Friday, 19 August 2016

Cascade: Rescue Heroes

After we battled our way up the leagues and leagues of brutish uphill terrain, we came to the final ascent. I was pooped, but Dad kept up the encouraging talk. He was still remembering Justin's heroics on the rocky ledge a few minutes earlier.

"If something goes wrong, Justin is now the one more likely than me to save you," He said, sounding very proud. "Just think, your brother would do anything to save you."

"You hear that, Justin?" I shouted back. "You'd do ANYTHING to save me."

"Oh, uh, I'd try..." he replied.

"Would you murder someone to save her?" asked JP.

"Umm...."

"Well, he would kill someone to save her," said Dad.

"Uh, how did we get to this conversation?" asked Justin.

"Suppose that someone is running at Carla with a knife to kill her, and she's tied up, so she can't move, but you're standing there with a loaded gun. Would you shoot him?" said Dad.

"But if you let Carla die, world hunger ends," added JP.

Justin declined to respond.

Though certainly uplifted by the thought of people trying to murder me, I nevertheless was hitting my limit. I seem to be susceptible to altitude sickness. It's strange to describe: I wasn't in pain, I wasn't breathing particularly hard, my muscles weren't straining, but I was just not up to exerting myself at all. I was slightly light-headed, but not seriously. As far as I could tell, nothing much was wrong, except that I felt on the brink of despair, ready to cry, and quite certain that I couldn't make the massive climb ahead. Try to summit a mountain without exerting yourself. It's extremely difficult.

Uncle Dale agreed with me. "I sure wouldn't do this alone," he huffed, "but now I have to do it since your dad is doing it."

Competition doesn't motivate me like it does him. "You can all go ahead of me," I said.

Everyone guffawed. "Don't be ridiculous," Dad exclaimed. "I am not going to leave you behind!"

"I'm not going to leave you behind!" Justin exclaimed.

"I might," said JP.

Very slowly, with many breaks, we continued up. JP gave me his dried cherries. I needed the sugar, but I didn't feel hungry.

"After you get to the top, all your misery will melt away. You won't even remember it anymore," Justin said for the thousandth time. "It'll all be worth it."

A random hiker passed us on his way back down. "Do I have to go to the summit?" I appealed to him with a whimper.

"Yes," he said without hesitation, "You have to."

You might think it was exciting to be on the final push. It wasn't. It was despair-inducing. Up until this point, the climb had at least been in the form of switchbacks, or longer, lesser angles than was strictly-speaking necessary. But partway to the summit, the path just gave up and made a beeline. Here is a map of our hike so you can understand my anguish. It's impressionistic and based on my navigationally-challenged memory. Do not use this map to plan your hike or you will probably die.

Click to enlarge
We climbed 1300 meters, almost a kilometer and a half, into the sky. And our lay estimate is that we covered about 14 kilometers of trail. It took us a stinking five hours to do this. 

But, after much ado, and despite the agony of the ascent, we did, in fact, all eventually crest the summit. I did not quite forget all my former misery, but the view, the rest, and lunch worked wonders for restoring my spirit.

Summit and Lake Minnewanka
Justin: "Pose like we're tough and cool and-- oh, uh, or that. That works, too."
Dad insists that he's paid good money for us, so he always gets to be in the middle.
Triumphantly sitting down
Uncle Dale catching a few z's on the summit
We ate, swatted flies, took pictures, decided against writing "HELP ME!!" in blood on a rock, and then began our descent. What took us about an hour to climb took about fifteen minutes to descend. Going down is always faster than going up... except when it's not, as you will soon see. Leanne, Clary, and Janet took off ahead of us and we lost sight of them. Though they waited for us (fruitlessly) at points, Janet was on a schedule, so in the end, they left us behind and we didn't encounter them again on the mountain.

Starting back down. Please notice the incline.
Go left, Justin! Left!! Don't take the path less traveled by!
The rest of us trooped along. The Justins, who were in the lead, passed by a lone young Japanese hiker, whom we had met briefly on the summit. She was struggling to climb back onto the false summit, so they helped her up. Some time later, I passed her sitting on a rock. She looked lonely, and it seemed that she wasn't making good progress. I stopped.

