Ride Report – Banff-Jasper-Banff 2009

by Willi Fast

After a week of recovery and retrospective contemplation, I am now in a position to compile a ride report for my latest brevet – the Banff-Jasper-Banff 600.

Phil Haswell, a fellow member of the Alberta Randonneurs from Edmonton, had expressed interest in joining me for the ride, and so we had made arrangements to meet at 05:00 at the Start in Banff. I had been watching the weather for Banff and for Jasper all week, and after initially looking quite promising early in the week, the forecasts went for a slide with steady deterioration in both temperature and precipitation – they started to call for SNOW on Saturday. By Thursday, I had resolved to postpone the ride to start on Sunday rather than on Saturday, and the club organizers had also granted dispensation for that to occur.

So, on Saturday afternoon, I left Edmonton and drove to Canmore, where I checked in at the Alpine Club of Canada Headquarters and got my key for the Bell Cabin where I had reserved a bed. After settling in, and checking in with home to let them know that all was well so far, I drove to Harvey Heights to meet with Peter (colleague and former fellow-employee) and Dianne, who set out a scrumptious pasta dinner for three. After dinner, I excused myself (having already warned them that I would likely eat and run, in order to get some sleep!), and headed back to the ACC in Canmore. There, I set out all my clothes and biking stuff for an early departure the next day. I was in bed by 21:00, having set my alarm for 03:15.

I woke before the alarm (happy not to have disturbed my room-mates), snuck out to the common area, got dressed and gulped down a quick breakfast. They say that before big events, you should follow your normal dietary routine, so I had my usual breakfast cereal with milk and orange juice. I collected all my stuff, packed the last of my food supplies into my rack-bag, and walked to my van in the dark. I was happy to note that it did not seem that cold, and was optimistic about what the day would bring.

I drove to Banff, to the Starting Point, and got my bike and all my gear organized and prepared for departure. Phil had already left me a note at the ACC in Canmore that he might not show up after all, and if that were the case, that I was not to wait and should leave without him. So it was, that at 05:05, I began to roll down Banff Avenue towards Lake Minnewanka at it was just getting light.

Having grown up and lived my first 18 years in Calgary, I realized that it was strange that I had never been on the Lake Minnewanka Road. What a beautiful road – even more so in the early morning light, on a bike, all by myself. It was peaceful, quiet and serene – a perfect start to a long ride! I came across numerous groups of Elk and also a group of three deer – none of which seemed to be at all bothered by me as I whizzed by.

The 20 km Lake Minnewanka Loop went by quickly and easily, and soon I was on Highway Number 1, westward bound towards Mt Norquay and further on to the Highway 1A turn-off. I was happy that it was still early, with almost no traffic on the Number One – it can be horrendous with heavy truck traffic and I was glad to be spared that as I pedaled towards the 1A.

The 1A is a beautiful cycling route, some up and downs, but all-in-all very enjoyable. On this stretch, it became evident to me that it was not going to be as warm as I had earlier thought. Around Castle Mountain Junction, my feet were getting very cold, and I stopped to insert heat pads (Hot Shots) into my shoes. These work extremely well, and slowly I had some feeling coming back to by toes – aaahhhhhhh! Not long after this, I was thrilled to see a large black/grey wolf cross the road about 50 meters ahead of me. It stopped once to check me out, then non-chalantly continued on its way into the bush. Extremely rare to see a wolf on a road – one of the benefits of cycling – you are quiet enough not to scare animals from far away. Soon after the wolf sighting, it began to snow: fine hard drizzle at first, growing into small pellets, and not long after blossoming into a full-on snowfall with big fluffy flakes! It was quite surreal cycling in the early dawn, with snow coming down, and oh so quiet. I actually found it to be quite pleasant, thinking at that time that it would be short-lived (………….).

After a few more twists and turns and short climbs, a blue van passed me, going quite slowly, and I had a fleeting thought that it might be Peter and Dianne coming to check out my progress – but then I thought no further about it, and continued my progress towards Lake Louise. Once there (81 km, 08:33), I started to pull into the first gas station to quickly have my card signed, grab a drink, and get back on the road. I heard my name being called from across the way, and sure enough, it was Peter and Dianne waiting for me. They were very encouraging (thanks again!), and even warmed up my chocolate milk with some hot chocolate that they already had in hand. While they were still trying to decide whether (and where) to ride themselves that day, I took my leave from them, and was back on the Number 1, headed for the Jasper turn-off.

