Down in a Hole: Trekking the Grand Canyon – Chapter 05

The Hermit Trail cuts its way across the Redwall Formation. (photo by D. Speredelozzi)
The Hermit Trail cuts its way across the Redwall Formation.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

Forward Halt!!

Listen up, fellas:

When your wife is utterly terrified that she, you, or some other member of your entourage is about to stumble off the edge of a timeless void into the vastitudes of an unknown canyon thousands of feet deep, throw her a bone and call a halt to the proceedings.  Believe me- she’ll thank you for it later; and if she doesn’t… well you were gonna find out sooner or later one way or the other.

So we turned around and headed back to the Hermit Trail to reassess.  It was just too hairy on the Dripping Springs Trail.  If there’s even one member of your crew who doesn’t feel confident enough to proceed, you need to heed that voice (weakest link and all that), and either bring them around gently or yield to their concerns; but you can’t just keep dragging them along the brink all day long- especially when you know the shit is only gonna get sketchier with the miles.  It isn’t right, or advisable; and anyway you won’t make any kind of decent progress that way.  Besides, feeling like you’re about to trip and plunge off a cliff skyrockets the odds of it actually happening.  Plus, it’s not as if the fear was irrational or unjustified- there really was a gaping maw of an abyss right there next to us.  You could practically extend your arm outward and have the palm of your hand staring straight down to the dry rocky parched stream-bed thousands of feet below.

 

You can't get paid if you ain't part of my crew. (photo by K. Riley)
You can’t get paid if you ain’t part of my crew.
(photo by K. Riley)

Baby Oranges

Back at the Hermit Trail, we found a square foot of shade to huddle the team under for a few minutes, then had a sustenance power-up session starring cheese, nuts, and baby oranges (what do you call those things again?).  After due consideration of the available avenues, we decided to continue down the Hermit Trail into Hermit Canyon and on to Hermit Rapids, rather than turn around and climb back out of the big pit as lame-ass failures.  Plus, this was Bud’s 60th birthday dream trip, and one which would probably never happen if it didn’t happen now.  So there was that incentive on top of everything else.  And anyway, it helped that I myself had been down the Hermit Trail before, and was able to vouch for it as a far-less-perilous route than what I had seen of the Dripping Springs Trail in the preceding hour.  (though, to be fair, the Hermit Trail was still completely perilous, fraught with an uncountable number of unfathomably-precipitous drop-offs into the great never, just on a somewhat slightly lesser scale than the other trail.  I mean, that’s what the Grand Canyon is. If you can’t deal with that, then maybe you should go check out the Everglades, or the Cape Cod National Seashore)

When viewed from this vantage point, Hermit Creek is just mocking you. (photo by D. Speredelozzi)
When viewed from this vantage point, Hermit Creek is just mocking you.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

Scruffy Says: Stop, Drop and Run

Though it took us a good six hours to cover the remaining six miles down to Hermit Creek, the descent was for the most part uneventful.  At one point Robin started having the beginnings of a bug-out, because somehow her fold-up backpacking chair, which had been strapped to the outside of her pack, had vanished somewhere along the trail; but I was determined to snuff that shit out before it could really take flame.  Since I clearly remembered seeing the chair on her pack no more than a mile back, I deemed it worth the effort in the name of team morale; and so I dropped my pack and ran back along the trail until I found the chair, a blue square laying there pathetically in the middle of the trail, with a black square mesh pocket smiling off the back of it.  I picked up the chair and ran back.  It felt great to proceed through this terrain without the burden of a loaded backpack, even if it was only for twenty minutes.  Returning to the team, assembled at Lookout Point and stalling, delaying the inevitable as long as they might, I re-fastened Robin’s chair to her backpack, and we were off again.

(to be continued)

Bitch, I'mma cut you. (photo by D. Speredelozzi)
Bitch I’mma cut you.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

 

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Down in a Hole: Trekking the Grand Canyon- Chapter 04

The Grand Canyon Skywalk Here we go, vertigo- test for echo (image property of parenting3.com)
The Grand Canyon Skywalk
Here we go, vertigo- test for echo
(image property of parenting3.com)

 

Day 03:

Fooly Noted

Right as we were setting off on the Dripping Springs Trail, a group of backpackers passed us going the other way, having just come through the pitiless country into which we were headed.  When we told them where we were going, several of them told us, in no uncertain terms, that they most definitely would not want to have to descend that Boucher Scramble, so steep and perilous had they found it.  None of them said anything about the route in between here and the top of the scramble, though.

