Last year I did my first ever solo backpacking trip – actually, it was my first ever backpacking trip. I did the 44 Km return trip to Berg Lake in Mt. Robson Provincial Park. It was amazing, life changing, and hard. After I got home, I decided that I needed to do at least one solo trip like this every year. I thought I’d do Berg Lake again this summer, but I couldn’t confirm my dates and then by the time I could the campsites were all booked up. So I decided to explore other areas and in my research I came across Egypt Lake in Banff National Park. It was about 28 Km round trip and it seemed like a good place to explore on my own. I’m back now and I’m extremely glad I did it, but I have to admit it was a lot harder than I expected.
If last year’s Berg Lake trip had a theme of escaping and trying to lighten a heavy heart, this year was about chasing the unknown.
Growing up we always drove by Banff on our way to Calgary or Saskatchewan but we never stopped. Everything on this journey was new.
When I was researching the trip, I found very little information on Egypt Lake. Some descriptions called the hike very strenuous, some said it was moderate. For future reference I would definitely call it strenuous.
From the start I felt less organized than usual – where to go, where to get my park pass, what the trail would be like. Normally I’m the person who has all my information colour coded on a spreadsheet and cross referenced for extra measure. This time I was oddly free-flowing. About a month before I fell while trail running and had a sprained knee that was swelling and stiff at the end of every normal day. Because of that I realized when I got there that I hadn’t actually put my hiking boots on since last fall – this is very unusual for me.
I treated myself to new equipment this year. I now have a super cool Marmot Limelight 2 person tent, a Northface Furnace sleeping bag, and an Osprey 65L backpack that I had fitted by my go to person, Lisa Palechuk, at Atmosphere. It turns out my back is shorter than I realized and I’m actually an EXTRA SMALL in back length. I put that in all caps because I’ve never ever been called extra small in anything. This is possibly not where I wanted to start. I also invested in a Gem Trek Map of Banff and other areas.
Thanks to Lisa, I also had her modify my sleeping bag and sleep sack. She owns Osprey Custom Sewing and used some great creative sewing talent to devise a system for attaching my sleepsack to my sleeping bag so I wouldn’t be spinning like a tornado inside my sleeping bag, unable to move and trussed up like a mummy. It’s a brilliant system with velcro and hooks and worked great. More on that in another post.
I prepped all my food, enjoying dehydrated beef chili, dehydrated spaghetti and meat sauce, marinara sauce, and a yummy breakfast of dehydrated mashed potatoes, cheese, and bacon. I even made a dehydrated version of pineapple upside down cake. More on these in another post too.
Day 1 – Kamloops to Banff
It poured rain the whole way to Banff and trying to find parking in town to get my park pass at the visitor centre nearly made me want to turn around and come home. After missing the turnoff to the campsite I was truly frustrated and this is not my normal state. I stayed at the Village 1 front country campsite just outside of Banff the night before I set out on the trail.
Day 2 – Banff to Egypt Lake
It had rained for days and when I set out the next morning to drive to the Sunshine Ski Resort gondola parking area it was coming down in buckets. I was not enthused. By the time I parked, however, the rain had cleared and I had a lovely day for hiking on a very muddy trail.
Leaving from the gondola area, the hike to Egypt Lake is about 12.5 Km. The first 9 Km is uphill. The trail itself was well maintained with good bridges for stream crossings and really good footing. It’s also really, extremely, boring. It’s just a long tree-lined trail with tall trees that block any view of the mountains. Nothing changes, there are no landmarks except for the Healy Creek campsite about 6 Km in. You just keep walking uphill (with a heavy pack). After about 5 hours, however, the trail opened up and suddenly I was very, very aware I was in the Rocky Mountains. I could see peaks all around me and the wildflowers were in an explosive bloom – it was almost too much to take in.
From the top of Healy Pass you can see about 70 Km of the Great Divide including Mt. Assiniboine and other spectacular peaks along the north end of the Monarch Ramparts. It was really breathtaking and I was in absolute awe.
