Thursday, January 1, 2015

TR: Early Season Asulkan Snowgasm

Trip Date: December 5-6, 2014
Trip Location: Asulkan Valley, Rogers Pass
Trip Participants: Sly, Christine, Kyle, Keith, Adam, myself

I have amazing early season luck in Rogers Pass. I have terrible luck in the pass the rest of the time.

Rogers pass is the only place where I've had a party member buried in a slide (he was rescued by his two ski buddies in under five minutes with no injuries). I've gotten basically pinned in the Asulkan Hut by storms and avi conditions. I've had to cancel a couple of mid-season trips due to excessively dangerous conditions.

But early season? I keep going early season searching for pow and every time the staff at the Glacier Park Visitors Centre call me an idiot. This year was no different.

I ran a trip for the ACC Calgary Section - the Early Season Asulkan Snowgasm and it was snowgasmic.

Christine, Kyle and I met up in Calgary and then met Sly in Canmore on Friday night. We then hauled ass out to Golden where we spent the night at the Brookside Motel in one of their cabins. The next morning we were up early to get up to the hut in time to get plenty of skiing done. We stopped for a coffee on the way and ran into Adam and Keith who were also headed up to stay at the Asulkan Hut and decided to team up.

The first part of the route up to the hut a little thin, not terrible, but a little thin. I like it, scares people off.

Sly crosses a bridge that should be under a lot more snow.
There was minimal trail breaking to do thanks to an established skin track (surprise, surprise for such a busy area) and the skin track was just the level of steep  that I like - very.

Once at the hut we dumped our stuff and headed out. Vis wasn't terribly good so we decided to drop into the tree triangle. Some day I'm going to ski the Steps of Paradise above the hut, sure as hell wasn't going to be that day though.

Limited vis above the hut - this is the best it got all weekend.
The tree triangle hides a lot of really killer skiing though. Most people follow the fall line out of the hut which takes you down skier's left, but if you break right there's a ton of more open, steeper options. While the snow in the alpine was pretty wind effected, there was a ton of fresh wind deposit in the trees and it was absolutely killer - a quick pit showed good stability.

We dug a quick pit to assess the stability in the trees - good to go.
Happy with the stability, we dropped in and started shredding. We skied until sunset before heading back to the hut.

Christine, confirming that there was no pow to be had.
The next morning, with vis slightly better than the day before, we went for a quick recce above the hut. We dug another pit to assess conditions and then did a quick lap. 

Considering our options above the hut.
There was a fair bit of wind effect so after I nearly skied right into the pit we'd just dug, we decided to go where the good snow was and dropped back into the trees. It was epic.

Kyle sending it off an old crown line.
There are an absolute ton of options for lines in the Tree Triangle - I will never understand why most people ski the same (sort of crappy) line every time, it's super low angle, short pitches and off camber.

Keith rolls in off the top knob of the Tree Triangle during a few short minutes of bluebird.
We headed up to the hut for a hot lunch then dropped back in to ride for the afternoon. By the time we finally headed back up to the hut for the last time to grab our stuff, we were running out of light fast.

Sly, shredding into failing light.
We gathered up our kit, explained to the people in the hut that no, we were not staying and yes, we did realize how dark it was outside and that we were still 8km from the car and headed out. The view down the Asulkan Valley, with a blanket of clouds a few hundred meters below us was gorgeous.

Losing light fast on our ski out
It's funny, whenever I go to Rogers Pass early or late season I hear people bitch and moan about how terrible the snow is and I always seem to find awesome pow. I think people sometimes pick a destination and don't really adapt their plans to the conditions. I would have loved to get to ski the slopes above the hut, but that wasn't where the good snow was. You've got two options, ski the line you want in 'marginal conditions' or adapt - ski another line that has better snow and save the other line for another time. I say go where the snow is.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Skier's Quest for PWDR

Back country skiing isn’t easy. You want the best, untracked, freshest snow and you won’t accept anything else. Thing is, you have to work for cold smoke. You earn your turns. You skin, you slog, you sweat. You don’t feel your legs screaming. You don’t notice the ice cold air flooding your lungs with every gasp. It’s you, the mountain and you’re paying your dues. With every fucking step, you pay your dues. Snow so deep that you can barely make forward progress? Good. Cliffed out? Awesome. Steep tight trees that you can barely thread a skin track through? Fucking fantastic. The worse the up, the better the down. I want the mountain to fight me every step of the way because it’s just going to make those turns I’m earning mean that much more, feel even more perfect. Chairlifts are for sloppy seconds loving weaklings. Sleds can’t get through the trees. Helis are for pampered old people.

Back country skiers, real back country skiers know that more work, more pain, more sweat, means more powder, more faceshots, more perfect turns.

I know how to work for powder. I know I work for glory.

