Canada Day 2012 at Cataract Pass

Despite being an avid hiker, scrambler, and car camper, and despite having wanted to go backpacking for some time, this 2012 Canada Day Long Weekend was my first backpacking trip.

And what a trip it was.

The destination: Cataract Pass, 2484m, on the border between Jasper National Park and the White Goat Wilderness Area. We started on the Nigel Creek Trail (which is part of the larger Continental Divide Trail system) in Banff National Park. At Nigel Pass (which is on the border between Banff and Jasper National Parks) we followed the Brazeau River to its headwaters just below Cataract Pass.

The group: Mostly alumni from VIRG Edmonton’s Thursday Night January to March 2012 ASPIRE climbing class.

Our group on Cataract Pass on Day 3

On paper, the trip seemed straightforward. A distance of 13 kilometres and an elevation gain of 650 metres are not Herculean targets, but I underestimated the effect of pack weight, and our group collectively underestimated both how much snowfall the Continental Divide receives and the terrain we would encounter. I made a liberal estimate that the hike in would take six hours. It ended up taking nine.

After Nigel Pass, the rest of the route was above treeline in the Brazeau River Valley and heavily snowed in.

I wasn’t kidding about the snow. This is the Brazeau River at Nigel Pass.

Pretty much the entire Brazeau River Valley was snowed in.

The terrain was also quite rough, and we had to cross a boulder field filled with fridge- and shed-sized talus. This section was my favourite, since it was pretty much a scramble, minus the elevation gain.

The boulder field

After the boulder field, we trudged through a snow field and then up a mix of snow and scree up to the pass. Even doing the ‘rest step’, I still had to pause for breath here and there, and a recurring thought in my mind was, “Next time, I won’t be this tired!”

Looking back from just before Cataract Pass. This doesn’t look like summer to me.

Chris was the first to summit (the group has since concluded he is a machine) and the rest of us arrived in intervals of a few minutes. More than eight hours after leaving the Nigel Creek trailhead, we had reached our objective. My contribution to the group was to build a fort out of our packs, so we could huddle together and take some shelter for the wind. After a short break for a snack and to catch our breath, we descended more snow and scree slopes towards the Cataract Creek Valley in order to find a place to set up camp.

Descending into Cataract Creek Valley

We reached the creek in a little less than an hour, only to find that Mother Nature—having covered most of the valley with snow—had already chosen our site for us.

Our campsite

The neat thing about camping in a wilderness area is that you are not limited to designated camping sites. On the flip side, there are no outhouses, and you have to carry in a bear canister to store your food. After setting up camp and having a quick meal, Rachel taught us how to play Kaiser. We managed to play a few rounds before the sun set and we decided to call it a night.

No one had much energy the next day. Well, at least none of us mortals—Chris “The Machine” went for a stroll up to the ridge above our camp. Garvin had brought some art supplies and did some painting (there was no shortage of inspirational vistas). Tony brought the second book to the “Game of Thrones” series. We played some more cards, shared some stories, watch avalanches on the neighbouring mountain, and take naps.

An avalanche on the mountain above us. Avalanches would occur about every half hour.

We also drew up an exit strategy. Knowing that the hardest part of our return trip was at the beginning, we decided to leave for Nigel Pass the next day and decide then whether we would stay an extra night or push all the way back to the cars.

The conditions on day three were less-than-ideal. It was cold, windy, and raining, I led the assault on the snow slope above camp, kicking steps along the deceptively steep slope.

The ascent back to Cataract Pass

Front-loading the difficult portion meant we were back on the pass in a little over an hour. The best part about the descent back into the Brazeau River Valley was that the snow-covered slopes made for fun glissading.

We made quick progress across the snow and boulder fields back to Nigel Pass. Tired, and lured by the prospect of hot food at the Saskatchewan Crossing café, we decided to finish our trip that day. Seven hours after packing up our camp, we were packing our gear into our cars.

Reflecting back on the trip, I am happy things played out as they did. Had the weather been hot and the route free of snow, we would have been fighting dehydration, heat stroke, and hordes of insects. It is also rare to have a trip with as much varied terrain as what we encountered. We started off on a muddy trail, crossed a river, scrambled on talus, and trudged through snow. Depending on which pictures you look at, the trip could have been in either summer or winter.

However, a trip is about much more than just the terrain you conquer (or, rather, Mother Nature allows you to endure) or the destination at which you arrive. Unless you are Ueli Steck, you are probably travelling with companions, and hearing a buddy make a funny joke is a welcome morale booster when your toes are sore from kicking steps up a steep snow slope. Even more than that, when you are in a remote area in unforgiving terrain, who you have with you could determine what the outcome would be if things were to take a turn for the worse. Other than some slight delays and some gear problems here and there, our trip went smoothly. Having belayed and been belayed by my companions, I think there was a certain level of trust that existed between us that not all friendships are not able to cultivate.

