I lean back, close my eyes and inhale the scent of pine, dew and dry cured hickory bacon. The sun is barely cresting a mountain ridge, the light through the trees dances on my eyelids. I open my eyes, squinting against the glorious light which is cascading on my wild caramel and copper shimmered tresses.  Nothing but the mountain’s many cheerful morning voices interrupts my solace. I have always enjoyed time alone for these uninterrupted moments.


Most hiking partners want to make conversation or start packing camp ten minutes earlier than I am ready, but with Robyn there has always been an ease of traveling. She is still fast asleep in the tent as I enjoy my breakfast and my moment. Robyn is a conscience vegan (she loves animals too much to eat them.) She neither wants to see me eat my bacon and eggs or smell it and she doesn’t drink coffee. She pre-made her vegan meals and can sleep in while I make my breakfast.

Robyn and I are strange companions and yet familiar in the way people who have been friends for many years are. My (big city, vegan, Pilates instructing, circus performing) friend and I (the rural, cattle rancher, and cowgirl) couldn’t be more different. With the exception of our similar physical descriptions (we are similar, barring an eight inch height difference) we have nothing in common but shared values and a love of adventure.

I can feel in my body this will be a good day; difficult but good.  I’m nervous, I haven’t hiked with elevation gain, a pack and for more than an hour since I was in a bad farm accident. I prepare my gear and then begin making intermittent wake up calls for Robyn. Robyn has offered to take my entire day pack if my body balks at hiking, We still don’t know if my body will tolerate this trip. Eight years ago she and a couple other friends did the same with my long distance pack when I sprained an ankle and unknowingly broke a foot bone. I argued enough that they raided my pack when my back was turned.

Today, I won’t argue, in the days and weeks following my accident I needed help to get out of bed and get dressed and I’m humble enough to take help if it means I get any backcountry self sufficiency back. I’m also selective enough to ask someone who has seen my best, worse and almost everything between. She can read pain signals better than anyone I know, I can’t lie to her and say I’m ok, she knows the difference.

A short time later we arrived at the trail head to Banff’s famous Sentinel Pass. It’s a moderate but well travelled hike known for grizzly bear populations. Robyn took the rain gear, trek poles, map book, camera and tripod and most of my food while we waited in line for parking. Starting out at an even lower weight than my meager 8.8 pounds of total weight seemed like a good idea considering my still tender injuries. When we arrived at the trail base a large sign warned of grizzly sightings and a minimum of four hikers in a group were required. Robyn and I exchanged glances, we stopped and discussed options. Finally after a short debate and we realized there were literally close to a hundred hikers on this trail we forged ahead.

I don’t bring bear spray hiking, my background in law enforcement training tells me it won’t work; if the bear is angry I am bear bait anyway. I ran a complete obstacle course after being sprayed with military grade, oleoresin capsicum which is three times more concentrated than bear spray. If all 5’1 and 115lbs of me could just run mace off, I have no doubt a bear will. I have a simple strategy: let the bear hear you coming and he’ll likely avoid you. If you see the bear, avoid eye contact, talk low and slow, don’t piss him off and back away slowly. He doesn’t want to deal with you any more than you want to deal with him. Respect the bear and the bear will respect you.

The first several kilometers were yawn inspiring switchbacks which made my calves and lungs ache. Several hike groups passed us on the way down and gave sideways glances at our group of two. Robyn jokes she feels like a kid with her hand in a cookie jar and truly we do. There is also a realization that very few of the groups we pass or are passed by are more than occasional day hikers. Robyn and I have both spent days out in areas where bear encounters were more likely, here they have heard the humans invading their home for hours and have disappeared into the thick vegetation.

On ascent, I felt my acute loss of cardio ability but my months of physiotherapy are proven as I didn’t lack strength or coordination. I realized early my body would need frequent hydration and refueling this trip and likely every trip from this point forward. Robyn and I compare notes as we travel. Her longer strides would leave me behind on the uphill. She is intensely muscular from months of circus training but her cardio is feeling the altitude as well. I set the pace on the up hill and she stays with me. I feel badly but I am only so fast after the beating I took in February. My pace is even however, and we are not slow hiking by any stretch.

After about an hour of switch backs the trail leveled into a beautiful meadow known as Larch Valley it has a commanding view of the Ten Peaks. We stopped here with another group for some photos, a bite to eat and some water. The trail from this point on was level and easy as it made a slow ascent to the valley’s lakes.

