Summit Elevation (m): 2880
Trip Date: September 25 2016
Elevation Gain (m): 900
Round Trip Time (hr): 8
Total Trip Distance (km): 17
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 1 – you fall, you aren’t sober
Difficulty Notes: The partial Cautley Traverse is off trail hiking only. If you include Wonder Peak it might go up to 3rd class.
Technical Rating: OT4; YDS (Hiking)
I woke up on Sunday, September 25 2016 in the Lake Magog Campground and poked my head out of my tent only to be immediately disappointed. This was supposed to be the day of my long-awaited Mount Cautley Traverse – 4 new peaks in one stretch – all located along the same, fairly easy ridge and all with stunning views over the Mount Assiniboine area, including of course, the mighty Matterhorn of the Rockies.
So, why was I disappointed? What else would it be in 2016 but the weather? The reason I was in the Mount Assiniboine area was a forecast that had promised 4 or even 5 days of ZERO clouds and very warm temperatures. By the time I left the parking lot at Sunshine Village in Banff National Park, it must have changed to almost 100% cloud cover and cool temps. So far on my scrambles in late September 2016, I’d had pretty good luck with ignoring the forecasts and going out anyway. This day apparently, weather karma was trying to bite me back. Thankfully the clouds were high, so that the surrounding lower peaks were still visible. Mount Assiniboine, of course, wasn’t. I ate breakfast, prepared my day pack and headed out anyway – hoping against hope that the clouds would clear yet again for me.
As I walked the trail from the Lake Magog Campground to the Naiset Cabins above the NW shores of Lake Magog, I pondered aloud how I was almost certainly going to see a Grizzly Bear sooner than later on this particular trip. While descending the steep valley south of Citadel Pass a few days earlier, I was similarly convinced I’d run into a feeding bear. Late September is a prime month for bear encounters in the Rockies, as they are desperately fattening themselves for a long, cold winter. I wasn’t too concerned about it – but was aware that it was only a matter of time until it happened. I constantly yell out for bears when hiking and scrambling solo, so I very rarely run into them close up, but it has happened before. As I broke out of the thin trees above the lake and started across the low scrub, open meadows just to the west of Assiniboine Lodge, I noticed some photographers taking pictures of the lake about 500m to my right and ahead of me, but off the trail I was on by about 300m or so. I stopped my yelling out for bears as I didn’t want to disturb the peaceful morning for others and thought they would have scared anything off by now anyway.
It was about 08:15 when I spotted extremely fresh Grizzly diggings right next to the trail on my left. I’ve seen hundreds of diggings in my life and this was by far the freshest! As far as I was concerned, the dirt was still moving! I immediately looked up. Staring right back into my soul from about 15 meters away (45 feet) stood a large, well-muscled, male Grizzly Bear!
There are definitely moments in life when the fourth dimension (time) seems to take a break. This was one of those rare moments. Large objects can slow time down for nearby small objects, and in this case the bear was certainly large enough to have that effect on me. His small, round, black eyes were penetrating and clearly challenging me to back off or suffer the consequences. In a fraction of a second, I immediately turned my head and cast my eyes downward to the right. This was a perfect reaction. You should never challenge an aggressive animal by looking directly into their eyes unless you’re looking for a fight. What I did next is *not* what you should do. Due to my nervousness and shock at running into the bear so close to the lodge and the other photographers, I turned to my right and just casually walked away, slowly moving down to the rocky shores of Lake Magog.
I didn’t panic and I wasn’t actually feeling any fear, but I knew I had to get away from the bear’s feeding area, immediately. I kept walking slowly but steadily away, as I listened very carefully for the bear to follow. I walked around 100m before slowly turning back to see what was happening with the large bruin behind me. I was relieved to see him cheerfully tearing huge chunks of earth out of the ground and ignoring me. I spoke to the nearest photographer, warning her of the bear. She seemed noncommittal until I finally managed to get her to see him (he was very hard to see with his silver back and the silver-leafed shrubs in the meadow). Once she saw how close and how big the Grizzly was, the woman almost started panicking. Everyone on the beach was immediately summoned back to the lodge. I had no intentions of letting a “little” bear encounter ruin my day, so I started back up the trail towards the lodge. It was then that I noticed two more photographers, taking telephoto shots of the same bear that I’d just run into! I briefly wondered why the heck they didn’t warn me as I tromped up the trail, but soon I realized that they didn’t spot me until I wandered into the photos they were taking.