As I headed up the Jasper Parkway, I came across the Parks Canada Control Booth where they check for Park Passes. I had left my Park Pass in my van in Banff, but had photo-copied it to prove that I was ‘legal’ in case I was questioned. The friendly girl just waved me through, not too worried about the story that I was spinning to her as I rode by. Seems Parks Canada is not worried about Passes for cyclists!

Along this stretch, the climbing started to become more sustained, and I knew it was going to be pretty much uphill all the way to the Bow Summit from here. I resigned myself to slow progress, and just settled in to a sustained pace that I was able to maintain. I began to get hungry, and considered stopping on the road-side for a snack. But, not wanting to waste too much time on this stretch that was not all that hard to ride, I decided to eat while I rode. By the time I finished my sandwich, I had covered at least another three km, even though I had slowed down considerably to eat while pedaling. I was glad to have maintained forward progress even while feeding my body.

Shortly after the riding-feed, I head a sharp high frequency ‘tink’ from somewhere near the rear of my bike. They say you should never ignore anomalous sounds on your bike, so dutifully I slowed down and stopped for an inspection, secretly fearing a broken spoke. Sure enough, an inspection of my rear wheel discovered a spoke broken near the hub-end, on the non-drive side. Crap! This was the first brevet ever that I had decided not to bring along extra spokes! Live and learn! Being on the non-drive side, it was easy to remove the culprit, and I used the spoke wrench (that I had NOT forgotten!) to bring my rear wheel back into as close to ‘true’ as I could. It actually worked well, and it was not necessary to open my rear brake to accommodate the slight wheel wobble that remained. Note to self: Bring Spokes! Question: What caused the spoke failure? I suspect that the new, cycle-unfriendly Cattleguards that I had crossed on the 1A were responsible. These beauties, courtesy of Parks Canada, have LARGE pipes with BIG gaps, and shake you like a rag doll while riding across them. I can only imagine the stresses that my loaded bike put on my wheels during those crossings. Despite recently having had my rear wheel re-built, I cannot fault the good mechanics at United Cycle for their work, after the torture I put my wheels through that morning. I just hoped they would hold up for the remainder of the trip???

At the Num-ti-Jah Lodge on Bow Lake, I required a ‘Nature Break’ (as they call it on the Tour), and pulled over to the side of the road for ‘relief’. After checking for traffic, and finding none, I went about my business on the side of the road near the turn-off to Num-ti-Jah Lodge. Before I finished, a large tour bus (Japanese !) pulled upright beside me and waited a good long time before turning and pulling onto the highway from the access roadside where I was. The tourists got a good look at the ‘biological-side’ of how mountain cycle touring is done in Alberta!!

Other than the snow, it was an anti-climactic climb for the remainder of the route to the Bow Summit. The road was not unduly steep (maybe I was still fresh ?), it seemed that soon I was standing beside the sign for Peyto Lake and Bow Summit, where I took a picture of myself in the snow. My GPS Elevation was actually within about 5 m of the posted elevation – a vote of confidence for technology!

Knowing that the descent of Bow Pass down to Saskatchewan Crossing would be cold, I put plastic bags over my chest inside my jacket to cut down the effects of the wind. I actually had some fun on this descent, but forgot to keep a good look at the route for the return trip, where I would be climbing this section. Some time south of Saskatchewan Crossing, I began to smell the smell of forest fire, but saw no smoke – obviously there was something burning somewhere. When I got to Saskatchewan Crossing (159 km, 12:18), there were signs describing a Prescribed Burn being carried out in the area. Obviously the wind from the north, which I had not really yet noticed, was driving the smoke to where I had been pedaling.

I stopped for a bowl of soup, and was shocked at the prices I had to pay: small bowl of soup + chocolate milk + iced tea = $16.50! I am pretty sure that I don’t look Japanese, and I was careful not to speak any german in the restaurant, so I am not sure why they were gouging me with prices intended for the Tour Bus clientele that filled the place. Ouch! I knew that I would have to face the same prices on the way back, since it was ‘the only show in town’ (and I guess they knew it too!).