They moved on.  We moved on.

 

Easy! Just grab a tape measure and jump! (image property of sidereel.com)
Easy! Just grab a tape measure and jump!
(image property of sidereel.com)

 

Skirting the Abyss

The Dripping Springs Trail is not for the faint of heart, or the fool-footed.  After no more than a quarter of a mile from the Hermit Trail junction, a gaping void opens up on hiker’s right, a dizzying drop-off to god-knows where- red, dark, and precipitous.  And as if that weren’t enough, the trail along this stretch is not exactly level- rather, it is slanted slightly towards the abyss, ensuring that a poorly-executed step will send you plummeting to your death instead of bumbling up against the wall of the canyon, as is preferable in such a situation.  And as if that weren’t enough, there are intermittent overhanging bushes sticking out from the canyon wall on the left side- like the overhead storage compartments on a commercial airliner, but at upper-torso level instead of head-level.  And since it’s essentially impossible to slip under these overhangs while bearing a loaded pack, you have to just kind of shuffle deftly (one hopes) around them, clinging to whatever branches, rocks, or absentee gods you can manage to get a grip on, as you hang your ass off the cliff like a person out on a ledge of a tall building trying to make their way around a protruding section of outer wall.

 

The Yuma Point Mesa stretches away into the distance.  Our planned route traced along the brink of this for almost seven miles. (photo by D. Speredelozzi)
The Yuma Point Mesa stretches away into the distance. Our planned route traced along the brink of this for almost seven miles.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

 

Forever Endeavor

My wife was not cool with this.  After gritting her teeth for about a half a mile of this treachery, she asked me how much more of the hike would be like this.   I told her “About six miles”, pointing out, as I spoke, the trail ahead, which visibly skirted its way, unyieldingly, along the daunting brink of this terrible length of canyon wall as it wrapped all the way around the immense Yuma Point Mesa which lay before us.  Although you could barely, if at all, make out the trail with your own eyes, you could plainly see that it traced a route along what looked like (and essentially was) a straight vertical wall of crumbled, broken sandstone of red and white, with no discernible (from here) points of reprieve from the vertiginous madness ever-endeavoring to suck the trekker down into the scorching belly of parched rock pulsating below- insatiable, unsympathetic, and utterly indifferent.  From our current vantage point at the upper head of the Dripping Springs/Hermit Canyon drainage, you could see at least four more miles of this bullshit, though I knew there were at least a couple more miles of it around the bend and out of sight, still hidden from us.  And after that was something even worse- the Boucher Scramble, that hideously exposed descent which we would have to negotiate before we could re-up on water.

 

Slaking the dragon at Dripping Springs. (image property of http://jakehikesandbikes.blogspot.com/)
Slaking the dragon at Dripping Springs.
(image property of jakehikesandbikes.blogspot.com/)

 

It Gets Better?

AND… it bears mentioning, the section that my wife was starting to bug out over was the only part of the day’s remaining route that we had not been warned about.  Those backpackers had all traversed, in the opposition direction, every inch of the route that lay before us; and they had apparently deemed it necessary only to warn us about the scramble.  Meanwhile, we had six more miles to go on this terrifying, brink-of-death walk which, when it finally did end, would end at something far worse than what preceded it.

“Sweet, that sounds promising”, I thought to myself  as I stood there, looking past my toes into a bottomless sandstone infinity and trying to convince my wife to “Just get through this part.”

(to be continued)

 

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Down in a Hole: Trekking the Grand Canyon- Chapter 03

Don't say they didn't warn you. (photo by D. Speredelozzi)
Don’t say they didn’t warn you.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

 

Day 03:

To the Wild Unknown Country, Where I Could Not Go Wrong

We hit the trail and started descending from Hermits Rest at a little past 9 AM.  The sun was hot; but not Grand Canyon hot.  After all it was only mid-April.  My first backpacking trip ever had been a descent of this very same trail, done fifteen years earlier during a very hot June; and although on that trip we’d had the good sense to mount our descent in the dark of night, starting at 7 PM and reaching Hermit Creek, 9 miles later, at 2 AM, much of the ascent two days later was, unavoidably, done during a 100-degree mid-day swelter.  So, having personally experienced that, I didn’t find this April heat to be all that bad, though 80+ degrees without shade under a heavy pack is gonna take a toll on you no matter who you are.

