By Andrew Cotterell
“Today was the hardest and most rewarding day. First part was like the Rockwall, Iceline and Molar Pass. Then lots of willow bushwhacking. Body feels good, muscles are tired. bugs are intense. Love you dearly!! Xxx” – InReach message to my wife, Megan on day 1 of my trip.
It’s about 7pm on July 12th and I’ve made it to Morkill Pass campsite. I look at my watch and see I’ve been on the move for 13 hours 47 minutes, covering 57.4km and 2,216m from Kakwa Lake. In front of me there is a fire pit, an aged horse corral and a flat spot for my tent. I begin a routine that will become a ritual over the next three weeks. First, down a protein shake as taking in protein and carbs within 20 minutes of finishing exercise is ideal for muscle recovery. Next, I need to wash. I head to the river and strip off, washing my shoes and socks thoroughly as any dirt in them could cause blisters tomorrow. After a dip and a scrub I dress in my rain jacket and pants, not for the rain but for the bugs! Mosquitos crowd every inch of exposed skin and I decided bug spray wasn’t worth the weight, something I’d rectify in Jasper even though by then I’d endured the worst of it. With no camp shoes, I ease my bare wet feet back into my wet shoes with the insoles taken out and shuffle back to my gear. Now for dinner. It’s a simple affair as I don’t have a stove. Instead, a few kms before camp I added water to my dehydrated meal – Irish Shepherd’s pie which packs a hearty 800 calories for a 100g serve. I pour on lashings of olive oil and some crushed up Pringles to sneak in yet more calories. Lying with my feet in the air I wolf it down whilst swatting mosquitoes and soaking in an immense feeling of accomplishment and reflecting on the day. I’m glad I didn’t know at this point that each of the next three days would be more challenging than this one. Then again, the scale we have to judge difficulty is based on what we’ve done previously. There is a space between the hardest thing we’ve done, and our ultimate limit which this scale can’t describe. Despite preparing for over a year mentally and physically, Section G+F would push me into this space near constantly for the four and a half days it took me to cover them, completely resetting my scale and expanding the ultimate limit of what is possible for me.
I’m conscious of the time as I want to get the most rest possible, so I force myself to move. I do some stretches and get my cork massage ball into any sore muscles – hips, calves and hamstrings are always on the agenda. I find my tobacco pouch and walk a little way to a tree that stands out to me on the edge of the campsite. Taking a pinch I kneel down, placing the tobacco on the earth beneath the tree as I had been shown and go through everything I’m grateful for – the incredible views, my legs for getting me here, even the bugs and the bushes. Expressing gratitude helps ground me, reminding me to be thankful of this experience, no matter how hard it feels at any moment. I do this every morning and evening of my trip, which helps me experience and then let go of my emotions from the day, and start hiking without any demons from the previous day’s hardship.
Finally I set up my shelter (a Dan Durston X-mid 1p) and try to slip inside without letting any bugs in, an impossible task. Now to take care of my feet – I check for blisters, popping any I find with a sterilized safety pin, then I coat them in Aquaphor – a thick balm that stops them from drying out and cracking. Thankfully I have no blisters yet, but after a couple of weeks this will take me 45 minutes every night. It’s still light outside as I set my alarm to 4am and lay my head on my stuff sack full of spare clothes.
20 minutes later, I’m still wide awake – I’m burning up and sweating so I throw off my down quilt and strip off my base layer. After a while I start to shiver, yet I’m still really warm. I lay there confused as my whole body shudders, shivering from the cold, whilst at the same time I’m sweating from internal heat. This goes on for about an hour and a half.
My mind races as negative thoughts fight to take control – Am I sick? Is this a fever? I’ll later realise it’s probably just the day’s accumulated inflammation leaving my body. I’m not able to take anti-inflammatories like Advil because I have Crohn’s disease, so to combat the inflammation I started stopping a couple of times a day and sitting in cold rivers, using them as ice baths, which helped a lot.
If this is day one, how can I possibly do this? How can I keep going?
Just see what happens. Worry about it only if it becomes a problem.
You’re an idiot and you’re never going to make it. You should give up and hike back to Kakwa.
If you need to take extra breaks tomorrow, that’s what you’ll do. Right now is not the time to make a decision.
If you can’t sleep, how will you possibly hike tomorrow?
