Day 8, August 18th, First Valley Six Passes to Random Camp Bald Hills. 26 km, 1600 m elevation gain, 1450 m elevation loss, 12 hrs 20 min (Segment 27 Six Passes Alternate).
The sky was clear overnight and the temperature dropped steadily through the night. I started off quite comfortable in my -9 C down Marmot sleeping bag but at some point during the night I started to feel cold. I ended up pulling my down jacket inside my sleeping bag and sleeping with like a mini blanket. I was warm enough and slept well for the rest of the night but I am quite concerned about my sleeping set up as the temperature overnight did fall below freezing but it was not close to -9 C. Waking up and looking out of the tent in predawn light I could see frost on the ground sheet.
I was out of the tent at about 5:30 am and set off to retrieve the bear canisters and get the coffee ready. It may have been an early start and we had a long way to go but we still needed to start the day with a hot soothing coffee. We had the tent all packed up and were on our way by 6:20 am. Our spirits where very high. I am not sure if we were not just a little naive of what lay ahead of us after successfully completing just one pass.
It was about a 3 km hike to the base of the 2nd pass. Where the creek draining the valley flows under the 2nd pass the ground flattened out creating a marshy area. It appeared that we would have another day with wet feet.
To avoid the marshy ground we cut to the left and walked across a small boulder field to the base of the pass. Just as we started up the pass we spied a bear print in the mud. We knew that there are bears around but we never did see one.
From the base of the pass it looked like a pretty straightforward hike up a grassy slope. The pass rose 120 m over 1 km. We headed up the pass zigzagging back and forth creating our own switchbacks. Halfway up we were treated to an spectacular sunrise. We both stopped to take in the view. It was a truly awesome way start to the morning.
We arrived at the top of the grassy pass after just 40 minutes of relatively easy hiking. We had a clear view of the 3rd pass which appeared to be another grassy walk. We we feeling very good with two of the six passes down and the prospects of another easy ascent for the 3rd pass.
As we made our way down the first pass of the day we had a boulder field on our left. I kept wondering if it made sense to attempt to cut across boulder field to have a more direct path to the bottom. When we got onto the 3rd pass and looked back it was evident that that the best route down the 2nd pass is just to hike to the right (east) and stay on the grassy slope and head to the bottom of the valley. Near the valley floor the ground got quite soggy and it was impossible to keep our feet dry. The best strategy was just to accept the wet feet and march forward. We arrived at the bottom of the valley about 30 minutes after the top of the 2nd pass pass. It was now it was time to head up pass number three.
After about 25 minutes of heading uphill we stopped for a break and for Micah to tend to their feet. Micah had a couple of hot spots but quick treatment prevented their from getting any blisters. The walking was no more challenging for the 3rd pass than it was for the previous pass. At 280 m of elevation gain the 3rd pass did rise over twice what the 2nd pass did and I feel it made the pass more mentally challenging as the top did not get closer very quickly.
When looking back from the top of the 3rd pass the boulder dominates the down side of the 2nd pass. The boulder field is actually a rock glacier. A rock glacier is a mass of rocks that may lie on top of snow and ice or be mixed in with the snow and ice. A rock glacier flows downhill just like a typical ice glacier. The boulder field on the north sides of the 3rd and 4th passes are also a rock glaciers. My research on rock glaciers was from a paper I reviewed on rock glaciers in Jasper published in 1977.
The grass covered slope that covered most of the pass gave way to a firm rocky base that allowed for an easy arrival at the top. It had taken us exactly 1 hour, including the break, to hike from the valley floor to the top of the 3rd pass covering a distance of 1.7 km.
The descent off the top of the 3rd pass was initially very easy. I was somewhat concerned at what lay ahead for us. The route up the passes so far had been very obvious but looking at the 4th pass in the distance we were now faced with a heavily tree covered slope with no obvious route up. The biggest lesson we had learned while hiking the Six Passes was to find the top of a pass you need to “follow the drainage”. This became our mantra for much of the day. When one of us asked how do we get to the top the other would answer “follow the drainage”. Drainages tend to be very straight so following them may not be the easiest way to the top but they were definitely effective. After about 20 minutes of downhilling we left the open slopes and started our first true session of bushwhack through the trees. What made negotiating the trees a little more difficult was that there were many little streams running down the hill so you had to be careful where you stepped or your foot could fall much further than you expected which could lead to a twisted ankle or other small but annoying injury.
It took us just under an hour to arrive at the valley bottom a distance of 3 km and elevation loss of 400m from the top of the 3rd pass. For comparison it took me 42 minutes to descend 420 m off the top of Michelle Pass covering 2.2 km. After a very short walk across the meadow at the bottom of the valley and another small stream crossing we headed uphill into the trees. It was 10:35 am and we had hiked 10.7 km in 4 hrs 10 min.
