Assiniboine 60

One of the motivations for ultramarathon training  was to be able to do big objectives in the mountains.  With snow on the way and fine autumn conditions soon to fade, I wanted to put my training to the test in the wild.  Even though I wasn’t fully recovered, my window was closing quick so I planned a one day traverse along the continental divide from the Sunshine parking lot to Mt Shark trailhead in Kananaskis.  The route was 60kms over 3 mountain passes past 9 lakes and over 12,000 feet of elevation gain and loss.Screen shot 2015-10-22 at 10.05.35 AM

What makes this route a bit scary at this time of year is the isolation.  There is a point along the route where you are 30kms from the hi-way whether you go forwards or backwards.  At no point on the route is there cellphone service. Unlike an organized race where you can quit any time and be taken care of, I would have to make some serious and objective self assessments before the point of no return to be sure I could finish.  Going this far means going fast and light so no tent or sleeping bag.  Given that the night time temperature is below zero, you have to be sure you can finish!   For safety, I brought my SPOT locator beacon so I could be tracked down in an emergency.  Assiniboine 0

Above:  The hiking book suggests this route be done as 3-6 day backpacking trip.  This was what I brought:  headlamp, SPOT emergency beacon, bear bangers for possible bear problem, nutritional gels, map, emergency heat reflective bivy sac, water bottle and poles. Not pictured was my ultra-lightweight Mammut puffy jacket which was for emergency but only weighs a few hundred grams.

My plan was to leave at 5am but the night before I couldn’t sleep at all.  The whole enterprise was very stressful.  When 5am rolled around I felt hardly fit for such a trip but knowing I wouldn’t get another chance this year, I went ahead.  Suz was going to meet me on the Smith Dorian road at 8pm.  She would be getting hourly position updates from me by satellite so she would know if I was close before making the hour drive from Canmore.    Of course once she leaves Canmore, she can no longer get the position updates as they require a mobile connection.

At 5:40am I arrived by car at the end of the Sunshine road just off the Trans-Canada.  In blackness I put on my light trail shoes, turned on the headlamp and started up underneath the Sunshine Gondola.  I don’t like the dark in the mountains!  I made lots of noise and had my head on a swivel. My first objective was a 12km climb gaining 3000 vertical feet up to Citadel Pass.  The adrenaline of climbing in the dark made me go much too fast and I topped out in just over 2 hours.  A streaking shooting star burnt up overhead leaving a red blaze imprinted on my eyes.  I took it as a good omen!Assiniboine 3

Above: Dawn in the middle of nowhere!  It was psychologically relieving to be able to see the lay of the land and turn off the headlamp and stow it away.  When planning at home, I had been slightly worried about navigating by headlamp for the first few hours but it had all gone smoothly.  Hopefully I wouldn’t need it much at the tail end of the trip!  Crossing over Citadel Pass as the sun rose to warm the frigid air and light the way was a double dose of goodness.

I had never been here before and seeing it by dawn light was amazing but frustrating to not be able to stop and gawk at the sights.  From here out, most of the trip was in and out of the tree line.  Everywhere seemed like good Grizzly habitat and I shouted every few minutes.  IMG_3723

Above: Down into the next valley system, the Golden Valley.  Mt Assiniboine just peaks out on the left skyline.

The trail follows a high traverse along Golden Valley and on a narrow ledge, I stopped for some sugar and a physical assessment.  I was now 20km into the trip so if I was not going to make it, I’d have to turn around soon.  Already facing a 20km return to the road or a 40km forward seemed like two devilish options!  I was tired from lack of sleep but I thought I would go forward and commit to the big distance.  The 20k home seems worse because you already can imagine what it will be like.  The way forward has the benefit of being unknown.  For some reason the known seemed worse than the unknown which is rare in the wilderness.

The trail wound its way through a series of lakes and rocky hollows and into a valley called “The Valley of the Rocks.”  An amazing landscape formed from giant blocks of quartzite from an ancient  catastrophic landslide.Assiniboine 4

Above:  Valley of the Rocks.  Getting closer to Mt Assiniboine which makes a dramatic half way point.

The weather was a sunny 9 degrees which is perfect for hard work.  Unfortunately the warmth was melting the trail now.  Repeated freezing and thawing was growing tall ice crystals under the surface of the trail.Assiniboine 5

Above:  Some of the ice crystals were over an inch tall which elevated the muddy surface up.  Now that the sun hit it, your weight would cause the crystals to collapse making footing problematic and slippery.  As you can see, my hands are muddy from repeated falls!  There was about 8kms of this sticky, moving mud and ice shards to deal with. Unexpected and exhausting!Assiniboine 7

Above:  The strange environs of Og lake.  Random crags and features are as odd as it’s name.  Previous stop along the way, Citadel Pass, is just seen in distance at far left skyline.Assiniboine 2

Above:  Mt Assiniboine and Lake.  Luxuriously alone here as the seasonal backcountry lodge attracts many people when in season.  In fact, I hadn’t seen a single person so far.  A wonderful sight and hard to leave but now every step was getting me closer not further away.  The time was just after 1pm and it seemed like I was making good progress and wouldn’t have too much night navigation to do at the tail end.Assiniboine 6

Above:  Climbed up Wonder Pass into a gorgeous larch forest with all its orange needles littering the ground.  One of the best named passes!  Upon getting to the top, the also well-named Marvel Lake appeared in translucent blue.  An amazing sight but when you are exhausted, it lifts the spirit like nothing else to see such beauty.


Above:  Down the other side of Wonder Pass halfway across a high-level traverse of Marvel Lake.  Ten more kilometers and I’d be in the Bryant Creek drainage which was the last valley system.

As my familiar landmarks appeared that signalled getting close, I found the aches and pains began to get far worse.  The mind loses its ability to cope when it knows things are drawing to an end.  When I finally reached the Bryant Creek trail which I had been on before, I found my knee starting to kill me as well as ankle pain flaring up.  After 7 more kms I was crossing the Spray River as it poured into Spray Lake.  The last hints of daylight had left and my headlamp was back on.  The only thing left was  6 kms of ski trails to navigate by headlamp.  By now I was hobbling a bit but the end was close enough now.  My whoop was heard by no one at the road and success was overshadowed by relief it was over.  I hunkered down to keep warm waiting for Suz to pick me up and after a very lonely 40 minutes, headlights finally appeared to my deep relief!

A good trip to end the year on.  I learned not to do a trip like this on anything but full strength!  I’m paying the price today as I hobble around like a cripple.  The intensely committing nature of this trip was exciting but the lack of margin for error was more stressful than exciting.  As it should be.  I like to be in the wilds prepared for any contingency.  Going this fast and light can’t accommodate those preparations very well so I must find a way to reach a better middle ground in future mega distance plans.

And now I will recover while I get excited for next week’s Banff Mountain Film Festival!

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Grizzly Ultra Marathon


The Grizzly Ultra is 50km long with a vertical gain of 1700 vertical meters.  In layman’s terms its like running up and down a 10 story building every single kilometer for 50 kilometers.  To train for a race like this involves quite a bit of time to gradually work up to that distance and elevation gain.  As I am away working up north and unable to train long enough, I had to make up my own compressed training schedule and hope for the best. My goal was to finish with dignity but just deciding to try something this hard and committing to the work is reward enough.  For simplicity I’ll do this post in time stamp format.

Aug 2014.  Suzanne suggests going for a run with a new group called Canmore Trail Culture.  I ran 7km on the Loki trail with them and had a great time trying to keep up but many runners stayed at the back with me and encouraged me.

Sep-Oct 2014. Tuesday with CTC becomes a regular night for me and I make sure I am well prepared to be at my best for their runs.  I’m quite pleased to discover on the CTC update info page that I’m earning a reputation as someone who shows up every week no matter the weather!dave trail culture

Above: On this run I chatted with a woman who runs 300km races.  I learned plenty about running just listening to the conversation from these runs.

Nov 2014. After a couple bigger runs I start to feel more comfortable with my abilities and after hearing the many tales of races from other people in the group I decide kind of without thinking too much to sign up for the Grizzly Ultra-marathon.

Spring 2015. After the snow melts I get running again knowing I have to go to work soon and will be unable to train.  At work I am walking long distances through rough ground every day but I’m hoping I won’t lose too much fitness.

Aug 2015. After recovering from work and letting the smoke from forest fires abate, I start training with 7 weeks until the race.  The course is on the trails at the Canmore Nordic Centre so I do all my training on the course learning every climb and corner.

