Fellow foot soldiers,
The rains arrived in the mountains alongside my stride, quelling summer’s lingering heat with moisture, and frost, and snow. With a collective sigh, billowing smoke from the Chetamon Wildfire receded along with lofty goals; reality keeping us both in check.
Periods in the plans quickly became question marks. Idealistic ideas got slashed entirely, while novel ones hastily filled the margins. And cautious ellipses became gambles; coin tosses with equal potential towards either heady highs or tucked tails.
My packed hammock is pushed to the back of the trunk, unused. Summer’s leisurely days are now firmly in the rearview mirror.
When turbulent weather overtakes you on the trail, even the best preparations mean you’re going to be wet and cold. If it’s a quick tempest, sheltering can be a good bet. But if it settles over the valley indefinitely, then you need to move to make sure it doesn’t settle in your bones. This quickened trot warms you up from within and is known as survival hiking.
Heading back to an even colder night at the campground, this concept extends to all aspects of the routine. With 12 simultaneous camp days between any power outlets or solid walls, it’s safe to say that we adapted a humble respect for the weather rolling over us.
So, what might this super-fun-and-maybe-a-little-tedious routine look like?
Well, each day begins with a mustering of courage - because there comes a critical point where you really need to pee and the logistics of such unfortunately require unzipping your sleeping bag cocoon. Then, commences the reanimation sprint through the waiting cold: strip off your clean(ish) bedclothes, slide back into yesterday’s dirty(ish) layers, and fire up the stove to bring life(ish) to instant coffee / oats / soul.
Ever moving, there is no space to wait for a warmth that might not even arrive. And so, from this foundational rhythm you step forth towards the day’s melody: to hike, to make the next camp, to run errands…there’s not a moment to waste.
Before you know it the light is waning and you’re moving in reverse; eat, layer up, settle down with the sun. The next day promises to be 5 minutes shorter, but not a moment of its daylight will be taken for granted.
As per usual, there is never enough time for creative pursuits - the pen and camera taking a backseat to the being. But the inspiration sows seeds for later.
In retrospect, the memories that linger are sporadic reveries amidst the fullness of it all; shining peaks above an otherwise low-lying fog of effort…
Steady rain gives way to undulating shades of grey along the trail to Nigel Pass, skirting the edge of Jasper National Park. The light shifts, casting creeping shadows across a landscape littered with boulders. Above, a broken ridge stands still - hinting at the long ago source of the haphazardly strewn stones. The rough gap in its rock face mirrors the break in the clouds behind it, movement at vastly different rhythms.
The mountains are walking.
After being folded up in the car for days, it feels good to stretch the legs. My leather boots take on a darker tone with each step, matching the weather as I traverse slick tree routes and muddy paths.
The wet slog and lively scenery are a timely reminder of how suddenly the weather can shift in these mountain valleys. This is vastly different from the prairies I know so intimately, where you can oft see the sky’s mood hours before it actually arrives.
It is darkening again. Snack finished and hood cinched tight, the neon yellow dot of my pack’s rain cover resumes its steady plod.
It’s twilight; the breath of the Columbia Icefield above us has seemingly chased away the sun in its weakened autumn state.
A black bear skulks between monochromatic shadows at the edge of Camp #1. With a loud, “Hey bear!” we rouse the alarm.
Two strangers dash to our dinner table exclaiming, “I’ve never seen a bear before!” in thick German accents. Shy in the spotlight, our ursine visitor lopes down the road with a couple of casual backward glances through the drizzly night. Its eyes aren’t nearly as wide as our neighbours’.
Meanwhile a strange sound is rising in the distance. It quickly becomes a roar as it approaches - not the returning bear, but a wind funnelling through the valley.
With a crack of thunder, the rain turns sideways and picks up force. Headlamps flash alongside lightning as we scramble to pack away “drying” dishes. One of the folks next door makes it to their tent, while the other retreats to shelter in their car.
It is 1 degree Celsius and 7:30pm.
I unzip my tent to first snow on the ground and a vacant campsite next to us.
The high was to be 8 degrees Celsius, they said - firmly on the positive side of the thermometer. “Expect no more than a bit of passing rain,” they assured. And so we put our plans to encircle Yoho Peak into action.
Many switchbacks later, we crest a ridge known as the Whaleback and get a fleeting view of our destination in the distance. But from this exposed perch, we watch our path disappear into nothingness before our eyes; a gust sweeps through the valley and a blizzard is conjured out of thin air.
First the glaciers dissolve into grey, then the mountain. In a matter of minutes the wind and snow are upon us and we’re scrambling for the shelter of the treeline. Smiles turn serious as we realize that the squall is lasting; still, we press on towards the top of Twin Falls where we hunker down in a stand of subalpine fir.
The snow eventually slows, but we remain literally in the clouds. Visibility is non-existent as we cross a white bridge, leaving lone footprints as we go. On its far side was to be our crossroads; the place where we stepped off the trail to navigate up the northwest valley.