This story takes us back about two months to the quaint town of Calgary and a day that I found myself sitting at the Vehicle Registry getting my old beat up Subaru wagon registered for another season. Just before I turned to leave though, I asked the guy about personalized plates. A couple of hundred bucks and I could emphatically state my driving force on the license plate of my car. I love wagons, I’m addicted to the most habit forming white powder on the planet. Only one possible plate for me.


My suby is the Powder Wagon. It takes me to the mountains, it brings me home, it shelters me at night. My suby is my partner in the powder hunter’s quest for glory. She’s my Powder Wagon. She deserves these plates.

I paid my money, explained what the plates meant on the application and was promised I’d have those plates in two weeks. I was stoked.

Two weeks later, the day of my birthday, I don’t have plates. I have a letter from the Department of Motor Vehicles at Service Alberta letting me know that they’ve decided that my ‘configuration’ does not “fit within the guidelines set out by Service Alberta”.
What. The. Fuck.

Personalized plates are almost universally owned by self-indulgent, narcissistic jackasses who take themselves way too seriously, so my initial thought is ‘meh, whatever’. But then I realize that this is just another mountain, another uptrack between me and Powder. Also, I am a self-indulgent, narcissistic jackass who takes himself way too seriously. So I call the phone number on the letter to find out what the heck they could have possibly rejected my ‘configuration’ for.

I get an incredibly nice and friendly ‘information officer’ who has to call the head office to find out what the deal is because she sure doesn’t see a problem. A short hold later she’s back on the line with the reason. The head office is concerned that powder could be a euphemism for cocaine. Apparently, Service Alberta feels that the word powder must mean cocaine and is so sure of it that no license plate can have that word on it.

I can’t stop laughing.
She asks if I want to appeal. I think this is getting ridiculous. It’s a vanity plate. But you know what? That rejection letter? It’s a cliff band on my uptrack. What do you do when you’re cliffed out on your uptrack? You contour around, find a weakness to exploit, keep going up. You work, you fight, you earn your powder. I want my PWDR.

So I find myself writing a letter of appeal to one Mr. Firoz Mohamed, Director of Motor Vehicles for Service Alberta. A reasonable person must see reason here and grant me my reasonable plates. My only hope is that Mr. Firoz Mohamed is reasonable.

Dear Mr. Mohamed,
I’m contacting you because I just tried to order some personalized plates and was told by letter that my selected plates were deemed not acceptable. The plates in question? PWDRWGN – a contraction of PoWDeR WaGoN. As I explained in the application, I’m am a dedicated back country skier and think that every car on the road should be a station wagon. The only thing I use my car for is to drive out to the mountains on weekends to go back country skiing or mountaineering. I’m chasing powder and normally sleeping in the back of my car so I can be the first guy at the top of a remote peak when the dawn breaks.

I just called in and spoke with a lovely information officer who let me know that the reason (and she had to contact the head office to find out) was that the word powder could be a euphemism for a narcotic.

I’m not even mad; I really just can’t stop laughing.

We live in a province that gets dumped on by snow. We have a ton of ski resorts and one on the biggest back county skiing scenes in the world. This is a province that just increased its dedication to powder safety by $150,000/year (now $250,000/year) in its support of Avalanche Canada. I literally moved to Calgary and started a career here because of the powder that is so accessible to skiers here. And I use powder here as meaning snow, not some clever double entendre. I’m guessing that there are a whole lot more skiers here in Alberta than there are narcotics abusers.

My plea to you Mr. Mohamed is two-fold. For one, I had no idea that the word ‘powder’ had developed such a nefarious and despicable undertone that the average person on the street could draw no other conclusion than that an old, green, 1995 Subaru Legacy Wagon, festooned to ski stickers and a PWDRWGN vanity plate, driving out past Canmore on its way to a weekend of shredding the gnar, must somehow be making a reference to narcotics. Let’s take back that word. Let’s return ‘powder’ its true meaning – that magical substance that drives so much of Alberta’s tourism – snow. Deep, fluffy, magical, snow.

The second portion of this plea is specifically how you can help do that. Please consider granting me my personalized plates so that I can continue to have fun driving my old beater Suby into the mountains late Friday night after a long week at work, loaded down with good friends, ski gear and a desire to explore the amazing terrain of this province, my home.

I will do my part. I will let everyone I know know that powder doesn’t just have to reference a narcotic but that it in general references any ‘fine, dry, particulate’ and that here, in this province, it means the lightest, driest snow found anywhere in the world.

Thank you for your consideration of this matter.


Phil Tomlinson, Ph.D.

Had to include the Ph.D. in there so that he realized just how deadly serious this matter is. A doctor doesn’t deal with trifling matters.

And so I awaited his response and it came shortly.

Mr. Tomlinson,

Thanks for your inquiry and detailed information. Your request will be reviewed within the next business day or so. I will be in touch.

Firoz Mohamed
Director, Motor Vehicles
Registry Services, Service Alberta

I chose to be the bigger man and did not immediately rail at the miss-honorific. The important thing here though, is that he didn’t immediately reject my appeal out of hand. I was contouring that cliff band. I’m glad he appreciated my ‘detailed information’. Sounded like a man of reason.

