The Columbia Icefield

…continued from Part 1: Calgary to Canmore

I only had one tube left and was paranoid that it wouldn’t get me through the rest of the tour. So I slept in and headed to the bike shop later that morning. I hated to miss an early start, but it did give me an extra hour to get a timelapse shot of the Canmore Engine Bridge, a historic landmark in the town.

At the shop, I bought four more bike tubes out of paranoia, and a pressure gauge, which I should have had anyway. I got both tires inflated to the proper pressure and was finally ready to keep going. If I can’t get through the next 300km with all of this, I thought, then I have serious issues. I got back on the highway and headed northwest.

I was so exhausted and pissed off yesterday that I hardly took any time to enjoy the scenery. From Canmore, the highway goes northwest along the Bow River Valley between huge, majestic glacier-cut peaks – one after another – that thunder into the sky ahead for countless miles. No photograph can wholly capture how resounding and awesome they are to see. Carved impossibly high into the sky in formations of sandstone, shale, and ice, the Canadian Rockies are on their own terms. This is the big mountain country. These are the stone gods of North America.

I made it to Banff around noon and stopped to eat. It is a big tourist village that offers just about every outdoor sport you can think of. It looms under the giant massif of Cascade Mountain, creating a popular vantage point for tourists and photographers. Today was the 4th of July, and they welcomed Americans.

Castle Mountain, the most prominent peak of the day, came into view ten miles later as I traveled uphill against wind and gravity, with the rush of Bow River to my right. It was fresh with swift meltwater, and flowed southward, eventually going all the way back to Calgary. A man in a canoe went by. I pedaled on, happy to have the shade of light overcast. Any clouds would do in this heat.

I went on for a while to the continuous roar of highway traffic. After a couple hours, I reached the town of Lake Louise after a steady, hard pace on long uphill sections. I could have turned on a small side trip westward up a huge hill to see the iconic lake and vista that gives this place its name. Screw that, it’s getting late. From there, the Trans Canadian Highway turned west towards Vancouver, and the parkway went northward towards Bow Pass. I was glad to be away from all of the heavy traffic and loud eighteen wheelers. All was quiet on the road. The climb didn’t stop. It doubled in grade and went right into cold headwind.

The sun lowered behind the rugged peaks along the British Columbia border, and the golden Bow River snaked along the valley below amidst a darkening forest. Cold air blew from the high mountains ahead. I continued along the eastern ridge as the temperature quickly started dropping.

I made it to my hostel in the early evening, hours behind schedule but not really counting. The hostel, a series of rustic solar powered cabins, was the first of its kind that I’ve ever seen. I slept well along the rush of Mosquito Creek, not wasting any time getting any needed rest that I could. Another big day lay ahead.

My phone alarm went off at 4:30am and I set out at an hour later. The blue glow of daybreak illuminated the forest. A backpacker walked by me and towards the mountains, apparently also trying to get a head start. Soon, I was back on the road and climbing towards the summit of the pass. Clouds covered the tops of the mountains, and didn’t seem far off from this elevation. I began to notice the glassy dark blue claws of glaciers coming out between the mountains to the left. At times, the morning sun broke through the clouds, illuminating parts of the scenery. Other times, sheets of cold rain would seem to come out of nowhere. This was a volatile and dynamic place, where ultimately, the mountains decide how the day will be.

I was already covered in rain and was getting hungry. I had packed two bags of jerky, which I planned to use between food stops. The beef jerky was so tough to eat that it took twenty minutes just to chew through one piece. And the other bag had kimchi marinated pork, which I don’t know what I was thinking when I bought it – it tasted foul. I ate about as much of it as I could stand that morning, but ultimately chose to hold out until the next store. From the summit of the pass, I was about 10 miles of downhill away from the Saskatchewan River Crossing, which would probably have something.

