Sunday, August 16, 2015

Canadian Rockies

I hope Tom Musselwhite reads this post. For two years in Washington I had to listen to his constant entreaties for me to visit Banff and Jasper. And last year when I was "only" 380 miles away I got so much crap for not making the detour. This post is for you, Tom. 

After a long drive across the plains and prairies of North Dakota, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, I picked up adventure buddy (and guest photographer) Trevor Clark in Calgary. Trevor has logged more nights spent in the back of my truck than anyone except myself; he drove with me from Anchorage to Seattle last year.

Our ambitious plan was to visit the conglomerate of parks that make up the Canadian Rocky Mountains UNESCO World Heritage Site and straddle the Alberta/British Columbia border - Banff, Jasper, Yoho, and Kootenay. We started our trip with a scenic acclimatization hike up the Iceline Trail in Yoho National Park, with terrific views of Takakkaw Falls (Canada's second highest), glaciers, and rocky moraines. We then road tripped thru Kootenay National Park and enjoyed seeing Marble Canyon, a deep narrow cut filled with turquoise glacial runoff. Our drive around Kootenay brought us within view of the headwaters of the mighty Columbia River and a forehead smacking revelation that that's probably where the province of British Columbia gets its name from. We had always associated the Columbia with Oregon.

Takakkaw Falls, Yoho National Park
Iceline Trail, Yoho National Park. Photo credit Trevor Clark
Photo credit Trevor Clark
Ole Bess making her way into Kootenay National Park. Photo credit Trevor Clark
Marble Canyon Falls, Kootenay National Park. Photo credit Trevor Clark
Acclimatization complete, and with a good weather window ahead, we embarked on the most challenging activity on our itinerary, a climb of the "Matterhorn of the Rockies," 11,870ft Mt. Assiniboine (don't worry we couldn't really pronounce it either. Just say "a cinnamon bun" really fast and no one will notice). We took a helicopter to a lodge below the peak as much for the scenic aerial experience as to save our legs from a 16 mile hike in before we climbed.

Canadian Rockies and Spirit Lake from the air
The approach to the mountain from the lodge to the climber's hut (helicopters, lodges, huts; very European!) was one of the sketchiest I've ever done. We skittered along on narrow ledges full of loose rotten rock with steep, hundreds-of-feet dropoffs below, the very definition of "no fall" terrain but completely unprotectable with a rope owing to the abysmal rock quality. Thankfully we made it to the hut in one piece, where we met a couple of other parties also attempting the climb. Mike was a certified Canadian guide leading a client and the two other guys were climbing bros from BC.

Sketchfactor = Maximum
Talk in the hut turned to conditions on the mountain. In the week leading up to our climb Assiniboine had been dumped with snow. On our flight and hike in, Trevor and I definitely noticed a lot of snow on the mountain but we decided to get up closer and give it a good look. We had planned on and were equipped to cross a little bit of hard, stable, late season snow with ice axes and crampons, but fresh stuff covered the face and clogged the gullies, obscuring holds and anchors and making everything wet and slippery. We were hoping for the more straightforward rock climb indicated in the guide book. After a lot of productive pros and cons, risk vs reward discussion, Trevor and I decided to wait a day for some of the snow to melt before we would climb. The other parties decided to wake up early and give it a shot.

Mt. Assiniboine and Hind Hut. Photo credit Trevor Clark
There was some bustle in the hut at 4am the following morning when the other parties left, but it was nice to be able to sleep in. I spent most of the morning drinking coffee, enjoying the views, and dealing myself a bunch of spider solitaire the old fashioned way with cards. Trevor and I also practiced some rope skills on a small cliff near the hut, often looking up the mountain to check on the progress of the climbers and monitor conditions. They were moving slow. And the snow wasn't really melting despite the sun and warmth. We had another productive discussion, agreeing that the snow was just too much for us and that we would forgo the climb in the belief that discretion is indeed the better part of valor. No sooner had we resolutely arrived at our decision than we heard a helicopter in the distance. It circled the peak and then landed at the hut. Orange-clad mountain ninjas popped out and informed us that Mike the guide called in a rescue for his client. They just couldn't get down safely. We had front row seats as they rigged the helicopter for a short-haul extraction from the summit and brought the climbers down. Nothing like witnessing a helicopter rescue to really take the wind out of your sails for climbing a mountain; it also completely reaffirmed our decision to abandon the climb. Safely back at the hut, Mike said that the conditions were far from ideal. The two bros from British Columbia signaled to the helicopter that they were OK, but traveling extremely slow. We left them some of our spare food in the hut and descended back toward the lodge before they were even halfway down - easily taking 16 hours for a climb that is supposed to take 6 in good conditions.

Rescue technician setting up the short haul. Photo credit Trevor Clark
 Getting them down safe with the ride of a lifetime. Photo credit Trevor Clark
We cooked our dinner on the front porch of the lodge, regaling the guests with our firsthand account of the rescue operations and feeling like minor celebrities. Some folks expressed their condolences that we didn't make the summit, and I'm sure they were just being polite, but I chafed at the notion that we had failed in some way. I didn't really think of it like that. They call the sport "mountaineering" instead of "summiting" because it's far from guaranteed. I've turned back on a number of peaks and not once regretted my decision. The mountains can be malevolent beasts, unfeeling and downright deleterious toward your life and safety. It's best not to get too attached to any mountaineering objective, so it's all the easier to bail when your gut and logic tells you that it's just not right. I've long ago decided that I won't even climb with anyone claiming a 100% success rate. They either haven't challenged themselves and gained the necessary experience from hardship or they are crazy bastards with no regard for their lives.

Maybe next time...
We camped for the night in a beautiful meadow and then made the long and grueling hike back to the trailhead, taking 6 hours to cover what the helicopter did in 12 minutes. We grabbed well deserved burgers and beer in the town of Canmore before heading back into the parks for the remainder of our travels.

We drove along the Icefields Parkway, connecting the towns (and parks) of Banff and Jasper. The Parkway is billed as one of the world's most scenic drives, and we stopped at many of the little pulloffs and viewpoints along the way to take in the waterfalls, glaciers, lakes, and rivers. We visited and had beers in both Banff and Jasper - man, what a contrast! Jasper is a quaint little mountain town and Banff is a mega touristy destination with high end shopping and dining. I prefer Jasper, but Banff supports some of the best adventure films every year at the highly acclaimed Banff Mountain Film Festival, so I won't be too severe in my judgment.

Photo credit Trevor Clark
Canadian traffic jam. Photo credit Trevor Clark
Icefields Parkway. Photo credit Trevor Clark
Trevor doing what Trevor does best. Hanging glaciers and tarn below Mt. Edith Cavel.
Moraine Lake, Banff National Park. Photo credit Trevor Clark
After a bunch of miles hiked, beers drank, Tim Hortons coffee consumed, and good decisions made, I had to return Trevor to America. I dropped him off in Calgary and then started to make my own way back to the States, the land of obesity, a measurement system that doesn't make sense, and FREEDOM!

Mt. Assiniboine, Canadian Rockies

1 comment:

  1. Good choices bud. I liked the bit about the mountain ninjas. I agree Canada does a lot of stuff that makes sense. I ran a case the other day that really drove the difference home: we searched for hours and hours for some dickwad American kid calling Mayday repeatedly, probably spent almost a million. The helo flew by a Canadian family on shore with their boat and one of the kids waved. I got a call from the regional Canadian CG HQ about 3 minutes later with a message from the family saying "Hey, our kid waved at your helo from this exact location and time and we just wanted to say we're alright and didn't mean to signal distress if that's what you might have thought. Take care, eh"