We had a pretty solid start to our trip on Day 1 (Part I), but things went downhill really fast on Day 2. It’s hard to write about, but backcountry safety and emergency preparedness in the wilderness are so important to me, so I think it’s really important to share when things go wrong. More people than ever have been exploring the backcountry during the pandemic and search and rescue tasks have been way up. Social media has exposed a lot of very beautiful locations, but people don’t always share the challenges that often come along with those experiences. I don’t want to give a false idea of what multi-day thru-hikes are like, so I think it’s really important to share the good along with the bad. In general, my entire 6 day trip to Assiniboine was extremely challenging, but Day 2 was probably one of the worst days I’ve ever had in the backcountry.
On Day 2 we had to go 14km to get to our campsite at Magog Lake. We departed shortly after 8am and it was about 1km to the lake. There’s a short uphill section that takes you partway up the mountainside and from there, it’s another 6km of relatively flat terrain that runs parallel to the lake. The trail traverses in and out of the trees, so we had a pretty good time because large parts of the trail were shaded, and the parts that weren’t shaded offered absolutely gorgeous views of Marvel Lake and the glacier covered mountains at the end of the lake. From the trail, we could just see the tip of Mount Assiniboine peaking out from behind the mountains.
Once the trail reaches the end of the lake, it starts to ascend up to Wonder Pass via a series of switchbacks. We knew the switchbacks would be challenging in the heat, so we planned a nice break before starting them. It was around 11am, so we decided to wait to have lunch and instead has some snacks. I was feeling a little tired, so I mixed myself some electrolytes to help prepare for the climb. We hit a river right before starting the ascent, so we all topped up our bladders and bottles.
I was feeling good as we started the switchbacks, but I was also worried about the others, particularly Lien, who drinks a lot of water on a normal day, much less a really hot one. I told everyone to say if they felt the least bit dizzy or nauseous and that we would stop. But one mistake I think I made was that as we climbed up the switchbacks, I was at the head of the group. We probably should have put a slower hiker at the front, but the trail goes in and out of the trees, so we were stopping for short breaks at every single shady section of the trail, so I didn’t think much of it.
I was one shady section ahead of the group taking a break when the guys called up to me that our other companion, whose name I’ve left out for privacy reasons, was feeling tired and wanted a quick break. I walked back down the trail to see her sitting on the ground leaning against her pack with her eyes closed. This was a bad sign for me and indicated to me that she probably already had heat exhaustion. I quickly mixed her a half litre of electrolytes to try and perk up her energy. The guys seemed pretty sure she’d come around quickly, but honestly for me it was a really bad omen. I’ve had first aid training since I was 16 and have treated 2 other cases of heat exhaustion in the past (1 of which resulted in a seizure), so I just had a really bad feeling.
What I wasn’t prepared for though was how quickly our companion’s health went downhill. Within minutes she was fully lying down on the trail while I continued to give her electrolytes and Brandon gave her energy chews. She kept saying she just needed a few minutes to rest up, but I was not reassured by the fact that she was lying down and knew she was likely already dehydrated and needed more than a few minutes of rest. I booted up my Inreach on the side as a precaution, but the guys wanted to give her more time. This is not unreasonable as you definitely don’t want to call for emergency assistance unless you’re sure you need it.
But shortly after that things really deteriorated and she started having severe muscle cramps in her arms and legs. At first I thought she was having a seizure, but then recognized it as heat cramps and immediately made the SOS call. This is something I hoped never to have to do when I purchased my Inreach, but of course, I also purchased it for this exact scenario. While I was making the call the guys removed her shoes and socks and anything that was creating tightness and started massaging her legs, feet, and arms. This definitely helped with the pain of the cramps, but I knew that in the long term she needed hydration. I poured water over her face and torso to try and cool her down and kept feeding her electrolytes, hoping she would not pass out because I needed to keep giving her water.
As we gave first aid, I noticed the SOS had still not sent. It often takes my inreach about 20 minutes to send messages, especially in the trees like where we were, but I didn’t want to wait for it, so Brandon offered to run it up the trail to try and get the message through. It stressed me out for us to split up, but we needed help and I had wilderness first aid training and Brandon was fast, so it made the most sense. He took his water and left. It felt like he was gone forever, during which I mostly continued to feed her electrolytes until she complained it was too much and asked me to switch to water. At that point, I started drinking the electrolytes myself because I was starting to get tired too. Lien continued to massage her limbs. She had initially been frantic because she couldn’t feel her legs or arms, but overtime, she started to regain feeling and fortunately, still never passed out. Eventually she became cold from all the water I poured on her, so I changed her into dry clothes and we put an emergency blanket under her to insulate against the cold ground.
I don’t know what the official diagnosis was for her condition, but I believe it was heat stroke, which can only be treated with medical help. The fact that she had such severe cramping and lost feeling in her limbs likely suggests that her body was starting to shut down and was taking energy away from her limbs to preserve her body’s core functions. I’m not a professional, so perhaps it wasn’t as extreme as heat stroke, but I don’t doubt she needed more help than we were able to provide on that mountain.
The sun was on the move and our shade was disappearing, so I put up my tarp to shield us all from it. Her pain had subsided so me and Lien quickly ate some food to keep up our own strength and then kept giving her water. There wasn’t much else I could do for her aside from try to replenish her fluids. Thankfully Brandon returned, having finally got the SOS to go through. He was immediately inundated with messages from Emergency Services looking for more details. Fortunately the Inreach had found the satellite and we were now able to message from our location. I’m sure the technicians were frustrated with us because it takes forever to type using the text pick on the Inreach and we gave them pretty limited info to try and get the messages out as fast as possible. They asked if we could move at all, to which I responded no, and I told them we’d wait at this location and to look for a yellow tarp. Lien tied his red ground sheet to the trees as well to make us more visible.
