The Gorge: backcountry ski near Sicamous

A few weekends ago, Andy and I headed east to ski a spot in the mountains just past Sicamous known as the Gorge.  We’d heard good things about the terrain & were excited to check out a backcountry ski destination so close to home.  The only catch seems to be that the access logging road isn’t regularly plowed, so most of the time you probably need a sled to get in.  Despite temperatures hovering around -20C, logging operations had swung back into action that week, so the road was plowed & we drove right up to the start of the skin track.

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A bluebird day, the sun took the edge off the biting cold, and I even broke a bit of a sweat as we skinned up around 800 meters through the trees, and then across a large bowl & up to the summit.  It’s shocking just how quickly you chill down in those temperatures.  Out of direct sun, all it took was a minute or two for me to feel my fingers freezing up, and if we hadn’t had Hot Shots, things could have gone south very quickly.

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From the top, the skiing was really really nice: wide open subalpine, knee deep & almost totally untracked powder & a handful of possible routes.  I’m comfortable admitting that I’m still very much a student of this sport.  (Apart from a few months nearly 15 years ago, this is my first real season on skis).  I had never downhilled in powder this deep before, and the slope also felt significantly steeper than anything I’d ever attempted.  The result was undoubtedly a bit challenging to watch: I couldn’t seem to keep my skis above the snow & I felt gravity pulling my torso down the mountain ahead of my skis.  And then I would fall – face first, cartwheeling basically, head over heels again and again down the mountain.   Andy was amazingly calm, picked routes where I was less likely to body-slam trees, and talked me through some tricky steep bits in the trees.   I felt pretty calm through it all, and just focused on the terrain at hand.  And apart from a bit of a torqued knee, which resolved itself in a day or so, I managed not to injure anything.  What’s more, I resolved to nail this powder skiing thing … or break my legs trying.  The mountains are just too beautiful to abandon during the winter, and although I’m definitely more about the uptrack, the skiing is (mostly) a ton of fun.  99% of the time I feel relaxed about doing something that takes me totally out of my comfort zone.  It’s humbling to try to do something you utterly suck at – to put yourself in the position of being a beginner.  And it’s 100% worth it.

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Learning to ski

I grew up on the southernmost tip of an island off the coast of British Columbia.  Winters were typical of the mild, temperate Pacific Northwest with perhaps one or two “blizzards” – just enough snow to cause chaos in a town with maybe one snowplow & possibly the highest ratio of front wheel drive Volvo wagons to grey hair & tweed in North America.  Despite a solid ski lineage on both my mother and father’s sides of the family, Mt. Washington, the closest resort, was a good 3.5 hour drive north.  Bored of the constant fall/winter/spring mono-season drizzle, I fantasized about snow for much of my childhood & relished our annual trips to visit extended family in Utah and the Cariboo in the interior of BC.  In fact, I actually remember sawing the corners off a couple of 2X4s, tying them to my rain boots, and trying to slide down the approximately 8% grade hill that was our backyard.

My uncles Thor & Helge Nilsen – probably at Alta or Snowbird, UT in the 1950s

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My first actual ski lesson took place in the powder mecca that is Alta, Utah.  I was five.  After immigrating from Norway, my father’s family had settled in Salt Lake City, Utah; we visited almost every winter, and presumably because my parents wanted to do something outrageous like ski some of the best pow in the world, they dropped me off at a kiddie lesson.  I was a pretty smart kindergartener, and certainly ahead of the curve in a number of ways.  Skiing was not one of them.  I remember the sheer terror I felt, losing my grip on the rope tow, hurtling down the bunny hill, my skis crossing over one another again and again as I struggled to master the snow plow.  I remember crying, feeling humiliated & wanting nothing more than to disappear as the rest of the class – a troupe of precocious 5 and 6 year olds – eagerly jumped on the lift to pizza down a green run.