A couple of emails back and forth later, mostly me pestering him for a response and I found myself on the phone with Mr. Mohamed. Pretty quickly I could tell I was dealing with a reasonable person. He explained that people are passionate about their plates and incredibly creative in their attempts to get offensive plates through. He told me about his battles over EPH OPH and GFYS and, oddly enough NEWFIE. He explained his concern that some people – not myself or himself mind you – might come to the conclusion that my license plate was referencing cocaine and take offence.

Mr. Mohamed said he could tell that I was quite the ‘ski buff’ and asked if I was interested in compromising with another skiing related plate like, say, SKIBUFF. I’m not compromising, I want my powder and I will contour this cliff band and thread these trees as far as I have to. No, I want PWDRWGN. After a bunch more back and forth he tells me that we have one final option.

Mr. Mohamed will ‘conditionally approve’ my PWDRWGN, but he’s going to keep an eye on the situation and if he gets too many complaints, he reserves the right to recall the plates. This is nothing short of complete victory, I found the weakness in the cliff band, the ascending bench through the trees, because he might call this ‘conditional approval’ but every plate is conditionally approved. He’s just been telling me about plates he’s recalled. I win. Granted I win thanks to a reasonable person seeing reason, but I win. I get my PWDR. My Powder Wagon gets her name tag.

Backcountry skiers, real backcountry skiers know you gotta work for your powder. We work, we sweat, we earn our powder – neck deep blower or an incredibly inane and pointless vanity plate for our beat up old Subaru wagons.

And so ends the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever written other than my dissertation. Seriously, I can’t believe that Mr. Firoz Mohamed, truly a reasonable man confronted with a completely unreasonably one was so unfailingly polite, professional and conciliatory and I cannot thank him enough for professional emails a hilarious phone call and my license plates (assuming they ever show up, they’re late).

Friday, October 24, 2014

Book Review: Buried by Ken Wylie

2003 was such a horrific year for avalanches that it changed the face of backcountry skiing in Canada forever. 29 people would die in avalanches that year. Arguably the most infamous in the long list of tragedies was the Connaught Creek slide in Rogers Pass which hit three teachers and 14 grade 10 students. Seven fifteen year old students died in that avalanche, an event that galled the nation. But that wasn't the only major slide incident that year. Just weeks before the Connaught Creek slide, 13 skiers including guide Ken Wylie were hit by a slide while skiing with Selkirk Mountain Experience. Once again there were seven dead at the end of the day. Fourteen people dead in only two incidents. Jesus.

Out of these incidents, the Canadian Avalanche Centre - now Avalanche Canada, was born. If you had to find some good to come out of these events, it would be that it woke us up to the need to get our shit together. To figure out training, better assess danger, to communicate with each other.

Ken Wylie was an assistant ski guide working for Selkirk Mountain Experience at the time of the slide. Buried for over 30 minutes, a guide who led his clients to their deaths. When I heard that he had written a book about the event I expected something like Krakauer's Into Thin Air. I expected something slickly written, a clinical assessment of what happened that day, maybe a bit of back story on the cast of characters so you feel badly when they die. I expected the book equivalent of a movie 'based on a true story'. I expected some finger pointing, some technical reasons why Ken wasn't responsible for what happened.

That isn't what this book is.

Buried isn't a clinical assessment of what happened. In fact, the avalanche itself is only a small component of the book. The book breaks down into two halves. The first half deals with the slide and its aftermath, and not just the immediate aftermath but several years worth of dealing with the psychological trauma.

The book isn't slickly written. It isn't badly written, but it's awkward in places, uncomfortable. There isn't a hero, Ken is savage in his self assessments. You aren't watching a movie, you're living his life. The periodic stumbles and awkward, uncomfortable passages make it impossible to feel like an impartial observer. Ken's humanity, his flaws, his pain is inescapable.

Ken made mistakes, people died. He then made more mistakes. At times it felt as if this brutal self assessment, the agony of living with these mistakes led to a sense of despair. It felt like Ken was desperately searching for some good to come from his life - not to his life, but from. He wanted to feel as if he'd contributed something, but he'd fucked shit up so badly in his life that maybe the best thing he could do would just be a warning to others through this book. 'Look what happens when you fuck shit up like I did; don't be me.' It's brutal and it affected me deeply.

The second half of the book takes an altogether different tone. Ken looks back on his life and sees that he's made all of these mistakes - repeatedly, lived through so many experiences that should have been formative, but he failed to learn lessons at the time; so he re-examines these past experiences, past mistakes and tries to learn those lessons. What should he have learned, how can he take these experiences and use them to move forward, to grow as a person, to figure out how to live life.

