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

Screen shot 2015-04-04 at 10.54.52 PM

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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Return to Utah and Anasazi Mysteries

As the coordinator of the Banff Mountain Film Festival world tour, Suz spends most of her work time in the office.  However, the festival did want her to go and see a few stops so she used that opportunity to carve out a short holiday in our new favorite place: southern Utah.  She was going to festival stops in Golden, Colorado and Moab, Utah then have a couple days to go biking with me before flying back to Banff.  I drove our bikes down and did some extra exploring. DSCN9922

Above:  Fall colours in southern Utah can hardly be believed.  Not even my scratched lens can ruin this picture.  These mountains near Price, Utah looked as though they had been covered in brightly coloured froot loops.DSCN9930

Above:  Both southern Utah and Colorado were in peak colours.  I usually think of eastern states and provinces when I think of beautiful fall colours, but combined with the brightly coloured desert rocks I was mesmerized.IMG_2574


Above: Sunset in Arches National Park outside Moab.  I met Suz in Moab and while she was busy at the festival I went to a favorite spot outside of town for sunset.  It was great this time around as I didn’t feel as though I was trying to see as much as possible.  I had more of a lay of the land and spent more time just soaking up a few favorite places.

I returned to town and met the Moab hosts of the festival, one of whom was an avalanche  professional  so we talked snow pack for a while and I got some great information on Mt Peale, a towering mountain I was interested in climbing that week.  You can see it for nearly 200km in any direction as it rises right off the desert plateau so we just went outside and he pointed out the ideal line to climb.  It’s always fun talking to mountain fanatics.


Above:  The next day, Suz and I biked the Klonzo trail system outside Moab.  There was a major three day bike race around Moab organized by a guy in my running group.  Luckily there are so many amazing places to ride in Moab it was hardly a problem.  Our favorite trail was the aptly named “Wahoo” trail.  We liked the helpful signage below.  IMG_2584Suz has seen quite a few bike films this fall as she was vetting film  submissions to the festival.  I think they had quite the effect as I couldn’t get over how fast she seemed to go now!  The long, rocky downhill on Wahoo is pretty exciting, all the more when you forget about the brakes as she seemed to!  I was pretty impressed.


Above:  After biking, we hiked up to Delicate Arch for sunset.  We saw this from across the valley in the spring and wanted to see the famous landmark up close.  DSCN0029Above:  Suz leans into the wind returning from Delicate Arch.  The ledge on this cliff looked straight out of a Wile E Coyote and Road Runner cartoon.  There’s some good fake looking rocks near Canmore but this ledge was truly weird.DSCN0049

Above:  Amazing sunset as we hike back from Delicate Arch back to the road.

We spent the evening in Moab and drove northeast to Fruita, Colorado the next morning.  Some biking friends had told us we had to experience the mountain biking trails at Fruita.IMG_2619

Above: Suz bails on a technical section on the entrance to the “Horsethief Trail”.  We later saw some riders on youtube flying down this famous trail with defying ease. Just after this section, we were racing at a pretty good clip into a sharp 90 degree turn leading straight down a rock wall.  Suz was in front just flying and when I saw the massive rock drop in front without Suz anywhere to be seen, I only had time to think it must be okay and Suz must have rode it.  But with another tenth of a second to take in the drop, I realized the rock face I was going straight down was too steep to stop so I was now comitted to something I would prefer not to do!  I just pulled up the front tire and tried desparately to stay away from the instinct to brake.  I sailed off the drop and landed with a puff of dust as another rider stood by having had the good sense to walk it.  I caught up to Suz and we shared an adrenaline infused laugh exclaiming we have no business going over head-height drop offs but secretly wishing we had a picture of our Redbull moment!


Above:  The Horsethief Trail follows nervously close to the Colorado River several hundred feet below which gives plently of fine views but requires some concentration.

