To finish off this countdown, (which has been pretty darn fun to do–thanks for coming along), I’ll leave you with two expeditions from the past year. Our climb of Yala Peak, occurred during our Pretty Big Walk expedition in April when we completed another section of the Great Himalaya Trail. We started that project with the Great Big Walk in 2014 and Lungta Livyers in 2018. We have now completed 5 of 7 sections. The second post is a wrap-up from our River with Two Names expedition in August. I will be presenting that trip for Paddle NL on January 23 at 7:30 pm in Hampton Hall at Marine Institute in St. John’s.
This is a summit photo of Marian and I (and Niranjan who trying to hide in the background) on the summit of Yala Peak. We climbed the peak over two days on our Pretty Big Walk expedition. Most folks were surprised since they didn’t know we had a climb planned.
We climbed to Yala Peak high camp (4800 metres) from Khanjin Gompa (after acclimating there for a day and climbing to Little Khanjin Ri at 4300 metres.) We might have climbed higher to the top of Khanjin Ri (4700 metres) but the clouds rolled in and took away the view. The pull to Yala Peak high camp took about 5 hours. It was a contouring up with some steep sections thrown in for character development.
We rested and prepared for the rest of the day. Wake up call came at 5 am the next day and we choked down some porridge and tried to breathe away our small altitude headaches. We decided to proceed and started up from high camp trying to find the ideal “I can go uphill all day pace.” The initial sections of the climb were gentle up which allowed us to find a rhythm before the steeper sections. We were climbing on snow ( and some rock) all the way.
After about 4 hours of climbing, we reached the final ridge which was a bit exposed so our guide folks placed a hand line. You can see me above making the last few steps to the summit and Marian doing the same below.
The view from the summit was incredible and one of the most memorable and clear of all the summits I’ve been on. The weather was stable so we all took lots of photos. Here is our guide Shyam on the summit.
We could see the junction of three glacial valleys and even into Tibet. It was 360 degree mountains and my inner Snow Lion soared.
Although relatively small by Nepal standards, Yala Peak is only 400 metres shorter than Canada’s highest peak and is taller than three of the Seven Summits. It was great to be out finding my climbing legs and my climbing mind once again and we did have to dig a bit deep to start and finish the climb.
The funny story about why we chose to climb Yala Peak has to do with a hotel we stayed in often here in Kathmandu during the fall of 2017. We found the Yala Peak hotel on booking.com and ended up loving the friendly family feel of the place. We stayed there five different times during our various ins and outs that fall. In their lobby, they had a map of the Langtang Valley with Yala Peak at the end.
That planted a seed and when the Pretty Big Walk came together, I realized we had our chance to climb Yala Peak. We dropped by the hotel the other night to show off our summit photo. So done folks climb a peak because it is there, we climbed this one as a tribute to some kind folks in Nepal and to our two new granddaughters, Anna and Sylvia. It was a Pretty Big Climb within a Pretty Big Walk.
Many thanks to Raj at Mountain Sun Valley Treks for setting up our logistics and staffing for the Pretty Big Walk/Climb and to Shyam and Niranjan who climbed Yala Peak with us (as well as making the Pretty Big Walk a grand success through your leadership).
Happy New Year! Since I didn’t quite manage to get the countdown completed before the new year dawned (oh well-it was more fun to ski than stare at my laptop), here is 2018’s entry. With a 90-day expedition that year, I could have filled this post but instead, invite you to four entries that I wrote closer to the end of that trip (Paddling North) as it was coming into focus what we had done and what we still had to do to complete the 3000 km trip. Enjoy!
As I was paddling last evening against a potentially building wind, I thought about how this expedition shares similarities with climbing Everest. I’ve made three attempts at climbing Everest and reached a high point of 7600 metres in 2010. I’m currently on day 58 of this expedition (paddling 3000 km between Jasper, Alberta and Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories) in my tent being blasted by wind and baked by the sun and am flooded with memories of similar times on the flanks of Everest.
So you ask, “how are the two expeditions alike?”
1. Both are long expeditions. Everest is usually a 50-60 day expedition and this one is 90 days.
2. Both involve living in a tent for most of the expedition with your tent being key to your safety and securing. A thin nylon cocoon, that is both surprisingly resilient and remarkably fragile. A sudden intense gust can break a pile which can rip a hole in seconds if your tent is not properly secured ( or sometimes even if it is).
3. Both involve leaving positions of relative security to move through the landscape, exposed to intense elements of weather, topography, and water/ice. These intense environments can change from awe inspiring and easy to terrifying and life threatening in the time it takes to consult your map.
4. Both involve moving through the above in the dark, at dusk or dawn, with little sleep. This makes such movement more challenging than moving in the daytime but also more special and rewarding as you are treated to displays of stars, planets, and the wicked dance of the sun setting or rising.
5. Both involve the ability to stay focused and motivated for the long haul. Everest requires that you traverse lower camps repeatedly as you acclimatize to the altitude and paddling North requires that you paddle a marathon most days and then set up camp. You must ride waves of motivational doldrums when weather forces you to sit still and progress stalls for several days in a row. You must be able to stay positive and committed to your expedition goals on both easy and difficult days.
6. Both involve spending time away from friends, family, and support networks in remote locations where rescue is very expensive and never guaranteed. Current communications technology helps cross this divide but it can be time-consuming and sometimes distracting, to keep all electronics working to enable such contact across the miles.
7. Both involve “Stay or Go” decisions at regular intervals where you need to assess weather and environmental conditions as well as health and psychological factors in deciding whether to push on or stay put.
8. Both are deeply rewarding, intensely challenging, and ask you to be the best adventurer/climber/paddler/teammate you can be.
9. Both (for me anyway) are spiritual quests that connect me to my core to the landscapes I am traversing, regularly humble me to my core, and provide embodied lessons of spiritual teachings around every corner and crevasse.
10. Both involve long months of planning and preparation that are indeed, part of the expedition.
OK. Gotta stop for now since the wind is gusting more strongly and I want to add more guy lines our our cocoon. I love having you along on this (and all my expeditions). Sharing the experiences helps me understand them more deeply.
Marian and I reached Inuvik last night about 1:30 am after two days of long paddles with little current to assist us. We decided to push into Inuvik because we knew we would likely be winded off today and we wanted to use it for planning and decision making. We were winded off and we did use the day to make our plans.
Some may remember that Marian and I were up here in March doing a dog sledding program (as well as scouting for this expedition). We had a fabulous learning time and even paid a visit to Tuktoyaktuk because the all weather road had opened to the community. We also went to Tuk in case we didn’t get to paddle there on this expedition because we were stopped by weather, injury, or fatigue.
Marian and I had totally been putting off the decision about whether or not we would paddle to Tuk until we reached Inuvik. We’d originally thought it would take us four days to get here but, because we pushed, it only took two and thus today was our decision day. Today reminded me of summit bids on Everest (and all mountains really.). Thus the part two…how this “summit push” to Tuktoyaktuk is similar to one on Everest.
1. Both require specialized clothing to protect you from the cold (and in this case, the bugs. )
2. It’s hardest to push to the end/summit/goal through the haze of acquired fatigue. This fatigue can be intensely demotivating.
3. Just when you are most tired and wore out, the biggest, longest, hardest, most technical, and most committing challenges come.
4. Many folks around you, some of whom you’ve climbed or paddled with, will opt not to climb higher or paddle further and will head home. This can also weigh heavily on your mind and be demotivating.
5. You will often face the most wind, most cold, and challenging weather nearest the top/ocean. (Most bugs too).
6. As you climb, the altitude gets higher and hypoxia (low oxygen) makes you slower. As you paddle a river delta, the current dissipates and you much work harder for each kilometre.
7. As your summit bid draws near, doubt builds as well. You question your ability to pull it off and if you even still want to pull it off. Then you remember why you took on this mountain/river in the first place and make the decision to go for it, forsaking comfort, ease, and slacking off for one last big push to the top/end.
8. It’s much easier to go down that to keep climbing up but the views from the summit are life-changing.
9. The summit is obtained by taking one step after another step for hour and days or by taking paddle stroke by paddle stroke. Even when you think you don’t have another step or paddle stroke left in you.
10. The summit is only halfway. It’s important to continue to have the big picture, keep an eye to risk management, and never let the goal be worth more than returning safely to climb and paddle again.
We are off on the final phase of Paddling North, our summit push, tomorrow. We are not sure how long it will take-that will depend on weather and paddling conditions…likely in the vicinity of a week or so. We’ll continue to share audio posts and SPOT posts so you can hear witness to our daily progress making our way past the 3000 km mark, past 69 degrees North, and our arrival in Tuktoyaktuk. As always, we appreciate you cheering us on. We plan to continue our conservative paddling decision making and risk management style that has brought us 2880 kilometres safely thus far!
Two weeks ago, in the middle of the night, we pulled into Tuktoyaktuk, NWT having done somewhere in the vicinity of 2.5 million paddle strokes. In the picture above, we are enjoying a toast to finishing our expedition.
One week ago, we arrived back home having only adopted one additional adventure pig-Amelia is our new addition-she considers herself to be an explorer pig.
A few hour ago, we shared our first Moo Moo’s ice cream in a year signalling that we were home from all of our grand adventures of the last year.
It’s been a good week of settling back in, wanting for the river, seeing loved ones, telling stories, and unpacking from our last four trips and unpacking the house. Not to mention reclaiming our vegetable garden from the weeds and a bit of blueberry picking. Now, just as I felt like I was finally home, Delilah and I are off to the Royal Geographic Society International Conference to present some of the work I did while on my sabbatical.
We will both admit that we’ve resisted a wee bit, the process of settling back into regular life. We speak often of the river, sharing spontaneous memories, and wishing we were back there where the only things we really needed to do was sleep, eat, paddle, eat, paddle, eat, sleep, and repeat. But as I often say, you can’t stay on the summit forever.
What a grand adventure and so glad to share it with my dear co-adventurer Marian. I’ll be missing her sometime fierce this week as we’ve only been apart one eight hour period in the past year. Only six sleeps until we adventure together again, albeit the adventure of settling back into our everyday.
The year has just turned to 2020…what a lovely odometer year! Those who have followed me for awhile know that I am a fan of odometer moments. Turns out that I have several posts that explain this love of mine. If you need a laugh or two, check them out here. As we set our sights on the first sunrise of 2020, I am reminding myself that every moment is new. There is always possibility. We can always start again. Redirect. Make a new plan. Stay the course. Dig deep. Release. Take the other fork. Turn right. Turn left. Stop. Yield. Merge. Look for doors shutting and windows opening. Paths that weave between trees. Roads wide as concrete. Skies as deep as oceans. Ride the wave of this new year towards your big dreams and big goals. Even if that big goal is getting out of bed in the morning. Our mountains are our own. What is an Everest to one is a molehill to another. We can’t stay on the summit forever, we must return to the valley to rest and muster energy to climb again. Whatever you are climbing, be kind, be mindful, take good care, bring others along and up, and make each step (and word) with compassion. Here’s to the climb, whatever it is and wherever it takes you! Happy 2020.
We woke up yesterday and looked up towards Signal Hill and noticed a strange new cross looking item plastered to the side of the hill. We knew it was new and knew it must not have been there long and wondered what it was. The sun was out and as soon as we finished out yummy breakfast, we headed out on the hill to check it out. Given the location of our quest, we took a new route up to get to it and I was tickled to realize that after 600 or so ascents of Signal Hill, there was a new route to put together from bottom to top (I’d been on all the parts/trails we used-just never used them together to get from the bottom to top).
When we arrived at the “cross”, it seems like it might be a new lookout or outdoor drama space and it’s more of a ship’s mast than cross. It was different looking down on the city from that angle and location (just across from the Geo Centre-in the background with the blue roof). Anyone know what’s it supposed to be?