Rest is nearly as good as sleep.
Eventually my temperature stabilizes enough that I can sleep. An hour later and my hips are so tight that the pain wakes me up. I begin a cycle of sleeping for about an hour, waking, stretching and massaging my hips until I can find a position comfortable enough to fall back asleep. I figure I managed just over 4 hours of sleep in total before my alarm signals for me to start moving again.
Fastest Known Time
In July 2021 I hiked the GDT from Kakwa Lake to the US border in 20 days, 6 hours and 55 minutes, setting a supported Fastest Known Time in the process. One of the most common questions I’ve been asked is simply “why?”. It’s a great question, one that has many answers and has caused me a lot of reflection before, during and after I completed the hike.
Setting a Fastest Known Time, or FKT, has become increasingly popular over the past few years, perhaps due to races being cancelled due to COVID-19. I’d started following FKT’s a few years ago through watching the Karl Meltzer and Scott Jurek films about running the Appalachian Trail, and occasionally would catch myself looking at local trails on FastestKnownTime.com.
I started to get curious about the Great Divide Trail after instructing an Outward Bound Course near Fording River Pass in 2017. Seeing it travel off the edge of the GemTrek map made me wonder about where it went. We didn’t see another hiker in 12 days that trip, and the GDT went through more remote terrain than we were in – what was this trail!?
As I spent more time running, climbing and skiing in the Rockies, I kept thinking about it. I thought that completing a trail like this would give me all the skills I might need to look at a map, draw a line that looked appealing, and be able to travel the route – the more remote, wild and rarely travelled the better. I enjoyed trail running in the mountains more than hiking, purely because it turns a day hike into a half day, or sometimes a 2-3 day hike can be done in a single day! This just seemed more efficient, plus carrying less stuff and yahoo-ing on the downhills is really fun!
So when my first 50-miler in May 2020 was cancelled, I set my sights on a local challenge, the Canmore Quad. It involves getting to the summit of the four mountains closest to Canmore, Grotto and Lady Macdonald on the one side and East end of Rundle (EEOR) and Ha Ling on the other. Starting and finishing in town the day ends up being 50km and about 4,800m of elevation gain. Unfortunately for me though, Ha Ling was closed for trail work, so I chose the slightly further, slightly higher, and definitely steeper Mount Laurence Grassi to replace it. After 13hrs 55mins, 59km and 5,100m gained, I was amazed at my body and finished smiling, feeling undoubtedly tired, but somehow not broken. My friends had supported me throughout the day, cheering me on, setting up aid stations and running with me on one or more of the peaks. I totally surpassed what I thought I was capable of and somehow enjoyed it!
After that, my ideas started to come together. I’m not a fast enough runner to win any races, but I started to believe that if I trained enough I might be able to run 40 or 50km with a pretty short recovery. If I could do that, could I turn a week-long hiking trip into a weekend run? With this thought fresh in my mind I looked up the GDT on the FKT website and found it didn’t have many entries, the fastest time was 23 days 8 hours, held by Elaine Bissonho on the return leg of her Yo-Yo (meaning she hiked from Waterton, to Kakwa then turned around and hiked back). If I could manage 50km a day I might be able to beat her time. After a three day, 110km fastpacking trip to the Ya Ha Tinda I committed to it. I loved this trip, my friend Adam and I covered so much ground compared to when I had hiked in the same area with Outward Bound, and we only saw a couple of people horse packing the whole time. In 3 days we saw nearly everything that I had wondered about when looking at a map of the region. I even got to Forbidden Lake which I knew that at least 3 Outward Bound trips had tried to get to but never made it! The feeling of being ‘out there’, making decisions for ourselves and seeing so much each day had me hooked. I got home and started training and preparing for the GDT in 2021.
When it came to the ‘why’ of the FKT, part of the fascination about it was the preparation. It was a year of focus, research and training that completely engrossed me. I guess it was my pandemic project!
So how light could I make my kit while still staying (a little bit) comfortable and safe? Before this trip I had about 80 nights of backpacking experience. I’d always focused on being well prepared, taking an extra headlamp or layer ‘just in case’ and a secret chocolate stash we could eat during a storm. When I was instructing for Outward Bound I once loaded out for a 12 day trip in the Ya Ha Tinda with no resupply and my pack weighed nearly 60lbs! This trip was awesome, but because we couldn’t move very fast I didn’t feel like we got to see as much as I would have liked.