I really have no solid recollection of why, exactly, 20 years later, I felt the urge to become a ski bum.  A sort of post-BA “gap year” found me bartending in Salt Lake City of all places, & I somehow decided it was time to finally learn how to ski.  Naturally, I got a job at Alta in Little Cottonwood Canyon.  I remember very little about this time, apart from a few visual images of the dark closet I slept in, in the Alta Lodge, several odd conversations with the handful of personalities there who took it upon themselves to teach me to ski, and being (again) reduced to tears when a bunch of fellow lodge employees & avid telemarkers decided I’d gotten good enough on the groomers to go off piste.  All I remember is sinking waist deep in powder again and again in the trees, and my friends admitting that perhaps, bringing me wherever it was we were, may have been a bit … premature …

Decades later and I’ve somehow become an avid mountain runner.  Last winter, I bundled up and went for long back-to-back 3-6 hour snow runs every Saturday and Sunday.  Don’t get me wrong; something in me craved this particular form of … whatever it was … solitude, punishment, gratification, effort … I’m not sure … Nevertheless, by the end of the winter I had firmly resolved to embrace winter for what it is, and to trade off running for skiing.  Nevermind the fact that I couldn’t really ski.  I’d spent every possible moment of the summer and fall of 2013 in the mountains, running and hiking, and wanted nothing more than to continue that momentum.  I’d read about Killian Jornet and others who ski mountaineered through the snowy months with no detriment to their running fitness.  I’d seen photos of the alpine terrain I loved to run in in the summer months, all covered in snow under brilliant sun during the winter.  I wanted to do that.

Then I met Andy.  It would be false to say he has had nothing to do with this.  An avid backcountry skier, the best way to put it is perhaps that he blew some wind into a sail I was readying to raise.  I’m perpetually surprised that he wants to ski blue runs at Sun Peaks with me – me practicing my turns while he hurtles down, waiting at this corner or that, ready with whisky and a smile.  Even better have been our little trips out into the backcountry, me learning step-by-step how to ski powder or trees, he waiting patiently at this corner and then the next.

Unless you have ready access on a daily basis, you can’t really learn to ski in the backcountry.  So I’m putting in my time at the hill.  But I’ll take a day skinning up a remote mountain over riding up the lift any day.  I think the photos make the reasons why more than a little bit clear.

Zoa: skin track up off the Coquihalla

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Halfway Hotsprings, New Years ski & camp

For New Years, Andy and I skied out to Halfway Hotsprings in the West Kootenays.  Halfway is one of several undeveloped hotsprings in the B.C. backcountry & the idea of trying out winter camping somewhere where the exposure to the cold would be somewhat mitigated by access to what is basically a hot bath sounded ideal.

Skiing up the Halfway River Forest Service Rd.

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The snow was unusually wet & sticky, such that we took our skins on and off at least four times, trying to find the best way to move forward along the gentle uphill grade.  Most of the route was sufficiently uphill that skiing without skins meant constant, frustrating, backsliding.  At one point, Andy – whose skins were sticking far worse than mine – put his skis on his pack & opted to hike behind me in ski boots.

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After skinning up the forest service road for about 3 hours, we hit the final section of the route to the hot springs – a steep downhill switchback that descended about 70 meters over just about 300 meters of “trail”.   We did this in the dark, skis strapped to our packs, no idea of exactly what the destination would look like.

As it turned out, the “main” pool was a beautiful if rustic wooden tub with water piped in from the nearby springs.  When we arrived, the water was hot enough to boil an egg; we couldn’t keep even a toe in for more than a second or two.  So we turned off the pump to let the water cool, set up camp & came back the next morning.  By then, the water was lukewarm, but a few seconds of hot spring water changed that & New Years Day breakfast in the secluded springs was … brilliant.

Climbing back up the hill from the Halfway Hotsprings to the Halfway River Forest Service Road:

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The main soaking tub:

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Camp:

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Hippy changing area.  Yep, it’s the Kootenays …

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Getting there: Halfway hotsprings are located between Revelstoke & Nakusp, BC, not far from the commercial resort at Halcyon Hotsprings.  To get there from Kamloops, we drove east on the #1 to Revelstoke, then turned south on the #23 until Shelter Bay, where one of the handful of free ferries that are part of BC’s highway system took us across Upper Arrow Lake to Galena Bay.  About 23 kilometers south of Galena Bay, you cross a bridge over Halfway River, and a few hundred meters south of that, is the Halfway River Forest Service Road.

