I have biked and hiked then fallen asleep exhausted in my share of backwoods campsites. But somewhere in my travels I became lured by luxury in the wild, and last September I headed for an all-inclusive holiday called Fall High Adventure. The event, the brainchild of fitness guru and passionate hiker Charlene Prickett, offers challenging hikes with a soft bed to sink into at day's end.
But that's an understatement, for the trails traverse the magnificent peaks and glacial lakes of Banff National Park, and the beds are in the lavish Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. The 35 participants, hikers and urban escapees from all over the U.S. and Canada, were attracted not only by the promise of several levels of hikes per day to choose from, but by additional activities such as golfing and fly-fishing, photography and painting, yoga and aerobics.
Walking in the clouds
The first morning, six of us set off along the Plain of Six Glaciers trail with Bruce Bembridge, one of two naturalists employed by the Chateau. The beginning of the trail, which is about 3.3 miles (5.3 km) one way, starts out the door of the hotel along the shore of Lake Louise; beyond, it climbs gradually through a forest of spruce and fir, then opens up to a barren moraine, providing views of surrounding peaks -- or so we're told; we're walking in clouds so thick we can barely see the person ahead of us, let alone distant peaks. But Bembridge stops often to describe the geology, history and wildlife of the region, filling in the spaces we can't see and enhancing those we can.
Eventually the clouds become a drizzle, and the chilled group is happy to stop for tea at Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse -- a rustic log cabin built in 1924 by the Canadian Pacific. Fuelled up, we set off again in light rain to complete the last kilometre of trail. As we strap on our backpacks we hear a rumbling. Thunder, I think, just as Bembridge shouts, "avalanche," and points in the direction of a smoke of snow rolling down a distant mountainside. For everyone an avalanche -- viewed from a safe distance -- is a thrill.
About 30 minutes later we're on a low ridge that leads to the trail's namesake lookout; though clouds obscure the promised panoramic view, we can see some peaks and Victoria Glacier, with crevasses that, says Bembridge, "are big enough to swallow a car." We snap some photos with frozen fingers and as we return along the trail, it begins to rain -- hard. But I don't care; I'm heading back to a five-star hotel where a stretch class, hot bath and bountiful dinner await. What harm is a little rain?
At dinner, someone from each group recounts what they did that day; while we walked in clouds and rain, those who'd been golfing in the valley below hit balls in the bright September sun. Overnight it snows.
The power of poles
The next morning it's sunny and cold and I opt for the intermediate level full-day hike. The difficult full-day hike is meant only for "vets," repeat guests who are deemed experienced and fit enough to tough out an extra-challenging day on the trails. As I relax over breakfast, one of the vets rushes over and asks if I'd like to join their hike. "Bruce said you're fit and could handle our trip. Can you be ready in 10 minutes?"
Without time to think, my ego inflated, I jump at the opportunity. It isn't until I'm in the van en route to the trailhead that I discover the real reason I've been asked. The vets are headed to Paradise Valley, where grizzlies have been sighted and, according to park regulations, they need a sixth person, since bears have never been known to attack a group of six or more. In other words, I am bear repellent. I'm now afraid -- not of seeing a bear, which I'd love to do, but of not being able to keep pace with the vets.
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We start on the Larch Valley trail with a series of 12 switchbacks, which quickly get our heart rates up. But fellow hiker Gail assures me, "the grind is worth it," and she's right. Like magic, the trail, which begins in a forest, opens up to reveal the meadows of the Larch Valley; surrounded by the soaring Wenkchemna peaks, this valley is one of the most strikingly scenic places in Banff -- especially in autumn, when the larches blaze gold before losing their needles. On this day the needles, snow-dusted, glitter brilliantly in the sun.
Hiking with a group, you go only as fast as the slowest walker. The pace on my first hike was slow for me. On day two, I worry that my lack of surefootedness on steep rocky trails will slow me -- and everyone else -- down. But the Chateau provides hiking poles; using one gives me confidence and I don't hold anyone back. Though I've always thought poles were very uncool, Mathias, our guide, who is originally from Germany and is one of the top mountain guides in Canada, tells me that Europeans use them all the time.
We overtake many hikers (Larch Valley is one of Banff's most popular trails) and in less than an hour we turn off onto the Sentinel Pass trail. For the first half hour the path winds through an open meadow and past a tiny turquoise alpine lake. It then switchbacks for more than half a mile up a steep scree slope (let's hear it for poles!) and ends at the wind-whipped summit, sandwiched between Mount Temple and Pinnacle Mountain. Our plan is to continue into Paradise Valley, but we stop to drink and eat a snack while Mathias scrutinizes conditions on the other side. Checking out the valley we've left behind, I realize the little dots below are people we've passed.