We make a quick stop at the lakes just to enjoy the sunshine and adjust gear before making the steep ascent up the scree trail to Sentinel Pass. I seem to make good time up the scree switchbacks, despite having hyper mobile joints I am relatively sure footed and my short stature and light body weight has an advantage here.  The scree switchbacks are completely exposed and we could count how many were left. The trail here is completely thankless and rather bleak. I wasn’t sure if I should be glad it was overcast and thankful for the cool breeze from the pass above or worried about the pensive clouds blocking the afternoon sunlight. In all cases if it stormed here we would have had to turn back and seek shelter lower down.

When we finally reached the top of the pass we found it rather colorless but the surrounding mountains were impressive. Robyn and I separated, I found a rock shelter and took pictures while she scrambled up a nearby ridge. This is a place our friendship shines, we both enjoy a few moments of uninterrupted solitude and neither of us is offended by the silent way we slip away and return later.

We refueled our bodies and began our descent. Here my sure footed and compact frame begins to shine. Robyn and I share hyper mobility in our joints but here it affects us differently, both of us are careful with foot placement as we both are prone to sprains but my lower center of gravity allows me to descend at a faster pace. I keep it even and moderate as Robyn uses trek poles on the scree descent. On uphill Robyn would easily leave me behind but I can make up for it on the way down. After a rapid descent of rather unremarkable retraced steps we arrived at the bottom.

On the way home, we debrief: a mutual appreciation for each other’s unique physical abilities, as well as our unique personal traits which make us ideal hiking partners. Both of us are highly competitive but because of our extreme differences in skill sets we do not compete, we complement. Robyn’s physical strength and long strides are of monumental value to me while making tough river crossing or off loading gear if needed. Her patient, adventurous demeanor brings out my free spirited, unfiltered side like few others do. My mental preparation, knowledge and organization allows her to relax and know nothing has been forgotten and we have coverage for emergencies.

In addition to complementing skills we share a love of deep introspection and curiosity. There were very few sections of trail we were not engaged in deep, vibrant conversation. Our differences bring a beautiful mutual respect for a very different choice of lifestyle, with a shared faith and love of the outdoors.

 The Gypsy Cowgirl and Circus Vegan rating of Sentinel Pass is a solid 3.25 of 4 stars. Trail access is tedious and over used, extra time is needed to plan on either taking a shuttle bus or waiting for parking at the trail head. The trail is busy and well travelled but the hike is exceptionally rewarding for moderate effort on relatively uncomplicated terrain.

Day Pack List:

Total Weight: 8.8lbs
Base Weight: 7.3

Pack:
Osprey Verve 9L

Navigation:
Silva Ranger Compass

Sun:
Ball Cap
SPF Lip Chap

Layers:
Asics Trail Runners
Ininji trail running socks
Prana Zip Off Pants
Fila quick dry long sleeve
Mini Mitts
Bula Toque
Northface Rain Jacket
MEC Rain Pants

Illumination:
Petzel Zipka

First Aid:
2 Blister Patches
Tick tweezers
2 alcohol wipes
1 Iodine Tincture
1 Gauze
1 Pocket Mask
9 Tablets of various medications
4 Band Aids (various sizes)
1 Tensor Bandage
1 Triangle Bandage
Asthma Inhaler

Fire:
Matches
Lighter
Flint

Repair Kit:
1 Type A precut patch
2 Zip Ties
15′ Ductape (also used for first aid and tinder)
15′ Paracord
1′ Copper Wire

Nutrition:
Sunday Caloric Requirement:
1984.21 + 1710
Daily Requirement
 3694.21

Packed Meals:

Lunch:
Latte Bar x2 332 Cal

Snacks:
Cashews 1/2 Cup – 320 Cal
Beef Jerky – 310 Cal
1/2 Chocolate Bar – 250 Cal

Non Packed Meals:

Breakfast: 
Bacon Egg Mash-browns – 190 Cal
Starbucks Macchiato – 210 Cal

Dinner:
Chili Cheese Mac – 390 Cal

Hydration:
1.8 L Platypus
Lifestraw

Shelter:
SOL Emergency Bivvy
SOL Emergency Blanket
2 Garbage Bags

Extras:
TP
Hand Sanitizer
Sea to Summit 1L Dry Bag
Black Diamond Z Poles
Small Buck Knife
Spot Gen 3
Sony Cybershot Camera
Joby Gorrilla Pod
iPhone
6 Ziplock bags assorted sizes, assorted contents.

Coming soon! The Vegan and the Cowgirl take on Stanley Glacier in the Canadian Rockies.

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