It took me about 5 pre-GDT trips to get my gear really dialled, but now I have a 10lb base weight that I honestly wouldn’t make many changes to if I was going at a more relaxed pace (here’s my gear list). I’d probably add a pillow and my Kindle but not much else! I also realized that running with an overnight pack puts me at a high risk of injury, and my body wasn’t strong enough. I found I could cover more ground and be less tired if I hiked efficiently with few breaks, than if I ran sections. I was also amazed at how enjoyable it is to hike with a light pack! By substituting the speed of trail running for the ability to go all day, day after day, I was able to see even more and started to love being on trail for the whole day. It’s just so freeing to cover that much ground. It also makes bushwhacking and moving over deadfall a lot easier!
It’s in the Execution
There was the preparation, then there was the challenge in the actual doing of it all. I was struck by a comment from my coach (Joe “Stringbean” McConaughy) in our last conversation before I started my trip: “Based on your planning and physical preparation, I have no doubt you can complete this trip. The execution, however, is a completely separate thing.” Given the length of the trail, the remote nature and the reliably unreliable Canadian Rockies weather, this trip was going to be all-encompassing, and require me to find the balance between the present moment, while also planning ahead and paying attention to what was coming up if I had any chance of a successful thru-hike.
Purpose, Connection, and Support
Something I didn’t expect to be such an important part of my trip was how it enabled me to connect with others, which can kind of be split into three parts. Firstly, fundraising – I get so much from being outdoors, and I feel so lucky and privileged to be able to fit a trip like the GDT into my life. I wanted to give other people that opportunity too so I decided to use this trip as a fundraiser for Crossing the Divide, a charity that provides free outdoor education trips to disadvantaged youth. We raised just over $10,000 in total, which is so incredible – so thank you if you contributed to this! Hearing the updates of the total grow throughout the trip always gave me a huge boost.
Another thing that kept me going was connection to the GDT community. Just after Cataract Pass was where I crossed paths with the first section hiker, it was awesome to meet someone who understood what I was going though. It wasn’t until Howse river floodplain that out of the smoky horizon appeared two thru-hikers. I’d meet a few more groups that day, and about 5 or 6 thru-hikers each day after that. It was practically intoxicating chatting and connecting with everyone, and I was always sad that I had to pull myself away to keep on hiking. I definitely felt I missed some of that community feeling of hiking and camping together with people I met on the trail, sharing stories and experiences. I’d like to do another thru-hike or section where I get that opportunity. Thank you to everyone who took the time to chat, who gave me extra snacks and encouragement – I cherished it all!
Perhaps the biggest part was the support and encouragement I received from friends. I may have completed the trail from end to end on my own, but they all made it so special. Megan did an amazing job managing the logistics of my resupplies, rallying friends to help or meet me on the trail, and updating my social media so people could stay current on how I was doing. Hearing about how many people were messaging her, as well as what my fundraising total was always spurred me on. At Upper Kananaskis Lake day use I was greeted by a small horde of friends, including my physio who brought his treatment table to put some life back in my tired legs! On the final day from Cameron Lakes to the US Border, each km ticked off Megan would play me videos she had collected in secret from friends and family sending their love and support. These are just a couple of the great lengths everyone went to in supporting me. In all I was accompanied for about 290km, and I’m so grateful to everyone who helped out. Seeing what others were willing to do for my goal also provided motivation, I didn’t want to let them down. I know they would have my back no matter what happened, but it makes me think if you have a big goal, maybe share it with your friends and ask them to be involved in some way. I know I needed all the help I could get with this one!
The End. And Afterthoughts
In the end it was a rollercoaster three weeks that I’m incredibly proud of and grateful for, but I’m not sure I’ll be repeating any time soon! I’ll still be hiking, running and skiing in the mountains though, and have more time now to stop and chat. In the end, I found purpose in having a huge goal that I slowly worked towards, joy in being outside on trails and connecting with others, and wonder at all the beautiful sights and what my body could handle when I had trained for it. I learnt a lot more that I don’t have room to share here, and love getting nerdy about gear, food, training and anything I can put in a spreadsheet – reach out if you want to know more about anything! Hope to see you out there on the trails!