The Notch to Tekkara Campground (30KM Mark)
Things began to change at this point. While morale was still high following our experience on the Notch, we knew we still had a ways to go, and provisions were running low, namely water. Knowing this, I began to ration the original 5 litres I had packed with me. At this point, it was after noon and the sun was at its highest and would remain up there for a while, with little to no cloud cover. This would end up being one of the few times I had ever been sunburnt in my life.
Logan, Anastasia, Chander and I were the last ones to leave, lagging far behind the main group and watching as they hiked at a blistering pace out of sight. Of course, the three photographers took their time, hardly a surprise at this point in the trek. For reasons that are difficult to describe, this next section was hilarious. The company was great and I fondly remember doing nothing but taking pictures, hiking quite slowly and laughing incredibly hard, due in large part I’d say to Logan.
The 4 kilometres that followed the notch followed the crest of the Maligne Range, meaning that the exposure to both the mountain views and mountain weather was extreme.
The trail comprised packed shaley rock, that had been beaten down so much that a trail was visible. It wasn’t difficult, nor was it extremely dangerous, but you still wouldn’t want to fall down those scree slopes. As we kept hiking, we became more aware of the landmarks and wildlife around us. Far and below us were a herd of mountain goats, grazing on the mountain sides, while several prominent peaks including Mount Edith Cavell and Mount Robson came into view. I also swore that I could make out our campsite at Marmot Meadows.
In front of us lay Mount Tekarra (2694m), whose spires jutted out strikingly through the rugged looking landscape. Tekarra dominated the horizon up until a certain point.
Realizing that we were well off the pace from the rest of the group, we decided to pick up our pace and attempt to catch up to the closest group. The trail began to wind down a series of switchbacks, leading to the valley floor which was nestled between Tekarra to the left, Excelsior on the right, and Centre Mountain at the rear, assuming you’re heading north.
On the switchbacks we actually caught up to a small party consisting of Elizabeth, Celeste and Natalie. The extra company boosted morale and reassured us that we weren’t too far detached from our group and the objective as a whole. Taking care not to trample on the shortcuts and cause even more erosion to the fragile alpine ecosystem, we eventually reached the valley floor. We ran into a couple of solo hikers, chatted and hiked with them for a very brief period of time and kept moving forward.
From here onwards my hunger and thirst became more apparent, as my sandwiches (aka my life lines) and water were running quite low. Sadly, I don’t have any pictures from this particular section as I packed my camera away and began to focus solely on the hike and on ensuring we stayed on course. This section seemed to last an eternity and we began to question how much longer we had left. I began to regret not taking pictures of the whole trail, hours ago when we were at the trailhead. At that point in the day, it felt like we had been at the trailhead an eternity ago – it was blowing my mind that we were still hiking, some 10 hours later. Chander also began to question where we were, how far we were and if we were still on the right path. Things would only get more questionable and uneasy from this point on…
We kept walking through the valley’s bottom, the landscape changing once again, resembling what we had seen hours and kilometres ago near Snowbowl. While I didn’t capture much footage at all from this section, there is a snippet from a GoPro video that perfectly shows how I was feeling at the time.
After some time, as the trees began to pop up around us again, we stumbled upon the Tekarra campsite, a sweet looking spot along beautiful Centre Creek. We stopped briefly, taking some time to get our bearings and ensure that we turned the right way. Much to our relief, we actually encountered a make shift arrow fashioned from rocks that had presumably been left behind by others in our group. The arrow, as well as the trail signage indicated that we were to turn left, across the creek and into the woods, so off we went, with another 15 or so kilometres to go.
Tekarra Campground to Signal Campground (36 KM Mark)
Upon crossing the water, the trail seemingly disappeared and we questioned if we had missed a turn off or the trail altogether, which led some to question our decision to come this way. Fortunately, the trail was found again just a couple of metres into the bush. This next section felt a bit more ominous than anything we had encountered up to that point. The trail was very narrow and felt very overgrown, and as the terrain was quite undulating, with thick and tall flora, we could hardly see what lay in front of us. As such, worrying thoughts about encounters with grizzlies began to creep into my mind, especially since I was leading the group. And of course, in typical Steven fashion, I began to make loud noises, occasionally clapping so as to alert any wildlife to our presence. Despite having a larger group at this point too, none of us had bear spray. Fortunately, no encounters were had, but we were all beginning to feel the effects of hours and kilometres of hiking, on top of what we had already done up to that point in the trek. This was also the point where I ran completely out of water.
Skyline’s trail kept meandering through the woods, below the shoulders of Tekarra and Signal Mountains and onwards to the junction with the Signal Mountain Fire road. A couple of kilometres beyond Tekarra, the trail rounded towards the west and we found ourselves on the slopes of Signal Mountain, with clear views to the north and its saw-toothed mountains. We all tried to stay positive but things began to get really mental and difficult at this point, especially as we were far behind the main pack. As a group, we decided to send somebody to try and catch up to Alex and Jess, so as to update them on our status. Anastasia, being a strong runner and hardly looking fazed at all, volunteered to go, to which Logan agreed to accompany her. So our group dwindled down to five: Chander, Celeste, Elizabeth, Natalie and myself. As the sky began to cloud, and the minutes and metres wore on, we unexpectedly ran into the very people we sought, Alex and Jess. Relieved to see each other, we all took a few moments to catch up and update them, and minutes later they disappeared into the distance, moving at a ridiculous pace. A short time later, we had arrived at the best and yet worst place. Best because only 9 kilometres lay between us and the trailhead, but worst because the road that was to come was truly the worst place.
