandering wildlife – bears being our main concern – to our presence. In the first few miles after entering the trees we had a couple stream crossings. Dark and cold, the waters felt primal to me as they hissed by, the far shore obscured by masses of vegetation as we splashed our way gingerly across trying to keep the water from filling our boots. Sergio led the way and, after regaining the woods and trail after our second crossing, he stopped short.

“Eyes,” was all I heard and as soon as my brain processed what it meant my hand went immediately to the bear spray on my waist belt. Looking around Sergio revealed a pair of glowing turquoise eyes belonging to something raccoon-sized, and clearly startled by us as it froze for several heartbeats before shooting off into the shadows.

At our next crossing, which turned out to be Klondike Creek, I made a classic navigation error in thinking that we were farther along than happened to be the reality. It took a couple minutes heading the wrong direction before the terrain really started diverging from what we expected before getting ourselves back on the correct bearing. We took a snack break then, and afterwards as we were packing up to get moving again Jake noticed that his back of sweet, nutty cornbread had gone missing. Scouring the hillside in the dark turned up nothing. Widening our search area further out from our packs it finally turned up, having rolled away under cover of darkness down the hill and across the trail, finally lodging in the base of a tree.

The trail now was sparse stands of trees along the west side of a wide and marshy valley. As we were about to emerge from a relatively dense stand of trees Sergio stopped short again.

“Animal…” he said, and peering past him I saw a big, hulking shadow of a creature. My bear spray was completely out of it’s holster this time, ready for action, but as we watched the creature it began to move and revealing itself more clearly for a horse. As we left the stand of trees passing carefully around the animal, the trail opened into a broad sandy meadow and we saw an entire herd there, grazing in the moonlight. It was eerie to walk among their huge frames as they went about their business, some with bells jangling and clanging faintly. One, a dappled and inquisitive fellow, even tried to follow as we left the herd behind, running after us in hopes of treats or attention.

Sergio and Jake at the top of our first hill, above Honeymoon Lake

In another mile or so we came to a larger, bridged stream crossing. The water was deeper and quieter than others we had crossed and the glacial till gave it a pale, ghostly cast in the lunar glow. Our feet thumped loudly as we crossed the wooden planks, the water hissing quietly by beneath. On the other side the trail grew nebulous, and we found ourselves crisscrossing small paths that didn’t look well traveled by hikers. Shortly thereafter we stumbled upon the entryway to a very established camp. Cut log fences with canvas tents encompassing a huge area, and the trail we were on seemed to pass right through the center. Stopping to examine our surroundings we noticed more detail, corrals and hitching posts of a horse camp, probably what the herd we had recently passed called home.

We were unsure if the trail actually continued through the camp and were approaching to walk through the open gate when we heard the most terrifying sound we would hear all day. A deep throated growl followed quickly by rapid, furious barking – guard dogs. Bear sprays were quickly in hand and stopped in our tracks, pulling out the map to decide what to do. Backing off a bit I was able to identify hills a short ways off in the distance, almost in the opposite direction we had been heading to get to the camp, and it appeared the trail we wanted ran right around their base. Agreeing that this new direction seemed better than getting any close to those dogs we cut overland north, away from the cam, through a boggy field that also appeared on the map. As we came to the base of the incline we found our trail that we had lost shortly after crossing the last bridge.

The trail now was quite straightforward. At Sergio’s suggestion we paused for a short break at 5:15 AM. Closing our eyes in the final minutes of darkness we slept only fifteen minutes, until 5:45 but awoke to a faint pre dawn glow, tricking our brains into thinking we has slept much longer than a quarter hour. Retiring our headlamps and moving on, another mile or so brought us close to the creek we were following, its waters reflecting the pinks and blues of the sunrise. The splendor was short lived, however, and quickly the trail whisked us away from the water taking in another short distance to the base of our first hill.

Sergio and Jake at our break beneath the scramble up to Goat Flats.