When I looked in the other direction, I could see Egypt Lake far below me, and what I didn’t realize – Scarab Lake was right above it with a waterfall draining from Scarab to Egypt. It was amazing and I wasn’t expecting it. None of my research had uncovered this view.
The last few Km are straight down to the valley below. This is a knee and toe punishing route that is really steep and hard on the legs at a time when the legs might already be a little tired from the long uphill to get there.
I finally made it to the campsite 7 hours after I started. I am usually pretty slow but most of the guides say it will take between 6 and 7 hours. When I got to the campsite, though, I was done. I set up the tent and crashed for a bit. There is a bare bones shelter cabin at the campsite that hadn’t been booked for the night so some other campers and I decided we should all cook inside and stay out of the cold – it was really chilly that first night. We had a great time. There was a couple with two young kids from Cranbrook and another couple from Saskatoon and me. It was a lot of fun. I did some writing in my tent and went to bed early after hanging my food in the shelter.
Day 3 – Egypt Lake
The Egypt Lake campsite is a popular place to set up a base as there are a number of trails that intersect at the site making it great for day trips. Everyone told me the hike up to Scarab Lake was steep but offered a really great view of the lake above and the waterfall that flows below into Egypt Lake. From there you could do a ridiculous 1-2 Km (reports vary wildly) scramble over boulders to Mummy Lake. I decided to skip that hike and rest my toes and knees and just hung out at the lake, which is about 800 m from the campsite. After all, it was my holiday and I could do what ever I wanted. I spent the morning at the lake and took hundreds of pictures. I came back after and flopped in the tent, laughing evilly at the squadrons of mosquitoes and flies that were trying to get in, and let my mind wander. I ended up working on a screenplay idea I wasn’t expecting to work on and really getting into it so that was interesting.
The campsite itself is a bit underwhelming. It sits at the base of Pharoah Peak, which is impressive, but it is very marshy so if you step off a trail you end up ankle deep in water. There are lots and lots of Hoary Marmots for entertainment and I listened to countless bird songs that I didn’t recognize. The place where you hang your food is a good 3-400 m from the campsites which is good to keep bears away but it sucks if you want a snack. They have a great cable system though which makes hanging the food, cookware, and toiletries pretty easy. About 300 m in the other direction is Pharoah Creek, the nearest location for water. With the lake 800 m in the third direction, this campsite is very spread out. One woman commented that if she had to walk that far to the fridge at home for a snack she would be much thinner. I agreed.
I was beginning to realize how spoiled I was at Berg Lake last summer – the lake was right at the campsite. You could hear the glacier calving all night. The bear lockers and cooking area were nearby. There was always plenty to see and do.
I noticed the steep downhill had made the ends of my toes a bit numb and I was worried I was going to lose toenails – not a big deal – it happens sometimes with half marathons. Just not very attractive but it’s not like a have a crowd of people looking at my feet.
That whole day I made of point of not rushing. It was nice and sunny. I slowed down, I noticed a bird, a Spotted Sandpiper, at the lake that wouldn’t leave me alone and it absorbed my attention. The ‘should’ in me said if I came all this way I ‘should’ hike to Scarab Lake, blah blah blah. Instead my mind took me to that screenplay idea that was pretty much plotted out by the end of the day.
Day 4 – Egypt Lake to Kamloops
Well, the day started OK.
While at Egypt Lake several other backpackers told me about the Simpson Pass route to return on. They all said it was more interesting and less of a steady downhill. I could get a burger in Sunshine Village and then take a shuttle bus down to the gondola parking lot. The weather was supposed to be nice so I planned to do it.
My biggest worry (ahead of time) was the 3 Km straight up to the Healy Pass summit. Really, though, I should know better. Hard goals that are clearly defined are easy for me to get my head around. I put one foot after the other, stop and rest when I need to and then keep going. Such a good metaphor for life. Such a great feeling when I accomplish the goal.
I got to the top of the pass in 2 hours and I was pretty pleased with myself. I met a group of guys from Utah at the top. They were half way through a 100 Km trip and were taking the Simpson Pass route too – they heard the burgers calling. I took group pictures of them at the top and we parted company.
