I bought the guide book for the Great Divide Trail several years ago, at a time when I was just getting into mountain adventures. I would leaf through the pages and see photos of enormous scree fields, remote mountain passes and the incredible route through the Rockies, and it really captured my imagination. At the time, it wasn’t something I was planning on doing, just something that inspired me.
Somewhere along the way, the Great Divide Trail went from a book that sat on my bedside table, to a plausible thing I could do. This year, I finally decided the time was now, planning an ambitious three-week thru-hike on the 1,100+ km trail. I only had 3 weeks off work, but I was impatient– I wanted to do the whole thing! This would mean big days, but I thought it would be doable, with some luck and good planning. I planned to start at the Canada/US border in Waterton Lakes National Park and follow the Divide all the way to a wild place north of Jasper, at the trail’s terminus, Kakwa Lake Provincial Park. Early on in my planning, I invited my friend Nicola, who was more experienced with thru-hiking, and Joanna, who was from the Calgary area and knew about half the route. To me, three people seemed an ideal number, and I went into the trip with a goal of being an incredible team above all else.
How the f$#%! did I get here?!
I never made it to Kakwa Lake.
In fact, I never even made it to Kananaskis.
Instead, my hike ended with me, sitting alone on the Fording River / Greenhills Mine Road 40k north of Elkford, as Nicola and Joanna hiked away from me, continuing on my trip without me…
There’s so much to tell you, and I could talk your ear off about the Great Divide Trail. For now, let’s dive into why I covered only 300k instead of the 1,200 I had planned…
Day 1 and 2: a dream come true
On our first day in Waterton Lakes, I remember thinking how amazing everything was going. It felt like the universe really had our back! We lucked out with a huge window of amazing weather, wildflowers were in full bloom, and the extremely wet trails we’d seen from reports a month ago had all completely dried out! We didn’t see a single bear, surprisingly. Aside from the amazing trail conditions, our packs were full of Timbits and bacon, and people were making blueberry-bacon pancakes for us…
Day 3: disaster begins
By lunchtime on day three, my worst fears materialized. Walking down Highway 3 toward the convenience store in Coleman, I started to feel pain on the bottoms of my feet. Taking Krissy Moehl’s advice to deal with problems right away, while they were small, I immediately stopped and tended to the blisters. At the time, I thought that I had all the solutions to deal with them. I grabbed more fancy blister bandaids to go with my cold coffee at 7/11, and continued on. (I was tempted by the Tylenol aisle, but I figured the 10 I had should be enough.)
Really, my worst fear going into this trip was foot failure. Sure, grizzlies and river crossings and getting lost are all scary things we’d encounter along the way. But foot failure was the one thing I couldn’t control, and the one thing that had the biggest likelihood of being a legitimate trip-ender. Before the trip, I read about foot maceration for many hours, and prepared the most blinged-out foot care kit ever: Leukotape, KT Tape, 4 varieties of fancy bandaids, crazy glue, Thylenol, alcohol wipes, scissors… we even had antibiotics and T3’s leftover from Joanna’s recent surgery, just in case.
Unfortunately, all the bandaids and crazy glue in the world wouldn’t suffice. By the evening, I was a mess. I was surrounded by the most beautiful scenery on the brand-new GDT section called the High Rock Trail, with giant limestone headwalls to my left, and Crowsnest Mountain standing proudly on my right. The trail reminded me of the Lizard Range near Fernie’s Island Lake Lodge, which is one of my favourite places in the world. Yet despite my infatuation with the scenery, I was suddenly having a meltdown: the pain had become intense, I was getting dropped by Joanna and Nicola due to my limped gait, and I started to sob uncontrollably underneath my sunglasses. This trip was my idea, and I had dreamed about it and organized it for months. I’d spent hours wrangling permits, training, looking at maps, organizing friends to stay with along the way, and dehydrating the shit out of fruits and vegetables. We all knew there was a possibility that someone may eventually get injured, but for that to be me, on my own trip, on day 3 of 20 planned, I just couldn’t handle it.