While Moab is in many ways the epicenter of mountainbiking, we loved the trail system in Fruita for their flowy, fast nature.  It’s also off the beaten track a bit more.  The trail system connects to Moab via a multiday epic bike trail called the Kokepelli Trail but it’s a little more than we’re ready to bite off.  We spent the night in Glenwood Springs, Colorado home of Doc Holiday and the largest hot springs pools in the world.  The picture below isn’t mine but gives a sense of size of the place.  A great way to soak out a few days of desert sand from our sore muscles.glenwood_springs_hot_springs_pool_2

Suz drove to Denver and flew home while I meandered around Colorado.  I can’t say enough about the place.  The mountains are not quite as raw as the Canadian Rockies and the valleys have more people in them which gives the place a more lived in feel.  A little humanity gives the mountains a more inviting quality.  I prefer the solitude and rawness of where I live but these mountains make a welcome change.  I checked out Aspen, home of one of America’s more famous ski resorts.  The ski lifts depart straight from town so the town and the hill are very connected.  Our National Parks have such a strict limit to development that the ski hills in Alberta are very isolated and sparsely developed.  For better or for worse but certainly they offer something that these American resorts do not which is a feeling of overwhelming isolation and vast natural wilderness.

I drove up Independence Pass which was an experience.  A narrow road at times only one lane with only periodic guardrails to keep you from plumiting thousands of feet down.  I spent most of the time in the left lane as I found the correct lane too scary!  The top of the pass is over 12,000 feet high compared to 5000 feet for Roger’s Pass in Canada.  I did a bit of scrambling up an easy peak nearby and found the altitude quite taxing.  Down the road is the town of Leadville, Colorado at over 10,000 feet and home to the Leadville 100 mile race, a grueling, one hunderd mile foot race that traverses massive altitudes.  I suited up and ran a miniscule 5km chunk of the 160km course just to appreciate the difficulty.    DSCN0061Above:  Colorado’s highest mountains rise to 14,000 feet as seen from near Independance Pass.  The treeline is much higher here than at home so the mountains look much smaller here even though they are higher above sea level.

After exploring Colorado I was lured back to Utah for some hiking in Canyonlands National Park.DSCN0099

Above:  I embarked on a big hike to Peekabo Springs.  The flowing rock table land was cut into thousands of meandering canyons.  If you were up on high, the various landforms made navigation relatively easy, but down in the canyons, it was a bit confusing.  In spite of having a good topo map, it was quite easy to get turned around and I ended up on a bit of a 12 hour epic in the desert that added about 20km to my day.DSCN0068Above: “Newspaper Rock”  a nearby rock outcrop covered with pictographs.

I really enjoyed the Canyonlands National Park Area.  It’s off the beaten path so it sees fewer visitors.  It lacks some of the iconic postcard landforms but is still spectacular.  A perfect combination to experience fantastic desert sculpture without the throngs of people.  Thirsting to see the Anasazi ruins I’ve seen in books, I headed east skirting Arizona and over to Mesa Verde.



The drive from the plain up to the plateau where the ruined fortresses are is an adventure. The road winds up over a thousand vertical feet to the top of the mesa where the famous cliff dwellings are hidden.  Above is the first one I explored, the so called “Spruce Tree House” incorrectly named for the trees nearby which I noticed were actually firs! It’s a fascinating history but the short version is that in the 1200’s the villages were on top of the mesas but massive droughts caused shortages and strife with neighbours.  They moved into these fortified hidden villages around this time before finally disappearing alltogether.  The Mesa Verde site contains 600 cliff dwellings.DSCN0164Above: “Cliff Palace” is the most spectacular of the sites.  The round pits are the unroofed living quarters.DSCN0178Above:  After climbing a series of steps and ladders, I got to really explore the ruins.  The alcove is massive with a cave roof like a modern stadium as the picture below shows.  A magical place.  There are many unexplained aspects to the story of the place that let the imagination run wild with speculation, an activity I found easy to engage in as I wandered through the many ruins.  After spending the day going through a half dozen locations I spent the night in nearby Cortez, Colorado.DSCN0188My final must see spot was the geologically famous “Ship Rock” in nearby New Mexico.  It’s on the Navajo nation which I found to be a bit depressing.  The desert seemed to have an unwholesome quality to it, perhaps it was the weather.DSCN0217Anyway, I found my way to it by just driving at it.  Theres little to no signage but you can see it for 50 miles in any direction as it’s an old volcanic neck rising 1500 feet out of an otherwise perfectly flat desert plain of nothing.  After discovering it didn’t like having its picture taken I made my way out of New Mexico and back to the Utah desert.