Oct 1 2015. My daily run is up to 20km with 400m elevation gain but my longest run I get up to is “only” 26km with 500m elevation gain.  I’m a bit worried as my ankle starts to hurt a lot after 20km.

1 week to go. I taper for a week running only small amounts and mostly resting and eating.  I up my protein intake to over 120g per day to help repair muscles from hard training.

5 days to go.  I go to the Tuesday Trail Culture run and share my nervousness with the others.  There are ten of us from our group entered so its our last week to compare aches and pains and encouragement.  I run behind Emily who just returned from a 160km race in Oregon.  I ask plenty of questions and get plenty of advice.

Night Before.  I look at the weather forecast and figure out what clothing combinations I might want.  I organize my equipment, water bottles, nutrient gels, mandatory bear spray, clothing etc.  I toss and turn for a few hours and fall asleep around midnight.  Suz pretty much leaves me alone that day as I was too nervous and fidgety to make good company!  I lay in bed going over all the things I want to remember:

-stay calm, don’t start to fast with all the excitement, stay hydrated, don’t fall behind with nutrition, have some go-to happy thoughts if you start getting negative, etc etc etc

Race Day!  I get up at 6am and eat some easy to digest food and some hydration salt-laced fluids.  The course route is shaped like a flower consisting of 5 different loops that start and end at the Nordic Center.  This allows you to always be coming back to a central location where you can have a base station with your foods, drinks, clothing and support people.   Suz leads me through all the preparations as I seem incapable of the details of the moment.

10 minutes to Race Start.  The Trail Culture runners get together for a group picture.IMG_3671

Above: Feeling nervous but Stephanie in her unicorn warm up suit(!!) helps everyone relax!  Many runners use lightweight vests to hold water, bear spray and food while others like me used belts.  Solomon footwear is definitely the unanimous choice.

Sunday Oct 11, 2015    9:00am 7 degrees, wind gusting to 40km/hr

deep breath….

I’ve had plenty of epic days and events in the wilds.  These tended to sneak up on you and you would find yourself dealing with them without having had much time to think about it.  I had been thinking about this for 11 months.  Now the moment arrives and I’m so worked up I find I can’t really think at all.  The world  is unfolding in front of me while my inner thoughts are stuck in a stammer trying to catch up to the unfolding present rather than the imagined future that preoccupied it for the last few months.  Remember not so fast.  I use my mnemonic device: “Too fast, Vasily. Too fast. Those charts are laid out precisely… so many knots at such and such a course for so many seconds. ”  It’s line from the submarine chase in “The Hunt for Red October” and it seemed very appropriate to me as I laid out in training how to run each kilometer of the course. As the throng of runners leaves the start line I mutter it again, “Too fast Vasily.”

I run past Suzanne cheering at the start line and head out with 290 fellow competitors in the Solo Category.

Leg One: 14km, 309m vertical climb

I enjoy this part.  I trained this section a lot as I wanted the start to be like a comfortable friend.  It’s not very demanding technically and is a wide trail which allows everyone to pass and find their place.  It climbs up to an open meadow and gives great views of the Bow Valley.  I’m trying to do this section in one hour 40minutes ish. Time back at the Nordic Center is 1:37.  A group of people from Trail Culture came out to cheer us on and the sound of cowbells and cheers from familiar faces feels like a shot of adrenaline!  I stop for 20 seconds at my feed station for some carb gel, refill my water and ditch my gloves. IMG_3687

Leg Two 12km 385m vertical climb

Leg two starts with a long climb for the first 2km so it was a wonderful surprise to see some friends at the top of the hill with a cheer and a “high five.”  Suz went for lunch with my blessing as I didn’t want her to stand around for the first couple legs only to see me for half a minute.  She was going to come back for the last stages when I thought I would really need the emotional support.

At this point I was feeling very good but impatient.  Stage 3 is just a brutal grind that lies in wait to break you.  Most runners will start to feel some pushback after 26 kilometers which is right when this course starts to get mean.  At the moment though, I was still 12km from this thing.  I felt like I was in a very long lineup to face a firing squad.

Halfway done stage two and just over 20km into the race and feeling good.  I can’t wait to finish this stage because then I’ll be on stage three and if I can do that then it’s really just dotting the t’s and crossing the i’s.  Or so I imagined.  I thought that Stage 3 would be the epic physical challenge and then once I got to Stage 4 I would be sort of out of body, glazed eyes, watching my body on auto-pilot, the end is close, I can’t feel anything anymore, muscle memory grind to the end.

I suppose the same logic could convince you on Tuesday that tomorrow is Sunday since it’s almost wed which is really thurs which is a day from Fri and that’s the weekend.  I’m sure this is familiar to everyone!  But I was still on Stage Two.

At km 26, I emerged from the forest with the Nordic Center below me and the sound and the noise once again lifted me up.  The cheering section was still there.  Another round of nutritional gels, refill my water, a glass of hydration fluids and some vegi sticks and off to stage 3!  Out of 290, I was in 223rd place not that I cared in any way.IMG_3689

Above: Quickly downing  a gel at the feedzone.

Leg Three 12km 510m vertical climb

I took another big breath, closed my eyes and clapped a few times.  Here is where it all begins.  The first couple kms are easy but at km28 of the race, the trail dives straight down into some nasty cliffs, rocks, roots, streams, hills and 20 kilometers of torture. Two kms into the stage a woman asks me how I’m doing.  “I’m so excited!” I reply.  She sounds surprised and asks why.  I tell her that this next stage is really, really hard and I can’t wait to see what its going to be like to take it on. She seemed to like that answer, “Right On!” she said sounding reenergized and gave me a high five.

I ran this stage a lot in training.  I didn’t want the hardest stage to be intimidating.  I wanted to look forward to it.  After 30kms there is no way to make it easy but I hoped training hard on it would take some of the fear out of it.

That’s when something surprising happened.  I kept waiting for my ankle to start hurting.  Instead my illiotibial was slowly morphing from a mild notice in stage one to a bit of a thing in stage two and now suddenly an angry dragon here in stage three.  Iliotbial problems manifest as a pain behind the knee and a direct result of a compressed training schedule.

It was really making me angry that I was feeling energetic here on the part of the course I looked forward to but being thwarted by pain.  I started to walk.  Everyone that passed me either asked if I was okay or merely just understood the situation and offered a “you’re doing great” or a “keep at it.”  Getting down the steep parts were a killer as bending my left knee was excruciating. I went down sidestepping with my good leg on the downhill side.  I was already thinking how I was going to console myself for being unable to finish.  After a kilometer  of limping, I came across a guy stretching just off the trail.  I asked if he was okay.  He said his hamstrings were going but he wasn’t going to give up.  “Got to just keep walking.” he said.  We hobbled together for about 15 minutes chatting. This was his 7th ultramarathon so he told some stories.  I noticed as the race got deeper and everyone starts to struggle, the racers all get chatty and talkative.  Everyone needs to take their mind off what ever hurts. My new friend wished me luck and ran off.

With just another kilometer before the Nordic Center, a fellow competitor came up behind me and asked if I was okay.  “It looks like your I.T. is gone eh?  Here take this!”  She took 2 ibuprofins and a tylenol out of her vest and gave them to me.  “Give it 20 minutes and you’ll be feeling better.”  I thanked her and she took off.

I was still unsure if I would keep going but at least I wasn’t decided that it was over.  Then, with great timing, my magic unicorn appeared!  Actually it was fellow Trail Culture buddy Stephanie with her rainbow coloured tights.  She was so far ahead, she was about to finish and our paths were briefly overlapping as we headed to the stadium.  “All you have to do is get up that hill on stage 4 and the rest is easy!!”  She said.  “Well, that’s it then.  I’m going to do it somehow” I thought to myself.  Moments later Stephanie ended up in 8th place while I had the last two stages to do.

Again, the noise and cheers of the stadium melted my pain away.  Suz was back which was a big boost.  Back to the feedzone, gels, refill my water, and off to the start of stage 4.  The painkillers started to kick in and I stopped for 5 seconds to chat with Suz.  I seemed to have completely reset.  I closed my eyes, breathed deep and now suddenly all the doubts were gone.  I was going to do it. IMG_3686

Above: Returning to the stadium after stage three.

Stage Four 7km 272m vertical gain

Stage 4 is short but starts with a 2 kilometer hill that gains 500 vertical feet!  I bolted up it feeling great though I don’t think I was as fast as I felt.  Almost as soon as it started it was over having completed it (with a bit of hobbling on the downhills) in just over an hour.  The painkillers were definitely wearing off but now just one more 5km stage.