Wet and weathered, I make the executive decision to stick to the marked trail and retreat back to last night’s camp. Exploring further in this direction will have to wait for another year.
A chorus of frogs slips into my waking dream - distant echoes of a familiar alarm back in normal life. There is no such need out here in the woods; we rise with the sun. Except…today we have a hard-to-come-by reservation for the bus into Lake O’Hara!
I jolt awake. There is no alarm - only the consistent roar of Takakkaw Falls outside our tent. Had I dreamt it? Or had it croaked for so long that it finally gave up, thinking that we weren’t here?
I roll over and peek out of my sleeping bag at my partner. Is she still breathing? Yes - but sound asleep and…all our electronics are keeping their batteries warm deep in her sleeping bag. After a few minutes of thinking twice about it, I unzip her cocoon carefully to get at my phone - as if in a delicate game of real life Operation. I lose. She wakes with a start, and we quickly discover it is 7:18 and our alarm was set for 7:00.
Time to go.
We shift into high gear and begin the dance of breaking down camp while making breakfast. Thankfully, with the extra just-in-case half an hour that we originally built into the schedule, we manage to be ahead of our needs and only a bit behind our hopes. Heck, running out of stove fuel for breakfast even saved a few precious seconds. But come time to break down the tent and march out to the car, we hit a problem: the buckles are frozen solid.
Last night, the sky cleared after the storm to reveal a boundless ceiling of stars; beautiful, but with it the temperature dipped down to -9 degrees Celsius. Combined with the moisture of the day before…drat.
Now I wish I hadn’t run out of stove fuel. We dash to the car with arms full, piling gear to be repacked for the next leg of the trip as I grab extra fuel and circle back. Moving methodically so as to not make a mistake with my numb fingertips, I coax life out of the little burner and materialize a wisp of steam from a pot of cold water. With a steady pour of it over the buckles and an unsteady prayer muttered under my breath, they heed to my will and unclasp. Back to the car with another armful.
My optimistic tug on the car door however, is unfruitful. The door is frozen shut. The windows are thick with ice too. I do have a scraper, but it’s in the back of the trunk - behind all the camping gear filling it to the brim.
Scrape scrape, heat heat, drive drive…annnnnd we manage to pull into the Lake O’Hara parking lot with ten minutes to spare. Fresh faced fellow golden ticket holders from Calgary give us sideways glances as we flick the ice from our tent and pack it down in front of them. Here in the valley, it remains snow-free and autumnal.
Bouncing and swerving up the 11 km access road, there is a palpable excitement to the chitter chatter around us on the bus. As we steadily gain elevation, so too does the snow in the ditches. The mood shifts. Voices pause, mid-sentence. The bus groans.
Back into the alpine we go.
Lake O’Hara is a bustling international zone in spite of (or perhaps, because of) its restricted access. It feels like summer camp for adults - albeit with more diverse boots kicking around the dining area than the local standards.
Today I head up the braiding trail towards McArthur Lake, leapfrogging a multi-generational Japanese family along the path as we all take turns stopping to appreciate the golden larches and sun.
At the first passing they greet me in succession. “Hi!” says the son. “Hello,” says mom. “Konnichiwa,” beams Grandma. A quick, “Ki o tsukete,” escapes my lips in unthought response.
She said, “Hello.”
I said, “Be careful.”
…I don’t know why, but it kind of fits.
An hour later, I echo their excited six-year-old’s hellooooooo across the valley. Squeals of laughter echo back. I knew that TESOL certification I got a decade ago would eventually prove useful.
This is a single week of snippets from my journal. They’re raw vignettes; not yet synthesized.
While a trip such as this undoubtedly takes a concerted effort, I’ve come to find importance in personal retreat from the comforts and always-on-connections at home. As the stoics say, austerity is a good reset. It makes you feel alive and is a balm to the nature-at-hands-length norm of urban living. And upon emerging, simple modern luxuries like running water are never taken for granted.
With each step, a walking meditation blossoms awareness; not thinking, but rather connecting directly by being in the senses. This ground, this body, this wind, these smells…noticing each is a gateway to presence and respite from the undulating waves of the mind. Witnessing the rhythms of creatures, the cycles of plants, the flow of water, the movement of mountains…and then, coming back to the sea of the mind; perhaps a little calmer and more navigable with the grounding perspective that ten thousand steps back can provide.
I am plugged back in; recharged from a time without. Fresh water at fingertips, a thermostat on the wall, shelter from the weather…grateful for this, et al.
My there-and-back-again sojourn to the mountains has found its natural end: an overflowing inbox of responsibility. But, bolstered from my time away, that’s okay. Hopefully there will soon be opportunity to properly process images / stories / life. Winter is good for that.
Fumbling forward with the momentum of the past,