October 2021 GDT Thru-Hike

by Oliver Cautereels

Haiduk Lake

Dear readers of the Pathfinder Newsletter,

My name is Oliver Cautereels. After working at Pfizer Manufacturing Puurs (Belgium) for a little over one year as a project engineer on the validations and optimizations of the first production line of the Covid-19 “Comirnaty” vaccine, I accumulated so much overtime that I was able to take a long holiday from September to December.

Part of my holiday was going for my first solo thru-hiking experience. I decided to embark on the biggest adventure of my life in the Canadian wilderness. I left Waterton on Wednesday the 29th of September and arrived in Jasper on Saturday the 30th of October. According to my watch, it took me 1,281,511 steps to thru-hike this section of the GDT. My extremely limited research and preparation suggested that hiking in Canada in October would be very challenging. In this article, I wanted to share my experience of this winter wonderland with you.

“Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction” – Scott Jurek

This quote by Scott Jurek perfectly summarizes my main take away from my hike. It is incredibly fulfilling to keep pushing through your own physical and mental boundaries again and again and again. However tired I sometimes got from hiking in the knee-deep snow, the stunning views I got to enjoy while catching my breath were more than enough to keep me moving forward.

My first few days on the trail were marked with errors, even though I brought all relevant sections of Ryan Silk’s GDT Map Atlas. Somewhere in the dale between Mt. Matkin and Font Mountain, where the trail runs along the divide between British Columbia and Alberta, my mishaps started to accumulate. I lost the trail somewhere and had to climb a ridiculously steep side of the mountain covered with scuffs. I worked up a serious sweat hoisting myself up along the branches of the pine trees and the blades of grass. At the end of one of my mini-breaks to check my trajectory, I forgot to pick up my hiking poles. When I realized this a few minutes later, I was unable to retrace my exact steps. After some searching I decided to continue without my poles. They make a good excuse to go back on the trail and look for them some day.

Later on, I noticed the pocket in the waistband of my backpack was unzipped. Evidently, the specific page of the map atlas (A4 – La Coulotte Ridge and A5 – West Castle Road) was missing. At this point I was still lost, but I kept heading westwards and by some miracle encountered my first GDT-plaque on the mountain. I did however get to enjoy my first sunset on the trail.

I tried following the ridge of the mountain, but due to the falling darkness, I decided to make my way down into the valley to find a somewhat level spot to pitch my tent. Bushy pines and fallen trees harassed me on the way down and the needles of the pine trees scuffed my legs like little whips. My suffering was eased when I heard some running water. While filling my canteens, I slipped and fell in the water. A bit farther down I stumbled upon something that looked like a fire road where I was able to set up camp. Tired, lost and with wet feet I crawled into my sleeping bag. This was only my third night on the trail and I wondered what other hurdles it would have in store for me.

On my first day of Section B, I had an encounter with a grizzly on my way to the Window Mountain Lake Campground. Luckily, the astonishing creature didn’t want anything to do with me, and stormed off in the other direction. I lost the safety of my bear spray in this encounter, and like Murphy predicted, this would come to haunt me at the most inconvenient moment, namely while shoving my backpack in my tent a few days later. My spray deployed in my tent. After crying my eyes out for ten to fifteen minutes, I crammed some toilet paper in my nose and tried cleaning up the mess. Since it was freezing outside, I had to sleep in my tent. In the middle of the night, I woke up with a burning sensation on my hands and chest, which were flaming red. I stumbled to the creek near my campsite, filled my canteen and rinsed my chest repeatedly with the icy water. Even though I am a seasoned Wim Hoff practitioner, this added a whole new dimension to it. Shivering uncontrollably, I crawled back in my tent, only to notice that some of the bear spray had made its nasty way inside my sleeping bag onto my liner. I removed the liner and jumped in my sleeping bag. Never in my life had I experienced such a sensation of coldness.

Be it these two anecdotes, waking up to frozen water inside your canteen, experiencing such freezing gusts of wind on the mountain tops that your gloves and boots freeze in a fixed position while wearing them, wading through knee deep snow for miles at a time, when you put your mind to it, you can overcome almost anything and derive incredible joy and fulfillment in doing so. “Pain is inevitable – Suffering is optional”.

Everything that went wrong on my first solo experience was utterly and completely my own fault. There was no one else to blame. This taught me that it is very much okay to make mistakes. Everyone makes them. Henceforth, I will try to own up to my own mistakes without shifting the blame to someone else.

The trail is magnificent as a whole. Personal highlights of the trail for me were the climb and descent of Whistling Pass to the pristine Haiduk Lake. The climb between Little and Big Shovel Pass where you’re surrounded by mountain tops covered in snow for as far as the eye can see.  

Late afternoon after waiting out a snow storm at Tobermory Creek Cabin.
Fresh morning snow on the way to Kananaskis Lakes.
Near Owen Pass (?) looking south.
Getting to the highest point on the GDT.
At the highest point on the GDT.
Skyline – somewhere between Little Shovel Pass and Big Shovel Pass.

“Happiness only real when shared” – Christopher McCandless

In October, there are almost no other people on the trail. Apart from encounters near popular day-trip spots like Kananaskis Lake, I was completely alone for most of my trip. This made meeting people all the more special and I want to sincerely thank all the wonderful people I met along the trail:

  • Kevin and his dog “Drifter”, who offered me a room when I arrived at the Castle Mountain Campground in the middle of the night.
  • Josh and Carol who offered me a lift to Coleman after I got lost in Lynx Creek.
  • Dan and Alannah from “A Safe Haven” who took care of me like real trail angels and recommended the GDT-app to me, which made getting lost almost impossible.
  • Oscar, who was doing the GDT on bike in the opposite direction. We sheltered from a snow storm in the cabin at Tobermory Creek. That cabin really saved us.  
  • Laurie and Dave, who offered me the best tasting orange of my life near Kananaskis lake.
  • Liam, Vanessa and the whole crew of the Mount Engadine Lodge for making my stay awesome, offering me as much food as I desired and getting me new hiking boots since my boots broke down 150km ago!
  • Felipe and Sebastian, for giving me a ride from Lake Louise to Field. Sebastian turned out to be the chef of the “Truffle Pigs” restaurant, awesome food!
Cozy room and “Drifter” (doggy) at Castle Mountain. Thank you Kevin.
At “A Safe Haven”, Coleman, Alberta. Thank you Dan and Alannah for all your wonderful hospitality.
New hiking boots at Engadine Lodge. Thank you Liam, Vanessa, and all the Engadine Lodge staff.

I enjoyed all the highs and lows on my Great Canadian Adventure. The simple joy of walking in such stunning scenery and overcoming all hardships along the trail, filled me with a sense of happiness and satisfaction I had never before experienced. The Canadian wilderness is a marvelous place and I thank my lucky stars I was able to hike through it. Hopefully, you’ll get to enjoy it as much as I did. I can’t wait for my next adventure.

Oliver Cautereels

Here is a slideshow that tells the story of my hike – its beauty, its challenges, and more.  Please enjoy watching it.

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