This is a story where I’m likely to get a lot of lectures.
Well, don’t. I have spent a lot of years in the backcountry. I’ve climbed countless mountains over 10,000 feet high. I’ve taken countless spills in the backcountry. Back in the day, I’d think nothing of a 20-mile hike, or a 5,000-foot climb. I’ve had to quickly climb a big boulder to get out of the way of an angry bull moose. I literally stepped on a bear sleeping in high grass on the trail. And I did all of it solo.
So, I don’t need any lectures. I know what I’m doing.
I did learn a lesson. Go solo if you want, but at least leave a plan with someone.
I’ve done all these things, but I’ve gotten older and heavier and can’t quite go the distance or scale the height that I used to. I can’t even imagine trying to do the 22-mile round trip up to and back down from 14,495-foot Mount Whitney in California that I did when I was 25.
That’s the preamble. Because I hate lectures. Here’s the story about a hike I had dreamed of doing for 15 years. One of my favorite places to go hiking when I lived in the Northern Rockies for 12 years was Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.
Years ago, I wanted to try the Edith Pass-Cory Pass Loop, but I had to call it off because of thunderstorms. It had always bugged me and for years that I couldn’t get to it. I finally got around to it, nearly a decade later.
I knew this was going to be a difficult hike, but I didn’t know just how difficult. And I certainly didn’t anticipate all the ridiculous things that ended up going wrong, which eventually led to me making potentially life or death decisions.
I’m genuinely not exaggerating here. I felt stupid afterward, but also proud that I didn’t panic and dug very, very deep to get myself out of a genuinely dangerous fix — because no one else was going to do it for me.
Cory Pass is 7,700 feet high. The trail begins at 4,500 feet in the Bow Valley just outside of the Banff townsite and loops back to the same parking lot over nearby Edith Pass.
The climb from the parking lot to Cory Pass is 3,200 feet and the trail is only 4.7 kilometers long. That’s more than 3,200 feet of climbing in less than 3 miles, an average grade of more than 20 percent. That is considered “beyond category” steepness.
The entire loop is 13 kilometers long, about 8 miles.
The 3,000-plus feet of climbing had me a bit intimidated. That was a bigger climb than I had done in a few years. Still, I tried to work up to it this summer.
I’ve gotten 10 years older and a lot heavier due to medications and just the act of getting older. But, I still try to get out on the trails a lot, even if it’s just up and down Hurricane Hill or Klahhane Ridge.
First of many mistakes
I also decided that rather than go up that insane Cory Pass grade, I would take the loop counterclockwise up to Edith Pass first. Sure enough, that trail is a bit longer and has a somewhat milder grade.
And yet, this was probably my first of several mistakes. My first red flag was as I was hiking up to Edith Pass on a beautiful day is that I noticed about 90 percent of the people on the trail were going the other way. There was a reason for this which I discovered late in the day.
Once you get to Edith Pass, you take a connecting trail to Cory Pass. On that connector, you have to do a short scramble up some boulders, then you make a long gradual grind up to monstrous Cory Pass along an extremely narrow, steep trail.
As much as I had tried working up to this hike, I admit that while grinding up the last half-mile to Cory Pass, I started “bonking,” i.e. — my legs started cramping up. I was literally going 20 steps at a time and having to rest. My legs were just dead. Back in the day, I would have flown up that trail, but those days have long since passed.
A French-Canadian guy caught me from behind and agreed to take my pack. At this point, I was probably less than 100 yards below the pass. With no pack, I made it up to the top easily, feeling very grateful for his help and feeling like, “I still have it!” after all these years.
The effort was well worth it. Cory Pass afforded an amazing view of the Bow River Valley and the towering peaks around Banff. It is a really wild and special place high in the Canadian Rockies.
I figured my little bonk below the summit was a small price to pay, but my misadventures were just beginning, unfortunately.
First misadventure. Heading down the steep trail, I slipped on some loose scree and took a tumble. As falls go, it wasn’t that bad, I just fell backward, but I landed in some sharp rocks and I ended up cutting up my wrist and scraping my arm from elbow to wrist. It was more bloody than painful, fortunately.
Second misadventure. And this was my big, big screwup. The trail hit a rocky hill and plunged straight downhill, literally down a steep cliff. Sliding and slipping down this cliff, I kept thinking that this seemed to be an insanely steep trail. Wouldn’t the Canadian park service design something a little safer?