The book takes you from a place rooted in despair and looks to build something positive out of a godamned mess. So many of us have felt incredibly lost and as though we've backed ourselves into a corner that it's hard to imagine escape from, and that resonates clearly here. It's incredibly powerful. Ken went through an experience that I pray is significantly worse than anything I ever have to deal with. Ken made the same mistakes over, and over again, just like I do. But Ken also seemed to figure a way out of his hole or at very least he found the strength and courage to try and I cannot overstate my respect for that.

Buried was not an easy book to read. By the end of the first half I found myself emotionally incredibly raw, I didn't want to keep reading but I also couldn't put the book down. I was watching a car wreck, but it felt like my car wreck. The second half of the book you get a bit more distance from Ken, which to be honest, is a relief. But you also get hope, inspiration to look at your own past mistakes in the same unflinching manner and learn those lessons you didn't learn at the time. If Ken can do it, after being through so much, fuck, maybe so can I.

You can get Ken Wylie's Buried from the Alpine Club of Canada.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Risk, Loss, Mourning, Skiing

JP Auclair died this week.

He was skiing in South America and his death was only one of five people killed in avalanches this week.

Right now there's rallies for democracy happening in Hong Kong. ISIS is butchering people. Putin is annexing Ukraine. Walruses have arrived in amazing numbers on a beach in Alaska because climate change has reached a point where there aren't enough ice floes for them to rest on. There are really important, scary things happening all over the planet. Things that matter.

But JP died and that's what's stuck in my head. I didn't know JP. I never met him. But I respected him. For all I know, he might have been some epic douche. But just like Shane McConkey he seemed like more than just an awesome skier. He seemed like the kind of guy I want to be. He was innovative - he helped make skiing cool again by showing skiers could jib just like the boarders. He helped invent the twin tip ski - he literally took skiing in a new direction. When all of a sudden it seemed like everyone is skiing monster lines, hucking monsters cliffs and stomping monster hits, he recorded the most innovative ski segment in years in a small town. He, with the amazing guys at Sherpas, made skiing down a sidewalk not only cool, but beautiful, emotional. Whether it's accurate or not, I saw JP as innovative, mature and yet never overly serious. He didn't seem to take himself or the sport too seriously and somehow reminded us to have fun.

Shane seemed to be like that too. As so, so epically documented in G.N.A.R., Shane seemed to loathe how seriously skiers sometimes take themselves. He hucked back flips naked. He filmed a ridiculous Bond homage. He invented his saucer boy alter ego just to make people laugh. He invented an entire game about how to be the most ridiculous person on the mountain. He also invented the pin tail ski. He has a god damned type of turn named after him. He invented skiing off cliffs with a wing suit. I didn't just want to be able to ski like Shane, as someone who takes things way too seriously, I wanted to BE more like Shane. I wanted to always remember to have fun. I wanted to remember to not sweat the small stuff. I wanted to remember to relax.

So many other skiers I've either known or have known of have died during my life on skis. Tyler Lewis of the VOC drowned in muddy tree well early season. Sarah Burke, Arne Backstrom, Andreas Fransson, CR Johnson, hell, Doug Coombs died less than a decade ago.

My dad wasn't an amazing skier. He learned to ski when he was 48. He tried to convince my Mom to let him quit his job (as a professor of neurophysiology) and become a ski bum. He volunteered on weekends as a ski patroller. He was like a kid on skis, the happiest I ever saw him. He didn't find it until he was in his forties, but he found what it is to be a skier. Skiing didn't just make him happy when he was skiing, it made him a happier person overall. It made him a better, more relaxed dad. Ten years after he discovered skiing, he died on his skis. Volunteering as a ski patroller, skiing his favourite run, he lost an edge and fell hard breaking a rib which pivoted around and punctured his aorta. Coroner said that if he hadn't seen it, he wouldn't have believed it. Total fluke. Shit happens. Bad luck.

In April I went up to the Fairy Meadows Hut. The day before we got there, there was a fatality in the party there before us. We were the first contact the departing party had. They didn't even know for sure that their friend was dead, the last they saw she was getting CPR in a heli. Countless times last season I would be standing on some ridge top considering a line when I'd hear a heli come in low and disappear up a drainage just across the highway from me. I knew someone was having a really bad day. I felt surrounded by death last season.

Am I good or am I lucky? I am so fucking haunted by that question.

I want to be good and lucky. If you make the right decision 99% of the time, statistically you're still going to get bitten eventually. You need to be good AND lucky. I am terrified that I'm only lucky. Do I make good decisions? Is it my ability to read terrain, snow, my group, that has kept me from joining so many of my heroes?

There's days when the avi danger is high and I go skiing anyway. I tell myself that by sticking to lower angle terrain with big run outs and limited terrain traps I can still ski with an acceptable safety margin. The woman who died at Fairy Meadows just before we got there died on a slope that I could barely believe could produce a fatal slide. There was a wind lip, off to the side, at the base of the line. She was skinning up, the slope went, she was buried over 3m deep in a wind lip that barely looked like it was in the slide path. Maybe she made a bad call. Maybe she should have been fine and just had bad luck. Maybe I would have done the exact same thing as her and it would have been my friends loading into that heli with that thousand yard stare.

