Nearing dark, our legs wobbly and worn, we stumbled up to a pine-protected plateau and knew we had found our home for the night. The boys — there were five of us — were hangry and haggard. Food and shelter were paramount. As for me, the two cold beers in my pack were craving to be crushed. Ask any mortal man: an uphill slog on one of the toughest hikes in the Rockies will do this to you.
But, even at this juncture in the journey (we weren’t even halfway to the finish line), there was an intense desire to see more. To climb higher. To reach an unnamed summit where no man (for all we knew) had gone before. And one of us, let’s just call him Drew Johnson, decided to do just that before the morning fire had even been lit.
Many people know it as the Mountain Lakes Trail. Most of the Fernie locals just call it Heiko’s Trail, named after the man who built it. Either way, it’s a spectacular 21-kilometre “grunt” that’s widely considered one of the top wilderness hiking trails in the country.
The trail, which starts approximately 15 kilometres west of Fernie, B.C., is accessed via a rough logging road. It’s remote. It’s rugged. And it’s recommended for only experienced adventurers who can handle themselves in inhospitable, backcountry terrain.
But, for those who take the bait (I’ve had it on my “to do list” for a few years now), there are rich rewards. The trail, which gains a total of 1,200 metres of elevation and ends at the legendary Island Lake Lodge (a beer and a burger at the fabulous Bear Lodge Bistro was our “dangling carrot,” our pot-of-gold at the end of the rainbow), has many highlights. A giant cave, waterfalls, flower-filled alpine meadows, soaring cliff walls, two mountain passes, aerie ridgelines, and panoramic vistas are just a few of the “golden nuggets.” Put it this way, there are plenty of compelling reasons why adventurers rave about Heiko’s heavenly hike.
Sadly, Heiko Socher, a Fernie legend, passed away in 2016 at the age of 86. Born in Germany, Heiko was instrumental in founding the Fernie Alpine Resort in the early 1960s. By many accounts, he put Fernie on the map. A forestry ranger, visionary, skier, hiker, and, yes, trail builder extraordinaire, Heiko finished hammering out his trail in 2003. His passion for the mountains, for jaw-dropping vistas and extreme landscapes, is evidenced throughout the epic journey. Each of the dozen sections or so of the trail has its own character and beauty. From majestic mountain meadows to steep scree slopes, Heiko has it all covered.
Strong hikers who get an early start can complete Heiko’s trail in one day. Seven to eight hours with a relatively light day pack is definitely doable for “the elite.” Or, if everyone in your group is middle-aged and a little soft in the middle — and you also feel the need to pack a couple beers and one of you decides to take a detour and bag an unnamed peak that beckons along the route — two days with an overnight near the Three Sisters Pass area is definitely the way to go.
Not surprisingly, our adventure, for a couple of reasons, started rather ominously. First of all, finding the trailhead was an adventure in its own right. After leaving a vehicle at Island Lake Lodge, we pinballed our way down one of the roughest, raddest logging roads I’ve ever travelled. Eventually, after an hour of “exploring” the backcountry, we found the trailhead. And then, like clockwork, the rain started.
But, in spite of the deluge, we shouldered our packs and stomped into the forest. Within an hour the infamous Bisaro Cave — a massive mouth carved into a rock wall at the entrance to Bisaro Canyon — provided the perfect respite from the rain. We dried off. We explored. We continued.
A few hours later, after gaining a million metres of elevation, give or take, we reached the scrubby sub-alpine and found our idyllic little camp. The rain stopped, a fire was made, food and beer were consumed. And Drew, 38, the youngest in our clan, ogled a looming peak that glowed with silver streaks of waning light.
“I bet I can climb to that summit in half an hour,” he boasted. “You’re crazy,” I said, as I swilled my ale.
The next morning, as I stumbled out of my tent and caught the alpenglow on snow-dusted peaks, I noticed a member of our crew was missing. “He’s up there,” said “Turbo” Ted, pointing to the tip of the monolith. “He’s halfway to the top.”
And for an hour we watched as Drew, a speck in the half-light, scrambled his way along the rim of the world into dirty-grey clouds. “Godspeed, good friend,” is about all anyone could say.
Long story short, after an hour of traipsing around the wind-blasted ramparts of Mount Johnson (it seemed fitting we called it this), Drew came back alive and we celebrated by drinking bad coffee and eating stale granola. Then we packed up camp and continued our quest.
We cleared the Three Sisters Pass, descended into a stunning valley blazing with fall colour, swooped over another pass and traversed a mountainside prime with panoramic views of seldom-seen peaks. It was, without question, one of the toughest, yet most rewarding days of hiking I’ve ever experienced.
As we descended into the “home” valley, Island Lake Lodge in view, the rain started again. So, heads down, we blasted down the slope, through a minefield of busted rock, and, eventually, found our rest at the lodge. For going above and beyond, Drew was awarded the “player of the game.” And, as advertised, the burger was sublime. Of course, it could have been a hockey puck and we still would have been in awe of the gourmet greatness of it all.