I’d been a bit worried that we might find it a bit challenging to identify the correct forest service road, and indeed, we initially drove too far south on the #23.  About a mile south of the Halfway River, we saw vehicles and a few tents along the edge of what we thought was the road into Halfway Hotsprings.  In front of two tents was a blackened fire pit with empty bottles and other signs of the previous night’s, uh, activities.  A few minutes later, some kids in their twenties crawled out of one of the tents.  They told us that they’d tried to make it to the springs the previous day, but a tree was down, blocking the road.  After a bit of deliberation around whether to leave the vehicle in what seemed like a potentially risky, exposed place, we decided to go ahead.  Skis, skins, and enormous overnight packs on, we headed up the road.  What we’d neglected to ask them, however, was which hotsprings they had tried to reach.  As we learned, a few miles up the road when they caught up to us, they were headed to St. Leon, not Halfway.  Hoping for a bit of privacy & set on our original plans, we turned around & headed back to the car.

With a bit of help from Garmin, we found the Halfway River forest service road, and although it had about a foot and a half of snow on it, decided to follow the 4X4 tracks a little ways up to cut down on our travel time.  We’d already blown a couple of hours on our “detour”, and weren’t too confident we’d be able to reach the springs before dark.  The road to the springs is about 12 kilometers, but we managed to drive about 4 km in, following 4X4 tracks, until the risk of getting stuck seemed too formidable.

Joffre Lakes, Thanksgiving overnighter

I drove the Duffey Lake road from Cache Creek toward Pemberton this weekend. There’s something about the angle or quality of the light this time of year that makes the south and coast Cariboo appear vintage, lit up with the gold and copper hues of turning leaves, shimmering Cottonwoods reflected in the dark glassy lakes that dot the road.  I was on my way to Joffre Lakes Provincial Park for an overnight backpack this Thanksgiving, and with the temperatures dipping down below freezing at night, I figured I’d have the place to myself.  To my surprise, the parking lot was full of cars, and the trail, packed with day hikers & trail runners.  Thankfully, by 3 p.m. when I started setting up my tent at the third lake, everyone save two other small groups of overnighters had disappeared back down the trail.  And considering that the other backpackers pitched their tents well out of sight & sound from my little lakeshore spot, I enjoyed the illusion that I was more or less alone at the lake.

The trail to Upper Duffey Lake, the third of the turqouise-coloured glacier water lakes on the route, is just over 4 kilometers with about 400 meters of elevation gain from the parking lot.  The first mile of the trail is extremely smooth & has been very well maintained by BC Parks.  After that, the route becomes quite rugged; it’s rocky, rooty, muddy, and sometimes a bit scrambly.  Nothing ridiculously difficulty, really, but with a 35 Ib pack on my back and a thick layer of frost on the boulders, it was fairly slow going.

The groomed trail at the start of the route, just past the first lake …

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About a mile in, the trail winds along the shore of the second of the three lakes.

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Then, after a series of stairs, more slippery boulders and a few sections of muddy rooty trail, the uphill grind rewards you with a view of Upper Duffey Lake.

Best view from an outhouse, ever …

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The backcountry campground is located on the far side of the lake, and it has a bear cache, an outhouse, and several flat tent pads scattered along the lakeshore.  As it’s basically situated at the base of a boulder field, I was a bit concerned about tenting in an area where rockfall (and in the winter, falling ice) could be a potential issue.  It didn’t help that I could hear rock slides (and the very loud sounds of boulders crashing down the mountainside) for most of the evening & well into the night.  Granted, the active slides were on an adjacent slope, well away from the campsites.  Nevertheless, it’s quite apparent that boulders roll down into the campground regularly …

Never mind the rocks; the place is stunningly beautiful.  Just 10 feet from the water’s edge, my tent looked out across the lake at Mt. Joffrey.  Behind me, the visible edges of the Matier Glacier were lit up in striking shades of pink as the sun slipped behind the peaks.