I pointed the car north and made my way back home after another extraordinary time in the southwest.  My taste of Colorado only wet my whistle and I’m looking forward to exploring it more next year.









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Run run run

Back in August, Suzanne  sent me a notice of a new trail running group and suggested I check it out.  I have gone to a few running groups over the last couple of years with varying success.  A North Face sponsored group in Banff was very useful and fun but one I had tried in Canmore was more depressing than anything.  The group was quite fast and after 15 minutes I was running by myself trying in vain to catch up.

The Canmore Trail Culture group, as it is called turned out to be quite different.  My first time out, the run was on the “Loki” trail and was billed as an easy run on the trail for 45 minutes.  While I did have to really push to keep up, Mike the organizer stopped the lead group at an intersection and organized a split of two different tempos.  The two groups ended up going at their desired pace and everyone met back at the parking lot.  I was struck with how hard he worked to make the different skill levels feel welcome.  1452035_847180508650265_7138803167805133701_n 

 Above:  A typical evening run, this one up “G8” on the benchlands, involves plenty of ups and downs.  Twice a week, Mike picks the trailhead and depending on who shows up, a plan is made on the spot to accommodate the skill level.  Photo by Mike.

The rotating group of people range from a who’s who of Bow Valley athletes to recreationalists like me.  I couldn’t help google a few names afterwards only to discover how many people were marathon winners, ultra marathoners, and enduro racers.  Everyone chats while they run and the evening is a very social activity more than anything.  I later learned that several people find running trails by themselves  a bit scary which explained why these top flight runners would be out with novices like me.  There is a difference between walking by myself, and running which I think can activate the chase reflex in cougars.10557312_875056755862640_5844104430895259727_n

Above:  This is my usual view as I am generally last in the line.  On my own, I tend to not run very fast so I found this group just pushed my pace enough.  As winter approached and the evenings grew darker and colder, the casual runners thinned out.  Luckily, I had improved enough to be just able to keep up with those who remained.10517274_875057292529253_1958964656143663285_oAbove:  Headlamps became the new normal as darkness slowly ate up our evenings.  I really like trail running by headlamp.  High-contrast tunnel vision makes for an exciting run over the mountains!10689793_885524174815898_8377380738813704405_n

Above:  A Saturday run in daylight.  Usually Saturdays are adventure time with Suz, but in shoulder season, it isn’t decent weather for biking, skiing or hiking.  Photo by Mike.

It has been an amazing experience having such high quality athletes to run with, but more than that, a very friendly and interesting group of people.  Each week there’s a regular who has climbed something that week so we trade stories of where we went and what we saw.  Someone is always at a race somewhere, or on a backpacking or bike trip, so there are never ending stories of the week’s adventures.  The things people are working towards are pretty astounding.  One regular has qualified for the Boston Marathon next year while another regular is training for the 5000km epic mountain bike race, the “Tour Divide” from Banff to Mexico!  I can report that neither of them seem even remotely put upon by an hour and a half running up and down the mountains!  Group leader Mike also seems indifferent to physical work which must have worked in his favour last summer at the Sinister 7 ultramarathon in the Cowsnest Pass.  Sinister hardly describes this 161km race over the mountains!  It’s so exciting to see what people are aspiring to.

It’s been really fantastic slowly extending how far I can run in the mountains.  I was telling Suzanne the other day that it feels like I’m “cheating” somehow.  Places that used to be far are now nearer.  As if by magic.  Thanks to this group, I managed a run up to Lake O’hara and back.  And this week during the Banff Mountain Film Festival, I was inspired by climber Cedar Wright’s challenger to add some suffering to my week so I ran from Canmore to Banff via the Rundle Riverside trail.  Total distance from here to the film festival location was 21kms.  I had Suz stow some fresh clothes at the Banff Centre for me and after I changed clothes and walked in, I felt like I had stepped through a time portal and just appeared in Banff.

Next year my running goal is to do a circumnavigation of Mt Rundle which is slightly longer than a marathon.  As well as a one day run to Mt Assiniboine and back which is a similar distance.  Hopefully these goals will keep me training hard on the cold days when I’d rather be warm.

Great shot below capturing both Mike’s infectious spirit and a distant blurry me in red trying to keep up on this 1000m hill!


