During our summer trip to the Canadian Rocky Mountains with my mum and her friends, one of the hikes the group decided to do was a hike up the Helen Lake trail in Banff National Park and further on to Cirque Peak. This trail is now closed due to a fierce grizzly bear in the area, but the bear is not the reason I almost tumbled off the mountain and died. I will get to that shortly…
The day started off bright and early with the relatively easy trial up to Helen Lake. The first little bit was through a forest, which was crawling with squirrels, chipmunks, ‘Banff’s official bird’ – the mosquito, deer, marmots, and bears. We quickly reached the plains above the forest and saw the first glimpse of our destination – the magnificent and treacherous Cirque Peak.
After an hour or so through the plains and wild flowers, we reached Helen Lake where we had a morning tea break. We basked in the sun for a while and smothered ourselves with bug spray because there were an insane amount of insects around the lake. Surrounding the lake were also a group of funny looking creatures called marmots who were relatively at ease with people; So after chasing one cautiously around the field for 20 minutes, I eventually managed to convince him to smile for the camera.
While resting and nibbling at our scroggin (in Canada it’s called ‘trail mix’), a friendly bearded man emerged from the forest catching up with our group. He enthusiastically shared with us that he had spotted a family of grizzly bears in the valley, showed us a few photos and speedily continued on his way up to Cirque Peak. After a decent period of rest, we also continued in his footsteps onwards to Cirque Peak. As we got higher up, we saw in the distance on the side of the trail, deviating from the path, the same man heading in what seemed like an idiotic way road blocked by the snow up to the summit. “Look at that guy who went an alternative way”, “how stupid”, “he’s going to get stuck”, “what an idiot”, we chattered in unison.
Our group decided to stick to the path and soon ascended up some rocks onto a plateau. The first sets of rocks were easy to get through and it was great fun scrambling up them.
After we had made it through, we reached a plateau with a winding path that got steeper and steeper as it got higher. The group I was with all had varying levels of hiking ability and stamina, none that quite matched mine, so it wasn’t long before I soared past the slow people then drifted in the dust of the fit speedy people. I ended up hiking by myself with a rather substantial distance between the two groups. No matter, we were all going to meet at the top anyway.
As it got steeper and closer to the summit, I was welcomed to a challenge by a scramble of rocks that were extremely unstable. With each step up, the rocks would slide someone two steps back. I was getting extremely frustrated when I was greeted by a friendly group of young Aussie lads who were on their way down from the top and practically skiing down the hill of rubble. They asked me if I was doing ok, and I responded that trying to get up these rocks was extremely frustrating. “Yeah, it’s like running up a conveyor belt”, they laughed, “but keep going, the view from the top is worth it”. They gave me a few tips on how to make it easier – sticking near the bigger rocks to the right seemed to do the trick for them – so I veered off to the side to continue my frustrating climb up.
Amongst the bigger rocks, it was slightly easier, yet every second rock (despite some being quite a substantial size) continued to fall and tumble down the mountain. In some ways it was worse than the small scramble of rubble as these rocks had the potential to seriously hurt if they landed on someone the wrong way. Before long, I somehow managed to veer over too far to the right beyond the area that the Aussies were talking about, and found myself in a dangerous situation on a steep part of the mountain. As I clung to the rocks with all my appendages I felt like this hike had turned into a rock climbing expedition. Not being able to stand up straight, I gained a collection of bruises and scrapes on my knees and down my shins. Not being able to go back downwards (because that would have increased the risk of big rocks falling on my head), I tried to look for a way to get back to a safe area a.k.a the designated path.
I managed to crawl over to a little nook between two very large rocks, unfortunately they were extremely unstable and were about to give way at any moment and tumble down from under me. I was quickly running out of breath and energy from holding on to the one stable rock I had found. I couldn’t do much else but to stay there hoping that the rest of my group would catch up soon and help me out. Eventually, my mum and her friend Julia had caught sight of me and yelled over asking what I was doing straying way off the path. “I may be a little stuck….”, I yelled back, and they soon came over to try and help me out.
I love my mother dearly, but she is not the type of person you want to have around these situations because she is often a person who panics. So of course that happened, and while I was being calm trying to logically find a way out, she immediately sent out the panicky vibes. Feeding off her energy, I soon was in panic mode as well, on the verge of tears and having a mild panic attack.
In the distance, sent down like an angel from above, my knight in shining armor appeared. It was the same friendly guy who we earlier ridiculed for deviating from the path, but he managed to get to the top in good time and was now on his way down. Sensing distress he yelled over to inquire if we needed any help, “yes please!!!” I screamed back. He managed to make it my way in a matter of moments, kicking a bunch of rocks in the process that steamed down past me like a waterfall. He propped himself up on a large stable rock a meter or so above me and reaching down he offered me his arm which I gripped onto with all the strength I had. There was no way I was going to let him go and consequently tumble down the mountain. He pulled me to safety beside him and helped me find my way back onto the path. I thanked him tremendously and with that he was on his way; I will be eternally grateful to this man who showed up at just the right time.
Back on the path, I was shaking and had tears in my eyes. Mum asked me if I wanted to turn back and told me it would be a good idea given what had just happened. This mountain almost killed me and honestly all I wanted to do was crawl back down to flat ground and safety. But F that! I had made it all this way and I was bloody well going to get to the summit to see the amazing view that everyone had being talking about.
In the end, I literally crawled to the top because I was too afraid to stand up, continuing to shake with fear and practically crying the rest of the way up. Finally we reached the summit! Because I was still shaking and had tears in my eyes, I collapsed on a seemingly solid rock formation and took a deep breath. After fully acknowledging what had just happened I stood up to take in the view. It was crazy amazing, a beautiful 360 degree view all around the Rocky Mountains from Cirque Peak. The sheer intensity of it was definitely worth everything I had just been through.
The following pictures are a snippet of the view from the top. I’d like to say that my photos don’t do the place justice. To truly experience it, you’ll have to make a trip to Cirque Peak yourself!
In hindsight, I probably wouldn’t have died if I had slipped down the tumbling rocks, but I would have definitely sustained some moderate injuries. No matter what would have happened, I am glad that I didn’t turn back when presented with the opportunity to do so. I succeeded in my goal in that present moment of conquering Cirque Peak and reaped the rewards of stunning views that I still see when I close my eyes at night and bask in the memory of the whole (at the time dramatic) experience.
There is a theory that travel can teach you oodles of valuable lessons that you can’t always learn in a classroom setting. My lesson from that day: When faced with difficulty, it is incredible where not giving up and persevering can bring you, and how rewarding it is. Figure out what you want, and don’t settle for only going up 90% of the [metaphorical] mountain, keep crawling covered in bruises if you have to, but don’t back down. I promise it will be worth it.