The next section of the route took me up to the Columbia Icefields, after an ascent of Sunwapta Pass. The wind from the north had picked up (luckily the stifling smoke did not last too long), and as I approached the Big Bend at the bottom of the Pass, I was very tired. I struggled up the pass, just not being able to find good climbing legs. The pass seemed to be never-ending, and mentally, I was not strong enough to climb it non-stop. I finally stopped for a break about 2/3 of the way up, and did not feel like continuing after a five minute break. Trying to suppress thoughts of defeat, I did however climb back on, and continued the struggle. I knew that Parker’s Ridge, where we had done Crevasse Rescue training some weeks prior, should appear soon, but every hopeful corner or rise in the road brought more disappointment. Where are you already? More climbing, more pedaling, lots of drinks, another small snack ‘on-board’ – I was so tired, with no zip in my legs. Finally, Parker’s Ridge presented itself and I knew that I was near the top of the pass. After that, it was still a few km to the Columbia Icefields Centre, but I knew that I had beaten most of that climb.

When I got to the Icefields (210m km, 15:520), I was cold, tired and hungry. I parked my bike, and went inside to find the restaurant. I noticed a nice Dining Room, but proceeded to the ‘lower-class’ cafeteria, in search of cheaper (and faster!) food. I was looking for soup, and found only packaged japanese noodle soups. I picked what looked like chicken, filled it with hot water, and also made a nice cup of my favourite Earl Grey. The tea was great, the soup less than desirable. It was hot, and the broth did taste like chicken, but the strange faux-fish pieces floating in the broth looked pretty disgusting to me, and I left them behind. Having had my card signed (and stamped !) by the friendly manager, it was back outside. I was still cold, but thought that as usual, I would warm up as I starting working again on the bike. When I started riding, though, I got really cold, and knowing that I was facing another long descent down the other side of Sunwapta Pass, I stopped to put on my rain paints and jacket – mainly as wind protection. That turned out to be a good decision, because I did warm up, even while having some good fun on the steep decent. I took every available opportunity to rest my legs while coasting.

I was still ahead of my planned pace, and happy with my progress at this time on the ride. I soon reached the Sunwapta Lodge (258 km, 18:24), and was satisfied that I had built up a time cushion of four hours on the Closing Time for that stage. If this kept up, I would indeed be able to afford time for the sleep that I had planned at Athabasca Falls. Off I went, then, looking forward to arriving at Athabasca Falls Hostel, where I had already made a reservation, and where I had planned to dump some gear prior to doing a ‘quick’ out-and-back run from there to Jasper before sleeping. When I arrived, Sasha, the Hostel Manager, warmly greeted me by name, remembering me from our stay there during the aforementioned Crevasse Rescue Course. He made me feel at home, and accommodated a quick check in. After grabbing a bunk, dumping gear, and having a drink, I was back on the bike headed for Jasper. I told Sasha that if all went well, I would see him again around 23:00 that evening.

So, off I went, up the hill and into the increasingly strong head-wind from the north. At this rate, it was not going to be a ‘quick’ out-and-back, and indeed, it turned into a survival-fest to get to Jasper. The wind became depressingly constant, and the only thing that kept me going was the thought of the same wind blowing me back to the Hostel on the return leg. I was cold again, and struggling to keep a pace of 20 km/hr into the wind. I felt my time cushion slipping slowly away, and wondered how much of a sleep-buffer I would have by the time I finally got back to the Hostel. I had planned to take time to re-provision in Jasper, as well as to stop for a bowl of soup at the Subway that I knew was there. After an eternity, I finally got to the intersection with Highway 16, climbed into town (314 km 21:19), and stopped at the Subway, already tasting the chicken noodle soup I was going to order. When I got inside, it was a real blow when the server told me they were all out of soup for the day. He assured me, however, that the Jasper Brewing Co. next door had good soup. I know the palce well, having stopped there many times in the past on skiing and hiking trips. So, in I went, happy to find a waiter who, after I explained my time constraints, went out of his way to get me what I wanted. The soup was SOOOO good – much better than Subway! (small pleasures are somehow magnified in these situations). When I had finished the soup, and the two Iced Teas, I became very cold again, and suddenly started to shiver and shake uncontrollably. How could I possibly go outside and get back on my bike in such a state? I staggered into the bathroom, with a hope that they had hot water in their taps. Again – Bliss! The hot water tap provided ample steaming hot water, and I soaked my hands, and washed my face and neck repeatedly with hot water, eventually able to stop shaking and to feel ‘normal’ again.

