Reaching new heights
'A day well-lived.' Annalise Klingbeil reflects on a group hike through Yukon's remote Tombstone Territorial Park
By ANNALISE KLINGBEIL
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, October 19, 2019 Print Edition, Page P10
I breathe a sigh of relief when my left hiking boot leaves one last slippery, lichen-covered boulder and lands on brushy tundra. I've made it through what's known as the brokennose zone without breaking my nose. Ahead of me are four people I've recently met, each carrying backpacks filled to the brim with tents, stoves, sleeping bags, water filters, clothing and food for four days of hiking in Yukon's Tombstone Territorial Park.
Our group of 10 is about three kilometres from where we'll pitch our tents for the evening - beside the stunning Grizzly Lake, surrounded by jagged mountains unlike any I've seen before and tundra vegetation that's painted a vivid gold. At camp, we'll use our heavy, bear-resistant food canisters (mandatory in this remote park) as seats while we eat pesto and sun-dried tomato pasta. Over dinner, we'll celebrate our collective lack of injuries and tears.
I'm out here to sample one of the just-launched Arc'teryx Trips.
After three decades of making meticulously designed, high-end outdoor gear, the Vancouverbased company has launched 11 multiday experiences in 10 rugged landscapes around the globe.
"As we've grown as a company, we're selling product to a lot of people that aren't necessarily into outdoor sport," says John Irvine, spokesman for Arc'teryx Trips. The newly launched outdoor experiences build on other initiatives, such as in-store seminars, designed to help customers use the company's products for what they were built for - mountaineering, trail running, climbing and hiking/trekking. From climbing Italy's famed Dolomites to hiking and camping here, some 300 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle, the program offers small groups of strangers a not-so-ordinary vacation experience led by professional guides.
Which brings me back to my nose. Seven hours before setting foot on the slippery boulder field, we were briefed on our backcountry adventure at the Tombstone Interpretive Centre.
While I'm an avid and confident hiker who frequents the Canadian Rockies, my eyes widened as an employee described what to expect while carting 21 kilograms on my back. The first day of our trek will involve 797 metres of elevation gain, a "crying section" about three kilometres in, and, later in the day, the boulder field, where three hikers have already broken their noses this season after faceplanting. While we drink warm rose hip, Labrador and cranberry tea, she also warns of an extremely steep, "not fun" climb on Day 2, bears, the risk of hypothermia - it's mid-September, after all - and feisty ground squirrels who will eat anything they can get their paws on.
The dramatic warnings make sense given the range of visitors' skill levels during the park's busy three-month backcountry camping season that begins in midJune. Officially established as a 2,200 square kilometre wilderness park a decade ago, Tombstone Territorial Park lies entirely in the traditional territory of the Tr'ondek Hwech'in First Nation, who have hunted, lived and traded here for thousands of years.
Co-managed between the Tr'ondek Hwech'in and the Yukon government, Tombstone has been dubbed the Patagonia of the North. Hikers ranging from novice to expert travel from around the world to experience tundra tussocks, talus slopes and steep vistas. Permits and registration are required to use the park's three hike-in campsites that feature tent pads, cooking shelters and outhouses surrounded by a wind-carved mountain range. "When was the last time you didn't have cell service or WiFi for four days?" guide Lilla Molnar asks at a snack break on our first day. Not being able to connect to the outside world and the distractions that come with constantly having a smartphone in your pocket forces our group, whose members range in age from 29 to 56, to focus instead on human connection. We really get to know one another. We laugh a lot, and we talk even more as our feet navigate the varied terrain and our eyes feast on the vivid fall colours.
On the second day of our hike, we complete a 300-metre climb up Glissade Pass that guidebooks describe as "daunting," "extremely steep" and "strenuous."
Captivating conversation completely distracts me from the challenge.
Our campsites seem to only get more beautiful as the days progress and we hike further into the park. After tackling the pass, we spend our second night at Divide Lake, nestled below Mount Monolith. We wake up to a sprawling body of water so still and clear the surrounding peaks are perfectly reflected on its surface. We throw some extra layers and snacks in day packs and hike to a ridge above our camp to relish in expansive 360-degree views of lakes and mountains as far as the eye can see.
After an easy and relatively flat six-kilometre hike through alpine cirques, our third evening is spent at Talus Lake, by far the most dazzling (as well as the windiest and chilliest) of the three backcountry sites, with tent pads sitting on an expansive tundra, encircled by mountains in every possible direction. A fellow media member high-fives guide Sarah Hueniken when we arrive with an enthusiastic "No injuries!" before another camper greets us with the accurate words, "Welcome to paradise."
The views of iconic Tombstone Mountain are most impressive at this site. Named for its striking resemblance to a grave marker, the mountain's craggy granite peak towers over our tents. An entry in the guestbook (found in the outhouse) includes the sentence: "Otherworldly is an apt description." Another simply states, "So glad we made it here.
Magic. Pure Magic!"
On our last evening of camping, our group sits around and shares laughs as the sun sets behind a mountain. The cloudy sky fills with streaks of yellow and pink. We're surrounded by dramatic rock formations that glow in the light of the sunset. "A day well-lived," says photographer Angela Percival, as we take time to soak it all in. The vistas in Tombstone are truly something else. Combine that with several days connecting with strangers, and such a wild place has a way of spurring deep reflection.
The next morning, we wake to mist and intense cloud that make the already ethereal scene that surrounds us feel moodier.
We don't have to worry about facing the dangerous boulder field, climbing up the other side of Glissade Pass, or hiking down the crying zone as we have the luxury of not walking out over the 24 kilometres we've travelled in. Instead, after a chilly breakfast consumed while wearing every layer of clothing I've brought, we pack up and hop on a yellow helicopter. Jaws drop as we travel over top the breathtaking pinnacles that have surrounded us for several days. Before we know it, we're back to the comforts of civilization such as running water, heat, electricity, WiFi and even ground where you don't have to worry about breaking your nose.
Benny Bystrom, left, Josie Meadows, Annalise Klingbeil and Sarah Hueniken spent four days hiking in Yukon's Tombstone Territorial Park as part of Arc'teryx Trips. The Vancouver-based outdoor-gear company has launched 11 multiday experiences in 10 rugged landscapes around the world.
PHOTOS BY ANGELA PERCIVAL