Have you ever heard of a mountain called the Monarch? It isn’t Monarch Mountain in Colorado. It isn’t Monarch Mountain in British Columbia, either. This Monarch is a mountain in Alberta, and it offers quite a prominent sight when one hikes Healy Pass Trail in Banff National Park. And I had an opportunity to go on a solo hike via Monarch Ramparts to get closer to the mountain.
Back in late June through early July, I took a long photography road trip. This is Part 6 of the Road Trip series, and if you haven’t checked out the photos that I took while visiting Mono Lake, Lake Tahoe, Lassen Volcanic, Crater Lake, Multnomah Falls and/or hiking Scarab Lake, click here, here, here, here, here and here to take a look. You won’t be disappointed.
This is the second part of the Banff backpacking trip – The Monarch.
The morning arrived at Egypt Lake Campground, and it was time for my friends and me to pack up our stuff and head out.
Buh bye Egypt Lake! Buh bye Scarab Lake!
We were to take the same way to go back to the Sunshine Meadow. And once we get there, we’d take gondola down to the Sunshine Village parking lot.
I left with the first group of four friends who had been ready to leave ahead of the rest. I was told that the rest would catch up with us at the top of Healy Pass.
IN RANGE OF DRAMATICALLY CHANGING LIGHT
The rain clouds hung over our heads for the whole time while we were climbing the hill. Thankfully it never materialized.
I often turned around to gaze at the majestic Scarab Peak as we were gaining elevation.
At one point the sunlight came through the ever-growing, blotchy rain clouds and shed some spot light on the mountain. Very dramatic, I thought… And, here I was high enough to see both Scarab Lake and Egypt Lake, tucked in like chair pads of a throne.
And, of course, the waterfall. I saw myself standing at the edge of the cliff again.
ENTERING LAND LESS TRAVELED
Hiking with friends is always fun.
But it is also tricky in terms of photography. As a photographer, I always want to go places where I have never been. I am sure you can relate. And when you go with a group, I am sure you’d find that sometimes it is challenging to balance between taking time to take shots and keeping up with the group.
Unless you’re leading photography workshops.
Since we were to take the same Healy Pass Trail back to the Sunshine Meadow, where we started two days ago, I found myself yearning for the path untraveled.
So, when I reached the top of the pass after huffing and puffing over about 1,300 feet elevation gain in less than 2.5 miles with the heavy pack on my backs, my mind was already wandering somewhere over the ridge near the Monarch.
None of my friends seemed interested in joining me. And, not knowing how far behind the second group was, the group was ready to continue.
So, there I was entering the land less traveled by myself.
I SEE YOU KOOTENAY
The first part of the hike was marching on the ridge all the way to the end where it started dropping. And there was a steep slope where I was forced to trudge down carefully, because of my heavy pack on my back.
This part of the park was made up of all kinds of terrain, but particularly the rocks came in all different shapes and sizes. These rocks, very unique and even somewhat out of place, appeared as though they were placed there artificially.
But then, they were quite exposed like that probably because of the wind.
Once the wind picked up, it was quite difficult for me to walk straight. Staggered to my feet in my heavy Salomon boots… My wind butt-heading Gregory pack literally forced me to stop and balance myself with my trekking poles often. I was burning calories fast. I munched on a little bit of snacks while trying to reach the end of the ridge.
The morning at the top of Mt. San Gorgonio back home suddenly entered my mind…
It was almost three years ago when I backpacked the mountain and spent the night at the top (yes, at the top of the tallest mountain in the south of the Sierra Nevada in California – 11,503 feet).
The wind was blowing so crazily that late afternoon and night that (we suspected it was blowing about at 40-50 MPH) I couldn’t even put the rain fly up.
The wind coated the floor inside my tent with a fine layer of sand overnight, let alone the fact that I hardly slept. My ear plugs didn’t block out the relentless flapping noise of the corners of the tent caused by the howling gale outside.
And it never stopped till next morning. So, one of the friends and I packed up our stuff and descended at the first light.
BACK TO THE RIDGE…
It was not that blustery on the ridge. So, I wasn’t worried that I would have been blown off the ridge.
In fact, the barren ridge, scarcely dressed with a few shrubs and short trees, was quite flat and wide, probably over several hundred feet wide (although I must point out that the east side of it was extremely slanted with loose gravel…), more like Bighorn Peak ridge in Mt. Baldy area, than some sections of Devil’s Backbone in Mt. Baldy. So I was not alarmed.
But it was cold.
The view of the arrays of tall mountains in Kootenay National Park, however, made all the trouble that I was experiencing worthwhile. Especially with all the rain clouds forming and hanging over them, it was very ominous to say the least, but that expansive view simply took my breath away.
By the way, there was one of those wildlife monitoring motion detection cameras installed on the ridge. I waved at it while wondering what kind of wildlife would be monitored there by Parks Canada…
As nearing the end of the ridge, I saw the south part of the Monarch Ramparts stretched deeper into the Assiniboine Provincial Park. What a view, I thought to myself, and decided to take a break there. To avoid the wind blowing west to east, I carefully slogged myself down the jagged edges of the ridge about seven feet below and unbuckled the pack.
