Section C - Day 4: And Then It Snowed.
Morning 4 of section C, brings some weak sunlight filtering through the rain, but not enough to dry off my gear. Everything is damp, and even with the sun, the branches are giving me the carwash once more. Sun on this trail, is not really sun unless it has been sunny for a while. The weather is giving me trust issues. I'm worn out by relentless moisture. My raingear is soaked. My tent is soaked. My bag is soaked. And even my sleeping bag, which I go through tremendous pains to keep dry, has lost a lot of loft due to the ambient moisture and condensation at night. My pack is so heavy from carrying all this wet gear, it's as though I have days of extra food in it.
I'm walking up steep switchbacks to Citadel Pass, one of the higher passes on the GDT at 2477 metres, when the weather takes a dark turn. I am still taken off-guard by how quickly the weather turns here. First a subtle change of wind, then a darkening of the sky, then the wind begins to blow hard, and the first hailstones bounce across the rocks, stinging my face.
The hailstones are blowing so hard, nearly horizontal now, and they pile off on the windward side of each rock along the trail, leaving a long dark shadow of uncovered wet ground on the leeward side. The wind is, of course, blowing directly into my face, stealing the breath from my mouth and it's an effort to breathe, let alone push forward. I can't look up for the force of the hailstones blowing into my face. It seriously hurts! I'm yelling and swearing at the top of my lungs as I push forward. All I can do is look down at the two feet of trail at my feet, hiding beneath the brim of my cap and watching the hailstones skitter along the bare earth of the pass and pile on my shoes, my legs. It is not ideal, I think, for this to be happening when I'm on the literal top of an exposed pass. I just need to keep hiking and get below tree line!
There are two other hikers up on the pass with me and I yell to them something about how there was snow forecast for today. "You don't say!" they yell back, and sure enough the hail has turned to driving, small flakes of snow, and begins to pile up with tremendous speed. The wind is blowing too hard, and the snow is too wet and plentiful for me to risk putting down my bag and layering up, so I continue on, wearing nothing but a t-shirt under my rain jacket. My thin gloves are soaked and my hands are frozen claws. My shoes and pants were already soaked, and now they are caked in snow and my toes are completely numb.
Thankfully, I'm just 12km from Sunshine Village Ski Resort, where I know there is an open restaurant, with hot drinks and good food and a shuttle bus to Banff, so I don't panic. It's pretty miserable, yes, but also arrestingly beautiful, and I know a unique experience. To watch a wet summer morning turn to a beautiful winter in the matter of minutes is astonishing. So I push on into the wind, watching the wildflowers grow a crust of snow at my feet, and a wintry scene of snow on evergreens grow around me. It is very cold though, and I am really not wearing enough, and my wet shoes slosh through snow and slush and I feel the water between my toes harden. 12k is still 4 hours of hiking...
And so I walk, because every time I stop to take a picture, or adjust a strap, I immediately begin to shiver like a little leaf. The wind is still blowing too hard to layer up. So I walk. And walk. And the world thickens and whitens around me, and the snow does that thing it does to sound, where ambience is muffled, and your breath becomes loud in your ears. The one brave bird who is confident enough to sing, seems to sing, echolessly, right into my ears and my ears alone. It is harsh, cold, windy, a bit scary, but also so. so. Perfect.
When I finally get to the ski resort, I bust through the pub door, knocking chunks of half-frozen slush onto the floor. Face flushed. My hands are so cold that they hold the round form of my hiking poles, even once they are leaned against the wall. The waiter greets me like a returning hero, pressing a cup of tea into my hands. Has hot tea ever been this good? I am delirious with happiness. I eat a full serving of poutine, and a pulled pork burger. The waiter, who I think is getting the best entertainment of his workday, gives me bottomless hot drinks and I drink many, feeling life make it's way back into my toes.
I'm finishing my meal when Brownbag shows up! He tells me he's heading to Banff and got a room at a fancy hotel (that's all he could find on such short notice), and invites me to stay there with him. We take the shuttle down, and I take a very long, very hot bath. We get room service and watch the food network in bed, torturing our hungry hiker selves with visions of crab cakes, waffles, and polenta. That could have been a very scary situation, but it actually couldn't have turned out better.