How did this happen so soon?!
I thought back to how my feet looked and felt before the trip– soft and supple, like I’d just had a spa treatment. Except I hadn’t… all the calluses I’d built up through the years had peeled off after a disastrous foot episode two months earlier, while making the dumb choice of hiking 50k in waterproof hiking boots just to mix it up. By the end of that hike, my feet were in total trenchfoot condition just from bathing in my own foot sweat all day, and I ended up losing layers of skin over the next two months, until just before the GDT. Sort of like a spa, right?
While I sobbed like a toddler, Nicola and Joanna started gapping me, and I felt a division in the group. More and more, I saw them hiking together as a team, while I just struggled on behind, intermittently crying. As the weakest link, I started to wonder if a Grizzly would just come and eat me. At some point, I went into a full meltdown, waddling over to a bush and announcing I was done. They turned, telling me they thought I was laughing, and didn’t realize I was actually balling my eyes out. From there they let me lead a bit, as I may have mentioned something about letting me get eaten by Grizzlies. I hammered on, walking sideways, and eventually got way happier after we started hiking together as a group. Things became fun again with laughter and jokes, especially when we discovered that the Latin name for Grizzly has the word Horribilis in it. We decided to gift Joanna Horribilis as a trail name. (In our tired state, that was somehow hilarious.) I was named Tenderfoot, (T-Foot for short) for obvious reasons, and Nicola seemed to fit “The O.G.”, as she’s thru-hiked a bunch, and brought with her this sage-like knowledge. I regained a lot of strength from the camaraderie. That evening, the campsite at Window Mountain Lake was a beautiful, welcoming sight that brought me immense comfort. I hobbled around the campsite doing my daily camp chores, thankful to be in such a beautiful place.
Day 4: brought to you by Thylenol
Day four was a day filled with hope and renewed motivation. We set off in the morning, ascending over Racehorse Ridge as the morning sun greeted us. Window Mountain Lake and our campsite from the night before lay below us, a place that really comforted me. Today we got to see Brian Gallant again, an amazing man who had already helped us so many times in the Crowsnest Pass. (He’s the Race Director of Sinister 7, Canadian Death Race, and Black Spur Ultras.) He had brought our resupplies to Castle Mountain Resort, and even one night turned our meager camp setup into full-on backcountry glamping, with comfy chairs, homemade stew, homemade apple pie, real plates and cutlery, and adorable dogs… Needless to say, I was excited to see him and his dogs again. On the ridge, Horribilis had the brilliant idea to do some inReach shopping. She asked if I might like to try some new Swiftwick socks to replace my thick merino socks, which Brian could maybe pickup from Spry Active and bring to our resupply point. Horribilis and the O.G. were suspicious that my thick wool socks were maybe part of the problem. I had 2 full days until my new Hokas, and I felt optimistic that if I just made it there, I could continue to do the whole trail. Next thing I knew, Horribilis texted my shopping request to Brian via the inReach, and my “order” was in process, while we hiked along this amazing ridge. My style of shopping!
A while later, I noticed the pain beginning to intensify again, so I discreetly popped 6 Thylenol. Not long after, I felt amazing! The pain had disappeared completely. My spirits totally rebounded, as I envisioned being able to complete the whole trail again. I was even getting new socks and maybe even shoes later, and getting to see Brian! In our tired, hyper state, we laughed about the whole idea of foot pain. Why are blisters a bad thing, we wondered, when you can just continue through them, and take some painkillers?! Classic groupthink in action.
In early afternoon, we finished the High Rock Trail and made it out to Dutch Creek, where we met Brian. He presented me with some beautiful brand new socks, our resupply items, and a smorgasbord of basic calories, like coke and dark chocolate oreos. He even had paper towels! And garbages! I ate a personal best in dark chocolate oreos (5), filled a large bag full of clothing I no longer needed, then we left for the trail, setting off toward Tornado Pass. (In reality, the oreo-eating, packing and re-packing always took about an hour.)