"Are you okay?" I asked. "Do you want to come with us?"

"Ah, please, go on," she said in heavily accented English, waving me by. I figured she probably hadn't understood me, so I tried again.

"You can come with us," I said, trying to wave her in front of me. She smiled and continued to wave me on, so I figured she was okay.

By the time Dad and Uncle Dale passed her, she was in obvious distress, descending so slowly through the rocks (backwards), that by comparison we looked like a sprint team. Uncle Dale didn't give her a choice. Hoping that he wasn't volunteering for a night's bivouac, he said, "I will stay with you."

Dad and Uncle Dale lent her some gloves and helped her pick her very slow way along. Her shoes were sadly inadequate for the task, and by the time they reconnected with us at the next major ledge, she was crying softly. Nevertheless, she was determined to be conversational with the group that had picked her up. As she pulled herself up with us, she sniffed, looked at Dad, then back at Uncle Dale, and asked, "Are you gay?"

It was such a non sequitur that the question didn't even compute. She received no answer.

At a later point she gestured to JP and asked me, "Cooorrrooor," (she had trouble with my name), "are you together?"

First I said, "Yes." Then I thought that it was so extraordinarily obvious that we were hiking together in the same group, that her ambiguous question must have meant something else. "He's my cousin," I specified. Hopefully she understood that I didn't mean I was dating my cousin. Then I pointed out the others. "This is my brother, this is our father, and this is our uncle."

Justin then stepped in and immediately threw it all into question again by trying to explain that Uncle Dale isn't really our uncle, but our dad's loooong-time, verrrrry good friend.

Sigh.

But whatever else she thought, she did tell me that my family was very friendly and that it was very good we were helping her because otherwise, she might have spent the night on the mountain and been eaten by a bear. She probably wasn't far off in assessing her near miss. We gently reprimanded her for her careless planning. Dad's psyche was slightly traumatized from always being in the back of the group, but he got over it.

Awesome sea fossils near the false summit!
When, hours later, we eventually neared the treeline, we celebrated, convinced that the trees had covered only the short, beginning segment of the hike (in fact, they covered about half). Unfortunately, JP's knee started to kill him. He did a fancy two-step skip down the trail for a while, but he was in a lot of pain. Eventually our new addition lent him her hiking poles. They seemed to help.

Yay! Treeline!
A long time later, we celebrated when Dad announced that we were only three kilometers from the bridge, thinking the bridge was almost the start of the hike (Dad knew it wasn't). Dad and Uncle Dale began to push us at this point, because the dimness of dusk was arriving, and we really didn't want to conga line behind Dad and his lone headlamp. I contemplated throwing myself to the ground and rolling the rest of the way to save time, but there was a lot of horse doo on the ground.

Eventually, we celebrated again when we stepped over some fallen logs, thinking we remembered those being near the trail head (yeah..... we were still feeling hopeful). Out of the encroaching dimness, a young couple suddenly emerged, coming down the path towards us. Justin, in front, said their faces lit up with sheer relief when they saw him.

"Oh, we are so glad to finally see someone real!" they exclaimed. "We're lost! Do you know where this trail goes?"

They were informed that they were currently traveling up the mountain, but that if they turned around, they'd one day soon hit the parking lot. They gave their heartfelt thanks and immediately turned a 180. So, that is how we bring the number of lives we saved that day up to 3. Champions.

Finally, finally, finally, we broke through the trees into the ski resort and we celebrated! (We forgot that the parking lot was over a kilometer beyond the chair lifts). I was just about dragging my body along the ground with my hands by this point, while ahead of us, the young couple walked holding hands.

Then I noticed that they had stopped walking and were looking at something shielded from view by a ski cabin. I didn't give the slightest thought as to what they could be looking at. However, when I was still a good stone's throw away, they turned back to me (somehow I was in front this time), and again they looked rather relieved.

"There's a bear!" they exclaimed, pointing.

"A bear?" I repeated. Sure enough, as I got closer, I caught a glimpse of the rear end of a black bear lumbering around behind the ski cabin maybe thirty yards away.