The author makes his way down through the Upper Canyon's Coconino Sandstone layer, and contemplates the precipitous Boucher Trail, which cuts across the red rock in the background. (photo by K. Riley)
The author makes his way down through the Upper Canyon’s Coconino Sandstone layer, and contemplates the precipitous Boucher Trail, which cuts across the red rock in the background.
(photo by K. Riley)

After about two hours of descending, we had dropped 1,500 feet and gone about two miles, passing through the Kaibab, Toroweap, and Coconino geologic formations– three layers of white sandstone, the youngest of which is 250 million years old, that mark the canyon’s uppermost section, and the Hermit Trail’s opening segment.  The going is slow when your pack is at its heaviest, your knees are just getting acquainted with the idea of descending almost a vertical mile, and your right foot, with every step, keeps landing on the edge of a sheer precipice with a straight drop-off of hundreds of feet.

 

Dripping Springs

At the top of the Hermit Shale- the uppermost of the red rock layers for which Arizona’s canyon country is most famous, we hung a left onto the Dripping Springs Trail, our lateral connector to the Boucher Trail, beginning a seven mile, mostly-level traverse along the rim of the nauseatingly gaping void of Hermit Canyon.  The Boucher Trail is widely known (among the few who’ve actually heard of it) as the most difficult, demanding, and perilous of all the south rim trails, what with its exposure, its drop-offs, its lack of shade, and finally, its vertical route to the hostile lands far below.  After six or seven miles of traversing on the Boucher Trail, we would be confronted with the brutal and pitiless (even by Grand Canyon standards) descent known unofficially as the Boucher Scramble.

Dripping Springs Junction. Just beyond this point the Hermit Trail (right) drops down into the red rock layers that make up the middle canyon. (photo by D. Speredelozzi)
Dripping Springs Junction. Just beyond this point the Hermit Trail (right) drops down into the red rock layers that make up the middle canyon.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

The Boucher Scramble is a terribly steep and treacherous hand-and-foot nail-biter of a descent of 1,400 feet over just one mile, where loose scree and teetering boulders of angry red sandstone filter out the faint of heart- unless they, like most who venture this way, arrive at this point in desperate need of water, which of course cannot be attained until one reaches the foot of the scramble, where at last one is only a short and simple walk from the cool, restorative waters of Boucher Creek.  One’s arrival at Boucher Creek also comes complete with campsites; and, for anybody still harboring a zest for adventure by the time they get here, it is only a short walk from the mother of all canyon-country arteries, the Colorado River, raging its way through the uttermost bottom of the canyon.  Although it probably makes the most sense to save this little side trip for the next day, or at least until after you’ve shed your heavy pack, rested your aching knees and thoroughly-jellied legs, re-upped on water, and shoveled some sustenance down your gullet.

But from the Dripping Springs junction with the Hermit Trail, all of this is much too far away to consider.  Best keep your focus on the awful miles between here and there.

(to be continued)

 

Looking down into the upper end of Hermit Canyon. That's the North Rim off in the distance. (photo by D. Speredelozzi)
Looking down into the upper end of Hermit Canyon. That’s the North Rim off in the distance.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

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Down in a Hole: Trekking the Grand Canyon – Chapter 02

I totally got that chick's number. (photo by D. Speredelozzi)
I totally got that chick’s number.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

Day 03: 

One Too Many Mornings

It always sucks to get up before the sun- it’s cold as shit, everybody’s crotchety, nobody looks their best (except ugly people), and everyone just wants to flop back to the horizontal; and yet still, someone has to make the coffee.

The mornings way up here on the 7,000-foot Coconino Plateau are slow to warm up.  We all stumbled around camp, sorting gear with ice-numbed fingers, chapping our thighs on frozen toilet seats, and everybody whispering loudly so as not to wake up the hundred other people all sleeping within earshot in adjacent campsites, even though most of them were tucked away comfortably in their campers and Winnebagos.

No matter how long you think it’s gonna take to make your way through the list of morning tasks, it always takes an hour and twenty minutes longer than that.  There’s nothing you can do about it- even artificially adding that hour twenty to your time estimate beforehand won’t make a difference- you simply cannot trick fate and time like that.  So just suck it up and start packing your bag- there are only 13 hours of sunlight remaining to the day, you’ve got a schedule to keep, and you’ve got a long way to go.

