My grandmother, the mountains, and being tough

Sunday, February 9, after a five hour slog across Bow Lake, onto the Wapta Icefield and up the unnamed glacier behind Crowfoot Mountain, I trudged up the ridge to its summit, looking down at the Icefield Parkway a kilometer below my feet. Despite the -30C temperature, my exhaustion, and the host of other thoughts that circulate in a mountaineer’s mind, what stuck out most for me was how much I missed my grandmother, who had passed away late in 2013. My mind drifted back to three-and-a-half years ago when I stood on top Mount Athabasca, just half an hour up the same road. What was different (beside a much more agreeable temperature in 2010) was that, then, she was in a hospital, and, now, she is no longer of this earth.

It would be trite to say that I was inspired by my grandmother. Who wouldn’t be inspired by a person born into poverty, was unable to complete primary school due to her mother falling ill, farmed and sold produce at the local market, survived the horrors of World War II while running a safe house for the Philippine Resistance, managed to send several of her ten children to university, and lived long enough to help raise her grandchildren and to see the birth of her great-great-grandchildren?

Growing up, I intermittently shared a room with my grandmother. At first it was so she could keep an eye on me, then it was because we had no other rooms in the house, and, by the time I was in university, it was so I could keep an eye on her. To say I was close to her is an understatement.

While many remember my grandmother’s hospitality, or her sense of humour, or her devotion to her family, what always sticks out in my mind is her silent determination. Perhaps it was the product of her generation, which experienced far more hardship than my generation could fathom, or perhaps she was just one of those people who was tough as nails (it is likely a combination of both), but she never complained. She could gripe about other things, but she never implied that she had been hard done by.

Simply put, she is the hardest badass I have known.

She also loved the mountains and loved that she had several opportunities to visit the Rockies during her time in Canada. She was too old, too physically scarred from a life of hard labour to see them as close as I have seen them, but I had started venturing onto the mountains early enough that she could see the photos from my trips.

…which brings me back to Crowfoot Mountain.

The view of the Wapta Icefield from the ridge of Crowfoot Mountain. Kelly and Ted can be seen descending.

The view of the Wapta Icefield from the ridge of Crowfoot Mountain. Kelly and Ted can be seen descending.

For the first couple of hours, all I could think about was how incredible the scenery around me was, or how much I was looking forward to getting in some turns. By the time we hit the glacier, I was cursing my lack of training.

And the cold.

And the wind.

And how I was not eating enough that day.

But on the summit ridge, as I was looking across the Waputik Icefield towards Mount Temple to the south, I muttered to Ted, “Holy shit, this is amazing,” to which he replied, “And this is in our backyard!” It made me think about the joy that being on a mountain brings me and how my grandmother was content enough to gaze at them from a crowded tourist vista. That got me thinking about how soft I had been on the ascent, and how people fly from across the world and hire guides to take them up the same routes I enjoy with friends on my days off.

Having no children of my own, I cannot claim to live a life of noble self-sacrifice as my grandmother did. However, having begun to process how the loss of her has affected me, I can strive to live the virtues that she embodied, and she embodied many. I used to think her generosity was her greatest one, but I am seeing more and more that it is from her iron will that everything flowed. Without it, she would not have lived to 97, raised her family or helped as many people as she did.

She was a hardwoman, if I ever knew one, and I’d be tougher than most people if I was half as tough as she was.

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About jbsantos
Polling, politics, PR and outdoor pursuits.

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