"It was coming at us!" they exclaimed.

"What?" I said, "Was it really?"

"Wait, don't scare it off!" chimed my brother, jogging up. "I want to see!"

The bear ambled into the foliage away from us.

"Yes, it was!" the couple said. "It was looking at us, and started to come towards us, but then it paused like it was confused about whether it wanted to charge or not. Oh, we're sure glad you guys came when you did! It turned around when it heard you all coming!"

So that's how we ended up saving their lives two times in less than an hour. Medal, please.

Rescue Op #3: Chasing off the bear (no bear in pic)
Apparently we were in bear central. Clary, Leanne, and Janet had given a ride back to a French family that had been growled at by a grizzly, and another hiking couple we encountered reported there had been bears in the parking lot earlier that day. We had passed by some pretty fresh bear poop and bear vomit on the trail, as well.

In any case, by the time we saw the actual chalet where we had parked the car, we didn't have much celebration left in us. It had taken us five hours to get up that mountain, and it took us five more hours to get down it again. It would have taken our Japanese friend a lot longer still, because she was planning to walk down to Banff, but we told her no and stuffed her into our vehicle. The young couple also asked us for a ride, but we already had six people in five seats, so someone else gave them a lift.

Uncle Dale took our final proof-of-completion "picture" (see below), making JP shift around on his maimed knee a while longer, and then we hopped into the car, got pizza for supper (at 9:30 pm) and drove our sorry selves home to the sound of Uncle Dale mumbling "Justin, you didn't borrow the clothes," in his sleep. As I write this, four days later, my muscles are still so taxed and sore that I can barely hobble down a set of stairs. And the newbies survived. We keep telling them that after this, any future hikes will seem like joyriding by comparison. So far, they appear to believe us.

....Ten...straight...hours....
Cascade: the excruciating mountain of poor decision-making. I don't know why I keep doing these things.

***

"Half the fun of camping in those days was looking forward to getting back home." Patrick McManus

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Cascade: Grind of all Grinds

Last Saturday, I joined a group for a one-day-only climb of a single peak. Given my vast experience with backpacking, a simple day hike with, like, nothing to carry on our backs, should be a stroll through the park, right? The answer is - yes, if your idea of a park is a stupidly steep never-ending incline of precariously placed sharp-edged boulders with bottomless precipices on either side. And hungry bears. Welcome to Cascade Mountain.

I agreed to do this day hike because I really wanted to get out into the mountains this summer, and as Clary put it, the choice was between "a really lame backpacking trip, or an epic day hike". Apparently all the good backpacking locations were booked solid. So, we went for epic over lame. For future reference: if Clary says a hike is "epic", "grueling" or "vigorous", you probably shouldn't bring newbies along.

But we did bring newbies along. In addition to Clary, Leanne, their friend Janet, my dad, me, and yesmybrother!Justin (who I had somehow never hiked with before this point in time), this group also included my cousin Justin (who is not the same person as notmybrotherJustin!from the former hiking posts, and who from this point on shall be called "JP") and Uncle Dale, both of whom had to buy their first hiking shoes to come along and neither of whom had yet broken them in. My brother also pitched the idea of hiking Cascade to our other cousin, Jordan, who does a great deal of hiking, but Jordan's initial reaction was something along the lines of "Cascade? You're seriously doing Cascade?!" He declined coming.

The champions of Cascade
Needless to say, my mom was a little worried for us.

Our preparations weren't particularly impressive. I went to the hairdresser and got bangs for the first time in over 12 years, just to see if they'd get grimy and stick to my sweaty forehead. My brother found an old plum in his jacket pocket, presumably from a hike sometime last year. It had withered into a giant raisin. But both of these items are basically irrelevant. The main thing is that we didn't each have 30 pound backpacks. In fact, Justin was so worried that I would back out due to the intensity rating of the hike, that he offered to carry all my things for me. I mostly declined, but I did stuff my new jacket into his pack.

