Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going

Looking over Cory Pass at Mt. Louis. Photo: Adam Zier-Vogel Photography.

Last week I went on a 14-kilometre hike with some friends around Mt. Edith via Cory Pass – in my opinion, one of the best day hikes in Banff National Park. Halfway, we hit Cory Pass and got an incredible view of Mt. Louis. I climbed the Kain route on Mt. Louis in 2011, in what feels like “my past life”. The trad climb took our party 24-hours of solid moving from base to summit to car. To that date, I had never pushed myself so hard. Only my ascent of Mt. Assiniboine comes close to the pride I felt in having reached the iron cross that stands at the top of Louis.

The next summer I was back at the pass with my sister and two months pregnant with Maya. My sister chose our lunch break at the pass to tell me she was expecting, too, and our babies arrived three weeks apart in Spring 2013.

Looking up at Mt. Louis on Friday I wondered if I would ever do a climb like that again. Or is my life drifting in another direction? There are some places on this planet that give us a chance to pause and reflect on where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going. Returning to the same location provides us with a baseline that we can use to gauge the changes we’ve been through and how we’ve evolved as people.

Which places on the planet act as your baseline?


Everest Climber Beats Cancer

I recently had the privilege of writing a short article on inspiring athlete, Alan Hobson, for the 20th Anniversary Issue of Impact Magazine. The team at Impact put a huge amount of work into this issue, and were able to catch up with many of their former cover athletes. I applaud their ongoing efforts to bring the most inspiring Canadian athletes into the spotlight.

I was able to interview Alan Hobson by phone amidst his  busyness traveling throughout North America attending to various speaking engagements. To give you a short intro to this amazing man, here’s the introductory statement to the article:

He may have climbed to the top of Mt. Everest, run two marathons and hang-glided over the Rockies, but the greatest challenge Alan Hobson has faced was beating the 85 per cent chance that cancer would take his life.

You can read the rest of it here!

Mount Rainier (14,411′)

I suppose turning back 300m from the summit due to 70 km/hr winds and -25 degree temperatures is an honourable way to retreat, but it was pretty heartbreaking. Mount Rainier showed its uglier side to us despite the incredibly beautiful highway of ice we were walking on. Still, the 14,411′ peak has its share of dangers and challenges and isn’t a place to fool around. Not when your lips are purple, your water tube is frozen shut and the only food you can bear to eat are Dora the Explorer fruit chews.

Two members of the group managed to fight the winds and cold temperatures to the summit, finding shelter in the crater at the top among vents that gave them the same feeling as those fancy seat warmers my parents have in their cars. The rest of us retreated back to Camp Schurman, where the winds were almost just as strong but warm sleeping bags and comfy thermarests awaited us.

The ridge overlooking Little Tahoma and the sea of ice below.

The adventure started at 8:30 in the morning on September 3rd when we departed for the hike and glacier walk  up to Camp Schurman. This was terrain we were used to, having come from the Canadian Rockies, but more deciduous trees lining the trail made things a bit different. Eventually we crested the moraine to access the Interglacier, which gave us a highway all the way to another ridge overlooking the sea of ice that cascades down Mount Rainier and its neighbour, Little Tahoma.

Camp Schurman

The Emmons glacier led us to Camp Schurman, where we arrived around 4:30 pm and quickly downed a Backpacker’s Pantry. An early night gave us a few zzzs before our midnight alarm went off, beckoning us to get geared up and on the glacier. We woke up to gusty winds, which didn’t subside until we reached the valley below 20 hours later.

We hiked up the glacier through the night, crossing over small crevasses and past large chunks of ice that looked like small houses by the light of our headlamps. And the winds only got stronger and colder as we ascended. I waited for the sunrise for what felt like an eternity. When it did finally come up, I seemed to enjoy basking in the warmth more than the incredible colours rising above the clouds below us. At some point, I turned back to see the views, but in my state of exhaustion hardly registered the incredible sight. With my camera put away until our descent a few hours later, I tried to take a mental picture before it was too late. I was in the front of the pack and the string of five other people dotting the rope downslope looked otherworldly.

