You can’t always predict when you are about to embark on an adventure that will leave a lasting impression on your life.
Before I did the two day return hike and scramble up to the Abbot Pass hut in Yoho National Park, I definitely didn’t know it would turn out to be the most challenging thing I have ever done. I knew it would be difficult but the truth is, I really had no idea how much so.
Maybe if we knew we wouldn’t have even attempted it. But I’m so pleased that we did.
Sometimes going in blind is a good thing.
The building of the Abbot Pass hut is a feat in Canadian engineering history. Built in 1922 using the stones from the pass, all of the materials were bought up to the pass by horseback which is unfathomable when you see how steep and perilous it is.
The Abbot Pass hut is located at almost 3000 metres of elevation, high on a saddle between Mount Lefroy and Mount Victoria. It is the second highest permanent structure in Canada, the outhouse is the highest in the country and it is located on the continental divide. The border between British Columbia and Alberta runs right through the middle of the hut.
The Abbot Pass hut can be reached from Lake Louise but that involved some technical climbing so is only suitable for experienced mountaineers of which we are not. So we were tackling the other route from Lake O’Hara. This route may not be technical but it was only for strong hikers as getting up there involved scrambling up a near vertical slope covered in scree and loose boulders. It wasn’t going to be easy.
I barely slept the night before. Feelings of nervousness and excitement kept me awake until the early hours.
My alarm awoke me with a start. A groggy weariness clouded my thoughts and actions as my brother Robbie and I did some last minute packing before driving the twenty minutes to the Lake O’Hara carpark. We were catching the 8.30am shuttle.
The morning was cold and overcast but it wasn’t raining like the forecast said it would be. At least that was something.
After a short and bumpy ride along a gravel road, we arrived at the Le Relais day shelter and from there we walked the last few minutes to Lake O’Hara. The lake was still in the frosty morning air. Only a couple of other people were around. Dark clouds threatened from above and a low mist settled over the surface of the lake.
It has been said that the Lake O’Hara region of Yoho National Park is the most beautiful place in all of the Rockies. It certainly was beautiful but I couldn’t help but think it was a bit overrated. I’m almost sure I would have felt differently had it been sunny as the colour of the lake was muted under cloudy skies.
We walked about halfway around the frigid lake before taking the turn off to Lake Oesa, where we would then connect to the trail up to the Abbot Pass hut.
As the path began to gain altitude, we warmed up some due to the exertion. Stopping at a viewpoint over Lake O’Hara, I could more clearly see the colour that the lake is famous for. The bright blue-green was stunning. Now I was starting to see what all the fuss was about.
After one last look at Lake O’Hara, we continued hiking and quickly reached the snow line. We had entered a winter wonderland and it was only September.
Snow covered yellow larches and evergreens surrounded the two small lakes we passed on the trail to Lake Oesa. The only sound was rushing water from nearby waterfalls and my camera trigger clicking every few seconds.
The trail was narrow at times. Branches heavy with snow threatening to unburden their heavy load on us whenever we brushed against them which was frequently.
I was already so happy with what we had seen on the hike so far. And then we reached Lake Oesa and it only got better.
Lake Oesa is a sight to behold. Surrounded by impenetrable peaks dusted with snow, it is a haunting oasis of deep blue, stark against the blinding white all around. All was still as we sat down to rest and contemplate the inky depths of the lake. Cheeky ground squirrels and chipmunks darted around us while we ate our snacks.
I liked it much more than Lake O’Hara. The colour was unlike any I have seen before, a richness of blues and greens against a landscape that was forbidding and desolate. It was mesmerisingly bleak and unbelievably beautiful.
We could have sat there all day but it was time to continue on. It had been a pleasant and fairly easy hike to this point, but the challenging part was just about to begin.
The trail started up a rocky ledge at a gentle incline and we started to think that maybe it wasn’t going to be so bad after all. The views of Lake Oesa below were spellbinding and we were making great time. It started to get a bit steeper and then we were hiking along narrow rock ledges. This was slightly unnerving as one wrong move and you would be toast, tumbling a hundred metres onto sharp rocks below.
After a quick lunch overlooking the lake on a wind ravaged rocky outcrop, the trail entered the scree field. There was a faint pathway that we followed diagonally over the loose rocks then it disappeared and we were on our own. The only way was up, and it was steep.
The Ascent to Abbot Pass Hut
Luckily for us there was snow covering the sheer mountain face in places which mostly made it easier as we didn’t slip back down with every step. On the other hand it was also a bit scary as we didn’t know how deep the snow was and how stable the rocks were underneath it.