So, out I went again – to look for food for the next day. All the grocery stores were already closed, and I was only able to find a snack store at a gas station that was still open. I bought milk and juice, for breakfast, and resigned myself to not worrying about how I would feed myself between controls the following day – I was just too tired to worry about that for now.

The previously accursed wind from the north was still blowing, and had therefore now become my ally, albeit not as strong an ally as I had hoped it would be. Still, it was better than a headwind, and I made better time on the return to the hostel. By now it was dark, and I was riding with headlights, tailights, and lights on my helmet. I was suddenly scared by a huge male Elk that stepped onto the highway in front of me and sauntered across the road. I just kept pedaling, and pedaling, and pedaling, and eventually got back to the Hostel. Sure enough, Sasha was still up and waiting for me. When asked if I needed anything, I told him I did not really have anything substantial for breakfast. He went to his cabin, and came back with breakfast cereal and a banana. I boiled up some water, had a cup of Earl Grey (oh yeah!), and soaked the cereal in hot water and covered it up. I hung up all my wet clothes to dry around the wood stove, then slinked off to my cabin to sleep …………………..

I awoke without my alarm, at 03:14, went out to the main kitchen, got dressed, had breakfast (the cereal was soft by now, the banana was good, and the juice and milk nice and cold!), and packed up all my gear. I had taken my bike inside for the night, so was able to get everything outfitted inside before going back into the dark to start the homeward trek.

By sleeping, I had used up almost all of my time cushion, and therefore had to hustle to get back to Sunwapta Lodge Resort before the closing time. I got there (370 km, 05:07) with 30 minutes to spare, and knew that from this point on, I would need to work steadily to stay ahead of Control Closing times for the remainder of the ride. Under normal circumstances, this would not have been a concern, because it is usually not difficult to maintain the 15 km/hr pace required to stay ahead of Control Closing times. However, all the climbing that faced me this day would turn that 15 km/hr pace into a challenge.

So off I set, with my sight on an interim goal of Beauty Creek Hostel, where I planned to take a short snack break before the final climbing push to the Columbia Icefields. It was still cold out, and the wind out of the south was a bit discouraging – would it blow in my face all day long? By the time I got to Beauty Creek, I was very cold again, and so stopped, and instead of a quick break at roadside, walked down to the hostel kitchen, and while shaking, managed to turn on the propane stove to boil water for tea. The kitchen provided some shelter, but minimal warmth – the warming trend started by getting inside was continued with the nice cup of Earl Grey when it was ready. I ate a sandwich from the previous day, drank the tea, and reminisced about the much more substantial breakfast feed to which we were treated here on last year’s Rocky 1200: pancakes, eggs, ham, toast, hot chocolate ……….. Here I was a year later with my dried out sandwich and tea. All too soon, I had to get up again, hike back up to my bike, and get back on for the push to Columbia Icefields.

The climb has not gotten any shorter or easier since last year – but a slow, steady effort got me to the top without having to stop – yes! I continued on to the Icefields Centre (418 km, 08:31), where I had planned to have a big feed. I went straight to the Dining Room (by-passing the cafeteria from the previous day), and told the nice waiter that I needed some hot food, very quickly if possible, since I needed to get back on the road. He and his staff more than obliged my request, and within minutes, I had a steaming omelette, hash browns, toast, juice and tea at my table. This along with the view onto the Athabasca Glacier, which glistened with the fresh snow (and some fresh ski-tracks!) from overnight, made for a nice recuperating breakfast break. Earlier, upon arrival, I had taken my water bottle out of its cage to take a quick drink (camelbak was dry), and discovered that the bottle had frozen completely shut, with a half-inch layer of ice on the inside of the bottle. I guess it was colder than I had thought!! No wonder I was shivering back at Beauty Creek!

