Saturday, September 2, 2017

Backpacking in Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks - August 2017

With 2016 and 2017 proving to be a little more challenging than I would have preferred, the choice of a one-and-only adventure planned for 2017 had to be strategic. Where to go, what to do, when to go... Much went into this very important decision!

For a number of reasons, I needed to limit risk on this adventure, so no epic bike trip, no mountain climbing, no crevasse-crossing, no exposed summits. Essentially, nothing scary. And considering my lack of fitness at the moment (ahem...), I was looking for something comparatively "easy". Like... a good solid backpacking trip amongst mountains and lakes and forests and wildflowers, and maybe the occasional wildlife sighting. The "Mountains 101" online course I took last winter (produced by the University of Alberta and available on Coursera) introduced me to Glacier National Park, and Waterton Lakes National Park. I got in touch with my favourite guide and friend Peter, and we started planning. 

After a bit of back and forth via email, trying to figure out a decent itinerary, we settled for a 3- to 4-day thru-hike "from Montana to Canada", starting in Glacier National Park and ending in Waterton, Alberta. The logistics proved a little challenging to organize, surprisingly. But in the end, we were able to plan as much as we needed before departure. The rest would be up to our adventurous spirits, and maybe a little bit of luck.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Peter picked me up at the airport in Bozeman, Montana, around 9:30pm. It was so great to see him! I was also joyfully reunited with Peter's girlfriend Becca soon after, and even got some puppy love from Sky Dog. Becca and Peter gave me a tour of the garden and the Bozeman Handyman's workshop, we briefly talked bikes, and then all three of us proceeded to pack gear and food. Becca was off on her own "solar eclipse adventure" the next day, so all three of us were getting ready to travel. We went to sleep at 11:30pm for a two-hour nap, before a very early wake-up call for Peter and me, ready for the 5-hour drive to St. Mary Visitor Center in Glacier National Park.

Sunday, August 20, 2017
We left Bozeman at 2:15am, and Peter drove all night. I'd say the scenery along the drive was beautiful, but there wasn't much to see until sunrise, at which point it really was breathtaking... Once the sun came up, I was able to appreciate just how beautiful and vast Montana is - Big Sky Country indeed. Wow... We got to St. Mary around 8am, tired and eager for some rest, as soon as we could fill the gaps in our plans.

Our intended itinerary had us starting our hike from The Loop (one of the Going-to-the-Sun Road shuttle stops), spending our first night at the Flattop backcountry campground (BCCG), ideally a second night at Fifty Mountain BCCG, and arriving at Waterton River BCCG, near Goat Haunt (southern end of Upper Waterton Lake), at the end of our third day's walk. However, thanks to the US National Park's somewhat complex reservation system online, we only had our first night at Flattop guaranteed.

We needed to book two extra nights in Glacier National Park: one campsite for our second night on the trail, and one for this very night after driving all the way from Bozeman. At St. Mary, we got the help of a NP Service employee who helped us figure out the possibilities.

We couldn't get a night at Fifty, which had no vacancies, but we were able to secure another night at Waterton River BCCG, which meant we would have to walk 17 miles (30km) on our second day. We would get to Waterton River a day early and decide what to do with that extra time. 
The view from Rising Sun Campground

We also booked a spot at the Rising Sun Campground (5 miles west of St. Mary on the Going-to-the-Sun Road) for that same Sunday night: one night of luxury car camping! We got there just after 9:30am, very tired. We made camp, and promptly took a 2-hour nap. In the afternoon, we drove to Logan Pass and did the Hidden Lake Trail hike. 

The Hidden Lake Trail Boardwalk
An "accessible hike", with the first mile or so on wooden boardwalks, Hidden Lake is still a gem of a hike, with beautiful rock bands of various colours, a landscape of faraway peaks, blue lakes, tall trees, and with a welcoming committee of ground squirrels, mountain goats and big-horn sheep. 

Hidden Lake nestled amongst the mountains
Overall, it proved to be a nice little 6-mile hike (10km) to wake up our tired legs. Pete tried his luck fishing in Hidden Lake, but his minimalist Tenkara line (a Japanese purist style of fly fishing which I could appreciate for its simplicity) was a little too short to reach the deeper parts of the lake where the fish were hiding. We had plenty of food to eat on that first night, so no worries, other than Pete's disappointment with not catching anything.

Monday, August 21, 2017
After a leisurely morning and a delicious pancake breakfast, we drove to St. Mary where we planned on leaving Peter's vehicle (Clifford by name) for the week. We watched the solar eclipse from there, using the free glasses handed out by the Park Service. With about 87% coverage at our latitude, we experienced a gradual "darkening" and temperature cool-off. A fascinating and beautiful phenomenon...

We caught the Going-to-the-Sun Road shuttle to The Loop, had lunch quickly, then officially started hiking to Canada, down the dry, dusty side trail that connected to the main Flattop Trail. As the afternoon wore on, it became a slow, steep climb for me, very hot and dry. I probably suffered from a touch of heat exhaustion... It was only 6 miles (10km) but it felt more challenging. We walked in a burn zone which had resulted from a devastating fire back in 2003. The views of blue skies and distant peaks were beautiful, since there were no trees to block our line of sight. The regrowth looked healthy and lush, but the stark contrast with burned-out tree trunks was a harsh reminder of the power of wildfires.

We (mainly Peter...) ate our fill of fresh berries: thimbleberries, huckleberries and currants. I'm not sure Peter left any for the bears! Fresh fruit, even tiny berries like those, were tasty and refreshing, even as the temperature was increasing and I was generally losing my appetite with the rising trail. 

We arrived at the Flattop BCCG around 5:30pm. Two other groups were already camped there so we took the last site farthest away from the food preparation area. It was dusty but flat with no rocks, and the tent went up in a couple of minutes. I dove in and was almost immediately asleep, while Peter went to hang the food out of bear reach, and meet our neighbors. 

There were two young German guys, and a young couple from Prague. They were all very nice, and the conversation over dinner was interesting and lively. All of them were carrying large heavy packs filled with canned and jarred food, and big plastic containers, while Peter pulled out little pouches of a most excellent beet and kale risotto he had made (and dehydrated) at home. It was delicious! Since I'd lost my appetite during the hike, I really needed to consume some calories at dinner. I ate very well (gourmet cooking at that!), and felt much better after dinner. We went to bed just around sundown, knowing we'd have a long 17-mile day (30km) the next day. 

I was about to fall asleep when I heard something outside our tent. I felt bad but still woke Peter up... I was a little paranoid about bears ("bear-anoid"?), and the darkness, and utter and complete silence all around magnified that paranoia. Peter woke up, we both listened then shooed away whatever was out there. Peter said, "that was the sound of hooves, that's just a deer", and promptly went back to sleep. I took a few more minutes while my heartbeat slowed down after the initial adrenaline rush, but fell asleep soundly as well. 

Not long after, we heard the Czech couple (male and female voices) loudly screaming and clapping their hands, to chase away what they obviously thought was a bear. The thing is, they kept doing that again... All... Bloody... Night... We heard the German guys chime in as well. So we had a fitful night of falling asleep briefly, only to be awakened again and again by panicked hand claps and shouts. Half-awake, I kept expecting shrieks of terror signaling some kind of attack, but fortunately, that never came. Eventually, one of the Germans yelled, "Guys! It's a deer, not a bear!", and things stayed quiet for a couple of hours. Our alarms were set for 5am, but we decided to snooze until 6am. We needed more rest before the long day ahead.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Up just after 6am, we struck camp quickly, ate breakfast then started up the trail at 7:35, aiming for the Fifty Mountain campsite as our first milestone. We saw signs of bears, but no actual bears, and met only a couple of other hikers. The landscape was stunning, as we gradually made our way up and out of the burn zone and entered a vast meadow filled with beautiful fireweed in bloom: blue skies, pink flowers, green sparse forest... Stunning. We reached Fifty in about 3 hours. The campsite was deserted and we decided to take a break and eat an early lunch, and take advantage of the available facilities. I wasn't very hungry again, but managed to nibble, while Peter devoured lots of food (still a growing boy...?). We got going again, knowing we had another 11 miles to hike to get to Waterton River.

