“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees!”
From “The Lorax”, by Dr. Suess
The French word of the day is “Cloches”, which translates to “bells” in English. As in, hikers adorned with cloches are very annoying, and often sound like Santa Claus and his reindeer coming through the woods.
On Tuesday, we hiked to Lake Helen and Cirque Peak. Cirque Peak is located near Bow Lake, off of the Icefields Parkway north of Lake Louise. Cirque Peak stands 9819’ above sea level, and was the highest elevation we attained in our 4 weeks in the Canadian Rockies. It provided what was probably the best scenery of the entire trip. Coincidentally, it was probably the hardest hike we did. In addition to the incredible scenery, we had a near miss with what would’ve been an exciting wildlife encounter, and a “celebrity” wildlife encounter that was quite unique.
We were up early, and fueled up on a hearty breakfast of eggs, ham, and cheese on bagels. We’d need a lot of energy for the hike, which would be 11 miles with a 3400’ elevation gain, some of it off-trail. We left the campground, and were relieved to see that the previous night’s storm had cleared out.
We drove to the trailhead, which is across from the Crowfoot Glacier Overlook above Bow Lake on the Icefields Parkway. It was already 9:30, but it was still shockingly cold in the parking lot. We both hoped it would warm up by the time we made it to treeline.
That only took a little over an hour, as we climbed through the woods towards Lake Helen. The first section of trail wasn’t terribly exciting, but bunches of sunflowers and occasional views of the Crowfoot Glacier kept things interesting. A steep set of switchbacks led to better views south, and we quickly found ourselves in the sub-alpine forest that indicated we were approaching treeline.
Sub-alpine forest is a favorite haunt of grizzly bears. We probably should’ve had our guard up, but I was mainly focused on getting out of the woods to get our first view of the mountain we planned to climb. We passed around the end of a ridge, hiking high above Helen Creek, when we caught up to a group of 5 women. A couple of them were nearly hysterical. They had just seen a grizzly bear at close range! When it saw them, it ran over the ridge immediately above us. Christy and I were disappointed – we had missed it by less than a minute. The panicky women in the group wanted to turn around – and head back in the direction the bear had gone. We agreed to hike with them for a while, since there is some safety in numbers. This quickly became tedious. They were moving slow, and we still had a big day ahead of us. Plus, several of them were carrying those damn bear bells. Do you know what the purpose of bear bells is? So the bear knows when it’s time for dinner!
We put up with this for a little while, but once we were fully above treeline and visibility was unlimited, the danger was clearly over. At that point, we left them behind, which made me feel guilty for about 10 seconds. Later, we heard them blowing whistles. Now what was that all about? The only other thing they needed were kazoos, and maybe a big bass drum. Then they could’ve had a parade.
We reached a crossing of Helen Creek, where we discovered exceptionally slippery rocks. We found a better place to rock hop immediately upstream. One more short climb brought us to the shores of Lake Helen. The lake itself was a little disappointing, but the surrounding scenery made up for it. Sheer peaks, some decorated with glaciers, towered around us in every direction.
We improved on the view by following the trail to the ridge above the lake. We switchbacked quickly upwards, but should’ve gone left at an unmarked fork in the trail. Instead we took a long-cut that brought us to crest of the ridge well south of the departure point for climbing the peak. It was already noon, so we stopped for a brief lunch. We didn’t linger long though, as it was cold and windy spot. The scenery here is very stark. We looked out over a moonscape of rock as we huddled out of the wind.
From there, we had a great view of what was still to come. Namely, a 1600’ climb over perhaps a mile on a steep, untracked ridge. Christy wasn’t entirely convinced the she wanted to attempt it, but decided to start towards the peak and see how it went. I knew once she started on it, she’d never quit until she reached the top.
