Dipping into the Unknown: Aylmer Triathlon

23It was mid-September. The mornings were chilly; leaves were turning vibrant yellow; snow had already fallen on the mountaintops. And there I was in my wetsuit about to slip into the freezing-cold lake.

Ever since I saw the video of David Gonzales’ Grand Teton Triathlon (AKA “The Picnic”), I’d wanted to attempt the same sort of challenge here in the Canadian Rockies. I don’t know if Sean and I had even bagged Aylmer for the first time, but I’d already selected it as the perfect playground for this sort of type 2 fun.

After my Temple duathlon, my focus shifted to this objective. I’d been riding my bike all summer — plus did Aylmer by bike last fall — so the cycling component wasn’t in question. And I was fairly confident about the running and scrambling parts as long as my gimpy foot held up. But when it came to the prospect of getting in the frigid lake and swimming across a wide part of it — that’s where the unknown lay.

24I actually possess a fair bit of experience both as a swimmer and dealing with mild hypothermia. I’ve been a swimmer my entire life, eventually teaching swimming as a young adult, where I shivered for hours in chilly lap pools with zero body fat to keep me warm.

But those were pools, and this was a lake. A very cold lake, with a good amount of chop on the water most days, not to mention a terrifying sea monster that resides within it.

Once on land, one isn’t much safer: the Minnewanka lakeshore trail is prime habitat for grizzlies and is restricted to groups of four, bear spray, etc., for most of the summer. I planned to attempt the triathlon September 17, as soon as the restrictions ended, and rounded up a couple buddies to join me for the cycling and running parts of the trip.

Jordan joined me from Edmonton and Chris from Canmore. The weather leading up was stellar but as the weekend approached, the forecast deteriorated. I’m used to pretty wild chinooks but the evening before the triathlon, the winds gusted harder than I’d ever felt them before. I laid in bed thinking about having to swim in the lake the next morning.

When we awoke, the wind had died but the skies were dismal — you couldn’t even see Aylmer from the window as it was engulfed in dark clouds. We cooked a couple of breakfast wraps and headed out the door around 7:40am. I was already wearing my wetsuit so I wouldn’t have to change when we got to the lake.

We met Chris at Whitebark Cafe and started cruising at 8:10am. We rode the 10kms up to Minnewanka in 31mins. I left my bike in Chris’ car (which was parked in Minnewanka parking lot) and organized my gear for the swim.14455702_10157413456095487_1913531413_oAs I intended for this trip to be self-supported (i.e. carrying all my own gear), I planned to tow everything behind me in drybags bundled in a PFD. As we approached the water we could see a considerable chop flowing west into the Stewart Canyon outlet. “I’m not very optimistic about this,” I said considering I had yet to test the dynamics of my tow kit.

I looped a long sling into an improvised harness, tied my tow bag to the back of it and placed the PFD into the water. I slipped into the lake, immersing my hips, my chest, then my shoulders, then launched off.

I swam about a quarter of the way out, noted that although the water was rough, it wasn’t impeding my swimming and my tow bag wasn’t being affected my the current either. I gave the thumbs up to Chris and Jordan and kept going.

The two-thirds point was the lowest point for me, as the opposite shore just didn’t seem to get any closer and waves kept lapping me in the face. I definitely had thoughts of the “bit off more than I can chew” variety but I had little choice but to just keep swimming.

14456735_10157413455535487_2076362924_oI stumbled onto the opposite shore amid the beached driftwood grunting like a beast. Even though I was unbelievably cold, I had to change into dry clothes and start hiking immediately. Although the transition was slowed by the numbness of my extremities, once I got into my running gear and started moving, I warmed up quickly.

2I traversed along the shoreline, stashed my wetsuit, then bushwacked up through the foliage to find Chris and Jordan.

Now for the fun part. We jogged along the rolling and incredibly scenic shoreline for 6km before reaching the junction for Aylmer Pass. After heading in that direction for a bit, I elected for us to head up the old fire lookout trail as opposed to the avalanche gully. I’d only taken the avi gulch before and wanted to try something new.

4The trail backtracks a bit before breaking out of the trees and gaining the location of the old lookout, which is no longer present. We gazed in the direction of Aylmer. Chris asked if a pointy peak, pretty far away, was Aylmer. No, I don’t think so, I said. We shifted our view a little. Even further away, behind that summit, was Aylmer.

5From the fire lookout, one traverses along the ridge towards its intersection with the avi gulch. This, I thought, would be straightforward, and though it wasn’t difficult, it was more bushwacky and route-findy than expected.

