Saturday, September 12
Day 1 - Bertha Peak - Waterton Lakes National Park
It truly was a glorious late summer morning across southern Alberta as we drove southwest from the Calgary area. Wide open horizon and golden fields, and with the dark line of the front of the rockies in the far distance, beckoning us forward to adventure.
As mentioned, our first destination was Waterton Lakes National Park. We arrived at the entrance and noticed a sign that said that the townsite campground (Waterton Lakes has a Banff-like grandfathered little town within its boundaries) had no free spots - but online I had read that during construction and Covid, the campsite was entirely first come / first serve, and it was early morning, so this somehow seemed unlikely. We proceeded to the campground itself and had no problem getting one of the many free sites across the open-field tenting area. Strange.
Now, for Waterton, I had envisioned a nice straightforward intro scramble for Gino and Julian. A scenic little hike up the Carthew-Alderson Trail from Cameron Lake, at the end of the Akamina Parkway, and then an easy-as-pie scramble up striking Mount Alderson (mostly a hike really, with only a tiny bit of hand-required climbing).
Unfortunately, it was not to be. The Akamina Parkway was closed for the season - shut down for a complete resurfacing/reconstruction. I had completely missed the closure while consulting the park's website before the trip, and that threw a wrench into our plans. We could, as an alternative, hike up the Carthew-Alderson trail from the townsite, but that would entail quite a lot of mileage for our very first outing (well in excess of 20km).
Compounding our planning was the fact that the morning was growing old. Starting a long hike too late would mean rushing and rushing usually ends in a less than enjoyable experience.
I thought about it a bit more, whipped out my "Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies" guidebook, and realized that we could try something that was both nearby and shorter: a climb to the summit of Bertha Peak, a 2440 metre (8000-foot) high mountain that was basically the closest mountain to the townsite (and hence a short approach). In fact, the Bertha Lake trail was literally less than a hundred metres from our tents. The only slight negative was that the book rated it as an "easy-to-moderate" grade scramble, rather than the "easy" that I had wanted for an introductory outing.
Both Gino and Julian were ok with this last-minute route change, understanding the constraints we were under. Bertha Peak it was!
After some rapid tent-raising and gear organizing, we were ready to set off, shortly before 10:30 a.m. The morning had become warm and summerlike, and the sky, although slightly hazy, was clear and blue. We were getting excited for our first foray into the mountains!
As mentioned, the Bertha Lake trail is used to gain access to the scramble route on Bertha Peak. The trail starts just metres away from the Waterton Townsite campground entrance, and as a result, we didn't even bother to drive. We just walked over to the trailhead. We walked past detailed interpretive signs and bear warnings and onto a well-worn path, which headed south, gently rising as it traversed up a forest-fire-scarred slope. Off to our left, we began to get nice views up and down the Waterton Lakes main valley. Back behind us we could see the little townsite and the grand form of the historic Prince of Wales Hotel on a small hillock behind it.
We hustled along at a very brisk pace, passing a few other hikers but otherwise not seeing too many people. The all-around scenery was very impressive: sharp, high peaks and ranks upon ranks of higher terrain to the south. We were not far from the big, elegant peaks of Glacier National Park in Montana. In fact, I knew that if we continued southward on this trail past the Bertha Lake junction, we'd actually soon come to the US border. Which I'm sure these days was solidly patrolled and shut.
That wasn't our destination though, and in fact quite soon we came to a junction: Goat Haunt and the US Border to the left, Bertha Lake to the right. Right we went, contouring around to a deep valley (the valley of Bertha Creek) coming down from the west.
Rounding into Bertha Drainage
I was really enjoying the smooth, typically-western trail as it traversed into the valley of Bertha Creek. Wide, smooth, level, and easy upon which to make good progress. We continued to walk through forest fire burn, which was a bit stark, but which also gave us fantastic views of the surrounding peaks. And soon, we could see a steep, ravine-scored wall straight ahead. This, I knew, was the east face of Bertha Peak. I told Gino and Julian that that was what they were about to climb. Julian was doubtful. Gino had a slightly unsettled look.
The going was picture-perfect and very easy for the next kilometre or so, as the trail stayed mostly on the level, traversing along at a constant elevation while the bottom of the valley slowly rose up to meet us. The trail finally started to actually gain elevation as we neared the creek in the bottom of the valley, and then we had to cross it. Being late in the season, the flow was a trickle, and we didn't really even have to use the provided bridge to cross it.