I loved the hike. I realized at some point that I was not thinking about much more than what was immediately around me. I was looking at the trail in front of me, inhaling the fresh mountain air (not smoky that day, luckily), glancing at distant peaks, occasionally chatting with Peter, but not worrying about anything. Not thinking about work or home or "next week" or anything that got in the way of a nice long relaxing walk...

Were the Incas involved with this?

The scenery varied, with a gorgeous high plateau below a tall and very wide wall of colorful striated bands of rock. I threatened to break into song and serenade Peter with "The hilllllllls are aliiiiiiive with the sound of muuuuuuuusic...", but was warned that unless I knew ALL the words and could sing it WELL, I should probably abstain. I abstained. We walked past the ruins of a former ranger shelter (we think), which somehow evoked the masonry skills of the Incas: perfectly cut massive stones that all fit in like pieces of a puzzle. 

The hills were alive with the sound of birdsong and summer wind...

Eventually, we started descending toward the valley bottom, which we could glimpse once in a while. We could hear waterfalls intermittently, as we made our way down switchback after switchback, on a trail that was sometimes overgrown and narrow. Berries were abundant on both sides of the trail, leaving me wondering why the bears had missed so many of those spots. We made noise talking or clanging our walking poles periodically, wanting to avoid surprising a bear around a blind corner. But Yogi Bear and Boo-boo stayed out of sight.

After a few hot miles, with our feet starting to ache under the weight of our packs, we reached a great resting spot by the cascading river. The perfect place to soak our hot feet in cold flowing water... Ahhhhhh, did that ever feel great! After several minutes, we also refilled our bottles, put our shoes back on, and got moving again. 

The forest was lush, and we were walking down. I felt sorry for the few hikers we met who were headed uphill towards Fifty, under the increasingly hot sun. Thank goodness we were heading north!

Several miles later, we reached the trail junction to Stoney Indian, once more by the river. We took another long rest, both of us experiencing the pain of hot sore feet. It is amazing what a cold foot soak can do to relieve that pain, cool down core body temperature, and generally invigorate tired hikers. Peter was still scarfing down food, while I could barely eat anything. But I could drink lots and lots of cold fresh (filtered) water from a clear mountain stream. That water tasted of pure goodness...

Our break was longer than usual, but with 3 miles left to go, we didn't really care. We eventually got going again, and I took the lead for a while, with a second wind that I suspected wouldn't last very long. The forest trail was beautiful and we saw a few more hikers. My feet were getting more painful, but we knew we were close. We soon got to Goat Haunt, about half a mile from our destination at the Waterton River campsite. While Peter chatted briefly with a ranger who was checking permits, I was starting to fade quickly. My feet were on fire, and I wasn't sure how much longer I would last standing on them. We started walking again and hit a short patch of paved pathway. Both of us yelled at the same time! That rough, bumpy, rocky, hot pavement was the worst! My right foot felt like it was on fire, and very suddenly, I felt a huge blister materialize under the ball of my foot. Urghhhhh... thank goodness we were almost at camp but I didn't want a blister to wreck the rest of my week.

We could have forded the river right here...

We got to the Horse Ford. I took one look at the river, and too tired to bend down and remove my shoes, I said "let's keep walking along the trail, the ranger said it wasn't much farther". The ranger had also said the food preparation area for the campsite was just on the other side of the Horse Ford, but at that precise moment, that fact failed to register in my tired and heat-addled brain. So we kept walking, with Peter gaining a second wind, and me wilting completely. Feeling faintly nauseous and with feet melting, I plodded on, getting increasingly annoyed at every blade of grass that got in my way, and every insect and occasional mosquito that buzzed around me. What was "not much farther" turned into over half a mile, and I had a blowtorch setting my feet on fire with every step. 

We reached a suspension bridge that spanned the river upstream from the Horse Ford. Peter went across, telling me it was wobbly and to be mindful of that. By then, I didn't know if I was going to throw up or not, and all I could think about was getting to camp. I crossed, barely noticing or caring that the bridge wobbled. We did eventually reach camp, arriving at the food preparation area, and noting that if we'd crossed the Horse Ford, we would have arrived at least 15 minutes earlier, with fresh and cooled-off feet. Oh well, blame the lack of information processing on a tired and hot brain. Also on the fact that the ranger could have been a bit clearer in his explanation...

Looking at my watch, I observed that we arrived in camp *exactly* ten hours to the minute after setting out from Flattop in the morning. Not bad! We had estimated that it could take as much as 12 hours, depending on the terrain and the slow pace I might keep. But at 10 hours, both of us were at our feet's limit, and we were very glad to have reached camp.

To continue the tradition of all my trips with Peter, my stomach finally gave in to the nausea that had plagued it for a while, and I dry heaved for a few minutes. (Peter probably thinks I go through life nauseous every day, but that's only because every trip I've been on with him, he's had to witness some form of upset-stomach event. I swear, it really doesn't happen that often.). The stomach cramps subsided and I immediately felt better, ready to keep walk-- ...nah... I did feel better, but no more walking for the day! 

We pitched the tent, inflated our sleeping pads, crawled into our shelter, and woke up 1.5 hours later, hungry and somewhat rested, feet less sore (but still blistered).

Peter made a fantastic chicken vegetable ramen soup, and while I was hungry enough to eat a decent amount, I still wasn't starving. I ended up walking 17 miles on about 500-600 calories that day, and was barely able to refill the tank at the end of the day. But I still felt much much better, and just happy to have had such an amazingly beautiful, breathtaking day in the backcountry. Each section of the trail presented us with varied landscapes, from flowery meadows to wide open valleys far below us, to colourful rocky walls above us. The sun shone all day, and the multiple creek and river crossings allowed us to rest and soak our weary feet every time we needed it.

We chatted over dinner with a wonderful family from northern Michigan: the parents (Ken and Wendy) and their three college-age children. All were interesting, worldly, well-traveled, and nice company to share a meal with. Back into the tent as the sun set, I fell asleep quickly, hoping no one would shout at imaginary bears during the night.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

With nowhere to go fast that day, we slept in and took advantage of the nice morning to rest until 8:30. After breakfast, I went back and rested a bit more, trying to take care of the nasty blister under my foot that was making it a bit awkward to walk long distances in my shoes. My flip flops, fortunately, were more comfortable, so hanging out around camp was easy. Peter went scouting for a good fishing spot, and came back after a while to pick up a few more items, having identified where he wanted to go try his luck. He took off and we agreed to meet back at camp later in the afternoon. 

I rinsed some clothes in the river, had lunch by myself, then forded the river and walked over to Goat Haunt. By fording the river, it took 8 minutes, in flip flops, to get to Goat Haunt... all I could think of was, why hadn't we forded the river the night before, instead of walking an extra unpleasant half mile. I spent the afternoon lying on the boat dock at Goat Haunt, soaking in the sun, resting and admiring the view. Just plain chilling...
Sitting on the dock of the bay, total relaxation...

The 2pm ferry from Waterton came in, disgorged a bunch of tourists who were only allowed to walk near the ranger station for 15 minutes (since they hadn't officially been admitted into the US), and then returned to Canada. I checked the schedule, as we were planning on taking the ferry the next day.

Around 4pm, I returned to the campsite, met two new neighbors, then heard Peter whistling up the path. He strolled into camp like Little Opie on the Andy Griffith Show, carrying his fishing pole, and two whitefish for dinner! Success! 
Fixin' dinner

A disparate group of five hikers arrived with a "guide" who looked too young and inexperienced to be a guide, then a couple of other backpackers also showed up. Our quiet little camp was suddenly crowded! After my delicious dinner of couscous and whitefish, I retired a bit earlier than the others. The conversation wasn't that interesting and I preferred the quiet of our tent. Peter joined me a little while later and we chatted for a few minutes before quickly falling asleep. 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

We woke up Thursday to leaden skies... We started breakfast in dry conditions but soon, a light rain started, a harbinger of worse things to come. Wrapping up breakfast quickly, we packed away food stuff and dove into the tent just as the skies opened up. Our plans to hike to Lake Janet were tossed out. Neither of us felt like getting soaked for the sake of a short walk and marginal views. The rain was heavy, and as we lay dry inside the tent, we started discussing our plans to get the ferry at Goat Haunt, to cross to Waterton, Alberta. Our choices were 11:25am, 2:25pm or 5:30pm. With not much to do on either side of the crossing save getting wet, we hesitated and eventually, I fell asleep. Peter woke me at 10:50am with, "It stopped raining! Come on, we're packing up and catching the 11:25!" 