7Soon we arrived at the avi gulch to behold the behemoth Mt. Aylmer socked in the clouds. After a snack, we made our assault on the final mass of the mountain, aiming to dash up to the summit and back down to that spot.

8We traversed beneath the ridgeline and gained the notch in the ridge which permits views into the Ghost Wilderness on the other side. The final climb through loose rubble is nothing less than a slog, and compounded by relatively thin oxygen. If one consistently bags peaks in the 2500-3000m range (which in the Rockies is easy to do), one can expect to be feeling it at 3100m+.

10As we ascended the final hundred meters, clouds rolled in and it started to snow. When I got to the top, I found Chris sitting on the summit grinning with nothing to be seen anywhere around him. I personally tagged the summit at 6h28m after leaving Banff — Chris was a few minutes before me and Jordan a couple minutes after.

11We hung around on the summit for only a few minutes, as there was nothing to see. I fixed the piece of lumber usually jammed in the summit cairn. We said, “Peace out, Aylmer,” and headed back down.

13The descent went smoothly. We boot-skiied through shitty rock to the notch, traversed along chossy ledges below the ridge, then bombed down the screefield in the avalanche gulch to meet up with the Aylmer Pass trail.

I’d elected to hit up the Aylmer Pass trail for our exit rather than bushwack back along the ridge to the fire lookout. The Aylmer Pass trail was pretty runnable, I thought, and we would be able to make good time.

14We jogged for a few kilometers until Jordan caught a toe and went down hard. He tumbled into the bushes and was silent. I asked if he was okay. Not really, he said. His tooth was embedded in his lip and blood was pouring down his chin.

16Jordan removed his tooth from his lip. Chris cracked open a first-aid kit and we applied pressure to stop the bleeding. Jordan’s teeth seemed to be okay, and he’d probably need a couple stitches, but it became apparent after awhile that he might have a concussion.

This didn’t impede his ability to walk or run, so we did just that and trotted back along the lakeshore so we could get him some stitches and afterwards hopefully some beer and chow.

17In his semi-concussed state, Jordan repetitively asked (among other questions) whether I was planning to swim again. The day was supposed to have two swims, and as the model for the “Picnic” goes, you bike, then swim, then climb, then do it all in reverse.

Although I can use Jordan as an excuse (and I joked that I would), I really didn’t want to swim again. Or rather, the desire not to swim was stronger than the desire to swim, as I weighed my decision up until the very last moment. I could say that it was cold and rainy (it was); I could say the water had too much chop (possibly true); I could say I was tired (I was); I could even say that one of my friends was injured and it was more appropriate to stay with them… The truth remains that I simply didn’t want to get back in the water though I was surely capable of swimming across one more time. And I don’t consider the triathlon complete until I do it with two swims.

18We reached the parking lot around 9h14m. Chris and Jordan loaded their bikes into Chris’ car and headed down to get Jordan some stitches. I saddled up on the roadie for the downhill rip into town.

Ten hours and twenty-three minutes after leaving Banff, I returned to civilization, having biked, swam and ran/hiked my way to the top of a lofty mountain tucked in the front range backcountry. Furthermore I had a great adventure with friends and challenged myself to push (well) beyond my comfort zone.

00h31m  Lake Minnewanka parking lot
01h00m  Minnewanka swim start
01h18m  Minnewanka swim finish
02h38m  Lakeshore/Aylmer Pass jct
03h38m  Aylmer Lookout
06h24m  Aylmer summit
07h36m  Aylmer Pass trail jct
08h23m  Lakeshore/Aylmer Pass jct
09h43m  Lake Minnewanka parking lot
10h23m  Banff

55km (11.5km bike/482m swim/33km trail run/10.5km bike) | 2328m vertical | Movescount

Dipping into the Unknown: Aylmer Triathlon

Aylmer Duathlon & Assorted Reflections

11Last month I expressed mild disappointment over not achieving any long technical days in the mountains this summer. That is, little in the way of exposed ridgeline traverses, multipeak link ups or self-supported ultras in the backcountry. I mainly stuck to single summits, many I know well, going faster and lighter than ever before. In general though, one can either choose to be mediocre at new things (the definition of “novice”) or become really good at a given activity by doing it over and over again. It’s obvious now that the fruit of this summer wasn’t an extension of my activities into new domains, more a sharpening or deepening of what was already there.