I came back to the stadium and did my routine and told Suzanne I’d be back in an hour!

Stage Five 6km 215m vertical gain

I left the stadium and the pain was getting pretty intense again but it didn’t even mater.  I hobbled up the last big hill up to the meadow and saw the Bow Valley with the evening light on it.  At this point I was all by myself on the trail and halfway done the 6km loop.  I turned east for the last 3km home and got pretty choked up.  Some joyful tears were added to my sweaty sleeves!

On top of the last hill with 200m down to the finish line.  I could see and hear Suz cheering me in.  I had a sense of lots of people cheering but my eyes couldn’t seem to focus very well.  I heard Suz remind me of my goal to “finish with dignity” so I stretched out my stride and ran through the finishing line with the announcer calling me in.  After 8 hours and 24 minutes, I did it.Screen shot 2015-10-13 at 11.54.24 AM

While I was training, I heard Canadian tennis star, Eugenie Bouchard say that “It’s hard to get beat if you never give up.”  I said that to myself over and over on my training runs and a few times during the race.  What I learned from this experience was how much everyone else helped me to complete this goal.  You do all the training, but everyone else gets you over the line.  From the cheers of support at the stadium to the runners on the course all pushing each other, I couldn’t imagine doing this alone.

As I discovered on Stage 3, the pain can be enough to beat you and when the challenges are hard enough, in fact Genie Bouchard is wrong.  It’s really easy to get beat-even if you don’t give up.  But with good people surrounding yourself, you at least give yourself a fighting chance.

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Mt Temple

There are 54 mountains over 11,000 feet  in the Rockies.  Having done three of them now, I thought I ought to at least climb the “easiest” one.  At 11,627 feet, Mt Temple dominates the Lake Louise skyline and is one of the best looking mountains in Banff National Park.DSCN0567

Above:  I took this picture in 2010 from Saddleback Pass looking at the imposing north face of Temple.  The easier ascent line is on the south face.

Suz told me of some chatter on the internet about our friend Glenn planning a trip up Temple.  As we had together done Mt Athabasca and the Canmore Triple Crown, I asked if I could join and he was glad to have me.  Our other partners were three women from Banff with not as much mountain experience but all were in extremely good shape.  Glenn was glad to have some extra experience along so I studied the route carefully and expected to take a leadership role.  I left the house at 3:55am to give ourselves enough daylight for a long climb.

We left Moraine Lake in the dark navigating by headlamp.  This area is restricted access due to heavy Grizzly activity which has always hampered my attempts to organize this trip in the past.


Above: Fiona takes in the sunrise on our ascent buttress with Pinnacle Peak looking profound in the Alpinglow. Glenn can be seen at the bottom left picking his way through the rock.  Fiona is a bodybuilder who has competed at the international level so she had no trouble keeping up to the pace.  Glen had climbed EEOR the day before and was feeling tired which was good for me as I got to lead the whole route.  It was nice to have him there for a couple route questions (he’s climbed Temple before) which would have been time consuming to figure out by myself.  DSCN0763

Above:  Smoke from fires in Washington State start to blow in making our hard fought view a little less spectacular.


Above:  A tricky section of rock that has been coated with ice.  We’re all using traction devices on our boots but we climbed this section with great care and deliberation.IMG_3521

Above:  A bit of 5th class climbing was managed by everyone without too much stress.  A crack feature and some easy face climbing  got us over the crux face.  I went up first and photo-bombed everyone as they came up the tricky section.

As we climbed up the last face, the snow from the previous week made the steep climb much easier over the loose rock.  It’s much easier to kick step in stiff snow than to struggle in loose rock.DSCN0779

Above:  Glenn on the final summit ridge.  The smoke nearly obscured the valleys which was too bad as the view from here is among the best in Banff.  It was kind of interesting to have just the tallest peaks poking up through the smoke.  Mt Deltaform on the left and Mt Vaux just peeks above the smoke in the background.


Above: Success!


Above:  L-R Fiona, Casie, Leah.  Three happy but cold faces.  After this picture everyone dove into packs to pull out the winter jackets! DSCN0784

Above: Fiona celebrates her 36th birthday on Temple.  The climb was a big birthday plan but Glenn surprised her with some Reeses peanut butter cups at the top.

We lingered for about five minutes at the top.  It was pretty far below zero with a strong wind so getting down safe was top of our minds.  Leah was a bit consumed with  climbing down the crux cliff face so we all did our best to keep a positive mood.

When we climbed down to the crux, we had the most unfortunate experience of finding some people out of their depth, off route and struggling on an exposed cliff.  It seemed like a dire situation and we were helpless to assist them beyond yelling instructions.  After a 20 minute ordeal, the panicked person finally got to a safe position but for most of that time, I was pretty sure they were going to fall and suffer some life threatening injuries.  They seemed intent on continuing up though they had no business being on that mountain.  Three others asked if we could lead them back down and we agreed.  I could hardly insist the other people follow us down but it made me angry to see how their foolishness nearly cost them dearly.

While this was going on Leah was perched above the crux cliff getting more and more nervous as she was forced to wait while the off-route victims kicked down a rain of dangerous rocks into our downclimb crack.  When they cleared and it was safe to enter the crack, Glenn went first and I took everyone’s gear and dropped it down to him so everyone was unburdened and better balanced for the downclimb.  Everyone climbed down safely and of course Leah was surprised to discover with some help telling her where to place her feet, it wasn’t as bad as her mind had made it out to be.   A problem I suffer from tremendously in the mountains!  Downclimbing is very difficult when facing into the mountain as it’s so hard to see your foot holds.

Once down the crux, it was a long, easy scramble down the mountain but the incident left a bad taste in our mouths.  We managed to talk it out of our systems though and slowly the better parts of the trip were front and centre.   At the valley bottom, a man asked me how long it would take to get to the top.  I said it depends on who it is.  He said he meant himself.  I replied that I didn’t didn’t know him so I had no idea.  This isn’t being flippant really.  We took 9 hours and left at 4 in the morning so if anything happened, it would still give us lots of daylight to safely get down. This guy was attempting it at 2 in the afternoon which demonstrated how little experience he had.  After looking at how he and his wife were dressed and equipped, I told him straight out he should turn around right now because the rock was too loose and coming down in torrents and it was too dangerous.  I thought he would listen to that warning (which was mostly true) rather than trying to tell him he  needed more experience.  I also said it would take him 14 hours from where they stood which may not have been a stretch.  Luckily they listened to me and chose not to go up.  They had improper footwear, no axes, no helmets, no crampons despite the snow and ice, no extra clothing and obviously no route information, map and goodness knows what else was missing.  Sitting in a coffee shop in Lake Louise and Googling “Lake Louise” is probably what inspired them to try Temple.DSCN0801

Above: Casie downclimbs an “easy” cliff band.  You must build a very good mental map on the way up so you can safely get down without making a wrong turn and then find yourself in really dangerous terrain.

It’s the good and bad of the information age.  On the one hand, people with no experience,  or skill see pictures of these incredible places and think because some trip report on someone’s blog called it easy that they will give it a go.  What they don’t investigate is whether that report is from some world class mountaineer whose idea of “easy” involves years of experience and skill building.  Mt Temple is so close to high traffic tourist areas that it becomes a tempting prize to those long on ambition but short on experience.  A grim testament to this is that Temple had the deadliest mountain accident in Canadian history when a group of 7 scouts were swept off the mountain by a summer avalanche.  My experience with this mountain has inspired me to approach Parks Canada with some simple signage on the approach trail suggesting people turn around if they are not carrying certain equipment and knowledge of how to use it.  A sign won’t stop everyone but may turn a few around.

On the other hand, the internet allowed me to look at the route possibilities and variations in a variety of weather and snow conditions. I got to study the most difficult parts and compare them to other routes I have done.   Using some advanced weather forecasting, I followed the temperature at various elevations on the mountain for a week leading up to our ascent so I would know at what level to expect ice and what the quality of the snow would be and where.  I knew the day before at what time roughly on our descent  the ice would turn to slush making loose rocks unstable.

In the end it was a good day out mostly because of the people I went with of course.  I may come back to this one on a clear day to see the views as they were intended without the smoke clogging the valley.

Below: our route up Mt Temple from a picture I took from Mt Eiffle in 2012. Route is not a GPS track but just drawn in.Screen shot 2015-09-10 at 10.42.44 AM

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Journey to the Center of the Earth

With the smoke making it awful to be outside, I thought why not explore underground instead?  After making some calls and securing a caving guide, Suz and I ended up exploring underneath Grotto Mt just five minutes out of town.