Tornado Pass was one of my favourite parts of the trail. Approaching the pass involved clambering over significant avalanche debris, which was a fun, more advanced level of walking. We ascended a meadow filled with wildflowers which brought us to an incredible, scree-filled pass, with Tornado Mountain towering above us. Late in a long day, I felt a bit anxious while side-hilling on a steeper section of the scree. The O.G. helped me get across, lending me one of her poles for my uphill hand, which made it feel much more secure. Then she walked right in front of me, so I just had to follow. It wasn’t anything super hard, but I was tired, and there was a small cliff-like feature below us that gave me some anxiety. The rest was straightforward, as the route ascended straight up a moderate slope, ending in a wide col.
Now 7pm, we had a giant descent, and about 10-15k until where we wanted to camp. Normally I love going downhill, but the Thylenol had worn off, and I winced at every step over the rocky terrain. Unfortunately, I had used them all. I hobbled behind, wondering how I was going to make it that far. We regrouped at some point, and after some discussion, we decided that I could try one of Horribilis’ prescription T3s, which are basically Thylenol + Codeine and caffeine. I took one, and within no time, the pain completely dissolved. We all picked up the pace, bounding down and nearly running. I felt like I’d discovered a special secret weapon. I believed my feet were going to start to heal, and if I could just make it about 100 more kilometers to the next resupply with these new advanced meds, I was convinced I could do the whole trail.
Day 5: a date with reality
Day 5 was sobering. With little sleep, a calorie deficit and 15-hour days, my feet were not recovering, despite my prayers to the universe. The pain was back by mid-morning, and it was clear that no healing had occurred overnight. Early in the day while hiking through the Beehive Natural area, we discussed whether I should take another T3. Convinced with how well it worked the night before, I joked, “do we want to go fast, or not?!” So I took another, excited for the pain to diminish once more.
An hour passed. The pain remained, but now I felt drugged. My sharp, alert mental state had diminished into a sluggish, hazy outlook, and I was still feeling tons of pain. We walked through incredible scenery, but it was unenjoyable to me. A thunderstorm taunted us in the valley next to us, leaving the air humid and hot. The day passed by incredibly slowly, and I tried breaking up the 15 hours by creating smaller sub-goals for myself, inspired by the military. Just make it to lunch, I thought, and then In three hours you get to eat dinner. At this point, my outlook shifted completely. If my feet weren’t healing and T3’s weren’t working, this wasn’t good. My feet didn’t just have blisters, I was losing whole deeper layers of skin, with blisters forming under the inner layers. There was no way I would be able to hike for another 2 weeks like this. I don’t mind the occasional dose of suffering, but adventuring in pain and misery just isn’t my style.
I started to make my exit plans, thinking I could heal up my feet and then see about returning later on. We were going to see Horribilis’ husband Matt for a resupply in about 70km, so I thought I could maybe try to make it to him, and then bail. However, 70km through the mountains on injured feet is a long way. Then I got an idea. I knew the trail would follow the Elk River Forest Service Road ahead of us, about 40km before seeing Matt. I thought that maybe I could try exiting there, hopefully getting a ride out with some car camper leaving Elk Lakes Provincial Park. Horribilis mentioned the idea of me hiking out a different trail or road to the east of the Divide, to make it more convenient to get to Calgary, but I didn’t feel comfortable hiking alone in my state. I planned to exit the next day, either on the Elk River FSR after 27k, or going a full 67k, making it all the way to our ressupply with Matt at Kananaskis Lakes.
I went to my emotional edge on my fifth and final evening out. Walking along after 13 hours, I saw two grizzly bears nearby in the corner of my eye– one large, and one small. With zero emotional control remaining, I freaking screamed and ran. As I ran away I spastically scrambled to find the bear spray in my pocket but couldn’t get it out easily. This is it, this is the end! I thought.
The bears started to charge in my direction, but thankfully, in split seconds it all ended as they made a U turn and darted back into the bushes. It was just a bluff charge, and they were gone!