This summer still had its unicorns and Mount Aylmer was one of them. Sean and I ascended this 3162 metre peak in June before I left for France and before Parks Canada seasonally implements restrictions on the trail to minimize encounters with grizzlies. Once the hiking restrictions ended in September I gazed out my window at Aylmer, then down at a window of good weather forecasted on my smartphone and knew my summer had built towards this objective: tagging Aylmer from town.

There is something to be said for “town” in the context of mountain running — mostly I’ve said it here — but in essence, it provides contrast. “Town”, the seat of comfort and habitation, is Alpha to the summit’s frigid, blustery and uninhabitable Omega. At the same time, the barren summit represents challenge, growth and the exaltation of our greatest selves while the couch, cafe or office chair implies to mountaineers a stagnance that reeks stronger than death.

This year I came to appreciate diverse forms of locomotion in the mountains, particularly how a bike can be integrated with bagging peaks. Seeing only few weeks of non-winter left in the alpine, I felt like I had a choice: I could hop in the car and drive somewhere and do a gnarly ridge traverse or maybe link a couple peaks, or I could travel under my own power to a mountain I reverently stared at from my window every day, and do it faster, stronger and in a 100% human powered fashion.
ay1There’s nothing novel about bagging peaks on a bike, as Anton spent the summer rehabbing his shin by biking all over Colorado and Justin Simoni climbed the state’s 54 fourteeners in a row, pedaling in-between them. If mountain running is supposed to be about distilling mountaineering to its most minimal form, there ultimately seems something superfluous about driving a vehicle to the trailhead to do it.

My day doing an Aylmer duathlon started at seven AM with a calzone and espresso. I left the house at 7:43AM, saddling up on my aluminum framed Argon 18 roadie and riding out of town.

The ride out to Lake Minnewanka took half an hour and passed by easily and quick. I locked up my bike near the Minnewanka boat docks and started trotting. After departing the lakeshore trail and heading towards Aylmer Pass, I bellowed with greater volume and frequency than usual to warn off any grazing bears.


The traverse on talus below the ridge was fun as I hopped from rock to rock whilst admiring the flawless weather and listening to Sweet Valley at full blast. When Sean and I bagged this peak in June, the summit was enveloped in a dark cloud as we topped out above the avalanche gully. Today it was a hard, blue sky from one horizon to the next.

95-2 The homestretch to the summit is steep but untechnical and I slogged at a pace that was actually too hard for the altitude I was at. I repeatedly had to stop and catch my breath, reminding myself to hike slower or frustratingly redline myself every couple minutes.

I tagged the top in 3h57m, adjusted the poor wooden stick stuffed in the summit cairn and took in the scenery. “The view is pleasing but not breathtaking,” says Kane in the guidebook, but it’s pretty decent. Prairies to the east appeared like the placid surface of a lake while views westward grew into a swelling sea marked by 11,000 foot whitecaps — Assiniboine, Temple, then the Goodsirs, looking like Dracula’s castle in mountain form.

7I hung around on top for nineteen minutes then headed down, plummeting 1600 metres in a fraction of the time it took to get up there. The only complication I encountered was descending too far down the avi gulch, past the faint Aylmer Pass trail which intersects it. When the eerie feeling of, “Something doesn’t feel right,” struck, I turned myself around and marched back up the drainage for a couple minutes until I located the path.

8bThe jog back to my bike was mundane but the lake was pretty and provided a cool breeze which made things quite comfortable. I remember our run in June being sweltering on the way out and on that occasion added injury to insult by bashing the soft underside of my foot on a rock. I reached my bike in 6h20m and flew mostly downhill back to Banff Avenue and Caribou Street in 6h49m, only nine minutes longer than our trailhead-to-trailhead time when we drove there in the spring.

Now when I look out my window, Aylmer is like a friend; a neighbour that I nod to, and it nods back. My experience with this mountain was more than a fling, more than just ticking the peak in the back of the scramble book and that’s it. I had a crush on Mount Aylmer and this is how I expressed it, and I’d like to think Aylmer recognizes and respects my effort in some metaphysical way.

Next summer, I just gotta swim across that lake and make it a triathalon.

0h30m  Lake Minnewanka boat docks
1h31m  Aylmer Pass/Lakeshore jct
3h57m  Mount Aylmer Summit
5h31m  Aylmer Pass/Lakeshore jct
6h20m  Lake Minnewanka boat docks
6h49m  Banff (Banff Ave./Caribou St.)

50km total (20km bike/30km run) | 2127m vertical  [GPS data]

Aylmer Duathlon & Assorted Reflections