The Rockies, being made of limestone, are riddled with caves as the water itself dissolves the rock.  As water penetrates weak layers, it pools and dissolves forming an intricate honeycomb network of caves.  Since these caves require technical skills to navigate, they are not open to tourists.  Given the contortions and rope skills required to navigate them, any mishap, even a twisted ankle can mean a multi-day rescue.  For this reason, the Rat’s Nest Cave by our place is locked up with a metal gate over the entrance.  This cave is completely raw in that there is no lighting, no walkways or railings, no man made features.  It’s in the state it was found in.  Being able to experience the thrill of exploring something in its original condition is something I’m very grateful for.

It gets its name from the pack rats that build nests just inside.  We didn’t see any though I’m told they are kind of fuzzy and cute.  After doning our safety gear at the entrance we left everything else outside as the passages are just too tight to bring anything like a pack.  Even my good camera was left at home, exchanged for a slim, digital automatic.  As there is no place to go to the bathroom, we leave the water outside and do our best to empty our bladders.  Climbing harness, knee pads, helmet, headlamp, gloves and protective jumpsuit is all we were allowed.DSCN0107

Above:  At the cave entrance looking very clean.

Upon entering the cave, we tie our harnesses into a safety bolt.  Good thing too as my eyes slowly adjust to the half dark cave entrance, I see a black abyss in front of me.  Chris tells us it’s a 50 foot drop with nothing but a pile a bones many feet thick.  The bones of over 30 different mammals have been discovered at the bottom.  I immediately feel a sense of dread. I later learned that the entrance is a place where stress is keenly felt mostly because you still have a frame of reference from the outside light leaking in.  Compared to looking outside, the inside seems really scary.  As we left the light behind and pressed forward, I calmed down.

The interior is a tangled mess of jagged rock carved into scallops by periods of heavy water flow from the end of the last ice age a few thousand years ago. There is no real up or down.  Cracks, fissures, ridges and holes go off in every direction and angle.  In the light of the headlamp, the rock colour is a brown-grey wash.  Cold and clammy and slippery in places, the polished limestone is sharp and split in places and elsewhere rounded and bulbous where the calcite is forming from slow dripping water.

Chris leads us as we slither through a cleft on a 25 degree angle with a roof about two feet from the floor.  We emerge at an opening and the headlamps show a jumbled mess of bones.  The pack rats drag bones out of the bone well at the entrance and chew on them for their calcium.  The calcium makes their urine pungent and sticky.  This stickier urine helps glue their nests together at the entrance to the cave.  The smell also helps them figure their location.  The smell is very strong and I found it similar to Heineken beer.DSCN0110

Above:  Looking at the bones the rats have pulled out of the well.  Suz found an interesting martin skull among the bones.  Some bones show signs of human influence indicating that some native people discarded bones down the hole at the entrance.

We made our way through the interior mostly crawling but occasionally with some headroom to stand up in a hunch.  Often it felt like climbing but horizontally.   Upon reaching what seemed like another dead end, we could see that the passage turned straight down.  A bolt station was drilled into the rock and we rappelled down a 60 foot shaft.  I found this easier and harder than a rap down a cliff face.  In a way it’s easier on my mind because I can’t see so its not as visually scary as leaning over a cliff and seeing how far the bottom is.  On the other hand, you cant see the passage turning and twisting causing you to get thrown into the walls a bit.  I was glad to reach the bottom and as I went first, I was now very isolated as I couldn’t hear the others.  I was only 60 feet away from them but it was a very scary sensation to be now by myself in the bottom of this shaft.  I turned off my light for the complete experience.  DSCN0120

Above: Suz nearly at the bottom of the rappel.  I feel much better with some company now!  (My other camera was too big to take so these pictures are taken with a small digital automatic.  A challenge in the darkness to get pics but it did a great job under the circumstances.)

After the rappel, we had to go through a squeeze called the “warm up squeeze.”  The temperature in the cave is a chilly 4 degrees year round.  It’s basically the annual average temperature of Canmore as the cave has been reaching equilibrium with the outside for thousands of years.  The Warm Up squeeze is so named for the energy you spend getting through.  Its about the height of the helmet so the only way to get through is to “superman” yourself, then push with your toes!  The bottom is coated in slippery calcite and offers nothing to grab onto so unable to bend your arms or legs, you use your feet like flippers to push through.  If it sounds awful it’s because it is.  But in it’s defence, the sensation of having a whole mountain literally on your back is truly unique.DSCN0131

Above:  Suz emerges with a smile through the Warm Up Squeeze.  She never seems to get stressed out and is the perfect person to have along on dodgy adventures.  This connecting tube is only a couple body lengths but the feeling of the roof pushing against my back got my heart racing.  The darkness also makes tasks psychologically difficult though this would be hard in the light.

After some more scrambling, we entered the “Laundry Chute.”  A vertical hole just big enough for a person, that does a 90 degree bend into a smooth downward chute for 20 feet or so.DSCN0135

Above:  I’m descending into the “Laundry Chute.”  Once my feet touch the bottom, I have to fold in half and lay down feet first, face up in a position too similar to a coffin for my liking. Then with the roof and sides just inches from your face and shoulders, you slide slowly 20 feet through the downward sloping shaft to the bottom.  Thankfully we don’t have to return this way. Gravity does not line up with the passage though and the exit from the chute involves some awkward moves.  DSCN0137

Above:  Suz looks straight down at me in position in the “Laundry Chute.”  I’m on my back about to start the long slide down to the next opening.  When I’m in the mountains, I always have an internal monitor running of how far or how long it would would take me to get back to the road.  At this point in our caving trip, the feeling of being far away was very intense.  Far more than being 10 hours up a mountain.  This section felt like going through some complex plumbing.

The contorsions were worth it as we emerged in a grand cavern perhaps 200 feet long and 50 feet high complete with the familiar looking stalagmites and pillars.DSCN0160

Above:  This Temple of Doom style roof contained some elegant “drinking straw” stalactites several feet long.

An amazing sight was the phosphorescence of some of the formations.  A perfect pearl-like sphere of calcite the size of a mandarin orange was exposed to a camera flash.  With our headlamps off, it remained glowing green for several seconds in a ghostly ethereal demonstration.  Staring into a glowing green orb hundreds of feet underground  is pretty weird.DSCN0164

Above:  At the furthest depth was this Gollum-esque pool with the haunting sound of a periodic drip.  The cave continued through the water but scuba-caving involves a pretty high level of risk management.  Our guide Chris said he prefers to “chose life.”  I found this pool with its green glow a very haunting place.  So much of it is familiar yet in such an incredible  place.  A dream-like quality with hints of the familiar and fantastic.

I thought the journey out would be hard but  downclimbing is always harder than climbing, so the way up and out was more straightforward.  After emerging, we hiked off the mountain as Chris explained some geology and caving stories.  He showed us a full map of the cave system.  We only explored the bottom ring as seen on this map superimposed on Grotto Mt.  Now I have been on the summit of this mountain , and at its very roots.  A singular experience!!  I’m not sure if we will ever go caving again but this adventure will be imprinted on my mind for ever.Screen shot 2015-08-30 at 9.26.02 PM

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Hail Columbia!

I’ve been on more than  a dozen glaciers either climbing or traversing but there is one that stands apart that I’ve been waiting to explore.  The Columbia.  It’s big, hard to get at, surrounded by the biggest peaks in Canada and has no huts to make travel and exploration easier.  Much of it is above 10,000 feet so it is hounded by bad weather most days.  It is pocketed with crevasses and seracs.  Naturally then, it is on every serious ski mountaineer’s list!  I tried over the last two years to organize a trip up there but with no luck.  At least I could recycle all the trip research!

By chance, Emil returned to Banff from out west.  He and I did the famous Wapta Traverse together as well as the French/Haig/Robertson Glacier traverse.  I asked him about Columbia and he jumped on board.  The big prize on the Columbia Icefields is Mt Columbia, the largest mountain in Alberta and we set our sights on it.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t get anyone else to join us.  A rope team of four people is really ideal for safety and three is okay so we talked about whether it was safe for just 2 people to try it.  Rather than talk about it, we roped up in the back yard and practiced some rescue scenarios to see if a single person could extract the other from a crevasse.  Using pulleys and our belay devices as motion capture systems, we decided that it was feasible.  I would be taking my SPOT emergency locator device as well, but on the Columbia you have to assume that there are large blocks of bad weather where you are simply stuck there.

