We decided to set out Tuesday morning for Circlet Lake on Forbidden Plateau. I thought the trip would take about five hours. Simon estimated maybe seven. We packed our best winter gear, except I forgot my down jacket, which was a very stupid thing to forget but, oh well, as the saying goes.
We got to the lodge at the trailhead at about 9.30 and by the time we had registered for the back country (so SAR would know where to find the bodies) it was 10.15. We set out in beautiful weather: warm and sunny skies.
About half an hour into the hike, we did a bit of creative navigation and got back on the right trail reasonably soon. It was a weekday: other than a lone cross country skier we saw no one. We arrived at Lake Helen MacKenzie – not a soul in sight and not a single track across the lake. This was, essentially, where we began breaking our own trail. At the far side of the lake, we picked up an old snowshoe track that helped quite a bit. Still, we had very deep snow to negotiate, especially Simon, who weighs a good deal more than I do and who plunged in up to his knees far too often.
The route from the lake to the shoulder between Elma and Brooks is steep, long and hard. With frequent breaks it probably took us close to an hour or more to get to the top. From there it was a direct route to the back side of the rangers cabin.
At that point things got far more interesting. By now it was 1.30. We had lunch and plowed on, breaking new trail all the way. There were no longer any tracks to follow. I had Julie’s GPS but it would only serve to help us find our way back. I had mentally given up on the idea of reaching Circlet. Breaking trail in deep snow was slowing us down immensely. If we held firm to Circlet, we would get there after dark – not a good time to set up a winter camping site.
I knew where we were aiming, but the fog rolled in and all landmarks were instantly obscured. I took a left turn instead of a right and when we found ourselves on a ridge above a deep valley, I knew we had done a bit of an “oops.”
We headed left at that point and eventually got to a lake. Hmmmm, I thought and as soon as we got to the other side, I recognized it: Hairtigger! Perfect. Exactly where we wanted to be! So we stopped and assessed where we were and the time we had. Kwai Lake seemed like an excellent destination for the night. We headed back, found the bottom of the rise where the trail diverges, and headed down, down, down. When my instinct told me we had gone down enough, I turned us to the right – it had to be over there somewhere. We were ready to give up and just set up our tent where we were when I asked to go just a hair further – and there it was: Kwai Lake! Success!
Then the fun began. Luckily, we found a tent site that someone else had dug out days or weeks before. Simon said they had done the job right, so we set about refreshing it and digging out new snow. Next: setting up the tent: easy. But by then, as I was blowing up my thermarest, I started getting cold. My core temperature can drop pretty quickly – and it was dropping.
Simon asked me to please get into the tent, get into my sleeping bag liner and bag and get warm. I really didn’t want to – I wanted to help, but I was also beginning to shiver: not good. I crawled in and pulled on a second pair of Merino leggings and a second pair of Merino socks. I also kept my Merino glove liners on. Still, I was shivering. My toes were almost numb they were so cold.
Simon was my angel – my knight in shining armour. He gave me foot heating pads – huge help. And he asked me repeatedly to pull his sleeping bag on top on me as well. But by that time I was beginning to warm up ever so slightly and absolutely could not stick even a hand outside the warmth of my bag.
Simon kept working, digging and setting up a kitchen. He cooked our meals: another factor in providing heat. And, when we were finally done eating and Simon slid into the tent at about eight or so, the snowstorm started. And, oh my gosh – what a storm.
The wet snow fell relentlessly all through the night. Moisture gathered inside the tent, wetting everything. Simon woke up repeatedly, to punch the snow of the roof of the tent and at one point, even opening the side entrances to push out the vestibules that were collapsing from the weight of the snow. In fact, at one point in the night, the tent almost collapsed on us.
I woke up at six with two urgent needs: pee and get moving!
Simon wisely said that we needed to move slowly. Everything we did, we had to keep warmth in mind – conserving every possible shred. And so, bit by bit, we pulled on what we had that was dry and discarded what was wet. Finally, I managed to get out, pull my boots out of their sack, sort of tie the laces (numb fingers) and hobble off to pee. Ahhhhhh.
No hot breakfast: just snacks. Our cooking gear had been buried under at least a foot of new snow and it was still coming down. We were methodical: packing one thing at a time. The wet gear, especially the tent, added weight. But that’s part of winter camping, right?
At about 8.30, we hit the trail. I had been considering two strategies: one was to follow old snowshoe tracks from Kwai to Lady Lake and Battleship Lake. That trail had vanished in the night. Still, I was confident I could find the way. Choice two was to follow our old trail (still visible) and bypass the roundabout squiggles we had created to Hairtigger and break a trail straight to the cabin. We chose the latter – safer and faster.
It was also harder because of the steep upward slope from Kwai. But all went well and minutes into moving, our core temperatures went up. Within half an hour my fingers and toes got warm. Once again, it felt like a wonderful adventure.
Once we reached the top and the turnoff to Hairtrigger, we went straight with me looking for the obvious turnoff to the right. And then we spotted them: snowshoe tracks! Headed in what appeared to be the right direction. And so we followed them – until they started going straight up in a direction we knew was wrong. And so we headed down but the gully got steeper and I said, “This is wrong.”
Simon agreed. We decided the smart thing to do was retrace our steps to the “wrong” tracks and take a turning to the cabin where I thought we should. Yes, we checked the GPS but it seemed somewhat less than accurate.
It was when we got back on the other snowshoe tracks that it dawned on us: those were our tracks from yesterday and they were coming from the ranger cabin heading in the wrong direction. All we had to do now was follow them in the right direction! Duhhhh.
And so we got back to the ranger cabin and all we had to do for the rest of the morning was follow our old tracks – except across the lake where the wind had wiped them clean.
At about 12.30 we made it back to Raven Lodge. At this lower elevation it was raining, which added to our general wetness considerably. So – about six hours in and about 4.5 hours back. At the lodge, Simon went to the men’s room and changed into dry clothes. I was in better shape, luckily. But we both relished a Lodge lunch and chocolate in the car on the drive home.
Lessons learned: perhaps winter camping is best done on clear, sunny, none snowstorm related days; Simon and I make an awesome team – maybe a few errors here and there but bloody awesome; Simon and I do so, so well together – if we can survive this kind of gruelling (yes, it was a bit gruelling) trip with smiles, laugher and love, we can survive anything; we can hardly wait to do it again and again and again (for my part, especially in warm weather).
On another note: Simon had a nightmare while sleeping – that I had dumped him. I’d had the same nightmare two nights earlier. We made a solemn promise: no dumping – EVER! There – that should handle that.
We are lovers, companions, and best friends forever. Simple as that. Oh yes., and now we are also adventurers together. And we are even willing to drink out of the same platypus and kiss despite not brushing teeth. Can there be any truer love than that?