Crossed off my Rockies Bucket List: HI-Hilda Creek Wilderness Hostel

My time in Rockies in running out and I’m racing through each of my free days to get everything done that I wanted to do. This weekend’s tackle was HI-Hilda Creek.

Whenever I drive home from Banff or Lake Louise, I use the outhouse at Parker Ridge. (I affectionately and conveniently call the piece of road just south of Parker Ridge the “toilet bowl” not only because of its proximity to the Parker Ridge Outhouse but also because of it’s build on a down-spiral.) Less than a km north of Parker Ridge, there is a little hostel sign with an arrow and the word “Hilda”. Every time I drive by the “Hilda” sign, I wish I was staying there.

This weekend, I decided to make that wish a reality.

HI-Hilda Creek is the most rustic of all of Hostelling International’s Wilderness Hostels. Not only is there no running water or electricity, but there isn’t even any staff to check you in or help you out. Which means a bit of planning is called for.

I’m okay with back-country and survival stuff. I’ve done a million scout camps in my life so I can get by in the wild if I have to. The problem is more that being dirty, soaked and freezing just isn’t as appealing to me as adult then it was when I was a fresh 14 year old fan of wilderness adventure novels. You know, it’s a “been there, done that” sort of thing. So I figured I’d wait until summer and book a bed at HI-Hilda for one night. That way I wouldn’t need heating or lights or tons of winter gear. I wouldn’t even need to cook since packing a cold supper, a cold breakfast and two cold lunches is no big deal. Besides, the only trails in the vicinity that I still wanted to visit were Parker Ridge and Wilcox Pass.

The other items on my bucket list took up my other two longish weekends, leaving, well, yesterday and today to experience HI-Hilda.

Part 1: Wilcox Pass

Spring 2014 094

I cooked my food for the trip, wrapped it up and hopped into my car. A couple of hours (and a lot of cursing at RVs) later, I found the turnoff for Wilcox Pass.

It was just like they say: a semi-easy hike with great views of the Athabasca Glacier.

The starting point is already at high altitude (plus it was my first hike of the season), so I was huffing and puffing for the climb, but thankfully that section is short. Once I was above the treeline, I just freestyled it, wandering around on the tundra and chatting with other hikers I came across.

Some hikers took pity on my never getting to be in my photos so they offered to take one for me. (ps. Go go green raincoat!)

Some hikers took pity on my never getting to be in my photos so they offered to take one for me. (ps. Go go green raincoat!)

See? View of the Athabasca Glacier.

See? View of the Athabasca Glacier.

I didn’t make it to the end (is there even an end?) because eventually I reached a point where the snow was too deep, wet and sinkey to go through and there was no easy way around.

Finding my way back to the path to descend was tricker than I expected. A few thoughts of “dammit, I came all the way to get stuck overnight on mountain with nothing but a green raincoat, an apple and a granola bar” crossed my mind, but after some wandering, I spotted it and safely made it back to my car.

Part 2: HI-Hilda

For the hostel part of the trip, I packed a ton of warm clothing, blankets and sleeping gear so I wouldn’t have to use their propane heating system.

See, I kinda have a sorta fear of potentially explody things. I shutter when I hear avalanche control (despite liking not getting stuck in avalanches). I won’t use a camp stove. I can’t go near barbeques. I even have trouble putting gas in my car. Lighting a propane indoor heater COVERED IN EXPLOSION WARNINGS is way, like waaaaaay, outside of my comfort zone.

I settled down to read a book. Then I ate supper. Then I read some more. Then it started getting really cold, really fast.

I could have gotten by with my sleeping gear, but it would have been an uncomfortable night. I eyed the propane heater. Then I looked at my winter camping stuff. Then back at the propane heater. Then at my cold hands. Then back at the propane heater.

A deep sigh later, I was reading the instructions. They were a tad hard to understand. Usually when I don’t understand instructions, I google them. But I was far, far away from any kind of data (or even phone) reception. No roommates had shown up either to help me out. I was, oh my, on my own.

I was a bit thrown off by the main gas valves and the heater setting being left on. That’s bad right? You’re not supposed to leave those on when you’re not there! In a panic, I ran around and shut off all the valves.

After a cooldown period, I gave it a try. I turned back on the gas valve for the dorm. I waited a few minutes and sniffed for gas. All clear. I followed the heater instructions and tried to light. Lucky for me, the dorm heater had one of those spark buttons. Lighting the pilot with a match would have been asking for too much, I think. Unlucky for me, it didn’t work on the first try. I turned off heater and went to calm myself outside.

Eventually I came back and tried again. And again. Just as I was about to admit defeat and take out a dozen blankets, the heater lit and warmth came marching out.

That led to the next question – can you leave a propane heater on all night?

I’d stayed a HI-Rampart Creek a few times and had propane heating overnight, plus none of the many warnings around the hostel said to shut off the heating when asleep, so I gave it a go.

I’m happy to say that I was warm and cozy all the night and that nothing caught fire or exploded. It was, however, probably the most nerve-wrecking night I’d had in a loooooong time. I woke up every two hours to check on the heater (and to stress pee!) and was not all that refreshed when morning finally came. But, I was kinda glad I didn’t brave the cold. The snow on the ground testified that mother nature had been rather nasty that night.

7am at Hi-Hilda

7am at Hi-Hilda

The hostel cookhouse: view from the dorm

The hostel cookhouse: view from the dorm

The outhouse!

The outhouse!

My nerve-wreckness runs deep, though, so even after checking over and over again that the gas valves and the heater were off when I left, I still can’t stop worrying that I forgot to shut something off and that the hostel will run out of gas/catch fire/explode and it will all be my fault.

Part 3: Failure at Parker Ridge and Success at Sunwapta Falls

The part of the trip I’d been waiting for, discovering Parker Ridge beyond the Outhouse, got off to a nasty start.

June in the Rockies. Also known as Mother Nature's middle finger.

June in the Rockies. Also known as Mother Nature’s middle finger.

It wasn’t the storm that got to me (I knew I’d brought my winter jacket for a reason!). It was the waist deep snow covering even the very bottom of the Parker Ridge trail. I hadn’t brought winter boots and I wasn’t interested in wading through the wet and the cold. I figured I’d probably drive by here again (and a 5k hike makes for a nice road trip break), turned around and drove back north.

Instead of Parker Ridge, I stopped at Sunwapta Falls, another site I’ve been meaning to visit since forever.

Yay Sunwapta falls!

Yay Sunwapta falls!

I’d say it was comparable to the Athabasca Falls and Maligne Canyon: pretty, crowded and easy to hike. Like I do at the other major Rockies attractions, I helped a lot of visitors take pictures of themselves. Forgot to ask them to take pictures of me. Oops.

Views, right from the parking lot!

Views, right from the parking lot!

More easy views!

More easy views!

Swimming, anyone?

Swimming, anyone?

I did the Lower Sunwapta Falls trail as my daily exercise. Not a super exciting trail, but peaceful and kinda pretty at the end.

The trail. Probably more scenic when there aren't thick thick clouds hiding the mountains.

The trail. Probably more scenic when there aren’t thick thick clouds hiding the mountains.

The Lower Sunwapta Falls trail payoff.

The Lower Sunwapta Falls trail payoff.

Then I head back to Jasper to book an upcoming bucket list item, then home for a rest.

Even when the weather sucks (which is a lot), I love mountains.

Even when the weather sucks (which is a lot), I love mountains.

Look! There's a little bit of sky behind those clouds!

Look! There’s a little bit of sky behind those clouds!

These are mountains. Mountains are home.

These are mountains. Mountains are home.

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