Going down that cliff, I took a couple more spills. Big disaster — on one of my spills, my water bottle went flying. All my water … gone. On a second spill, my trekking pole snapped. Oh great, on such a steep trail, a trekking pole is indispensable.
Man … everything was going wrong.
Then I hit rock bottom. The trail petered out at some cave at the base of a cliff. I had come hundreds of feet downhill thinking this was the way back to the parking lot, only to find out it was some kind of old abandoned trail to a cave.
I sat down. My legs were exhausted after fighting my way down the steep trail. I checked my phone. No cell service or wifi. I wasn’t that far back in the backcountry — I could see the Trans-Canada Highway at the bottom of the valley. But, I was stuck high on a cliff hundreds of feet above.
I tried heading back up the cliff, but I immediately fell and because my legs were so wobbly. I went back to my resting spot by the cave.
I had plenty of energy bars, so I had food. The worst part of it was the lack of water. What a disaster that had been seeing my three-quarters full water bottle tumbling down a cliff. I’ll be honest, if I could have called 9-1-1, I would’ve. How long would I have to sit here with no water before anyone could actually find me? My car was in the parking lot and I had told people I was going on the Cory Pass Trail, but how many days would I sit here waiting for rescue?
After a couple of hours of feeling depressed and pretty stupid for getting myself into this mess, I jury-rigged my trekking pole and managed to turn it into a serviceable ice-axe. So, finally, something had gone right. I was feeling stronger than I had been a couple of hours earlier.
A difficult decision arrived. Sit put and wait for rescue, or head down a steep wash to a flat valley that eventually led back to the Bow River. Or try that cliff again back UP to the trail. I didn’t like the idea of heading down the wash. I had no idea if there was a 90-degree cliff down there somewhere and I would end up in an even worse spot. So, I decided to make another attempt back up to the main trail.
On the way up the cliff, I grabbed roots, tree branches, dug my jury-rigged ice-axe deep into the ground and leaned on it way too heavily, hoping it wouldn’t snap a second time. At times, I was literally crawling on all fours, but after an hour or so, I managed to climb the 300 feet or so back up that cliff to the main trail. It was exhausting, but I had made it. Man, I was proud of myself. I’m still wondering why on Earth that trail to the cave was even there.
Sure enough, the correct route involved a little scramble up a big rock. There was no trail and very few markings. Up on top of the rock there was a sign, but as I was tired and carefully watching my footfalls, I hadn’t seen the sign 20 feet above the trail.
So, I had gone all Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant and rescued myself. The big problem now was that I had wasted about four hours of the afternoon on my little detour and it was 7:30 p.m. It was still a long, long way back to the parking lot. And I was still a bit wobbly because at this point, with no water for hours, I was getting really dehydrated and dizzy. I came to realize why no one goes counterclockwise on this trail — because it’s so steep that it’s really dangerous and excruciatingly slow to go down that grade.
I went slow and steady, making sure not to take any more spills. I really thought I was going to make it, but around 10 p.m., it simply got too dark to continue on. I ended up on a nice little shelf above the freeway. I knew was close to the parking lot, but I was also still about 500 feet above the valley floor and there was no way I could get down there in the dark.
There was no way I was going to use my cell phone as a flashlight, slip again on the steep trail and then be stuck on the trail in the dark with my phone missing in the bushes. I realized I had no choice but to hunker down for the night. It was actually a nice spot with an incredible view of the valley.
It was a bit cold, but I had brought a jacket. The biggest drag was that the mosquitoes really feasted on me all night. But, what a gorgeous place to spend the night with the Milky Way on full display all night. I literally dreamed all night about drinking juice.
I was thrilled when the sun finally came up at 5:30 a.m. I hit the trail again at 6 a.m. and it turns out I was only about a mile-and-a-half from the parking lot, though I was correct that the trail was so steep that it wouldn’t have been safe in the dark. I got back to my car by 6:50 a.m. and the first thing I did was drink an entire bottle of Vitamin Water in about 5 minutes.
During the drive to Montana that day, I drank another big bottle of Gatorade and another bottle of water … yet, I didn’t have to “go.” I realized at one point I had gone 26 straight hours without going to the bathroom. That’s some scary dehydration.
So, I learned a bit of humility from my Man vs. Wilderness experience. I learned to be a little more careful in the backcountry, and that I can’t quite do what I used to be able to do. I also learned that I’ve got a reservoir of will deep down inside that I didn’t realize I still had.