Mathias reappears to tell us the previous day's snow has made the trail impassible and we have to turn back; I'm ashamed to discover I feel a slight sense of relief mixed in with my disappointment. The others, all type-A hikers, have no such ambiguity, but they understand this is what can happen in the mountains.
Going down is easier on my lungs, but not my confidence. I'm cautious heading down the steep slippery scree and once again realize the benefits of a hiking pole. We meet the others on their way up -- those tiny dots I'd seen from above. One woman is balancing on wedge-soled shoes, one man is wearing sandals, neither has a pole -- but amazingly they've made it this far. That night's discussion reveals once again how unpredictable the mountains are. Bruce's half-day group had also visited Larch Valley, taking it slow and steady, and had great sightings of grizzlies. Another group, the "intermediate" full-day hikers, had an intense off-trail adventure, climbing knee-deep through snow to the peak of Mount St. Piran.
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Surprise at the pass
The next day Clem, another guest, and I try fly-fishing in Canmore. I'm a better hiker than fly fisher, but despite my tangled lines (or because of them), Clem has me laughing through most of the day. Thursday, I head out with four others (Clem and his wife, Lynn, from Calgary; Shannon, who's from Arkansas and has rarely experienced snow; and Larry, our guide). We've booked our own Big Day, up a little used trail. Our destination: Surprise Pass.
And it is. It's gray and misty as we head out the hotel and up Saddleback Trail. A few hours later we leave Saddleback for a trail that Larry seems to know, but we can barely see. Snow starts to fall. I keep my eyes fixed in front of me, not quite comfortable enough -- pole notwithstanding -- to look at the surrounding scenery as we climb a steep, narrow path that clings to the side of the mountain. Still, I'm feeling exhilarated and pretty confident. So what if at times I grab on to a stunted tree for additional moral support (all the while hoping I don't have to test its strength for physical support)? And so what if my heart skips several beats when Shannon slips on the loose scree, sending rocks clattering down hundreds of feet?
We hike up past snow-laden trees and shrubs, drinking regularly and snacking on chocolate (guilt free). The snow offers surprisingly good grip though I have to watch my step between rocks. Eventually we're above the trees and about four hours from the start we reach the top of the pass -- a narrow, snow-covered ridge of rock -- just as the sun breaks through the clouds. I'm hoping we don't have to return the same way we came because going down that steepness will be scary. Immediately I realize that, either way, I have to go down.
Like the guide two days before, Larry goes to check out the other side of the pass. I walk to the edge to watch him and gasp. We're on an overhang that seems to drop off into nothingness. I can't see Larry, though I know he's just below, but way, way down I can see the tiny turquoise dot of Lake Louise. As we eat, standing up because the snow is so deep, we can see imposing Mount St. Piran, Big and Little Beehive, and the white-blue ice of Aberdeen Glacier.
Larry returns and tells us he has good news. The snow is thigh deep and the trail very steep (this is good news?); we can "bum-ski" down at least 800 feet of trail. I'm thrilled I can go down by sliding on my backside, because I can't imagine I'd have the guts to go standing up. Besides, it sounds like fun -- and it is. Larry goes halfway down and waits for us to follow one by one. I'm whooping it downhill a bit too fast (you dig in your heels to slow down) and luckily avoid injuring myself when I bounce over a snow-covered boulder. This is the most fun, and fastest, 800 feet I've ever "hiked." As I brush myself off I think we'll be home in no time. But distance in big landscape is deceiving and hiking down a boulder-strewn mountain can be slow going; we arrive back at the hotel with barely time to wash before dinner. At dinner I discover almost everyone is beaming -- the high life isn't bad.
The next day I hike near Dolomite Pass, with Chateau naturalist Michael Vincent. When he breaks out in a yodel, I think it's his mountain joke -- until he explains we're travelling through bear country, and we don't want to approach one unexpectedly. Our last day, everyone participates in the Amazing Adventure, which includes a canoe race/scavenger hunt down Lake Louise, a treasure hunt through the trails, and zip-lining across a river. Everyone had a favourite moment -- and some had emotional epiphanies. Most of us felt more fit than when we arrived, with our brains cleared of clutter.
Even if you can't head out for a mountain high, find your own hiking highway -- along a country road, in a rural park, even around a favourite neighbourhood. And head for the hills: walking up and down, with or without a pole, is good for the heart and soul.
More about mountain getaways
A Rocky Mountain getaway doesn't come cheap, but for some people, it's worth saving for.
What to pack
Pack these items when you hike in the wild.
• Rain gear
• Comfortable hiking boots
• Socks (thick and thin)
• Sun hat
• A hat for the cold
• Waterproof matches
• Map and compass
• Camera and film
• First-aid kit
• Mosquito repellant
• Knife, spoon and fork
• Cup and bowl and water bottle
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