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September Activities

I thought I would  throw down a shotgun spatter of fall activities.DSCN8962

Above:  A smokey view from Mt Cory.  After crawling out of the bush my first thing was to make a return to Mt Cory.  I had tried this one very early in my mountain endeavors and couldn’t find the correct ascent rib and got cliffed out.  It was a small victory then to discover now how simple it seemed!  Mostly an unpleasant climb and the heavy smoke from forest fires was a huge disincentive to keep going.  A summit without a view is rarely worth it for me.  In retrospect, this picture is kind of interesting with some unusual and subtle shades.


Above:  Mt Lady MacDonald is a regular climb a couple times a season.  An evening thunderstorm gave it a volcanic quality on this day.  Suz and I brought sushi up for a mountaintop supper.


Above:  Boom Lake.  I’ve been trying to visit as many neglected lakes as I can.  I combined this with a climb attempt of Mt Bell which rises off its flank.  A very steep gully tested the nerves a little but most surprising was a visit from a hummingbird high up at treeline.  I have never seen one in the Bow Valley before and this was not a place I expected to find one.  It was hovering around some dying flowers in an old avalanche chute.  I ended up not getting to the summit block but fine views were a good reward.


Above: Marc takes in the view on Frisby Ridge outside of Revelstoke.  Suz and regular ski touring partners Hugo and Marc, and myself checked out this famous mountain bike trail in Revelstoke.

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The trail is a real epic as it climbs over 2700 feet then follows the spine of a ridge with incredible views on each side.  After a tough climb and fine rewards of a setting sun, we got to experience the thrill of the nearly 3000 foot descent back down the trail at breakneck speeds through twists and turns, big trees, rocks and rivers, and white knuckles!  No without merit is this considered one of the premier trails in North America.  We had a late supper in Revelstoke at 10pm and drove through the night getting back to Banff at 2am.  DSCN9512

Above: September surprised us with an early snowfall.  My traditional first snowfall hike is to hike up to Grassi Lakes with my camera.  Even with a blanket of white, the lake retains its rich hues of green and blue.  This spiderweb was a great discovery at the lower lake.  After taking a hundred pictures of the same things I take pictures of from the previous years, I stop in at Larwence Grassi’s memorial plaque and read the inscription. “Master Trailmaker, He sought new paths, made rough places smooth, pointed the way to higher levels and loftier achievements.”  DSCN9428



Above:  I make an annual trip up the Mt Fairview’s summit.  Usually I wait until the larches turn but I thought this year for a change I would see it green rather than orange.  I picked a good high pressure day with clear blue sky.  It’s one of my favorite spots in the Rockies as is evident from the large picture in our livingroom I took from this location.  I couldn’t help but keep an eye on the time as I went up and noticed I could set a speed record if I picked up the pace.  My only intention that day was to look at beautiful things but ended up sweating and gasping getting caught up in setting a best time!  A grizzly bear on the way down gave the descent some interest.


Above:  If the Mt Temple area is my favorite of the Rockies, this spot has to be my favorite in Kananaskis.  Suz and I climbed up King Creek Ridge to get this stunning view of Mt Blane.  We bashed our way up a steep, pathless slope and were greeted at the top by a heard of mountain sheep grazing peacefully.  After drinking in the astounding views and taking too many pictures, we descended a pretty intimidating gully that was obviously the only way down into the next valley.  Gorgeous alpine isolation but prime grizzly habitat had us keeping our wits about us.  The exit was through the bottom of the King Creek Canyon, a Utah-like slot canyon that was a bit of a problem picking our way through the rapids, boulders and canyon walls.  A great  adventure into some stunning and seldom visited valleys.  Below, Suz tops out on the ridge above the road before dropping into the next valley.DSCN9076


Above:  Clouds lend an ethereal quality to the otherwise raw front range mountains.  When a very old friend texted me that she was stopping in to Canmore, it didn’t take much convincing to get her to stay an extra day and climb a mountain.  I suggested the Wintower as it’s close to Canmore with good views and not too stressful.  Roberta is from Winnepeg and is in good shape for such flat country but started off so fast from the road she was amazed at how tired she was after a half hour.  It was a reminder of  how long it took me to learn how to correctly pace myself on big climbs.  I explained she probably wasn’t in as bad of shape as she thought but just had to slow down for such a long haul.  Self reproach and vows to spend more time on her bike was quickly replaced with “wows” as we neared the top.  It’s so enjoyable to take people up to places like this as I get to appreciate them with new eyes.IMG_2385