When darkness set in, I piled on layers of wool, fleece & down and climbed into my sleeping bag.  I was irreversibly tucked in by 8 p.m. in an effort to stay warm, and didn’t venture out of my tent again until the sun came up around 7 in the morning.  This is the first time I’ve “winter” camped (ok, ok, it’s not really winter yet), so I packed an extra fleece to put inside my sleeping bag, which (in addition to wearing pretty much all of my clothing) must have helped.  I stayed warm, despite the fact that the temperature dropped to -5C; when I got up in the morning, my drinking water had frozen solid and the lake had a skin of ice across its surface.

I sat by the lake for a couple of hours drinking tea and watching the sun slowly light up the slopes around me, before packing up my stuff & heading back down the trail around noon.  Although not exactly your traditional turkey & cranberry holiday, it was, in fact, one of the better Thanksgivings I’ve ever had.

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Dunn Peak

At just over 2600 meters, Dunn Peak is the highest point in the Shuswap Highland. I had never even heard of the massif until about 2 weeks ago when I ran across some photos on Facebook which piqued my interest & prompted me to do a bit of research. Then, a few days later, when an acquaintance at a Ridge Runners trail run mentioned that he might be going up to do Dunn with some friends, I jumped on the opportunity & more or less invited myself along. Dunn is considered to be a class 4-5 scramble and I didn’t even own a helmet, let alone an ice ax or any of the other gear I had read might be necessary. I picked up a helmet & figured I’d go as far as my comfort level allowed.

I managed to get a solid 4 hours of sleep before my alarm clock went off at 4 a.m. Wade, Jackie & Claus picked Ernie & I up at Ernie’s place at 5 a.m. & we headed toward N. Barrier Lake. The drive, including the last stretch of bumpy forest service road took about 2 hours & we were on trail by 7:30 a.m.

The hike in to the boulder field that surrounds Dunn is a mostly uphill route of about 8 kilometers through wet, marshy spruce & fir forest.  There weren’t any mosquitos this late in the season (mid-September), and trail was lined with wild huckleberries, blueberries, raspberries & myriad of different mushroom varieties.  We saw two groups of two people, both camped at riverside meadows along the way; there were definitely plenty of good spots to pitch a tent & spend the night.

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As the trees thinned out, boulders & scree appeared & we stopped to change footwear & put on helmets.  The final kilometer before you reach the base of the mountain is a sketchy affair, not only because the boulders & scree are so unstable, but because of the amount of falling rock.  I first became aware of this when I heard the others shout “ROCK” from behind me.  I looked up & saw a rock the size of my head spinning through the air toward me.  I ducked behind a boulder as it flew past & vowed to keep my eyes peeled for more of the same.

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After crossing the scree field, we boulder hopped & scrambled a little bit up to a lower bump with a great view of Dunn Lake & the valley.  From here, we started scrambling up.  Ernie didn’t seem to care whether he got to the summit or not, and hung back with me, moving at a gentle pace & giving me plenty of pointers along the way.  Being new to scrambling, I definitely appreciated having someone to follow, but I also found myself getting quite a charge from the challenge of finding good hand and footholds.   You definitely have to check every rock before you put any weight on it here!  Anyway, Jackie, Wade & Claus left us in the dust pretty quickly and made it all the way to the summit, apparently without using ropes, or the ice axes that everyone had brought along.  Ernie and I made it to a ledge about 10 feet below what looked like the sub-peak.  I felt like I could have kept going, but I think he was worried about going further with someone as inexperienced as I am, and I was sufficiently stoked about how high I’d gotten already, so I didn’t mind telling myself I’d come back and get to the summit at some point when I’ve got a bit more experience under my belt.

