Section E Part 1

Section E of the GDT is known for some of the most striking views and a long stretch completely immersed in the alpine.

It is 214km with 7927m of elevation gain. We did it over eight days but initially planned to do it in seven.  Tanya and I hiked the first half of this section (~100km) in September of 2020 over four days.  It was the most beautiful and awe-inspiring hike either of us had ever done and subconsciously planted a seed, making us crave more alpine off-trail hikes.  It was hard so we were both eager to see how it was going to go after already hiking hundreds of kilometers.

Section E is also home to the Six Passes Alternate, an alternate to the notoriously bushy and unmaintained Maligne Valley.

The Six Passes Alt is 39km and entirely off-trail.

Only one party is allowed on the alternate per day, meaning there is very little evidence of humans over the course of the entire and very low likelihood of seeing anyone.

Stefan had mentioned he really wanted to hike the alt, but he would need to catch up with us to tag along.  We hadn’t seen Stefan since the beginning of Section C, well over 200km and over a week ago, which feels like forever when you are on trail time.  We didn’t really have a good idea of where he was but were curious if he could find a way to catch up what we assumed was about three days and well over 60km.  This is especially hard when we were already covering over 25km a day, making up that deficit means a lot of big days.

Waking up at Saskatchewan Crossing after our epic zero made for low motivation to hit the trail.  We both were looking forward to the section but the comforts of a hotel room are still hard to leave behind.  The previous morning, we had an all-you-can-eat buffet for breakfast, which I took to mean, all you can eat for breakfasts.

When the staff weren’t looking, I stuffed my pockets full of bacon, muffins, sausages, and cinnamon buns, knowing it would be a great resource the next morning.  So, we microwaved our day-old food and watched more Olympics.

We eventually hit the road and walked a mix of highway and trail a few kms until we met the Owen Creek Trailhead.  From here it is a steep climb straight up into the alpine with a bit of a washed-out trail.  Typical of the other parts of the GDT there was ample fear-mongering regarding the conditions of the trail and water levels in the creek.

On the way up we ran into a group of five hikers that all looked very novice and quite young, we chatted with them a bit and heard they were going to the same campsite we were, the spectacular Michelle Lakes, which has one of the most beautiful campsites I could ever imagine.  A bit surprised by their ambition we wished them luck but were a bit worried they weren’t adequately prepared to make the hike up there in one go.

The rest of the hike up to Michelle Lakes went super well.

We had eight days of food on us but blasted up, it was a crazy difference versus the year before.

We arrived late afternoon and set up the tent on the far side of the lake, past some other campers that looked like they were camped out for a few days.  We never did see the younger group arrive that night…

After a very breezy night in the tent Dan let us borrow, it was very confidence-inspiring.  Switching out any gear for such a big trip is always a bit of a gamble but it was bomber throughout the whole night.  We only had a 14km day today so we slept in until 8:30 and didn’t leave camp until 10.  Upon leaving camp we ran into another group of GDTers we had been bouncing around with since Section B.

Michelle Lakes.

They were unknowingly hiking perpendicular to the trail which made for a funny morning, we all had a laugh and pushed on to the same campground that night.

Also, they were camped with Stefan!

Apparently, he arrived after 11 p.m. the previous night.  We also got word that the younger group of hikers didn’t quite make it to any campsite at all and ended up just making do with some flat spots off the side of the trail.  Both of these things were wonderful to hear.

All that wind the previous night brought a lot of smoke.  The SW wind must have pushed all the smoke from southern BC right up into the Rockies.  The views were slightly dampened so we were both super thankful we had witnessed the glory of this section in September of 2020.

This year.

Last year in on the same ridge but facing the other way.

We continued on through the vast expanse of Cataract Creek and Cataract Pass and ran into the same group again, they had just spent lunch with Stefan!  Figuring he had just pushed hard for several days, Tanya and I waited up on the pass and had lunch.  Eventually we saw the Austrian man crest the pass and we gave him a huge hug.  We hadn’t seen Stefan in weeks.

Life on trail is so condensed.

Waking up early and walking all day is a constant stream of newness.  Never returning, always continuing on and never having the same viewpoint or experience for the entire duration of the trail.  A lot of life happens, and this is particularly aided by the lack of idle time.  All day is doing.

We had so much to catch up.  We split up from Stefan in the middle of Section C, and we didn’t really get to say bye as we got a bit mixed up on our meeting spot.  Hearing small accounts of what had happened in the past few weeks was immersive.  The experiences everyone has are so unique and well-defined that the entire story is captivating.

His story involved hiking for over 10 days without a break and over a week straight of 30-45km days.  He seemed tired but well-adjusted to trail life.