Little Tahoma rising from the clouds.

Eventually we were climbing in full daylight, high above the clouds that had gathered over Washington State. Six hours into the climb, the winds were gusting so hard I was literally getting blown off my feet. Thank goodness for crampons. Fingers frozen, I changed my ice axe from one hand to the other, bringing my fingers into the warmth of a fist for a few minutes before switching again. The winds blocked out all sound, which lead to a strange sense of isolation. At times I had to look behind me to see if Greg was still following ten metres behind me on the rope.

All of a sudden, I felt a tug around my waist. I braced for an arrest, thinking perhaps Greg or Paul had fallen. But when I turned around to look, they were simply signalling to me to pull over and seek shelter from the wind next to the wall of a serac just off the route. The whole team pulled over and as soon as we did, I started shaking and so did Rachel. She clumsily pulled out her Nalgene bottle and with a shaky hand unscrewed the lid only to find the surface of the water totally frozen over. It was nothing for the ice axe, though.

And this is where we turned around. Four of us walked down the three hours back to Camp Schurman while two ventured for the top. They arrived at the bivy a few hours after us and after a brief snooze amidst howling winds we all packed up and left, eager to escape the gusts. By late evening we were back at the parking lot, exhausted, elated and absolutely starving. A late night pizza never tasted so good.

Six people, all our gear and one Suburban = giant puzzle.

© Meghan J. Ward, 2010.

Mount Assiniboine – South West Face

If you are using this information for your own trip, please read this disclaimer and description of my abilities. Additionally, for this particular entry, I don’t have many photos of the route itself and therefore cannot describe our route with a lot of accuracy.

from wikipedia.com

Somehow I went from writing about Sundance Canyon to writing about Mount Assiniboine (11,870 ft), the highest peak in Banff National Park (though at 11,850 ft, Mount Forbes, is the highest peak entirely in the park). Mount Assiniboine sits on the Great Divide (the Alberta/British Columbia border)  and can be accessed a number of ways. Fortunately for our party, we accessed the mountain via an 7-8 km trail located along Assiniboine Creek, which you can access by logging roads that march their way through Assiniboine Provincial Park (see GemTrek map “Banff & Mount Assiniboine”). Unfortunately, this meant that we never viewed Mount Assiniboine from its more iconic side that gave it the name, Matterhorn of the Canadian Rockies. Instead, we bivied at a small plateau located on its ‘uglier’ backside, also known as its South West Face. Otherwise, you can access the mountain via Bryant Creek (Spray Valley Provincial Park) or Sunshine Meadows (Banff National Park).

Headed up into the mist on Day 2.

Shortly after reaching our bivy site on July 22, the skies unleashed some hail and rain that never really relented until about 8 a.m. the following day. Our forecast seemed to be about 24 hours late – we were expecting a bluebird day on July 23, but woke up at 1am to the pitter-patter of rain hitting the tent and no sign of a break in the clouds. Our crew eventually woke up and started up the mountain for a day of reconnaissance and perhaps an ascent of the nearby Lunette Peak (also known as ‘Lost Peak’ thanks to James Outram’s accidental ascent).

Now, if I’ve ever heard anything about Assiniboine it is “go when it’s dry.” Trudging up the mountain in low clouds and snow made us second guess at times whether our sojourn into this part of the Rockies was worth our precious summer days. Surely the weather was better somewhere else…

Overall, the South West face was very snowy, which at times helped our ascent and at other times made us think about what it would be like to be scrambling on the loose rock underneath like those who had climbed the mountain before us (and whose beta and notes we were using). For the most part, we used the snow as a ramp and kick-stepped our way up so long as it wasn’t too soft. Thankfully, the more exposed scrambling wasn’t too snowy or icy and where we encountered some menacing verglas, we put faith in the old crampons. We stopped to rest at a particularly odd rock formation which we called The Bus Stop – a title that will forever stick amongst this group of friends and mountaineers.