I could see the rain clouds approaching when I got to the top but I hoped they would hold off. I went down through the wildflowers again and reached the junction where the Healy Pass and Simpson Pass trails met. I could have taken the easy, known, less interesting route that I had come up but I chose to take the other trail and it became my adventure. I didn’t take as many pictures – misery doesn’t make me feel very creative.
The Simpson Pass trail was not as well defined as the Healy Creek trail. It was narrower, muddier, with no bridges across streams – just slippery rocks. I had the sense I didn’t know where I was going because I had no idea what to expect – no landmarks to go by. I just kept going and trusted the process. As the trail moved on I met more and more people so even though I did know I was on the right trail, I still felt a bit of panic. I hadn’t planned on this trail so I was out of my comfort zone. I’m not one for just going with the flow without a plan.
As I continued the trail started to get worse. It was steeper (up and down) and muddier which made it slippery. The weather started to get worse and was soon full blown rain. As I went up and down steep and tall ridges, my knees and toes were protesting mightily.
The thing that was most frustrating was I had no sense of how far along the trail I was or how far I had to go. I would ask people and feel somewhat reassured, but I was out of my element. I like to know and I’m not big on surprises.
At one point, with about 5 Km to go, I was moving along a steep and narrow part of the trial when I encountered a group of six or seven people who changed my outlook completely. The trail was narrow, running alongside of a mountain. It was really muddy. They were pushing and carrying a woman in a TrailRider. I had seen these on TV before, but not in real life. The trail was difficult and they were coming toward me. They would have been about 5 Km from Sunshine Village at that point. Having a heavy pack I take up a lot of room so we all carefully squished and squeezed so I could get by. I was amazed at their commitment – they all went through a lot of effort to give this woman an amazing mountain experience. It was pretty humbling. Here I was in my head stressing about the trail and they were moving this huge contraption through the same mud, up and down the same slopes, and over the same streams. Suddenly my problems seemed a bit smaller.
For the rest of the trip my head would start to complain again and just as that whiny voice would get louder in my brain, I would look down and see the track of the thick tire of the TrailRider. Humbled again.
I passed by three large red cones mounted into concrete and realized I was right at the Alberta / BC border. This was kind of cool. Around this point the trail seemed to disappear and go in all directions thanks to some runoff areas because of the rain. When I calmed my mind, though, I could see the trail and then I would see hikers coming toward me and I felt relieved again.
Eventually, the rain cleared and I saw something that pretty much made me want to cry. At the top of a nearby peak I saw a chairlift… something man made… something related to a ski village! The trail improved dramatically and there were day hikers all over the place. I walked down a steep snowshoe trail for 1.6 Km apologizing to my toes all the way. Finally I was there. I took my backpack off and left it outside, bought a ticket on the Shuttle, and ordered a burger, ginger ale, and fries….. heaven!
When I got down to the village I ran into one of the guys from Utah. His leg was bleeding. It turns out he had slipped and fallen on one of the steep inclines in Simpson Pass. Both of us admitted the trail was a lot harder than we were expecting.
I had planned to do two nights at Johnston Canyon but with more rain in the forecast and my knees and toes complaining, I decided to go home… it was my holiday and I could do whatever I wanted.
Although my knee was swollen and my toes were numb (updated report… 3 toenails probably toast) I felt pretty good the next day and decided to do something decadent on my holiday. I drove from Kamloops to Vancouver to visit a used bookstore.
I love holidays!
Looking back, this trip was about being OK with being uncomfortable. I like to have everything in my life planned and controlled. I like to control my surroundings. This was good practice at not being able to control my surroundings and just going with what was happening all around me. Very valuable and powerful. I’m not sure I’d do Egypt Lake again. There are other trails in Banff, Yoho, and Waterton I’d like to tackle and I love Berg Lake so I know I’ll do that one again. I think it was a gorgeous place to go but I’m not sure it’s my go to place – that’s still Berg Lake.
Next up is a quick backpack in Yoho with a good friend. This will be the first time I’ve backpacked with someone else – I can’t wait!