Descent to Jasper

…continued from Part 2: The Columbia Icefield

On a taco, kimchi marinated pork is pretty good. But when you dry it into jerky, it is fucking gross. You learn things like this when you travel. Just smoke the meat and be done with it, people. It doesn’t have to be this whole thing. I tried to eat it and decided it was way too revolting to get through, barring an actual survival situation. I had another bag of beef jerky, which didn’t taste as bad, but was another whole challenge to eat. Each piece felt like I was chewing on a leather belt. It was so tough that I actually lost time trying to eat just a few pieces. I threw both of those bags in the dumpster on my way out of the campground. So be it if I’m hungry for a few extra hours.

The road passes the Athabasca Glacier and the western edge of the Columbia Icefield, which can be seen along the edges of the mountains. The glacier’s terminus had almost reached the road at one point, but has receded about a mile up the valley. Up here, there are mountains with badass names like Mt. Andromeda, who had cut into the crisp morning sky under a waning gibbous moon. I stopped my bike at the edge of the moraine to get pictures, while a team of ice climbers went up the trail to the left on what looked like a day trip on the ice.

I enjoyed it all but twenty minutes and turned northward out of the pass. The climb to get up there yesterday was utterly backbreaking, and the descent down the other side was nothing short of sheer terror. Amazing places like this come at a cost, and I knew that all too well. At a 12% downhill grade, I plunged into the canyon, only able to slow down just enough to keep from speeding out of control. With thin tires, cable brakes, and loaded cargo, this felt like suicide. I watched for the river and forest to join with the road to the left, and for this horror to be over. After ten minutes – what felt like much longer – it finally was. The river met the road and I coasted the rest of the way out with ease.

Over the day, the road gradually leveled out, and the mountains became smaller and more distant as I raced against darkening clouds for Jasper, the final destination of the ride, for food, shelter, rest, bragging rights. But it was much better to be on gravity’s side out here. I had been cycling uphill for three days straight, and this was the first day with almost no climbing whatsoever.

Around 2:00, a car slowed down and stopped in front of me. A lady got out and waved me down. “Hey, did you happen to lose a sleeping bag? I found this along the road,” she said, getting out a blue Marmot bag.

“No, mine is in my cargo, but thanks.” She drove on, looking for its owner. I went on, feeling encouraged once again that good people like her are out here. She didn’t have to care about me, that bag, or whoever it belongs to, but she cared about all of it. With that kind of karma, she can have it for all I care. The clouds ahead were getting darker, and I needed to hurry. By then, I was feeling pretty ragged and worn out.

Later, I mounted my GoPro camera onto my tripod, which was strapped to the pannier rack, to get some reverse shots of the road behind. When I stopped to take the camera off, I realized that I didn’t fasten it very well, and it was one pothole away from coming lose and tumbling onto the road – all of my footage along with it – to be lost and forgotten forever. That could have been an expensive mistake. Like the Screaming Trees said, I nearly lost you, GoPro.

I finally made it to Jasper around 4:00, where I had to climb one last big hill along the mountain to my hostel. I was done with this, I thought, got off my bike, and walked it up for two miles, just as the summer rain hit the mountains.

There were a lot of international backpackers at the hostel, either on roadtrips or by the Via Rail train. Other people like me were passing through on outdoor adventures. A young lady Kaitlyn was a forest ranger from a provincial park somewhere north, who between shifts, likes to drive into the mountains to go rock climbing, and then just sleep at hostels or in her car. She noticed me locking my bike and carrying my gear in, and wanted to know what I was doing. We talked a bit about our adventures.

“Hey, are you hungry? I have some extra food in my car, and I know you’ve been out riding all day.”
“Oh I’m okay,” I told her. “I’ve been eating out of the vending machine. I was thinking of getting a meal sometime tomorrow when I get into town.”
“Well if you want, I’ve got some pasta in my car that you can eat,” she offered. Again, with all the good karma out here. Seriously, this is good people. My rule is that I don’t go looking for it, but I don’t turn away road magic when people offer it. We sat in the hostel lounge while I ate her food and traded stories with her and the other people at the table. I had been out busting ass for four straight days, and this was the first chance I had to clean up and relax.

My train out of town wasn’t due until mid-afternoon the next day, so that gave me time that morning to check out the Jasper Skytram, a gondola on the edge of town that carries visitors to the top of Whistler’s Peak. From there, you can hike the trail system and see a complete 360 degree panorama of the Canadian Rockies, including six mountain ranges, numerous lakes and rivers, and the town of Jasper, 3,600 feet below.

My hostel was a short walk away from it, so that morning I went up there and got on the first lift of the day. Trees glided by silently below as the gondola smoothly made its ascent up the mountainside. A young fellow was our tour guide for the next seven minutes. He gave us a short history of the town, the gondola, and some facts about the region’s flora and fauna, none of which I can remember.

The panorama at the summit was fantastic. And unlike other mountains in the range, Whistler’s Peak is fairly rounded at the summit, making for an easy hike around its trail system. I spent a good hour hiking around and taking pictures. Smoke from forest fires obstructed the far off mountains, so I had to focus on closer subjects. In this case, they were rocks.

The tram swiftly descended back down the mountain to the lower station, where I walked back to my hostel, got all of my shit, and coasted my bike down to the town.

Soon, I was heading west on a Via Rail train, traveling into wildfire smoke, passing Pyramid Falls, Mt. Robson, the Valley of a Thousand Peaks, the remote town of Kamloops, and nightfall. I was one night out from Vancouver, a cityscape on the edge of the wild.

This story concludes in British Columbia.