We packed up and I was very nervous about the weight I would be carrying.  Our first day would be a gruelling slog up the Saskatchewan Glacier over 18km with 4000 feet vertical gain in deep snow.  I almost always have a pack on whether I’m at work or at play so being nervous about the weight is saying something.  The list of absolute necessities included: tent, winter sleeping bag, thermarest, stove, pot, stove fuel, lighter, spoon, bowl, 4 suppers, 4 lunches, 4 breakfasts, extra socks, dry base layer, helmet, sunglasses, toque, light mitts, heavy mitts, ice axe, crampons, harness, glacier rescue gear (anchors, slings, prussiks, pulleys, biners etc.) 30m climbing rope, climbing skins, skis, poles, outer shell, avalanche beacon, shovel, probe, several litres of water, GPS, SPOT, camera, maps, compass, headlamp.  The only luxury item was my camera and there was plenty I would have liked to have taken.DSCN0635Above:  People talk about the road less travelled.  But sometimes it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

After a week of preparation and planning, I left Canmore at 5:30am after a poor sleep.  We drove to the hairpin corner just after Saskatchewan River Crossing and sorted out packs out.  To our horror, we discovered that we had the tent but not the poles!  Emil suggested we just dig  snow caves for shelter.  I had made one last year and thought it would be okay.  It would just add to the adventure I guess.  The valley floor had lost much of its snow so we carried our skis for the first bit as we hunted for a place to cross the North Saskatchewan River.  A filament of remaining ice served our purpose and after we scrambled up the bank and hiked for a few hundred meters, we found enough snow to get our skis on.  We were off!

We followed the river upstream towards its glacier.  Unfortunately, our snow ran out forcing us to pick our way through a boulder field (first picture above) and then a sea of silty mud (see below.)  There’s always lots of energy at the start of a big trip so this setback hardly bothered us even though it was difficult to clean my boots enough to get them into my bindings!DSCN0637

DSCN0642Above: Climbing up the massive Saskatchewan Glacier.  It appears flat but is actually a significant angle.  We are travelling unroped  as this part of the  glacier has no crevasses and the visibility is crystal clear.  Being able to move without being roped is a real luxury in efficiency.  There are always so many micro stops each person tends to make: adjust a strap that’s binding you, adjusting skis, grabbing a quick bite or drink of something, applying sunblock, taking a picture, put on on a layer, take off a layer.  It’s only 10 seconds but when unroped, you can do your minor task without having to stop the other person.

The Columbia Icefields are full of demoralizing views.  The scale is so massive that distance get very distorted.  In the picture above, it took two difficult hours get to the icefall in the background.  It was weird to see such huge mountains all around us and know we would soon be even higher than their summits.DSCN0639

Above:  We were very surprised after several hours up on the glacier to discover this expired, golden crested sparrow.  Not sure what inspired him to make it up this far.  A grim object in a sea of nothing.  It often feels up in these places that you are not supposed to be there.  The altitude, the lack of any living things, the harshness all conspire to say “please leave.”  This dead bird reinforced that sensation for me.Screen shot 2015-05-08 at 4.07.44 PMAbove:  Making good progress as we leave the Saskatchewan Glacier and climb up the Columbia Glacier.  Mt Saskatchewan in the background is a fine looking mountain and just a few meters short of the exclusive 11,000 foot club.DSCN0647

Above:  Mt Bryce is the real eye candy on the Columbia.  Its one of the tallest in the Rockies but seldom seen as it hides back here in the middle of nowhere.  It appears to be rising out of a massive, flat plain but it is just a foreground roll in the glacier creating a false horizon.DSCN0650

Above:  While stopping for a bite to eat I saw this size 2 avalanche rip off this outlier of Mt Andromeda.  We knew right away we wouldn’t be attempting the steep face of Mt Columbia tomorrow.  The clear skies meant the sun was heating the slopes and causing instability.  Columbia would be safe if we could get up and down before the sun got at it, but it seemed to be too much to do in too little time.  We changed our plan and decided to climb Snowdome instead which is not as steep.

By 7pm we had gone as far as we needed to.  I was pretty exhausted and a bit dehydrated.  We started our snow cave by first probing out a safe area for camp.  After digging out a trench and using our skis as rafters, we used the tent tarp for a roof and pegged it with out ski poles.IMG_3106Above: Our snow cave was at just over 10,000 feet which puts the stoves to the limit of effectiveness.  It took about an hour to melt ice for supper cooking and drinking.  I had the shivers something awful (the temperature dropped to -15 as the sun set) so when the first pot boiled, I drank it boiling hot trying to warm up and thought of Shackleton’s expedition.  I recalled reading about how they drank their tea near boiling all the time.  Emil told some great stories of being in Ireland and visiting the pub once owned by Shackleton’s right hand man Tom Crean.  The pub is a living museum of that amazing Antarctic trip.  After some warm supper, we crawled into our sleeping bags and pulled the packs up to cover the door.  In these conditions, you have to keep everything you don’t want to freeze in your sleeping bag.  My boot liners, gloves, jacket and bottle of hot water rattled around in my bag all night for a pretty restless night.  It’s a difficult routine in such a small space as you must be careful to not get snow on your sleeping bag.  DSCN0652

Above:  My night was pretty awful but it wasn’t too cold.  Our sleeping bags were quite damp on the outside.  There’s a very fine line between ventilation and warmth that we didn’t quite master.  During the night, cramps plagued me in such a small space after such a huge amount of work the previous day.  But the sight that greeted us as we emerged from our hole in the glacier was breathtaking.  It seemed so symbolic as if we had been birthed by the living glacier and popped out into the middle of nowhere.  We probably should have left everything we didn’t need here and make a light climb of Snowdome but in such an environment, it is harder than you think to leave stuff that is essential to your long term survival.  So we packed it all up and headed up to climb Snowdome.  DSCN0682

Above: Gaining elevation as we look out over the peaks of BC to the west.DSCN0658

Above:  Mt Alexandra, another 11,000er.  The scale of these faces is truly amazing.  There is a definite Himalayan quality around here.DSCN0684

Above:  The imposing and impressive East face of Mt Columbia.  It’s about 10km away and you are looking at almost 3000 feet of elevation here.  Yep, scale is crazy up here.

We climbed up to the summit of Snowdome, my third 11,000er.  The views are as good as you can find in the mountains.  What makes it so special is that there are no mountains near it allowing an unobstructed panorama unequaled.  DSCN0665Below is just beneath the summit looking west.  It really feels as though you are on the roof of the world as the tops of the mountains lie beneath you stretching to the horizon.DSCN0688An interesting feature of this mountain is that it is the triple hydrographic apex of North America.  Snow from this summit eventually melts into the Arctic via the Athabasca River, the Atlantic via the North Saskatchewan, and to the Pacific via the Columbia river.  It is the only place on earth where water flows into three different oceans.

We stood on the summit enjoying the fruits of our labour.  I really had to push hard between the lack of oxygen and the heavy snow clinging to the skis.  Each foot was dragging not just my big AT skis and climbing skins but 5 pounds of snow.  With my pack it’s a big load to drag up 11,500 feet in the air!  With such astounding views, it’s hard to leave but I could see bad weather rolling in.  With so little for visual landmarks and massive crevasses everywhere, whiteout navigation is scary to impossible.  If we didn’t get off the glacier today, we would likely be stuck out there for days.   Being stuck in another snow cave for a few days didn’t seem very pleasant given the dampness of our sleeping bags.  If we were forced into it, we would have spent the time to make an amazing snow cave and been okay.  But we decided after five minutes on the summit that we would try and get off today.

Skiing off the summit is an experience I won’t forget.  Already the visibility made the snow hard to see and the slope angle impossible to read. The entire field of view was rank after rank of mountains as far as the eye could see.  A quick descent of two thousand vertical feet had us back on flatter terrain of the main Columbia Glacier.  At 5pm we took our first step off the Saskatchewan Glacier on to the mudlfats that marked the start of the North Saskatchewan River.  To our disappointment, the warm weather had melted back much of the snow we skied in on.DSCN0701

Above:  Stepping off the glacier and navigating through the maze of mud flats, moraines, melt ponds and braided gravel beds.  The road is at the base of the background mountains on the far right.  We were very tired and very dehydrated so to carry our skis on a lengthy journey seemed a cruel reward but there was nothing to do but soldier on.DSCN0702

Above:  When I get really, really tired, I find I can’t talk or think of anything distracting.  All I get focused on is putting one foot in front of the other.  Do not break the slow pace just keep going.  Walking through these rocky channels in my ski boots with my massive pack on tired legs sent me into full coping mode.  We didn’t walk together or talk.  We both retreated into our own world of keep going.  In spite of these tactics, I did turn around the odd time and took this picture which for me describes the scene well.  A blurry figure with our visible tracks leading up the middle of the glacier to infinity.DSCN0705

Our epic stumble through the rocks lasted several kilometers.  It was incredible how much had melted in two days!  We eventually found snow and with great fanfare pulled our heavy skis off our packs and put them on.  Our thirst was as profound as I can ever remember but the glacier runoff was so cloudy with silt it didn’t seem palatable.  So when I stumbled on a side creek with clearish looking water, we threw off our packs and each drank two litres in the span of ten minutes!  We threw in some rehydration salts to help our rehydration.  We should have stopped hours ago and got our stoves out on the glacier and melted some water but we were so determined to get down we kept putting it off.

