Two and a half years ago, atop The Peak at Jasper’s Marmot Basin, Liam Harrap and Jake Alleyne made a commitment to each other.
The born-and-raised Jasperites, both 23 at the time, pledged that after graduating university, and before they embarked on careers in the “real world,” they would take a trip together.
And while a lot of young Canadians who, sensing that the world is their oyster, make plans to travel afar—Southeast Asia and South America are popular backpacker destinations—Liam and Jake wanted to do something different. They wanted to start out a bit closer to home. They wanted to get a more intimate knowledge of the Rocky Mountains. They wanted to try to find the “end of their own backyard.”
And so they decided they’d walk to Mexico.
“We shook on it,” Jake recalled after coming out of the bush and into the relatively sprawling metropolis of Banff on June 21. By then, the duo had been on the trail for eight weeks, having left their doorsteps in Jasper on April 26. To make it possible to go off-grid for eight months—the time they estimated it would take to ski and hike 6,000 kms from Jasper to the U.S./Mexico border along the Continental Divide—they each put away $20 per week, for two years, into a joined bank account. They dehydrated hundreds of pounds of food. And they researched route descriptions that would help them avoid dangerous crevasse fields and find passes through complex mountain terrain. Finally, as the start date approached, they hiked in four separate food caches—one to Fortress Lake, in B.C.’s Hamber Park; one to the Columbia Icefields area; one to Bow Hut, on the Wapta Icefields; and one to Howse Pass, near Saskatchewan River Crossing. The heinous load-hauling gave them a taste of what to expect when their mission began—overgrown trails, river crossings, downed trees and four season’s worth of weather—but also what to look forward to: namely, bacon fat.
With their food cached, then, on April 26, they prepared to say so long to civilization. They would walk from Jasper to Portal Creek and into the Tonquin Wilderness. But as they stepped off of the Cavell Apartments doorstep where Liam’s dad, David, lives, and shouldered their 100 pound pack, the adventurers worried that their loads were too massive. Anything not absolutely crucial to their survival should be tossed, they reasoned. And so, Liam went to remove a packet of salt, something he figured might be superfluous. Just then, his travel partner gave him fair warning.
“You realize I’m not going to give you any of mine,” Jake told his friend, eyebrows arched.
Liam put the salt back in his bag.
That weight-for-taste sacrifice would come to define their journey. Because along with getting back-to-basics, finding adventure locally and slowing down the pace of life, Liam and Jake’s Doorstep Adventure is about enjoying the simple pleasure of good food after a hard day.
“Most days involve waking up and talking about what we’re having for dinner that night,” Liam said.
And they have feasted. From homemade pizza, brownies, beer and cheese enjoyed in the relative luxury of the Wapta Icefield’s Bow Hut, to gourmet pastas, curries and stroganoffs devoured in their tents on the tongue of a glacier, to blue cheese, bread and hummus on the summit of Mount Indefatigable, despite the thousands of calories they burn everyday, Jake and Liam have not gone hungry. Eating well has always been a priority in their mountaineering careers. As such, it was never a question that this trip, extended as it was, would be any different.
“We’ve always packed heavy,” Liam said. “We think going outside is supposed to be fun. It shouldn’t be about starvation.”
They’ve certainly earned the falafels, dates, lentils and 35 litres of mashed potatoes. Because while self-propelling themselves through some of Canada’s most rugged, most remote terrain, Jake and Liam have taken anything but the straightest line. As part of their mission to thoroughly inspect their own backyard, they’ve gotten the best views possible. They’ve scaled and skied dozens of the Great Divide’s highest peaks, including 3,700 m Mount Clemenceau, the fourth highest peak in the Canadian Rockies.
“We saw a plane flying below us,” Jake said. “It was strange to see mountains in the far distance and knowing we were going to go beyond them.”
There have been complications, of course. Along with having to wait out high avalanche danger and negotiating overhanging icefalls and deep crevasses, a broken ski binding hampered the adventure early on. Having sheared through his telemark binding’s toe piece on a benign ascent, Jake wired together a workable rig and had been skiing on it for five days until he took a fall on the Columbia Icefields. Frozen-solid avalanche debris and the incessant egging-on from his partner caused him to zig when he should have zagged; along with blood and skin from his face, he left a functional binding on the Athabasca glacier. Requesting assistance via his satellite messenger device, Jake asked his mom to bring a replacement set to the Glacier Discovery Centre, a half-day descent from the scene of the mishap. It arrived, but shortly after they set out to regain their track, the binding snapped again. Not wanting to traverse over challenging terrain without a spare, the two did what anyone would do in their situation: they stripped off their clothes and skied naked back to the road.
“It was actually very pleasant,” Liam said.
Unwilling to sacrifice their self-powered mission but also realizing that summer was approaching and skiing would soon be deteriorating, near the middle of June, Jake and Liam had a choice: stay at the Icefields Centre while a new binding was delivered from Calgary, or walk along the road to Saskatchewan Crossing and meet the part there. The throngs of tourists at the Icefields made their minds up for them. They shouldered their skis and began the 50 km hike down the road.
“We had people stopping and asking if we want a ride. When we said ‘no, we’re walking’ they looked at us like we were insane,” Liam laughed.
Eventually they got back on the trail. And eventually they made their way to Lake Louise. But having no personal identification (left at home to save weight), despite having a credit card, staff at the Lake Louise hostel wouldn’t let them a room.
“We said ‘we skied here from Jasper. They said ‘you can’t do that,’” Liam recalled.
Exhausted but resigned to their fate, they waited six hours on the porch until Jake’s mom, Nancy Taylor, once again came to the rescue.
At Lake Louise, Jake and Liam ditched their skis. The season was half way between winter and summer and they knew the boards would be a burden in the valley bottoms. There was still lots of snow up high, however, so the men carried along what they’d hoped they’d never actually have to use: snowshoes.
“Walking in snowshoes feels like you have your pants around your ankles,” Liam said. “We were very vocal about how much we were against them.”
Rather than post-holing through waist deep isothermic snow, however, they knew they had to stick with the misery slippers. When they got to Banff, they banished them to a corner of their friend’s room.
With thick, grizzled beards and an equally thick aroma permeating the air around them, on June 21, amongst the shoppers and sight seers of Banff, Liam and Jake looked and smelled distinctly out of place. They stared quizzically at the blinking traffic signal when it bade them to walk. They awkwardly stammered their beer order to a hurried server at the Banff Ave Brewing Company. It was a bit like that movie Encino Man.
And while the poutines and onion rings and other deep fried delights were calling to their stomachs, the stronger impulse was that which beckoned from the trail. They had a brief respite in the big city, but only to create more food caches, research the route to Waterton and update their blog. On July 26, they crossed into the United States. As of The Jasper Local’s deadline, they were halfway through Montana.
Before they left Banff, the two adventurers admitted they could sense a change taking place. Somewhere along the route along the Great Divide, between the trail-made hobnob caramel chocolate puddings and the 12-km ski descents from the top of the world, their perspective shifted.
“It’s surreal. The scale is changing,” Jake said. “When we were getting ready to leave Lake Louise for a 10 day section—that would have been a big trip before. But now, compared to what we’ve done and what we’re going to do, we don’t think of it as long.
“The concept of scale is changing. And it will continue to change.”
Follow their progress at adoorstepadventure.com