Some steps I suddenly ended up thigh deep in powder. We didn’t have any footsteps to follow as we were the first ones to go up that day, although we saw a few from the people that had come down that morning.
Rob was struggling and slipping a lot more than me as his shoes didn’t have good grip. I was thankful I was wearing my hiking boots with their deep tread. Turns out our hiking poles and helmets were absolutely essential for this hike as it was pretty dangerous. Having Travel Insurance was also a great idea, and if there is a group of you hiking, getting Travel Insurance for Groups makes it more cost effective.
Even though it was steep and precarious, I felt like I was doing so well. I was strong and fit, perhaps in the best shape of my life from all the hiking and cleaning. I felt good.
But then it got even harder.
The last stretch was by far the most difficult part of the hike. It was impossibly steep, almost vertical in fact with even looser rock than the slope we had just come up. It was also never ending. Looking up we seemed so close to the top but as we pushed ourselves to the limit to get up there, it didn’t seem to be getting any closer.
It had started snowing by this point and was quite cold. I was glad to have my gloves. Rob didn’t have any and he had immense pain in his hands. I was worried he might get frostbitten if we didn’t get to the hut soon. We kept pushing on.
There was one section that I kept slipping down. I didn’t think I was going to be able to get above it but I finally managed to get some purchase on the rocks, then the top really was right there. I could finally see the hut.
I tried to take a shortcut through the scree and slipped over three times in five minutes before backtracking and taking the longer but safer route that Rob had just traversed. The bruises that formed all over my body by the next evening reminded me of the pain I felt, falling heavily on hundreds of small sharp rocks.
Then the Abbot Pass hut was in front of me. What a sight for sore eyes.
Arriving at the Abbot Pass Hut
The wind was howling and furious snow whipped around me. The valley on the other side of the pass wasn’t even visible: it was a white out. I took a quick picture of the hut then quickly ducked inside. It was 3pm. It had taken us six hours with breaks. Not too bad considering.
I loved the Abbot Pass hut. It oozed mountaineering history with its rustic interior and old photos on the walls. It was also a lot larger than I thought it would be. The downstairs was comprised of a large kitchen with cooking utensils and gas stove hobs, and a large dining/recreation area with two large tables with bench seating and a pot bellied stove. Upstairs was a cosy sleeping alcove with comfortable mattresses and even blankets.
The outhouse was a little ways away from the hut and it was a whole other adventure to get to it with the increasingly howling wind and snow driving against me.
After a half hour by ourselves, other hikers who were staying in the Abbot Pass hut started trickling in. A group of four Canadian guys from Alberta and two older mountaineers from the US that were planning on climbing Mount Victoria. It was late in the season so there were only the eight of us, half of the maximum occupancy of the hut.
There wasn’t much wood so we held out lighting the fire for a couple of hours. The cold quickly seeped into my bones and I sat, curled up on the couch with all of my clothing on and covered in two thick woollen blankets.
We all talked, learning more about each other. I sipped hot chocolate and read my book. I sat and soaked in the vibe with a deep sense of satisfaction that I did this and it was hard. But I nailed it anyway.
Rob and I cooked pasta for dinner and the group of four guys shared their rehydrated blueberry cobbler and popcorn with us. We only had bare bones essentials but these guys were kitted out.
A full blizzard was raging by the time we had finished dinner and it was terrifying going outside to use the outhouse. It felt like the strength of the storm would blow me off the mountain and a large snow drift had started to build up in front of the outhouse door. It was definitely one of my more exciting bathroom experiences.
We all turned in pretty early. I felt cosy and warm in my sleeping bag and covered by a thick blanket while the strong winds rattled the roof.
The blizzard was still going strong in the morning and it was a frosty -5 C outside. Cooking porridge and sipping coffee, we tried to wait it out but by 10.30am the group of four were keen to head down and I wanted to go with them – safety in numbers and all that.
I wore all of my warm clothes including my scarf wrapped around my face as we prepared to brave the weather. I was scared.
Descending from the Abbot Pass Hut
As soon as I stepped out of the door of the Abbot Pass hut, the biting cold blew straight through all my layers and made my eyes water. I have never felt anything like it. It was almost unbearable.
It was terrifying starting down a vertical slope covered in a thick layer of snow, especially when you can hardly see a metre in front of you. My whole body froze within minutes. I couldn’t feel my toes or fingers.
Every step down we slipped over. I was feeling panicky but all I could do was keep going. I was really scared but also strangely exhilarated. I finally get why thrill seekers put themselves in dangerous situations. You really do feel so alive in moments like this.
