PART 5 of the CANADIAN GREAT DIVIDE SERIES: Sunshine Meadows to Ball Pass
One thing that is always constant and predictable on the trail, especially in the mountains, is that the weather will be unpredictable. You can’t change the weather, so the best thing to do is change your plans or your attitude.
It was mighty hard to leave the warm confines of the bar at Sunshine Village with a belly filled with booze and greasy food. But I embraced the adventure and knew that at least I wouldn’t have to set my tent up in the snow tonight because by some divine intervention (many months back), this was the one night on the trip where I had booked a reservation for a basic shelter at Egypt lake in Banff National Park. This meant a roof over my head and a warm fire to dry out and warm up by. It couldn’t have come on a more perfect night.
Fueled up on fries, cheese curds and gravy (when in Canada…) I strapped on my pack, good attitude included, and set out on the trail. Instead of thinking… “OMG another brutal climb”.. I thought “thank goodness for this climb to get my heart pumping and my limbs warmed up.” The latter was actually the truth. I made my way up Simpson Pass out of Sunshine Meadows. Despite the fact that the ground was covered in a few inches of snow, it was still possible to find the trail so navigation wasn’t impossible. Banff is well signed and this was tremendously helpful on such a day.
I slashed through the miles without stopping to keep the blood flowing and to stay warm. The benefit of the snow sloshing into my trail runners was that my blistered foot had at least gone numb to it’s pain. Another positive! The snow transformed the landscape into something magical. It was hard to believe that I was sweating in shorts yesterday and now was trudging through 4 inches of snow and slush today.
The trail leveled out after Simpson pass and didn’t take on another incline until Healy Pass. I wish I would have been able to catch some views off the top of Healy pass. I was told that this section would be one of the most beautiful of the hike. As I began to climb, the snow slowed down slightly and the sun tried to peak out behind the clouds so I had a view down to an alpine lake from the top of Healy Pass.
The trail is entirely down hill to Egypt lake from Healy Pass. There was boxed wine in my pack and a feed of mac and cheese with spam to look forward to (hiking goals, right?). It was going to be a good night. Considering the weather, I figured the shelter would be empty. Au contraire. The shelter was filled to the brim. Our group of three was lucky to grab the last bunk in the place. The crowd was a unique bunch, and I had a super fun night exchanging stories and trail talk with fellow hikers.
The temps dropped colder than they had any night on the trail so far. Thank goodness for a wood stove and endless supply of wood (it comes with the shelter). Egypt Lake seemed to be a very popular place. Even in the snow storm, people were ready to get out and adventure. Lots used the Egypt shelter as a home base since several of the best spots are accessible from here as day hikes.
This too was another area that I would love to get back and explore. Mummy lake, Scarab lake, Sphinx lake, Pharaoh lake and Pharaoh peaks are highly recommended side trails. The hikers we met had stories about all of them and for many, this was not their first visit to explore this magical place. The draw to Egypt lake is a secluded spot, sheltered by high peaks and passes in every direction. There are several beautiful turquoise lakes in the area. You can climb surrounding peaks to get some pretty spectacular views of the whole landscape.
Based on the itinerary of our fellow hikers at Egypt lake, I learned that the more popular weekend adventure in the area was a hike from Twin Lakes or Shadow lake to Egypt lake and explore the side trails along the way. Either would make an incredible weekend getaway for those who are lucky to live close enough to do so. This could be made into a longer backpacking trip if you wanted to include Assinboine as well. I recommend Gem Trek Maps as they detail many trails in the Banff and Assiniboine area.
A day on the GDT wouldn’t be complete without a brutal climb up another pass, and this day was no different. The climb out of Egypt lake to Whistling Pass was a heart pumper. I had no idea that this would be one of my most favorite, scenic days of the entire hike. Whistling pass gives way to ridiculous mountain views in every direction.
The trail down Whistling pass involves a lot of boulder hopping down to Haiduk Lake. For such a beautiful place, there was no one around. The trail follows the edge of the lake and passes a waterfall. It was the most peaceful setting. You could waste a day just sitting here and taking it all in.
An easy meadow walk lead into camp for the night, Ball Pass Junction Campground. It sits right beside a babbling brook and has a few steep peaks that watch over you as you sleep. This was yet another quiet campground with only one other camper.
The cold snap continued overnight and I awoke covered in a thick layer of frost. Incentive to get moving. A short but steep climb (again) in the morning would lead to the top of Ball Pass and into the outskirts of Kootenay National Park. For me, Ball Pass ranks at the top of my list for most amazing viewpoints on the trek. A glacier clinging to the side of a rugged mountain peak on one side, an expansive forest and lake view on the other. It really doesn’t get much better than this.
But the trail must go on. “Ain’t nothing to it, but to do it” my fellow hiker Greg would say. I had plenty more miles to cover today but it was hard to leave behind the incredible views. The snow had mostly melted from the higher passes. I had switched back to my shorts and t-shirt and was soaking up the warmer temps again by mid-day. That’s the way it goes in the mountains. I was certain that mother nature would have more unpredictability for me up ahead.