We continued up the hill to the Queen’s Battery and enjoyed some photography and views from there. It’s always good to look at a place (and ourselves) from new and different vantage points.
We headed down the backside of Signal Hill and then decided to do a “winter ascent” of Cuckhold Head. There’s no snow at the moment but the main ascent gully is full of a decent bit of ice so we climbed the steep section out of the gully on the left. We looked down on Quidi Vidi and some of the new fishing stages.
From Cuckhold Head, you get a very different look at Signal Hill and Cabot Tower. An eagle flew over our heads while we looked about and I swear, 2012 will be the year I finally get it together to camp on top of Cuckhold Head.
I found this benchmark on top of Cuckhold Head. They are placed by surveyors and it’s the first one I’ve found in the province. I was amazed that with the number of times I’ve been to the top of Cuckhold Head, I hadn’t spotted it. I appreciated that there was lots of new things to see if I truly open up my eyes to look. Every moment is indeed new and though I may have walked a certain way before, each time can be fresh and new. And that’s how I’m hoping to unfold 2012…with fresh and new eyes, thinking and moving.
“But wait,” you doth protest. “Where is update number 13?”
It’s in the same place as aisle 13 on the Druk Airlines plane we flew in on yesterday, left out for superstitious reasons/aiming for good luck.
Our guide, Namgay Tenzin, has been teaching us about Bhutanese customs, thoughts, and Buddhism. After explaining about one Bhutanese way of doing something, he concluded, “We Bhutanese are very superstitious. So to honour that tradition, update 13 is being skipped.
After our exciting landing, at one of the most dangerous airports in the world, where only 8 pilots are certified to land, we were met by Namgay and his assistant, Titi.
We spent a little time in Paro exchanging money and looking around before heading to our accommodation. We are staying amid the red rice fields and it is stunningly beautiful. We learned that Paro wasn’t made the capital because no much agricultural land would have been lost.
Today we visited a Bhutanese icon, Taktsang Dzong or the Tiger’s Nest. It’s called the Tiger’s Nest because according to legend, Guru Rinpoche rode to the temple’s site on a tiger where he meditated for 3 years, 3 months, 3 days, 3 hours, and 3 minutes. In 1692, Tenzin Rabgye built the temple on this holy spot where it stood until 1998. It burnt in a horrible fire but has since been rebuild because it is a national treasure.
We head tomorrow for our 28 day trek to Lunana It’s going to be a tough month with 11 pass crossings, cold weather, and (hopefully not too much) snow. Our trek distances will build quickly and this trek is considered one of the hardest in the world. After a week off, it took a bit to get the cobwebs off this morning on the steep climb to Taktsang. These will likely be the last typewritten updates until October 25 or so. If the technology plays nice, there will be a map and audio update each day for you to follow along with us.
We’ll be eating lots of chilies over the next weeks as they are a staple of the Bhutanese diet as is red rice which we had for the first time at lunch today.
Tiger, Lion, Garuda, and Dragon are often spotted on the four corners of Lungta. They represent the Four Dignities or four ways of being in and thinking about the world. I’ve seen them represented here many times already and I’ll be thinking often about the teachings I received about them. One of my Buddhist names calls me Lion so I’m often found of spotting the Snow Lion, who often joyfully jumps from mountain top to mountain top, in Buddhist iconography. As I toil against gravity and hypoxia, I plan to keep the images of Tiger, Lion, Garuda, and Dragon close at hand/close at mind in assisting me in always having the support of a joyful mind-even when going uphill feels very hard (which it mostly does these days.)
Thanks in advance for thinking of us and sending us strength (of all sorts) and gods thoughts. We promise lots of pictures come October 26 or so and in the meantime, enjoy the audio updates.
That’s my left hand holding Climber Smurf as we are traveling to Hebron, Labrador last August to begin our Paddle2Peaks expedition. It’s been a rough year for my hands. I hadn’t realized how rough until just before Christmas when I received some medical treatment that eased the pain for the first time in six months. As Joni Mitchell so aptly said, “You don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.” I hadn’t truly perceived the level of pain until it was absent. I’m working hard in physiotherapy to keep it that way and trying to be smart and sensible about activity choices. now that I’m pain-free…to stay pain free in both the short and long term.
I’m going have a gnarly set of worn-out hands when I’m 85 ‘cause I’m already well on my way there now. I consider my hands badges of a well-lived life. I love my hands. They are my connection to my paddle, my ice axe, my keyboard. It’s been tough to have such deep pain and doubt about that connection. Humbling too. It makes me wonder if someday that connection will be permanently broken or too painful to make. This doubt, in turn, makes the connection all the more precious and the activities I can do because of that connection, all the more precious.
The new year is often an occasion for looking back over the last one, for reflection, for seeing the high peaks and the low valleys. 2016, for me and so many others, had its fair share of both.
A friend recorded the series, Everest Air, that aired this fall and I recently watched the series. It was both tough and exhilarating to watch. Seeing the rescues, of course, reminded me of my own helicopter flight (read about it here) off of Everest and issued an invitation to continue processing that experience (and perhaps if I’m honest, triggered a wee bit of the PTSD I still carry from that sudden ending of my expedition). Just as I did in my own flight, I love the views of Everest and Nepal from the air, from above it all. The views of the Khumbu Icefall are breathtaking. Watching some of the episodes, Marian and I have seen remote regions we’ve trekked in and enjoyed the cascade of memories that comes with that reminder. I watched the rescue of one of my teammates during Episode Two. We stop and pause the video when views of my tent at base camp or other camps come into view. (Mine is the last blue one in the series of five blue ones :-))
During Episode Three, Everest Air flew to Makalu to pick up a sick climber. Because the Everest Air crew was picking up that climber, they were busy when the call went out for my pick-up so I was picked up by a different helicopter and crew that also happened to be filming a series about helicopter pilots and rescues in Nepal. That series starts airing tonight on Discovery and is called Everest Rescue. I don’t know which episode exactly my flight will be covered in-only that it comes later in the series.
As folks may remember, I often can’t watch my own media appearances. I often cover my ears and run screaming from the room when an interview comes on. I don’t often have interview remorse these days but it takes me a while to be ready to watch or listen to myself. I have no doubt that this will be the same. The series crew captured footage in the helicopter, base camp, at Lukla, at the Kathmandu airport, at the hospital, and then in a long interview in Kathmandu the evening before I was heading home. All of that will likely be condensed into a short segment that’s mostly focused on Jason Laing, the pilot who flew me off. Of course, when you consent to be filmed/interviewed in any context, you have no idea how you will be quoted/portrayed/shown but I’m hopeful, given the way the crew treated me throughout, that they will tell the story well and with respect.
I’m sure, once I gather the courage to watch the episode my flight is featured in, I’ll once again be tossed back into those moments, that day, those days, those weeks, that expedition. I’ll have another opportunity to understand the experience, its lessons, and its effects. I’ll see new connections and continue to accept/heal/let go of old ones. I’ll re-live the hope and anticipation of the beginning of the expedition and the bitter disappointment of the unexpected ending, and all points in between. I’ll see how the footage captured the moments and how that looks and feels the same (and likely different) than my lived experience of it. I’ll work with it as I’m ready and able.
Those of you with access to Discovery and in the inclination to watch-enjoy! I ask that you watch it with compassion for all involved-know that I may be a few weeks or months behind in the watching-and that hands and helicopters can both be very intense life experiences understood in the looking back rather than in the moment.
May 2017 bring you adventures of your choosing, teammates to share them with, and Everest sized compassion for you and all!
It’s been a foggy day here. Reminiscent of many other foggy days. One in particular, where I had a flight to Halifax. We took off in fog and flew almost all the way to Halifax but couldn’t land. We turned around and flew back to St. John’s and were able to land. I remember the discombobulation of the situation and asking myself, “Did I actually just go anywhere?” The days following that “non-flight” were unique as well because my YYT life was completely open and cleared because of the trip to Halifax…so I had two totally unscheduled days at home because of my flight to nowhere.
I haven’t been writing much lately. There hasn’t been much downtime so far this fall between travels, presentations, and outreach to schools. I’ve wanted to write. Longed to write. But also didn’t. Because writing would demand that I sit still, slow down, and let the fog that has been swirling around me since May blow away. I was startled yesterday to do the math and see that almost six months have passed since I returned from Everest 3.0. It’s been a rich and full time… full of recovery, disappointment, and short travels here and there.
I’m not the best at in and out travel. Better at all in. Or better at all out. Transitioning so much between in and out has me a bit tired so I’m glad to have carved out an evening to sit and write. To catch the words that drifted by this morning as I stared at the Everest poster in our entry way before heading out into the shaggy fog that enveloped the city like newly shorn wool.
Staring at the poster, I wondered what I’d accomplished with Everest 3.0. Since I’d reached a similar height as I did on Everest 2.0, had I, like the ill-fated Halifax flight above, really gone anywhere? Had this expedition made a difference to me or to others? What did I learn from the experience? What do I want to take from it into future expeditions? In that glance at the poster, I saw the fog I’d been living in, with, and through since returning because I hadn’t stopped to ponder the deeper answers to the above questions.
The two most common questions I’m asked…often several times each day…often by complete strangers (and by dear friends as well) are 1) What are you climbing next? and 2) Will you try Everest again? My current answer to both questions is “I don’t know.” For the first time in a long time, I don’t have a plant ticket to anywhere. I have some ideas floating around. It likely won’t be too much longer before a next trip crystalizes in my “snow globe” and a ticket purchased. But for now, I don’t know.
The most sustaining emotion I have about Everest 3.0 is disappointment. Not disappointment about not reaching the top (is that a double negative?) but disappointment about how the expedition ended. The ending was so unexpected. So sudden. With so little closure with the mountain and my teammates. When I made the decision to ask for flight assistance over the Khumbu Icefall, (not wanting to expose my teammates to extra risk by spending extra time with me in one of the most dangerous parts of the mountain,) I hadn’t fully comprehended the end game and how subsequent decisions would spiral out of my control.
I wrote a piece about the helicopter flight out for the inaugural issue of Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel. You can read it by clicking the link. In that piece, I explore my two-mindnessness during that flight–both so not wanting to be having the experience and so enjoying the view. The flight propelled me from the mountain heights to the valley lows. I was so suddenly displaced with no clothes, shoes, money or identification that it took a few days to work all of that out all the while suffering from a middle ear disturbance from the flight. It was total and utter discombobulation on all levels. Hope to return to trek with my friends came and went. Hope to return to the mountain came and went. Want to return home came and was granted by the sudden availability of a flight home. Camp Three to home in less than a week.
What I really wanted and hoped for in Everest 3.0 was a true shot at the summit. The summit would have been gravy. The maraschino cheery on the top of the Everest sundae. Instead, I left St. John’s with a nagging cough that likely caught up to me during the expedition through either walking pneumonia or HAPE depending on whose analysis of it all you want to go with.
So…no true shot for me this go-round, no ground gained over previous attempts, no closure granted, just a gapping crevasse of disappointment. I’ve needed to find a snow bridge to use to cross over-or perhaps an Icefall Doctor’s ladder would do the trick…So as the fog began to drop this morning, I could dare to see…if my core wants/needs/aims/goals/vision for the expedition weren’t met by this attempt, what was? What was accomplished?
If I cross over the far side of the crevasse, with knees weak and weary from the effort, with safety ropes tightly grasped in my hands, with tentative steps taken over the rickety ladder, I can see that I did go some place, that many things were accomplished, and that once again, disappointment is and will be my teacher. The other side of the foggy ladder reveals a celebration in deciding to go back. In deciding to risk “failure” again. In knowing that I might not get higher. That I might get/be lower or slower or older. That I faced fears both internal and external to go back. Knowing that it was harder to go back for Everest 2.0 that Everest 1.0. Harder still to decide to go back for Everest 3.0 knowing how tough and exacting and demanding the path to and up Everest is… that I would decide to stretch again for a third time. That is a victory. A win. A thing to be celebrated and shouted off hill tops.