I knew how to respond to bears. Heck, I live in the black bears’ neighbourhood in Squamish and I’ve had grizzly encounters before in the Rockies where I did the right thing. But in my tired and sleep deprived state, I had no control over my emotional response. I was a walking disaster waiting to happen.
My last night in the tent was a miserable one. The bottoms of my heels were messed, so I had to delicately arrange my feet to the sides of my thermarest at a certain angle. I couldn’t sleep continuously as my feet throbbed intensely. I asked Horribilis if she had a T3 in the tent, even though I hated those things, but she did not. Thankfully, I’d brought my Kindle along on the trip, and reading about Prefontaine helped take my mind off the pain. Even if I just lie here and don’t get any sleep, it’s still very restful, I thought.
Day 6: delightful beers on a side by side to dull the pain
I woke up extra early to tend to my feet for my final day. I washed them with antiseptic wipes, re-applied crazy glue to the openings, and then slathered bandaids everywhere. After about 30 minutes, I woke up the others, and Horribilis tenderly wrapped my feet in Leukotape, securing the bandages.
I knew this would be my last day out, and I was okay with it. I’d tried everything I could, and I knew I was making the right decision. I had 27km to an exit at Elk Lakes FSR, or 67km to go all the way to our resupply point at Kananaskis Lakes. I figured I’d just see how far I made it without any pain killers.
We reached the ridge where Horribilis promised cell phone reception, and I decided to call Julien to let him know my situation. It was 5:30am back home, and the minute he answered, I couldn’t help but sob uncontrollably– again. What is wrong with me?! I wondered. Perhaps by voicing my plans to exit the trail, it was making my failure more real. Julien, in his intelligent and well-cared-for state, told me I shouldn’t be taking T3s, and that I could do permanent damage to my feet. He told me to exit the trail as soon as possible. Okay, I committed. I’ll go for the earlier exit. Thankfully, Julien was actually flying out to the Rockies the next morning, and he had a hotel planned in Lake Louise for 3 nights. Managing to simultaneously laugh while crying, I told him to get me a cot at his Lake Louise hotel, as I was now going to be a third-wheel on his trip with Jeff.
Off we went, up to the beautiful Fording River Pass and down the big descent to the Elk River. Fording River Pass was insanely beautiful, but I wasn’t in the right state to enjoy it. Looking back, I was just sad about my trip ending. You always expect something to go wrong on big adventures like these, but I never expected that someone would get injured this early into the trip. And as the trip organizer, I never thought that person would be me. The O.G. gave me whatever emotional support she could, and sometimes her hugs were so powerful that they turned my crying into laughter.
The last 3k of my hike were some of the worst of my life. Open wounds on my feet met icey-cold water as we crossed a creek back and forth, and there was no way around it. I hobbled behind as the O.G. and Horribilis hiked ahead, clearly becoming a new, more efficient sub-group as my time out there ended. My emotional state was maxxed, and eventually I told them that I’d prefer they take my ⅓ of the tent now and just leave me here, or actually walk with me out. I couldn’t handle being repeatedly dropped.
We arrived at the dirt road, and it was bittersweet. It definitely wasn’t the logging road I’d dreamed about, one that felt lively with people recreating, maybe some signage about nearby parks. No, this road had powerlines, streams through it, and no sign of popular recreation. I knew I was emotionally and physically fried, and I worried about how remote the road was, and about my ability to really fend for myself or walk out of there. (At this point, I was gibbled, and walking with a limp.) I worried about my reaction to the grizzlies the evening before, knowing that I was still in the same sleep-deprived, incapable state. I let out a long worried sigh and told the O.G. my fears. The O.G. and Horribilis snacked at the roadside where I sat and then took my water bottles (Horribilis had somehow pierced holes in hers), my portion of the tent, and some of my snacks, and then they set off north down the road, while I would wait for a hitchhike. At this point, they thought I didn’t have cell phone reception, so I made them send an Inreach message to Julien with my location, as I no longer had an Inreach or tent (as they were walking ahead with both). As they walked away they also discovered a man camping nearby. They talked to him, and then came and told me that he was kind of settled here now, but he could drive me out in the evening if I didn’t find another way out.