At least once a week I have a nightmare. The only dreams I remember are in the mountains and bad shit is happening. I've watched my brother get nailed by a slide and killed in my dreams more times than I can count. Katherine dies in a similar way. Steve hits a tree. Piotr slips on a steep snow slope and goes hurtling into rocks. Christian slips on an icy traverse. Kiran badly breaks her leg in a boulder field, Jenna follows me up an ice route I just led and I discover the rope's totally core shot. Each person gets their own dream, always the same one.

Not everyone dies, but bad shit is happening and I have to deal with it. I'm scared, I don't have anything in my pack I don't normally carry, I'm cold. My brain cuts me no slack. Once a week, something bad happens in the mountains and I have to deal with it. I have to watch my brother die, or a friend get horribly injured. I wake up super anxious. I know it was a dream, but it always feels so real.

The day after the dream is the day that I ask myself if it's worth it. Strung out on coffee, sitting at my desk or on a plane I ask myself if this is really how I want to spend my free time. Is it worth it? Just to slide on snow? Stand on a summit? But then the weekend comes and I'm out there. I'm exhausted, I crest the last pass on a long hike. I mantle up over the top of a route. I ski trees so fast that my brain goes completely quiet and I exist in a state of pure instinct. I don't remember the dreams. I am happy in a way I have never been able to duplicate. I'm where I have to be.

I think skiing makes me a better person. When I've let girlfriends keep me from going into the mountains every weekend, I become a person I don't like. I'm more irritable, more serious, lost in life, less compassionate. In the mountains I remember to be like JP and Shane and take myself a little less seriously. I remember that the little stuff doesn't really matter and that it's almost all little stuff. I remember how lucky we are. I realize how amazing my friends are, how close we are. Through my dreams I realize how devastating it would be to lose them - what they mean to me.

At the same time, that question of 'am I good or am I just lucky' is going to keep haunting me. Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe that will keep me more conservative so when I'm standing on top of that line that I'm pretty sure is safe, maybe I'll take another second to consider it and maybe choose a safer line. Maybe being haunted by that question is what makes me good or at least better than I would otherwise be.

I don't know what the future is going to bring. I hope I never have to watch a friend's body get loaded into a heli. I hope none of them have to watch me get loaded. I hope we're good and lucky. I won't be able to do this stuff forever. I don't know whether I'll mentally or physically break down first, but eventually a weekend is going to come when I don't want to go into the mountains. I hope it happens when I'm 90 and watching my grand kids terrorize their parents just seems like a better use of my time.

What I do know is that every weekend I want to be in the mountains. Every weekend I want to push myself. I want to drag myself into the office Monday morning, sunburned, hoarse, and with a shit eating grin on my face.

JP, Shane, Tyler, my Dad, and all those others that went out on their skis. They knew that they were taking a risk. They knew that risk was worth it, for them. That risk is still worth it for me. I hope it's always worth it.

Not Really a Run on Northover

Type: Loop
Distance: ~40km
Elevation Gain: 1580m

I'd heard good things about Northover Ridge from a few people. It was also another destination that Katherine and I had attempted while she's been injured that we had been turned around on. That time we were turned around because it was a) super cold out and we were freezing mid-day, b) the ridge was getting nailed by howling winds and c) it was completely enveloped in fog and as much fun as bivying in a)the cold and b) howling wind without anything more than a lightweight down jacket and an emergency blanket, we decided that we're old and soft and turned around.

Northover is about 40km car to car and it's a loop so there's no hitchiking or stashing of a bike which pretty seriously reduces the logistical faff which means you spend more time actually doing stuff and then drinking victory beers. The route starts and ends at Upper Kananaskis Lake. I did the loop counter clockwise, heading along the west side of the lake until the Three Isle Lake trail splits off. From Three Isle Lake you head up valley towards a steep scree col which you gain, hang left, and then climb to the obvious peak. From there it's a 5km or so ridge walk before you drop down towards the Aster Lake Campground. From Aster Lake you drop to Hidden Lake, skirt the west shore to it's outflow which doesn't outflow, and follow an overgrown trail until you reconnect with the Upper Kananaskis Lake Trail and follow that out to your car. Piece o' cake.

So I set off, late (10am, not really an alpine start) and slightly hung over from hanging out with friends the night before and started running the trail. I was doing this solo again which I'm finding is just way easier for these longer days, it's nice being able to set your own pace. At least this time I actually brought some bear spray with me. I also had music playing from my speakerphone again as a pretty useless bear deterrent.