I’m proud that I trained hard, prepared well, and went ready for the challenge. I’m proud of my HKR students who prepared an excellent school engagement program. I’m proud of having visited many schools before and after the expedition. That many schools were active participants in the expedition. That I had a tweet-fest with one of my co-chairs in learning and teaching. That I showed kids that it’s OK to try and that sometimes we don’t get to climb as high as we want to. That Climber Smurf is an awesome climbing partner. That my expeditions/explorations/adventures are like a crossword puzzle-it’s important to have UP, DOWN, and ACROSS. That there is a time and a season for everything. Including rest and regrouping. That I dug deep, bringing forth footsteps from the deepest part of myself. That I respected my limits, real or imagined or enforced. That I respected my teammates and Nepali climbing staff. That I shared much of the expedition in real time with creativity and joy. That I continue(d) to be in the public eye as a public dreamer and that I’m willing to answer most any question about climbing Everest in most any setting whenever asked. For all of the above and more, I am proud and I know in the ultimate equation makes living with/though the disappointment worth it.
What did I learn for next time?
These are a few of the things I’m putting into my backpack for future expeditions…it’s wonderful to climb with teammates I know, that there is a delicate balance between adequate acclimatization and wearing yourself out at altitude-that you must do enough of the first with as little of the second…the first being priority. That managing mind and emotions are important along with managing body (Can you really separate them?). That it’s always easier to take pictures on sunny, good weather days but the story might be in the storms.
That I like the word that.
That the world of blue, white and ice is worth taking such hard steps to see and experience. That there is a balance between training and life. Finding the minimum effective dose is a good aim but also make sure you use all the tools in your toolkit. Train all intelligences (i.e. mind, body, spirit, kinesthetic, creative, etc.). Share all of the above.
Believe. Train. Love. Repeat.
That I’m OK always. No matter what is happening or what I am doing or not doing. That the biggest mountain is within as are the deepest valleys. And that we must come down from the summit again and again. Keep it fun. Keep it real. Keep it real fun. Work hard. Enjoy the work. Temper the work with fun and community.
Don’t lose sight of the true summit. Like an airplane exit, it might be behind you.
And always, enjoy the view because it is pure magic to see alpine glow dancing across the crisp flanks of stoic mountain…and seeing the mountain blush.
I couldn’t decide on only one post from 2015 so I’ve included three: one from our expedition to El Salvador to climb the country’s highest volcanoes–that expedition was called Volcanopalooza. The second one is the wrap-up from my short, but intense, attempt on Canada’s highest peak, Mount Logan called Mission 5959. The final post is a tribute to my dear friend and co-adventurer, Jim Price, who left us too soon in 2015.
Through an act of unmindfulness/not great computing practice, this is the second time I am writing this blog entry. Marian assures me it will be better for having to do it twice. I’m unconvinced but will try my best. Of course, another volcano has come and gone since I wrote this piece early this morning…
Yesterday’s volcano was San Vicente…twin capped volcano topping out at 2173 metres, the second highest volcano in El Salvador. For parts of the climb, I wasn’t sure I would get to the summit but in the end, I did…let me start at the beginning.
Because we had a two hour drive to our volcano de jour, we were up early for breakfast at 6 am. We then drove to the village of Guadeloupe on the early slopes of San Vicente and met our local guides. Alphonso, a trim, fit, and volcano climbing phoneme, was our lead guide. We was dressed in blue jeans, yellow soccer jersey, and a machete hung from his belt. Most of our local folks have carried and used machetes on our climbs but more about that in a future post. Alphonso set off at a good clip because we’d arrived late for our 7-8 hour climb and dusk comes early at this time of year. We quickly caught the group of 40 exuberant youth who were also sharing the climb. We passed them and Alphonso wanted to keep it that way. Up and up we went. I missed the first opportunity for a snack. I’d been moving well but shortly there after around 10:30, I started to slow. My legs started to feel like they were encased in cement.
One teammate turned back when the terrain began to get steep. I’ve found in my climbing career that once someone turns back, it opens the door to doubt. It opens the Pandora’s Box of the Questioning Mind and yesterday was no exception. As the terrain got steeper and steeper and we were literally crawling our way up the slope from tree branch to tree branch, my box of “Did I want to go down?” spilled open and I spent the next while mulling that question in relation to my slowing pace. So caught up in the ruminations of my Pandora mind, I did not realize that I was running out of fuel. At the next break, I ate a banana without realizing its import. I continued to climb, albeit slower and slower, albeit with my mind analyzing every footstep of my performance, albeit just putting one step in front of another.
Thirty minutes or so later, I realized steps were getting easier. My mind was easing. The volcano slope no longer seemed like a concrete wall. In a flash of insight, I realized the banana had cured my bonk. So I ate another. I laughed at myself and my “rookie” mistake. I remembered bonking on Aconcagua just as my team was hitting Windy Corner. I remembered that I’d made the commitment then, and it still makes sense today, to never turn, to never quit until I’ve deposited gas and oil (food and water) to my engine. It was humbling to see how I’d hadn’t quite had my systems in place (ie. snacking before getting off the bus, having snacks very handy (ie. in my pocket-though in fairness it’s hard to carry bananas safely in your pocket, being willing to ask the group to wait a minute so I could take care of needs, etc.). It was great to observe the pairing of body and mind…how as fuel declined, so did my mental state. I’m proud I didn’t give into Pandora mind and just kept stepping.
There was no views but the jungle until the summit ridge and then we could see most of El Salvador. One of the benefits of Volcanopalooza has been to experience many remote corners of El Salvador but also to see so much of the country. Its land mass is about twice the size of the Avalon Peninsula but with 6 million inhabitants. We took it the view, ate lunch and then scampered back down. The soil was soft and forgiving so we “skied” down and made short work of the descent. As you can see from the GPS track above, it was quite a steep up and down! We climbed about 1400 metres to the summit of 2173 metres.
Getting to the top is optional, getting back down is mandatory. A lot of people forget about that. ― Ed Viesturs
I’ve read several of Ed Viesturs’ books. He is the first American to summit all 14 8000 metre peaks without supplemental oxygen. It took him several attempts to reach the summit of some of them. I remember reading that he had stopped a summit attempt 150 metres below the top because “it didn’t feel right.” He respected his inner voice/intuition and it had kept him safe over the course of many, many expeditions. I, too, have such a voice. Most recently, it keep me off Everest 2014 and Everest 2015 and for that, I am grateful that I listened.
In my study of Buddhism, I’ve been taught to pay attention to the causes and conditions that bring each moment to fruition. I do my best. Some moments, I can see them clearly; other moments they are too muddled together to tease them apart.
I have had a relationship with PTSD for the past 46 years. Sometimes, it is hibernating quietly, hidden blissfully from my view. Other times, it overwhelms with the fury of a 100 year winter storm. Sometimes, it is my wise teacher and other times, my tormentor. It’s presence in my life ebbs and flows on an unscheduled tide than I neither understand not control and even though, I continue to grow to be the stronger one in the duo, sometimes I’m tripped up by echoes of traumas past.
Most often, it can take up to a week for the causes and conditions (i.e. weather and logistics) to allow a team to gain flight access Mount Logan. My trip, this year, was the exception. We flew in earlier than we were scheduled to and gorgeous weather allowed us unprecedented access to begin climbing. My luggage had arrived late in Whitehorse so I had to fly to the mountain not having had a chance to organize my gear into systems. Systems which help me know exactly where each bit of kit is stored in my backpack so I can access it quickly in case of storm or other emergency. It usually takes a few days to get in a rhythm and have it all sorted. Arriving to base camp around 10 pm, we got the tent up and I rummaged around, trying to find all I would need for a reasonably warm night. It was pretty cold out. Minus 20C or so.
It was a long, very cold, and nightmarish night. One of my worst ever in the mountains. My dragon-like PTSD partner seemed to have awoken after a decade’s long sleep. My heart pounded. Adrenaline coursed through my body like fiery lava spilling me over into restless fear, unsettled exhaustion, and wanting to run. As my practice of Buddhism taught me, I kept my seat. I stayed. I stared down the fiery assault, breathed compassion for the myself and the dragon, in and out and got up the next morning, and carried a load to Camp One. I did the same the second day after a better night.
By the end of the third day, we’d already made our first big carry to Camp Two at 4100 metres. As I skied each of those first three days, I revelled in the glory of the immense landscape I was traversing and thought about the many dreams, wishes, and goals I carried with me as a part of Mission 5959. I read the messages on my skis often and said them over and over again to myself. Anytime, I was moving, the dragon slept as if a child pacified by the rocking of a crib. Anytime, I stopped, it woke. Cried. Curled into a ball. Wished and wanted safety. I did my best to sit, pay attention, meditate, and find some ground amidst the cold, white towers that surrounded us.
After the carry to Camp Two, my inner voice that had kept me safely away from the heights off Everest for the past two disastrous seasons, began to enter the conversation.
“Don’t go back to Camp Two,” it said the first time.
“Why?” I asked back.
The wind, whipped into a frenzy by a ferocious Logan storm, kept me from hearing the answer.
As each gust died away, I heard the repeated whisper, “Don’t go, don’t go, don’t go higher.”
In response, I wrote in my journal, I organized my gear, I sat quietly trying to discern the source and meaning of the quiet words ricocheting in my mind.
“Was this the echoes of dangers past propagated by the newly woken dragon’s presence?” I wondered more than once.
“Could it be the normal anxieties of starting a cold, hard, sufferfest expedition in a remote, cold place? I asked myself over and over again.
“Should I take this message seriously?” I mused.
Pinned to our backs in our tents for the better part of three days as 175 km/hr gusts pummelled our camp, my mind wrestled with these and other questions. It was like watching a Saturday cartoon where the questions and answered wrestled in a swirling ball of animated fur and feathers. At the end of each storm-filled night, I waited with dreaded anticipation of the day’s plan.
“Were we headed up higher or staying put?” I called out of the tent when I heard footsteps in the morning.
On each of the three mornings where the answer was that we were staying put, intense and immense waves of relief washed over me and I proceeded to have a good day reading, putzing, eating, drinking, and navigating the world of expedition tent-boundness.
On the fourth morning, the storm wasn’t quite finished but it had dropped enough to allow us to travel up or down. We were running low on food at Camp One so we soon had to choose one direction or the other. Down to base camp to re-fill or up to Camp Two to continue climbing. When word arrived that we were moving up, most, if not all except me, rejoiced in finally being freed to continue the expedition. I, when hearing the up direction, was immediately buried with a sense of doom and dread and heaviness.
The whisper became more insistent, “DON’T GO, DON”T GO, DON”T GO TO CAMP TWO”, it yelled. I spoke to the guides and expressed some of my doubts and sought out the options. They were kind and understanding and offered words to calm and soothe the ever-louding voice. With that in place, I agreed to make a go for Camp Two. I started to pack. I grew nauseous. I breathed. I packed. I chased the thoughts and tried to catch them to understand their meaning. I thought about Andy who was on the trip at my invite. I thought about all the dreams I was carrying. I packed more. I stepped out from the tent into the wind and took down the tent. I packed my sled. Put on my harness. I helped others pack.
Each new gust of wind magnified the echoing message, “Don’t go, don’t go.”
I moved my gear to the rope. I tied in my sled. I tied in my harness. I clipped in my boots. We started to ski in unison across the flat expanse of the glacier. This time, movement didn’t quell the dragon. It didn’t quell the voice.
Both were screaming, “Don’t go, don’t go.”
I skied with them that way for about an hour hoping the gentle swaying of my arms and rhythmic swinging of my legs might lull the message away so that I would not have to disappoint Andy, my followers, myself. As the last team pulled up beside us and was about to pass, I know this was my last chance to listen to the week-long voice that was urging me to not go higher on the mountain without impacting another teammate.