Wait... WHAT...?!? I got up and packed my bag as Pete started dismantling the tent around me. We had to rush, but I knew from the day before that if we left camp by 11:10, we could make that ferry. We threw stuff into backpacks willy-nilly, and then, wearing flip flops, hurried for the last time across the river. We hustled down the short trail, and reached Goat Haunt with several minutes to spare, along with the tourists who were starting to board the ferry back to Canada. Introducing ourselves to the crew, we told them we were on a one-way cruise to Canada, and they instructed us on where to meet the Canadian Customs Officer who would officially let us into the country. 

The nine-mile cruise on Upper Waterton Lake, even with cloudy skies, was magnificent. The majestic views of near and distant peaks, the sight of a bald eagle perched up a tree, the stunning rock formations, and great narration by one of the crew, were a respite from the trail, giving our feet a rest and offering a complete change of pace. Seeing the "border" between the US and Canada, a narrow band of deforested land as far as the eye can see, with no one defending either side, was thought-provoking. Nature doesn't care, the wildlife doesn't care, even those who mind the trail and clean up that deforested space every year, a mixed crew of Americans and Canadians working together, don't care. The border is a line drawn by men, not by any necessity of Nature. And so, we sailed past this line in the forest, and cruised into Canada. 

The border
In the distance, the stunning Prince of Wales Hotel, one of the old CP hotels perched alone on a hill, served as a beacon to mark our arrival to Waterton. The little - very little - town welcomed our boat, and we were met upon disembarking by Customs Agent Lamoureux, who took our names and passport numbers, then welcomed us into Canada. No muss, no fuss... 

This tiny town with a swelling population of a couple of thousand tourists, maybe, on busy summer weekends, felt like a noisy metropolis, after a mere few days in the backcountry. Too much noise, too many people... back to "civilization"... sigh...

Hungry, and with no set agenda for the rest of the day except for setting up camp, we stopped at Zum's Eatery for lunch. We then headed to the Town Campsite, a sprawling, nearly treeless expanse of car campsites, RV setups, and the odd tent. It took us a while to find our lot, and then, in gale-force winds, we pitched the tent. Under Pete's guidance, we set it up so it couldn't possibly fly away. Bomb-proof, it was... 

We took the afternoon off - really, we had nothing much to do! We walked around town, scouted a few places out, checked the schedule for our shuttle to Montana two days later and for the Crypt Lake hike the next day, and even for movies that night. We walked over to the waterfalls and then hiked up to the Prince of Wales Hotel, but somehow managed to not go inside. I suppose it would have been nice to see it and admire the old architecture and classic design. Yet, I didn't really feel compelled to further break the illusion of being "outside" the whole week. I was quite happy with staying in a tent one extra night, and didn't want the contrast of the richness of a railroad-era monument to break the magic spell.

The Prince of Wales Hotel, built in 1927

We walked back into town, and dined at Trapper's, a full-on Canadiana experience. The smoked trout, I must say, was divine... We chatted away over dinner, and left afterwards wondering what else this town might have to offer for "an evening out". We'd seen an old-style movie theater, with a showing of "Dunkirk" at 7pm, and "Atomic Blonde" at 9pm. We were just in time for Atomic Blonde, and, almost on a lark, decided, "oh, why not...!". The theater was classic, dating back to 1935, with old (uncomfortable, as they turned out) upholstered seats, and a small screen, but it was perfect for an evening out in Waterton! Atomic Blonde offered the right mix of action and entertainment - nothing Oscar-worthy, but fun enough to fill our evening. We walked back to our campsite under a sky filled with stars, me nursing The Blister, and Peter and I discussing the Cold War and the Berlin Wall coming down in 1989. 

One last night in my comfy, airy tent... 

Friday, August 25, 2017

We got up early, on a cool, sunny and clear morning. We packed up camp for the last time, kept only a light daypack for the hike to Crypt Lake, and dropped off our gear at our hotel for that night. We found a good breakfast spot at the Larkspur Cafe, then headed to the ferry for the hike to Crypt Lake. 

The hike was all uphill, and beautiful, even offering a couple of "challenges" along the way, in the form of a metal ladder leading into a narrow natural tunnel, and an exposed section secured with a steel cable (you didn't think I went completely without any thrills whatsoever on this whole trip, did you?). The reward after all that work was a breathtaking, awe-inducing view, and an afternoon spent on the rocky beach of Crypt Lake. 
The tunnel

Despite the crowds, it was still peaceful and lovely and the kind of place you never want to leave... We stayed put, opting out of walking around the lake (I was still trying to protect my foot from aggravating The Blister). Leaning back against flat rocks, we rested, snacked, chatted with a few folks around us, listened to a group of students out having fun for the day, and just took another break from everyday life. Deep breaths of mountain-fresh air were rejuvenating, and I was sad when the time came to head down, with the goal of catching the 5:30pm ferry. If we made good time, we might catch the 4:00, but that was unlikely. 

Crypt Lake

Walking down, we reversed the exposed section with the steel cable, the tunnel and the ladder. Then just a long series of switchbacks downhill. Pete ate berries, of course. We got down to the dock several minutes past 4pm, and realized we'd have to be patient until the 5:30 ferry, as there was not much shade to sit in. 

A few more people arrived, and eventually, a boisterous group of students from the University of Lethbridge came down, led quietly by their professor and more loudly by one of their own. This guy reminded me of Dave Grohl, of the Foo Fighters, and seemed to have the same kind of easy, happy, laughing, mischievous energy. He coaxed many of his friends - along with Peter - into jumping in the lake for a refreshing swim. I stuck to soaking my feet, while Pete took a dive off the dock. We had plenty of time to dry off while waiting for the ferry, thinking it wasn't coming until 5:30. However, the ferry people must have calculated that it would be best to send another boat sooner, because at 4:50, we boarded the Miss Waterton back to town. 

We checked in at our hotel, since the Town Campsite was booked solid for the weekend. The Waterton Glacier Suites was under renovation in the lobby area, but the rooms were fine (thank goodness...). Taking advantage of the first available hot shower of the week, we cleaned up, after days of wearing the same hiking clothes and pretending not to notice how stinky we'd become... Refreshed, we grabbed a few slices of pizza and a beer at 49°N, then tried to decide how else to spend an evening in Waterton. We walked around town - again! - revisiting the shoreline around the campground, and walking down, then up, Main Street  - again! We stopped for ice cream, and headed in soon after. We turned on the TV, and, lulled by the mindless noise, soon fell asleep. I had the big bed, while Pete settled for the couch. Pretty sure both of us would have traded that in for the tent, but all the city slickers from Lethbridge and Calgary had invaded for the weekend...

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Too much town (and down) time... We both knew it. Waking up at the hotel after a decent night's sleep was good. The second hot shower in a span of 12 hours was luxurious, but I would have happily traded that in for another week of trail and dirty hiking clothes, given the choice.

On the way to grab breakfast again at Larkspur, Peter found a cell phone on the ground. He was able to find contact information for the owner, and we delivered the phone to its young owner and her relieved mom on the way back to our hotel. With lots of time to kill, we watched some more mindless TV (some old movie on the Family Channel), and both fell asleep briefly. Too. Much. Time. In. Town...

We rechecked our shuttle schedule at Tamarack Outfitters. That was part of the problem. The shuttle back to Montana was no longer operating the way it had in previous years, and now depended on a Canadian operation out of Tamarack, and an American operator (Suntours) to pick us up on the US side of the border. The shuttle didn't leave Waterton until 2:30pm, bringing us to St. Mary (and Peter's red truck Clifford) at a projected time of about 4pm, ready for the 5 hour drive back to Bozeman. If it had been up to us, we would have left in the morning...

Waterton, Upper Waterton Lake and
Montana, from Bear's Hump

With several more hours to fill, we walked to the Bear's Hump trailhead, and joined the throngs of tourists making the hike uphill to get the best possible view of the town, the lake, and far into Montana. The expected "hour to 1:15" hike took us 45 minutes, though it was all uphill and I couldn't quite keep up with Pete for the second half. I reached him about a minute after he made the top, and joined the dozens of people scattered on the wide rocky expanse to rest and admire the gorgeous view. We hiked a little further up, escaping the crowds one last time and gaining an even better view. 