 

Bobby!! Cindy!! (photo by D. Speredelozzi)
Bobby!! Cindy!!
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

I Came in From the East with the Sun on My Ass

The caravan rolled out of camp just as the sun was cresting the eastern mesas.  For all our running late, however, it sure was a nice time of day to be driving eight miles along the rim of the Grand Canyon.  The rising sun was doing such inspiring things with the light that I insisted on stopping off at Hopi Point for a photographic survey of the environs.  The team acquiesced without protest, though.  After all, they could see, too, that an opportunity to gaze down into the deep gorges below, amid the shifting shadows of sunrise, was not one to be passed up lightly, and certainly not just to save five minutes.  I applied the same logic a few minutes later, when I pulled us into Pima Point for another look-see.  Here we were looking down at Hermit Canyon, the very terrain into which we were about to descend- on foot; so there was even an added measure of interest on account of that, not that any was needed.  While we stood there at the brink of the overlook, the Colorado River, a tiny sliver of which was faintly visible some four or five crow-miles off to the northwest, at a bend near the outlet of Shinumo Creek, caught its first direct sunlight of the day, suddenly appearing as a reflective ribbon of light cutting through the bottom of an otherwise lightless lower canyon.

But the evening’s camp, still some 11 miles and 4,400 vertical away, wasn’t getting any closer while we stood around jerking off on the rim.

We headed off to the trailhead.

(to be continued)

 

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Down in a Hole: Trekking the Grand Canyon – Chapter 01

Day 01: 

I Came to a High Place of Darkness and Light

We almost never even made it out of California.  An untimely accumulation and subsequent bottleneck of disparate stressors had fashioned the tail end of the week into one of those times when sanity seems to hang by no more than a withered string of frayed dental floss (the cheap kind), and oppressive darkness, not merely indifferent, but straight-up malicious, seems to close in from all sides.

So what if it's blurry? I was blurry at the time. (photo by D. Speredelozzi)
So what if it’s blurry? I was blurry at the time.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

But always in some dank, shadowy recess of your mind lurks the un-snuffable kernel of awareness that this ship will not soon right itself without at least a little help from you; and so, seizing upon this self-evident truth, you peer resolutely, yet still haltingly, out from the darkness at the nascent realization that after a truly terrible week what you need more than anything else is a vacation.  And with that the ship begins to slowly tack around, seeking for and at last catching a favorable tailwind; and so shifts the darkness aft, receding behind you as your paddles cut the water, in a long and hurried flight.

 

The Black Desert Eats Up All Your Failures

But it was definitely touch-and-go all the way from Bakersfield to Kingman.  Just as well, I guess- it’s not like there’s much to do out there on the night-blackened asphalt arteries of the Mojave Desert other than obsess.  About whatever (obsessor’s choice).  Well, that and steamroll bunny rabbits at 95 miles an hour (don’t look at me- she threw herself under my wheels).

Yeah whatever, man. You should see the Mojave Desert in the daytime. Seriously. (image by Satan)
Yeah whatever, man. You should see the Mojave Desert in the daytime. Seriously.
(image by Satan)

When the failing moon finally dropped behind the Juniper Mountains at around 4 AM, it was as if the night was saying “Get there, already- my shift ends soon; and once that happens, I won’t be able to protect you.”

 

By the Time I Get to Arizona

It was around 5:15 in the morning when we finally eased the truck into its parking spot at the Mather Campground on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.  I really hoped we had the right campsite.  The sky was beginning to lighten; and the last thing I wanted at this hour was to wake up some random family of strangers by setting up a tent in their site amidst the blinding glare of headlights.  I wasn’t 100% positive that I even remembered which specific campsite number I had booked; but 144 gave me less pause than any other number I could conjure, so we went with that and hoped for the best.

You know the world's gone to hell when the elk start huffing gas. (photo by D. Speredelozzi)
You know the world’s gone to hell when the elk start huffing gas.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

Day 02: 

Grand Canyon Village, Etc.

I awoke two hours later to hear Katherine talking to Robin and Bud.  Apparently we had chosen the correct site.  Not even close to well-rested, I got up anyway and greeted the team.

Later that day, at the South Rim Ranger Station, I basically had to sign our lives away in full, acknowledging that I (we) understood the grave peril inherent in any trip along the Boucher Trail (say it with me: Boo-shay) before the rangers would issue us our backcountry permits.  As the trip “leader”, I also had to acknowledge that we all understood the stark reality that, in the event of injury or disaster of any kind, rescue might very well be not at all possible.  And most importantly, I had to absolve the park of any and all liability, should the shit go sideways on us (an ironic choice of words, I suppose, considering the locale).  A wild hand spasm etched an amorphous inky scribble across the bottom of an official government form, generating a wretched and absolutely illegible script, which nevertheless seemed to satisfy the brass as legally binding.

