In August 2017, after months of prep — yes, really… months — we found ourselves at the trail head of the mostly famous Berg Lake trail at the base of Mount Robson at the North Eastern edge of British Columbia in the Canadian Rockies.
We’d practice hiked through the river valley of Edmonton near home.
We’d dehydrated food for weeks.
We’d honed our packing skills and refined our carry-ins to the barest of essentials.
I chose to leave my dSLR at home and carried a pair of GoPro cameras and my iPhone 6 up the mountain to capture the experience. I kinda wish I had more luxurious photographic equipment in retrospect, but the images, slightly blurry and mediocre snapshots are what we got. The thumbnails below pop-open to bigger versions when you click them.
And then on a cool Monday morning in August four adults and two pre-teens sat lacing up their boots, hoisting their packs, double-checking their pockets, setting their phones to airplane mode, and stepping cautiously into the back-country.
This is a summary. It’s not advice. Nor a recommendation. It’s just the story of how six suburbanites, mostly-car-campers, former scouts or athletes or dancers or whatever, and almost entirely computer-facing-desk-jockeys decided to spend five days in the wilderness, disconnected from their wifi, and exploring the mountaintop domain reserved for those who dare to trek up and in and up even further.
Climbing Towards Lunch (Day 1)
There is not a lot to be said about the actual hiking part. It was walking… with packs. Upward. Usually upward.
For all their anticipatory anxiety about the climb, the two girls took to the trek with a kind of kid-like inevitability. I think both would have rather been on the couch back home watching YouTube or playing video games, but they were stuck here, with their parents on this march and they had little choice but to suck it up and hike it in.
The first half, say eleven (11) klicks was challenging but not difficult. It was a steady upward slog. A couple hundred meters of cumulative elevation gain of steadily narrowing and roughening terrain. We could have driven a sedan up the first five klicks, but by the time we passed Kinney Lake and got into the flats and up into the first real climbey part of the trail leading into Whitehorn, it was less even underfoot.
First one ascends through a lush cedar rain forest.
Then the shore of a calm mountain lake paces the trail.
(I would note that if you were watching the solar eclipse of August 21, 2017, it was during this stretch of the hike, the sky fully overcast, we noted that the slight dimming of the daylight was probably that same eclipse –at about 65% coverage– somewhere beyond our view.)
Then a rocky open flat (which is only open part of the time in lieu of a hillier route) is strewn moon-like with boulders as one toddles across the expanse set between two glorious mountain vistas.
Then the first of the switchbacks, a warm-up of what is to come a little further along, as the path gets rougher and steeper leading towards a riverside campground where we stopped for lunch on the first day.
A Rest Before the Inevitable (Day 1)
We took a long pause at Whitehorn. For lunch. To refill our water (which was the first time I got to use my water filter (an MSR MiniWorks EX) in the wild.
We poked around the rushing water. Rested. Read. Relaxed.
Had we known it was about to rain, we might have pushed a little faster. But as we sat looking ahead, not quite sure which of the hills in the distance we were about to climb, the sky was partly clouded and our legs were enjoying the un-weighted break, and the remoteness, not nearly as remote as we’d soon experience, felt remote enough and worth savouring.
I took a stumbling walk along the rocky bank of the river. I found a hidden cache of beer stuffed under a stone in the glacial-cold water, the glinting top of an aluminum can in the pale sun giving away the hiding spot. I left it untouched, but felt a bit of a pang of regret that I hadn’t thought of carrying at least one can up for a mountaintop reward.
But before long lunch was over, we were re-hoisting our still-heavy packs onto our shoulders, and setting onward.
And then the rain started.
Wet & Steep (Day 1)
When you get to the ‘bottom’ of the main climb, a level spot between the bridge crossing the river at the base of the falls and where the climbing begins, a number of little signs greets you: WARNING, STEEP HILL, NO WATER FOR 4 KM. SUPERVISE CHILDREN!
We had already filled our water, and on a hot day we might have figured out a backup bottle — but it was not a hot day. The light drizzle had begun and we were more interested in wrapping our packs in their waterproof covers. It was cool enough for jackets, despite any exertion, and the extra weight of extra drinking water was the least of our concerns.
To get a sense of this climb I feel like I need to share the elevation profile. The chart pictured is what I captured using my Garmin Fenix 3 GPS watch which tracked all our official hiking (up, down, and around at the top) as maps and (more interestingly) elevation graphs:
While the whole distance represents a cumulative climb (ups, downs and back ups all added up) that (concidentally) measured exactly 1000m, the stretch between 17 km and 21 km was roughly half that, or a hair over 500m of climb in 4 km. The math makes that an average grade of about 12.5% but incidental points on this chart show grades spanning from between 7% to the low 20%s.
To make it even more clear, the very tip of the Empire State Building in New York is 443m from ground level. So, imagine climbing that (plus a little more) but without stairs (though at about the same grade on average) with 50 pounds on your back in the rain… after just hiking 17 km prior.
Almost There Camp (Day 2)
We got to the top about two and a half hours later, dropped our bags in the first pair of available camping spots at the edge of the same river that a few short hops away dropped that climbing distance back down to the bottom, and there we camped for our first night.
And as much as I imagine I could write about that, the night still young we were so tired we set up, ate, cleaned up and quickly crawled into bed.
We’d rented a backpacking tent from MEC. It was a Volt 3 and it weighed about two pounds and worked extremely well, barely biting into the the 12×12 camp pads. It set up in five minutes and tore down in about the same (not counting drying out the dew and leftover raindrops clinging to the fly in the morning.)
I think that first morning my back hurt enough (did I mention I pulled a muscle in my back on day one?) that I just sucked it up and pushed through. We made oatmeal and coffee for breakfast, packed up as quick as we’d unpacked the night before, and by min-morning we were standing on the trail just outside our little site priming up the boots for another hike…
The Last of the Climb (Day 2)
…which by comparison was level and easy.
The sun came out (thankfully it was only warm on that second day of hiking and not the first) and we continued with the last 5 klicks of the accent. Though it was less of an accent, to be honest, and more of an escape from the forest into the wide open meadow-like expanse that marked the approach between the mountains towards the glacier and its lake.
Everyone was quite ready to be at camp, no matter how short the trek that day was destined to be. We plodded towards the lake, rested, and then plodded onward once again. And the sight that met us was spectacular from any angle, a crystal blue lake at the foot of a towering fortress of a mountain draped with the dirty white arms of an ancient glacier.
By this point we were a chilly 1650m of elevation and even in the heart of August with the full sun in the sky that’s hardly a recipe for a tropical clime.
And then suddenly we were at the Berg Lake campsite: hike complete.
If someone is reading this and planning their own family adventure into the back-country, I’m sure a million questions await, like:
How did the kids do? (Great, though they carried significantly less than us.)
What would you have done differently? (Hiking poles, better sleeping pads, and some kind of chair for my 40-year-old arse… logs are uncomfortable.)
How was the food? (Dehydrated food was great… until it gets cold which happens really fast on top of a mountain, so bring some way to keep your meal warm until you eat it all.)
Did you see any bears? (We had two pre-teens who NEVER stopped talking. This may have been a deliberate keep-the-bears away strategy, and it was successful.)
Did your back ever recover? (Well… you’ll need to read all about that in PART 2.)