The last obstacle was crossing the North Saskatchewan river.  Given the melting we were worried that our ice bridge wouldn’t be there forcing a lengthy detour to a bridge downstream.  Emil said he didn’t care if it was there or not, he was going to walk across.  By great fortune, as we descended the river bank, we saw the ice still spanned the river in that one solitary spot.  We dragged ourselves across with as much care as we could ready for a wet surprise but the fates rewarded us with a safe crossing.  Five minutes later we were at the pavement shaking hands and congratulating ourselves as the darkness settled in.

There was plenty to learn up here.  On the drive home we reviewed the decisions we made and what could have been done better.  We felt like we had just passed our intro course to this area.  We made good decisions and saw astounding things that so few get to experience.  As always, I am so grateful for such reliable and worthy partners who make these explorations possible and enjoyable.


post script

The title Hail Columbia is a reference to the unofficial American anthem before the Star Spangled Banner.  Most of the lyrics are rah rah patriotism though in the context of this trip seem unintentionally appropriate:

Let independence be our boast,

Ever mindful what it cost;

Ever grateful for the prize,

Let its altar reach the skies.

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Mt Gordon

Of the many books by my bedside, Summits and Icefields by Chic Scott is one that I often flip through when I can’t sleep.  One of the pictures I always flip to is on page 126 with a view from Mt Gordon down across the Ayesha Icefield.  “Some day I’ll see that view for myself,” I’ve thought many times before falling asleep.  I’ve tried once before only to be thwarted by bad weather so it was time to mount another attempt.

This trip was with my usual mountain adventure partner Randy and new friend Ryan.  Ryan is a very accomplished rock climber in the Bow Valley but with less big mountain and glacier experience. He would also be dependant on us for avalanche safety though he had some training in companion rescue.  Just as important though was his enthusiasm and energy.

DSCN0528Above: Mt Gordon is located on the Continental Divide on the Wapta Icefields.  It sits between the Yoho valley and the upper reaches of the Bow Valley.  We left very early morning and after a lengthy climb we emerged above treeline and up onto the Bow Glacier.  The weather was not looking very promising but we decided to climb up to the foot of Mt Gordon and if the weather improved we would be position to make an attempt.Screen shot 2015-04-14 at 3.15.51 PM

Above:  After a few more hours of climbing the weather did not seem to improve.  I brought a mapping gps unit to make whiteout navigation easier but it doesn’t help you find the will to put one foot blindly in front of the other.  We took a more northern line across this part of the glacier as last year we were trapped by a crevasse system around the same spot.  Screen shot 2015-04-14 at 3.23.56 PM

Above:  Using my avalanche probe, I’m showing Ryan how to check the depth and strength of the crevasse bridges.  As we change aspect on the massive glacier, the depth of snow changes due to wind transport effects.  Keeping a close eye on that gives us a heads up on when we should start travelling roped up.Screen shot 2015-04-14 at 3.25.00 PM

Above:  Time to rope up to protect against falling through the snow into a crevasse.  Mt Olive breaks through the fog in the background.

We pressed on through the afternoon climbing the lower flank of Mt Gordon but the thought of working so hard to have no view was not very uplifting.  Randy hit the wall on lead as we started to climb Gordon.  I know him pretty well and it took me only a few minutes to notice he was stopping exactly every hundred steps so I knew he was already into higher level coping strategies!  I shouted up through the blizzard “Need me to take the next hundred?!”  Randy didn’t even blink that I knew what he had been doing and just yelled back he couldn’t lead any more.

We swapped lead and I carried on up the mountain.  It’s so hard to describe how much energy it takes to lead through blind nothingness.  It really puts a sharp focus on what uncertainty can do to you.  Climbing in a whiteout is about as uncertain experience as you can get when you can’t easily tell what is sky what is ground and what is the abyss.  When I took the lead I was trying to feel the tension on the rope as I didn’t want to move faster than those following due to their exhaustion. It’s uncomfortable for all to be pulled and yanked when connected on the rope.   But the rope was  perfectly tensioned so Randy’s tiredness had just evaporated when he only had to follow behind.  Screen shot 2015-04-14 at 3.31.11 PM

We made our way up and onto the final ramp to the summit.  A wall of snow and ice seemed to be facing us where an easy ramp was supposed to be.  We were now on the summit ridge and a huge, thousand foot cliff down into the Yoho Valley was unseen in the fog a few meters to our right.  I stopped for some water and sugar and the whiteout intensified.  I didn’t think it was safe to continue under the conditions and for no better payoff than being able to say we were at the top.  I called Ryan and Randy up and we had a conference about our options.  We waited a bit but a blizzard at 10,300 feet is not a very pleasant place to wait!  We all agreed that we had to turn around under the conditions.  After ten thousand feet, we were just a hundred meters from the top!

We made a retreat back down and stayed at the Bow Hut for the night.  There was a couple mountaineering guides staying at the hut so the conversation was interesting as we flattened the maps out and quizzed them on different routes and trips.  We ate well and went to sleep at 9pm after a pretty big day.  Day 2 might bring better weather.


Above:  We awoke early and packed up excited that the skies had cleared giving us great visibility.  We would make another attempt on Mt Gordon.  Mt Jimmy Simpson makes a great backdrop as we climb the Bow Glacier again.  I just love these remote, high mountain locations.DSCN0594

Above:  With good visibility and no wind, we make easy work of the climb to Mt Gordon. The only thing slowing us down is the awe inspiring views.  The picture above shows us climbing up the confluence of the Yoho, Ayesha and Bow glaciers.  Behind Randy is Mt Rhondda which is next on our list for it’s monster ski descents available.  Ten thousand foot high mountains of the Continental Divide march northward.  We returned to the wall where we turned around the day before.  Randy had the awkward job of climbing over it blind.  I kept thinking it was a corniced drop off he was scaling and was ready for him to fall off the end ( we’re roped of course but no less unnerving.)  But the top of the wall was a flat platform that marked the spacious summit.  We hiked along the precipice to gain an extra few meters to be at the true summit.  From the top you can see the entire Wapta traverse, the whole Yoho Valley including the Iceline trail.  IMG_3059

Above:  After a few failures finally success!  From the summit of Mt Gordon looking south towards Mt Balfour with the Yoho valley on far right.  This is the highest mountain around so we spent some time identifying peaks before putting on our skis in anticipation of a massive downhill run through untracked powder.Screen shot 2015-04-14 at 4.32.42 PM

Above:  Making a plan for skiing down the massive mountain Randy checks out a line he’s interested in.  Screen shot 2015-04-14 at 4.40.18 PM

Above:  The views on the way down defy description.  Difficult to get to.  Even harder to leave.

And Below!  On the descent, I make my own copy of the picture from “Summits and Icefields” that inspired me to work so hard to get here!  I didn’t get Ryan in the exact location as the figure in the original and it didn’t seem fair to make him climb up and over to the left just for my picture project!  I can only say that in spite of drooling over the original photo, this spot was even better than I could have imagined.  A profound vantage point.



We drank it all in as we skied down thousands of feet of powder.  We stopped at the hut to pick up our supplies and met Barry Blanchard who was just coming off a different mountain.  He’s a mountaineering legend and one of the best in the world with many first ascents and popular books.  I would have liked to have chatted with him but exhaustion and the need to get back to the highway allowed only quick greetings.

It was a wonderful trip and we felt our good weather was earned given our struggles the previous day.  We crossed one place off our list but added a few more while gazing out from the summit!