Calculating it would take us 30 minutes to go down and head into town, we hiked back down the trail, and grabbed one last lunch in town, at the Taco Bar, conveniently located across our one and only movie theater. A nice lunch outside, watching the world go by, marked the end of our time in Waterton. We headed to Tamarack, changed into marginally cleaner clothes for the long drive back to Bozeman, and boarded the Canadian shuttle, driven by a nice and quirky young man who had moved to Waterton after falling in love with the mountains and the lakes. He dropped us off on the Canadian side of the border. 

To the right, Alberta.
To the left, Montana.

We walked several meters to the actual border marker, once more stared at the never-ending rip through the forest dividing north and south, then walked to the US side. A friendly agent met us there, checked our passports, and after chatting for a minute or so, indicated where we would likely find our US shuttle.

Charles and his wife Sue, from the Browning, Montana, Blackfeet Reservation, met us with a friendly smile, and chatted with us all the way back to St. Mary. Pete knew the community well, and the conversation was interesting. Tough living, no doubt about it, but these folks seemed to have made better of their circumstances than some of their peers... 

Back to St. Mary just before 4pm, we hopped into Clifford the Trusty Red Truck and hit the road. We stopped once for gas, and that was it. Just straight down the road, through mountains and prairies, and beautiful country. Near Helena, we entered a very smoky section, due to the wildfires in the west. The smoke was thick, the visibility reduced, and the sky the colour of dulled candlelight at dusk... On the other side, the air cleared up somewhat, but the sun was setting bright red, in murky skies and hazy air. 

Smoky Sunset

We arrived in Bozeman at 9pm sharp. Sky Dog was waiting for Peter with a fast-wagging tail and a happy whine. I was treated to lots of licks on my salty legs! Becca arrived home shortly after. Over a salad of freshly-picked kale, we looked at Peter's pictures and shared our week with Becca. "Wow, it's already over...", was all I could think. Where did the time go? How was it that this week I had been anticipating for so long had already come and gone?

Sunday, August 27, 2017

I was up at 5:30am, and Peter dropped me off at Bozeman airport for my 6:30am flight (the joy of small airports!). It's always hard saying goodbye to Pete, as it inevitably marks the end of a great adventure and a wonderful trip. Spending a week backpacking and camping with a friend you only see once a year or so makes for an intense week, and going my own way afterwards is always difficult. But - it's also always with discussions of potential future trips and other destinations, and promises of soon making real plans for next year. I only wish I had planned this trip for two weeks. I wasn't ready to come home yet...

Returning to reality after the trip has not been easy! My work travel schedule in the days following my return was severely disrupted by flight delays, causing me to miss meetings, and I felt like I was traveling incessantly without getting anywhere, all the while getting exhausted with fruitless wake-up calls at ungodly hours. Reports of worsening wildfires in Montana and specifically inside Glacier National Park, and soon after Waterton Lakes National Park, sadden me greatly. They are part of a natural renewal process, but spending a week in the area was enough for me to develop a certain kinship with the people and the Parks. 

Like many wonderful places I've traveled to in the past, "I can't wait to go back". But... with so many other amazing places still to discover, where to next...? 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Mount Rainier 2016

Here and Now

Athletic endeavours – whether in a competitive setting or completed as a personal challenge – are often used as metaphors for life. To strive; to go beyond one’s perceived capabilities; to vie for some kind of victory; to improve over time through learning, training and hard work; that’s not just how we win at sports, it’s how most of us choose to live life. For me, no other sport epitomizes that metaphor better than mountaineering.

Climbing a mountain is magic. It’s purity at its purest. Clean air, vibrant colours, the whitest white and the bluest blue. Nature which cannot be tamed, but which accepts, perhaps reluctantly, the presence of humans. The mountain is in charge, we are but guests on its flanks, and we had better know how to behave. The scale and grandiosity of our surroundings are both intimidating and intoxicating, inducing wild adrenaline surges, and just as powerfully soothing and relaxing.

Photo credit: Danny Edmonson
I had the privilege of climbing a mountain for the first time in the early 2000’s, and fell in love with a sport that I had only read about (obsessively, I might add) for a few years prior. I wasn’t able to get to the mountains often after that, but two years ago, I decided, on a whim, to sign up again for a climb of Mount Rainier (14,410 ft), in the state of Washington. Back in 2005, I’d had to pull out of the climb at the very last minute due to a back injury, and it had always been in the back of my mind that I would, one day, finally get to Mount Rainier.

Not My First Rodeo
I went to Mount Rainier in 2014, and reached my high point about 2,000 vertical feet from the summit. I had not prepared well. For weeks leading up to it, I was in denial, in a weird way, that I had signed up to climb a difficult mountain. I started feeling unwell with gastro-intestinal issues at the top of the aptly-named Disappointment Cleaver, and turned around, mentally unprepared to push through discomfort and fear of the unknown. When I came home, the first question everyone asked was, “Did you summit?”. Not “how was your climb?”, not “did you have a good time?”. The only thing that seemed to matter was whether I had reached the top. I hadn’t, and felt compelled, like all mountaineers who are inevitably asked the same question, to justify why I had not summited.

I came back from that first attempt somehow more determined to go back and try again. It wasn’t something I debated for long, I knew I had to go back and do it again, with better preparation and a more determined outlook. The guide who had assisted me down from my high point at the top of the Cleaver also played a role in this. Peter Ramos and I chatted for a couple of hours while descending by ourselves, and he did a great job selling me on the idea that I should go climbing in the Tetons (Wyoming) that same summer with him. I did just that, in August 2014, and reached the summits of Middle and South Tetons (most people have only heard of Grand Teton), which both required a significant physical effort on my part, and an even greater conquest of my fear of heights and general lack of athleticism for such endeavours. Bottom line is, I did it. I succeeded. And I started believing that I should keep climbing mountains, because… it feels amazing. I’m not great at it, but I love the experience of being in the mountains.

I went back to Mount Rainier last year. I had trained better, had a much improved mental approach to the climb, and didn’t suffer from pre-climb jitters since I knew what to expect. I reached the top of Disappointment Cleaver, was sick to my stomach repeatedly, kept pushing on despite having no energy, and got within about 1,000 vertical feet of the summit before, once more, turning around and making my way back down the mountain, disappointed, angry, and knowing that for the second time, I’d have to explain why I didn’t make it all the way to the top. The weather was perfect, the temperature almost too warm, the group strong, the guides fantastic. So what was wrong with me that I couldn’t reach an altitude (14,410 feet) that I had often exceeded on previous climbs, like Kilimanjaro and Chachani, both over 19,000 feet high?

The Mountain beckoned again in 2016. There was no doubt I was going to try once more. I figured with good training, and a better approach to nutrition, I would once and for all avoid the gastro-intestinal problems that had plagued me the previous two years. This time, I also requested that Peter be on the climb as one of the guides for our group. My friendship with Peter had evolved since we had first met on Rainier in 2014, and I knew that having him there would be a huge asset. Through the trips we’ve done together, he’s come to know me very well, and knows what buttons to push to keep me going forward and upward. I signed up for the June 2016 climb back in August 2015, and it became my main goal for the first half of this year. Another goal was a difficult and demanding backcountry ski trip with Peter, which was supposed to take place in February. Peter and I had gone backcountry skiing in Wyoming last year, and it was another sport I decided to pursue.

“Never Sell the Bear’s Skin Until You’ve Killed the Bear” (French for “Don’t Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch”)

I trained pretty diligently on the bike and in the gym through November, December and January, encouraged and motivated by my cycling coach Ed Veal, and many friends, starting with Mike Mandel and the Morning Glory crew at Gears Indoor Cycling Studio here in Toronto. Then, life took a bit of a turn for the unexpected. At the end of January, I had a very sudden, and potentially life-changing health issue that threw everything into question. Fortunately, no underlying issues were found, and I received a 100% clean bill of health. But due to the nature of what happened, I lost my driver’s license for 6+ months.