If I waited any longer to listen and the other rope team went past, I was either locked in to going all the way to Camp Two or asking a teammate to help bring me back to basecamp. Wanting to inconvenience as few other people as possible, I decided, in that fleeting moment to listen. To listen to the voice that has kept me safe on 26 expeditions in the past decade. To listen to the causes and conditions that weren’t quite coming together for me to feel comfortable going higher. To listen to my heart and to my mind. To, for this once, seek safely and comfort instead of adversity. To recognize that although I was physically strong enough, skilled enough, and all packed and ready to go, I didn’t have to. I could have the courage to turn. To listen. To live to climb another day.
Decision made, I was flooded once again with tsunamis of relief. Both Andy and I were in tears as we parted. I wished him the summit and safe return. I turned my back to the mountain, leaving it and the don’t go voice there, and skied back to base camp. I’ll never know what would have happened if I’d continued up, life’s like that. Each day, we navigate thousands of intersections/decisions, some we immediately perceive the impact of, many we do not.
I’m home safe. I’m sad. I’m grieving for the lost climb and for unloved/lost experiences. I’d been dreaming a fairy tale of book-ending an amazing decade of expeditions with Arctic summits, but alas, the dragon showed up and the ending to the story is still being written.
Mission 5959 turned into Mission 4100 and I thank all of those who entrusted their dreams to me to carry as high as I could on the mountain. Dreams don’t always come true…at least on the first go…sometimes needing two, or three, or hundreds of goes. Sometimes dreams shift. They morph. They meld. Sometimes we give up on them. Sometimes they give up on us. Mostly, they are there as beacons asking us to climb high, climb far, and reach for an unknown sky. The summit is just one piece of topography, much like all the others, and I’m grateful for all of your love, care, and compassion as I traverse much of life’s topography climbing, skiing, paddling, and walking towards my dreams.
Jim Price lived his life with his arms wide open. He met everyone and every experience with a grand hug, a broad smile, and twinkle in his eye. You always knew the moment Jim arrived at any gathering. The energy in the room was immediately uplifted by his buoyant spirit and you knew his booming laughter would soon fill the space inviting you to draw closer to hear what he had gotten into lately. Since Jim’s death on Wednesday, we’ve all been overwhelmed with shock and grief that he was taken away from us so suddenly and without warning. Between these huge waves of emotion, much like the huge waves off the coast of Newfoundland that Jim loved to paddle so much, we’ve been telling stories. Stories of Jim, stories of our adventures with Jim, and most poignantly, we’ve been telling the stories of what Jim taught us through the way he lived his life. Arms wide open.
Jim was a teacher. I swear that he taught half of the province to paddle. Paddle a kayak. Paddle a canoe. Even a paddle board. I remember seeing him just after he completed a paddle board instructor certification course. He spoke with great excitement of having another paddling sport to instruct, another way to encourage others to join him in his beloved outdoors, on his beloved waters. Jim taught me to whitewater kayak soon after I arrived in St. John’s twenty years ago. It was the beginning of a dear friendship that spanned rivers, waves, peaks, and canyons. I followed him down rivers that were likely beyond my skill level but I knew he had my back, that he could pull me out of any situation that I got myself in. He was like a mother duck leading her ducklings into the current for the first time. He picked the right course, showed the way, looked back over his shoulder, and called out a deep belief in what you could do.
You see, another gift that Jim had and gave, was a deep, abiding confidence in himself and in you. I’ve been watching videos of trips that Jim and I shared. He was often the cameraman because of his skill. He could go out ahead and position himself to catch the action. As he captured the scene, his commentary was a mix of sportscast and encouragement. He could both comment and coach. In hindsight, you could tell how close you’d come to capsize or other disaster by how quickly Jim was calling out instructions. The harder and faster he called out for you to paddle, the harder and faster you’d better paddle. Once the excitement had been mitigated by your newfound paddle speed, his voice immediately returned to calm praise for what you had just accomplished.
Jim was a “yes” man of the finest kind. We can hardly remember a time he said no. “YES, you can run this rapid!,” Jim must have said to a hundred or more of us. “Yes, you can borrow my boat,” he answered many a time. “Yes, I’ll share all the beta I learned last week on my scouting mission–come on over and I’ll show you the maps,” Jim said to anyone who asked. Generous. Gregarious. Gracious. Jim gave much and often. He gave of himself, his knowledge, his skills, and his leadership. He completed many first descents of rivers around the world and throughout Newfoundland. He also completed hundred’s more descents of the same rivers while teaching and coaching others. Whether you were meeting Jim for the first time or for the hundredth, you knew Jim was fully in, fully present, and fully ready to do whatever the moment demanded/requested of him. From Jim, I learned to say yes every when every fibre of my fear was yelling no while at the same time, respecting the water and the hazards and knowing when to get off the sea or when to walk around a rapid. One time, while we were in the Grand Canyon, I was totally spooked by a rapid. He gently tried to coach me through it but when he realized that this one had too much of a hold on me, he volunteered to first take his kayak through, and then walk back and row my raft. A big hole managed to grab the raft for a spin but Jim calmly and skillfully coaxed it out and then gave me back the oars and said, “You got this-let’s go down river.”
Jim was a storyteller. His love of telling stories and jokes is legendary. Whether he was cooking for clients on a trip he was guiding or teaching a paddling class for my students, he livened the moment with a story or two. Jim loved a campfire. He could turn out a gourmet meal over one but mostly I remember how much he liked to relax by the fire telling stories and spinning yarns. Long into the night, either with friends or alone, he would keep the fire burning and the next morning tell stories of the blazing white moon, the magical starlight or the dancing of the colourful northern lights. Jim sucked the marrow of his days’ bones. He savoured and reflected on the day, on the trip, on his life through the art of story so it seems fitting as we celebrate his life that we tell stories, lots of stories, of Jim and his deep and profound legacy he has left for his family, for us, for the province. Rest in peace Jim-though it’s hard to imagine you resting as it’s something we never saw you do much off. Wherever it is you or your spirit is, I hope there is plenty of firewood, water in your kettle, and a story to tell.
Two expeditions to invite you to today…the first isn’t a specific post but over a hundred-in 2014, Marian and I spent 2.5 months trekking and climbing on the Great Himalayan Trail from the Eastern border with India to the Bigu Gompa. We called the expedition the Great Big Walk and I hope you’ll check a few out.
The second post is from my fall expedition to Ama Dablam, one of the most beautiful mountains I have ever climbed on. It was originally published on December 11, 2014. I find it interesting to see how many posts I’m sharing were authored in December. Perhaps, the deep dark of December provides a reflective invitation to look back and draw the lessons from the previous year-that or perhaps the first opportunity to sit still after having to go full tilt to catch up after being away on an expedition!
Our stories are written both as we live them and as well tell them. Since arriving home Monday evening, I have been telling and re-telling the story of my recent Ama Dablam climb and I learn/reflect on the experience with each telling. My understanding is deeper and more nuanced each time and I’ve begun to catalogue all of the lessons to take forward from the expedition. No doubt, the stories and my understanding of them will change as I tell them further but I’m ready to share, as Paul Harvey used to say on the radio (and perhaps still does) “The Rest of the Story.”
Ama Dablam, named for the hanging glacier seen in the picture above, is both a beautiful and terrifying mountain (as mountains so often are). Dablam means “jewel box” and Ama means “mother” so Ama Dablam is “Mother’s Jewel-Box named for being reminiscent of the amulet that some Sherpa women wear around their necks. The Dablam has always given mountaineers pause and this season, especially so. Dendi Sherpa was killed and three other climbers injured, when ice from the Dablam fell and struck them in early November just before I was leaving for the mountain. I knew at that moment that my climb and my goals for that climb were changed. I’ve always been (and always hope to be a conservative decision-maker in the field). I chose to continue onto the expedition because I knew many of my goals for the climb could be met below the Dablam/summit.
The trek in went smoothly, it was great being back in the Khumbu, and we hiked into our Ama Dablam base camp on day five (4400 meters). We’d slept in Monjo, Kunjuma, and Pangboche. We had our puja and a technical skills training day and then we began to carry up the mountain. In hindsight, I think I would have chosen another night in Pangboche before coming up to 4400 for more acclimatization time. I’d noticed I was dragging a bit on most inclines and perhaps was a bit slower to acclimatize overall on this expedition than usual. The expedition leader apprised the team that summits might not be possible this year due to the state of the Dablam but the assessment of the hazard would be ongoing.
The first carry up the mountain to Advanced Base Camp (ABC) was tough for everyone but the second carry was even tougher for me. I was feeling like I had nothing in my legs or gas tank. Andy, my climbing partner was kind enough to relieve me of three pounds or so and it made a huge difference (go figure) and I made it up to ABC (5400). We settled into our and started melting snow into water. There were lots of headaches about camp as people tried to cope with less oxygen.
First nights are a new altitude are long and this one was no exception. Not much sleep, coupled with getting up frequently to pee, pounding headaches, nausea, needing to hydrate, etc. makes the morning a time to latch onto. We left our gear in the tent and made our way slowly up to Camp One to introduce our bodies to that altitude. I felt like I was moving slow again but in hindsight, I have no real clear idea of how I was moving because my reference group had changed for this climb (i.e. I was climbing with faster folks than usual so naturally this would make it seem like I was slower).
In terms of the reference times we were given for times between camps, I was solidly in the middle (i.e. my first climb to ABC was 3.6 hours when the range given was 2-6 hours) but I labelled myself as “slow” and I was by comparison. I squirm as I type this because I recognize that I was stuck in a mind trap of labelling/shaping my experience by thinking I was slow/less than/inadequate because I happened to take my time going up the hill. I squirm because I can see that it was my ego talking…that it really didn’t matter how long it took to go from BC to ABC because there were absolutely no hazards requiring speed to minimize exposure to danger.
In fact, I could (here and now) argue that going slow is good because it doesn’t tax you as much, doesn’t build us as much of a hypoxic debt, and requires less recovery time…but all I could see/think/feel into those moments, surrounded by seedy/active/macho teammates was that I was SLOW. My lesson to be taken…drop the storyline, drop the ego, and just climb…only consider travel time as info, not a weapon against self. I’d thought I’d already learned that lesson in 2007 but alas, some lessons need to learned more than once.
After tagging Camp One (5700), Andy and I spent a second night at ABC and then headed back to BC for some rest days. Five of the team went up to Camp One and spent the night. We were now in two waves/teams which fit well since higher camps would have fewer tents and we had been told we had lots of time to acclimatize and could go up/down the mountain on our own schedules. We spent two nights down and the expedition leader asked us all to stay down until the rest of the team got down so we could make a plan.
No real planning happened the evening Team One came down from the mountain. The leader didn’t initiate any and folks were just glad to be in the thick air. The four of us in Team/Wave Two made plans to go back up in the morning. Andy and I liked to leave early to allow plenty of time to melt snow and hydrate lots. As we were heading out, the rest of the team was discussing a potential plan to climb Island Peak (a trekking peak 1.5 days walk up the valley). We left them to it and starting up the hill once again arriving at ABC slightly faster than the first time. The views were awesome and all of us felt better being up the mountain the second time.
At radio check that evening, we were asked if we wanted to climb Island Peak and were told the rest of the team would join us the following evening at Camp One. We were surprised because they’d only had one rest day down low and we’d looked forward to being a small group at Camp One (and we’d assumed there were only spaces for about half the team). We said we’d give our decisions about Island peak in the morning and signed off. I don’t think we had a clear picture of how the Island Peak plan would derail our time on Ama Dablam at that point.