Cruising around the lake goes quickly and is pretty gorgeous in places.
I cruised around the Lake pretty quickly and maintained a pretty good pace up to Three Isle Lake. From there though, I slowed to a crawl. This isn't a run - at least not if you're solo. Google Maps shows the Lake having a big southern spur. It doesn't. Or at least it didn't when I was there, maybe when water level is high it fills in, but it was kilometres of lake bed. And not good lake bed. It's shitty talus. I fucking hate talus. Running it solo is suicidal, the odds of blowing an ankle are way too high.

A valley of ankle destroying talus
After a few kilometres you need to gain that col and it's steep scree and talus the whole way up - totally un-runnable. Once you arrive on top of the col the view is great, but you also shows you that you have a bunch more elevation to gain up to a sub peak. More steap, totally un-runnable scree and talus. Gain that sub peak and congrats, you're on the ridge. You can sort of run sections of it, but a number of places have decent exposure and sections are downright a scramble.
From the col, there's a steep talus and scree trail up to the sub peak
I don't like doing scrambles solo. The problem is that the guide books/people/beta out here seem to have really different definitions of what a 'scramble' is. I figured that the route was probably just a hike, but this is a very easy scramble in my book. I used my hands for balance a few times and a fall in a few places a fall would have really sucked. So yea, scramble. I cruised along, ran into a couple that seemed pretty out of their depth who were also trying to do it in a day. They were struggling with the exposure and where moving at a pace that meant they were probably going to end up finishing out their day by headlamp. The nice thing is that the start and end of the route is the trail around the lake which is easy to follow in the dark, so not the end of the world. Actually, I sort of figure that any day that ends up with you slogging out by headlamp is a good day as long as you're comfortable with that sort of thing.
Amazing views from Northover Ridge

Anyway, the ridge is gorgeous. Amazing views, super aesthetic, fucking talus the whole way. You can run some sections but the talus and the exposure are pretty limiting, especially if you're solo. I was missing the ankle deep mud of the Rockwall trail or the alpine meadows of Healey Pass. Another issue on this route is water. Even though it had snowed a few weeks before, some warm weather had melted it all out and it was actually pretty blazingly hot and sunny all day. After Three Isle, you don't have a chance to get any more water for quite a while and up on that ridge, you're getting hammered by the sun - the single Nalgene bottle in my bag wasn't enough and by the end of the ridge I was starting to feel a little wobbly. Nothing major, just had to watch my foot placements and pay a bit more attention to what I was doing. Pack water. More than a litre.

Eventually you drop down off the ridge, follow more talus garbage out to Aster Lake where I stopped for what little food I had left. I way underpacked on food. I had a sandwich, some wine gums and that gawd awful ziplock bag of mangled, melted cookies that I'd been carrying since the Rockwall. The cookies had travelled something like 150km in my pack at this point. I just wanted to finish the supid things. I failed. Even though I really didn't have enough food, I just couldn't eat all of those damn cookies, I was just sick of them.

I was pretty surprised to not see anyone out at Aster Lake. It was later on a Sunday, but I still would have thought someone would have been out there. In fact, I was super surprised how few people I saw all day. Once I left Three Isle Lake, the only people I saw was the couple up on the ridge. I'd expected way, way more traffic on the route. I'm glad I had my inReach with me and had been touching base with people throughout the day - if something had happened, I sure couldn't bank on some nice person passing by and helping me out.

From Aster is a cruise down to Hidden Lake which is actually really pretty. There's a ton of trees that have been died but are still standing, roots exposed, looking like vertical driftwood.
Vertical driftwood
I'd given up on running at this point. The first few kilometers had gone well but after all the talus, any idea of a fast day were long gone so I just hiked out the remainder. As it got dark I dropped into a jog in a few places just to speed things up, but really, I was hiking.

I got back to the car around 7pm, 9 hours after I set off. I hung out on a picnic bench at the lake, guzzling water to try and rehydrate and watched the sun set over the lake. Big mistake, meant I got to try not to mow down wildlife on Highway 40 the whole way out.

Shitty planning, inadequate research, not enough water, not enough food, too many cookies, absolutely fantastic day. Despite the talus, I love the route, it's gorgeous and I'll definitely go back. With more food and water, and someone to patch me up when I blow an ankle on the talus.

GPS, elevation profile, usual stuff is all on Movescount.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Bourgeau-Healy-Sunshine Traverse

Type: Traverse (ditch a bike at the base of Sunshine)
Distance: 30km (28.67km on my watch)
Elevation Gain: 1850m

Sometimes it's Friday night, you're drinking beer at some local, awesome event and you realize you don't have plans for the weekend. That's where good buddies come in. Because probably, you're hanging out at this cool event with just those good buddies and they're in the same spot. So what do you do?

Well, Charlie and I had both done bigger days recently, so we were looking for something that would let us stretch our legs without completely murdering ourselves. Matt and Murray seemed more or less happy to do anything that involved being outside. They're sort of easy to please.