I decided to walk everywhere, and to avoid taxis and transit as much as possible. I knew if I gave in to “oh, I’ll call a cab just this once”, I would end up doing it all the time. I have wonderful friends who offered to drive me places, and I took them up on their offers when it made sense, but I always went grocery shopping and ran errands on foot, with my big backpack. I walked everywhere in the city, and even got up at 4:30am to walk 30 minutes to Gears, in order to do a 1:30 hour-workout on the bike. I gave in to temptation a few times and accepted a ride home afterwards. The point is, I walked, a lot, and most often, I carried a pack weighing anywhere from 15 pounds to 40 pounds. If that’s not a fundamental part of mountain climbing training, I don’t know what is.

I did lose the flexibility to drive out of town to go skiing whenever I wanted. I had planned on driving to ski-country north of Toronto, bringing my ice axe and crampons, and practicing walking with crampons, self-arrest techniques, and other mountaineering “stuff”, thinking it would help me build a foundation prior to heading back to Mount Rainier. That didn’t happen, and that’s unfortunate. More significantly, I had to cancel my February backcountry ski trip with Peter – it was too soon after the health issue, and it was recommended that I ease back into things. I was beyond sad about that, but I turned lemons into lemonade by joining my other good ski friends on a less demanding but fun ski trip in late March.

Back to Mount Rainier
Peter was confirmed as one of the four guides for our Mount Rainier climb. That was exciting. While I’ve only known Peter for two years, experiences on mountains and in the backcountry are intense, and lead to people getting to know each other well. Peter understood my motivations for going back, and was eager to get me to the summit of Rainier this time. He has my trust, and I knew I had the best possible coach and cheerleader in my corner to help me reach my goal safely.

Our expedition this year was once more composed of eight clients and four guides (the usual make-up of the 3-day Mount Rainier Muir Climb with Alpine Ascents International). The eight members of the expedition all met on the day before the climb for Gear Check, which Peter conducted. Gear Check consists in a thorough review of every piece of equipment that each climber will be packing or wearing on the climb. It is a crucial part of any expedition. Bring too much, and you will be carrying an excessively heavy pack, putting yourself at risk of accident or injury, not to mention undue fatigue and an inability to keep pace. Bring the wrong things, or forget something essential, and you become a liability to yourself and to the group. Peter ran an efficient Gear Check session, all eight clients packed their bags with the right stuff, and we all went our separate ways, to rest up before meeting the next morning for our 6am departure from Seattle.

Peter and lead guide Craig Van Hoy joined us for the drive to Mount Rainier National Park. As we reached the Paradise parking lot (5,400 feet), fresh snow dusted the surrounding trees, and the parking lot was covered in thick slush. What a contrast with last year, when it was summer and the mountain meadows were exploding with fireworks of wild flowers! This year, the climb promised to be much colder and snowier.

Photo credit: Dylan Cembalski/Danny Edmonson
Sitting in the comfort of the Paradise Inn lobby, we went through introductions with all eight clients and three of our guides. Clients included Pamela and Andy (Seattle), Andrew (Hawaii - yeah, I know…!), Danny (Nashville), Charlie (NorCal), Chris (Chicago), Susan (Michigan), and myself. All are lovely people (I’m not just saying that), and the group seemed to gel quickly. Everyone was fit, motivated, a little nervous, and eager to be part of a great team. The vibe was fun and positive.

Our lead guide, Craig, is a renowned and incredibly well-accomplished mountaineer with climbs of Everest and Kanchengjunga, and countless other notable ascents. He held, for years, the speed record for Rainier (5hr 22 min from Paradise to the summit back to Paradise – which is crazy fast!). It would be his 424th climb of Mount Rainier. That’s not a typo. Four hundred and twenty-four successful climbs of Rainier if he reached the summit with us.

Our other guides were Peter (who is also qualified as an Expedition Nurse), Dylan Cembalski, and Devin Bishop (who was waiting for us at Camp Muir). Devin was my lead guide last year, and I looked forward to seeing him again. I was once more impressed by the quality of the Alpine Ascents International guides. Highly experienced, focused on safety, and capable of gauging and dealing with eight strangers who – for the most part – have never climbed a mountain before. I was, on paper, more experienced than several in the group. But attempting one mountain climb a year makes me a beginner at best. Add to that the fact that I failed to reach the summit two years in a row, and I can honestly claim that I have zero ego when it comes to mountain climbing. I know nothing and am willing to soak up everything the guides can teach me.

We started up the Muir Snowfield in fresh snow that was sometimes ankle-deep. The climb to Camp Muir is a long slog. It takes roughly 5.5 hours of climbing (including a total of about 30-40 minutes of breaks), and feels like climbing up a long ski slope. A beautiful, never-ending ski slope. We gained 5,000 vertical feet in those 5.5 hours. We carried packs that weighed somewhere between 35 to 40 pounds, and this part of the climb gives the guides an opportunity to gauge who is strong, who is struggling, who can walk confidently with their packs, who sounds and looks like they will or won’t make it. As Craig reminded us at the bottom, there was no point worrying about two things: the weather, since we couldn’t do anything about it; and our fitness, since it was too late to do anything about it. Training was over. It was time to show up.
Photo credit: Danny Edmonson

The Snowfield was devoid of tourists (unlike last year), and it felt wilder and more remote than in my previous two experiences. And I loved it. You have to love the process to enjoy mountain climbing. You have to find satisfaction in the long slog, the pain of tiring legs, the forced breathing, the weight of the pack on your back. The guides taught us the rest step (which I have often practiced, since first learning it many years ago). It allows the climber to leverage skeletal strength (think “strong femurs”), instead of relying on fast-tiring muscles (shaky quads and cramping calves after a while) to balance and support weight. Then it’s all about rhythm, and efficiency. An efficient rest step is like an efficient pedal stroke and good cadence for cyclists: it makes the difference between smooth progress, versus fast-building fatigue from which recovery is difficult.

Photo credit: Danny Edmonson
Peter was innovating by carrying an umbrella on the climb. Yes, an umbrella. Predictably, everyone poked fun at the mountain guide carrying an umbrella up Mount Rainier when he first deployed it at the bottom. But as the sun initially beat down on us, Peter stayed cool. And then when the clouds moved in, the temperature dropped, and the snow started falling, Peter was shielded from the precipitation. “Look who’s laughing now”, he was gracious enough not to say.

Photo credit: Danny Edmonson
We reached Camp Muir uneventfully, but in worsening weather, by late afternoon. The usual routine – one I was very familiar with – started, with clients settling into the Gombu Hut, unfurling sleeping bags and making themselves at home in cramped quarters. I claimed the same spot I had last year, out of the way and tucked in a corner, where no one would have to step over me to move around.

After reuniting with guide Devin, and enjoying his excellent dinner of chicken burritos (I was familiar with the menu!), we all settled in for the night, with most of us asleep by 9pm. My own innovation this year: I wore earplugs and a BreatheRight nose strip, and they served me well. I enjoyed ten blissful, nearly-uninterrupted hours of comfortable sleep. This was a first for me.

I woke up rested and happy. The skies were mostly clear, and the day dawned a bit cold, but beautiful. More food, with scrambled eggs, bacon, and blueberry pancakes. And heaps of French press coffee. Five-star gourmet cooking, at 10,000 feet. Way to go, Alpine Ascents!

Photo credit: Danny Edmonson
As usual, Day 2 breakfast was followed by Snow School. There are many ways to walk on snow. Our guides taught us the safest and most efficient ways of doing so, especially while wearing crampons. Then followed the always-comical yet deadly-serious session on self-arrest techniques. All eight of us clients were newbies – yes, some of us had done this before, but practicing self-arrest 2 hours a year does not make an expert, or a trustworthy climber. So Peter’s advice was more to the point: “Your technique doesn’t have to be perfect. But if you slip and fall, FIGHT TO STOP! You’re fighting for your life! I want to see you fight!”. Many of my teammates were more adept than I was, but ultimately, all of us were fighters, and all of us would trust each other, and our guides, as rope mates. Good footwork was primordial – don’t trip, don’t slip, don’t fall. But if you do, fight, fight, fight…

Up at High Camp
Photo credit: Danny Edmonson
High Camp, on the Ingraham Flats, is one of my favourite places in the whole wide world, bar none. I remember my first time there two years ago. I felt intimidated, almost scared. It was too much — too wide, too expansive, too eerie, too daunting, too surrounded-by-dangerous-crevasses, too exposed… Then I fell in love with all those things. High Camp is where I’ve listened to the most complete silence, felt the stillest air, seen the most beautiful sunrises, stared up at The Mountain, and witnessed the rise of the most breathtaking moon and stars. If you’ve been there and think I’m exaggerating, just close your eyes, and picture it again… Feel it once more. I love it there.