In the morning, three out of the four of us in Team/Wave Two said no to Island Peak. We packed our things and climbed up to Camp One. As usual, the going felt hard, arduous, and slow but in reality, I climbed faster on this second go to Camp One than I did on the first. I trailed the rest of the guys but got there in around 3 hours. The staff member who usually helped out by melting snow wasn’t yet back from his day off to Camp One so we boiled up, had some snacks, and headed out on the fixed lines towards Camp Two. Andy was moving particularly well so he made it all the way to the base of the yellow tower.
It was great to be out on the technical terrain that had formed the basis of my goals for the peak (I’d wanted to train/experience/climb in more technical high altitude environs). I climbed in this section alone but felt very confident and didn’t mind the solo time (the climbing sherpas hadn’t yet reached Camp One from base camp). Because I’d had climbed up from ABC, I set a limit of one hour out over the fixed-line. At the one hour mark, I turned myself back. It turns out I returned very quickly so likely could have climbed another 30 minutes and perhaps reached the bottom of the yellow tower.
When I got back to Camp One, Kumar was there melting snow and I appreciated the cup of tea he provided me and then went to set up my things in our tent. Other teammates began to arrive from below and the guys came back from their foray up the ropes. As we started brewing up, we noticed that there was sh#t in the vestibule of our tent ( a wee bit disgusting) and we should likely have changed tents but there were no open ones left. Two of the sherpas went up to retrieve tents from Camp Two and brought them down to Camp One so there ended up being enough “beds” at the inn but it all started to unravel a bit with sherpas and members coming and going and sorting and with Camp One being a ledgy camp with tents fairly spread out it was tough to communicate. The ridge took the sun away at about 4 pm so then it got very cold and folks all piled into their tents for the night.
I learned several days later that both our expedition leader and sirdar were down in Pangboche on this day and this added to the complications of communication/plan making for everyone. I was made a bit uncomfortable by all the chaos/lack of leadership and said I would see what direction ( i.e. up or down) I would go in the morning. I had hoped to camp at Camp Two-that was my new goal for the mountain when the Dablam took the mountain out of condition. The morning was still a bit chaotic with small teams leaving at different times than arranged and I realized that I didn’t feel comfortable proceeding in the current set-up so I said I would head down. I had realized that I might need some assistance in carrying my load over the more technical terrain to Camp Two but knew the expedition was now in this “hurry up and get off the mountain so we can go to Island Peak” phase so I never expressed that need/want/goal. Big lesson number two from the climb…have a voice, ask for what I want/need, take up space, don’t always take it for the team.
As I descended, I felt truly disappointed in myself and the expedition/leader that I/we didn’t make Camp Two happen for me (it’s truly one of the more outrageous spots for a camp). When I heard that all but one of the tents had been pulled from Camp Two so the entire team could be at Camp One to try for high spots, it was hard to then say-“Please put the tents back up there.” Looking back in hindsight, when we left to climb to ABC in the midst of the decision, we forfeited our vote/voices for staying put on Ama. By the time, we’d reached ABC, the decision was made and we were left to decide how we would react to it. Ultimately, I chose to go trekking rather than bag a summit on Island Peak (and that was a good decision for me).
In the end, three team members went to Island Peak. Three caught a helicopter home early and three of us completed a 7-day trekking route over the Cho La before rejoining the Island Peak climbers in Kunjuma. Two team members climbed to the Grey Couloir, three or four to Camp Two, and the rest to various spots below Camp Two. The Island Peak hurry-up plan deprived some teammates of much-needed rest and they were bagged (exhausted) when they climbed back up to Camp One on only one day of rest. I suspect, without the distraction of relocating the expedition for the peak bag, many members would have reached a high point of Camp Three but we’ll never know.
In reflecting on the expedition, I see it as humbling, as filled with lost potential, as disappointing, and/but on a brighter note, as one of celebrating perseverance. This one was a tough go for me. The hills were tough both physically and mentally…from the Namche Hill on…but I kept climbing. Every day. Through the toughness. Finding the footsteps. Finding each and every one of them deep within myself and putting them into the world. Every day felt tough like a summit day. Lessons of pushing hard, digging deep, finding strength, finding weakness, finding my frailty and climbing anyway. Lessons of lost voice and lost choice and lost opportunities and missed goals. Lessons of compassion for self and others, this moment and that. Moments of stunning beauty and uplifted wonder…as usual, a rich and unfolding prayer flag filled time. And I so, so, so missed sharing each day of it with Marian (the Great Big Walk expedition spoiled me so).
This was originally posted on December 5, 2013. I’d just finished my attempt at Aoraki/Mount Cook. Enjoy!
When you take risks you learn that there will be times when you succeed and there will be times when you fail, and both are equally important.
― Ellen DeGeneres
Autumn 2013 has passed in a blur of in and out, out and about, here and there, out everywhere. I knew once it was August, it was December. And, I was right. It’s now December 6th and my week on Aoraki/Mount Cook is over and I’m left to reflect on the life lessons learned, the highs, the lows, the climbing skills progressed, the moments, the decisions, the regrets and everything in between. I see it all as a web of connected life where strands pulled in one direction tug the web this way and then that. From my first posts since returning back to Wanaka, it should be evident that I did not stand on the summit of Aoraki/Mount Cook. I don’t often define the summit as success and not achieving the summit as failure, preferring usually to use the sentiment, “I didn’t get to climb as high as I wanted to.”
And indeed, on this climb, I didn’t get to climb to either the summit nor as high I wanted. I did get to climb, however, and early in the week, even that was in question. I had a fabulous conference in Dunedin and hopped on the bus north to Wanaka. As the day progressed, I felt overcome. My heart raced. My world turned black. I was distressed, scared, and confused. I wanted to be on a bus anywhere else. I tried reading, I tried looking out the window, I tried breathing and meditating. It was hard to break the spell of the heavy weight of anxiety/panic that has descended like a black cloak–at times heavy and smothering.
My last six weeks before New Zealand were filled to breaking with travel, work, and stress. I found it hard to focus on training and preparing for the climb. I’d wished I’d never signed up. I had several conversations with Marian trying to find a mind set that would fit the climb, a goal that fit that situation, a summit that might be possible.
It turned out that I reached the summit by stepping foot on the mountain. I lived those first few days with my heart so stuck in my throat, it could hardly beat. I struggled to sleep, to breath, to think. But I just kept stepping towards the mountain. I acted as if I were going to climb it. I kept hoping and praying that the baby steps would finally wear away at the black velvet encircling my head and I could remember that I loved high mountain spaces and how I am in them.
My mind screamed uncompassionate messages of incompetence and failure to train. I countered with strength of experience and affirmation of goodness. Lydia, my guide, likely intuitively, provided a bridge to remembered competence through frequent observation/complement of strength and skill. I kept the tears at bay. I stayed in place. I didn’t run when every cell in my body demanded the action of RUN. NOW. AWAY. FROM HERE. FROM THIS.
I stayed the course. I set foot on the mountain. I climbed as high as I could Tuesday morning in challenging conditions until a combination of physical/mental/mountain hazard situations led me to decide to stop climbing at the Linda Glacier bergschrund around 3000 metres. We’d been climbing for nearly 4 straight hours with only one short break. It was super windy and cold. My legs felt like jelly and the conditions forced us/me to climb at a pace that was on the outside edge of my fitness. I kept up to the pace but it was taking a huge toil.
Lactic acid started to build. I’d started to slow. I’d started to move with less elegance and more clumsy. I was concerned that my legs were burnt, baked, and fried and I didn’t trust them to take me over the next very steep pitch that had huge fall consequences. I weighed the equation over and over in my mind and in the end, the risks came out too great. I decided to turn and head downhill and get to safety before the softening conditions made the journey that much more challenging and dangerous.
I’m left, of course, to wonder if I could have pushed through. I’m left to wonder if I should have asked to take a longer break and slow the pace now that we were reaching the super steep and exposed terrain. I’m left to wonder if I could have found the will and determination to push through. I’m left to wonder if I had pushed on, if the consequences for not being in top form would be lethal.
I know I can climb Aoraki/Mount Cook. Lydia told me so. Over and over again. And I will. I will return with a huge reserve in the training bank, with greater stamina, and a heart and spirit unbridled by stress and doubt. This climb has nudged me to face a slide into doubt that has been mounting for months, clouding my judgment, and taking a huge toll. I’ve seen a new summit here and it is working again with the steep face of doubt, a challenging yet doable climb-one that will call on my skills and resources and creativity to change the dynamic and stop the slide. It’s as if Aoraki/Mount Cook has provided the context for me to practice self-arrest–to fall down on my ice axe, dig in my toes, stop the slide, and then get up again ready to take another step up the mountain (of life)…or down perhaps if the risks are too great.
As you can see, there has been much personal learning and success in pushing through my distress to climb at all. There were also other successes and joys and high points and other things, besides my inner process that were challenging…in the spirit of the famous movie, I’ve decided to capture them as “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.”
The Good: Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit. ― Napoleon Hill
Climbing with Lydia Bradey and learning so many subtle skills that will shape my climbing for the next few years Taking on a technical peak that pushed my climbing skills Getting on the mountain through a crushing period of doubt The amazing views of Aoraki/Mount Cook Riding in the front seat of a helicopter twice Hanging with my climbing family of Lydia, Mark, and Angus Really hearing Lydia when she said I have good skills My best feeling alpine start to date (no anxiety, no nausea, ate well, packed well and efficiently) Climbing for at least two more hours after first thinking that I wanted to stop Climbing at a hard demanding pace through challenging terrain Being surrounded by blue, white and black…colours and views that make my spirit soar. Keeping up to most of the men who were taller and younger Falling in love with a new range of mountains Finding a rhythm of stepping and breathing that makes me one with the mountain Leading two rock climbs (the first time in two decades) Sharing a few tricks I’d learned with Lydia that she liked enough to adopt.
The Bad: Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing. ― Denis Waitley
The questions that regret nurtures. 3000 metres, not 3754 Deciding to climb after the conference, not before. Deciding not to attend the 12 day skills course before the conference and then the climb afterward (the course providing the mountain hardening and the conference the rest/relax before the climb) Deciding to prioritize other activities/work/stuff ahead of preparations for Aoraki/Mount Cook A hugely long intimating summit day Trying to climb to 3754 after living/hanging at sea level with just one day of acclimatization
The Ugly: I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. ― Thomas A. Edison 40 cm of new snow that required us to wear snowshoes until the bergschrund (extra weight on top of heavy mountain boots) Having to traverse a few scary, tiny, narrow crevasse bridges in snowshoes A howling wind that multiplied the cold Ice balls the size of cantaloupes and boulders that had recently fallen from ice cliffs that overhang the route Climbing a debris slope of a recent avalanche Doubt and the anxiety it propagates A super heavy pack filled with technical climbing gear (I’d trained with a 25 pounder-I should have made it a 40 pounder to be safe) Not enough stamina/endurance training (one of the first climbs that I didn’t do ten Signal Hills for prior to leaving)
I’m sure more will come to mind but it’s time to close for now-I have a date with a waterfall in the morning for my last technical skill development in New Zealand. I look forward to celebrating the goods and leaving the bads and uglies to wither and fall away like leaves in autumn. Pictures of the climb follow.
My first view of Aoraki/Mount Cook…This is the view from the National Park Headquarters in the midst of a storm that eventually dropped 40 cm of snow on the mountain.
Because we couldn’t fly out to the mountain, we stopped in at the National Park Headquarters and I enjoyed learning the history of the mountain including the stories of the many women who’ve climbed it. The first woman to reach the summit of Aoraki/Mount Cook was Australian Freda Du Faur in 1910. Betsy Blunden was the first woman to professionally guide the mountain starting in 1928 (she was first woman in the world to work as a professional alpine guide). The first team of all women to climb Aoraki/Mount Cook was in 1953 (demonstrating the increasing skills and independence of women climbers). The team members were Mavis Davidson, Doreen Pickens, and Sheila MacMurray.