"... And then she said..." "Ohmygod, no way!! That bitch! I hate her!" "Blah blah blah blah..." "Are you going to the pep rally?" "OMG, totes!!" (photo by D. Speredelozzi)
“… And then she said…”
“Ohmygod, no way!! That bitch! I hate her!”
“Blah blah blah blah…”
“Are you going to the pep rally?”
“OMG, totes!!”
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

We would be venturing down what the National Park Service calls “arguably the most difficult and demanding of the south [rim] trails.” The literature goes on to warn: “The overall condition of the trail… presents an obvious hazard… Map reading skills are essential. The Boucher Trail is best left to highly experienced canyon hikers.”  Yeah well, no problem- I made my bones as a backpacker back when you were still hanging on the teat.

We spent the rest of the day dealing with various last-minute gear needs and taking mellow walks along the rim of the canyon, surveying the abyss into which we would be venturing early the next morning.

Nom nom nom. (photo by D. Speredelozzi)
Nom nom nom.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

That night we kept it to a dull roar- lighting a small campfire, eating an early dinner of Mac and Cheese with pancetta, arranging and distributing gear, and getting to bed relatively early.

Tomorrow begins the ass-kicking.

(to be continued)

 

Next chapter: (02)

Long Days in the Canockies – Part 6

P1020148_PS
It’s a big pile of rocks.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

Back To Earth

7:20 PM

I am running down a mountain.  Or perhaps the mountain is running up me.  All I know is, I’m making quick work of this descent.  I noticed a more direct line down the upper flank of the mountain, which I can see from here rejoins the Saddleback Trail just below the pass, cutting off at least a quarter mile, maybe more, from the route I took on the way up.  The going is exceedingly steep, and slowing myself down takes a good 15 or 20 feet to execute.  I imagine somebody standing atop Saddle Peak, directly across from here, and watching the vertical plume of dust that rises up from my footfalls, watching it makes its way down the steep slope, like a mini-tornado racing for the foot of the mountain.  I have to stop every 30 seconds or so to de-sand-and-rock my hiking shoes; but it’s worth the exhilaration of basically throwing my body down a mountainside.

P1020187
Look at me, all pretending that I didn’t really just set the camera’s timer to 10 seconds and then go frantically and dangerously bounding across jagged rocks on the edge of a three-thousand-foot precipice just so I could try to pass off a completely calculated shot as a candid.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi…or is it?)

As I approach tree-line, near Saddleback Pass, the slope of the trail begins to taper towards the horizontal; and I begin to move much slower (because for the first time on this descent, I can).  I have just said goodbye to the sun for the last time today; and as I think about the rest of my hike, down through the thick forest below, my mind turns to grizzly bears.  It’s getting on prime time for bear sightings; so I take out the canister of bear spray, secure it in my right hand, and practice drawing down on a charging grizzly, acting all Indiana-Jones-in-the-Cairo-Arabian-Market-Square for a few moments.  I’m not too concerned about the possibility of running into anything threatening; but just the same I keep watchful, and keep the bear spray close at hand.

P1020069
Shit- that’s one big bee!
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

My shortcut intersects the main trail just down from Saddleback Pass; and almost immediately I am skidding on my heels and soles through the snowfields through which I passed a little over an hour and a half ago.  My hiking shoes fill with more of that miserably piercing icy snow; but now there’s no sunlight to warm them or dry them; so I stop at the end of the snowfields and immediately empty out my shoes, warming my freezing toes with my hands for a few moments.

P1020142
Yo-
I cannot find this shirt anywhere. Did you borrow it?
It’s okay, you can tell me- I won’t be mad.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

Suddenly I feel unacceptably vulnerable: crouched down on a step of the trail, hunched over my footwear, and not looking around me, with darkness seeping into the surrounding forest.  I’m just asking for it if a mountain lion were to happen on me like this. I jump up in alarm, as if there is something there.  But there isn’t.  I continue on.

P1020233
The Fairmont Chateaux sits on the edge of Lake Louise.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

When the trail plunges back into the darkening forest for the last time, the views are all behind me, the bears are wherever they are (possibly still up ahead), and my appetite has started to draw me downhill.  I break into a full-on sprint, tearing through the woods with unbridled glee, alone and in my element.  Anytime an obstacle appears before me, I simply leap over it, imagining that I am doing so in slow-motion.