You never know what's in his pockets.
We met up shortly after 8 a.m. on Saturday and were at the trail head by 10 o'clock. We got off to an auspicious start by failing to locate any washroom facilities around the locked chalet (I think they do weddings there). You can't start a day-long hike on even a partially full bladder. You just can't. So, we all went, anyways. Leanne and I made for the same grove of trees.

"I know where you are, Carla!" she piped cheerily, "I can't see you, but I do know where you are, so don't worry, I won't come over!" Then she paused before finishing up with, "I can see that guy in the parking lot, though, so that's a little weird."

We officially began hiking at 10:10. It was another impressive start, as we energetically marched off with a nice family of Quebecois hikers, leading them down the wrong trail for twenty minutes. Eventually we fixed that mistake and got onto the real path.

The real path was a never-ending upwards slope through the trees. I hate never-ending uphill. It kills me. And, it was hot. Sweat was literally dripping into my eyeballs.

"Are you wearing layers?" asked Janet sympathetically. "You could take off your t-shirt."

"Well, kinda," I said, "but I don't usually wear this particular tank without anything else. I use it as a base layer."

No matter. I wore that tank without anything else. My t-shirt was damp and gross when I stripped it off and stuffed it into JP's pack. Nobody said anything about me being indecent, and I just hoped that I wouldn't end up dressed like a beach volleyball player before the end of the day.

As I said, prolonged uphill climbing destroys my spirit. Very quickly I fell behind the rest of the group, taking slow little steps with many pauses. I ate dried peaches to keep up my sugar levels. I drank water to keep myself hydrated. I groaned. I panted. Justin and JP cheerfully held back and herded me from behind (my brother is much faster than I am, but he was going to do this hike with me if it killed him). They kept up a running dialogue full of strange little bits of encouragement to keep me trekking.

"You're doing better than most people your age," said Justin. "Do you think your sisters could do this hike, JP?"

"Some of them," said JP.

"Well, how about that?" said Justin, "See, Carla? Not everyone gets to say that their older-than-25-year-old sisters can do this hike."

"I don't have any sisters older than 25," said JP.

"See?" said Justin.

A little while later, Justin said, "I think it's good that you're so tired now. If you're more tired going up, it's easier coming down. So, the more tired you are, the better. I read an article once."

I replied that was complete crock.

"No, no!" exclaimed Justin, "It has something to do with getting your second wind sooner."

I was self-conscious of being the slow one. Here's a picture to show how far ahead everyone else was:

My camera does not have enough resolution to really capture the specks in the distance that are the rest of the group
"I can't believe I'm the only one back here," I wailed. In my distress, I compared myself to the person in the group to whom I felt the most physically similar: "Leanne is way ahead!"

"Well," hemmed my brother, "She hikes, like, every weekend. And does yoga. And goes to the gym... And jogs."

"Oh," I said.

"You're doing great for someone your age!" he repeated. "And you dance around in the basement sometimes."

We continued our laborious ascent. After more long, slow slogging, I wheezed and paused for water. Justin remarked, "We're going at a pretty good pace."

JP replied, "Yes. When we're going." But a short time later he said, "It looks like I'm back here to support Carla but I'm actually here because I'm also really slow," so I felt encouraged anyway.

Shortly thereafter, we caught up with the rest of the group, which had stopped to wait for us. As we were watering up, Clary expounded on how being the last person in a pack is the psychologically most difficult position of the group to be in.

"Nah, I like it!" exclaimed Justin.

"Yeah, I just about had a mental collapse," said JP. He leapt ahead and led the way with Leanne for a while.

So, we pushed ourselves higher and higher for about two straight hours before we finally broke through the treeline. As we cleared the trees, our spirits lifted, knowing that we had reached a milestone. We cheered, soaked in the vista, and without the trees to block our view, we looked to see how the path would flatten out now that we had gained so much altitude. The path went up. It turned into a "type 2 scramble", which means you have to use your hands to climb. And the path, instead of being nice, packed dirt, became an avalanche zone of boulders where the only way you could see the path was by picking out the occasional six-inch strip of blue tape tied to one of the millions of rocks or by spying the man-made rock cairns from amongst the miles of natural rock piles. It was very easy to stray off the "path" because I'm not convinced there was one.

