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Alpine Adventures on the Rockwall Trail

Copyright Laurence Knight 1995

When Ross and I decided to go hiking and climbing in the Canadian Rockies, our friends said the Rockwall Trail was a 'must'. The Rockwall Trail is a 54 kilometre high altitude track paralleling the Vermilion Range in British Columbia's Kootenay National Park.

We wanted to traverse the Rockwall Trail and then go on to Lake O'Hara in Yoho National Park. But as is often the case with the plans of mice and men, it didn't quite work out that way.

Just when we were organised, an American tourist annoyed a grizzly bear near Lake O'Hara and barely escaped with his life. We couldn't get a permit to cross into Yoho and had to settle for walking out via Helmet Creek.

Our trek got off on the wrong foot when Ross left his hat in the taxi (there's no 'bushwalkers' transport in that part of the Rockies). Ross came to terms with the loss of his beloved Akubra and we enjoyed the alpine scenery as we sauntered up the 700 metre climb to Floe Lake. It was the first week of September and the vegetation was just starting to change colour.

We arrived around midday and I helped Ross erect his expensive, fresh-from-the-store snow tent (a Macpac Olympus). We had lunch and then hung our packs (with all the food) on a bear pole. (You don't leave food in your tent if you want it to stay in one piece - bears have an excellent sense of smell.)

After snickering at some Americans who were covered with bells (the idea is to make the bears laugh so much they can't eat you) we wandered around the lake to have a look at a little glacier on the other side. There were plenty of interesting crevasses to explore.

Half a roll of film later, we got back to camp to find a hole gnawed through one of the tent doors. A Columbian ground squirrel (just pretending to be a bear) had been looking for food. Ross was not amused, and a few rocks found their way into the varmint holes around the tent.

Breaking camp the next morning was a rather leisurely affair. Floe Lake was a really lovely place and we didn't have far to go for the day. We spent quite a bit of time photographing the reflections in the lake.

We had a breezy lunch in a pass higher than Kosciusko before following a winding route down to Numa Ck. There were some very pretty sections of forest along the way. These required careful photographic attention, and we took our time. Jim rolled in an hour or so before dusk.

Jim was an eccentric middle-aged fellow from West Virginia. I'd met him a week before at Mt Assiniboine. Like most Americans, he had an external frame pack with all sorts of gear hanging off the back. His favourite terms of displeasure were 'Aw shoot!' and 'Ah shuckky darn!'

He was good company.

The weather was rather dreary when we broke camp the following day. We experienced a fair bit of liquid sunshine as we climbed through classic bear country to Tumbling Pass. The mercury plummeted during lunch and we sat out some nasty squalls under a fir tree (fir trees are the umbrellas of the Rockies).

There was a really foul spell on the way down from the pass, but things improved as we drew level with one of the many moraines of Tumbling glacier. A couple of young larch trees growing in the moraine were a lovely shade of gold and just begged to be photographed.

It was drizzling again as we arrived at the Tumbling Creek campsite. Jim was ensconced under a fir tree with his nose in a book. He was adamant about not putting his tent up until the rain stopped.

As we sat around talking, there was a weak peal of thunder. We laughed and told Huey (the weatherman) he could do better. We had dinner under a fir tree and retired for the evening.

I heard a swishing sound during the night and woke to find that Huey had done better. There was a ten centimetre blanket of snow on the ground. 'Fantastic' I thought as I pulled my nose in and went back to sleep.

Breakfast time. I cleaned the snow out of the stove and put the billy on. A minute later I emptied the slush out of the stove. I'd forgotten about the snow stuck to the bottom of the billy (you can't expect a banana-bender to think about such things at breakfast time).

Breakfast done, Ross and I decided to go on a photographic foray around the creek in preference to going on. Rockwall Pass is the highlight of the traverse, and the weather did not look promising. Jim refused to budge from his tent.

It may have been a bit chilly, but the scenery was straight out of a Christmas card. The red and blue of our clothing were the only colours in a world that was green, grey and white. The monochrome conditions were a photographer's dream.

It was so quiet we could almost hear the snow falling.

