Today is a big day. I have been looking forward to this adventure for more than a year. The trek will require one-way hiking of 7 KM (4.4 miles) up to and over Balu Pass and down the other side to the bottom of Cougar Brook Valley. Then I will explore the Nakimu Caves complex for a few hours and return by the same route. It will be a long and physically demanding day. This is the first of two posts.
The hike will be done in a group of twelve. Cougar Brook Valley and Nakimu Caves are protected areas accessible only by special permit from Parks Canada. The trailhead for Balu Pass is directly behind Glacier Park Lodge.
Update: October 2012 – Glacier Park Lodge at Rogers Pass is permanently closed.
The orientation begins at 6:30 AM. Disclaimer forms are signed and witnessed, introductions are made and instructions are given. Our tour guide for the day is Eric Dafoe, an important member of Friends of Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Park who has been giving guided tours of Nakimu Caves since 1983. There are only four tours given each year. Advance reservations are required. There is a modest charge. Caving gear is mandatory. Another key participant is Stefan who is a younger but seasoned and technically skilled spelunker currently giving tours of Rat’s Nest Cave in Canmore, Alberta. By 6:50 AM we are on the trail, hiking on switchbacks through stands of mountain hemlock and huge Englemann spruce forest.
Right away, I know I am in trouble. Each of us has a bad day periodically. Today is mine. I am hitting the switch but nothing is happening and soon I am far behind the group. Eric is leading and Stefan is sweeping to monitor my slow and laboured pace. Within an hour the forest opens to a broad valley surrounded by mountains draped with avalanche chutes and substantial running water feeding Connaught Creek adjacent to good trail.
Balu Pass is constantly visible in the distance. From the trailhead it is a 5+ KM (3.0 + mile) hike with an elevation gain of 800 metres (2,625 ft) to a maximum elevation of 2,070 metres (6,971 ft). Balu is a derivative of the Indian word ‘baloo’ which means ‘bear’. Surrounding mountains are named Grizzly Mountain, Ursus Minor (Ursus is the Latin word for bear) and Ursus Major. This is Grizzly bear country although, throughout this entire day, we see no evidence of bears whatsoever. A lengthy trail reroute from grassland to newly placed stone slab, two-thirds of the way up, adds a minor distance to the hike.
In the final kilometre and a half the trail is steeper on switchbacks to the summit. Glaciers are visible to the south-east. Given my substandard performance, I have not taken the time to make many photos. When I arrive at the summit of the alpine meadow at Balu Pass, 20 minutes behind the main group, I am granted a few minutes to rest and hydrate before we drop into Cougar Brook Valley as a tight group.
The hike down is a 450 metre (1,476 ft), steep decline on sketchy, overgrown, winding switchbacks. I can keep pace on the downside and this is important since we are in bear territory and towards the bottom we are occasionally hiking in dense brush. The hiking portion of the trip to Nakimu Caves terminates at the ruins of a teahouse constructed by Canadian Pacific Railway in the early 1900s to cater to adventuresome Glacier House visitors. The photo of the old fireplace is the demarcation point between the hike in and the hike out after scrambling in the caves.
I am exhausted at the end of the cave tour. I know, if I can make it out of Cougar Brook Valley and up to the summit of Balu Pass, I will be able to get home. I go down better than I go up. The younger people hike ahead to get on with their lives. Eric Dafoe sticks with me. It is a gracious and appreciated gesture and I get to know him better on the hike out. He is a dedicated man with a passion for mountains and caves. Eric has done a lot of work over the years to promote and preserve access to the natural treasures near Rogers Pass. We see several hoary marmots on the return trek.
I do not have sufficient strength remaining at the end of the day to eat dinner and I will not be hiking tomorrow.