Look who else was featured on the displays of the National Park…the one, the only, and my guide, Lydia Bradey. Lydia was the first woman to climb Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen and I believe, remains the only New Zealander to do so to date.
Lydia is very humble about her accomplishments. Here she was kind of enough to post with her picture. You can see she is humouring me!
Our first glance of Aoraki/Mount Cook from our helicopter flight in. This picture gives a good look at the Linda Glacier and the Plateau Hut is on the ridge line that is near the right side of the photo at the midline.
Our first view of Plateau Hut…this “flying in thing” could spoil a girl…though I often think the walk in is a critical part of mountain conditioning. Looking at the terrain, it would be quite the climb just to get to the hut!
I loved that the windows in the hut were also emergency exits and further got a kick out of thinking of nature as a cure for all sorts of personal emergencies.
A team of two heading out towards Mount Dixon to stretch their legs and work on skills.
This was the first view we’d had during our climb of Aoraki/Mount Cook when the sun rose. We headed out of the hut in the pitch darkness at 1:00 am under a sky ablaze with stars. The large peak in the background is Mount Tasman.
Here Lydia is standing on a debris field from an avalanche that occurred the day before. We waited two days after the snow storm for conditions to stabilize and for lots of these kinds of slides to occur. What you can’t see is that this slope was also covered in “ice balls.” This dropped from ice cliffs above and ranged in size from small round ice cube to cantaloupe to large boulder of ice. They were clear, beautiful, and lethal if you happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Linda Glacier route on Aoraki/Mount Cook is “big terrain” and heavily crevassed. My hat (and helmet) off to the first two teams who broke trail on the morning of our climb. Not only did they have to break trail through 30-40 cm of snow, they had to find bridges over many huge crevasses such as the one that Lydia is standing beside.
The descent was quite warm and here we are celebrating that we are almost back at the hut (seen at the mid line of the photo on the right of the image). You can see that Lydia has herself all protected from the “death star” a.k.a. the sun which is quite powerful both in New Zealand as well as on the glacier…put the two together and you have the recipe for a good sun burn.
A view of the glacier lake at the end of the Tasman Glacier during our helicopter flight out. Did I mention that this “flying out thing” could spoil a girl? The flight out allowed us to spend two days working on my technical rock climbing skills rather than hike/climb out.
Looking down on icebergs that have broken off the Tasman Glacier floating in the lake. The water doesn’t look blue yet because it is full of glacier silt. You can see the changeover to that awesome glacier teal colour in the photo above. More coming about the climb and lessons learned in a subsequent post.
This post comes on the heels of our attempt on Orizaba, the highest peak in Mexico and the third highest in North America. It was originally posted on October 29, 2012.
Three words. One comma. A philosophy of life. Oma’s favourite advice.
And…the words I am taking solace in to cope with the disappointment that ice conditions on El Pico de Orizaba forced us to abandon our summit bid on Mexico’s Highest Peak at about 17,000 feet above sea level.
What comes, comes. Roll with the punches. Revel in the journey. Take the life lessons. Live to climb again.
After taking a rest day in Puebla, we travelled to the base of Orizaba to catch a ride to the hut at 14,000 feet. The ride, in a four by four truck, brought to mind “Shake and Bake” and we wondered if we were beef or chicken as we were bounced mightily around the back of the truck on the way up. After 90 minutes of being tossed about, we arrived and set up camp. This being our third visit to this altitude, we noticed it was slightly easier to walk about. I asked Marian to take this picture of Oma and I in front of Orizaba.
We had a yummy dinner (for which all of us finally had an appetite-gotta love being more acclimatized) and turned in about 7:00 pm. JJ’s wake up call came just after midnight and we hit the trail to start the climb through “The Labyrinth” at 2:00 am. Once again, I appreciated the darkness’ cloaking of the challenging terrain. There had been big wash-outs of the trail and we were forced far right to make our way through. A middle steep snow section got everyone’s attention followed by an hour’s climb of a dirt rib in crampons.
We topped out of the aptly named Labyrinth section around 6:00 am and looked forward to the regular rhythm of climbing snow all the rest of the way to the crater’s rim. Small steps taken in combination with breathing had us making steady progress. There was little to no snow underfoot…just a layer of hard, polished ice. Our crampons barely bit in but there was enough traction to head up.
What there wouldn’t be was enough traction for the way down. In the picture below, JJ and Kato are scraping away the top cover trying to ascertain whether the slope’s covering would soften with the coming of daylight. JJ likened conditions to the Lhotse Face and they were not carrying enough gear to protect the group from a fall with either running belays or a fixed line. A fall would be impossible to arrest in such hard ice conditions (two climbers were killed on Orizaba in the past week from falls) and would likely take all rope team members down the slope to catastrophic injury or death. After a long deliberation, the difficult decision to retreat was made. No climb is worth dying for and we carefully made our way back down the slope to scree and talus of the Labyrinth.
Bathed in early morning sun, we tried to find a frame/outlook with which to work with our disappointment. I thought immediately of Oma and the multiple disappointments/struggles/crises she faced in her life and said aloud, “What comes, comes.” I could almost perceive Oma’s presence and saw her twinkling smile and impish grin at playing a prank. Perhaps this was her final poking of fun with me or perhaps a test…a test to make sure that I maintain perspective on commitment to, without obsession for, the summit. When I first starting climbing these big peaks, she was angry with me-she didn’t like me taking any risks and she was a legendary worrier. As she saw me training hard and practicing my skills, she came to understand that it was something I needed to do and eventually gave her blessing.
As we descended, I pondered the word “disappointment” as one of my teammates had asked me how I cope with the disappointment of not summiting. As the day’s light got stronger, I broke the word into “dis” and “appointment” and thought, “Hmmm…dis…appointment…dissing an appointment…breaking an appointment…the feeling of not having something come to fruition in the time frame I want it to. I had “an appointment” to stand of the summit of Orizaba that morning around 11:00 am.
The volcano, however, had me pencilled in for a future date as yet undisclosed. I recognized once again, that it’s not that the summit won’t happen, it just won’t happen on this trip/at this time. Sometimes it takes more than one try. Two. Three. Four. Maybe even five tries…that is, if the will and desire remain in the face of the different time frame, there may be another date with the summit…this repeat only took 26 years to make…”Third time is a charm” might be the way for Orizaba…and maybe another “small” peak 🙂
This is, indeed, a lesson that seems to come over and over again. Finding meaning in the slopes and valleys as well as the peaks. Finding the deep well of perseverance to keep stepping in the midst of hardship. Finding the joy of shared challenge and marvellous views that only come when we work hard and risk discomfort and disappointment. It’s all good…and it’s all what comes, comes.
The team enjoyed celebrating our accomplishments and folks are all now flying home (or trying to amid Hurricane Sandy). I loved sharing the climbs with Marian and I am very proud of her budding alpinism. I am so glad she decided to stay in Mexico after kayaking and share the slopes with me.
Here’s to you, Oma. I miss you so much. I’ll carry you in my heart to the summit of all that I do. You are my mountain. My rock. My inspiration. Thanks for showing me the path in so many ways. All my love to you.
This adventurous decade countdown post comes from when I recently returned from climbing the highest peak in Antarctica in December 2011 and was trying to find words to describe the vast white place I had just experienced. It was originally posted on December 20, 2011.
OK…I’ve been trying to write this blog entry for 24 hours and I guess I just have to admit that I am lost for words. Or a starting point. I’m missing a place to jump off in trying to explain what and how and why the past few weeks were so powerful as to leave me fighting to write, when usually the descriptors come flowing from my finger tips into the keyboard and dance across the screen, like lightening in the summer sky.
But instead, it’s all changed. As my friend, Terry Watson, warned me it would, “Antarctica changes you,” she said simply. And it has. And I’m not even sure how. It’s the feeling that remains after an earth tremor, the ground has all moved, and things look the same, but they are not. And I’m not. In a good way.
In a way such that I’m trying to find syllables to describe one million shades of white. The circling, not setting of the sun. A breeze so potent it chills, then freezes quickly, almost without notice. Blue. Black. White. A limited colour palette interrupted only by the colourful dots of humanity who temporarily inhabit the place. The place of perpetual ice and snow. Unending day for months at a time, then night for the same. Remote. Stark. Pristine. Rhymes with the chapel, only more sacred for me.
Cold, hot. Almost in the same second. Needing to give up the duality of those two extremes as they meld into the intensity of my experience of Antarctica. The sound of every footstep. Always heard, most often seen. For centuries. Any trace I leave there will persist. Well beyond me. Even the simple act of a hair falling from my head onto the ice spreads my DNA. I don’t mean to but how do I stop it from falling? I can’t. I don’t. Though I do try to collect the ones that collect in the vestibule of the tent. Along with the errant goose down, busted toe nails, and other detritus castaways of humanness that we accidentally spread.
I know I am small in this landscape. A mere blip on the continuum of humanity. I could be swallowed whole by this place if I am not careful. This place of white. Of snow. Of ice. Of sky so big and wide and blue that it feels like my eye iris might crack or explode from trying to let in all that light that matches it so perfectly. Of blue that alchemizes into white at the frontiers of a horizon so vast it can hardly be perceived, let alone described. Over and over again each day as the sun circles above, my heart beats below in a symphony of appreciation for the sensation of such vastness.
No wonder I don’t have words!
Fortunately, I am a child of the Canadian National Film Board and as such, know the value of a vignette. And of alliteration. And of trying. To find words. That match the pictures in my head. And in my camera. And truly communicate the experience that I am hoping to share… of climbing Antarctica’s highest peak while opening to the lessons presented in each step.
This Vinson journey has been a time of numbers. A countdown from 85 days beginning after seven years of hoping and dreaming. Lojong slogans from one to 24, each one shaping my mind on the way, and knowing as always, it gets easier after taking the first step. So do forgive the faulting start and yet another series of numbered entries…the laboured first few breaths/words of stepping high at altitude…I’ll share additional vignettes from the mountain as they become available through my fingertips and within my understanding, of both the place and my place within it.
Happy Holidays Season to you and yours. I thought I would jump on the bandwagon on decade count-downs and share some posts from the past over the days to the New Year and Decade. I’ll choose a post from each year, sometimes at random, sometimes with a little searching or thought, sometimes a favourite…and share them out. This post comes from when I recently returned from Everest 2010 and was pouring my attention towards learning to adventure motorcycle and away from the grief of not getting to climb as high as I wanted to on that climb. It was originally posted on July 4, 2010
Happy Fireworks Day,
It was a busy week fitting back into the routine of teaching and trying to get out on my bike as much as possible. I’m teaching two courses this summer: one in park management and one in outdoor skills. The students are mostly the same in both so we can draw a number of parallels between the material and skills covered. Tuesday, we spent a wet day hiking from Shea Heights to Black Head. It was great to be out but the windy rainy conditions made it challenging to stop and have class along the way. The hike felt good; I think I have been missing movement.
I like to turn myself into a student at regular intervals. This gives me the opportunity to experience the vast emotions that learning invokes and helps me emphasize with my students. My new motorcycle is being a diligent teacher. On one occasion, I was trying to start it. I pulled out the choke as instructed by the owner’s manual and pushed the starter button. It cranked and cranked but would start. The same manual said not to crank too long. So I tried several short bursts to no avail. I pushed the choke in and out. I cranked. Then suddenly it hit me, I had not turned on the gas cock. It’s hard to start an engine with no gas supply. Then, my next thought was, “You didn’t do your pre-ride inspection.” The inspection includes a step of turning on the gas cock. Just like pilots, motorcycle riders employ a pre-ride check to insure the motorcycle is safe to go.