Up till now we had been dropping from the high mountains, following the creek downward. Here we diverged, taking a well graded series of switchbacks up over a thousand feet past Honeymoon Lake to a place where the trail intersected with a drainage coming down from the hills above. This marked the close of the first leg of our journey, and we turned off trail now to head up the drainage, hoping to find a path up through the rocky slopes to the southeast arm of Goat Flat, a broad plateau rumored to be a spectacular sight.

The view southeast off the top of Goat Flat

We picked our way carefully through low, awkward boulders and thick, leg-grabbing willow, working our way up and out of the brush. Jake and Sergio, missing the trail, voiced dissent but as the designated leader of the group I pushed them onward feeling that the trail was nowhere near as grand an escapade. As we kept pushing through the willow and other brush, I feared I might soon have a mutiny on my hands. There was little joy to be found in all this bashing through shrubbery. Thankfully we cleared the last of the brush before they could enact a coup and we arrived at the base of rock we would scramble to reach the top. Their dissent slowly began to ebb, replaced with thoughts revolving around finding an interesting and safe route up to the Flat.

"I seem to remember those mountains being bigger this morning," muses Sergio

Traversing around the base we got a perfect view up the broad gully, curving around above us like a giant amphitheatre. Some large, slabby boulders around the bottom in the middle and left side gave way a short distance up to broken, grassy ramps. On the far right a distinct small gully of different, reddish rock contrasted strongly with the gray slabs. It was full of small loose rock to about half way up and then the chute filled with larger boulders. We chose a route up the first half of the gully over the small rocks, then exiting left onto the ramp system. The gully, though loose, was not steep enough to cause much rockfall concern. We stayed close together, moving slowly up the uneven rubble.

I was pretty excited by how far we'd already gotten by 9 in the morning.

As we exited from the gully, scrambling higher, views of the valley behind us opened up in spectacular, warm morning light. It was not yet 8 am. Moving up the ramps was enjoyable with good holds on solid rock interspersed with grassy ledges. As we neared the top we began to feel a hint of wind. Cresting the top and walking up onto Goat Flat it hit us full force. A howling wind, gusting strong enough to knock us back a step or two when we weren’t expecting it.

The scenery, though, was surreal and any last vestige of discontent Sergio and Jake may have had after leaving the trail were washed away. Wide, flat expanses of grass strewn with huge orange boulders stretched out before us. At irregular intervals were large towers of boulders that appeared to have been dropped there by giants, almost like a child dribbles wet beach sand into little castles. We started out across the expanse, treated by views to the south of Gannett and the other mountains we had left behind barely eight hours before. The going now was harder than the trail, with veins of uneven boulders slicing through the grasses. Walking westward into the wind didn’t help, either. Turning to the north was even worse as it was now broadsiding us, spinning our bodies around mid-step on the tops of the boulders we were trying to cross.

Sergio and Jake trekking through the rubble of Goat Flat

The mountains behind us faded slowly and as we continued across Goat Flat we began to see glimpses of the monstrous cliffs disappearing down from the Flat on our right, to the east, dropping off above glittering green lakes a thousand feet below. As we neared the northern end of the Flat we stopped to orient ourselves. Looking out over the expanse we tried to fit the landscape into some sense by what we were seeing on our map and it was not adding up. Not being able to make sense of the situation, we also began to mistrust what the compasses were telling us. The compasses, which all gave the same reading now, were historically quirky the needles didn’t flow well and would often give very erroneous results.

Sergio cruising ahead up Goat Flat, huge cliffs becoming visible off to the right

We decided to head over to a ridge a little ways east to get a broader perspective and as we started moving Sergio made an offhand comment about it being 12 pm, and relating that to the position of the sun to the south. Looking at my shadow then I realized that the compasses must be correct. The needles were pointing the same direction as our shadows. Pulling out our maps again, and with a newfound confidence in the directions and landmarks we were seeing, things started falling into place. We had been off by almost 90 degrees! We also realized that we were too far off course, and corrected to a ridge opposite, directly west, of the one we had been heading towards.