I felt uneasy. To calm myself down, I took out my Thermarest, blew it up, and arranged my backpack as a headrest. With nothing to do but wait, my job now was to immerse myself in the world of John Muir or the Steve Prefontaine biography on my Kindle.
As the O.G. and Horribilis refilled water bottles in the stream to the north, I discovered I had 2 bars of cell phone reception. I can’t tell you how relieved I felt! I called Julien, and he enlisted Brian to come help me out. To my surprise, Julien and Brian told me I wasn’t actually on the Elk Lakes FSR– I was on the Fording River / Greenhills mine road, on the wrong side of the Elk River. He wasn’t sure how to get to me, but he was going to hike in or paddle board across the Elk River if he needed to! The motorized sounds we heard were not people ATVing or motorbiking as we assumed… It was mine development.
Seeing how important cell phone battery was, I decided to hobble over to my camping neighbour, to ask if he had a generator to charge my phone. I worried a little about approaching him, realizing that anyone camping out here probably doesn’t want to be around too many humans! But I needed his help.
The man I met was warm and welcoming. He offered me a seat, a cell phone charge, and to my delight, a beer. He even had two wonderful kids who were hiding in the trailer nearby, curious about this random dirty hiker girl. I couldn’t say no to a chair, a beer, and a human, so I graciously accepted all of them and we got to talking. His name was Sean, and he was a welder from Brooks who grew up in Sparwood. He loved the Elk Valley, and as soon as COVID disrupted his work schedule, he decided to come out and camp out here for the summer. His setup was grand– a huge pile of freshly chopped wood was surrounded by a series of toys, including a truck, an RV, and a side by side. He was annoyed that I was left alone out here, as he told me that his son ran into 2 grizzlies the day before, right near my waiting spot. He also told me he would never hitchhike around those parts.
The more we talked, the more we connected, and next thing I knew, he was insisting on driving me 40km out on his side by side. “We’ll load up a cooler full of beers!” he said, and my day began to get better, and better. I often try to be as self-reliant as possible, but in this situation, I was pretty desperate. As soon as Sean’s wife arrived for the weekend, he left her with the kids and then we took off down the road. It was the best ride I’ve had, leaving my problems behind me while chugging back beers. As we left toward civilization, I polished my third beer while getting a dust breeze in the face, watching the peaks of the Divide pass by on my left, and even seeing the mine where my aunt works toward the end of the road. Sean and I talked about life, his kids, hiking, and just how splendid the East Kootenays are. I felt so lucky to have chosen to exit to the warmth and hospitality of the East Kootenays.
Once we hit the pavement in Elkford, Brian was there waiting for me, and he took me to rest at his beautiful house in Blairmore. Brian’s place was the perfect place to land, sort of like winning an unplanned lottery. As a Race Director, he knew all about foot care, and food… Brian made me ice cream appetizers before dinner, breakfast appetizers before breakfast, and even tried to pretend like he had to go to Calgary, as a polite way of offering me a ride there. He lifted my spirits over beer and tapas at a time when I really needed it. I am forever indebted to Brian’s kindness and generosity. You will find me volunteering at one of his events next year!
It’s really all about the people
I went into this trip thinking that it would be the mountains, the wild landscapes, and the fun of completing a giant distance self-propelled that would inspire me the most. Instead, it was the humans that made the biggest impact.
I met Brian, and he showed me what true kindness and generosity looks like. He welcomed me into the home he built himself in Blairmore even though we’d just met a few days before. In fact, he changed his whole weekend to host me. He took me to and from the hospital, drove me to my rideshare pickup, even made me coffee for the road! All for some crazy ginger he barely knew. In just over 24 hours he brought me back to life physically, turning me from rejected trail trash into a respectable human again, all clean and well-fed.
Julien and Jeff embraced having me tag along on the trip they had planned in Lake Louise, which happened to start the day after I bailed from the trail. Childhood friends, they live life to have fun, be silly, and eat. We found hikes that maximized the view to effort ratio, ate second breakfasts and the best dessert I’ve had in a long time, and most of all, we laughed a lot. The time with Julien and Jeff was such a gift! If I could do everything again, I would bail from the GDT every time to hang out with them in paradise.
