Banff Trip Part 6: Surprise in the Valley of the Ten Peaks

17 08 2019

If I had a lump in my throat coming home yesterday, today’s lump was ten times bigger.  It was hard to believe that today was the last hike on our Road Scholar  hiking trip.  As it turned out, though, it was the best.  And that’s hard to imagine, as all of the hikes were spectacular. 

Starting at Moraine Lake, the hike took us up ten switchbacks to Larch Valley, through the Valley of the Ten Peaks, and on up to Sentinel Pass.  By day’s end I would have hiked 8.3 miles and gained 2,365 feet in elevation.  And would have gone again, given half a chance.

moraine lake

Once past the ten switchbacks, which we counted each in a number from a different language, we entered Larch Valley.  Like the bald cypress found in my part of the world, the larch tree is a deciduous conifer, its needles turning a brilliant golden yellow in the fall before dropping.  Although we were too early for fall color, we were able to caress their soft needles on their finger-like branches as we passed through.  On the way up, we passed lots of Colombian ground squirrels (and corresponding bear digs).  At the top, we were entertained by the piercing whistle of the American pika, and a Golden-mantled ground squirrel kept us chuckling as Kelsey photo-bombed it from the switchback below.

But by far, the most interesting animal we saw on the way up was the American two-legged rock-climber.  This intrepid beast was later seen scaling a rocky pinnacle, appropriately named Grand Sentinel, heading down toward Paradise Valley on the other side of Sentinel Pass.

As we continued onward, we found ourselves hiking through alpine meadows surrounded by breathtaking views of the Ten Peaks. 

In front of us lay the Minnestimma Lakes, small ponds tucked in at the base of a steep, scree covered slope that formed a saddle between Mount Temple and Pinnacle Peak.  Surely, we had reached our destination.

But no.  Kelsey, our guide, pointed to a barely visible, thin zigzag trail leading up to the top of the windswept pass.  Our group was to climb that slope, with the promise of lunch at the top.  It’s amazing what folks will do with a confident guide and the lure of food.

We headed up the incline, stomping through snow still on the ground in late July, well past the tree line, up the path so narrow there wasn’t much room to step aside for those coming down.

But the view from the top…oh my…stunning doesn’t begin to describe.  We fed our bodies while feasting our souls on the glorious beauty all around. 

we made it!
lunch at the top of our world

All too soon it was time to head back.  My heart was heavy as we retraced our steps through the alpine meadow and back through Larch Valley, thinking of the end of our hiking adventure and the long day of travel looming ahead. 

Partway down, we stopped to use the “facili-trees,” when something happened that made me re-evaluate my somber mood.  A group of hikers came up the path and started exchanging pleasantries with our group.  My ears perked up when I heard someone mention being from South Carolina, and I stepped forward to ask, “Where exactly in South Carolina?”  The couple was from Aiken. Aiken!  My hometown.  Here, on a trail high up in the Canadian Rockies, were folks from the pine-covered sandhills of my home across the continent.  Although not a hugger by nature, I opened my arms in a bear hug to this stranger-who-was-not-a-stranger.  Turns out that the man, Kurt, worked in the Savannah River Ecology Lab at the Savannah River Site, a facility that rubs elbows with the environmental education program that I work with at SRS.  In the enormity of the Canadian Rockies, with the towering majesty of the peaks all around me, I had discovered how small this world really is.  And somehow, my mood lifted.

fellow Aikenites

Back down at Moraine Lake, I had only a few moments left to take in the sights.  I climbed to the top of the Rockpile for the best view of the lake, closing my eyes as I tried to etch it all into my memory. 

the rockpile
moraine lake

After a catered buffet dinner at the hotel that evening, we gathered together one last time to share our reflections of the past week.  Bryce amazed us with his artful wordsmithing as he recited a poem he had written about larch trees.  George, one of our group from Kentucky, entertained us with his “hike-ku”, and kudos were given to Rob the bus driver, who parallel-parked his commercial bus as easily as slicing butter. 

I thought about our guide Joel’s personal motto:  “The only person I want to be better than is me, yesterday.”  I knew that this trip with this people and these guides to this place had made me a better person than I was before.  And the journey continues.

Our intrepid guides sitting: Cindy, Joel, Kelsey, and Bryce

Banff Part 1: The Top of the Hill

12 08 2019

How to Tell the Top of the Hill

by John Ciardi

The top of a hill
Is not until
The bottom is below.
And you have to stop
When you reach the top
For there’s no more UP to go.

To make it plain
Let me explain:
The one most reason why
You have to stop
When you reach the top — is:
The next step up is sky.

from Sing a Song of Popcorn: Every Child’s Book of Poems selected by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers, Eva Moore, Mary Michaels White, Jan Carr, 1988, Scholastic

We climbed a lot of hills on this trip.  That was to be expected, however, as we were on a Road Scholar hiking trip to the Canadian Rockies.  There was a lot of huffing and puffing involved, but our reward was some of the most spectacular scenery on this continent.

At the base of Sentinel Pass, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

My husband Brian and I started this adventure by flying to Chicago, where we spent the night before flying on to Calgary, Alberta the next morning.  In the few hours we had, we toured the Field Museum in downtown Chicago: we flew through this world-class museum in two hours, although it would take a week or more to do it justice! 

the reason I take the photos

Walking back to the train station, we were caught in a violent wind and rainstorm but fortunately were able to take refuge in Aurelio’s Pizza.  Nothing like a good Chicago pizza to cheer up our soggy selves!

The next afternoon found us in the Calgary airport, where the Road Scholar group met to be taken by bus to Canmore, our base of operations just outside Banff National Park.

at the Calgary Airport, Alberta, Canada

That evening, after a buffet dinner at the Canmore Coast Hotel, our guides led an orientation for this week’s exploration.  This Road Scholar trip was run by the Company of Adventurers, and was officially titled “Choose Your Pace: Hike the Canadian Rockies, Banff & Lake Louise.”  Brian and I had selected this particular trip for several reasons: first, because it was in an area of the world much cooler than our South Carolina summers; second, because it offered three levels of hiking (a major concern for us since Brian’s knees don’t like ups and downs); and third, because it was in a beautiful area of the world that we had never been to before.  Additionally, the learning aspect of this tour interested us, having heard rave reviews of Road Scholar guides.  This trip did not disappoint in any of these areas!

the three sisters of Canmore

The orientation, however, left us feeling like fishes out of water.  As each of the 24 participants described their backgrounds, we started to sink deeper and deeper into our chairs.  Most of our group had traveled extensively, with one person having been previously on 14 Road Scholar trips, and most were experienced hikers, speaking of hiking the Appalachian Trail and regularly hiking 7-10 miles.  Our measly little two-mile dog walks seemed to pale in comparison.  What had we gotten ourselves into?