P1020254
This was not the worst dive of my life; but it was the second worst!
(photo by K. Riley)

After a time I start to smell meat cooking on a grill. The trailhead and campgrounds are near at last.  I emerge from the forest and onto the pavement of the trailhead parking lot at 8:15 PM, before my turnaround time has even arrived.  I see the Rav 4, now on the far side of the lot; and I see my wife in the back, rearranging our gear.  Peanut spots me at once and comes racing across the parking lot to greet me, conveying an urgency that is just plain ridiculous, but no less endearing for its seeming overzealousness.  He is happy to see me: overjoyed, really.  He seems like he’s about to literally drop dead or just simply explode from the excitement of my return.  I know how he feels.  An hour or so ago, I felt like I was about to explode myself, seemingly unable to take in all the sensory stimuli bombarding me.  But I lived; and he will, too.

P1010975
The Kicking Horse River.
Many water.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

My wife spent the last few hours securing us a campsite, so we wouldn’t have to go looking for one now.  What a keeper.  We drive off towards camp; and to my surprise, I catch another glimpse of the lowering sun, through the notch of a low pass to the west.  As we head to the night’s campground, a few miles north of Lake Louise, along the Icefields Parkway, the canyon walls to my right glow in an array of iridescent warm colors, catching the last of the day’s sun.

P1020336
The mighty Athabasca Glacier.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

We pull into camp; and I open a can of frigid Budweiser.  I borrow a neighbor’s axe, and spend 20 minutes getting my Paul Bunyan on, splintering logs into burnable pieces of wood.  I start the fire, and sit back in my camp chair to wait for the coals to get hot enough for grilling.  A fresh pack of Italian sausages waits patiently on the table beside me.

P1020319
Icefields Parkway, Jasper National Park.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

We are so far north that the darkness comes later than I’ve ever seen it.  I don’t even dig out my headlamp until 10:30 PM; and I don’t even turn it on until 11:45.  Aah, the north.  I hit the sack at 12:30, to rest up for another day of high-Canadian alpine adventure.  Tomorrow it’s the Icefields Parkway, clear up to Jasper National Park, that other crown jewel of the Canockies.

P1020279
Okay- roll ’em!
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

The End.

 

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Long Days in the Canockies – Part 5

P1020171
Girl, we couldn’t get much higher.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

Fairview Mountain Summit

7:05 PM

I reach the summit of Fairview Mountain at 7:05 PM, exactly 95 minutes after leaving the shore of Lake Louise.  That’s better time than I even thought I’d make.  I feel terrific: fit, enlivened, invigorated, and lucky.  And I’ve got this whole place to myself, which is extra sweet.

The view from the summit confirms my suspicion that this pig would prove a worthy contender in the All-Time-Most-Understated-Mountain-Name contest.  I am no longer gazing up at lofty glaciers and towering rock peaks, I am now looking across at them, and in several cases, even down at them.  At last I am high in the Canadian Rockies, as I have long wished to be.  If there is any other living soul sharing this vista with me, they are on wings, or four legs; because I can see in all directions; and there is nobody else around.  Surprisingly, there is no wind blowing on the summit today; in fact, I am still in my shorts, and shirtless, and perfectly warm.  Who would have guessed that one could cap a 9,000-footer in the Canockies without feeling so much as a slight chill?

P1020158
That’s the continental divide, eh?
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

Whichever way I look, the land falls away beneath my feet.  Directly below, to the north, lies the silty emerald-green body of Lake Louise; and I am pleased to say that the sun is still shining on it- at least on the tiny bit of it that I can see from here; for a protruding sub-peak on the northern flank of the mountain hides much of the lake from view.  At any rate, the entire lake will be in shadow before much longer.  The westering sun hangs above and behind the ridgeline of the continental divide, visible in the northwestern sky in the direction of Mt. Whyte.  Due to the angle of the sun’s rays at this late point in the day, the lake, though partially visible, does not shimmer or shine in gloriously reflected light particles, as it surely would if I was standing here in, say, the late morning; but that fact does little to detract from the awesomeness of the spectacle laid out before me.

P1020175
View to the northeast from Fairview Mountain summit. The Fairmont Chateux and the tip of Lake Louise can be seen in the foreground. Ptarmigan Peak and friends in the background.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

The Fairmont Chateau sits by the lakeshore, 3,300 feet below, utterly dwarfed by the expansive rich green Bow River Valley in which it sits, a point of reference useful for gauging the sizes of the other landscape features all around.

