Ashtyn and I decided, many weeks ago, to climb up to Bertha Peak here in Waterton Lakes National Park. We set a date on one of our shared Mondays off and were both excited and prepared to conquer the mountain and be treated to the phenomenal view. On the morning of what we thought would be the day of our hike, we ran into our first bump in the road: we were both fairly sick and not in the best condition to climb to the top of a mountain. Apparently this adventure was not meant to take place on this day… despite our best efforts and the high level of excitement and anticipation. We finished our next work week, planning and preparing to retry our attempt at Bertha Peak the next Monday. Right off the bat, our planning ran into yet another bump in the road: Ashtyn had a house viewing in the city in which she goes to school, which is an hour and a half away from Waterton. We figured starting late, late morning or even early afternoon would be no issue for either of us; we can hike decently fast and Bertha is not a stupidly long peak to do. Long story short, we figured that we would be fine despite our reduced time frame that we were providing ourselves. Monday morning came around, and two eager hikers were so looking forward to their afternoon in the mountains. That is until a last minute dentist appointment became quite the necessary undertaking for me, and the only available time that was offered me was 2:30pm. Late morning or early afternoon turned into mid afternoon, as we hoped to be able to start hiking by 4pm at the latest, leaving ourselves 5 and a bit hours before sundown, or in other words, what we assumed would still be plenty of time. I remember as I continued to update my parents (whom I was staying with) on my plans for the afternoon, the looks and comments of doubt and worry that occasionally would pop up during our conversations. Major red flag, but of course, I ignored it. We would be fiiiine. Miraculously, my dentist appointment ended up ending a bit earlier than I had anticipated, and I was thrilled to be able to text Ashtyn the good news. I told her that I was finished my appointment and that we could get on the road as soon as she was ready, expecting her to be on her way within the next few minutes. I was thrilled that we would be able to start a bit earlier than anticipated, leaving us more time to enjoy the view at the top, as well as more time to actually find our way up. However, just because the universe apparently had something against us climbing this mountain, Ashtyn had now stumbled upon an annoyingly untimely delay at home and wouldn’t be able to get on the road for at least another half hour. I calculated the time in my head, and realized that we would be set back even further than previously hoped. Although there was truly no one to blame, and neither Ashtyn or my setbacks were purposeful or planned on, I was frustrated. However, apparently I wasn’t frustrated enough. As soon as we got to Waterton, we tied up our boots and went into the outdoor store to grab a few things before leaving. Our coworkers, all aware of our plans to hike, all greeted us with “Oh! How was your hike?” “Did you guys have fun?” “How was the view?” and various other major red flags that screamed “IT IS MUCH TOO LATE FOR US TO BE CLIMBING THIS MOUNTAIN.” Did we listen or pay any attention? Of course we didn’t. We were determined and frustrated by all of the setbacks that we had experienced thus far, and were not willing to allow the lateness of the evening (yes, it was evening by this point) to hinder our plans.
By a shocking and worrying 5:20pm, there were two naive, delusional, and unprepared girls on the Bertha trail, carrying a flashlight grabbed last second, bear spray, some snacks, and a raincoat each. Phone batteries were dying, the temperature was dropping, and tourists coming down from the short trek to Bertha lookout and/or falls, were showing their disbelief and confusion as we strolled right on past them, attempting to start our hike just as they were finishing theirs. We were happy, and excited to finally be doing something that we had wanted to do for so long. The two of us had climbed one other peak prior to this fiasco, and had been told that this one was both more enjoyable, and had a better view. Ashtyn and I get along quite well and enjoy chatting, joking, and laughing as we hike along the trail. Seeing the looks on people’s faces was probably one of the most enjoyable parts of the upwards hike– they never failed to crack us up in a we’re really stupid, why are we doing this, we’ll be fine… but will we be fine? sort of a way. Hilarious, I know. The jokes about our stupidity continued between us, but, again, we were much too determined and fed up to turn back now. With the comfort of our very few hike-in-the-dark necessities stowed away in our backpacks, we kept a speedy pace along the trail, only checking out both the lookout view and Bertha Falls while our feet continued, one in front of the other. Sure the views were beautiful, but we had a mountain to climb.
We sped up to the lake with the help of a few gold fish and a few sips of water, making excellent time. At around 6:40pm, we arrived at the lake and allowed ourselves a break for pictures, a small snack, and a little break to catch our breath. Our good friends had been gracious enough to set up a few cairns and markers for us, to guide us onto the best path on the next stretch of our journey. After following the path around the lake for a short while, we came upon the first cairn and began our first upwards push. Between a somewhat distinguishable path, and the markers that had been placed prior to our climb, we were able to find our way up the first cliffy part of the peak in a fast and easy manner. Once we had arrived at the top of the cliffs, we found ourselves standing atop a ridge, half forested, and half grass and rock. We called up our fanatic hiker friends and asked them for some help. Thankfully, despite my far from eloquent phrasing of the question, (“we’re at the top of the first thing… which way do we go now?) they were able to point us in the right direction. A path was found shortly after, as we weaved our way through some of the thinner treed areas. It wound through the pines and eventually pointed us down towards a grassy bowl. Although describing the path as down may sound appealing and encouraging… it is not. All of the downwards slopes on the way up the mountain, simply mean more upwards slopes on the way down the mountain. We were getting fairly tired, and had begun to watch as the sun slowly sank behind the mountain to the left of us; our time was short, but so was our breath. We sang to our music, and yelled at the bears, skipping and dancing as we found enjoyment in our somewhat dire, intriguingly interesting situation. As we passed through another small patch of trees, the rest of our journey to the peak came into full sight: a looming fairly steep slope, directing us straight to the highest point on the mountain. We were almost there! Delirious giggles, and shaky knees in tow, we headed up the last slope, determined to reach the top before sundown.