It was a cold and shitty morning, but I finally hit the downhill section and coasted for a half an hour all the way to the river. From here, the highway reached a junction with a road going east out of the range. Still not entirely sure where to buy food, I crossed the river and kept going. Typically, highway junctions in the middle of nowhere like this one do have a place to eat. Like a gas station or roadhouse, or.. a freaking breakfast buffet? Out here??? Dude. DUDE! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. A FREAKING BREAKFAST BUFFET!!! On a cold and wet morning, no less. It was like a cycling oasis. I rode up to the building as the smell of bacon coming from the kitchen reached my watering eyes.

I had four plates of eggs and meat, making up for thousands of lost calories. It was so awesome. I went on to tell the server how awesome it was, because I wanted her to understand how I feel. And I knew I needed it to power up for Sunwapta Pass, the ballbuster climb of the trip. I came back outside to my bike as a number of sightseeing tour buses were parked in the big lot in front of the building. This was apparently one of the main stops.

Several people wanted to know where I was headed, which I’m used to, then an Asian family wanted to get their picture with me. To them, I figured, a dude like me busting my ass out here – and really this entire place – was a completely new thing for them. Hell, I’m American and a lot of this seems new. I was fed, encouraged, mostly dry, and the sun was finally out. Let’s do this.

It started as an easy climb, following a braided and mostly flat floodplain along the Alexandra River. After ten miles, the road turned away from the river and went up to the base of the pass, getting worse with each pedal stroke. The mountains closed in and I was cycling up the canyon. Up ahead, I could see the monstrosity of the climb in clear view. Sunwapta Pass. A hard as shit climb. This was going to hurt.

The road quickly went to an 8% grade as I geared down and made a slow pace. I was moving just enough to comfortably pedal into the angle without falling sideways. I was sweating it for a whole mile before the road went flat again and turned to a big loop to the left. Out of breath and surprised at the reprieve, I coasted slowly around the bend and gathered my thoughts for a moment.

I caught up with three road cyclists who were touring in carbon fiber featherweights. A lot of cyclists like them do supported tours in places like this and have somebody shuttle their gear ahead. I, however, don’t feel like spending the money or time for that and prefer to carry all of my shit with me. It means I’m slower going, which is the tradeoff for the independence. Here, obviously, they were having an easier time.

After the loop is the meat of the climb, which goes for almost two miles of 8-12%. It is one monster of a grade. I fought my way up a few hundred feet, took a break, climbed some more, stopped again. I think I stopped about six times. It only lessened the suffering by notch. It was terrible. But the overlook here was a good distraction.

After it curves around the ridge, the grade lessens to about 5% for a while, which is well under my threshold. I don’t really like it, but I can at least work with it. I was finally nearing the summit, where I turned to find a site at a nearby campground. It was mid-afternoon, but I was definitely done for the day.

One thing I’ve learned from mountain touring is that the work and payoff are usually directly related. The rewards are big, but they come with a brutal workout. It’s either awesome or it’s a beating, depending on which side of the coin you’re looking at. It turns out that the summit of Sunwapta Pass, which is right at the edge of the Columbia Icefield and the Athabasca Glacier, is the most amazing part of the entire highway.

I had a few beers with an older English lady and her partner at the campground, and she told me I should hike up the nearby Wilcox Pass Trail to see the surrounding mountains and glaciers from a high ridge.

I spent an hour scuffling up the wooded trail and into high clearing along the edge of the mountainside. At the trail’s end, a lone red park bench sits in view of the Columbia Icefield, the Athabasca Glacier, and numerous other majestic mountains and icefalls. As the sun descended to the west, I imagined the vast snowfield ahead in an ethereal orange alpenglow amidst ragged, darkening peaks. The sunlight parted as the world ahead turned into shades of blue, and the temperature started to plummet. I made my way back down the mountain and to the warmth of my tent. Fucking hell. This place is unreal.

Everything else was downhill from here. And that was fine by me.

Part 3: Descent to Jasper