Jake crusing up Goat Flat, Gannett and friends fading away in the distance

Cresting that ridge on our new heading I saw our next destination. Grouping up on the ridge we picked a route out of the tiresome, treacherous boulder fields and back down to the trail. As we worked our way down the wind also began to die out. We were able to hear each other speak again, and our feet landed exactly where we intended. We dropped quickly and with renewed energy, motivated to put the boulders behind us for good. Contouring around the hillside through grasses and sparse willows, we finally arrived back at the easy tread of the trail.

Looking down to Florence Lake through a notch in the massive straight-walled cliffs

As we came across the hillside to finally hit the trail we undershot our goal by a short distance. Our knees by this point were begging for a break but we wanted to get up on top of the wide, long pass called Burro Flat. Struggling up the last hundred vertical feet we finally topped off and headed towards a post a short way off marking, perhaps, the unobservable “high” point of the giant saddle. Arriving at last, we dropped our packs for a much needed break, digging into what food we had left. We had long since exhausted our “Breakfast,” that conglomeration of mashed potatoes, couscous, and hash-browns with summer sausage, pumpkin seeds, and as many spices as I could reasonably fit in when I had cooked it up. The Roald Dahl book “Georges Marvelous Medicine” comes to mind thinking back on it.

(Finally) Moving off of Goat Flat, back to the trail!

Left in our bags now was a yellow-cake and cornbread mix full of nuts and dried fruit, the same food that earlier in the day had tried to escape from Jake. By now this was mostly reduced to dust but that hardly mattered. Opening mine I was ecstatic to find one last piece of cheese and sausage. This was excess food I had taken at our last re-ration, left behind because of a student who had dropped off the trip at the last moment. I had been sharing it out over the last several hours. I also had a half bag of honey-roasted peanuts from the mysterious dropout, which I pulled out to pass around. It was a little after 2 pm now, and we took an extended break to refuel and prepare mentally for the last leg of our adventure.

As we started moving again the gentle grade and good treat of the trail were a treat. We took more frequent rests now to give our knees a break, timing our stops to find shade and escape the blazing heat of the afternoon sun which was significantly more noticeable now that the wind was gone. After two miles or so, and just after a pleasant break, we began the most unpleasant part of the whole hike. You might think some of the steep uphill we’d already done would have been the worst, but you’d never have seen this downhill. Fifteen hundred feet down, over a mile and a half, with dusty, rocky, sun-baked switchbacks.

The marker post at our first break after getting down from Goat Flat

We were taunted at every turn with views of the creeks running through the lush, green, shaded valley far below. One and on for an eternity it went, punishing our knees and throwing dirt into our eyes and nostrils. It couldn’t have come soon enough when we finally noticed the grade begin to mellow, and shortly there after it finally started to flatten! The trail then cut north down the valley, keeping a very moderate angle and an occasional rolling up or down. Moving further into the valley we took a break by the creek when the trail drew us near its bank. Departing our break we got a bit disoriented when I thought we had taken a wrong turn. It didn’t help that we received some misguided directions from a couple passing backpackers that looked like they’d wandered straight out of the 70’s. Some calculated wandering all over the area near where we had stopped set us back on the correct (original) trail.

Our destination was growing close now; Lake Louise was just to the northwest a couple miles off across the creek. We had hoped to find a place to cross the creek, making our way off trail to the lake by contouring around the north side of a ridge. As the terrain slowly revealed itself, however, our hopes of a direct and quick end to the day were crushed most thoroughly. The creek cut deep into the terrain, gaining high banks and roaring through them with a ferocity we had not seen in any river we had crossed in the previous 32 days. That left our backup option, staying on the trail, taking an indirect route down and across the river, then back up to the lake. This added an additional three of four miles to our travel and several hundred more feet of elevation both gained and lost.