My rope & tent mate, Danny
Photo credit: Danny Edmonson
This year, as we reached High Camp, the clouds were swirling around us, giving the whole Flats a mystical appearance and creating an almost menacing atmosphere. A deep breath was all it took to feel at peace instantly. Danny and I claimed our tent. We had roped up together with Peter to come up from Camp Muir, and we made a good team. I enjoyed Danny’s calm demeanour, his intelligent conversation, and positive disposition. In a team of eight excellent people, everyone would have made a good tent mate, but I was happy to share a tent with him.

After Devin’s excellent cooking the night and morning before, it was Peter’s turn to make our late afternoon dinner of chicken and rice stew. I made a point of eating just enough, but not too much. I felt that eating too much (you need a lot of calories for a 12-hour climbing day) had contributed to my issues the previous two years.

We settled into our tent to sleep at 6pm. Craig had promised to wake us up no earlier than 1am, depending on the weather. Danny and I chatted for a while. Intense situations, where people feel a degree of vulnerability, somehow encourage them to share. We eventually quieted down, and tried to sleep. My heart was hammering a bit: a mild case of nerves… Would I make it this time, or was I doomed to repeat the same pattern from the last two years? I wanted to keep believing that this year would be different, but lying in the tent, at 11,000 feet, with the wind rising and pelting the tent with blowing snow, my confidence started to ebb. I dreaded wind. Perhaps I’ve read too many books about mountain climbs where high winds were a factor… I didn’t mind cold: I could deal with that. But strong wind high up on the mountain were something I feared.

I started listening to the wind gusts picking up intensity, and the sound of precipitation hitting the tent, and gradually convinced myself that the climb would be called off due to the worsening weather. And I felt relieved. I wouldn’t have to go up, and the fact that I wouldn’t summit would not, for once, be due to my weakness. The mind is finicky, and it wants to play dumb tricks like that. Paradoxically, I knew I was ready to tackle the climb if Craig gave us the go-ahead. Dozing off and waking up periodically, I didn’t get much sleep, and at 1am, in between wind gusts, I heard someone talking. Expecting Craig to come around to wake us up, I was surprised when nothing happened. I concluded that the climb was off, and promptly fell into a deep sleep.

At 2am, Craig’s voice woke us up, telling us it was time to go climb a mountain! I’m not sure what emotion won at that moment: relief that we would climb, or dread that I would have to go up after all. I struggled to wake up completely, got dressed in the confines of my sleeping bag, contorted myself to put on my boots, and finally poked my head out of the tent, expecting vicious weather. The skies were clear, and the Big Dipper twinkled above the summit of Mount Rainier. The wind gusts that sounded so fierce from within the tent were fairly mild after all, and the “precipitation” I had heard against the tent was nothing but a bit of ground-level blowing snow. We would get to climb. Doubt left me, and only the joy and excitement of the challenge ahead were allowed in.

After breakfast (I stuck to an all-liquid breakfast of warm energy drink to load up on calories without filling my stomach), we hurried to finish getting ready, putting on crampons, and verifying our harnesses were correctly buckled. We tied into our rope, with me directly behind Peter this time, and Danny bringing up the rear. We would have three ropes of three — 3 guides each leading a rope, with 2 clients each. Devin, Susan and Charlie were staying at High Camp; mountaineering is a series of tough decisions, and Susan and Charlie decided they preferred to stay at High Camp. They had everyone’s respect for making that difficult call.

Disappointment Cleaver
I knew the half-hour walk to the base of Disappointment Cleaver would not be physically demanding, though it required concentration as we walked beneath a menacing ice fall on our left, and above wide crevasses on our right. Yes, this is the real deal big-mountain stuff you see in movies.

Photo credit: Danny Edmonson
I had to pause briefly and put on mitts soon after leaving camp. My hands were numb already with just my gloves on, and I started thinking that if I waited for the break at the top of the Cleaver to add a layer, it would be much too late. Visions of frostbitten blackened fingers had me putting on my mitts quickly, trying to get blood flowing into my digits again. Sensation gradually returned to my fingers, with a case of (almost) “screaming barfies” that would be repeated a few times during the day.

We were walking eastbound (roughly), and before we reached the base of the Cleaver, the sky was beginning to take on orange and pink hues, producing a spectacular display of alpenglow on the glaciers of Mount Rainier. No time to stop and smell the proverbial flowers, or take many pictures, but time enough to take a deep breath, feel grounded, offer a namaste to the Universe, and revel in being in the here and the now.

Photo credit: Danny Edmonson

The Cleaver, this year, was mostly covered in snow, which made the climb in crampons much easier than it was a year ago on dry rocks. In fact, except for two or three irregular steps that challenged my short legs, the ascent of the Cleaver went better than in the previous two years, and I arrived at the break feeling strong and confident. That is, if I chose to ignore the beginnings of rumblings in my gut…

I followed the typical break routine: take off your pack and set it down, put on a “big puffy” (warmest down jacket), get water and food out, sit on your pack, eat and drink. Breaks are usually between 5-10 minutes every 1-1:15 hours. Efficiency is key to maximize rest and recovery in such a short time. My hands got cold as soon as I took off my mitts and my dexterity was not the best. Peter immediately stepped up to help make sure I was ok. I was – but felt a little less than 100%… I swallowed a few gulps of my energy drink – which, predictably, had turned fairly thick in the cold. It went down, but, I knew I was starting down the path of previous years, with stomach and gut growing unsettled. Damn…
Photo credit: Danny Edmonson

Above the Cleaver
Break over, we got going again. The temperature had dropped quickly as we gained altitude, and we kept our big puffy jackets on. That is unusual: rarely do climbers on Rainier need to keep their big puffy on while walking uphill. The heat generated by the exertion is usually sufficient to rewarm the body. But it was cold! With windchill, it was somewhere between -15C and -20C. My legs were fine, covered only by merino wool long underwear and hiking pants, but my core needed 3 layers plus the big puffy to stay warm, without even breaking a sweat. It felt like a cold ski day back home. I realized that the wind was not as bad as I had feared, and I was relieved to note that.

Less than 5 minutes after we started walking, I yelled to Peter to “hold up!”. He turned, said, “what’s up?”, as I bent over, tried to catch my breath, before retching the little bit of fuel I had ingested during break. I heard Peter say, “oh no, Helen… not again…”. I was pissed off: not again, indeed… What was it about Rainier and reaching the top of the Cleaver that seemed to always make me sick? I changed my nutrition, I was in better shape, so… I guess I have to acknowledge that altitude does affect me.

With no time to acclimatize for a 3-day climb on Rainier, we count on our bodies not “noticing” we are submitting them to a dramatic and sudden altitude gain, since we go up and down so quickly. Perhaps my body just doesn’t appreciate that. But thinking about it made no difference, I was still throwing up. I did feel better immediately afterward, and found I had no reason to stop or turn around. But I knew from experience that not being able to keep food down would eventually leave me depleted and lacking the energy to keep going, unless I did something differently this year. I determined that at the next break, I would force food down, or… do something else…

Holy Crap
If you’re squeamish and/or don’t like coarse language, you might want to skip this section. I’m about to share too much information. I’ve thought about not sharing this part, but if it can help any reader prepare for a climb, or better yet, make you laugh along the way, well… why not?

By the time I reached the second break, I puked again. There wasn’t much to bring up, fortunately, so it wasn’t that exhausting an ordeal. I knew I would be sick again, and would keep being sick, unless I did one other thing: take care of #2. Now, try to picture the scene. Nine climbers perched on the side of a steep snowy slope, tied together in groups of three, each person sitting on their pack, all within an area about the size of a small living room. It’s windy, blustery, -15C or so, and I tell Peter, “I have to use a blue bag.”

