You Wondered if the Climb Was Worth It


You’ve been awake since 4:30 this morning. You’re too excited to sleep, but you stay in bed for another hour until the first stream of light hits the dorm room floor.  Awkwardly and off-balance, you grab your heavy backpack—neatly packed from the night before—and clumsily tiptoe out to the hostel kitchen, doing your best not to wake anyone.

Another traveler more ambitious than you has already put on a pot of coffee. You slam back a mug of black coffee—no time to doctor it with milk today—along with your bowl of instant oatmeal. Eagerly, you step outside and are startled by the early morning chill—too cold for an August morning. The dashboard of your rental car tells you it’s -1C outside. You regret bringing only one sweater and no mitts or toque. Who would’ve thought to pack winter clothes for a mid-August retreat in the Rocky Mountains? Probably the girl who brewed the coffee and was gone by dawn, you grumble inside your head.

The drive to Lake Louise is quick. That (and the seclusion) was why you chose to stay at a wilderness hostel burrowed between Banff and the lake in the first place.  You smile at your cleverness as you cruise into the nearly empty parking lot. In a few hours, it’ll be packed with stressed-out tourists circling the lot for an hour or two in impatient pursuit of a coveted parking spot.

You roll your eyes as you walk past the rambling Fairmont Chateau that’s a little too luxurious for your taste.  On instinct, you hum the lyrics to that Joni Mitchell song: “Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone / They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

The wooded path belongs to you and you alone. You’re bursting with pride for being the first one to hit the trail, for how swiftly you checked out of the hostel this morning, for how independent and outdoorsy you’ve been in general on this trip. You needed this.

You recall a few comments from your friends before you left (“you are so lucky to go to Banff and Jasper for two weeks!”) but only you know how many long weekends you spent working, how you budgeted to do this trip by train, and how much planning and scheming you did to be this “lucky”.

Now you’re freezing. The patches of frost on the ground reinforce your shivers. Screw it, you say to yourself as you fasten the buckles of your day pack around your waist and take off at a running pace for the next three kilometres to warm up. With the turquoise, glacier-fed lake far behind you and several miles of ascending forest and stone ahead of you, you’re convinced you’ll be able to run the whole way to the top. Then the path abruptly takes a 45 degree angle skyward and your screaming lungs tell you to stop running, stupid.

Resentfully, you comply. You know you could stand to be less zealous sometimes. At least your torso is a little warmer now, so you greedily put your hands under your armpits for some reprieve of your purpling fingers. Thankfully, nobody is around to comment on how ridiculous you look.

Your body arcs forward into a sideways V as you climb the rugged, uneven terrain. You’re grateful for that satisfying burn in your gluteal muscles, though, since it means you can justify putting off squats until you get home.

You start seeing signs counting down the number of kilometres to the final destination: the Swiss-inspired teahouse. You chuckle and think, Only in North America do we require food to motivate us to put in a little effort. But don’t think you’re exempt from that category—you’re looking forward to celebrating your hike with coffee and a snack in the teahouse, too.

As you climb, you’re thrilled to be the first person on this hike today and you’re also terrified that you’re the first person on this hike today.

The pompous glow of being independent and outdoorsy fades as you become attentive to the stark silence.  It’s too quiet. A waterfall thunders in the distance and a solitary bird chirps not far away, but the forest around you is otherwise as hushed as a morgue. You jump at every snapping twig and unidentifiable noise and can’t help but wonder if you’ve unknowingly entered some sort of Rocky Mountain style of Hunger Games—but without the bow-and-arrow brandishing humans and with bears who really are hungry.

Oh, right—the bears.  You’re vigilantly aware of the frequency in which you have to step over hefty piles of animal droppings.  Is that bear poop?  You default to humour to calm down, telling yourself it was the park warden from earlier that morning (and that he or she must’ve had a bowl of prunes and an entire pot of coffee for breakfast). This was one of the few times you didn’t laugh at your own joke.

While you’ve got the park staff on your mind, you start wondering about what state they’ll find you in after the mauling. It’s a pity you didn’t get a chance to wash your hiking attire yet, but at least you showered the night before (not that it would matter much after the 900 pound grizzly gets you).  When they find your phone a few feet away from your lifeless body, what will be the last photo you ever take on it? Should it be a photo of you? And if so, should it be sombre or sweet or silly? You opt for the latter. Maybe it will momentarily relieve your family of their grief.

You realize you’ve been narrating your entire hike so far. You keep narrating anyhow to pass the time until your imminent death.

You fall into a pit of doubt. Was this hike—and that blasted secret teahouse at the end of it—actually worth it? Was the pursuit of a bird’s-eye view of Lake Louise really important enough to put yourself through the fear of all that could go wrong? Why do you have to insist on going off-the-beaten-path all the time, anyway?

