When the alarm goes off at 5 in the morning, I pull my sleeping bag a little higher over my nose and silently curse myself. I could have chosen to do my expedition sea kayaking in Tofino, land of lazy west-coast mornings and gourmet meals that you don’t have to carry on your back. Instead I chose to walk in a circle through the Septet Range, a small cluster of unrenowned peaks in BC’s Purcell Mountains. It seems like an awfully dumb decision at 5 in the morning.

I twist the valve on my thermarest and let the air rush out while I lay there, fully zombified, for another 30 seconds. Then begins the morning ritual. Layering up, stuffing sleeping bags and rolling thermarests, pulling the tent down, all by the light of headlamp. Taping our blisters then putting on damp socks and stiff boots. Firing up the stove, boiling water for the first cup of coffee. Then oatmeal. Then coffee round two. Slowly, very slowly, everyone starts to wake up.

There’s 10 of us in total, 8 students from the Ecotourism and Outdoor Leadership program at Mount Royal University, one professor, and one assistant. For us students, this expedition is a core course, and an essential part of our education. In between our second and third year, we have to choose one of the expeditions. This year, the choice was kayaking or purposeful suffering – I mean mountaineering. And I chose the latter.

We start hiking just as dawn traces its rosy fingers over the mountains behind us. I would say we hit the trail, but there’s no trail to hit, not here. We disperse through the alpine meadow, careful not to trample the delicate plant life that fights so hard to be here. The rolling meadow turns to talus, and we pick our way up slowly, deliberately, everyone struggling under the weight of our packs.

And then we crest the ridge, and suddenly getting up at 5 am doesn’t seem like such a steep price to pay, and Tofino pales in comparison to the view that unfolds before us. The Bugaboos sit straight across the valley, illuminated by the early morning sun. It’s almost as if someone stole a corner of Chamonix and dropped it in the middle of the Canadian wilderness, granite spires rising straight up from a blanket of ice like points of a crown. Some of the spires are partially obscured by cloud, but that only lends to their air of mystery and wonder. They’re completely captivating, and even as we continue southward along the ridge, I catch myself constantly checking over my shoulder for another glimpse of the iconic spines and needles.

While the Bugaboos are the most well-known feature of the Purcells, they are not the only source of wonder in this corner of the range. In 10 days, we wind through every imaginable alpine and subalpine landscape, each one as captivating as the last. The first day took us over a barren mountain col and a pocket of glacier into the aptly-named Shangri-La basin, where a trio of jewel-toned lakes fills the valley floor, with only a narrow isthmus of larch forest between them. It’s the kind of place that makes you wonder how is this real? And why is there no one else here?

We left Shangri-La and traversed under glaciers into Templeton Lake, then crossed an improbable mountain pass to the other side of the Septets, the side where features don’t have names because no one cares to share them with anyone else. The next few days we made camp at various alpine lakes, each one more idyllic than the next, all of them unnamed. Each one felt like our own little discovery, and the only sign of other people ever being in this place was the red flags from winter heliskiing operations.

Born and raised in Calgary, I had never ventured much further than the Rockies for my outdoor adventures. I had never felt the need to. Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper, even Kananaskis, the mountain parks were too accessible, too familiar. Why would I keep driving? I had the best of the mountains at my backdoor.

But only an extra hour’s drive, you can leave the parks behind. In the Septet Range, there’s only nature. No rules, no official trails, and best of all, no crowds to go along with those trails. In 10 days, we did not see a single other person. There were signs of human impact, to be sure: dilapidated logging roads and lost gear from heliskiers. But we were alone. It made me believe in wilderness again, that you could go somewhere and really feel the natural world without the static noise from other people.

By putting in a little effort, by getting up at 5 am or driving an extra few hours, we were rewarded. A little extra effort goes a long way.

- Carmanah Minions

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Want to hear more about this adventure or other student adventures that are part of Mount Royal’s Ecotourism and Outdoor Leadership (ETOL) Program? November 17 is the annual ETOL Film Night. This event showcases student expeditions like the one you just read about, as well as international field schools, independent expeditions, and other adventures by current students and alumni. To learn more, please visit https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/etol-film-night-2016-tickets-28560016779?aff=eac2

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