Scurrying across the jagged boulders strewn about every square inch of the summit, I carefully pick a route that I expect will afford me a better view down into the gigantic glacial cirque that lies between the lake’s far end (not visible from here) and Mt. Victoria, further west, on the continental ridgeline.  As I creep along the edge of a sheer dropoff of at least 2,000 feet, I forego my usual rock-hopping, instead choosing my steps carefully and methodically.  And it’s a good thing, too; because at one point I plant my foot on what looks like a boulder of shale, but proves instead to be merely a thin plate of shale resting atop a smaller boulder of shale.  My unevenly distributed weight causes the flat piece of shale to slide out from under my foot; and if not for the firm hold my left hand has on a more stable piece of the mountain, I would be tumbling down an unforgiving cliff, with the rocks I’d just loosened tumbling behind me, hot on my heels.  This close call inspires me to take it down a notch; and so I abort my mission to gain the westward overlook.  That’s fine, though- I’ve already made it far enough to see the entirety of the Victoria Glacier, now fully in shadow, and the Plain of Six Glaciers, tumbling down to the lake’s western end.  This sight, seen from on high like this, is exceedingly satisfying.  I draw a deep breath of pure atmosphere, and drink it in with relish.

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Oww!! Mountains are sharp.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

I turn to face the southward view- across a deep, vertical-walled canyon separating Fairview Mountain from Sheol Mountain, the latter of which rises another 110 feet or so higher than the former.  The intervening canyon is far too deep for me to see its bottom.  Just beyond Sheol Mountain, and slightly east (left) of its bulk, I can now survey a bit more of the lower Paradise Valley than I could before, though now everything in that direction is in deep shadow.

Eastward is an unbroken panorama of serrated ridgeline peaks stretching from beyond the village of Banff in the southeast clear up to the lofty crags that line the legendary Icefields Parkway, which stretches all the way up to Jasper, 140 miles still further north.  Tomorrow we will be driving this epic road- another thing I have long wished to do.

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It’s okay, it’s okay!! Kerouac says you can’t fall off a mountain.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

The light of pre-dusk, coupled with the crisp, clear alpine air, has an effect of making certain features of the land pop out, as if in 3-D; which, I suppose they are, being that this is the real world, and not just a photograph of it.  But the features jump all the more in these specific conditions.  Sunbeams shine at me now through the rocks at my feet.  It won’t be long now.

As the sun begins its final descent behind the looming wall to the west, the enormous shapes of the continental divide peaks to the west are projected eastward as grotesquely oversized shadows against the placid green tree-cover that blankets the Bow River Valley.  As the minutes tick on by, the shadows inch their way ever higher up the opposing ridge, until at last the fading light starts to dissolve the shadows into nocturnal nothingness.  Dusk has begun.  Time to get moving.

(to be continued)

 

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Long Days in the Canockies – Part 4

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The jagged sawteeth of the Castle Mountain Ridge.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

6:00 PM

More and more hikers pass me, all heading downhill.  I ask each group if there are still others above them- that is, if they know-; and so far, it is reported, there are still a number of hikers higher up.  Normally, whether or not there were other folks up ahead would be of little concern to me; but in this case I feel the need to know, because when the point comes in my hike where I am all alone up on this mountain- just me and the rogue grizzly-, it’d be good to know this for certain, so I can make a little more noise.  Ain’t tryna turn a corner to a face full of grizzly five feet away.  Although I would love to see one from a distance.  So far nobody has seen any bear sign.

I trek onwards and upwards; and eventually the trail leaves the forest for good.  I can now see that I am heading up into a sort of notch or saddle between Fairview Mountain and the next one over, Saddle Peak, whose 8,000-foot summit towers overhead, a little to the left of my current trajectory.  Lake Louise is now hidden entirely from view behind the bulk of Fairview Mountain.  The trail switchbacks steadily upwards, and the trail here is thick with the mud of melt-water from the snowfields above.  I pick my way around the wet spots, and shortly arrive at the first snowfield.  A shallow cave in the snow marks the spot where the runoff creek emerges from under the snowy blanket; and I make a point to avoid walking over the snow at this spot.  I do not wish to post-hole through a snowbank, which would most likely leave my foot submerged in a glacial creek, and my leg snuggly wedged into a tube of sharp frozen snow particles.  I re-route away from the hidden creek; and step up onto the white bank, now brown with mud and footprints.  The snow here is only a few feet deep; but there is no avoiding its icy bite on my exposed heels; and after a few steps, both of my hiking shoes have admitted enough frozen snow that both of my toes are pierced with frosty pain.  No matter, though- this was expected.