Breaktime by the creek after coming down off the switchbacks from hell

It took some mental finesse absorb this realization without too much despair as we continued following the river down, down, down. We watched the outlet of Lake Louise, which we could see now off in the distance to the west, rise higher above us. Finally we dipped down all the way to the bridge across the mis-named “creek.” Here it was really a serious river raging down turbulent steps and falls through a vertical-walled rock canyon. We took another break on the other side to discuss, briefly, our options: continue on to the lake, camp before it, or search for a camp near where we were now.

It was only another two miles, I reasoned, and there looked to be a good site at a small pond about halfway if we did want to stop early. It came up in the discussion that the terrain around Lake Louise didn’t look very suitable for good camping; It was all quite steep and looked like bare rock from what we had seen earlier before dropping to the river. The only information we had on the campsite was from another student who had only been there in Winter, and we were becoming more and more skeptical it’s suitability. Onward we went anyway, confident at least that we might find some space by the little pond. We knew it was up another couple hundred feet to the lake. By our calculations it was supposed to be about 400 feet spread over two miles. The landscape had other plans though, throwing big hills at us from the get-go. Unplanned dips in the trail didn’t help either as it twisted and turned around devilish rock outcroppings too short to show up on the contours of our map. Slogging onward, the little pond at our halfway point seemed forever away.

Rounding the corner to finally scope out the pond I saw to my great dismay a small clearing full of grass and dry dirt. No water in sight, scarcely even any mud and I flopped onto the dirt to wait for Sergio and Jake to catch up. The river, roaring away down the hill from us, had what looked like a grassy meadow we might be able to use for the night. I mentioned that idea once Sergio had come up and sat down beside me but he made the point that we had already come this far, so why not just keep going to our intended destination. Fair enough. Onward and upward we trudged, gaining towards the lakes outlet until finally we crested the large, stacked and the lakes mouth and gazed down at Lake Louise and our planned campsite, halfway down the lake on the opposite shore.

Jake crossing the logjam at the head of Lake Louise

Our camp, separated from us by a 20 meter channel of water spanned only by a log jam resembling a pile of pickup sticks. We saw there were a couple people over there on the shore, looking back at us, but it was beyond our tired minds to piece together the path they took to get over there. As Sergio and Jake dropped their packs I scrambled up around the stone slabs above us, looking for a platform we might crash on for the night. None were very appealing and all were far from the water, but finally I found a flat, sheltered spot that would suffice, barely, for comfort even if it were almost a five minute walk and 200 vertical feet down to the water. As I arrived back to discuss this with the guys, we heard a call from the other side of the lake.

“Hey,” he shouted, “You guys looking for a place to camp?” Well as a matter of fact we were, and said so shouting back to him. Besides, the small peninsula he’d come from looked far more inviting than the cold rock slab I had found. He directed us down the rocks to the log jam, and as we made our way to meet him he quickly and nimbly hopped across to us, waiting to cross together and show us the best way.

Not only did we have a great kitchen at the site Joe led us to, but the lake provided some much needed protein

Up we went on the other side, scrambling the rocks and slabs we had been staring at across the water just minutes prior. We came to a short rock wall, perhaps 8 feet high, where we climbed a “ladder” that was just two knotted branches leaned against the rock. At another wall, a little shorter but still enough to give us pause, we passed packs and spotted each other as we clawed our way feebly up and over.

Finally we began to descend down onto the beautiful grassy peninsula. Several sandy beaches, a great kitchen area, and several superb options for our tent greeted us along with Josiah, our guide, who was there with his dad Tom and younger brother. They welcomed us to the camp. We quickly decided on a spot for our tent, not wanting to prolong our journey any more than necessary, and dropped our packs with glee. The knowledge that we wouldn’t need to put them on again for over 24 hours filling me with joy.

Hooray, I've fallen and I don't have to get up!

Our longest day was finally at an end, the time was 8:15 pm. 26 miles, 3000 vertical feet, 20 hours 15 minutes later we had arrived.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *