Friday, September 30, 2011

In the Land of the Mountain Kings

Moraine Lake - Banff National Park - Alberta, Canada
In the Land of the Mountain Kings
travel essay
by Greg Larson

     Those who know me understand my quest for the perfect bike ride or the quintessential hiking experience.  The goal is to find the right fit, the nirvana, which lasts a few minutes or possibly a few hours.  It’s a mountain road in Italy or a trail on the Welsh coastline . . . something unforgettable.  The body, the mind, the weather, and the surroundings are in sync with each other.  It’s a moment in time you wish you could bottle and cork like vintage wine, to open and taste at a later date.

     For Gretta and me, our hopes were high in early August when the adventure tour guides drove our group of ten to the trailhead at Moraine Lake in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.  The majestic peaks, enveloped with snow and forests, had a fairy-tale quality to them.  Mt. Fay sat before us with its shelf glacier perched a thousand feet above the lake.  The glacial melt cascaded down the cliffs and continued to seek a path to Moraine Lake. The water which has a suspended powder, or “rock flour,” creates a turquoise-blue lake reflecting the grandeur of the Ten Peaks range.

     I looked at the timeless panorama and became spellbound.  In the early morning, the men on the dock were readying the rental canoes for a busy day.  It could have been a scene from the ‘50s, or any decade of choice.

     Gretta was full of energy as we started up the path on the eight-mile round trip hike.  She had talked me into carrying both of our lunches in my pack, so I used that as my excuse for hiking more slowly.  Our guides, Marcy and Anne, told us we would be hiking up the mountains all morning, so we needed to pace ourselves.

     The first third of our hike was a series of switchbacks on a mountainside opposite Mt. Fay.  During the morning we hiked in the shadows of the Engelmann spruce and the subalpine fir trees.  Every now and then we’d get a glimpse of the lake below and the glacier above.  The waterfalls from the shelf glacier whispered to us from across the valley. We crossed small creeks rushing down the steep slope, and spied columbine flowers and other flora under the shaded canopy of the trees.

Mt. Fay shelf glacier
     There was a split in the trail where we gathered with our guides.  The switch back trail had brought us closer in elevation to the shelf glacier.  It seemed as if we could reach out and touch it across the valley.  Our guides told us that the second third of the hike would be much easier.  They directed us to the Larch Valley and told us that we would hike through it to our lunch destination.  

     The trail changed to a mild slope and we walked through a forest of larch trees (or tamaracks), which grow near the timberline.  They are conifers, but lose their needles each year.  The spindly branches look like pipe cleaners and grow in irregular patterns.  When the wind blows the branches begin to wave like the arms of a ballet dancer.

The Larch Valley and the Ten Peaks range
     The zone between subalpine forests and alpine meadows was magical.  Green meadows and a marshy creek filled the valley.  Alpine flowers dotted the spaces between the rocks.  The sun was shining and pleasant warmth filled my body.  Our group stopped at a plank bridge to take a break and snap some pictures.

     The Ten Peaks range was much closer now.  The jagged rock faces and patches of snow looked like pictures of the European Alps.  It was a perfect day in a perfect place.

     I almost expected to find a group of Lilliputian mountain kings celebrating the rites of summer, assuming that on a day when their world was in harmony, they would dance in a hall of spruce and fir.  I imagined a scene of mountain people, wearing alpine flower garlands, deerskin clothing and silk shirts, playing their harps and flutes to celebrate the rare summer perfection.  The animals would surround the hall to witness the festivities while the sun shone and the larch trees danced in all their glory.  Maybe the altitude was getting to me.

     Marcy pointed out the flowers and plants, which included valerian, a cluster of small pinkish-white flowers on a green stem.  She stated that a root extract is used as a sedative.  She led us to tiny patches of flowering moss, called moss campion.  The little fuchsia-colored flowers bloom once every ten years in each clump.  I was careful not to step on them.  We bent down and breathed in the mossy-woodsy aroma.

Greg & Gretta - time for lunch
photo courtesy Austin-Lehman Adventures
     We hiked on to our lunch site while listening to the high-pitched squeals of the squirrels communicating across the meadows.  The larch trees were sparse and shorter in height than the trees in the lower elevations.  Small evergreens and moss hugged the rocky slopes.  With massive peaks towering in every direction, I kept turning 360 degrees, snapping pictures at a feverish pace. During lunch, we snacked a bit, and then wandered a bit, taking in the magnificent views of snow, rocks and alpine flowers.  That's when I spied our final destination.                    
     Our tour literature listed the day’s destination as Sentinel Pass with scenic views in every direction.  I peeked around a larch tree and stared at a saddle ridge between two large peaks.  A switchback trail was visible on a vertical wall laced with snow fields. That’s when I heard an angel’s choir singing in the back of my head. I realized I was looking at our destination.  I gasped.  No way!  They can’t expect us to climb on those steep trails!  That’s insane!