Perhaps I speak only for myself. Perhaps I am romanticizing the mountains, which I must admit is one of the places I love the most. The entire drive home, I thought about the trip and hatched ideas about the next adventure.

The last thought I had as I crawled into my warm bed after a hot shower was, “This is nice, but huddling in a tent playing Kaiser and passing around a bottle of Fireball whiskey would be even nicer.”

Thanks to Chris, Tony, Rachel, and Garvin for an epic trip.

Ha Ling – December 10, 2011

Ha Ling, as seen from Three Sisters Parkway. (This picture was taken after the climb).

Flicker set: here

Having been away from the mountains for too long (my last scramble was Carlo and I’s attempt up the north peak of Mt. Kidd back in August), I decided to do something I’ve always wanted to do: scramble in the winter. Given that scrambling can be a dangerous enough activity on its own, adding winter into the mix is not something to take lightly. Enough can go wrong on a mountain without having to worry about snow, cold, avalanches, cornices, etc. As with any outdoor pursuit, research and judgement are needed, and I caution anyone against peak-bagging in the wintertime with a caviler attitude.

That said, why would I proceed, given the danger? Because the danger on Ha Ling is rather minimal.

Ha Ling is located near Canmore, AB, and is part of the Eahagay Nakoda Range (along with Miner’s Peak and Mt. Lawrence Grassi). Because of geography and the mountain’s structure, the section of the mountain above treeline is blasted free of snow by strong winds. This minimizes avalanche danger, allowing the mountain to be climbed in the winter. Snow remains on the approach trail through the forest, so, unless someone has already broken trail, you’ll need snowshoes for the approach. Furthermore, Ha Ling is rated as “easy” (it’s largely a hike), which means it’s free of significant exposure (or the potential for deadly falls).

I wasn’t about to take any chances on a solo winter trip, so I brought my axe and crampons just in case. I ended up not needing either. I also brought my helmet, which I wore on the first part of the descent. (Slipping on an ice patch above treeline and knocking myself unconscious against a rock and then freezing seems like a crappy way to die, but that’s just MHO).

The trip was uneventful, which was a nice change from the last trip where Carlo and I got lost and almost ran into bad weather. Despite not having exercised for three months, I managed to summit within a couple of hours, and I descended in a little over an hour–slow, but not embarrassing times.

Almost no snow above treeline!

The section above treeline was very interesting to travel. Those who have been up Ha Ling (or any other mountain, for that matter) know that you’ll find scree above treeline. Scree is loose rock that can be the size of pebbles up basketballs. The first time you walk on scree can be a little unnerving because it always shifts under your feet, but, after getting used to it, you’ll find that it makes for an easy descent off the mountain. The opposite is also true: it makes ascending difficult because for every step uphill you take, the scree causes you to fall half a step downward. This changes in winter. I found that the scree was mostly frozen together, except for some sections where the top layer of pebbles sat on top of the frozen rocks like ball bearings on a floor. I tried to avoid these sections as much as possible, and–just in case I did fall–I strapped on my helmet.

Another observation I had is that I can see the approach trail becoming icy as winter progresses. As this was only December, the snow was just becoming compacted. In the late winter and early spring, when the temperatures occasionally go above freezing, there is potential for ice to form, which would necessitate the use of crampons to navigate.

Finally, no post about winter scrambling is complete without mentioning the conspicuous absence of the hordes of people. I’m not saying that I don’t want people to enjoy nature’s splendor–quite the contrary, actually–but it’s hard to get the feeling that you’re “getting away from it all” when you’re in the mountains in the summer because there’s always a ton of people out there. Come back to even the most popular trails–like Ha Ling–in the winter, and you’ll likely have the trail to yourself. While being alone on a mountain in the winter dos pose some risks, with appropriate precautions, you’ll be treated to spectacular views and a feeling of peace and tranquility that is seldom experienced in the summer.

Still, as long as you’re comfortable in the mountains and out in the winter, this is a trip that I would recommend to most people.

Obligatory summit photo!

My first half-marathon

The New York Marathon. There were no such crowds from my run. (Image from the New York Times Blog)

After seven weeks of running, I’ve hit my biggest milestone yet: the half-marathon. 21km. The road to this point has been fun, challenging and rather serendipitous. Today’s run, in many ways, was a microcosm of my whole running journey thus far.

First the story of today’s run.

Having been very busy with work commitments (this weekend was the leadership vote for the Alberta Liberals), I had been unable to run as much as I would normally like. I also had two dinners (sushi and Indian food) the preceding evening and had a Waffle Big Breakfast from Ricky’s this morning, which is likely around 900 cal, many of which come from fat. Never mind that I had been averaging four hours of sleep per night for the last several days, I was hell-bent on burning up excess glycogen and unnecessarily-ingested grease.