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Descending wasn’t any easier than ascending, and retracing our steps didn’t turn out to be as simple as we had hoped.  I was definitely happy to finally get beyond the scree field & out of the direct line of falling rocks.  By the time we reached the truck at the trailhead, we’d been on the trail for almost 11 hours, covered 18.8 kilometers, and climbed/descended 1066 meters.  A long, fun day, for sure, but having done Needle on Sat. followed by this on Sunday, I’ve probably totally blown my taper for the Frosty Mountain 50k in Manning Park this coming weekend.

Needle Peak

For anyone with a few alpine scrambles under their belt, Needle Peak should be breeze, but scrambling & climbing are pretty new for me & I was nervous about this one, especially because I was going out there alone.  Earlier this summer, I experienced a bit of vertigo on Mt. Finlayson on Vancouver Island, which is really just a hike with a few exposed bits, and so I was a touch apprehensive about how my nerves would respond to what is basically a class 3 scramble.  To my surprise, I felt calm & relaxed, and managed to take things one one step at a time.  In fact, I actually found myself feeling excited as I found hand and footholds one by one & made it up to the top and back down with no slips or falls.

Located in the Coquihalla Summit area, Needle Peak rises about 900 meters to a height of 2092 m from the trailhead near the Zopkios Ridge rest area.  I parked at the actual rest area and walked through the underpass to the other side of the Freeway to access the trailhead, but you can park on a gravel road on that side as well.  The trail starts with … you guessed it … a steep switchback through the woods up the side of the mountain.  After a couple of kilometers, you get into the subalpine and begin to see views of Needle & the route up to the top.  Near the base of Needle, you’ll see a couple of cairns on a flat granite area where people seem to ditch their packs before going up to the top.  I kept mine on.  I had a can of beer in there to enjoy at the top, not to mention a peanut butter sandwich.

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The final section of the route up to the Peak is probably a class 3 scramble, although a very short one at that.  The route isn’t entirely clear, and I went around the left side, and then kind of got stuck, so crawled/shimmied through a slit between two enormous boulders to get to a better route, more toward the middle. After that, I was able to climb up for a bit pretty easily, as there were lots of good hand and footholds.  But then I got to a narrow point where I was in a kind of crevasse, working my way up between two boulders, and no further footholds seemed available.  I wasn’t sure what to do, and was looking around to find a solution to the problem when I heard a woman’s voice.  I couldn’t see anyone above me, but a couple coming down had seen me coming up.  This woman looked over the ledge above me, saw my conundrum, and talked me through it.  It wasn’t that tough, really, I just had to use a really narrow divit on one side & trust that I could pull/push myself up to the next ledge.  The maneuver was definitely beyond my comfort level, but it worked, and I was fine from there on in.

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After I got down from Needle, I jogged about a mile over to the Flatiron, an adjacent mountain with a pretty alpine tarn at its base.  This might be a nice spot to camp.  The entire trip, including this side excursion, totaled just under 13 kilometers with about 900 meters of climb.  This was a hike, not a run, and I was on trail for about 4.5 hours, including an approximately 45 minute lunch break & catnap at the top.

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Run vs backpack; Iceline Trail, Yoho National Park

Being both an avid hiker & a runner, I find the nexus between the two modes of trail travel intriguing.  For me, the differences that separate running and hiking are outnumbered by the similarities that place them together on a continuum that is movement.  Sure running tends to require a higher level of fitness, and plenty of hikers will be quick to point out that they used to run until they ground their knees down to a pulp or whatever.   Fair enough.  Nevertheless, I find the divide between the two communities curious.  Most of the folks I know who actively hike and backpack express a certain amount of awe at the athleticism required to run trails, while simultaneously sniggering a bit regarding the legitimacy of trail-running as a means of experiencing the outdoors.  I’m regularly asked if I actually see, let alone enjoy the views around me since running requires so much attention to the terrain underfoot.  But the real critique has a philosophical undercurrent. Why am I in such a hurry?  What destination is worth such expenditure of effort?  Am I having a mid-life crisis?  I must be shallow, unreflective & unable to be still, to be quiet, if I dare to run rather than walk through the woods.