The Fire Road – Signal Campground to Signal Trailhead (45 KM Mark)
These 9 kilometres were so eventful that I feel as if they almost deserve their own blog post. While the day hike of Skyline is an experience that I will always cherish and never forget, the infamous fire road seems almost more memorable but for all of the wrong reasons. When putting things into perspective, things truly could have been worse but I am so glad they weren’t and that everything worked out in the end.
There we stood, at the top of Signal Mountain’s fire road, vastly underestimating what lay before us. We saw a sign, indicating how much distance there was left to cover, 9 km which was a bit dismaying but also cause for optimism. I think we all thought that it’d go much quicker and easier than it actually did, but that was far from the case.
There was nothing special about this place. It was an incredibly wide dirt road that wound on forever, with ever taller pines, many of which were dead, rising above us. The trail began to switchback within the first few hundred metres, and these were surely the longest switchback straight aways I’d ever seen. We would also learn later that 800m of vertical would be surrendered over the final 9 km. The elevation loss was noteworthy because back up on Signal Mountain’s gentler plateaus, our knees and legs felt relatively fine, but the unrelenting downhill of the fire road took its toll to say the least.
There were instances during which we’d have to stop and regain our composure, as many in our group were feeling the effects of the long day. Aches and pains were had quite constantly, as tears began to flow and increasingly negative thoughts began to creep into our heads. This trail was playing with our minds. Compounding this was the severe lack of food and water. By then I had been without water for a couple of hours, some 10 km or more ago. Each step that I took hurt, as I wanted nothing more than to sit down at the trailhead with my feet up and copious amounts of food and drink in hand.
In an effort to keep morale high, I put music on my phone and blasted it as loud as I could, hoping that the sounds would lift our spirits. I also made a concerted effort to hide the discomforts that I was feeling, as I figured that optimism was the way to go. And it’s funny how things work out and how your sense of distance can be severely skewed in a place like that. My hopes would rise incredibly high the closer to the switchback turn that we got. With each corner that we rounded, I fully expected to look down the straightaway at a clear view of the parking lot, with our friends there, waiting for us, cheering as we made our way down the hill. But with each corner rounded and each switchback conquered, there came nothing. And then it happened, something I had never experienced before.
The sun was back out, beginning to lower over the northern Rockies. It must have been around 6:30pm at this point. The light was golden, my favourite hour and I was grateful for the life and colour that the sun draped over the once seemingly lifeless landscape. At the front of the pack, I took a few steps forward at a quicker pace, swearing that I’d seen something in the distance. As sure as I had ever felt about anything, I ran down the path towards what I thought was a smiling and waving Pat. I saw him there, wearing the blue Terry Fox Foundation shirt that we had all been given. The marks and stains on the shirt were clearly visible, as I saw him waving over at us. My memory of the occurrence is a bit hazy now, but I remember excitedly yelling at my group behind me, telling them that I had seen Pat. But inching just a few steps closer, he was gone. It was gone. When I blinked a few times and really opened my eyes, a tall pine stood where Pat’s illusion once did. I was dumbfounded. That was the moment when I knew something wasn’t right. A mixture of dehydration, hunger but mostly the dreadful fire road combined to make me hallucinate.
And that wasn’t the last of it. A couple of kilometres later, we all heard it. The sounds of cars in the distance, yet not too far off. Taking this as a sign, we attempted to quicken our pace as much as we could. So, we rounded a corner, veering west for a couple of metres, until we eventually came across a fork in the road and a conundrum. To our immediate left lay a supposed short cut, cutting through the terrible switchbacks, and alluring in its appearance. Fortunately, there was no deliberation and we all agreed to stay on the main road – a decision that would later pay dividends.
We continued, trying hard to pay no mind to what afflicted us and then came its second occurrence. It was just like the last time, except the sight was different. There I was, running forward again, excitedly towards what I thought was the trailhead. I saw two large wooden signposts, that supported a map, not unlike one you’d see at a typical trailhead. I was about to yell back to my group again but thought better of it. Again, the vision vanished, and I was left staring at two large pines.
The road kept winding as we questioned the absurdity of it all. And in an instant, Chander began to dart off, citing that he could hear voices in the distance, no longer just the sound of the once distant highway. We heard them too, initially faint voices caught on the wind, but the closer we got, the more discernible they became. And then the moment arrived and we could take it no longer. We began to run, or limp run to the finish. The light was golden, the trail winded downhill and the voices were as clear as day, no longer just a trick of the mind. The raucous applause carried us home, until we were amongst them all. We had made it. Approximately 45km, 13 hours and 60000 steps later, we were done. Our aching legs and bodies finally permitted to rest.
I excitedly told my friends about the Pat mirage, giving us all some good laughs, as we shared other stories from the day that felt like an eternity. We shared our experiences from the fire road from hell and made clear our desire for bountiful amounts of food and water, which would bring us to Greg’s pizza party in town. The rest of the night consisted of revelry and star gazing but more on that in another post.
For anyone reading this, I sincerely thank you. I know it’s a long read but I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed writing it and fondly reminiscing on one of the best days of my life. And to anyone from the Banff/Jasper 150 group reading this, I love you guys. The trip as beautiful and memorable as it was because of you. Lastly, special shout out to Elizabeth, Natalie, Celeste and Chander for being such amazing company from the Tekarra Campground onwards, especially through the nightmare that was the fire road. Your presence and optimism kept us all going in the face of adversity.