The Bus Stop

So, on our reconnaissance day we managed to kick steps about half way up the peak and do some important route finding. When the ceiling showed no sign of lifting and the snow got steeper, however, we decided to turn back for the comforts of camp, aborting our attempt on Lunette Peak as well. Thankfully, the sun eventually came out and we were able to dry out our gear…and tent…and enjoy the bivy site.

Day 3, July 24, we woke up at 1 a.m. to a star-filled sky and high hopes. By 2 a.m. we had started up the peak under the most memorable sparkle of stars and retraced our steps very quickly to where we had left off. Within two hours we had reached our turn-around point and the sky started to get lighter. We travelled through mixed terrain, kick-stepping our way up a series of snow slopes and scrambling up rocky outcroppings and chimneys to arrive at ‘The Eyebrow,’ a horizontal outcropping of rock (or orange tinted block, as it is described in the books) that can be circumvented via its right-hand most side.

Night sky over Mounts Aye and Eon.

Eventually we met some steeper, more exposed areas, some angling about 50 degrees, and decided to belay our way across and up, sometimes pulling some surprise mix climbing moves as snow, ice and rock reunited under our feet. All you could do was go up and think about the scare factor later (which I did in the car on the way home….) Upon reaching the top of the ridge to the summit, we were quite the joyful bunch. The hardest climbing was behind us and now we just had to kick-step our way to the very top on crusty snow that had been hardened by wind and sun.

Upon reaching the summit, we learned that another group had been there only 10 minutes before us (otherwise we would have been the first party to reach the summit this season). And only a few minutes after we arrived, a guide and his client arrived to join us on the summit. Seems everyone decided to make their push for the summit on this bluebird day. While the views were spectacular, I must admit I didn’t take them in as much as I had hoped. A strong wind battered us on the summit and, fully aware that it was 9am and that was ‘late’ by alpine standards, we began our descent for fear of softening snow and avalanche conditions.

The snowy summit ridge.

Sure enough, our descent involved some rappels on less-than-ideal anchors and panicked downclimbing on softening snow underneath imposing gullies that loomed with heaps of snow just waiting to come down on this sunny day. Still, the descent went off without issue despite the potential danger. Dave kissed the rock at The Bus Stop upon arriving back there, thankful that nothing had gone wrong.  It is amazing how quickly conditions can turn from perfect, to reasonable, to deteriorating. More downclimbing and slushing our way through snow eventually brought us to familiar grassy ledges just above our bivy site. Upon arriving, we lay on the grass and stared up at the mighty peak. Backpackers Pantry has never tasted so good.

We concluded the trip by hiking back out to the car that very same day – fairly elated, and surprised, that we had just climbed Mount Assiniboine, a large peak that has been on the list for a number of years. For me, it wasn’t an item on a ‘To Climb’ list – it was an item on my Life List, and personally an amazing experience and accomplishment. Despite the warnings of climbing in snow, we proved that it can be done. You just have to go check it out for yourself.

I’ll try to post a topo soon.

Marvel Lake from the summit.

Downclimbing some of the trickier rock. Photo by http://www.zizka.ca.

© Meghan J. Ward, 2010.

Real Adventure

I recently came across Yvon Chouinard`s (founder of Patagonia) basic philosophy of life, in his book, Let My People Go Surfing:

The basic tenets of that philosophy are: a deep appreciation for the environment and a strong motivation to help solve the environmental crisis; a passionate love for the natural world; a healthy skepticism toward authority; a love for difficult, human-powered sports that require practice and mastery; a disdain for motorized sports like snowmobiling or jet skiing; a bias for whacko, often self-deprecating humour; a respect for real adventure (defined best as a journey from which you may not come back alive — and certainly not as the same person); a taste for real adventure; and a belief that less is more (in design and consumption). Pg. 150

I found that many aspects of his philosophy describe my own. Considering that, it was hard to swallow his definition of `real adventure.` Go ahead – go back and read it.