I spied our destination - Sentinel Pass

     After lunch, we ascended a trail to a small lake at the basin below Sentinel Pass.  The wind became stronger and cooler at the higher elevations, and the clouds continued to darken.  Occasional patches of sunlight danced on the rocks around us.  Our group exchanged glances of consternation as we huddled around Marcy.  It was after one o’clock, and I was concerned that the weather could take a turn for the worse.  My experience in Colorado taught me that hiking above timberline in the afternoon was considered insane.  Too many times I’d been drenched in rain and guilt for having made the decision to continue hiking upwards after midday.  The mountain kings must be sitting by the fire and smoking their pipes by now.

Basin lake below Sentinel Pass
     Marcy gave us a pep-talk regarding the final third of our upward hike.  “The hike to Sentinel Pass is not as bad as it looks.  I’ve watched all of you this week and you are all capable of climbing to the pass.”

     We turned and looked at each other but no one seemed to be exuding a high level of confidence.  She continued, “It will take us about forty-five minutes to reach the pass.   We’ve got plenty of time.  If you want to chill out by the lake while we continue, that’s your option.”

      I pulled my jacket from the pack and put it on.  Chill. . . what an appropriate word.  But we won’t be here again. You only live once.  Let’s go for the gusto. 

     Gretta and I knew that we could turn around whenever we wanted, and that we’d stay warmer while hiking.  I had to give myself a pep talk to get the engine going and the legs moving again.  Just put one foot in front of the other. It’s no big deal, even if we’re still climbing. Nine out of ten decided to make the climb.

The climbing gets steeper
photo courtesy Austin-Lehman Adventures

Treacherous snowfield
photo courtesy Austin-Lehman Adventures
     The snow fields were treacherous.  The melting snow was slippery and the path narrow.  One slip and your ticket would be punched for a 500-foot slide to the rocks below.  The boys in our group were wearing running shoes and they had problems getting a grip.  It was a bit slow going forward, but once over the snow, we moved on to the switchbacks and up the steep trail.  Just before three o’clock we reached Sentinel Pass.

View from Sentinel Pass back towards Larch Valley
     It felt like we were on top of the world.  Unparalleled mountain vistas lay before us in every direction.  A whole new world of peaks and rocks were unveiled on the other side of the pass.  Behind us, I could see most of the trails we had hiked that day.  Many of the rocks, glaciers and peaks were below us!  The climb to the pass had been worth it and the rain never came.  Marcy and Anne handed us some special treats and opened a bottle of sparkling grape juice.  They poured it into glasses of plastique for us to toast and celebrate.

View on opposite side of Sentinel Pass
     After ten minutes of relaxation at the top, it was time to start down.  We had four miles of downhill climbing ahead of us.  The steep downhill trails were harder on the knees than the uphill climb.  But we had conquered the pass!

     Although we began to tire on the way down, we had a feeling of satisfaction.  Across the snowfield and back to the basin lake we went.  After we regrouped, our guides led us back into the Larch Valley.  No evidence of the mountain people.  They must live around here somewhere, strategically hidden from view.

     Finally, we took the switchbacks down to Moraine Lake.  In the late afternoon, the lake color was a deeper hue of turquoise-blue.  The last of the rental canoes were gliding into the dock as we returned to the trailhead.
Rental canoe on Moraine Lake
     When I returned home, I looked up some information about the valerian plant.  At weddings in medieval Sweden, the plant was placed in the groom’s clothing to ward off the “envy of the elves.”  Was this a reference to the mountain kings that I had sensed were near?  The information stated that when the valerian plant is taken in excessive doses it causes giddiness and disorientation.  Was this the reason the mountain kings were nowhere to be seen?  Would I have been able to see the mountain people if I had taken the extract? I’ll never know. 

     What I do know is that I’ve saved the day we climbed to Sentinel Pass in my memory “bottle.”  I’ve corked it tight.  It’s a rare vintage.
Moraine Lake in early evening


  1. Great posting Greg, love the stories!


  2. I would really like to see the chair that you put together. I to will never pass up the opertunity to resurect an abendoned piece of furniture, which in a lot of cases is a peice of history. What wastefull country we are. Both with material things and older people as resources of living history. Thanks for your contribution to archiving our shrt history on this planet for future generations.


  3. Hey Greg,

    What kind of trees grow on the slope of Moraine Lake near Spirit Island? I've been doing some research and can't find the info I need. I thought they might be lodgepole pine but after reading your blog they might be tamaracks.