This terrain was fun for the first 45 minutes or so.
Cascade Mountain has a particularly high summit, but before that, there is a peak known as the "false summit". As we were approaching the false summit, we encountered a couple sitting in the rocks, eating lunch. Pretty well anyone you meet on the trail is an instant friend, so we chatted as we passed.

"We're not really going any further," the man said.

"We're headed to the summit," said my dad.

"You're about halfway there," the man replied.

We all laughed at his joke.

Except it wasn't a joke.

At about this point, Justin and JP traded their place behind me for the middle of the pack, so Dad and Uncle Dale brought up the rear behind me. I did okay in the rocks for a while, since the breeze helped keep me cool and the added brain work and attention that were necessary took my mind off the misery. Plus, some of the views were pretty awesome.

Gorgeous view. Please note the incline.
Not quite on top of the world, but getting close.
Staring contemplatively into the distance.
I said "Do yoga." He obeyed.
I loved the ridge walk, where you could look to your right and see one side of the world, and you could look to your left and see the other side of the world, and you were on the thin line dividing the two. Clary said that she would be humiliated if she fell off, because there were so many other hikers that would see her do it. The rest of us were more concerned that falling would mean instant death, but in the end, nobody died and nobody was humiliated.

The ridge
Around the false summit, Dad and Uncle Dale and I caught up to JP and Justin. "Clary and Leanne and Janet are taking a shortcut," said Justin. "It looks like there are two ways. The shorter, steeper way, or the longer, not-so-steep way. Now we have to decide which way to go."

We all looked at the three specks hauling themselves up the peak that looked like it must be a 60 degree incline. There was no actual path, they were just climbing for the sake of it. We looked to the right, at the inviting-looking, still-steep but not suicidal path traversing the mountain.

"Let's take the actual path," said Dad. "For Carla's sake."

Nobody argued. The men and I took the sane path. Both JP and Uncle Dale were almost as spent as I was, but both were too manly to show it, so Justin and JP went ahead, and I was still by far the slowest member of the group. Eventually we caught up to JP. He was alone, leaning against a rock wall, recuperating.

"Where's Justin?" we asked.

He pointed to some tiny moving things in the middle-distance. "He's helping the others climb down. The path they took doesn't connect."

Indeed. We could see Justin at the bottom of a precipice, looking up, arms outstretched like he was pointing. Three other people were clinging precariously to the rock wall, trying to ease themselves down. It seems that the ladies had been quite successful at getting themselves up the incline and at traversing the top. Unfortunately, there was no way down. Rather than retrace their steps, they opted to scale the cliff face instead. Naturally, this turned out to be terrifying, both for them and for the other passers-by that tried to convince them it was a bad idea and to turn around.

Eventually Justin arrived, having followed the normal path. Seeing as they were already descending, he helped coach them on where to put their feet, an act which Clary praised multiple times after we (somehow) all arrived home safely.

"Once, nearer the bottom, he even put his hand up to support my foot, even though there was enough of a ledge for it already. It made me feel better just to know he was there," she enthused.

The rest of us caught up to them all just in time to see Leanne step onto safety and hear her intone "Not recommended!" to the other hikers who were lingering at the scene.

"Well, Carla," Dad said, beaming with pride but trying to be humble, "Your brother isn't perfect, but he's sure good for some things!"

Unfortunately, I don't have a picture of them actually on the cliff, but I do have a picture of the cliff itself. Sadly, without people, you can't really see the scale, so I added people at about the size I remember. It's your choice whether to credit me as a reliable narrator or not. At any rate, a fall would have seriously maimed, if not killed them. People have died on Cascade before. Based on our experience, this mountain seems to see a lot of bad decision-making, and not just from our group - but more on that later. Thank God, though, everyone made it down from that ledge okay.

The very bad idea
And after that? The final ascent. But the recollection of that grind is too exhausting for me to recount without a break, so stay tuned for more.

***

"There are only 3 real sports: bull-fighting, car racing and mountain climbing. All the others are mere games." Ernest Hemingway