I find this particularly sobering on a day when the climbing world lost one of its best mountaineers, Tomaz Humar. Living in The Rockies, I rub shoulders with some of these guys (and gals) that seem to be lucky to be alive. Every year at the Banff Mountain Film Festival I somewhat rudely joke with my own climbing partners that some of the climbers featured at the festival may not be back next year. But, it`s completely true, and these people would admit it.

I thought I had a sense of adventure, but compared to these climbers, I may as well be hiking through a mall. Perhaps then, adventure is relative to the adventurer. My first stab at multi-pitch trad climbs this past summer was an awakening for me. There is nothing that compared to the level of focus and the mental battle I had going on some of those days, particularly on Grassi Ridge, a route up Wiwaxy Peak in Yoho National Park. Hanging a few hundred feet off the ground, I fully realized the dangers of what I was doing, and yet I needed, for self-preservation`s sake, to ignore them.

Lake O'Hara 075

The route up Grassi Ridge follow the left sky-line

Though I try to tune out these dangers, my awareness of them also comes indirectly through my precautions against them. I tie the rope in a figure-eight knot and double it back, I grip the rope a certain way when I`m belaying, I put my protection in the rock on a certain angle, and I equalize my anchors. Each precaution represents an inherent danger to climbing – otherwise, we wouldn`t do these things in the first place.

Yet, there is so much we cannot control, and this is why I believe Yvon Chouinard defines `real adventure` as a journey from which we may not return.

Some, like me, pursue increased risk and adrenaline in adventure – and this is arguably `real adventure.`Furthermore, there are those who reduce even their precautions (climbing without a rope, being a prime example), and we may call this `pure (and perhaps stupid) adventure.` There is a good chance they will not come back alive.

Still, adventure, even at its most basic level, can be found in many places and situations. Some find adventure in a new job or starting a family. For many it is a matter of time and place. Something that wasn`t adventurous before becomes adventurous in the future. My great aunt and uncle even made an adventure of going to the hospital when their health turned for the worst, just to make it more fun for eachother. Likewise, as I get older, my threshold for adventure may weaken.

I turn back, then, to the end of Chouinard`s definition of `real adventure.` He defines it also as a journey from which you may not come back as the same person.

And this is 100% true of all adventure.

© Meghan J. Ward, 2009.

Further reading (that I`d like to do, too):

Maria Coffey, Explorers of the Infinite and Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow

Steve House, Beyond the Mountain

Mother’s Day Buttress on Cascade Mountain

Mother's Day Buttress

Mother’s Day Buttress

If you are using this information for your own trip, please read this disclaimer and description of my abilities.

A summery September continues…and this Saturday brought the chance to do a route I’ve been eager to get on for the whole season. Mother’s Day Buttress on Cascade Mountain is a fun route that is close to the Town of Banff with easy access (but a more committed descent). It is by no means a classic rockclimb like some of the other routes I have been able to do this summer, such as Tower of Babel and Grassi Ridge on Wiwaxy, but it offers great practicing and views of the Bow Valley.

This route is 335 metres, approximately 8 pitches, the hardest pitch being a 5.7. For the most part, it is a sustained 5.5, ledgy climb, with a few short exposed sections. The 5.7 pitch is easily avoided if two lower class pitches are taken instead. Trees are located conveniently on a series of ledge systems, offering excellent belay stations should you not find the bolts that are already in place.

Today brought intense, gusty winds, making the sections involving friction climbing a bit more adventurous. If the wind gusted between moves it threatened to blow you off the wall…literally. Otherwise, I spent a few minutes at a time clinging for dear life to the rockface, back to the wind, waiting for it to subside. Radios were a great tool today as communication between leader and belayer was nearly impossible.

That may be the last multi-pitch before ice climbing season starts…and that mat not be a bad thing! I’m pretty excited to get the ice tools out again.

Forgot my camera today, so photo from Summit Post by Dow Williams.

© Meghan J. Ward, 2009.