CANMORE – Two things have been running through the mind of Andrew Cotterell for the past year: breaking the fastest known time on a more than 1,100 kilometre trail through tough Rocky Mountain terrain and raising money for at-risk kids while doing it.
In mid-July, he'll attempt both.
The Canmorite, an Outward Bound instructor and apprentice hiking guide, will take a run at breaking the speed record of the Great Divide Trail while fundraising to get disadvantaged youth into the wilderness through Crossing the Divide Experience.
“All the money raised for it pretty much goes into funding these trips for the youth," said Cotterell. "It makes a huge difference for them to get out in the mountains and see something different and to be away from the stresses in the city for a day or a couple days. I think it’s hugely powerful.”
The 1,130-kilometre trail runs between the borders of Alberta and British Columbia, and goes from Kakwa Provincial Park, around 200 km east of Prince George, B.C., to the Canada and U.S. border in Waterton National Park.
The current fastest known time is 23 days and eight hours set in 2019 by Elaine Bissonho.
The 32-year-old is attempting to do it in 21 days – averaging more than 52 kilometres per day.
But before he sets out, the mountain man reached out for advice to the record holder whose impressive resumé includes the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail and Continental Divide Trail.
“She had done those trails twice before doing the Great Divide Trail and she said the Great Divide Trail was way harder, so it’s kind of intimidating when you hear that from such an experienced person,” said Cotterell. “She said a kilometre on the Great Divide Trail felt like a mile on any of those other trails.”
After more researching, Cotterell said the Great Divide Trail is a rougher challenge than in other maintained parks – where he'll fight through coarse overgrown areas, deadfall and will have to navigate remote terrain.
The planning and training process for the three week backcountry excursion has been long requiring commitment to physical training for six or seven days a week for the past year.
He expects the physical strain to be stressful on his body, but being outdoors for longer periods isn't much of a worry for the hiking guide leader.
“It’s a bit different, it’s a bit more challenging, and the sections that are a bit more remote requiring more navigation and just a little bit more off the beaten track. That kind of really got me interested,” he said.
On the trip’s preparation side, he's pulled out the map for where to spend nights, listened to podcasts about the trail, and narrowed down what to pack.
“All my gear before I add food and water to it weighs about 10 pounds ... Food is just about over two pounds a day,” he said. “Most of the time, it will be three or four days of food at once in between points where I’ll get a resupply.”
Cotterell’s attempt will be classified as supported, meaning he’ll receive help along the way such as with food drops at pre-determined areas.
He expects to burn up to 9,000 calories a day, so he'll be "eating all the time," which could be up to 7,000 calories worth per day.
"I think this trip has been a lot about me, like I want to do it, and I’ve given up a lot of my time and focus, so to be able give a little bit back to other people is seems like a good thing to do," said Cotterell.
For every kilometre, Cotterell hopes $10 is donated to Crossing the Divide Experience, a Calgary-based registered charitable organization that has taken at-risk and disadvantaged youth into the wilderness since 1995.
“We work with young people who can most benefit from outdoor activities in the mountains, but who have some of the fewest opportunities to experience them,” said Ken Schmaltz, board chair of Crossing the Divide Experience in a press release.
“We’re a small, volunteer-run organization with virtually no overhead. All of our funding goes to getting youth into the mountains, so the money that Andrew is raising will have an outsized impact on those young people.”
To donate to Cotterell's cause, visit www.canadahelps.org/en/pages/great-divide-trail-attempt.