Half a week later, Julien and Jeff dropped me off at the ACC Clubhouse in Canmore so I could decide whether to rejoin the O.G. and Horribilis near Saskatchewan River Crossing. Alone for the first time, a wave of emotions hit me, and I felt overly emotional again. Strangely, I was sad. Then, trail running community magic happened. Amy found out I was in town, and lifted my spirits with a beautiful run through Canmore to get me back on the horse only a few days after feeling like a disaster. She lent me a bike for my stay in town, and even gave me a cozy 5Peaks sweater that felt like a portable hug. What an inspiring woman: serial entrepreneur, talented trail runner, mom, Race Director!
My old UBC cross country teammate Kaitlin reached out, and she and her puppy further elevated my spirits that evening. She took me for dinner in a beautiful town park, fed me the most delicious ramen, and then drove me home so I wouldn’t have to walk by the giant elk at night again! When I decided to end any intention of returning to the GDT and that I would instead head home the next day, she was game for a sunrise run outside my hostel. We ran in the foothills of Lady Mac with Kaitlin’s husband George and the dog, enjoying the cool early morning sunshine over Canmore. It was the perfect send-off. In just a few hours, Canmore went from a tourist town where I had no ties or community, to a cozy, familiar place where I now feel a connection.
These are just a few of the people who inspired me with their kindness, generosity, and the way they live their life.
So, I was wrong. The views and wild places along the GDT were incredible, and they will always be special to me. But even more than those things, it’s the people who inspire me most. Perhaps part of the reason I love these wild places so much, is that they finally crack the thick shell of my vulnerability, and help me to connect more deeply.
In case you’re a nerd like me and you want to see day by day route, summaries, and photos, check out my Strava files below:
- Day 1 morning: US border to Red Rock Canyon Breakfast Party
- Day 1 afternoon: Red Rock Canyon to near La Coulette Ridge
- Day 2 morning: La Coulette Ridge/Peak to Castle Mountain
- Day 2 afternoon: Castle Mountain to Craft Beer on a Ridge
- Day 3 morning: Craft Beer Ridge to Coleman 7/11 Snack Counter
- Day 3 afternoon: Coleman 7/11 Snack Counter to Window Mountain Lake
- Day 4 morning: Window Mountain Lake to Dutch Creek Snack Party
- Day 4 afternoon: Dutch Creek > Tornado Pass > Some Other Creek
- Day 5: Slog Through Beehive Natural Area
- Day 6: Fording River Pass Zone until my watch died
PS – According to Strava, in July I journeyed 689km in 115 hours — crazy!
Huge thank you to all the people who helped us along the way… Andrew with the cabin near Waterton Lakes, Mark with rides and film/photography, Matt with delicious pancakes, Brian who basically provided race-level drop bag style support (twice!!) as well as a night of glamping, and Julien, who was (and always is!) my sane, smart and capable person on the other end of the random phone calls from the backcountry. Also thank you to my work for letting me take 3 weeks off, just after starting a new position!
Thanks to the following brands for the amazing gear and product support:
- Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival (VIMFF) for the Adventure Grant. Your support helped make my leave of absence possible!
- Clif Bar for all the snacks. The new sweet & salty bars and the shot blocks were the easiest way to eat between meals out there.
- Ultraspire for the best pack. It felt like I wasn’t wearing a big backpacking pack, more like a trail running vest.
- Arc’teryx for amazing goretex jacket & pants. Such peace of mind out there knowing I had the best rain (and bug-hiding) gear in the world!
- Salomon for the amazing shorts with stretchy pockets all around the waistband, and super-handy soft flask bottles with built-in filters.
- Hyperlite Mountain Gear for the best super-light, super-compact dyneema bags for hanging our bear bag each night.
- Swiftwick for a couple pairs of awesome socks!
Unfortunately no brands make replacements for tender feet. 😉