After an all-too short break (30 minutes), I put on wind gear, and got back on my bike for the descent of Sunwapta Pass. Shortly before the descent, I passed a German tourist parked with his motorhome at roadside, who looked and, shook his head, and said: “You are a brave man.” I just kept pedaling, looking forward to many km.’s of descent. I was nice and warm again, had lots of clothes on, and was ready to enjoy some on-bike-relaxation! The Sunwapta Descent did not disappoint – I flew past the site where I had been gasping for air the previous day, and just kept going, right around Big Bend, and on towards Saskatchewan Crossing. Again, I was soon greeted by the smell of smoke – an ominous sign, since I had hoped that the wind would have shifted to blow to the south (therefore a favourable wind!) on the other side of the pass – no such luck – again, wind in the face, and smoke in the lungs – yuck!

At Saskatchewan Crossing (469 km, 11:26), I again stopped for soup (Prices hadn’t come down any!). I needed physical and mental strength, for the next leg was likely to become the most difficult of the ride – the ascent of Bow Pass from the north. The climb started almost immediately after Sask. Crossing, and was relentless. I did a lot of climbing out of the saddle, just going slow and steady. I recalled this stretch from last year’s Rocky 1200, when it was a lot hotter than it was on this day. On the final push up the Bow, I had my head down, counting pedal strokes, not allowing myself to look ahead for long stretches of time, for fear of becoming depressed with the slow rate of progress. At one point, I rode right beside a fresh, steaming pile of bear crap, and with a jolt of adrenaline, my pace picked up for a bit, but then slowed back to what I was able to maintain on the grade. I finally made it to the top, and had a good sit-down, with a snack and a drink. There I met a Parisian, who was on his bike enroute from Vancouver to Jasper, and who looked like a drowned rat, having camped the last two days in the rain and snow – ouch.

I was looking forward to the descent of Bow Pass, because the elevation profile shows a continuous stretch of downhill all the way to Lake Louise. However, with the wind from the south, I found myself pedaling DOWN (at 15 – 20 km/hr) many of the grades that last year saw us flying at upwards of 50 km/hr. It was a long, slow grind to Lake Louise, but that goal too was eventually reached (547 km, 16:24).

At Lake Louise, I stopped at Laggan’s for pizza, tea and chocolate milk. I called home, to let them know I was OK and (sort of) on-pace – it was the first time I had cell phone coverage since Jasper! I also called Peter and Dianne, who said they were looking forward to seeing me in Banff at the finish, and who assured me that it was ‘downhill all the way’.

Back onto the bike, and sure enough, I was able to fly along at 30 km/hr for much of this stretch. There were some intermittent ‘bumps’ along the way, to be sure, but for the most part, it was enjoyable riding, even if the wind had now shifted to blow from the east – and still into my face. This stretch of road may be one of the nicest in the province! Beautiful. Peaceful. Serene. Isolated. And then, I was back on the #1 – everything that the 1A was not: Loud, busy, truck-filled, uncomfortable, un-nerving. The only thing good about this last stretch of road was that I was only 4 km from the end! Just keep pedaling and ignore the semi’s …………………….

In Banff, I came pedaling to the finish, and sure enough, there were Peter and Dianne, snapping pictures and cheering – what a way to finish a solo ride, a personal cheering section at the end. Thanks Peter and Dianne!

Peter drove my van back to Canmore, where I was able to take a steaming hot shower, finally get warm, and then we ate pizza and had a glass of wine – awesome. I slept there over night, and drove back to Edmonton the following day.

Ride Stats:

  • Total Elapsed time: 38 hours, 32 minutes (ha – time to spare!)
  • Total sleep: 3 hours
  • Total elevation climbed: over 17,000 feet before my GPS crapped out south of Bow Pass
  • Average speed while on the bike: 20.6 km/hr

Thanks to:
Ken Myhre and Bill Bakke, for giving me special dispensation to ride this route, and to ride it later by one day Phil Haswell, for pre-ride prep of docs, maps, and brevet cards, and for inspiration to help me take this on. Peter and Dianne Beaudette, for pre- and post-ride support! My whole family, for allowing me to get away to do this!

That’s all for now – the next report will be from California.