The trees were very thick as we worked our way up the 4th pass. Our plan when moving through the tress was to look uphill and look for the where the light was, which became another one of our mantras. Where there was light coming through the trees meant that that route would be less densely vegetated as opposed to a route where we could not see any light coming through the trees. Looking for the light in conjunction with the Guthooks (Far Out) app allowed us to make our way through the heavily treed section in a fairly direct route uphill. Very soon we emerged from the trees and out onto more open slopes. I think that the lack of photos during the bushwhacking is an indication of how difficult it was. I was more focused on forward progress than taking photos.
It had taken us 40 minutes to clear the trees. The boulder field offered more visibility but it was much slower hiking as we really had to watch our footing going from rock to rock. After about 10 minutes we came to a small gully which was rock free. It was still hard going in the gully since it was straight up hill but the footing was much more secure than it had been on the rocks.
The dirt section of the gully started to disappear so we cut to right over a small ridge to another drainage. Micah called time out on our ascent to apply some sunscreen and have a little break. We had been climbing up for about an hour and we had the top in sight so a break was a great idea.
Similar to the previous pass the top of the 4th pass was on hard packed gravel. We arrived at the top of the pass just 10 minutes after finishing our break. It had taken us 1 hr 26 min to hike 2.1 km from the valley floor gaining 330 m of elevation to the top of the 4th pass. We went right over the pass without stopping and followed a ridge down to the right. We had tremendous views of in every direction and with the hard packed rocks under our feet we could easily take in the views as we walked. What I could see of the 5th pass in the distance was telling me we had more of what we had just completed.
The descent off the top of the 4th pass was quick on packed ground. Similar to the 2nd pass there was a rock glacier below the cliffs but this time we stayed well to the right and did not waste time trying to find a short cut.
It took us only 32 minutes to descend 180 m over 1.5 km from the top of the 4th pass to the valley floor. It was 12:30 pm as we prepared to ascend the 5th pass. We had been hiking for 6 hrs 15 min, gained close to a 700 m of elevation and had covered 12.7 km. We did not know it at this time but this would be approximately halfway for the day in terms of distance, elevation gain and time. After another creek crossing we were face with a wall of trees. Not seeing anything obvious Micah decided that the direct route would be best and plowed their way into the trees. With a little help from the Guthooks (Far Out) App we quickly found a drainage that would take us the majority of the way up the pass.
The drainage was fairly steep in places and I was certainly glad I had my hiking pole to help push me up and over small steps that were frequently in our way. It was hard work going uphill and the conversation level dropped dramatically. After 20 minutes of hiking we started to climb out of the trees and had a better idea of the route ahead.
Once we climbed out of the drainage it was a straight walk up to the top of the pass. It had taken us just 45 minutes to climb 240 m over 1.2 km to the top of the 5th pass. The 5th pass was not as tough as I had feared but the wear and tear of each pass was beginning to take a toil physically on us.
Just a few minutes after crossing the top of the pass we found a nice little ledge to serve as a back rest and stopped for a well deserved lunch. Our lunch spot had an amazing view of the rather diminutive 6th pass and the daunting climb and ridge that would finish off the hike. It was during lunch we got a weather update from Laura that said there was a 80% chance of rain overnight only dropping to 60% in the morning. We decided to complete the ridge and scramble on this day to avoid potentially down climbing in the rain. We were both a little underestimating how challenging the ridge would be. I know in my mind I was envisioning a nice Kananaskis Ridge walk on solid footing. Much to my disappointment this would not be the case.
We had a solid 40 minute break for lunch. I was quite happy to start heading downhill after lunch as it was a great way to get the legs going again after a long rest. I find it unpleasant to get up after a break and head uphill at maximum effort. Always nice to have a little warm up. Our way down off the ridge followed a drainage, what a surprise. The valley between passes 5 and 6 was the widest valley we had on the Six Passes and the creek running through it was the deep brown colour of a rich dark hot chocolate.
We gathered ourselves up for one last serious bushwhack. It was 2:45 pm and we had hiked 18 km in 8 hrs 20 min. The going uphill was very rough at first. There were lots of downed trees which made our progress very slow. Checking the Guthooks (Far Out) app the route was a little to our left. What a difference just 20 feet made. The app was following a drainage and it would prove to be a big improvement over hiking through the forest. Scrambling down the slope to the drainage was a little exciting.
After finding a very short section of trail we stayed in the trees utilizing our “follow the light” philosophy. Guthook (Far Out) displayed the route about 20 m – 30 m to our left. This would have put us right under the cliff face hiking on rocks which we opted to not do. Only 35 minutes after we first pushed into the trees we arrived at the twin tarns. The 6th pass was only 1.2 km long and had the lowest elevation gain at just 145 m. It was 3:20 pm we had been hiking 9 hrs 5 min and had covered 19.3 km.
