Alberta Adventure: Pushing personal boundaries to hike Jasper’s Sulphur Skyline

Dave S. Clark

For me, travelling has always been a slow process of pushing my personal boundaries. Growing up, I travelled Canada, where I knew the culture and the language and felt pretty much at home. Then I made the jump to Europe and the Caribbean, then to Asia and Africa, pushing myself to explore regions that were much different than back home. I began to discover things I loved, which gave me the urge to explore them in more depth. For example, I loved the Moorish architecture of the Hotel Sevilla in Havana, which we stayed in a couple of times. That prompted a trip to the Andalusia region of Spain. That spawned the idea of a trip to Morocco.

When travelling, I’ve always tried to find great hikes, whether it was partway up the side of a mountain to Second World War-era pillboxes in Oahu or along an unrestored section of China’s Great Wall. One thing that I’ve always wanted to do was hike to the top of a mountain. The challenge was I only wanted to hike, not climb. Actually climbing things and using my arms and legs in unison to ascend a chunk of rock is still terrifying to me. I’ll hopefully get there one day, but I like to take baby steps.

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My first baby step, or more accurately, my first 5,000 or so baby steps was the Sulphur Skyline hike in Jasper National Park. The hike starts from the Miette Hot Springs, one of my favourite spots in the Canadian Rockies and from the bottom, I was pretty confident about it. It’s four kilometres in length and I knew I typically walked at anywhere from 12 to 20 minutes per kilometre. Throw in the elevation change of only 700 metres… easy peasy.

It was going pretty good until about a quarter of the way up when my legs started to burn a little bit. The thing about the hike is that it is consistently uphill with no flat sections to give you a rest. I found just pushing through and not stopping for breaks was much easier than stopping, taking a rest, then continuing. It also helped that I was passing people twice my age who were coming down from the summit. That gave me confidence and I soon discovered it was better not to ask if I was getting close.

For the majority of the hike, I was surrounded by tall trees, so I wasn’t getting constantly great views. Occasionally the trees would break and I’d be able to see down to the parking lot of the hot springs, but it wasn’t all that spectacular. It isn’t until I got about 85 per cent of the way up when I got my first great view. The trail opens up to a clearing and I felt like I was almost at the same altitude as the peaks around me. It’s a pretty special view and being stuck between tall trees with burning legs all the way up, makes it that much sweeter. Many in our group couldn’t keep going to the very top and turned around here. If you’re struggling, it’s probably a good idea to take in this view for a while then head back.

But if you can make the final push, you’ll be rewarded. The last section was tougher. It was no longer the gradual switchbacks that I’d been on up to this point. The path was much steeper and less defined. There were more rocks and finding solid footing was a bit more difficult. But for anyone in reasonable shape, it’s not a huge challenge. I could hear people laughing and cheering at the top between the gusts of wind.

The last few steps were hard but as the horizon opened up and the peaks suddenly surrounded me, I felt as though I had achieved something. Sure the surrounding mountains were jagged and looked much harder to climb, but here I was, looking down on them, or at least across. I had conquered the hike and I felt like I had conquered all the surrounding mountains. It was a little bit disorientating being at the top. It was a clear and unusually warm first day of October and I could see for miles. With the jagged horizon stretching out in every direction, I felt like I was in a snow globe that nobody had shaken in years.

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With my goal of reaching the top completed, all there was to do now was stroll back down and hop in the hot springs to soothe my aching muscles. Well coming down wasn’t as easy as I anticipated. My legs were burning on the way down too, just differently than they were on the way up. On the way down, I took advantage of the little shortcuts that are steeper but cover much less distance than the switchbacks. They aren’t marked, but they are easy to spot.

Going up took me about an hour and a forty five minutes and coming down took exactly an hour. According to GPS, it was 4.48 KM to the top and with the shortcuts I took, 3.89 KM on the way down. A bottle of water for the way up, another for the way down and a celebratory granola bar at the summit was enough for me. I definitely wouldn’t do it without my good hiking boots as it was rocky all the way up. Hopping in the hot springs after the hike was a pretty damn satisfying way to finish off one of Jasper’s best hikes.

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