Oh, yeah… I forgot to mention that on Mount Rainier, you can’t just take a dump on the snow and leave it there, or bury it. You have to do it in a bag designed for that purpose, and carry it with you afterwards (you get rid of it at Camp Muir on the way down). The bags are blue, hence “using a blue bag” is the polite euphemism for taking a shit. Peter had half-expected it (we had discussed this scenario before – like I said, we know each other pretty well by now), and his response was something along the line of, “well then, get it done”. Roped up, with a harness around my waist and leg loops around my thighs, wrapped in a puffy down jacket covering three more layers, and on the bottom, pants, long johns and underwear, just “getting ready” is a significant challenge. Add to that: cold stiff fingers struggling to unbutton pants, eight other people in very close proximity doing their best to ignore me, and being perched on a narrow snow platform that Peter had kicked flat for me, and you’ll start to understand what a complex production this was. Peter provided a shield to hide me from all my new best friends (we were way beyond just “teammates” at this point), and I took care of business. I will leave additional details out, but you get the picture. I will add that in the entirety of the climb, this is the only time where I thought, however briefly, “What the fuck am I doing here?!?”. The thought made me chuckle, and I knew things would be all right if I found it within me to laugh at the situation.

This break took a bit longer than it should have, but – predictably – I felt exponentially better after. The other two ropes, led by Craig and Dylan, had started up already, and Peter, Danny and I needed to hustle. The wind was picking up a bit, blowing more snow and dropping the temperature further. Peter looked me in the eye, must have seen I was feeling better, and said, “All right. To the fucking summit!”. I echoed him, with my own “To the fucking summit!!!”. Off we went, upward and onward. Danny, a physician by profession, took all this in stride (thank you, Danny, you have my undying gratitude…), and the three of us tackled the last hour of the climb. That’s when I knew, for a fact, that I would make the summit.

An Anti-Climactic Climax
During that last hour of climbing straight up, the blue skies disappeared completely, replaced by blowing snow, and eventually snow falling sideways, pushed by a constant wind. Visibility was reduced greatly. I heard Peter say, “Helen, we’re here, this is the summit!”. I looked up, saw my friends on the other two ropes to my left as they were waiting to high-five us, and I was almost stunned to realize that we were, indeed, at the crater! Mount Rainier being a volcano, the whole crater rim represents the summit. There were some big rocks visible, marking the change in terrain from the upward slope to where the crater began. Other than those rocks, there was no visible cues that we had reached the top.

We were in a white-out, and there were no views from the summit. But we had reached it. I felt elated, and relieved – finally, I had done it. Danny, Peter and I hugged and congratulated each other. We took three quick selfies, with Peter’s beard completely covered in icicles being the best witness to the deteriorating weather conditions.
Photo credit: Danny Edmonson

Here and Now
Peter got a call on the radio from Craig, urging us to start down right away, with no delay. The weather was getting worse, conditions were serious, and our safety was dependent on us being all together. Nine climbers are safer than six and three climbing separately. Turning around and starting down without even stopping for a sip of water or bite of food, we knew this was no time for distraction, and we needed to make up about 5 minutes, the approximate distance between us and our friends. “Descending rapidly”, on a rope, in crampons, under pressure, is easier said than done. The more you hurry, the more likely you are to trip, catch a crampon on a gaiter or pant-leg, step on the rope, drop your ice axe, or do myriad things that beginner climbers are likely to do when the pressure is cranked up. Add to that the fact that climbers, after summiting, often let their guard down during the descent, due to fatigue and depletion, and the risk is great of making a mistake. We were walking in “pea soup” – very low visibility, with little ability to discern more than the tracks in front of us and the little red flags on wands bordering the trail at intervals, through our foggy sunglasses. Peter took the lead. Normally he would have let Danny descend first, so that Peter could be our anchor uphill, at the back, but due to the limited visibility and Danny’s and my inexperience navigating safely under these conditions, it was safer for Peter to be on the front. That meant that Danny and I could not afford to slow down, stumble, and especially, fall. We did not.

I adopted a mantra on the way down, to prevent myself from getting distracted, or “hypnotized” by the whiteness all around me: “Here and Now”. Right here, right now, is what counts. Yes, we summited, but it doesn’t count if we don’t make it back to the parking lot at the bottom safely. So – right here, right now, is all that matters. This step. The next step. And the next. Nothing else. Lift foot, put foot down safely, quickly, repeat with other foot. Watch the rope, don’t trip. Plant ice axe. Maintain balance. No hesitation allowed. Efficient. Solid. HERE. NOW. Total mindfulness.

Photo credit: Devin Bishop
I don’t think Peter had to tug on the rope too often (he might disagree), which means Danny and I kept pace. We did quickly catch up to our friends, and the pace relaxed a bit as we settled into the rhythm that Dylan established up front. We felt safer in numbers, even though the weather was still bad.

We reached the top of the Cleaver again, and took a very quick standing break. Just time enough for a sip of water and a quick bite (pretty much my only calories since throwing up during the ascent) before continuing down. We were confident, not worried and not scared, but keenly aware that we still had important work to do to get down safely. There was no time for jokes or levity or chit chat. Our guides were checking that we felt ok, were not cold or otherwise impeded from making a safe and speedy descent.

We started down again, through the increasingly snowy Cleaver. Despite the definite challenge and danger posed by the weather and fast-accumulating snow, I found the descent of the Cleaver easier this year, compared to descending on dry rocks last year. Perhaps growing up as a Canadian kid playing in the snow finally started to pay off.

As we safely reached the bottom of the Cleaver and started the traverse (westbound this time) with the jumbled ice fall on our right and the gaping maw of the crevasse on our left, we couldn’t see any of that scenery. We just knew that we were in a danger zone, where stopping was not an option, in case a serac (gigantic block of ice) in the ice fall collapsed. Peter was right on the tail of the last climber from the previous rope when, all of a sudden, we heard the unmistakable sound of “something coming down” – avalanche, or serac collapse – on our right. With the snow falling and the wind, it was difficult to determine how far this was, and visibility was too low to see anything. We all froze. I dropped to my knees, expecting Peter to tell us to go into self-arrest mode (no idea why I thought that…), but instead, after a few seconds, Peter yelled “move fast!!!” and picked up the pace very quickly. At 11,500 feet, moving fast is relative. I got to my feet, and rushed forward, not even noticing whether Danny was tugging on the rope behind me or not. I took about five quick steps (there was no real running in crampons, carrying a 20-pound bag, at 11,500 feet…), and then the noise died down, and… nothing happened, other than my heart rate spiking violently. Apparently, a serac had collapsed on itself, with no consequence. Phew. This all happened much more quickly than it took me to write the above or for you to read it, and so it probably comes across as much more dramatic than it was. Hum. No, not really. It felt pretty dramatic in the moment.

Back to High Camp and On To Camp Muir
I was familiar enough with the route that despite the lack of visibility, I had a decent sense of our approach to High Camp. We turned left towards camp, and all of a sudden, there were a dozen more people walking on the Flats. They looked like apparitions coming out of nowhere and moving slowly and randomly through the blizzard. I didn’t know who they were and where they had come from (descended from above, or climbing up from below?). I realized they were also descending, ahead of us, and must have been the climbers from another expedition (they were). They had gotten disoriented looking for the trail in the very poor visibility. Unlike us, they were not stopping at High Camp, and were headed down to Camp Muir, another hour away. Our guide Dylan helped them find their way, while directing our group to our tents.

Normally, arriving back at High Camp during the descent offers a brief occasion to celebrate summit success, take a quick break, down some beverages and food, before repacking all remaining gear (sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and extra stuff left behind during the push to the summit). Then, after everyone’s had a half-hour, 45 minute-break or so, everyone goes back down to Camp Muir together, still roped up.

This time, there was no time to celebrate, or even take a break. Danny and I jumped in our tent, struggling with a jumble of packs and boots and sleeping bags and sleeping pads, which resulted in bulky, poorly-packed bags; trying to swallow a bit of water and food; and hoping to rest for a few minutes, while our guides were pressing us to hurry, since weather conditions were still worsening. Peter even had to hurry down leading another rope, and Craig, Danny and I were the last ones to leave High Camp. I silently said good-bye to this beautiful place, even though on this trip, we hadn’t been blessed with all the magnificent views it had to offer. I don’t know if I’ll make my way back up to High Camp in the future, but it will always remain special to me. I wish my teammates this year could have had the kind of experience I had there in the past two years. There’s reason enough to climb Rainier again, if only to experience High Camp in completely different conditions.