We discovered that powder snow tastes great mixed with dried fruit, nuts and chocolate. We also discovered that walking around in powder snow leads to cold feet. So after working our way through a few more rolls of film, we retired to our sleeping bags to defrost numb toes (and play a few card games).

The clouds lifted the following morning. We said goodbye to a less than enthusiastic Jim and pushed up to the pass. The snow was more than knee deep in places and we soon had numb feet again. This didn't bother us too much as we were preoccupied with the spectacular snow-covered scenery.

The biggest challenge was working out where the track went. There were a few track markers, but these were only a metre high and set a fair way apart. They were also painted white with a yellow stripe down the middle (obviously to make them stand out from the snow).

We found our way by following a slight vegetation-free depression in the snow.

Our excitement for the day came when we found a line of fresh wolf tracks in the snow. At the time we thought they were bear tracks and were a bit concerned. (Well they were large tracks and we did have bears on the brain). We kept a sharp lookout for large hairy animals, but saw nothing.

Eventually we hit the treeline at the other end of the pass and commenced our descent to Helmet Creek. The track became obvious, and the challenge was to avoid the clumps of snow in the trees that were waiting to do a number on us. There was a very heavy flurry of snow when we arrived at the campsite, and we were plastered by the time we had the tent up.

When the snow stopped, we wandered up to Helmet Creek Falls. These were supposed to be 365 metres high. Ross was highly impressed with the scenery and took all manner of shots. I was suffering from empty-stomach syndrome and couldn't work up the enthusiasm to pull the camera out. Actually, I was more impressed by a little mouse-sized critter swimming about under the ice in the creek.

There was another heavy 'downpour' when we got back to camp, and we sat it out on the verandah of the ranger's hut. As we watched the snow flakes float down, it occurred to me that this was the alpine equivalent of a tropical thunderstorm (albeit a silent one).

On the last day, we followed the track down Helmet Creek to the highway. This was a largely uneventful stroll through the forest. The highlight was seeing a herd of elk on the other side of the valley.

We had a quick squiz at some ochre beds and then went cross- country to the ranger's office at Marble Canyon. We planned to phone for a cab, but to our dismay we discovered there was no phone in the park. The nearest phone, we were told, was on the other side of the provincial boundary in Banff National Park. That was 8 kilometres away at Vermilion Pass.

There are few things bushwalkers like less than walking along a busy road, so we stuck the thumb out as we went. After a dismal half hour of trudging, we were lucky and got a lift from a sympathetic mountaineer. He was travelling back to Calgary and we swapped bear tales on the way through to Banff, where who should we meet, but our old mate Jim.

Ross and I went on to have a few more great adventures on snow-covered peaks in Banff, Jasper and Yoho National Parks. However, many of the memories I treasure most from my time in the Canadian Rockies are from the Rockwall Trail. If you ever feel like bushwalking in bear country, the Rockwall Trail is hard to beat.

End Notes

Of all the objective hazards in the Canadian Rockies, grizzly bears would have to be the least predictable. It is safer to grab a tiger snake by the tail than to pick a fight with a grizzly. Grizzlies are a lot bigger and faster than humans, and their trick of false-charging people has generated a fair bit of business for the laundry industry. Seriously, there were at least three bear attacks during the month I was in Canada. These left one man dead and another maimed.

Because there are bears about, you have to do your bushwalking differently to the way you would in Australia. You shouldn't cook, eat or store food in your tent. This can be a bit inconvenient when the temperature falls below the freezing point of water. Fortunately, there are bear poles with wires and pulleys at most established camp sites. These enable you to store your food out of harm's way.

It is unwise to walk along in a daze, as you don't want to stumble into a bear. If you startle a grizzly, you may not have the opportunity to write about it in your memoirs. A widely held theory is that you should constantly be making a noise as you pass through the bush to let the bears know you are coming. The paranoid wear bells, in the hope that these will keep the bears away. I personally think bells are as effective as wearing garlic to ward off colds and vampires. Their main virtue is announcing your presence to others. When you hear a tinker-bell in the forest, you know it's not a good time to engage in anti-social activities.

The bottom line is that you have to keep your eyes open. Other objective dangers include hypothermia, falling rocks and giardia. Giardia is a waterborne amoeboid greebly that does nasty things in your gut. If you catch it, the least you can expect is a heavy attack of 'barking squirrels'. To avoid this unpleasant fate you should treat the water before ingesting it. Your options are adding chemicals, using a filter or boiling the water.