The original plan was to run 10km, with the possibility of adding an extra 5km, depending on how I felt. I had run 15km in a day before, but with a four hour break separating the last 5km and the first 10km. Accordingly, I thought a contiguous 15km run would be a worthwhile distance achievement for myself. To this end, I packed a PowerGel and a water bottle, in case I decided to continue. I was not to be disappointed.

The first 5km was effortless. I finished the first lap of my 5km loop in 29 minutes, which is slower than my usual 5km pace, but faster than my usual 10km pace.

At 10km, I started to feel a slight discomfort in my legs, though it wasn’t more than a slight annoyance. I was also able to maintained my pace up to this point. I drank some water and pressed on. I also consumed my PowerGel as assurance against bonking.

At 13km, the slight discomfort in my legs turned into soreness, but I was still feeling ambitious. Perhaps it was runner’s high. I neared a Mac’s store, stopped my stopwatch, ran in, bought a PowerBar and Gatorade, ran back out, re-started the clock and started eating and drinking like there was no tomorrow. The PowerBar and half the Gatorade were gone within two city blocks.

I passed my apartment for the third time (the 15km mark)  in a couple minutes short of an hour and a half. My pace had slowed down to my old 10km pace, and my legs were also quite tired. I resolved to continue, thinking I could simply stop whenever I had to stop and just walk the rest of the way home.

By the 17km mark, I was having serious doubts about my ability to finish. For the previous two kilometers, the only thing I could think about was how tired my legs were, and now, I started to feel pain in parts of my legs that I didn’t even know were capable of experiencing pain. Both my knees had also started to hurt, and my ankles were starting to act up.

I passed my apartment for the fourth time before my watch hit the two hour mark. Miraculously, I was able to maintain a decent pace. With only a kilometre left, I was feeling buoyant.

What actually followed was the most difficult and painful run I had ever done. Adding to the issues of pain, my pace was reduced to a slow jog. Still, when I saw the endpoint in sight, my pace quickened again and I ran in-between my self-established finish line with my hands in the air, yelling “yahoo” like Lando Calrisian exiting the second Death Star.

I sent out some messages and some status updates relishing in my achievement and I literally limped home.

How is this a microcosm of my running journey? It was planned, but unstructured.

I started running seven weeks ago with the goal of losing weight. Although, I wasn’t technically overweight (according to BMI measurement), I had noticed that some of my pants purchased last September had become noticeably snugger. (I’ll warn anyone taking a political aide position that weekly receptions with torpedo shrimp, quiche, and spanakopita wreck havoc on your waistline.) The catalyst, admittedly, was spending a weekend at my friend’s family’s cabin and being a little embarrassed to spend too much time in just my swimming trunks.

I did manage to shed some pounds, but running became more than just a means to an end–it became the end in and of itself.

I stared pushing myself harder. I would run at different times of the day. I would strive for more mileage or a faster pace. Gradually, I started chalking up the achievements.

I ran my first 5km two weeks after I first started running. This wasn’t actually my first ever 5km, but it was the first one since high school. I never actually set my mind on running 5km, but simply said to myself, “Let’s see how I make out after 3km.”

I ran my first 10km during week five. At the time, this was a new personal distance record for myself. I also was more than adequately prepared for it, and I still had enough energy left to run another 5km a few hours later. Like the 5km mark, this was also tinged with serendipity, as I simply asked my parents one evening, “Do you guys want to run 10km tomorrow?”

Today, at week seven, I wasn’t planning on running 21km. The plan was to run 10km with the possibility of extending it to 15km. I would have been perfectly satisfied with achieving the 15km distance mark, but I was able to continue, so I continued. Because I continued, I set two personal distance records today, and I was able to reach another major milestone distance in the running world.

When I wrote my first post about running, I could see what I was becoming, but I didn’t actually think I would get there. When I said that I wanted to run a half-marathon, I was thinking of next spring as a timeline, not the next month. What a pleasant surprise it is to arrive at this point in seven weeks.

Unfortunately for me, the next milestones–3/4 and full marathons–are considerably harder to train for than the transition from 10km to 21km. With the kind of job I have, I’m not in any position to commit to the training schedule that it would take to get to a full marathon. Obsessing about milestones can also be a dangerous road to travel, as it can lead to all sorts of unintended consequences from injuries to neglecting important personal relationships.

I likely won’t be able to train for a full marathon at this point in my life, but that’s something that doesn’t bother me. I’m proud of what I’ve been able to achieve at this point, and there are other goals to accomplish besides setting personal distance records.