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Red Rocks/ Joshua Tree

Our anual spring migration this year was full of surprises.  We started by flying into Las Vegas with an overnight stay at the Egyptian themed Luxor Hotel.  I was surprised to discover it was hollow with rooms lining the inward leaning walls.  The space inside was huge and it made me a little dizzy walking around inside.  Below pic from wiki.1280px-Luxor_Hotel

I did like all the Egyptian decor, accents and such.Screen shot 2015-04-04 at 8.56.47 PMAfter a few hours wandering around the Vegas chaos, we hit the hay.  The next day we picked up our rental car and headed out for some hiking to Red Rocks Canyon.  Screen shot 2015-04-04 at 9.01.51 PM

Above: We hiked the Keystone Thrust trail, a winding high desert trail climbing up through the mountains.  We were fortunate to see some Desert Bighorn Sheep.  They look identical to our Rocky Mountain Sheep but perhaps a little less shaggy.  It was weird to see such familiar creatures in such a foreign setting.  A marvel of adaptation.  Screen shot 2015-04-04 at 9.08.56 PM

Above:  We drove further down a did a short hike up Icebox Canyon.  Beautiful coloured sandstone rocks.  We saw a few climbers here as it is a famous spot for climbing.  We also saw a few desert hares hoping around through the creosote bushes.Screen shot 2015-04-04 at 9.12.55 PM

Suz has a thing for donkeys so when I learned that Nevada has many wild donkeys, we had to find some!  Luckily, according to the parks service, a great place to find them was just up the highway.  En route I found this signpost.  We didn’t see any so I’ll have to wait another day to see a wild tortoise and hare on the same day.  Suz took the wheel and drove as I scanned the desert for movement and just before sunset, we got lucky.Screen shot 2015-04-04 at 9.16.20 PM

Above:  Our quest was short as we found a small heard of a half dozen extremely cute wild donkeys grazing bits of grass on the high plateau.  They seemed unconcerned of us as they had their heads down foraging eventually meandering right up to us allowing a wonderful, up close look.  Suzanne showed some real restraint not bounding over and hugging the baby donkey in tow!Screen shot 2015-04-04 at 9.14.45 PM

A great day for wildlife which I did not expect in our desert meanderings.  As the sun fell we drove through the night into Needles, California.  The next day we made our way through the Mojave Desert through some bleak but fiercely beautiful desert.  We arrived in the town of Joshua Tree, California where we were going to be based out of for a couple days for some climbing.  In the climbing world it’s known as “J-Tree” but I felt like an imposter calling it that.

Screen shot 2015-04-04 at 9.29.30 PM

Above:  We did some hiking in the afternoon and sampled the weird landforms.  Joshua Tree is a world renowned rock climbing location with thousands of routes.  The granite rock has worn into very unusual formations both vertical and spherical making a foreign landscape dotted with Yucca trees, cacti and creosote bushes.  Below is a ubiquitous example of the alien landscape with some smaller Joshua Trees dotting the foreground.  Incidentally, the famous U2 “Joshua Tree” album cover was taken about 200 kilometers from Joshua Tree National Park.  The trees can be found in the higher elevations but are more concentrated and spectacular in the National Park.Screen shot 2015-04-04 at 9.38.10 PM

Below:  Sunset in Joshua Tree National Park.  There is no shortage of perfectly arranged compositions to point your camera at and shoot.  This ancient Joshua Tree posed very still for me.  A magical place.Screen shot 2015-04-04 at 9.52.46 PM

The next day we woke bright and early and met local guide Seth, our rock climbing guide I had contacted from Canmore.  In chatting over early coffee, we quickly discovered he had been to the Banff Mountain Film Festival this fall as his wife was in one of the films and had met Suzanne.  It didn’t take long to find a few acquaintances in common. It’s a very small world.

Suz and I have been climbing indoors over the winter but the techniques for this kind of rock make use of the many cracks and slots in the rock.  It was new to us so Seth spent some time on some easier pitches helping us with our techniques.  The granite is very “sticky” compared to our limestone at home.  This allows you to “smear” your feet on some pretty unbelievable angles that are hard on the brain.  Trusting your weight on such crazy nothing footholds was very difficult.  Screen shot 2015-04-04 at 10.05.57 PM

Above:  I’m rappelling down after climbing up this formation getting some instructions from Seth.  Suz is belaying me from the ground in case I fall.Screen shot 2015-04-04 at 10.09.03 PM

Above:  We moved to a bigger climb, Suz seems in control with a smile on her face.Screen shot 2015-04-04 at 10.14.20 PM

Above:  I’m using an undercling technique, pushing my feet into the rock with the counterforce achieved from pulling at the crack.  Even though I’m on a precariously steep face, this counterforce is just enough to keep my feet on the rock even though my brain is having a hard time accepting it!  After traversing horizontally across this crack, I get into a vertical crack and use a “lie back” with my arms that pushed my feet into the crack.  I found these vertical cracks very unpleasant affairs as you have to point your toe into the crack, insert your foot and twist it to wedge it in.  It pretty much is the exact same directions for trying to break your ankle as far as I can tell!Screen shot 2015-04-04 at 10.18.40 PM

After a few climbs on “Ken Black Dome” we moved locations to a rock formation called descriptively, “The Blob.”  Our last climb of the day was a longer “multi-pitch” climb.  This means that the climb is more than one rope length.  Seth would lead placing protective anchors along the way and Suz would belay him.  When the rope was at the end, he would stop and belay her up and then belay me as I climb while I remove the anchors as I climb.  Then the pattern would repeat with Seth continuing up.

The first pitch was easy enough climbing but one has to be very clear to keep the order of operations correct and the ropes and anchors and every action organized.  The second pitch involved climbing a wall via a vertical crack about 2 inches wide.  Suz is usually a better climber than me so it was hard to watch how much difficulty she was having.  It was ruining my confidence to see her struggle. Seth could only offer so much help above her within earshot but not being able to really see her.Screen shot 2015-04-04 at 10.32.24 PM

Above:  But Suz is not one to be deterred.  Seth got this picture of her just having beaten the crack and climbing up the last couple easy meters to the top.  It’s really awesome to have a picture of her, right at one of those moments of perseverance and accomplishment.  I got up to the crux crack and couldn’t fathom it.  My mountain experience tells me to put one foot in front of the other but that didn’t seem to apply here!  I thought I better just start before I wait too long and make it harder in my head.

Screen shot 2015-04-04 at 10.35.40 PM

Above:  I put my hands in the cracked and pulled trying to get one foot wedged in with the other counterforcing against the smooth vertical face trying to find any slight indent or bump to gain some friction with my other foot. In this way I inched my way up carefully.  The hard part was getting a free hand to remove the anchors as I passed them.  I have to take the rope off the anchor then remove the anchor and attach it to my harness trying not to drop it a hundred feet below!  I made it up but it was a pretty harrowing experience.  My face at the top doesn’t have the same expression as Suz!Screen shot 2015-04-04 at 10.43.16 PM

Above:  After successfully climbing up the crack, I’m just topping out but don’t look quite as joyful as Suz.  But after a minute to collect myself, the adrenaline wore off and the feeling of accomplishment took over.  Some of the hundreds of other towers dot the background.Screen shot 2015-04-04 at 10.51.19 PM

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Above: What goes up must come down.  We repelled off the backside with more surreal Joshua Tree scenery as a backdrop.  Suz can be seen at the bottom having already repelled down.  Our route below followed “C” up and repelled down “A”  IMG_2978

Joshua Tree is primarily a “Trad” area short for traditional.  This means there are no bolts drilled into the rock to put your rope through as you climb to act as protection.  Instead you must place and retrieve removable anchors.  It’s nice to be able to see and leave no trace of climbing as the rocks and formations are so beautiful.  But this style is more difficult as there is so much to learn about how to safely place these anchors.  It was great to have such a knowledgable guide and teacher to teach some of these skills to us.

The Joshua Tree Park is a wondrous place to hike and explore.  It was a real privilege to  be able to experience these formations in such an intimate, hands on way.Screen shot 2015-04-04 at 11.08.35 PM

Above:  View from the top of “The Blob.”  This portion of “J-Tree” called appropriately: Wonderland.  Scale is difficult to imagine though the trees below give some hints.

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Back from the North

My time up north this year was interesting.  My first job was doing some pipeline locating.  Our exploration project this year was at the oil sands project inside the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range.  Any big oil and gas project has a million rules, protocols and layers.  Working on an active weapons range added a whole new layer of complexity.

Before the exploration project could start, the pipelines running through our exploration area had to be located and marked on the ground.  Yes there are pipelines running through the weapons range!  In fact, there is massive oil infrastructure inside the range which kind of boggles the mind.  We start with a legal description of the lines but must go out through the bush and mark their exact locations.  This is done by using a transmitter that “energizes” the line which we can then detect with a receiver wand.  We then put stakes in the ground and GPS the stakes to build points on the exploration map that future activity would then buffer off of.  I ended up locating and marking out a main National Energy Board north/south pipeline cluster which seemed like a cool responsibility.

