This story is probably my favorite of all my painting adventure stories. I've never met a single person that wasn't completely blown away by the Canadian Rockies. It's like the Rockies of United States but on steroids. The Canadian Parks Service also treats you like royalty when you visit: hot showers and cell phone charging stations at campgrounds, open 24 hour parking lots that are free or low rates for staying for the night in your van or vehicle. I've loved it so much, I've visited two summers in a row. I would have made it a third summer in a row, but the pandemic happened.
The first year I visited Banff and Jasper National Park, it was an awful wildfire year. I ended up cutting my three week trip short to just ten days. The smoke was so intense you couldn't even see the mountains from Lake Louise. On my drive home back to Seattle, I drove by forests literally on fire. I could see the fire line from the road. I have controllable asthma unless I'm around fire smoke. Then it's gnarly. So I abandoned ship that summer and headed to the Oregon coast instead. Those coastal winds do an incredible job of keeping the smoke inland.
The summer after the bad wildfire year was when I did the hike featured in my painting "Atop Cirque Peak, Banff, Canada." I went earlier in the season (July rather than August) to hopefully avoid fire season. I timed it just right! I encountered only a few snow patches on my hikes and I missed the smoke entirely!
This hike was a huge confidence booster for me. The year prior I had taken several courses with the Mountaineers in Olympia, Washington. The Mountaineers is a non-profit organization that offers outdoor recreation, safety, and navigation courses to the greater Seattle community. The course I took with the Olympia branch was called "Alpine Scrambling." This class included things that, as a Georgia girl, terrified me. Snow hiking terrified me. Crampons? Hell no! It's slippery and cold and icy and people like get injured and fall off mountains...or at least that's how I perceived it when I started taking the class. The alpine srambling class taught basic ice ax and crampon skills as well as rock scrambling techniques with guided hikes to gain experience with new skills. Had I not taken that course, this hike would have never happened.
I started this hike on a whim. I had been in the Banff area for a few days and was driving the Icefields Parkway towards Jasper and wanted to stop and do some hikes along the way. I had not planned on summiting Cirque Peak. It was more "I'm going to meander through this mountain valley until I get to Helen Lake or get tired and then turn around" kind of intention. The valley itself was mind blowing. Just a short uphill push through trees and you ended up with 360 degree views of a green mountain valley with snow capped peaks, marmots, flowing alpine streams, and an alpine lake. It was incredible.
I had downloaded the map on Gaia and Alltrails prior to starting the hike and had planned on going to an overlook just above Helen Lake and then turning around. When I got to the overlook, I knew there was a scramble up the peak because I had seen it in an alpine scrambling book at a gift shop in Banff. I studied the mountain trying to route find while taking a snack break. It looked gnarly from afar. I decided to get closer to investigate. I was alone on this trip, as with most of my trips, and whenever I'm traveling solo, I'm much more concerned with safety and less likely to take risks. When I got closer to the start of the scramble, a group of four people came over the ridge. They were headed in the direction of Cirque Peak and they stopped to chat about the route. They asked me if I knew the way and I told them I had downloaded the map. I pointed out the general route. They didn't have a map with them and were just winging it which blew me away. I'm a stickler for maps especially in wilderness areas. They asked me if I was headed up and I told them I was unsure because I was hiking solo and didn't feel comfortable going alone. They invited me to come along with them so I took them up on their offer. I was stoked that a group had invited me to tag along! I had spent several days alone in the wilderness at this point and human interaction was very much appreicated.
I was glad I downloaded the Gaia route because the route was all exposed rock, scree, and boulders. A few places required stemming up through cracks in boulders with scary exposure. Whenever we encountered a difficult section, I was able to see the route and get us back on track.
The group was incredibly fast and I definitely was out of my comfort zone keeping up with them. As we hiked, I got to know them and their story. They were a group of Catholic priests who took a trip each year together. I felt a little uncomfortable as I am not a religious person by any means. I often struggle with organized religion and the roles they confine women to, the way they idolize the male and consider them to be the chain that links women to salvation. I am, however, respectful of faith and a spiritual person at heart. I find my spirituality through nature.
I ended up hiking with the female of the group for most of the hike. Two of the men charged ahead and one of the guys hiked a little slower than us.
I was so relieved and stoked when we made it to the summit. It was a hard hike! Definitely a hike that had you told me a year prior I would be on, I would have said you were crazy. Lots of sliding scree, exposure, rock scrambling, a few snow patches.
On the way down, I ended up hiking with one of the priests for the majority of the hike. He asked me what brought me to Canada and why I was traveling solo. At the time, I had recently separated from my ex-husband and had just started the solo female traveler vibe I've been maintaining for the last four years. I was riding high on the new found freedom I was feeling and the boost of confidence I was getting from traveling and experiencing the outdoors as an independent woman. I had spent my entire adult life traveling and making plans with a partner, and now I had all this freedom to explore and experience life authentically on my own. I was also carrying around emotional weight. Getting divorced is not easy especially when you've been through so much and grown up with your partner. The priest, as they do, was a sort of counselor on the hike. I could tell he was offering heartfelt guidance and an opportunity for me share my trials and tribulations as a newly divorced woman in her mid-30s. When we got to the parking lot, he came up to me and asked if he could pray for me for safety and guidance on my trip. Again, not religious, but I appreciate the energy of prayer. So we prayed together in the parking lot before parting ways. Perhaps a higher force was looking out for me on my journey? They say Saint Christopher is the patron saint of travelers....
It was one of my favorite hiking experiences. I was feeling lonely at this point on my trip and I happened to stumble upon a group of strangers who offered companionship on a scary hike I would have never completed on my own. I made a connection with people very different from myself and ultimately ended up taking some emotional weight off my shoulders without feeling judged or mistreated. I summited a serious mountain and gained epic views and difficult scrambling experience! It was one of many highlights of my second trip to Banff.
I painted the view from the summit of Cirque Peak as a way to commemorate my experience as well as give myself time to wander through the memories the way I wandered through the mountain valley: with intention but open to the new experience and whatever it may bring with it. I'm grateful for the experience and the people I shared it with!