Phew… That’s better.
I could’ve sat there for quite some time. While munching on snacks, my mind wandered into the sight of the mountains and then traveled into the far distance. Wondered what it would be like to hike or backpack there… Probably I could reach Mount Assiniboine (11,870 feet)… although climbing would be impossible. It has two mountaineering routes, and they are at YDS 5.5. I am definitely not trained for that.
As the clouds kept lingering with light rain drops on and off, although never fully materialized, I knew it was time to put the pack on and finish the remainder of this long ridge. The ridge that didn’t appear to be really that long when I saw it from the top of Healy Pass… But I guess it was all about the perspective.
One thing was certain. I was getting closer to the Monarch.
AT BOTTOM OF MONARCH
The Monarch sat like a champ.
Or a king.
Just like when I was at Scarab Lake and looked up at the tall Scarab Peak, the mountain looked massive. Now here I was having a sense of deja vu all over again.
I surveyed the area, including Eohippus Lake, while taking photos. Part of me really wished that I could have camped there. It would’ve been quite fun.
As one corner of the sky cleared up, I didn’t stick around too long. I wanted to be on Healy Pass Trail before the rain clouds may roll in again.
SOLITUDE IN WILDERNESS
The rain clouds didn’t make up their mind.
The sky was certainly cleared up on one side. Then more rain clouds were forming and moving quite fast toward where I was. But, when they were all over my head, only a few sprinkles landed on me.
As the wind picked up, it got cold. I put my windbreaker on.
After a little bit, the sprinkle stopped. The sun kind of peeked through the ever persisting clouds. I got warmed again and took my windbreaker off.
It repeated like that for a while…
And to make things more interesting, this trail kept disappearing on me. It totally disappeared for about a hundred feet when I reached the bottom of the Monarch, near Eohippus Lake. I didn’t see anything. No sign of trail or markers.
Although I suspect now that I might’ve missed a couple of turnoffs, the trail in this part of the park was not considered well defined, I would say.
I did find it shortly and continued my walk, but there were more than a few times where I had to keep my eyes peeled in terms of navigating the area.
LET LIGHT EXERT ITSELF
When I arrived at this small lake, which was one of many lakes that I may have looked at from the top of the ridge, I decided to eat something before gaining another few hundred feet.
I knew that I was not too far from the junction where the trail that I was on would merge with Healy Pass Trail.
As the rain clouds continued to move in and out of the Monarch Ramparts, the ultimate light magic show began. Especially with the view of the Monarch in a distance, I thought I should simply just let the light play.
When I finally reached the Sunshine Meadow, not only did I miss my friends because it took me a lot longer than I thought it would but also I learned that the gondola was not in service.
I was like,
What? Not in service? Then, how do I get down to the Sunshine Village parking lot?
It turned out that the gondola lifts were in service only on weekends and holidays in summer. And during weekdays they ran buses every half hour up and down this very windy fire road between the meadow and the village.
Although it was the Fourth of July, it was Monday and I was in Canada.
I caught the last bus though. (Well, technically I returned to the meadow early enough to catch the second last, but somehow they had cancelled that prior to me getting there… So, I ended up waiting for a good 50 minutes to get on that last bus.)
While moving, one of the locals on the bus told me that there was only one way in and out of the Sunshine Meadow, and that was it. I thought to myself,
Well, at least there is no traffic…
I wasn’t too tired, but I was glad that it was over when I shoved my heavy backpack into the backseat of my car.
Then I noticed a note stuck in the windshield wiper. Messages from the friends (even the second group got there earlier, obviously, than I did), and actually three of them were to stay at a campground in Johnston Canyon.
I hopped in the car and headed that way.
On my way I saw many mountains along the highway, but Mt. Ishbel stood out. With a sight of Bow River running in front of it, as the day was waning and the clouds were still lingering in the sky, mother nature put up another light magic show!
Hiking by the Monarch was one of the highlights of this backpacking trip.
I was so glad that I took the path less traveled and that I had such a closer look at the Monarch. Its majestic presence was unwavering. Hopefully one day I go back and climb the mountain. That would be another unforgettable memory to cherish.
Most of all, just being out there by myself made me feel truly humble again and more respectful for mother nature.
Once I got to the campground in Johnston Canyon, I found out that there was shower facility with hot water!!!! I couldn’t believe it!
I waited for my friends who had not been checked in yet to show up, but I got hungry, so I ate by myself. Once I was done with my meal, I headed straight to one of the shower buildings at the campground.
It felt great!
I felt like a new person!
Did I say that it felt great?
My friends arrived at the campsite a lot later. We caught up and shared our days in the wilderness. We knew that we would say good bye next morning, but I was so glad that I spent time backpacking with them.
I said that hiking with friends is fun, right?
Have you hiked or backpacked the Monarch? Have you camped at Eohippus Lake? Have you climbed to the top of the Monarch? Let me know what you like about this blog post!
Thanks for reading.