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Subalpine trekking along the Rockwall offers some of the most dramatic views in the Canadian Rockies. (Janine Murphy)
Subalpine trekking along the Rockwall offers some of the most dramatic views in the Canadian Rockies. (Janine Murphy)

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The Rockwall is a kilometre-tall rampart of lead-coloured limestone, rippling 53 kilometres across the spine of Kootenay National Park. It’s a dramatic piece of geology, even in a region where dramatic geology seems to lurk around every hairpin turn in the road.

Kootenay’s sister parks in Banff, Jasper and Yoho may be more famous, but most hikers agree that the five-day walk along the base of the Rockwall’s intimidating barricade of stone and ice is the pinnacle of Canadian Rocky Mountain hiking. The trail’s physical challenges are quad-quivering: A CN Tower’s worth of climbing and descending is built into each day’s walk. But the roller-coaster topography compensates with some of the most striking scenery on the continental divide. Glaciers and waterfalls tumble from the Rockwall’s head, sapphire lakes and fragrant alpine meadows nestle into its feet and shaggy white mountain goats roam its face.

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Right now, I just hope it’s all visible in the dark.

I ignored how close the setting sun was to the mountains as I left my car at the trailhead a few hours ago, excited to bag the path’s first section and camp next to Floe Lake, a glacier-encrusted cirque at the base of the Wall. The guidebook in my pack describes sunrise at Floe as the most memorable view in the Kootenay range.

Unfortunately, it says nothing about the logistics of walking there at night. And that’s just what I’m doing by the time the trail launches into its most difficult section – a zigzagging, 400-metre climb out of a forested valley toward the subalpine plateau where the lake is located. I flick on my headlamp and mutter a dejected curse at its feeble beam – good enough to read by but barely enough to illuminate the roots and rocks ahead of me.

Forest fires in 2003 ravaged the massive Engelmann spruce trees that carpet the valley. Now, the blackened trunks sway above me in the night breeze like giant porcupine quills. I make out a yellow sign posted on one of the charred stumps next to the trail and bring my headlamp closer to investigate. It’s a warning notice featuring a stick figure of a hiker being crushed by a falling tree. I move on.

With the forest canopy burned away, the undergrowth bordering the trail is dense from unaccustomed exposure to sunlight. Kootenay has a healthy bruin population and my guidebook calls these lush patches of shrubs and weeds grizzly grocery stores. I’m bearanoid in broad daylight – with the lighting equivalent of a birthday candle strapped to my forehead, I jump at every snapped branch and unidentified rustle.

I gradually relax as the walk continues, mauling-free. Time morphs into a series of intervals between switchback turns and dimly seen obstacles. A Perseid meteor flashes overhead. The sky brightens noticeably as a full moon clears the surrounding peaks. The lunar beam turns a waterfall tumbling noisily down the valley into a smooth pewter ribbon. Soon it’s bright enough for me to switch off the useless headlamp. I keep shouting “hey bear!” sporadically, but it seems like a formality now. These are clearly werewolf conditions.

At the top of the switchbacks, the trail leaves behind the burnt spruce of the lower valley and levels out across a plateau dotted with larch trees. Their green needles have already turned to their autumn shade of gold in the cool September nights. The moon glow further tints them a pale bronze.

When the trail deposits me on the lakeshore a little while later, I have retained one unskinned knee and a modest amount of dignity. The view confirms it was all worth it.

A perfect, kilometre-wide oval, Floe Lake gleams onyx-black at the base of the Rockwall, the rampart wrapping halfway around it like an amphitheatre. The rock soars 800 metres straight up from the water. It’s a giant natural snow fence and where it meets the lake, glaciers formed by millennia of compacting snowdrifts grip the deep grey limestone at weird angles, glowing a ghostly white in the moonlight. Reflections of the stars, stone and ice all shimmer in the still pool. An occasional hail of small stones skitters from the rock face onto the glaciers, but otherwise it is preternaturally silent.

I shrug off my pack and sit on the shadowy ground. I know that somewhere close by tents are full of slumbering hikers. But right now I feel as solitary as an astronaut on the surface of an asteroid.

I’m not going to make a habit out of night hiking. But I am going to write the author of my guidebook. He’s way off. Sunrise at Floe Lake might be memorable. But moonrise is pure magic.

If you go

You can bag the Rockwall Trail in as few as four days, but with plenty of well-spaced campsites along the trail, there’s no need to rush. Five to six days leaves more time for side trips, photography and gawking. Hikers must be completely self-sufficient and provisioned. Besides some picnic tables at the campsites, the trail is gloriously wild and unserviced. Hit the Stairmaster for a few weeks before you hit the trail so that its ups and downs are feel-good challenges instead of curse-inducing obstacles. Booking information, trail conditions and bear warnings are all available at pc.gc.ca/kootenay

 

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