If we had been able to stop at the twin tarns the day would have been easily a 15/10 day hiking. The hike had been exhilarating, challenging and spectacular. Unfortunately for us we felt we had to finish the ridge and the scramble while we had good weather or risk scrambling in the rain. Since we were planning on random camping on the Bald Hills and could see no obvious water sources on our map we filled our water bladders with enough water for the remaining hike, dinner and coffee in the morning. After a pleasant 15 min break we heaved our packs onto our backs and headed for the ridge. We avoided the heavily forested area at the base of the south end of the ridge and decided to aim for the grassy slopes and work our way up to the ridgeline.
We worked our way across the meadow at the base of the ridge before heading up. We were walking apart in silence. We both knew what we had to do but the energy level was definitely not what it had been earlier in the day. I lead the way up the slope making several small switchbacks before contouring over to the ridgeline. It took us about 30 minutes to arrive on the ridge and we found ourselves on top of the ridge after 1 hour after leaving the the twin tarns. We found the top of the ridge to quite exposed and the footing very crumbly. We followed the Guthooks (Far Out) app and which had us hiking just below the top of the ridge.
The first section of the ridge was quite good and we made good time. We had amazing 360 degree views but for the most part we were just focused on our feet and walking. After an 30 minutes of ridge walking we came to a series of very rocky crossings. The large rocks were quite unstable so we descended slightly away from the ridge where we felt a little safer.
After skirting passed the crumbly rocks we ascended back to the ridge for the final push to the summit. On paper the climb to the final summit rises just 70 m over 1/2 kilometer. This minor climb would take us a punishing 15 minutes. Much like the first pass the ground was very soft and every push wasted some energy as the ground gave way under our feet. Both of us were in agreement afterwards that this was the hardest section of hiking we have done.
During the ridge walk I was super nervous and constantly looking at the sky. The sky was a little cloudy but in no way was it threatening but I kept looking to the west every few minutes to check on the incoming weather. We had a bad experience on a ridge when we hiked the GR20 in 2018 and ever since I am not happy when exposed at altitude in anything but perfect weather. We had blue skies and some cloud and I was sure it was not going to rain but I could not relax until we were off the ridge.
I arrived at the summit first. It was 5:40 pm and we had been hiking for 11 hrs 15 minutes and had covered 23 km. I had a few moments of concern as I looked over the edge at what awaited us on the descent. In my research I had read that it was an easy scramble off the summit. It looked incredibly steep to me and I was not at all happy about having to make our way down what I saw but I knew in the back of my mind that we had little choice. Micah was very tired as they approached the summit and the quickly voiced their very strong displeasure at the idea of scrambling down off the summit. I recall Micah saying something to the effect of “I’m not doing that!”. Interestingly Micah’s reaction helped focus me as I had already had my “holy crap” moment and had come to terms that there was no option. I could see from the top that the first ledge just a few feet below us had boot prints in the dirt. This reassured me that people had done this before. I quickly hopped down to start the descent and to demonstrate to Micah that it was possible. After arriving at the first ledge I shuffled over to my left and then had to bum scooch down a small slab. My shoes did not have Vibram soles so I did not have great grip on rocks so bum scooching while not very elegant was a safe way down the slab. When Micah descended the slab they just walked down without any hesitation. The steepest part of the scramble lasted only about 5 minutes. The change in the slope was not a lot but it was noticeable and it made a big difference to us mentally. The Six Passes Route follows the ridge onto the Bald Hills. We could see that there was another crumbly boulder crossing on the ridge like the ones that we had crossed on the main ridge earlier. So we had a little team meeting and decided to leave the ridge and hike straight down and onto the Bald Hills. There was still a boulder field to cross but crossing at the bottom took away the risk of falling and was just mentally easier. The rest of the descent was actually quite easy. The limestone formation making up the cliff was broken nicely into a series of steps. The slope was still very steep a small slip would have a person falling a long way. We slowly and carefully worked our way day shouting encouragement to each other and reminders to be careful. It took us 35 minutes of careful descending to drop 200 m to arrive on moderately flat ground.
We walked easily across the Bald Hills the smooth level ground a welcome relief from the ridge. While very tired our spirits were high as we had completed the Six Passes, tomorrow would be a short day and it would soon be dinner time. We wanted to find a small stand of trees to act as wind block to the west. After 35 minutes of walking we settled on a nice spot that did have access to fresh water. It was 6:35 pm and after hiking for 12 hrs and 20 minutes covering 25.5 km we were done for the day!
To highlight how tough a day it was after dropping our packs Micah called for a team hug. This does not happen so it made the moment all the more special. After quickly setting up the tent we realized that we were on a bit of slope so we made some channels to funnel any rain water away from the tent. We would thoroughly brush the area the following morning to remove any trace of our campsite. We set up our kitchen in a small ephemeral stream bed a little away from camp. Micah reread the guide book and its description of the Six Passes now that we had knowledge of the route.
Good night from the Bald Hills.