Once I finished the trip, I learned Inreach had called both Seth and my Mom, who were listed as my emergency contacts. They couldn’t originally get a hold of Seth, who had our entire trip plan, but the main thing they first asked my Mom was about my level of experience and whether she thought I had sent the SOS accidentally. The reason they wondered is because the GPS location showed we were directly on the trail. Mom told them she thought it was unlikely it was an accident and to please send help. By then we had got more messages through and Inreach reassured my Mom they were already on the way.
They definitely were on the way. Shortly after Brandon returned and less than an hour after the message had gone through, a helicopter circled our location and sirened at us to let us know they’d seen us. They told us after it was really easy to find us having our exact GPS location and with the tarp. They flew off and returned some time later with a guy on longline. He landed about 15metres down the trail from us and Lien accompanied him to our location. He asked our companion some questions and we filled him in on what had occurred. During this, Brandon had departed again to go back to the water source to refill our bladders and Lien began packing up the backpacks for departure. A second S&R guy was flown in on longline and they assessed whether they could bring our companion out lying down or sitting up. They decided lying down would be best for the extraction and then to transfer her to the helicopter to sit on the way to the hospital. At this point she was looking better. She was actually keeping her eyes open and giving longer responses, plus she needed to go to the bathroom twice. S&R never actually gave her any first aid on the ground and instead transferred her to hospital to go on saline.
They told us we had taken the right actions in putting up the tarp, cooling her down, and giving her lots of water and electrolytes. They took her out via longline lying down and then took Lien out by longline sitting up. They waited for Brandon to return before taking Lien so we could plan what to do next. They did indicate they would take us all via longline if we needed it, but that it wasn’t preferred as the helicopter wasn’t big enough. They needed to take Lien so he could go to the hospital, but it made no sense for them to take me and Brandon too, so we had to decide whether to go back or continue on. I felt that we should go back. We had been through something traumatic and I wanted to know she was okay after having given her first aid for 3 hours. But Brandon pointed out there was really nothing more we could do for her and we were more than a day from either trailhead, so we should just go on.
So we went on. I still feel a bit guilty about it, but I’m also glad that at least the trip wasn’t over for everyone. In the back of my mind though I was concerned about me and Brandon also getting heat exhaustion. Brandon had already climbed the pass once with the Inreach and I was tired from the stress of attending to the incident. One of the eeriest parts of the day was the fact that we hadn’t seen a single person besides S&R. It made us feel like we were the only people crazy enough to be out hiking, but we encountered lots of other people at Assiniboine who were day hiking up to the pass and thru-hiking in the opposite direction, so it was just a coincidence we were the only ones hiking through the pass that day.
Before moving anywhere we finally sat down and ate our lunch to get some energy back. After that we took it really slow. We crawled at a snail’s pace through the sunny sections and took a break every time we encountered shade. There was limited shade in Wonder Pass, but was it ever gorgeous! I felt like we weren’t able to properly enjoy it, but we still got some lovely photos. We debated camping in the pass since it was an extenuating circumstance, but there was so little shade to be found we ultimately decided to press on. Though we did find a single tree up there and took a break.
It was approaching 6pm when we left the pass. The top of the pass marks both the Alberta-BC border and the transition between Banff National Park and Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park. It was a relief to finally start moving downhill and we walked through a beautiful larch forest that I’m sure is super scenic in the fall. We descended past a waterfall and down to some meadows where we re-filled our bottles from the stream. In total Brandon drank a whopping 7L of water on this day!
It was still late June, so I was surprised by the amount of wildflowers we saw on the trip! We saw lots of buttercups and Indian Paintbrush, as well as the Alberta Wild Rose, forget-me-nots, and lots of other white and purple flowers I can’t identify. Eventually we arrived at Gog Lake, which still had some small bergy bits floating in it. I wanted to go for a swim in it, but it’s surrounded by wetland, so I settled for a dunk in freezing Magog Creek instead. It was only knee deep and my feet immediately started to go numb, so I quickly washed myself down before crawling back out.
We were pretty exhausted at this point, but we continued on through the meadows and couldn’t help exclaiming at the beauty of the park. We finally hit the Naiset Huts and were disappointed to learn it was still another 2km to the Magog Lake campsite. It was finally starting to cool off now though and the sun was lower in the sky, we continued along the edge of Magog Lake and were treated to the most gorgeous views of the lake. Every step hurt and when we finally rolled into the campsite it was 8pm – almost 12 hours after we had started! We were greeted by the Ranger who directed us to the shadiest campsite remaining (not very shady). But we didn’t care and trudged our way out to site number 40 at the back of a little meadow.
I have lots to write about the campsite, but this post is getting long, so I’ll save it for the next entry. We set up camp as quick as possible and I got dinner going while Brandon filtered water. We scarfed down our dinner and sent messages out to Lien and Seth to let them know we’d made it to the campsite and check on our companion. She was still in the hospital, but doing better. After that we pretty much hit the sack immediately. Unfortunately sleep was elusive. There was too much to process from the day, I just lay in bed for hours with my brain spinning. At one point I got up to pee and I could barely open my eyes or move my body I was so tired, but my mind just would not go to sleep. Eventually I drifted off late in the night with no alarms set for the next day. Click for Part III.