The sun answers your question by peaking out from behind the mountains, embellishing the top half of valley with light and warming your back. The splashes of light illuminate the purple and yellow wildflowers beside your feet, the glaciers that frost the mountains and hold up the sky, and the towering rockfaces adorned in every shade of red, grey, and brown: coffee, caramel, and crimson with long bands of mahogany and cocoa, streaks of silver and slate … and suddenly, you’re more distracted by the beauty than the apprehension.

The further the climb, the more you feel like the Von Trapp family ascending the Swiss Alps at the end of The Sound of Music because the scenery is just as breathtaking as the film.  And perhaps just as risky (minus the threat of the Nazis), especially as the stony path drastically narrows. Inches separate you from the quartzite cliff jutting up towards the clouds on your right and 1,000 meters of plummeting valley below on your left. The adrenaline kicks in as you grab the steel cable bolted into the cliff to stay upright. 

You’ve long forgotten about the grizzlies and cougars and stampeding moose. You’ve stopped fearing predators and mindfully turn your attention to search for strolling mountain goats, scooting marmots, and soaring eagles.

You tower above the seafoam streams and bottomless piles of rocks in the valley below as you climb a series of switchbacks taking you to an elevation of over 2,000 meters. You sense you’re almost there. Your cheeks are hurting—not from the cold, but because you’ve been grinning from ear to ear for at least a kilometre now.  That’s what happens when you finally let go of control and intentionally lean into enjoying the natural splendour around you.

It’s still silent—but a peaceful silent. A restorative silent.  The kind of silence you’ve been aching for over the last few months in order to fully rest, recharge, and reconnect.

Rounding one final corner, you spot a small meadow that whispers a message: the teahouse is waiting for you. There it is, nestled among the alpines behind two log (yes, log!) outhouses. With just one gaze, you’ve been transported back to the Alps you fell in love with in Austria, back to the same quaint log architecture that made every building look and feel like a cozy cabin.  You eye up the rustic red tables and wooden chairs scattered on rocky patios, each one empty and inviting you to stay awhile.

You give yourself a metaphorical pat on the back as you approach the teahouse, ready to be congratulated for being their first customer of the day.  You can’t wait to reward yourself with an overpriced cup of coffee and cookies sourced from supplies that had to be helicoptered in at the start of the season. You take your last few steps to the teahouse … closer and closer and …

It’s closed.

You pause for a reflective moment.  Then, with an amused smile, you turn away and head back to the trail. You didn’t feel like spending twelve dollars on a cup of coffee, anyhow.

It would be remiss of me to not include a few links for those of you who might be inspired to do a Rocky Mountain trip in the near future. Below are some of my travel suggestions:

Take the VIA Rail train through the Rockies. Whether you depart from a station in Vancouver or Saskatoon or further east, the journey itself will be well worth the additional time it takes to travel. You’ll be pleased with the waterfalls and sights you’ll get to see that aren’t visible from the highway. (Travel tip: go in early May or in the fall when it’s low season and significantly cheaper and less busy. But even a trip in high season is worth it!

Hostelling is still a thriving movement in the Rockies (and it’s not exclusively for “youth” anymore, either!). If you’re not into tenting and want to meet fellow travellers from all over the world, I recommend the Castle Mountain Wilderness Hostel between Banff and Lake Louise if you want to completely unplug (no wi-fi – but there are hot showers and an indoor fireplace, so you won’t be disappointed). Runner-up would be HI-Jasper, located halfway up Whistler Mountain with a breathtaking view of the Athabasca Valley. If you’re more into the party scene, there are plenty of bustling downtown hostels in both towns, too.

Everyone should have the privilege of seeing Lake Louise at least once in their life. But the REAL experience comes from hiking away from the crowds and earning yourself a birds-eye view of the lake. In high season, be at the lake by 7am to secure a parking spot and beat the throngs of tourists. Bring cash if you choose to hike to either of the teahouses (if you’re there after 9am, that is, since that’s when they open). I opted for the less busy Plain of Six Glaciers, which can be up to 14+ km round trip, or there is the Lake Agnes teahouse hike of 7km round trip.

The Canadian destination that most closely resembles the elf haven of Rivendell (pardon the nerdy Lord of the Rings reference) is Johnston Canyon. While heights-fearing hikers might have some trouble with the suspended catwalks clinging to cliffs along the canyon, it is an unforgettable hike from start to finish that can be enjoyed even with children and strollers.

The Rockies are about the sights, but let’s not forget about the tastes. Some of my personal favourites are Bear’s Paw Bakery in Jasper, Wild Flour Bakery in Banff (best gourmet grilled cheese you’ll ever have!), and Mountain Chocolates (try a “Bear Claw”). Don’t berate yourself for opting for a mainstream option, either – Earls in Jasper and the Old Spaghetti Factory in Banff have among the best outdoor patios and view of the mountains you can find in town.

Of course, one of the best parts of Banff, Jasper, and the Icefields Highway is discovering your own favourites, too! Leave room to explore and get sidetracked by the stunning beauty of the Rocky Mountains.