I’ll spend the next few months improving my technique, getting faster and becoming more comfortable with the distances that I am able to run. Who knows, perhaps I will be able to run–and finish!–a full marathon someday. Given the serendipity of my running achievements to date, I might just end up running one anyway, just to see if I can.

Vital stats:
Distance: 21.5km (according to Google Maps)
Time: 2:05:39 (clock stopped when stopped traffic signals)
Average pace: 10.27 km/h

Mt. Kidd, north – August 29, 2011

Additional media:
Flickr set of all photos from the trip
YouTube video of the short section of hands-on scrambling

Mt. Kidd, as seen from the Galatea parking lot. The north peak is on the right.

My scrambling season hasn’t been very productive, so my brother, Carlo, and I set out to conquer the north peak of Mt. Kidd (2958m). It’s nowhere near the technicality of Mt. Smuts, but with a vertical elevation gain of 1350m, an estimated completion time of 6-9 hours and a rating of ‘moderate’, it’s not a mountain to take lightly.

Carlo and I set out early enough to allow for some extra time past the 9 hour outer limit of the estimated trip time. We had a photocopy of the guidebook entry, a trip report from a reputable climber and a topographic map.

The ascent route runs alongside waterfalls in a drainage gully and eventually climbs into Mt. Kidd's signature bowl.

I’ve quoted Moltke before, and his adage describes this trip well: our plan didn’t survive first contact with the mountain. Shortly after starting up the bowl, we veered right into a gully to avoid what looked like an exposed bit of trail. We wasted a over an hour slogging up (and down) a steep scree-filled gully in the hottest part of day. When we resumed the trail we wanted to avoid, we saw that it wasn’t that bad and continued onward, albeit tired and having consuming a good portion of our supplies to recover from the unnecessary fatigue.

Carlo tackles a section of hands-on scrambling

Feeling guilty for making the call to go up the gully, I let Carlo lead the remainder of the trip. Aside from some steep bits and some hands-on scrambling (see the video), there were no major difficulties that we encountered. Still, I had this nagging feeling, based on trip reports I had read and pictures I’ve seen, that we were off-route. We were also becoming more aware of our fatigue, so we decided that we would turn back at 3:00PM, regardless of our progress.

Mother Nature sent us into retreat before Father Time could. At 2:30PM, clouds moved in. I knew there would be rain either on Tuesday or Wednesday, so I didn’t know whether to call nature’s bluff. What I did know is that we were on a new mountain, there were no other people on the trail, we were tired, our supplies were running low and we weren’t even sure that we were on the right route. I also knew that scrambling, especially on the slabby terrain we were on, was very dangerous in wet conditions. We decided not to chance it, and we started back. By my estimate, we were around 300 vertical metres short of the summit.

As luck would have it, we weren’t in cell phone range at that point either, though we discovered that after we had decided to retreat. (Besides, proceeding only on the basis that a helicopter can easily be called in is nothing short of irresponsible.)

We made a speedy descent and only stopped to send a message of our retreat and to finish the last of our food and water when we reached the approach trail. It never did rain until the next day, but the clouds lingered around and forest fire smoke continued to blow into the area, making it difficult to breathe. When we finally got back to the car, we had taken the entire 9 hours that Kane gives as an outer limit of an estimated trip duration.

It rained the next day, so we cut our trip short and headed back to Calgary. Upon our return, I immediately looked up trip reports and route photos. Sure enough, we went off-route and angled toward the summit prematurely. Like the first time we went off route, we should have continued to move towards the ‘back’ (west) of the mountain because the guide clearly showed that we would eventually need to backtrack towards the front of the mountain (to the east) once we hit the summit ridge. Instead–as you can see from the picture below–we were directly south of the summit. Even if we had trudged on, we likely would not have been able to summit anyway, given that, the terrain we were on was definitely more technical than a slog up a scree field. While I think more seasoned scramblers and climbers would have been able to surmount the cliff bands that lay ahead (and walk off the usual route), Carlo and I aren’t at that point yet.

Clouds hovering over the summit.

Notwithstanding my disappointment with not summiting and getting lost twice, I was satisfied with the trip. We encountered some unique terrain with some good bits of hands-on scrambling. Both Carlo and I were surprised by the ease that we handled the more technical sections, which were not really ‘technical’ in the technical sense of the term, but were still more technical than what we were accustomed too.

Most importantly, I’m proud that we didn’t take any unnecessary or irresponsible risks. Untempered ‘summit fever’ impairs judgement and can lead otherwise sensible and capable individuals into trouble. Not only did we turn back when the weather appeared to worsen, we also set a ‘drop-dead time’ for our retreat. Our failure today ensures that we would have another time to succeed. Until then, Mt. Kidd, north, goes on the do-over list.