Matt and Charlie had been looking at the Bourgeau-Healy-Sunshine traverse for a while and it sort of seemed to fit the bill. At 30ish kilometres and 1800m of elevation gain, it wouldn't be a monster day, but would still feel like we accomplished something. We decided to start at the Bourgeau parking lot and traverse over to Sunshine ski resort and stashed a bike at Sunshine to get one of us back to the car..

Originally we were planning on hitting it pretty hard and trying to really blitz the trail but neither Charlie nor I were feeling 100%. I had a lot more joint pain going on than I expected - I don't think I'd given enough of a break since the Rockwall day trip, and Charlie's in med school and had done a few big days recently. The result was a day that was a little more mellow than planned but still fantastic.

The climb up to Bourgeau was  pretty straightforward. It's a super accessible mountain, no real technical skill required and while it's not a trivial day it isn't a big one either. I think it's called a scamble some places but I literally never touched a hand down on the way up or down so I'm calling it a hike. Also, the summit with its coms station makes for an awesome napping spot.

We had a pretty solid technical nap on the summit, but it was beautiful, the sun was shining and our ideas of trying to move super quickly were long, long gone. Not every trip needs to be a murder fest - pushing yourself to complete something quickly is rewarding, but spending time chatting with friends, dozing in the sun is just a different kind of rewarding.

When we were done with our nap, we headed off. The game plan from the summit of Bourgeau was to make our way to Healy Pass before dropping down to Sunshine. There was some great terrain that was technically a ridge but really it was like a meadow that breaks to either side of you. A little bit of scree or rock punctuated the otherwise alpine-meadow-y route.

While we weren't moving super quickly the terrain is definitely suitable for for a faster pace. Super mellow ridges, shallow descents into meadows; for all that there isn't a defined trail in places, it's a very friendly route. It's also a route I'd like to do again when I'm 100%, and a route that I think would be super nice on those days where the avi danger is keeping you from doing any real skiing. I think that our route would go as a relatively low exposure tour.

We wandered over to Healy Pass which is really pretty mellow and on our way hit some amazing bear gardens. The bears had clearly been through and really torn up the ground level veg looking for food. It was like someone had taken a rototiller through there.

From Healy Pass down, you're following marked, wide open trails. It's only from Bourgeau to Healy pass that you are on a route, not a trail, but as long as you stay on or near the ridge, you'll be fine.

From Healy it's ~8-10km out to the base of Sunshine on groomed trails. We ran the majority of it and then Charlie grabbed a bike we'd stashed earlier and rode back to the far trailhead to grab my car. She's sort of awesome that way. I like getting myself tired in the mountains, but I'm always looking to cheat on the bike ride when I'm doing a traverse. When I did the Rockwall I had stashed a bike but ended up just hitch hiking across since I still had light. It was super nice of Charlie to wrap up her day with a 10km bike ride through the mountains.

Not a super in depth TR, but honestly, this is a loop worth doing. It's beautiful and if you make it to Sunshine early enough, there's cold beer at the end (we didn't get there early enough). All in it's in the neighbourhood of 30km and like I said, I think it would go pretty comfortably as a ski tour for higher avi days. There's certainly areas to be careful on skis, but if you are confident in your avi skills, it doesn't have a ton of exposure.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Just Bad Attitudes

Rockwall Trail
Type: Traverse (hitch hike back to your car)
Distance: 53km (according to my watch, 55 according to the signs)
Elevation Gain: 2600m (N-S)

The Rockwall trail is just off of Highway 93, just south of the Trans Canada. It's a 55km traverse that has five different campgrounds along its length and most people do it in between four and six days, loaded down with big packs. The trail can also be done in a day if you like long days and you're into that sort of thing.

Seemed like a fun challenge.

Katherine and I took a stab at the Rockwall in a day idea a couple of weeks back. Katherine's still recovering from a badly sprained ankle she got a couple of months back so clearly blitzing the Rockwall was a good idea. No chance of aggravating it there. We had reasonably good weather and thanks to good trail conditions, we managed to move at a nice consistent speed.

Helmet Falls and the start of the vertical rock faces you follow for most of the day.
When we got to Numa Creek which sits at the 35km mark, we we were losing daylight fast, and thanks to our shitty blend of shitty navigation on beautifully marked trails, we'd managed to add a couple of kilometres of detours into the mix. We decided the safe and responsible thing that wouldn't have us hiking a significant distance by headlamp would be to walk out the Numa Creek trail which connects to Highway 93 and skip the last pass to Floe Lake. Doing the 'smart and responsible' thing isn't usually our style, but we decided that a beer and a burger in Banff sounded better than huddling under an emergency blanket in the rain. While we didn't do the full trail, we'd done most of it. It was a 44km, 1700m elevation gain day and we'd done it in eleven hours.

I was stoked that we had a killer day, but I felt like I had unfinished business with that trail. I wasn't tired enough at the end of the day and I have a mental disease where I like to do things to their farthest logical extent (hence my Ph.D.) so bailing before the end was sort of eating at me. It had also been stunningly beautiful and I wanted to see Floe Lake which I'd heard was worth seeing and ducking up the other end of the trail some weekend just seemed like cheating. You know what makes you appreciate a pretty lake? Suffering for a bunch of hours to get there. And as everyone knows, suffering is a synonym for happiness.