Our first challenge was getting on the approach ridge. It’s guarded by a band of steep rock that requires some scrambling. We curved around a small tarn, and headed towards the nose of the ridge. We found some cairns, which we followed to the nose of the ridge, and beyond. Soon we were dangling from a ledge on the west side of the ridge, with steep rock above us and a long fall below. It wasn’t long before I decided that we had erred. Christy’s resolve for climbing the peak wavered, and we considered turning back. After much debate, we decided to scramble up to the top of the ridge, which was only 30 or 40 feet above. The scramble wasn’t as bad as it looked, though it was still much more difficult than it needed to be. If we had simply gone straight up the nose of the ridge, it would’ve been much easier, and safer. Later, on our return, I removed the errant cairn that had led us into taking the wrong route.
Once on the ridge, we actually had some easy walking. The ridge climbed gently, and the scree underfoot was soft, almost like sand. This didn’t last long. Soon we were climbing steeply, and the scree eventually gave way to loose talus. We zig-zagged back and forth across the ridge in a futile effort at making our own switchbacks. It didn’t help. We were both struggling, and battling altitude-induced headaches to boot. An icy wind blowing from the west felt like the onset of winter. Despite our exertion, we climbed with hats and gloves on. We were about halfway up when a solo European hiker galloped by, leaving us in a cloud of dust.
We renewed our efforts, and were rewarded with a climb of steep boulder field. The rocks were loose, and most of our steps upward ended with us sliding back down on a surfboard of rock. Making progress was slow and frustrating. Once again we had to zig zag back and forth across the slope. Climbing over all those rocks was tedious, but the summit was coming closer. Plus, the ever-expanding views drove us on. Already we could see mountains, glaciers, and lakes in almost every direction.
We finally reached the base of a cliff just short of the summit where the footing was better. This led to a steep chute that required a little more scrambling. After one final push, we found ourselves on the south summit. There we sat, on a narrow pinnacle of rock, towering above a scene of amazing beauty. There was nothing but snow, ice, and jagged peaks in every direction. It may well have been the best view I’ve ever seen.
The guy that had passed us and another hiker were on the north peak. A few minutes later, they joined us on the south summit. Oddly, the second hiker, who claimed to be from somewhere in the vicinity of Calgary, was accompanied by the Lorax. The Lorax was posing as this person’s dog, but he couldn’t fool us. Apparently he lives in the Canadian Rockies because he enjoys the clean air. I guess I really shouldn’t be surprised. If I was the Lorax, that’s where I’d live, too. I have few regrets from our trip, but one is not getting a photo of the Lorax. After all, it’s not every day that you get a celebrity wildlife sighting. This is only circumstantial evidence, but we did see something on the hike out that corroborates our story. Truffula Trees. We saw them frequently on our trip, usually near treeline. It should be noted that due to a misunderstanding of scale surrounding Dr. Seuss’ book and movie, Truffula Trees are in fact only about a foot tall.
Incidentally, Truffula Trees are often called by their proper, scientific name, which is Drummond’s Anemone. That didn’t fool us though. We know Truffula Trees when we see them.
We hung out on the summit for over an hour, enjoying the view and conversing with the Lorax. We talked about the merits of clean air, and why he had moved all the way to Canada to find it. For any readers who think this whole thing may have been an altitude and exhaustion induced delusion, well, I guess you just had to be there.
The Lorax and the other hikers eventually headed down, but we found Cirque Peak a hard place to leave. I wandered over to the north peak, where I signed the summit register. I eventually rejoined Christy, and building clouds to the northwest finally convinced us to head down. The descent wasn’t nearly as bad as we feared. We scrambled past the worst of the talus, and then just slid through the scree. This was easier on the knees than moving cautiously, and somehow we made it down without falling. We followed a better route down the nose of the ridge, and before long, were passing Lake Helen. We kept an eye out for bears, and parades of panicky women, but saw neither heading out.
The last two miles through the woods seemed to stretch out for an eternity, as the end of long, difficult hikes often do. We finally made it to the car, and headed for Banff to get groceries. We were almost back to the campground, when we passed two black bear along the side of the parkway. We had missed out on the grizzly, but at least we got to see a couple of bears. We feasted that night on grilled salmon, rice, and salad. It was a meal well-deserved, after a beautiful but demanding hike.
Continue reading about our adventures in Canada, as we take a rest day in Banff, before an easy hike to the waterfalls of Johnston Canyon.
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