After stopping for a quick break at the creek crossing, we continued on. Here, the trail started to make some serious elevation, starting a long series of short and long switchbacks, and generally maintaining a fairly steep grade. We would periodically cross into and out of forest fire burn area, which gave us a neat back-and-forth contrast between deep forest and burnt forest.
Due to our time constraints (i.e. it was fairly late in the day, and we wanted to "catch up", so to speak), we pushed fairly hard up the steep trail, making pretty good time. We gained a thousand feet in the space of about 35 minutes, and at the finish, we emerged into a pretty little tree-framed viewpoint to Bertha Lake, nestled beneath the alpine rock of nearby peaks and ridges.
The Bertha Lake trail encircles the lake, and so at this point it split into two. We turned right, in the direction of Bertha Peak. Above, now not far away, was a large slope of solid, sloping bedrock, with strata angled back and down. At regular intervals there was a shallow ravine or draw coming straight down from top to bottom. According to my guidebook, the designated route was up one of these ravines.
It was about this time that we encountered a fellow hiker on the trail. We had passed him on the steep uphill and now he had caught up to us. We had exchanged a few words and somehow, as we were standing and discussing the possible ascent route, he seemed interested in what we were planning. Reflexively, we suggested that he was more than welcome to join us, if in fact he was interested. He didn't really say yes or no initially, but he did start hiking with us.
We weren't entirely sure of the ascent route. The guidebook described a relatively straightforward-sounding ravine that was to the right of a small trickle of water coming down behind the backcountry campground. Ok... well, there was the sign for the campground right ahead of us, and... there were the cliffs above and behind it. We could see a number of possible features that looked like ravines, but which one was it? more to the right, around the corner, all the way to the left...? the little picture in the guide was marginal. We'd have to go up closer and feel our way.
First, though, we walked a little farther along the Bertha Lake trail and stopped at a nice little open stretch of shoreline on the lake, and had lunch. Here we learned more about our new partner. His name was Doug. He was from Medicine Hat, Alberta - a medium-sized town on the prairie in the southeast part of the province. We also learned that he was eighty-one years young, and "had started hiking and climbing late" -- only 50 or so years ago. Impressive. He had come down to the Waterton Lakes area in his camper and was up here in the Bertha Lake area half-planning to do some sort of solo off-trail climbing - maybe nearby Richards Mountain, maybe Bertha Peak. And if he found someone to hike with, to go with them. I guess the "them" today was us. Welcome, Doug!
Lunch at Bertha Lake
After lunch, we retraced our steps a bit, back to the Bertha Lake backcountry campsite. We wound our way past the sites and the privy and struck off into the forest beyond, as the guidebook directed. The short band of forest was soon surpassed, and we were on an apron of steep scree below the cliffs we had spied back at the lakeshore. This was Julian's first taste of the Rockies, of off-trail hiking, and of scree-scrambling, and of steep slopes like this. He seemed pretty stoked.
We zig-zagged back and forth on the scree slope, looking for faint indications of foot or herd paths and trying to see which of the gullies and ravines looked like the best way up. We quickly determined that going too far right led to much more serious terrain. Back to the left, where things looked more reasonable.
First Taste of Steep Scree
Leftward (westward) we edged, traversing along steep but fairly stable scree (this was the first-time introduction to Julian and Gino to the ever-present Rockies scree, in one of its many forms). Every so often we would stop and consult, myself, Doug, Julian and Gino, peering up and around undulations in the rock above us. Eventually we settled on a steep gully that felt nicely enclosed and looked like it had lots of handholds and relatively few (or maybe no) tricky sections.
The gully proved to be the ticket - the climbing was rarely anything more than a hand or two here and there, and perhaps the only slight issue was that we had to take care to not dislodge rocks and to ensure we were never too far apart. The funnelling effect of the gully made it pretty hazardous to be too far downhill from others.
As you may know from last year's Death Hollow trip, Gino is not super fond of various types of exposure and steep terrain - and this was certainly steep terrain. The gully was really working in his favor, though, because its enclosing walls leant a sense of comfort and closeness that seemed to calm his height anxieties. In fact, he seemed more comfortable here than he had edging along on the less steep but more exposed scree below the cliffs.