Tuesday, July 11, 2006

wild things: broken on the mountain back

This is what adventure travel is all about, Ed tells me in the morning, as we sit in the one-and a half person tent, watching the puddles form on the floor, on our sleeping pads, underneath our backpacks. I am huddled in a small heap, trying to avoid the soggy, dripping surfaces. Everything around me is wet.

Still, I am feeling very lucky. The previous afternoon I was also sitting in a heap, near the ridge of a mountain, incapable of moving in any direction.

No, it wasn’t the bears that broke my spirit. Oh sure, there are grizzlies, including on our campsite. Their droppings are everywhere. But they are elusive. Yesterday, the ranger fired mace at one who advanced toward her on a trail, but typically they hide when they hear you coming. They certainly hid when Ed and I made our way up the trail. Not one challenged us in the dense forests of the Canadian Rockies.

And it wasn’t the length, nor the steepness of the hike that broke me. It should have crushed my spirit: the trail was unbelievably difficult. Fallen timbers blocked the path countless times so that we were forced to go cross country and make our way through the thick forest bed.

canada camping 06 063
where is the trail?

Creeks were impassable, and the mosquitoes! Oh, the mosquitoes! You could not stop without having them zip in on you from all sides.

But no, it was not the climb, not the fallen timbers, not Ed’s busted water bottle, not the bears, nor the bugs – none of these were responsible for turning me into a weeping heap up there on the mountain.

So what happened?

We were on our second day. We had had a decent rest, having barricaded ourselves against the mosquitoes. We passed on cooking dinners or breakfasts, preferring to munch on granola and nuts, zipped in the tent to avoid the bug attack.

In the morning, I pushed back the tent flap to see this:

canada camping 06 014

I managed an icy wash down by the lake. Amazing. Second day into the hike and I feel clean!

canada camping 06 019

I’m spry and ready for the long trek up the mountain ridge. My backpack feels manageable, my back is not aching under its weight, Ed is playing with his GPS, configuring our destination so that we cannot get lost. Life is good.

Four hours into the climb and we are looking for a break. Life may be good, but we are hungry. One broken water bottle means that we have to ration water and we dare not stop until we find a stream. It takes us that long to come to one, high up, a cascading spray of water, straight from a glacier.

The views are magnificent!

canada camping 06 035

We continue. But now, near the top of the mountain ridge, the terrain suddenly changes. The side of the mountain is a steep drop made up of stones and pebbles. The path is almost non-existent. Each time I take a step, the stones underneath shift and move. If I try to create a ledge, they release beneath me and tumble in a cascade down the side of the mountain. I cannot look down. I do not want to think of the sharp drop to the valley below.

I take one step, then, slowly, another. Ed tells me to lean into the mountain, but there is nothing to hold on to. The rocks keep falling from beneath and grasping for stones only dislodges more from above. Ed has a somewhat better hold. He can dig his heel into the mountain and form a small ledge that will support him. I cannot. The ground keeps falling away from me. If I slide with the pebbles and rocks, I am a gonner.

canada camping 06 044
tumbling stones, no path

I try one more step. The rocks release and cascade down the mountain side. I know I can’t continue. I find a tiny ledge, bury myself into the mountain and cry.

I can’t do it. We are so close to the summit. The glacier is below us, the waterfall is crashing dramatically to the side and I am sitting on a narrow mountain ledge knowing I cannot go forward.

The problem is I cannot go back either. I am stuck. Frozen there at the side of the mountain, with a sheer drop below and a wall of loose pebbles and rocks above me.

Ed is making his way back toward me, coaxing me to rest a minute. A minute? I will rest forever there on that mountain ledge because I cannot move.

But I know I have to move. I have no choice. The risk of tumbling down into the cavernous space has to be balanced against spending the rest of my waking hours up there on the mountain ledge.

Ed tells me to abandon my backpack and to move back one step at a time, throwing my body against the mountain side.

I balk at that. Leave everything? All my belongings? Our one water bottle?

He then offers to carry it for me, but I know that I cannot let him do that. I see him, in my mind’s eye, crashing, rolling down with an avalanche of stones, all because of my backpack.

I strap myself into it and slowly stand up.

Ed reaches for my hand so that I can cling to something when the stones fall away from under my feet. Six inches at a time, we make our way back.

And because life heaps on drama by the plateful, I look up and notice that the clear sky has turned cloudy. Thunder is rumbling on the other side of the mountain.

canada camping 06 051
the summit: so close, but not for me; and suddenly, a storm forms

We are retreating. Slowly but surely I am making my way down, until we are off the precipitous ridge.

We are safe. I collapse by the creek where we had stopped for lunch. We are both exhausted. It is late afternoon and we are up there on the side of the mountain with a storm heading our way. Ed wants to pitch the tent and wait it out. The thought of making the descent back through the forest, past fallen trees and raging brooks is overwhelming. He is tired. Rescuing me took its toll. If my pack is heavy, his is double that.

canada camping 06 058
safe (though not yet from the storm)

It’s time for me to get spirited and peppy. We are now back in the dense forest and there is no clearing to pitch a tent. I don’t even care about the bear droppings, about the bugs, about the fallen limbs. I want us to try to make it back to our base camp.

Ed agrees and we navigate our way back, along the same horrendous track, in reverse.

Eleven hours after leaving our campsite, we are back, pitching a tent in the same spot, fending off mosquitoes, zipping ourselves inside just as the thunder crashes and the storm rolls in.

The next morning, we put on rain gear, pack up our soaking belongings and head to Banff to dry off.

Hiking in the back country. It’s appealing, it really is. Forests, silent but for the sound of birds, green glacier lakes, dazzling peaks, empty campsites – it is as beautiful as it sounds. But hiking the less beaten path can defeat you. It certainly knocked me down flat.

And we had come prepared. Ed is a seasoned hiker. He knows his stuff. And just to be sure, we had stopped to talk to the park ranger before heading out. He hadn’t warned us about the condition of the trail. He had spent the bulk of the time telling us what to do to ward off bears (forget the bell: wasted money – they wont hear it; but do pack pepper spray – it’s the only way to survive an attack).

Is the trail impassible? No, not really. We talked to the one other group of hikers that made it to the top and back. They managed, but they used ice picks and walking sticks to keep their hold.

I am enjoying now the long hot shower at our Banff inn. I am attending to the scratches on my arms and legs, I am scrubbing off the caked dirt and tree sap. Our gear is just about dry.

We sit down to a dinner of cheese fondue. Ed takes out the guide books and reads out loud, excited about the hiking possibilities for tomorrow and the next day. I am amused at his enthusiasm. It rivals mine for the south of France.

We can’t fix the damaged, leaking tent, but the weather looks more promising. And we know to pick a more defined trail, where you can put your foot down and expect the ground to stay solidly there beneath you.

canada camping 06 079
first warm meal in days: fondue in Banff