What I find interesting about all of this is the way in which these critiques rise from a basic assumption about running as a symptom of malaise, neurosis, or lack.  I get this implicit (and sometimes rather direct) message from a good number of people in my life who believe running to be a symptom of (pick your ailment): insecurity, unhappiness, narcissism, intellectual deficit (jock syndrome), an eating disorder, OCD … the list goes on.

In response to the hikers who freak out if you so much as whisper the word running, I usually point out that “running” in the mountains typically involves a great deal of hiking, especially up the ascents, and that moreover, most back-country runs are not races.  In other words, I stop for breaks to take in the views, eat & rest whenever I feel like it.   I also tend to take a lot of photos.  Anyone who’s seen the ridiculous number of trail vistas I’ve shared on Facebook & Twitter has got to admit that I’ve seen a tad more than my shoes & the two feet of trail ahead of me.

On the other side of the fence, most of the folks I know who identify as “ultra” distance runners do not hike much except incidentally as part of a run, and most definitely do not backpack or even camp.  I’m painting with a very broad brush here, but based on what I’ve seen, ultra-runners tend to like their wilderness experiences in the form of day-trips with a race bib pinned on and a motel room waiting at the end.  (Again, there are definitely exceptions to this generalization).  If they go out for a non-race backcountry run (meaning, not loops around a city park), it’s with a particular kind of workout goal in mind, the enjoyment and experience of being in the wilderness a secondary benefit.  I might sound like a jerk for saying this, but it’s almost as if they want to see themselves as outdoorsmen or women, but without real exposure to the risks & vulnerability that the backcountry inevitably forces you to confront.  It’s “wilderness” in a neat & tidy package, sanitized & controlled by virtue of its commodification.

I find myself ruminating about this because I travel in both communities, and also because I’m constantly on the prowl for folks who want to do long backcountry runs with me.  It’s a challenge to find people who want to run, as opposed to backpack long trails,  who are also willing to camp, as you often have to do, due to the remoteness of the locations & the time required to drive to and from trailheads.  There are the people who want to run long, but they don’t want to sleep in a tent.  And there are the people who are totally comfortable camping, but don’t want to run.  Fewer seem to be open to both.

Two of the long trail runs I did this summer covered routes that I’ve previously backpacked: the Skyline in Jasper, and the Iceline in Yoho.  I backpacked the Iceline two years ago with a few folks from the Kamloops Hiking Club, and we covered the approximately 25k route plus a side trip to Kiwetinok Pass & Lake over three days.  A few weeks ago, I returned & ran the same 25 kilometer route by myself in an afternoon.  Both experiences were brilliant & memorable.  I will say that I prefer climbing 1500 meters of vertical without 40 pounds on my back, and that I like being able to get through less interesting stretches of trail (long fire roads under forest cover, for instance), and up to the higher areas I find more interesting, more quickly.  On the other hand, there’s nothing quite like the experience of being in the wild, sleeping under the stars, unplugged & forced to survive on your granola & your wits for multiple days.  Sure, I know plenty of academics who would roll their eyes at this & start in on the social construction of “nature” and the artifice around so-called “wilderness” experiences.   But discourse has its limits.  Some things have to be experienced to be understood.

And so it is for mountain running.

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Like almost every trail in the Rockies, the Iceline starts with a steep switchback through the forest.  After a couple of miles, you rise above the trees east of the Emerald Glacier and the trail becomes exposed and rocky.  At about the 5.5 km mark, you reach the Iceline highpoint (a popular turnaround point for an out-and-back option).

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About 8 kilometers in, you drop into a subalpine forest.  The trail soon brings you to Little Yoho Valley, where you can make a side trip to Kiwetinok Pass & Lake, or continue toward the Stanley Mitchell Hut by the Little Yoho backcountry campground.

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Bear Pole (food cache) at the Little Yoho Campground

After passing Lake Celeste and just before Marpole Lake and Twin Falls (around the 14k mark), you get to a boulder field.  This is the only part of the trail that I didn’t especially appreciate.  It’s slow going, a bit of a scramble, and not especially scenic.  I also remember getting a horrific blister on this stretch of the trail when I backpacked it.

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