This past Sunday, I headed back to Rockwall to see if I couldn't do the full traverse. I went solo this time though. I'm not really an Ultra Runner, I'm more on the 'fat but determined' side of things, so I knew I'd be too slow for the really fast movers. On the flip side, I don't really know any hikers other than maybe Katherine who would be willing to move that fast and until her ankle heals, trying to run long distances on uneven trails is sort of a no-no for her.

So, solo I go. The real upshot to a solo mission is that you get to go at your most efficient pace all day without having to adapt to someone else. The downside is that if anything happens, you're in trouble. Oh, and bears - being a party of one, moving quickly, you don't really let the bears know you're coming and you're less intimidating to them when you run into them. And moose. Moose are just fucking terrifying.

Trying not to drive off the road with views like that is tough - luckily the road is basically dead straight until you get to Canmore.
My attempt at the Rockwall, in a day, solo, was one of the best days I've ever had in the mountains that didn't involve skis. There wasn't any technical interest in the day - you're just loping along; what made it such a great day was the contrasts, the variety, the time spent in my own head and the amazingly diverse people you meet out on the trail.

The mountains are so varied that sometimes it feels like you pick a feature and go visit it. I want to see glaciers today. I want alpine meadows. I want giant rock faces. It's the same thing with the weather - you get a day of sunshine, or a day of rain, or a day of snow. During my attempt at the Rockwall, I got more variety than I've ever gotten in a day before.

I started off in sunshine, but got soaked running through bushes holding onto the last night's rain as I ran from the Marble Canyon trailhead to Helmet Creek. I hiked through open trees and light rain up to Helmet falls. I had freezing rain as I crossed bellow the Rockwall itself, dwarfed by a massive, uninterrupted rock face that towered above me. As I went over Tumbling Pass I was confronted with desolate, empty alpine meadow as I got pelted by wind and graupel. Descending to Numa Creek, the trail had degenerated to ankle deep mud choked by alder and bushes. Seriously, for several kilometres, my shoes would completely disappear into the mud with every step and everything was so choked with sopping wet bushes that I couldn't just parallel the trail.

I stood at the top of Numa Pass surrounded by nothing but crumbling rock punctuated by a (ridiculously self indulgent and self congratulatory) cairn adorned with prayer flags (it's a pass, it doesn't need a giant frickin cairn). The sun was starting to get lower in the sky. That amazing, contrasty light I'd had for my morning drive was back.

Dropping down from Numa pass to Floe Lake I gawked at the intense blue colour of the water. As I walked and jogged the final few kilometres out Floe Creek back to Highway 93, I had clear skies with the last sunshine of the day illuminating the fireweed that choked the old burn the trail bisects.

I had sun, I had clouds, I had wind, rain, snow. I crossed creeks, open trees, trees choked with bushes, alpine scrub, talus, lakes, rock faces and water falls. I wasn't as tired as I'd hoped I'd be, my feeling is that if you aren't so tired you sleep in your car, you didn't have a big enough day, but at least I'd appeased my need to complete the trail.

We always hope for good weather. We want blazing sunshine and comfortable temperatures. We hope we won't have to pull the hard shells or puffy layers out our packs and we feel almost let down, or cheated when the weather isn't ideal. There's an old Scandinavian saying that MEC co-opted for an advertising slogan a while back - 'There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes'. My day on the Rockwall made me think the saying is actually wrong. I had the best gear - super breathable hard shell, amazingly grippy trail runners, ultra-light puffy layers and I was as happy as I've ever been. I saw other people with fancy, expensive gear like mine complaining about the mud and rain, looking truly miserable. But, I watched one couple, out of shape, hauling heavy gear, wearing garbage bag ponchos smile and laugh at the water pooling on their packs. They were enjoying themselves not despite the weather - I think they were enjoying themselves because of the weather. The saying should be 'There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad attitudes'.

The mountains owe us nothing. We are profoundly lucky that our lives are so easy that we can choose to go and suffer out there. Yea, getting rained off a route sucks, but every day in the mountains is a godamned good day. Shitty weather is just an opportunity to do something different and a day that lets you experience so much, so quickly is just frickin epic.
The day that had it all - even some sunshine on top of Numa Pass
I'm stoked that I did the Rockwall in a day. Despite weather that few people would call 'ideal', it was one of my best days ever in the mountains. It reminded me about what I love about being out there. Pushing myself, the sense of accomplishment at completing an objective, the sense of unity with my surroundings, being inside my own head for hours. It reminded me that there's no such thing as bad weather and that attitude is everything.

You can get my GPS track, elevation profile, embarrassing heart rate and speed profile and other trip details from MovesCount.