Given these little hassles, how does a visit to the Canadian Rockies compare with bushwalking in Australia? As you've already guessed, venturing through the Rockies is quite a bit different to going walkabout the outback. The Rockies are totally unlike anything you'll ever come across in Australia. Compared to their Australian counterparts, the mountains are huge and there are lots of them.

How big? Well, 3000 metre peaks are common, and the average height gain for a rock scramble in the Canadian Rockies seems to be around 1200 metres. Ross and I climbed through 1700 metres to get to the summit of Mt Temple (3543 metres). That is something to think about if you're the type who grumbles about the effort required to climb peaks in Australia. If you're into big day trips, the Rockies are a great place to get fit fast.

There is no shortage of white water and a fair bit of it is too radical for lilos. The lakes are beautiful, but fail to motivate thoughts of a swim. Perhaps its got something to do with the drifts of snow lying about.

You see, the Rockies are not a tropical paradise. You may have an 'Indian Summer' in September (the first month of autumn) or it may start snowing in the last month of summer. 'Warm' is a relative term. Where I come from, 'warm' means 25oC. In the Rockies, 5oC is 'warm'. Unless you are there at the height of summer, you are going to see a lot of snow.

Snow has a lot of novelty value for those of us who live in a subtropical climate. It makes the place pretty and hides the unsightly bits. Hard snow is also easier to climb than scree. On the other hand, walking (and climbing) in powder snow can turn a simple scramble into an epic.

What you don't have is solid rock. You don't have the quartzite of Federation Peak, the granite of Mt Buffalo, the basalt of Mt Barney or even the sandstone of Ayers Rock. What you do have are great heaps of rubble, mobile handholds and balancing rocks just waiting to do a number on someone. Sensible people go peak bagging rather than rockclimbing.

Another thing missing is the bushwalkers' transport. Unlike Tasmania and New Zealand, there are no small operators driving mini buses around. Perhaps there are just too many places to cover and too many people have their own transport. The major bus companies will drop people off at points along the main roads and you can try hitching, but hitchhikers aren't so popular these days. If you want to get somewhere out of the way, you either hire a car or book one of the local taxis. Actually, hire cars and taxis aren't too expensive if there are a few of you.

Of course the wildlife takes a bit of getting used to. Bears aside, you have moose, elk, mule deer, mountain goats and big horn sheep instead of wallabies, kangaroos and emus. You have wood peckers and jays instead of tree creepers and currawongs. The Canadian 'magpies' are unrecognisable. You also have a variety of rat-sized varmints, including pikas, squirrels and chipmunks. These critters are cute and cuddly, until they start wrecking things trying to get at your food.

Similarly, the forests are different. Because of the greater altitude, you don't have the variety of Tasmania's mixed forests. As a matter of fact, fir forests can get a bit monotonous and sometimes feel like pine plantations. However, they are great if you love silence and listening to the snow fall.

All things considered, the Canadian Rockies are really worth a visit. You may pay through the nose for your groceries there, but the scenery is spectacular, the locals are interesting and the flora and fauna are fascinating.

More importantly, bushwalking in bear country makes you appreciate the things you take for granted in the Australian wilderness. Spend a month or two in the snow there, and you'll find yourself pining for blue sky, eucalypts, spinifex, lyrebirds and warm feet. You'll probably think about going to the Kimberley or the Daintree for your next big trip.

Useful Guidebooks

S Dougherty (1991) Selected Alpine Climbs in the Canadian Rockies, Calgary: Rocky Mountain Books.

A Kane (1992) Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies, Calgary: Rocky Mountain Books.

B Patton & B Robinson (1992) The Canadian Rockies Trail Guide, Banff: Summerthought.


The Canadian Rockies have comprehensively been covered by an excellent series of 1:50 000 scale maps. In addition, there are two huge 1:200 000 scale maps that provode a useful overview of the region. One covers Jasper National Park, while the other covers Banff, Kootenay and Yoho National Parks.

If you want more information, you can reach me via l.knight@cowan.edu.au

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