A couple of the guys behind us started just sliding down the slope over thin snow and loose scree on their butts and I was so cold and we were constantly slipping over anyway so I decided to go for it too, despite the fact I was only wearing thin leggings.
We were quickly below the blizzard which was a huge relief but we weren’t out of danger, not even close.
With the steep incline and soft snow, I hurtled 400 metres down the mountain. I could usually stop myself with my feet by catching them on exposed rocks under the snow but there were times when I couldn’t and I was sliding uncontrollably down the steep mountain face, out of control. My arms were yanked backwards when my poles caught on the rocks along the way.
I avoided large exposed rocks as much as I could. Pain shot through me when I slid over sharp rocks hidden under the snow, despite my butt being numb.
Half way down I got some feeling back in my hands and the pain was unbearable for about ten minutes. It was the only time I cried that day.
Once we were at the bottom of the steep slope it was time to start hiking diagonally but the faint path from the day before was buried deep under snow. I followed the footsteps of the guys before me in the deep snow, not knowing if I would slip sideways down the still steep slope with each step. I don’t know if I have ever concentrated so hard in my life. It was scarier than sliding down the mountain on my butt.
Everyone regrouped once we were out of the scree and snow nightmare. We were all high on adrenaline and super happy that none of us were injured when it was a very likely scenario that someone could have broken something, or much worse.
Rob lost his sleeping bag and I lost my water bottle during the butt sliding – both things had been strapped to the outside of our bags – but that is a small price to pay to be safe and uninjured.
But still, the hard stuff wasn’t yet behind us, we still had a boulder field to cross. The day before it had been no problem but now, covered in snow, it was suddenly a massive hazard. Each step was guess work with the possibility of falling through a deep crevice between the rocks. I think I held my breath the whole time.
Once we were safety through one obstacle, we faced another: narrow rocky ledges high above Lake Oesa. The lake was much darker than the day before and the snow cover surrounding it was complete. A menacing pool of darkness beckoning us from below.
The trail was covered in snow so we had to trail blaze our way down to the lake, helping each other out along the way. Each step was carefully taken so as not to slip in the snow. It was slow going.
Then finally we were back at Lake Oesa. The hard part was finally over. And we even got to see blue skies for the first time in two days, although it didn’t last long.
The guys said goodbye as they were taking an alternate route down to Lake O’Hara. The rest of the hike was a breeze. There was much more snow than when we were coming up the day before. A few hardy souls passed us on the way to Lake Oesa but there weren’t many people around.
Lake O’Hara came into sight and my spirits lifted after a few hours spent in the freezing cold. Because of the blizzard overnight, the snow level had now reached as far down as Lake O’Hara and it looked very becoming with a winter coat.
I couldn’t get to the Le Relais Day Shelter fast enough once we had fully ascended to the lake and there was a steaming hot chocolate in my hands within minutes. Feeling toasty and warm by the fire was just the best feeling. I could finally feel my extremities again.
The guys from the Abbot Pass hut joined us shortly after we arrived and we waited in the cosy shelter for the shuttle to take us back to civilisation. Our adventure was over.
To say this was a tough hike would be to understate it. It was simultaneously the most challenging and most physically draining thing I have ever done.
It also made me realise that I am much tougher both physically and mentally than I thought, a realisation that meant so much to this girl who once hated hiking and had no level of fitness whatsoever. I have come so far.
I will be pushing myself more in the future. If my next outdoors adventure is even half as incredible as the trek to Abbot Pass hut then I am in for a treat.
The Nitty Gritty
Booking Details: You can book the Abbot Pass hut by phoning the Alpine Club of Canada and it’s best to book as early as possible if you have set dates to avoid missing out. There are more spots available early or late in the season. There are generally seats on the shuttle to get to Lake O’Hara set aside for people staying in the hut so be sure to ask about booking them. Coming back out you don’t need to book, you can just jump on the next available shuttle.
Getting there: You will need to make your way to the Lake O’Hara parking lot which is just off the highway near the Alberta side of Yoho National Park. We had a rental car. From the car park you catch your pre-booked shuttle.
Length: 24km (15 miles) return over two days
Elevation Gain: 915m (3000 feet)
Difficulty: Very difficult. Not to even be attempted unless you are a strong hiker. Seriously.
Tip: I highly recommend doing the Abbot Pass Hut hike with hiking poles and a helmet. We hired ours from Wilson Mountain Sports in Lake Louise. I don’t think I could have got up there without the poles when we were scrambling up the scree, and the helmet is a must in the event of falling rocks.