IMG_2758Above: At night putting our GPS points on the exploration map and looking tired.
IMG_2768Above:  Me posing in front of my Polaris, a tracked ATV that carries me and a days’ worth of stakes and other gear.  A cool looking machine but I can’t say I enjoyed driving it.  Better than walking though!
IMG_2803Above: Caribou tracks were quite abundant up here but I only caught a glimpse of the animals that made them.  Had better views of some healthy looking wolves and a nice long look at a beautiful lynx though didn’t manage pictures of either.
Once the pipeline locating was completed, I went back to my usual job of surveying the site in preparation for geophysical mapping.  As I mentioned, the complexity of this job was at times overwhelming.  I was required to have 13 different certifications for this work!  We were staying at a remote camp which is a series of ATCO trailers containing a dining area and a series of sleeping pods.  An average start to my day was as follows:
5:30am Breakfast
6:00am Get my gear for the day.  My checklist contains 20 items I must bring out with me for my day.
6:30am Daily safety meeting for all workers on project, get daily update on the target closure list of forbidden areas to be in.
7:00am Begin driving on ice road.
7:05am Show weapons range ID at gate
-radio the weapons range sentry asking permission to enter specific coordinates.  This is difficult as there is a script that can not be deviated from.  Unfortunately there are dozens of people asking permission all over the range that you can not always hear, so it takes real skill to not “walk on” other transmissions or get your call heard.
-radio controlled road means calling all blind corners and kilometers (over 30 different calls on our commute) and listening for any traffic heading at you.  This is brutal with a hundred trucks on the various ice roads and becomes a jumble of calls that are dangerous to mix up least you discover a rig coming head on around a corner with room only for one!  There were 52 oil rigs moving around our project area.
-once at our location we notify the range sentries we’ve arrived at our location
-then a visual check in with a safety rep
-then a radio check with the project medic
-then a radio check telling the medic where I’m  going and hourly radio checks with my location afterwards.
8:30am I’m usually at my ATV and ready to start working but after a white knuckle drive and a million voices in your ear on the radio, I’m pretty wound up.
9:00am Project safety rep pays me a visit and checks I have all the prerequisite safety gear.  Asks for my FLHA, a daily document I must write up outlining the hazards I expect to find in my day as well as an outline of where I’m going and how I’m getting there.  Apart from random “spot checks” from the oil company safety officer, the weapons range officers patrol the roads and pull people over comparing their location with where you’ve told the Range Sentry you are.  On the day I left, someone was banned from the range as they had given incorrect location information on their Sentry call in!
At times it can feel like a well paid gulag as the process reverses itself at the end of the day.  Returning to camp, our GPS data is downloaded and the next day’s daily map is produced from our information.  A cafeteria style supper is served and we retire to our sleeping pods which are little more than a bed, a sink and enough room to change.  There is very little privacy but when you’ve been cold all day outside, it is hard to be ungrateful when you are finally warm.  Hearing the guys three beds over snoring becomes one more thing that gradually erodes your ability to cope. Especially when you have worked for weeks without a day off.  But at least the cramped quarters makes you glad to leave camp each day!
Above:  A geophone is placed into the ground at the location I’ve surveyed.  Hundreds of these receivers are installed all through the exploration area to pick up the seismic waves generated by the vibrators.  The different unground formations change the waves and are recorded at these locations to create an underground map.  The information from hundreds of the phones is transmitted wirelessly to a central command centre. A geomagnetic storm in the ionosphere messed up their network and put this part of the program behind schedule.   The information collected by these probes shows the geophysicist where the oil deposits are. I froze my fingers in the process, but someday the fuel I helped discover here will keep me warm twice over!
Apart from the complexity of the project location, the job was problematic.  The client wanted a level of accuracy not usually achieved in the bush.  Forest tends to scatter GPS signals which puts a natural limit on accuracy.  This job needed better accuracy than that natural limit.  Not impossible, but time consuming to get more accurate signal lock.  This extra time seemed to be poorly anticipated by the higher ups creating a lot of stress that ends up on the plates of everyone on the ground like me.   You can tell yourself that you are doing as much as is possible and to not care what’s being thrown at you, but when you are cold, tired, thirsty and hungry, it can be difficult to remain mentally strong.  Added to the stress was falling oil prices and jobs getting cut as fast as they could stop them.  Our exploration area got cut back twice over the course of the winter.  This takes money out of everyones pocket and stresses everyone out a bit.
Apart from the difficulties, it was an interesting place.  This exploration project is to extend the Cenovus in situ oil sands extraction.  I’ve worked at the Suncor oil sands site where the oil sand are right at the surface and they dig it up like a massive terraforming project.  The Cenovus project is a “SAGD” project where the oil sands are below the surface and they inject steam to liquify the oil from the sand and then pump it up without disturbing the surface.  I’ve heard a lot about this new school oil sands method so it was cool to see it all first hand.  Before I moved out to the remote camp, I stayed right at the main Cenovus site seen below from google.Screen shot 2015-01-29 at 11.47.53 AM
Above:  When I was pipeline locating, I stayed at the main processing plant (our ATCO trailer  city can be seen lower left.  A surreal location not just for its industrial intensity, but it’s high pressure sodium lights that light the entire place up 24 hours a day.  A very bizarre thing to have in the middle of a dark and sunless northern winter!
And now that I am finally thawed out, its time to enjoy the fruits of my labour.  Time to pack the bags and head back down to the desert!
ps Yes I saw lots of fighter jets screaming overhead!
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Ground Halo

I’m back home for a day or two from the north.  Lots of interesting things but as I’m catching up on sleep before returning for another stint, I’ll just post one note.  I was surveying all the riparian zones on our project (I get most of the work on foot as I’m the only one who enjoys it) when I traversed along this unnamed frozen lake.  I did a bit of a double take when I realized there was a gorgeous rainbow halo on the ground in the snow!

It then occurred to me I have never seen a halo on the ground before.  I took this picture with my iphone but of course the halo merely looks like a lens effect.  It’s only an interesting picture if you understand that the halo exists in the world and not just the camera.  Upon getting home yesterday, I looked up the phenomenon to discover it is very uncommon and could only find a handful of pictures of it.  This is the more common 22 degree ground halo.  There is an even rarer 42 degree halo as well.  Screenshot 2015-01-29 09.39.33


Above:  22 degree ground halo taken 11am, Jan 18, 2015 @ lat. 55N

To create this halo, ice crystals need to form and settle in a very precise way.  As I’m always saying, there’s always something new and astounding in the bush if you spend enough time out in it.

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…Finally, I’ve Got Myself a New Goal

How many times we find ourselves saying, “How on earth did this happen?”  I feel a bit of this as I contemplate a year of training for the 2015 Grizzly Ultra Marathon.  For some reason last month, I bought an entrance into this event.

Looking back, I trace this madness to a poor showing  running up Sulphur Mountain in late fall.  I didn’t beat last year’s time and it kind of erked me.  I doubled down on improving my endurance.  On a big Saturday run with the Canmore Trail Culture crew I found myself at the back running with Suzanne’s co worker who had just finished a 160km race last month.  We ran the same pace which gave me a sense that somehow extreme endurance running was not a mystical feat performed by demi-gods but by real people. It’s true, I would be exhausted in an hour and a half, and she could run that pace for 30 hours (really!) but somehow I felt as though a mental barrier had been breached.

And that is how I ended up where I am now, looking with some excitement and dread at the year ahead of endless miles, stretching, ice baths and soreness!

The “Grizzly Ultra” is an “easier” ultra marathon that takes place on October 12 2015 at the Nordic Centre.  It is a trail course (as opposed to a road course on pavement) over some pretty hilly country.  The 50km course has 4600 vertical feet of climbing.grilly stages


Above: An elevation profile  of the race.  It’s pretty much a 10km race plus a full marathon with a 415 story building to climb up along the way!

Maintaining a training schedule over the next part of winter is difficult.  My work days are long and out in the cold so when I get back to camp I have little energy to train.  But I will try as best I can.  My training goals for now are to stay uninjured while I slowly increase my endurance.  In the spring, a more rigid mileage regime will begin in earnest when I am done winter work.

It is quite fortunate that I have so many inspiring people around here to keep me going when the task seems too hard.  I know a half dozen other people in next year’s race so perhaps misery will indeed love company!






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