Navigating through apprehension
Driving through the valley, we could see a storm looming in the distance, but all we could do was hope it wouldn’t be coming toward us. It’s incredibly difficult to predict where a storm is heading in the mountains, as one ridge will force it east and the next will push it south.
As we pulled up to the trailhead, with the presence of the storm fading from our minds, a clap of thunder echoed between the mountains, reminding us that there would be no escape.
This was exactly what I was hoping wouldn’t happen. I was being dropped off with my girlfriend at a trailhead, and from there we would be almost completely alone for the next six days.
The trail, the Sawback Trail in Alberta, Canada, would take us from Lake Louise to Banff, Alberta. Winding through three passes and over 46 miles, it was easily the most ambitious backpacking trip either of us had taken.
I was used to backpacking in Michigan and in Ontario, Canada, and had done so a number of times, but this was a completely new adventure. Backpacking at high elevation changes everything, from how the weather moves, to causing below-freezing temperatures in July. And I had always gone out in bigger groups, with someone who was more experienced than I was at the time.
I was trying to put on a façade of being uber-confident and not concerned about what we were faced with so my girlfriend wouldn’t get any more worried, but my nerves were eating away at me. I couldn’t stop wondering if we were making the right decision.
Reluctantly, we lifted our nearly 50-pound backpacks on to our shoulders, clipped our hip belts and set off. Soon after we started trekking up the rest of the pass, the storm caught us. The near golf ball-sized hail forced us to stop and wait under a tree, but the lightning suggested that might be unwise.
At this moment, we were questioning what the hell we were even doing on that trail. Neither of us had backpacked in Banff, or in any sort of elevation for that matter.
On top of that, I was the more experienced backpacker of the two of us, leaving me to make most of our decisions. When I made this realization, coupled with being in the mountains and turbulent conditions, I became more scared than I ever have been while backpacking.
The pressure of knowing that your safety, as well as someone else’s safety, rides completely on your decision making is scary and overwhelming. Regardless of how ready I felt prior to the trip, at that moment trekking up Boulder Pass I felt everything but that.
We were challenged with whether or not to push forward, completely unsure of how long the storm would hover above us. On one hand, it could stop advancing once it reached the top of the pass, but it was just as likely to keep going through the pass and follow us down the valley on the other side.
If we had turned around, we wouldn’t have woken up in the middle of our first night to the vicious purr of a wolverine outside our tent (it was confirmed to be a wolverine by a friend who was at the same campsite a few days later who said he saw one there).
If we had turned around, we wouldn’t have gotten trail lost for over four hours when we came across a part of the trail that had been completely wiped out by an avalanche the previous winter.
But above all, if we had turned around, I wouldn’t know that I could do it: I would be left wondering if I could conquer the rest of the trail.
The sense of accomplishment we felt as we hitch-hiked our way down the mountain after coming out on Mount Norquay, the southern end of the Sawback Trail, was unbelievable.
When I found out about the trail several months prior, it seemed like something incredible to do, but highly unlikely to take on given my lack of experience navigating complicated trails and hiking in big mountain ranges. But I went for it anyway, trusting what I did know, and came away knowing that doubting myself wouldn’t get me anywhere. It’s those scary, risky situations that teach the most.
Backpacking (sometimes too often) presents me with near life or death situations, where I’m forced to trust my decision making, and that’s one of the reasons I love it so much. There is no room to doubt yourself.
On that day heading up Boulder Pass, I was definitely doubting myself. I had little confidence that we would get off that trail unscathed. But we did, and we’re both better for it.