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Passing the test at Jasper

By on September 23, 2019 in Outdoor Fun with 0 Comments
Standing on the shoulder of Tombstone Mountain, Alice, Marlene and Kevin look back on the six passes they climbed since leaving the trail.

Story by Marlene Farrell

Photos by Kevin Farrell

The beginning and end of our eight-day family backpack trip in Alberta’s Jasper National Park featured a maintained, if muddy, trail and designated campsites. 

Those sites equipped us with picnic tables, bear boxes, fire rings and latrines. 

However, for four days, we left those conveniences behind. We were alone in the mountains, camping in meadows, picking our own paths over rocks, heather humps, marshes that made our socks reek and maneuvered through forests of lodgepole pine and fir, often miniaturized due to elevation. 

Quentin, Marlene and Alice enjoy breakfast amid the rocks and heathers of Maligne Pass, elevation 7,600 feet.

We came across ptarmigan and marmots, but no moose or bear, and not one other human. My husband, Kevin, said, “We did see where large mammals had dug up plants, their bedding spots, tracks, scat and one antler.”

“It was harder than we thought,” he went on. “Because of the mud and the bugs . . .  and the rain . . .  and the wind.”

The crux occurred on day five. We were low on rations and thus had to hike long miles with mega elevation.

After hiking up and down three passes and a final uphill bushwhack through forest to our lakeside endpoint, the rain started — a bit at first, and then pelting us. 

We instantly designated a mediocre tent site as the perfect spot. Up in a flash, the thin tent walls sheltered our soggy, stinky family. 

Breakfast in camp includes hot drinks and food pulled out of the bear canisters.

Rain and gale force winds lashed the tent. We couldn’t use our tiny camp stove in this weather, so, instead of a well-deserved hot meal, we ate tortillas and lumpy instant pudding. 

Throughout the night we took turns pushing back against the nylon walls to keep the gusts from stoving in our tent.

This trip proved to be a test of toughness. Our children, Quentin, 14, and Alice, 12, have been backpacking with Kevin and me for a decade. They passed the test decisively, and our whole family was rewarded in the process.

Each day, as we trudged up heather-strewn slopes and strolled down lush valleys carved by ancient glaciers, surrounded by imposing peaks, I had time to ponder how my family got to this point of comfort in the wilderness.

I watched my son occasionally charging ahead on long legs, with loping gait and erect posture, totally at ease through marshland and leaping from rock to rock across creeks. He wore the same t-shirt the entire eight days, not even taking it off for bed, even with a spare in his pack.

His recent growth spurt demanded lots of fuel. Quentin said, “Backpacking dinners are the best, because I was so hungry, the scenery was so beautiful and the dinners were full of salty deliciousness.” 

We brought hearty ingredients like pouches of precooked chicken, coconut cream powder, whole milk powder, nuts and dehydrated veggies, to go with pasta and rice. Plus chocolate bars and jellybeans.

Quentin spent solitary walking time thinking about math, and he’d burst forth with things to share. He’d quiz us about complex numbers, random number generators and probability. His mind’s analytical fancies continue to astonish me.

Alice is often mistaken for an older girl because of how she appears and acts. I’d even forget her age as she demonstrated determination and awareness. 

She was conquering huge climbs, carrying a pack that included group gear — tent poles and stakes, first aid kit and food. 

Whenever Kevin or I led off with a steady pace, there’d be Alice, right behind, even in shoes that she declared more than once, “Hurt my feet everywhere.”

I envision her a Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) hiker one day. She’s often the first one with her pack on, quick to throw on a poncho to ward off rain or bugs, and works double-time to put up the tent, because she loves to nestle in a cloud of sleeping bags.

She still possesses wonder. Alice fondly remembered, “There was a marmot sunbathing on a rock at one campsite. We watched him, and he watched us.” She pined over “Mr. Marmot” for the rest of the trip, imagining all sorts of adventures and cuddles. 

This trip in Jasper reminded me of where it all started — on the PCT, where Kevin and I met and fell in love. Then and now, Kevin thinks about details and contingencies, and helps us achieve truly amazing adventures.

For instance, when we took snack breaks, at the top of a pass or by a creek, Kevin would pour over the map and gaze about, immediately translating squiggly contour lines into terrain features. It’s his way of getting to know this place.

He carried a pack from mountain climbing days, which was so cavernous it swallowed two bear canisters and much more. 

He only mentioned pack weight with a positive spin, on how light it was after we’d eaten through most of our stores and hadn’t resupplied yet (which we did twice).

More than once, Kevin jumped into the creek to help Alice and me hop across pointy, slippery rocks. 

He was more pessimistic than I was about the weather but became the cheerleader about our progress. “Look how far we’ve come,” he reminded us halfway up each pass. It worked, as we never have a kid or wife mutiny.

On the sixth morning, after surviving the storm, we climbed a mountain, elevation 8,500 feet. We named it “Tombstone Mountain” for rectangular and jutting slabs of shale that dotted the rib to the summit. 

When we finally stood at the top, our camera battery died, but a few of us shoved a small rock in our pockets to remember.

Then we looked down at our descent, and Quentin and Alice said, “This is so sketch.” 

I felt stiff, from the cold and from a motherly spike in hormones linked to potential disaster. 

We clambered down, slowly, facing the rock, digging fingers into cracks. At the trickiest spot, Kevin shuttled our backpacks lower, so they didn’t throw us backward. 

We followed a reasonable route, and, after long moments of careful stepping, we reached the gentler shoulder with a couple thousand more feet to descend.

Doing something difficult, like this trip, empowered us all. I hope Quentin and Alice will remember it with pride, and it will inspire an urge to return to the mountains.

We can’t tell you exactly where we went; it’s a secret we need to keep. 

But we hope someday you stumble across bits of wild wonderland too. They’re precious.

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