Recent research shows that checklists help prevent incidents and complications in surgery. I’ve always used a four-step check with my belayer before I begin every rock climb. I touch and inspect my harness buckle (to make sure it is double-backed), I hold my knot out (to show that it is property tied and tied into the correct spot), I touch my head (knocking on my helmet so I don’t forget to have it on), and I exchange commands (so my belayer is willing to take responsibility for my safety). One of the world’s best rockclimbers took a nasty fall when she didn’t have her buckle double-backed after a bathroom break. When one is regularly exposed to risky situations, it’s easy to become accustomed to that risk and let one’s guard down.
I jumped off the bike and did my inspection routine and then pushed the starter button again, the bike roared to life.
Lesson Number One:
Don’t forget to perform your preflight/ride checklist (in all activities that require them).
My new ride sips gasoline as they say. It gets somewhere in the market of 68-75 miles per gallon. Thus being so, I haven’t had to fill up very often. Yesterday I filled up. Locking gas cap came off pretty easy, gas went in, tank filled. Then it was time to get the gas cap back on. It wouldn’t go. I tried turning the key to release the little grabber thingies on the side. No luck. I tried turning it sideways. No go. I start again. Try again. Cars come and go beside me. I feel like an idiot-how hard can it be to get a gas cap on. I look around to see who might be watching. I take my helmet off as it’s getting quite warm standing there. I try again. Ah ha! I’ve been trying to put it on with the front pointing back and the back pointing front. Turn it round and it slips right on. Bingo. Another lesson learned…
Lesson Number Two:
Relax. There are many mechanical things to learn. Nothing to be embarrassed about-just work through them and ask for help if necessary.
One of the things I love most about riding a motorcycle is all the smells that come my way: sweet scents of blossoms bursting out, the pungent rot of a freshly manured field, the delicate hint of rain on the wind. I am in the environment I am travelling through most more so than when sheltered by steel and glass. I find it very meditative and revel in the present mindedness it requires. Though I notice a tendency to daydream in the same way I do when I paddle, hike, or cut grass. I regularly bring myself back to mirror checks, lane checks, speed checks, and keeping an eye on the road ahead. I find after an hour of riding I am exhausted mentally and it’s time to stop.
Without the cocoon of steel and glass and airbags, every moment on the bike is critical. Any mistake can be fatal. I am reminded of sea kayaking in Newfoundland with our very cold-water temps (only one-two degrees above freezing). I usually make paddling decisions based on the rubric of “If you tip, you die.” I recognize the thin edge on which I am playing. I think riding a motorcycle is the same way and I need to stay vigilant, well equipped, and present at all times.
Lesson Number Three:
Stay present. Very present.
All three of these lessons are as critical to mountaineering as they are to motorcycling. When I next set out on a mountain, I will take lessons from the moto with me!
Still waiting for the perfect name for the bike to come to me–I named my new computer, Satori, which means sudden awakening/sudden enlightenment. Here’s to Satori for all of us.
On our River with Two Names expedition, we had many many things that were power-hungry such as our sat phone, Inreach, drone, cameras, GPS, and phones. Along with a few battery packs, we took our solar panel and the new 12 Volt WaterLily. In the picture above, you can see us trying to get a good placement of the WaterLily in one of the large waterfalls we camped near. I figured the water volume and flow rate would be turbo-charger possibility but we struggled to get a good placement because we didn’t have access to both sides of the current. Without being able to get the WaterLily perpendicular to the current, it tended to spin and roll out. What you can’t see in the picture above, however, is just how big the waterfall was-though we were working on a side chute. You can see the bigger picture below.
We had much more success in a smaller creek emptying a pond into the Labrador Sea. We were able to easily access both sides of the creek and had ample cord to get the WaterLily perpendicular to the current. Below you’ll see Mark and Darren finding the perfect place to maximize water flow through the WaterLily. Darren (in blue) is feeding out the cord anchoring the WaterLily and Mark (in grey) is holding the charging cable. In order to find the best placement, we needed to have a spot that allowed the WaterLily to be in the stiff current, be perpendicular to the flow, and that enabled the charging cable to reach the shore.
We used a rock to position the WaterLily just where we wanted it to be and voila-it started making power. We stored the battery we were charging in a plastic bag in behind the rock that we used to secure the charging cable.
Here is a diagram from the WaterLily support page on getting the most from your WaterLily representing the placement we were doing above. It diagrams using a rock to keep the anchor cord upstream of the WaterLily so that the WaterLily is perpendicular to the current. There are lots of diagrams on that page to help you know how best to place the WaterLily so it will produce energy well-I suggest you study them before attempting your first placement.
So, in our experience of using the WaterLily, here are some hints:
1) Practice placing the WaterLily near home so you can ask questions and get support if need be (you can see our practice session here)
2)Consult the support pages before you are in the field
3)Check all of your cables and batteries to ensure they work before leaving home
4) Seek placements that enable you to reach both sides of the flowing water
5) Have extra cord/rope along for making more complex placements handy
6) Bring your sense of adventure, patience, and MacGyver to getting a good placement
7) Don’t be afraid to reach out to the WaterLily folks if you have any difficulties getting your WaterLily to produce-they are awesome and love to help!
8) Bring redundant sources for generating power (i.e. WaterLily and Solar Panel)
Eight years after completing our epic descent of the Notakwanon River, four of us (Mark Dykeman, Darren McDonald, Marian Wissink and I) returned to Labrador for two weeks to tackle another river, Mark and Darren in sea kayaks, Marion and me in our canoe. Depending on which map you consult, which trip report you uncover, which river monitoring station you check, and which website you look at, this summer’s river has two names.
On the provincial road map, the upper part of the river is called the Adlatok River and the branch that leads to Ugjoktok Bay is the Ugjoktok River. On Canadian topographical maps, the upper part of the river is called the Ugjoktok River and the branch leading to Adlatok Bay is called the Adlatok River.
The Overview Map of Our Route
Not wanting to take sides, and needing to do much more research about the river’s names, place, and the folks who have lived by it and travelled it, we decided to use both names. In the lead-up to the expedition, I enjoyed looking through archival documents and noticed several different spellings of the river’s names as well. From an article written by Jamie Jackman of the Labrador Institute, I learned that Innu hunters and their families used parts of the 258-kilometre-long waterway as a travel route from the country’s interior to the trading post at Hopedale. Jamie has a family connection to the river and community of Adlatok. He mentions that those who visit “quickly fall in love with Adlatok Bay, evident in the way many earlier pioneers and leaders discuss its natural beauty in Labradorian literature.”
I contacted Jamie and asked him if he could tell me more about the names of the two rivers. He replied with the following:
“According to my father, Ujutok is the main river and empties into a Ujutok Bay just south of Adlatok Bay. The Adlatok River flows out of the Ujutok River. However, I’ve also heard the main river referred to as Adlatok right from the height of land and that it empties into Ujutok and Adlatok…the Adlatok branch of the river being referred to as the Adlatok River. This is not surprising however as maps around here are not always accurate in regards to place names – more work needs to be done on this before the real place names are lost forever, in my opinion.”
Adlatok is an anglicized version of the word “Allatok” or “Allatuk” or “Allaktuk” – I’ve seen it written each way – which, from my understanding, translates roughly to “Place of the Innu” or “Where there are Innu” – Allak being the Inuit word for “Innu.” The Innu would travel along this river from inland and come out at Adlatok Bay on their way to trade furs. The Bay was frequently visited by Innu travellers, who would stop to visit the Inuit settlers who lived there later on, my grandparents. As for Ujutok, according to my cousin Brian, it derives from the Inuit word for seal, ujuk, so Ujutok or “Ujuktuk” means roughly “Where there are seal.””
I continued searching the MUN Library and Digital Archives and found the above edition of the Newfoundland Quarterly from Fall 1991/Winter 1992. The cover features a watercolour of the Northern lights above the Adlatok River. The artist is not named, but the work captures the beauty sky, land, and water. I also learned that the late President George H.W. Bush fished the Adlatok River, as have folks from all over the world. The largest salmon ever caught in this province was landed on the Adlatok River. A 1994 Toronto Star article said that President Bush had fallen in love with Labrador and was quoted as saying, “I left about a year ago, almost to this day, and for the in-between 365 days we’ve been thinking of nothing except coming back up here to the Adlatok.”
At this point, you are likely terribly confused about the river and its names, so please take another look at the overview map above where the red line marks the route we paddled and the green line marked our planned route.
You’ll notice that I said, “Planned route.” Given low-lying fog on the morning we flew out of Goose Bay, we were unable to land on Harp Lake. Harp Lake is 50 kilometres long, 1.5 kilometres wide, and has 600-metre-high canyon-like sides. With little to no visibility at the top elevations of the canyon, it was impossible to land safely. When the floatplane turned south to return to Goose Bay, we sank into a collective depression. Keith, the pilot, asked if we wanted to be dropped in Snegamook Lake. I climbed over the seats to go talk to Mark and Darren who were seated in the back of the plane. Marian and I had paddled the Kanairiktok River in 2015 so were familiar with it but none of us had paper maps of the area. A quick consult yielded a negative decision on that option and I communicated that to the co-pilot.
Soon thereafter, the plane began a rapid descent and landed on Shapio Lake. We knew from our research prior to the trip that Shapio Lake drained into the River with Two Names. We collectively rejoiced at not having to return to Goose Bay. The pilots confirmed that we were okay with this “second prize” drop-off location and soon sped away, leaving us in the deep silence of Labrador. You can see Shapio Lake on the map above. We were deposited on a gorgeous beach at the southern end where the lake narrows.
As our new (and very unexpected) drop-off location had lopped about 80 kilometres off of our route, we had time to take the day to get used to the new plan. We got camp organized and spent the afternoon hiking to get a view of our surroundings. The sky turned blue, the fog lifted, and we wished we’d been able to fly out of Goose Bay later in the day. We agreed to sulk about it for the remainder of the day and then let it go and have a fine adventure.
Day Two dawned fine and still. Harp Lake was forgotten. We spent our first day exploring the southern end of Shapio Lake. The mirror surface of the lake produced a landscape-size kaleidoscope of rock and sky. On Day Three we paddled towards the northern end of Shapio, heading into its into the western arm for lunch. Late in the afternoon, with 15 km of SW fetch, the lake challenged Marian and me (paddling the canoe) with a small surf landing at our campsite.
The next morning, the black flies were swarming, and we became breakfast as we packed our boats to the first portage. From the maps, we were pretty sure the exit of Shapio Lake would be protected by waterfalls. We were correct and set about finding the best way to get ourselves, our boats, and our gear past these frothing obstacles. We went scouting and first found a dry river channel that could work as a portage, but then Marian found a portage trail that made the carrying much less tricky in the footing department. Darren spotted a line through the two waterfalls he might have been able to run if he had had an empty creek boat rather than his Hammer hybrid kayak filled with expedition gear.
After paddling five kilometres along what we decided to call the Shapio River, we pulled off to river left when another waterfall blocked our progress. Indeed, four waterfalls blocked our progress to the River with Two Names, so we had some decisions to make about our portage route – do one long carry around all the falls or find a way back to the river after the first one? A deeply worn portage trail led us to a stunning campsite carpeted in caribou lichen. We decided to stop for the day and think about it.
The next morning, after studying the maps and taking a jaunt along the portage trail, the most expedient plan seemed to be to make the long portage around all of the waterfalls. The carry distance was 1.6 kilometres to a spot where we could stash the boats prior to a steep drop to the launch. We knew we couldn’t do it all one day, so we divided our gear into what we would transport the first day and what we would need for a second night in our stunning campsite.
The first big load down the portage trail was indeed a pull for our kayakers. Darren and Mark – who had declared one rule before the trip began, “I don’t paddle uphill and I don’t portage”- loaded up their kayaks and began to pull. In the process, they did a thorough study of the coefficient of friction between plastic kayaks and caribou lichen (technical article for submission to the appropriate journals is in the works). The day was scorching hot, the bugs ravenous, and I was glad Marian and I were carrying the canoe for the shade it provided. We stopped often to rest, swat flies, and curse the original fog that had led us to a route allowing this moment of, uh, self-development. We carried the last load the next morning, after getting to experience our campsite in the driving rain.