We all descended down the pass and made our way to Pinto Lake, one of the most beautiful lakes on the GDT if it wasn’t for the smoke.  It was great to go for a swim and rinse off the daily crust.  11 GDT hikers were all at the lake.  It was one of the most memorable and celebratory feelings on trail.  All of us sharing our tales from the trail and the stories of other hikers ahead and behind us.

On the GDT there isn’t a lot of this “community” in the sense that there aren’t a lot of hikers we ran into, particularly hikers that were from different starting dates.  We did have a bubble of about 10 people that we would commonly see but it was rare we would all be in the same place at the same time.  This night at Pinto Lake included some people that started a week later than us, so they had come across several other hikers in their trip so far and it was great to hear the legends of the other hikers.

Pinto Lake this year

Pinto Lake last year

We stayed up until 10 p.m. before realizing it was well past all our bedtimes.  It was hard to leave and I sensed the feeling everyone was very appreciative of this evening.  It was something none of us expected or could have predicted.

Essentially, over 10% of all GDT hikers were in one camp for the night.

The next morning was a bit rough, 10 p.m. was exceptionally late for us.  It was a very late morning; we didn’t hit the trail until 9:30. It was a very long forest walk and I was having a breakdown.  I was getting hot flashes and couldn’t regulate my body temperature at all, the prevalence of bugs and deadfall created a combination prime for a breakdown.  I went into silent mode, I didn’t want to be a negative drain on anyone else.

Later on, in the day my pack also started digging in really badly, right where the frame goes into the hip belt.  Those two little dimple things on my back were getting chaffed really badly.  I went deep down the hole, deeper than any other day on trail.

I was in the hole for seven hours, long enough for it to feel like eternity.  I tried eating and it didn’t help.  Thankfully Tanya came up with the brilliant idea to just remove the frame from my pack.  I pulled out the frame stays and was instantly relieved, the pack also felt way more comfortable as it contoured to my back.  Afterwards, I dunked my head in the stream until I couldn’t hold my breath anymore.  Again, way better.  Within the next 10 minutes, I was completely back to normal.  It’s crazy how the little things will bring you down but thankfully they are easily remedied by simple strategies.

The next morning was very cold and wet.  Dampness hung in the air and the temperature took a massive dive.  I didn’t cinch up the footbox on my quilt, I usually left it open to air out my hot feet, and I woke up freezing cold.  In my sleeping stupor, I was stubborn and just tried to power through rather than taking the seven seconds to cinch up the footbox.

In an effort to warm up a bit I tried using hot water for my breakfast smoothie.

It was the consistency of diarrhea and didn’t taste too far off.

Knowing I couldn’t waste the food or dump it anywhere I had to channel my inner spirit and just chug the viscous, green goo down in one go.

We got moving and the morning turned around quickly.  The trail was in fantastic shape and the first several km were pretty flat.  We were on the Brazeau Loop, a popular multi-day loop, which we were hiking the western half of before continuing north and leaving the trail.  It was clear there was a lot of traffic on the trail based on its phenomenal condition.

We continued up and over Jonas Shoulder, the hardest section of the Brazeau Loop.  When Tanya and I had done this section last year it was very strenuous, we had to pull out some music and treats to keep us going.  This year however it was one push to the top without any breaks, I was really aware of how hundreds of kilometers had shredded our leg muscles and beefed up our lungs.

Once over the pass Stefan, Tanya, and I all had lunch in a nice meadow.  It was all downhill from here to our campsite for the night.  Upon arriving at the campsite, we saw one other pair of hikers.  I think a bit of trail courtesy needs to be discussed after reflecting on our interaction…

If you see a group of hikers get into camp after 6:00 with exhaustion and starvation on their faces, maybe give them a few minutes to settle before bombarding them with endless personal stories unrelated to trail.

This lady could not stop.  She went on for well over half an hour while we were trying to get dinner going and set up camp.  Eventually, my hunger overran my politeness and I had to boil some water to make dinner.  She kept rambling on as she burned through several cigarettes, with us not even able to keep up or give her the attention she was after.  I turned on the stove and her rapid-fire voice was barely audible.  She was unphased.

I may have let the water boil a little longer than necessary and occasionally glanced up at her, realizing she was still going on with her endless stories.  The scary part was going to be turning the stove off, the silence meant we wouldn’t have an easy distraction.  Finally, once our food was ready she got a bit of a clue (it took close to an hour) and went over to her friend.  We scarfed down our food then hit the river for a quick bath with a bandana.

We were in bed by eight, ready for the next part of Section E, the Six Passes Alternate.

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