Upon leaving High Camp, Craig, who has been on Rainier well over 500 times and summited 424 times, needed a few minutes to find the little red-flagged wands by the side of the trail in the white-out. I knew, roped up behind him, that he wasn’t turning left and then right just for the fun of it. I also knew he would quickly and safely find the trail, which, of course, he did. I can’t emphasize enough how phenomenally capable and competent our guides all were. Safety – ours, and their own – comes first, well above any summit ambitions. Craig is a consummate professional, a calm leader, and I thoroughly enjoyed his presence and leadership on this trip. We had a chance to share stories about our respective trips to Bolivia and Cuba, and it was fascinating to hear him describe his experiences climbing all over the world. So, I’m glad I got to share a rope with Craig Van Hoy, however briefly. It was an honour.

Safely arrived at Muir, where it was still snowing, but much warmer, I was busy changing out of my big puffy into a lighter jacket, when I heard Devin come out of the WeatherPORT dining tent, asking “where’s Helen?”. I turned, said, I’m here. He walked straight over to me and gave me a big hug! Devin was the leader on our expedition last year, and he remembered my efforts to keep going even after getting sick multiple times. He had given me huge respect for that, and was genuinely pleased to know I had finally summited. I was really happy to have that moment with him. Guides take great pleasure in seeing their clients succeed – whether success is a summit, or the joy of having climbed higher than ever before – and to have them share that joy with us is part of what I love about expeditions and climbing.

Inside the WeatherPORT, where I had time to drink and eat a little, I finally gave Peter the huge hug he deserved for helping me get to the top and back down safely. I know he is very happy for me. And he’s no doubt happy he won’t have to go back to help me try that one again.

The Slog Down
Unroped, unharnessed and uncramponed, we shouldered our heavier packs and started the downhill slog through heavy and slippery ankle-deep snow on the Muir Snowfield. In the past two years, I’ve usually come down that part fairly quickly, at the front of the group, having had a couple hours’ rest at High Camp while the rest of my teammates were still busy reaching the summit. Well, this time, I’d had no rest, and had consumed minimal calories in the last 10 hours, and quickly got dropped by the group. Devin and Craig were the “sweeps” at the back, so there was no risk of being alone or getting lost, but every time I caught up to the group, I got distanced again. My feet were wet and sore and starting to blister, and my legs were getting tired, there was no denying it. It was uneventful, but it was long.

I tried to enjoy every step, and remind myself that I should cherish these last few steps on Mount Rainier. But basically, I just wanted to be at the bottom. I eventually saw the parking lot, and the Alpine Ascents van and trailer, and just about everyone else. Relieved to finally be able to stop walking after 30,000 steps in twelve hours, I got to clean up a bit and change into clean clothes, before sitting down in the van, heading to dinner. The climb was done, it was successful, everyone was safely down and had enjoyed themselves, and six of eight clients had summited. We had earned the right to say we had climbed in “challenging conditions” (some might want to say “epic” – oh hell, why not?), and the face-splitting grins all around spoke volumes.

“It’s All Over But the Crying…”
You and eleven of your closest dearest newest bestest friends go mountain climbing for three short days in epic conditions (yes, I said it, epic), and it’s impossible for intense bonds not to form. We all developed deep respect for one another. All other clients who summited were there for the first time, and didn’t have much, if any, mountain climbing experience. Immense kudos to them all for reaching the summit, in style, on their first try, in these conditions. Two clients who made a wise, educated, and mature decision to stay at High Camp, equally deserve kudos for having the courage and wisdom to make that call. Coincidentally, they are amongst the most experienced in the group – no doubt they had a good measure of their capabilities at that point. And I… well, I was the one who finally summited after two failed attempts; the one who persevered through feeling sick and having to shit in a bag on the side of a snowy blowy mountain, the one who needed the most help from her guide. But I made it.

The Thank-Yous
At the risk of sounding like a boring Oscar winner with a boring speech, I will still endeavour to thank and acknowledge many people who played a part in this.

Peter – we met on Rainier two years ago, he’s seen me at my weakest and most vulnerable, and also at my most daring and determined. He has encouraged me and pushed me (and pulled me) on Rainer, and in the Tetons, on rock and on skis. There is more to these outdoor adventures for me than simply showing up for a few days a year and having fun. I didn’t grow up doing these sports. Every moment on a mountain is a new challenge for me, and goodness knows it has taken me well into my advanced age to find in me the belief and confidence to do it. Quite often, that belief is voiced by Peter before I can recognize it in myself. He has helped me, and continues to help me, discover abilities and an amount of “daring” that I didn’t suspect I had. And, in addition to all that, I have a ton of fun on these trips with him. We will be planning more trips together. And if you’re looking for a great guide to take you rock or mountain climbing, skiing, and generally “adventuring”, I’ll gladly put you in touch with Peter.

Danny – my rope mate and tent mate. We met during Gear Check the day before the climb, and then spent two of the next three days tied by a rope, and sharing very limited confined space. A gentle soul, and a very caring and generous person. It was an honour and a joy to share this experience with him. Oh, and he’s also a heck of a great photographer who made magic with an iPhone.

Craig, Devin and Dylan – on my three trips to Rainier, I have been impressed with the team of guides from Alpine Ascents International. Every single time. And yet, this time, there seemed to be extra magic in the air (ok, maybe because I finally summited…). But this team of four guides (Craig, Devin, Dylan and Peter) had fun working together, were relaxed and made us feel relaxed, inspired calm confidence with all the clients. Their professionalism under the more difficult weather conditions was exemplary, and their ability to bring out the best in every one of us clients, when we could have so easily faltered, is to be commanded.

Chris, Charlie, Andrew, Pamela and Andy, Susan – you guys rock! I so enjoyed getting to know you all. And what a delight to see so many of you reach the summit, and enjoy the climb and expedition experience. I’m so glad I got to climb with you and I genuinely hope to have the pleasure again in the future.

And the support crew…
Mom & Dad didn’t try to talk me out of going on this climb, even after “the January event”. I’m grateful for that, and thankful for their genuine pride and overwhelming love, as they sent their congratulations as soon as I told them we had made it to the top. I’m sorry to scare you by going on adventures like that, but I appreciate that you worried silently this time :) You love me beyond description, and I too in return. Thank you for all the opportunities you have given me, and for the love of travel you instilled in me way back when. It has defined me more than anything else.

My friend Pearl. She is My Person. ‘Nuf said.

Ed, who has been coaching me on the bike for a while now. I’m not as consistent and diligent as I should be with training, and we both know that. But Ed’s “in my head” a lot, pushing me and urging me on, and I heard his voice on the mountain too. In his own life, he doesn’t give up, and he has accomplished many things that others would have denied him. I’ve learned from him that I should believe I can, that nothing will stop me if decide I want it badly enough. He lives like that, and yes, it’s inspiring, and I’ve drawn a lot from that over the last three years, more than I can express.

Mike, a close friend who is always there for me and provided lots of support, especially this past winter. Mike was there, along with Scott, Ron, Joao, Michael and others, at the time of “the January event”. Mike’s willingness to immediately care and help, and his continued encouragement and friendship have made him one of my dearest friends.

So many other friends - Dan and Paddie, Michael and Janel, Maggie, who just before the climb got to wish me good luck live and in person, after not seeing them for so long! They were instrumental to me falling in love with mountains. Karen, who loves to discuss and analyze process with me, and who will no doubt be happy (?) to explore the whole thing in more detail with me. Josée, who has an ability to remind me that it’s ok to keep pushing the boundaries. Jeff, who drove me many places this winter, and always made sure I had everything I needed – most importantly, a ski trip to go on even when I had to cancel the other trip.

…And everyone else who provided encouragement in person, by text, via Facebook….

I make all this sound as if I’d just climbed Everest or conquered a new continent or won an Oscar. Of course not. Thousands of people summit Mount Rainier every year. And all of you reading this have a long list of accomplishments equally worthy of kudos, and thank-yous to people who helped you along the way. But Here and Now, I wanted to express my gratitude to all of you who have played a role in getting me to this point in my life, where I conquered not a mountain, but my self-doubts, my fears, my laziness. The mountain is just a metaphor. Upward and onward, and back down safely – it’s the only way to go, and I couldn’t do it without you. Thank you.

I’ll leave you with this quote that Craig Van Hoy read us over dinner, after our climb. It says it best.

“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”