Reunited with our gear, we now had to sort out getting it down to the river’s edge. Mark tied a rope to his kayak, kicked it over the lip, and held on for the steep 30-metre descent. Darren, Marian and I followed in a similar fashion. The woods were soaked with the previous night’s rain and by the time we reached the bottom, so were we. After a few more schleps up and down, in tight quarters with ferocious flies, we stuffed everything back into the boats and paddled briefly upstream. We quickly turned to go with the current and found an island on which to get warm and fueled. Five days in, we took our first paddle strokes on the River with Two Names.
At this point, the river was exchanging its rocky shores for black spruce-covered sandy banks. We enjoyed the push from the current and floated to watch the scenery go by. Surveying the banks, our new home didn’t seem all that hospitable to camping; it took several tries to find a suitable spot amid sand bars that would force us to wade to shore, crumbling sandbanks, and our wish for a breeze to ward off the flies. We settled for river left on a sandy beach, the first that let us get all the way in without pulling the boats through the water. Starting Day Six, we were one kilometre up from where the river split into two, the northern branch flowing to Adlatok Bay and the southern to Ugjogtok Bay. Before leaving home, we’d decided to paddle the Adlatok branch, so at the fork, we turned left to paddle on the River with One Name: the Adlatok.
The River with One Name
About seven kilometres down the Adlatok, we stopped to scout the only rapid of the trip we would all paddle as a group. We followed Darren’s line down the rapid and tried our best not to run over him. It was the perfect rapid to run – big enough to get us excited, but small enough that the waves only filled one-third of our canoe. At the bottom, we stopped to bail our canoe while Darren played in the rapid. By then we’d worked up an appetite and we enjoyed lunch on another sandy beach.
The afternoon’s paddle took us to the mouth of the canyon that empties the Adlatok into the sea. From our map study before the trip, Marian and I had noted the likely potential of a portage around the canyon and last rapids that started about half a kilometre downstream from the canyon. This research was confirmed when Mark spoke to one of the owners of Camp Adlatok while we were in Goose Bay. He warned Mark, “You don’t want to be in that canyon.” The portage headed slightly uphill from a grassy nook on river right. Mark set out scouting along it but quickly returned saying his way was blocked by water. Our (by now) experienced tow team went into action and pulled Mark’s kayak up to the small pond. He jumped in, paddled across, and confirmed the portage trail continued. When he returned, it took all four of us to drag our loaded canoe the 100 metres to the pond. It reminded me of pulling tires up Signal Hill. Once on the far side, we took a light load and scouted further up. About a kilometre uphill, our way was again blocked by another small pond. We dropped our loads and climbed a nearby hill to see the view and confirm that we could proceed after the pond. We decided to bring the rest of the gear and boats up to this point.
By the time we’d accomplished this, it was time to make camp amid the worst bugs of the trip. I had started to collect firewood when Mark noticed that my normally-white jacket was black, teeming with flies trying to find a way in. He suggested that I forego cooking outside, taking shelter away from the torment in our bug house, and cooking dinner over the MSR stove instead of a fire.
We woke to misty rain on the morning of Day Eight. We packed and scouted the rest of the portage. It seemed to be a route that folks from Hopedale use in winter to bypass the rapids and waterfalls when travelling by snowmobile; this would explain why the portage crossed two small ponds and a bog. At Adlatok Bay, the wind was blowing hard, waves crashed against the shore, and the temperature was dropping. By the time we finished the portage and reloaded the boats, we were cold and damp. We needed to paddle around a small point, across the mouth of the Adlatok River, and then around another point to reach Camp Adlatok. With the wind, the paddling was challenging in the canoe, but we made it in good style.
We made camp out of the wind and checked out the river from a nearby high vantage point. The rapids below the canyon section were likely a lovely run. There was some discussion of hauling our boats up the next day to make a go at them. But, waking to a temperature of just two degrees, wind, and rain, we drank coffee instead. In the afternoon, the weather cleared, and we walked upstream to check out the rapids and canyon we portaged around. During this hike, we spotted a portage trail on the far side of the river that would have allowed us to bypass the canyon section but would have allowed us to run the last rapids to the sea (if we had not used the long portage to avoid both the canyon and last rapids).
Labrador Sea to Hopedale
With a good weather forecast from our Garmin In-Reach Satellite Communicator for Day Ten, we readied ourselves for the next phase of the expedition, paddling out Adlatok Bay to Hopedale. Much like our second morning of the trip, the day broke with no wind, and the sea had a shiny mirror finish. We couldn’t believe how the water has transformed from the day before. The paddling was magic, the colourful cliffs reflecting in the still water. We stopped for pictures so often that it was hard to get a steady paddling rhythm going. Our goal for lunch was the settlement of Adlatok, and a building tailwind made the trip easy. As we rounded the corner into the community, we noticed a motorboat. Our eyes followed the worn line in the grass from the boat to the porch of a cabin where two folks were enjoying a coffee. We waved and they waved back. We paddled over and they met us at the shore.
We chatted about our trip and asked a few questions about the route ahead. We were relieved to hear that the polar bears were out on the outer islands during this time of year so it was unlikely that we would meet one on our way to Hopedale. There are two buildings that instantly catch your attention in Adlatok, both from the 1860’s and both built the great-great-grandfather of the man on the porch. They said it was fine to visit them after lunch, but warned us to “watch out for a three-legged bear – we saw one as we boated in this morning.” We had lunch and made our way through the tall grasses and raspberry canes to admire the construction methods that had kept the buildings standing for such a long time. No three-legged bears here, however!
We left Adlatok and rounded the corner into a stiff headwind and waves kicking up. We scanned the far shore to decide on our crossing angle – and then spotted the three-legged bear speeding along the shore. Marian and I had contemplated putting on dry suits on shore, but we changed our minds pretty quickly. There was a line of small islands on our crossing angle so they would provide resting spots in the lee of each one and a chance to don our drysuits if necessary. We reached the far shore, and began to look for camp. We found a beach in the nook of a small point and decided we had a dandy place to call home for the night between two rocky outcrops.
We enjoyed a tailwind on Day 11 as we made our way further and further out the bay. The terrain continued to dazzle our senses. We passed several cabins and stopped for lunch beside one, perched on a rock. A few hours later, we filled our water bags from a stream and started to look for a campsite. The shores sported cliffs with only minute beaches. We paddled on and then spotted a small island that held potential. We paddled over to the smooth rocky lump and jumped out of our boats.
Just up from the beach, a soft green carpet called out for tents. As we climbed the small slope behind it, a small black head popped up. I called out, “That’s a bear – let’s retreat!” We backed down the slope and rapidly pushed off from shore. As we rounded the corner, Darren said, “Hey, there goes the bear swimming across to the mainland.” We marvelled at its swimming speed, trying to capture it with our cameras. After it reached the far shore and turned south, we considered whether to camp on “Beary Island.” Since the bear had moved on so quickly, we decided it likely wasn’t coming back, so the island was ours. It was early afternoon and still quite hot. We enjoyed getting gear dried out, exploring the island, and setting up Mark’s wireless motion-sensing bear detection system. Testing the system, it easily detected me sneaking into camp. Later that night, however, it seemed overly sensitive as Mark jumped out of the tent twice with his shotgun to confront field mice.
We set off on Day 12 with another tailwind (three times lucky!) and set a bearing for a rocky headland. With that crossing done, we rounded a point that had rocks scattered about like pepper on a fancy meal. Looking down, we noticed that the shallows were filled with mussels. We harvested lunch from the comfort of our boats and cooked up a delicious scoff on a nearby beach. The afternoon temperature was very hot, so we sought out a few snow patches (leftover from the previous winter) and cooled off near them. Mark scoped out a likely campsite on the map that would likely be a good spot to take a layover. We wanted to be near enough to Hopedale to get there regardless of the weather, at a place with fresh water and good hiking.
When we arrived, Mark’s spot met all of the criteria. We camped by a lake that drained into the sea via a small creek and was surrounded by rocky hills. The campsite had a wooden tent frame apparently used in winter by folks from Hopedale. It provided a perfect host for our bug house, with a lovely view out the bay.
We spent Day 13 (Tuesday) hiking to the tops of the nearby hills, both to enjoy the views and to beat the heat. We were lucky to hit the only sunny days that Hopedale had seen all summer. Our windy perch proved excellent, and we spent much of the day looking out to the Labrador Sea for the ferry that should have been coming into Hopedale that day on its Northern swing to Nain. Mark texted Linda to get the ferry schedule, and she replied with, “The ferry sails south on 9:00 am Thursday, you must go to Hopedale tomorrow. Don’t miss the ferry!” We had a confirmed booking for 5:00 pm Thursday sailing, but the schedule had changed to leaving eight hours early with no notification. With this new information as well as an updated weather forecast, we updated our plan for paddling to Hopedale and catching the ferry.
To beat a falling tide and a growing wind, we were up early on Wednesday morning to pack and make our way around three big points. We woke to drizzle and fog and set out using the coast as our handrail. A few hours later, we paddled into Hopedale and toured the village from the water from one end to the other. We paddled over to the ferry dock and found a place to land. We needed to turn in our canoes and cargo before the end of the day. We’d hoped to stay in the hotel but heard it was full. We unpacked our boats and moved them to a secure location, leaving out tents and sleeping bags to hand carry onto the ferry the next morning. We let the hotel restaurant cook for us, enjoying both lunch and dinner. Once all of our work was done, we walked around Hopedale, visiting both the old mission building and local store.
The next morning, we caught the ferry and settled into our new boat for the 36-hour journey to Goose Bay. The boat made stops in Postville, Makkovik, and Rigolet, and we were able to walk around each village as the ferry unloaded cargo. After a short sleep in Goose Bay, we all piled into Mark’s truck for the two-day jaunt back to St. John’s via the Labrador and Trans-Canada Highways. Both the ferry ride and long drive provided wonderful opportunities to reflect on the excellent trip we’d shared. Our trip plan had changed dramatically from when we first met in January eight months earlier (different group, different river), but by working together as a team from start to finish, we’ve experienced a new collection of stories to tell (and relive) of shared challenges, expedition meals, and dramatic landscapes. Journeying together in remote and wild places requires us to depend on each other in deeper, and often unspoken ways–learning and knowing each other’s strengths and places of struggle–bringing out the best of ourselves as we navigate the wild water, the stormy skies, and encounters with wild animals.
Looking over the bow of our canoe, it is much bigger now. We traded our smaller boats for a ride on the Kamutik W from Hopedale to Goose Bay. We traded the calm solitude of the wilderness for the intense group experience of the Labrador ferry.
We settled in for the 36 hour run and enjoyed the sensation of going 24 km/h with no effort. We first traversed a piece of coastline we had paddled the day before but then enjoyed seeing the outer islands for the first time on a lovely sunny day.
Our first stop was Postville and the group obliged me with a collective effort at a shape. After a quick stop, the ferry headed out to see again. Just as we turned the cape towards Makkovik, some beauty icebergs put the group’s effort at a shape to shame.
Pulling into Makkovik, I pointed out all the sights I remembered from a winter visit a few years ago to do a talk at the school.
With a bit more practice and incorporating some local props, the team rocked making a shape. After Makkovik, we settled into our bunks for the night and it was the Labrador Sea’s turn to make a shape. Many, in fact. The seas were rough and we were rocked, gently and not so gently, as the ferry pitched and rolled.
This morning we docked in Rigolet and the team tried to blend in with the town sign. We enjoyed a walk along the province’s longest boardwalks.
We are now leaving Rigolet for the 6.5 hour run to Goose Bay. Our boats have been riding in their very own container and we might get them this evening…or tomorrow morning. We will laid up and hit the Labrador Highway to catch our next ferry.