Stefan Mitterwallner is a landscape photographer from Austria. A good one, judging by his online portfolio. As I chatted with him, he pointed to a photograph on his camera’s LCD screen. It clearly showed me and the bear facing off! (I’m still waiting for him to send me the shot so I can post it here.) Stefan told me that he was photographing the bear when I walked into his line of sight, through the telephoto lens. He didn’t have time to react before the bear and I were literally facing off, so he snapped a quick photo before looking to see what would happen next. What he saw was me turn around and casually walk away while the Grizzly false charged behind me! For whatever reason, I didn’t hear this charge. Stefan told me he was convinced I was getting mauled at that moment. Thankfully the bear noticed my complete lack of concern and willingness to engage in any sort of challenge, and turned back to his breakfast. I’m sure turning my back was what prompted the charge. The correct thing to do would have been for me to get my bear spray ready and slowly back away from the animal. Next time. 🙂 After exchanging emails with Stefan so he could send me the photo later, I continued on my way and him and his friend continued snapping shots of the bear who was still happily rotor tilling the meadow.
I surprised myself as I continued up the trail towards the Naiset Huts and on towards Wonder Pass. I was pretty calm and relaxed despite being all alone again in Grizzly country, after just encountering one face-to-face. Thanks to the cloud cover, I only met one other group as I ascended towards Wonder Pass. It wasn’t until I was past Gog Lake and crossing the expansive Cautley Meadows towards Mount Cautley, off trail, that I started questioning if I was ready to be solo hiking in bear habitat so quickly after my encounter. I thought about it for a bit and then kept going. I figured that I still had a 30km hike out of the area in the next few days, so I was going to have to suck it up and deal with any residual anxiety. I always knew the chances of running into a Grizzly while hiking solo were pretty high, and I just proved that usually the bear isn’t interested in attacking – even when confronted directly. The meadows were a bit larger than I expected but with some perseverance, I managed to start up the easy west scree slopes within about 30 minutes of leaving the Wonder Pass trail.
There were no difficulties as I groveled my way up the west scree slopes of Mount Cautley. I kept an eye to the north where a rock slide had recently occurred, prompting a warning from the park. It was at this point, as I plodded up easy slopes to the summit cairn on Cautley, that a combination of the weather, the bear encounter, and avoiding this part of the mountain all combined in a major brain fart on my part. For some reason, I became convinced that Cascade Rock was located to the east of Ely’s Dome and south of Gibraltar Rock. I still can’t believe I messed this easy extra peak up! I even remember looking over directly at it from Cautley’s summit and thinking, “hmmm, I hope that’s not a summit”. I didn’t realize my error until I got home and looked at the maps again. On hindsight I should have gone up Cautley further to the north. Now I have to go all the way back to do it – but truth be told I would have gone back regardless to summit Gibraltar Rock in better conditions. The views from the summit of Cautley were very good, but weren’t quite what I wanted when I originally planned the trip. I snapped some shots and continued down an intimidating ridge to the northeast to summit Gibraltar Rock.
I didn’t know what to expect from the traverse to Gibraltar Rock. I had crampons and ice ax along and almost immediately put them on. There was about 6″ of snow on the rocks, making for slippery terrain. It was also surprisingly exposed – I was expecting basically a walk-up with some elevation loss, considering Rick Collier’s almost dismissive account of bagging it from Cautley. What I got instead was a sudden drop-off along the narrow, loose, exposed and slippery ridge. I spent at least 20 minutes trying to find a reasonable way down this step but I simply couldn’t. I have no doubt that if dry, this would probably only be moderate / difficult scrambling with exposure, but in the snowy conditions I had, it seemed foolish to push onward. I snapped some photos and reluctantly turned around, disappointed with this first ‘failure’ of the day (and trip). I returned to the summit of Mount Cautley before continuing the traverse south towards Ely’s Dome and what I thought was Cascade Rock, leaving what was really Cascade Rock in my rear view mirror. Sigh.