Conquering the Great Divide trek
In the grand canon of Rocky Mountain adventures, few rival the scope of the Great Divide trek from Jasper to Lake Louise. The journey has shaped legend and history in the Canadian Rockies, and only a handful have attempted the route – and found success.
So when three Canmore residents challenged the high trek, the mountaineering community took notice.
“It’s one of the biggest trips in the Rockies. Everyone talks about it, but it never happens,” Yuji Akiyama said.
Akiyama, Alasdair Hogg and Martin Lefevre completed the ski touring journey last month, finishing their 22-day adventure at the Great Divide Lodge on May 13. Picking the high route recommended by Mark Klassen, driving rain, treacherous icefields and frigid river crossings wore down the trio amidst rarely spied cloud-veiled peaks.
“We always talked about it, but we didn’t take it seriously until this year,” Akiyama said.
“Our plan was if it was a good snow year, we’d do it,” Hogg said.
Travelling as light as possible, the trio carried 50 lb packs between six and ten hours a day. Small days saw them achieve 600 metres of elevation gain. Big days topped out at 1,900 metres. They had done nine-day trips together, however this would be their biggest undertaking as a team.
“The team is key to doing this trip. Everyone did their share of cooking and trail breaking. We’re still friends, so that’s good,” Akiyama said.
The high route kept the team closer to the Great Divide, providing more scenic days. It also left them more exposed to the elements.
The journey began under ominous conditions. Rain poured down at Marmot Basin, turning snow into heavy slush and obscuring a sun they wouldn’t see for the next 14 days. They were forced to stop on their second day at the Waits-Gibson hut, hoping the weather would clear up. Using up the only planned rest day so early wasn’t ideal.
“It was a little frustrating to be stopped so early on. The wet snow was slushy, heavy and sticky, so on day two we were already behind,” Akiyama said.
Approaching the Hooker Glacier, they were expecting brilliant views, but instead were struck with blowing wind and white-out conditions.
“From Jasper to the Columbia Icefields, we had bad weather,” Hogg said.
The team crossed the Wood River, which was unexpectedly waist-deep and worked their way onto the Mt. Clemenceau glacier. They found navigation tough on the glacier and had to contend with some large crevasses. For the most part, the glacier traverse was safe.
“When we were on the glacier, it just snowed,” Akiyama said.
By day 13, the sky cleared up and gave the team a view of Mount Columbia. The familiar landscape gave them hope, and they found decent snow cover on the Columbia Icefield.
In the distance, they saw their first humans, who they flagged down.
They asked the people to pass on a message to their friends that they were a day behind.
“The only thing we were really worried about is we were a day short on food,” Hogg said.
The contact gave them a boost to complete the next few days, which included hard bushwhacking, 23 kilometres through punchy snow and 1,600m of elevation. They ran out of snow eventually and had a 12-hour day before hitting the Castleguard River.
That was followed by an 1,800m elevation gain day and then on to Big Cirque Falls. They ended up camping on Mount Lyell, and the sky opened up.
“To me, this was the best scenery. It was very beautiful,” Akiyama said. “It was great weather and somewhere I hadn’t been before.”
They stayed at the Mons Hut and picked up their second food cache on day 15. The weather reflected their mood, as the sun shone.
“The weather was good to the Freshfield Icefield. We could spot the mountains and were in familiar terrain,” Akiyama said.
The views improved and so did the sleeping conditions. The team slept in the sauna at Mistaya Lodge and home was within reach.
“Once we hit the Wapta, we were confident we’d finish. We were definitely hungry,” Hogg said.
Day 22 greeted them with a bluebird sky and a lazy journey to their final destination. The trio had completed what only a handful had finished before.
“It was incredible to see so many amazing sights in one trip,” Hogg said.
Understanding family made the journey worthwhile for Akiyama. His wife was eight months pregnant when he left on the risky trip.
“This was definitely the highlight of my life.” Akiyama said. “But next year, I’m going to take a year off and go to the beach with my family. ”
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