Above:  The Mt Chester area is always closed for Grizzly bears when I want to go there.  On this day though, I got lucky and had a perfect day climbing up past the lake and up Fortress Peak.  I’ve been to the Chester/Fortess Col before with lots of snow but was ill equipped to scale the very steep and snowy headwall.  This time, I brought an ice axe and clawed my way to the top with a few pauses to collect my nerves.  On the horizon is the Burstall Pass area which is a favorite spot for ski touring.  From this vantage point is an incredible amount of space.  Mt Chester in the middle takes on a volcanic quality as it seems so isolated from this unique vantage point.DSCN9660

Above:  Suz and I finally checked out Goat Glacier, the closest glacier to Canmore.  It’s a mere 5km away from town but kind of hidden and not that easy to get at.  You can’t see it from any road or trail so it’s often out of mind.  It’s really just a remnant glacier as it’s so low in elevation, most of it melted a thousand years ago though it’s left quite a trough of destruction which is quite raw and interesting.  The larches were in their most golden prime which was a nice surprise.


Above:  In order to visit the Lake Ohara region, you must book a spot on the shuttle bus that takes you up from the highway.  Parks Canada controls the number of visitors through the limited shuttlebus.  However, you are free to hike up the 13km road that gains a few thousand feet in elevation.  I gave myself the challenge of running up the road, then running up the additional thousand feet and 10km trail to Lake McCarthur, taking some pictures then running all the way back down!  It was quite a grind but all worth it as the lake is the finest I have ever seen.  The picture above I think can back up what otherwise would be quite the claim.  The lake is very, very deep which gives it a cerulean colour unseen anywhere.  Added to this were some scattered larches still clinging to some firey colour.  This really is a place to see slowly over a week, not in a crazy up and down epic but being an international destination, the shuttle bus is booked months in advance.  For the dual quality of being astounding as well as the satisfaction of accomplishment, this really was the trip of the year.DSCN9843

The run up was filled with incredible beauty that deserved more time than I could give it. Next year I think Suz and I will try to get up here for a few days.  We ski up here in the winter but summer is when the place is at its best.  This trip also opened my eyes to the possibility of accessing distant places in a single day.  I’m starting to exhaust many of the peaks and valleys within an easy drive of home.  When I look for new places on the map, I find that they all involve multi-day efforts.  With continued improvement, this trip seemed like finding a cheat card to get to all those far flung places in single day efforts.  For next year, I already have a single day trip planned to Mt Assiniboine which is usually hiked in 3 days.



Above:  Suz and I followed in the footsteps of a wolf pack on its way over the high pass at Shadow Lake.  This year we decided to go “larching” in a new location.  The larches can only be found at the highest elevations of the tree line so it’s always an adventure finding new locations.  This year we went to often ignored Gibbon Pass.  The approach involves a 12km mountain bike climb and then a substantial climb up a steep slope to get to a high alpine meadow.  A cold and wind snap had left the larches less than perfect but it was an enjoyable trip with many surprises.  The plateau above Gibbon Pass was a wild place.  The remaining needles were mostly on the lower branched making it appear as those the ground was engulfed in fire.DSCN9860DSCN9878

The other side of the plateau drops down to Twin and Arnica Lakes via this needle encrusted trail.  A “Wizard of Oz” quality makes this path hard not to follow.  After running out of daytime, we made our way back to our bikes and prepared for the long, fast downhill run back to the road.  Suz had been previewing many film entries to the Banff Mountain Film Festival and I think the biking films had some effect on her as I couldn’t believe how fast she was going down the slope!  I ended up pushing my comfort level a bit to keep her occasionally in my sights as we bombed the run down through rocks and streams.

A fine September!  I didn’t get up any 11,000ers which had been a goal of mine.  Couldn’t organize with a climbing partner to tackle any of them during the proper weather but enjoyed smaller scale adventures just as much.

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