As we took the last few steps towards the peak, we were both thrilled to finally be at the top, and slightly disappointed. Just in case the headaches, coughs, chest pains, and breathing problems weren’t enough, the smoke had decided to strip us of the majesty of the view as well. Although the view was beautiful, and the feeling of looking down onto the zigzagging trails which we had conquered minutes before was an incredibly empowering feeling, the view was fairly foggy and slightly indistinguishable. The mountains stood strong and tall, and the vast lake stood out, a (slightly grey tinted) gorgeous blue. The devastating burn was fully visible, but fortunately, so was the regrowth. We enjoyed a few Dinosours, drank a bit of water, and felt quite proud of ourselves. Jackets were thrown on, a few pictures were snapped in which we look exhausted and hilariously delirious, and the view was appreciated for a few minutes. Then we got really cold. Then the sun set. Then we got nasty headaches. Then we realized what time it was. Then we decided we should probably head back to town to avoid providing bears a midnight snack or being late for work because we had to spend the night on the cliffs.
Thankfully, the last few rays of light lasted us until we got to the top of the cliffy, shaley part of the trail. Not so thankfully, we had to tackle the one true scrambling part of the trail in complete darkness… not as fun as it sounds. We pulled out our one flashlight and one phone for light and began picking our way down. Remember that obviously marked trail on the way up? Remember how easy it was to find? How many markers and cairns were on it? Nowhere to be found. We used the general guidelines of one side taking us off the cliff and the other taking us into a forest as we made our way down, switching our general direction to avoid either of the aforementioned hinderances. As we yelled for bears and slid down the shale, I began to fall. I then continued to fall quite frequently, eventually feeling as though this wasn’t a hike, but an odd form of summer time sledding instead. I recall at one point I stopped trying to count in my head, and Ashtyn stopped turning to ask if I was alright. Often I would just stay planted on my butt, keeping in mind that it was impossible to fall if I was already on the ground. Ashtyn kept up a quicker pace and only fell once, unfortunately resulting in a fairly beat up left side, bruises and cuts decorating her leg. We were fairly silent, but I do remember thinking something like: “maybe if I die up here, they will name this mountain after me.” Unsure foot placement, sliding down small cliffs, and tripping over tree roots eventually brought us to a fairly grassy patch (which I remembered quite clearly tripping on on the way up) and I finally regained a bit of hope; maybe this was as close to the lake as I thought it was! Although the lake had become completely blended in with the rest of our pitch black surroundings, I had a feeling that it was close. Just as I was about to begin doubting my faith, and rejecting the idea of being anywhere close to the lake, the angelic bearer of good news who stood a few meters down from me yelled out, “I found the path!”
What a feeling. We weren’t going to die! We weren’t going to get lost! We were probably even going to make it home before the next day! Elation and overwhelming excitement overtook both of us and we set ourselves a speedy pace as we began our descent. The bears were informed, in our loudest yelling voices possible, that we were safely back on the trail, and that we would be out of their way in the fastest and most efficient manner possible. The switchbacks were conquered quickly, and we were happily joined by a few bunnies along the way. Mutually beneficial relationships were formed as we were reassured that bears were probably few and far between, and the bunnies borrowed our light as they hopped down the trail. Shortly before the falls, we came upon another hopping friend, a moderately large frog who hung out with us for a bit and then allowed us to go our separate ways. Lower Bertha Falls was reached at around ten to eleven, and we were in a hilarious state of delirium and exhaustion; all that we wanted was to be at home safe in our beds. We yelled to the bears that they could stay in their beds, as long as they would allow us to reach ours: a win-win situation for sure. With one dead phone, one phone at 3% battery, one flashlight, no service, and a little bit of water left, we finally saw the lights of the cabins.
The last bend was finally rounded, and the sight of the trailhead sign, the townsite, and most importantly, the car, made us want to jump for joy. In fact, we probably would have literally jumped for joy if it hadn’t been for our stupidly shaky and tired legs… maybe next time. The time between arriving at the car and getting the keys out and the doors unlocked seemed to last eternities… we could not wait to sit down. The drive home consisted of assuring our loved ones that we weren’t dead, and cry laughing, once again, at our own stupidity. But hey, we did it! We climbed to Bertha Peak and back without getting eaten, or getting hypothermia, or getting lost in the dark! Our many collective falls were never off of a cliff, and our one little flashlight was enough for us to find our way back to the path.
Although scrambling in the dark was far from fun, I thoroughly enjoyed the hike as a whole, and would honestly do it again (as long as it was in daylight). I hope that you can, as we have, laugh at and cringe at our collection of bad decisions, and find joy in our absurdity and self inflicted hardship…
A clear night calls for a gorgeous reflection picture at the lake.
Somewhat smoke covered view from the top! So worth it. Sweaty, tired, hypothermic, migraine inflicted Emma!