“Do you guys do this for fun?”
These were the words uttered by a group of girls we passed on our way down from Berg Lake. By that point we were already a quarter of the way into our 20km descent, having spent four days living at the foot of Mount Robson, the Canadian Rockies’ tallest peak (3,954m). It was with a confident, resounding “yes” that we responded—except for the word “fun” nowhere near encapsulates the true feeling of being that close to nature. Not only living in it, but living with it.
My partner, Justin, and I exchanged the daily commute for long walks in the woods; we sourced our water from rivers and lakes instead of the tap; we went to sleep in our tents to the sound of the glaciers cracking—a unique, thunderous sound we're unlikely to forget—instead of falling asleep in our beds to the familiar drone of city noise.
It was in December of 2017 that I booked myself on the Berg Lake Trail for the following summer. After a year of living in Canada and completing 30-something hikes, I was determined to make 2018 the year I would go on my first multi-day backcountry trip, carrying everything I needed to survive for four days on my back.
I knew that in the end, we would complete approximately 70km (43.5miles) of hiking with who-knows-how-much elevation gain (it was 2,635m/8,645ft of incline in total). I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a hint of trepidation: how would I know if I was physically or mentally up to the challenge, when I’ve never before had to walk 20km in one day, carrying a backpack one-third of my body weight? Well, as with many things in life, sometimes the only way to know is to go.
On the day we left, we awoke to the same orange-tinged haze that had been plaguing our town for weeks, our mountains all but a faint outline through the smoke. Recent summers in the Rockies have been accompanied by thick smog from wildfires. We were worried about what that would mean for our trip; it would be challenging enough without also having to breathe in polluted air. Four and a half hours north in Mt. Robson Provincial Park, however, the skies were clear, giving us two blissful, smoke-free days to start our trip.
We set out on our first day at 9am, a little later than scheduled, but armed with a good night’s rest and bellies full of breakfast. With daylight hours being so long during our summer, we knew we’d make it to our campground with daylight to spare. The first 11km (6.84miles) of gradual elevation eased us into our journey, walking in forest that rivalled anything Disney-Pixar could conjure up. Dozens of healthy, tall cedars and redwoods stood proud while toadstools, moss and lichen littered the forest floor at their feet. The air here was sweet, thick with the scent of a thriving ecosystem.
It was the 5km stretch between our planned rest stops at Whitehorn and Emperor Falls Campground that we were most concerned about. I knew what lay ahead: over 500m of elevation gained over 5km (3.1miles), with absolutely no access to water. We would gain more elevation in that distance than we had so far that morning, and we would still have another 5-6km to go after this section before reaching the campground.
We made it to our campground around 6pm. It was as if our very bones ached with the effort of what we had just accomplished, but our spirits were energised, proud to look back on what we had gone through to get there.
When it came time for dinner, we were grateful to have been a little luxurious with our meal planning, despite also wanting to pack minimally. We enjoyed our first dehydrated meal with some freshly made bannock, dark chocolate and even some wine while marvelling at the glaciers feeding the lake before us.
Our favourite part of the trip, hands down, was the day we hiked up to Snowbird Pass. It was a nine hour, 27km (16.7miles) day, all to walk to a spot where you could see an enormous ice field thousands of years old. We stood and imagined how the rest of the valley would have looked centuries ago - the lush green valleys, bright wildflowers and flowing streams we had just passed being nothing but ice. The world was quiet here, and I longed to sit in its stillness for far longer than our little lunch break allowed.
There’s something to be said about pushing yourself, not ever truly knowing where your limit is until you meet it, and go beyond it. In nature, we go out, so as to go within; to remember, outside of the noise, the hustle, between the routine and the day-to-day, who we really are, and what we are capable of.
Camille Santiago is a photographer based in the Canadian Rockies and a brand ambassador for Fjällräven in Banff. Originally from The Philippines, migrating to New Zealand and Australia as a child, Camille was only exposed to mountain culture later in life, trekking in Borneo in 2014 and falling in love with hiking from there. Her love for climbing followed shortly thereafter. Drawn to the mountains, Camille moved to Canada in early 2017 to make them her home and has been exploring her love for them ever since.
Text & images: Camille Santiago