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The Helcaraxe, or Grinding Ice, whose treacherous crossing was made by a great host of High Noldorin Elves, led by Fingolfin, with great loss; but no less their valour and hardiness for all that.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

As I come up close under Saddleback Pass, the sun’s rays are cut off by the hill I am climbing; and just as I lose the sun, its light is kaleidoscopically rendered through the bright green lush leaves which line the trail on both sides, still wet from the earlier rain shower.

At tree-line the trail at last levels off on its final approach to 7,700-ft Saddleback Pass.  Crossing a barren, rocky meadow, I pass a French family on their way down; and they tell me that they are the last ones to have left the summit.  Good to know- I’m on my own now.

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The crossroads at Saddleback Pass.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

At Saddleback Pass, I’m back in the path of the direct sun again.  It’s bright light floods my field of vision, as I proceed directly into its face for an interval. From here, the Saddleback Trail continues straight down the back side of the pass into Paradise Valley, the area where the reported rogue grizzly has been the most active.  My trail breaks away right from here, and almost immediately begins to climb in earnest up to the summit of Fairview Mountain, whose bulk now fills most of my right periphery.  I look to the right.  From here the trail can be plainly seen as it passes through a small wood of stunted trees- the last remnants from the tree-covered lower elevations-, unable to reach their full heights here, because they started their growth process too far up the mountainside.  Emerging from the stunted forest, the trail then begins to switchback steeply up a sandy, rocky pitch- up, up, up, until the curvature of the mountain itself causes the trail to curve away out of view towards the summit.  Looking south from just above Saddleback pass, I see 9,100-foot Sheol Mountain, directly across from me, its long shadow casting the lower Paradise Valley in a premature-dusk .

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Saddleback Pass below, with Paradise Valley in the background.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

The climb is grueling, and the going rough.  When I turn around, I am now looking down at both the Bow River Valley and, on the other side of Saddle Peak, the lower end of Paradise Valley, an implausibly lush green hidden river valley, walled in on three sides by steep canyon walls of ancient shale and limestone.  The valley is shaped like a bathtub with one end lopped off; and its towering walls of sheer rock call to mind H.G. Wells’s “The Country Of The Blind”, a beautifully-written story in which a man, after taking a nasty fall while mountaineering somewhere in the Peruvian Andes, wakes up on a cliff, high up in the eaves of an unfamiliar-looking valley.  Since he’s not seriously hurt, he makes his way down into the valley, and finds it to be inhabited by a population of blind people.  The valley in the story is closed off on all sides to the outside world: Banff’s Paradise Valley has an outlet, I just can’t see it from here, due to the intervening mass of Saddle Peak, due southeast by less than a mile.

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Saddle Mountain and Bow River Valley, looking towards the Village of Banff, from Fairview Mountain.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

I am forced to stop for breath after just about every other switchback- leaning over, breathing heavily, with my hands on my knees and my head swiveling about to take in the sensory overload all around.  Distant ridgelines become increasingly visible as my vantage point slowly rises above the intervening front-ranges.  New valleys are revealed to me as I ascend ever higher.

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The exceedingly steep upper section of the Fairview Mountain Trail.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

This trail must require a good bit of annual maintenance, I think to myself.  Every step I take towards the summit pushes more of the dirt and rock beneath my feet further down the slope of the mountain.  In this way, the trail must get obliterated on a fairly-regular basis- from mere use alone, which is to say nothing of the toll that the harsh northern Canadian winters and summer rains must exact upon this precarious route- a route designed by man, to allow for man to venture forth to a point in nature where Mother Nature does not seem to have intended for him to go.

(to be continued)

 

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Long Days in the Canockies – Part 3

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The Bow River Valley, seen from Morant’s Curve in Banff National Park. The three large mountains in center frame are (L to R) Sheol Mountain, Saddle Mountain, and Fairview Mountain.
(photo property of Wikimedia Commons)

To Saddleback Pass

I start walking at 5:30 PM.  My goal is to view Lake Louise from the summit of Fairview Mountain before the sun’s light has left the lake in shadow.  A tall order?  Perhaps.  But I feel up to it.  The trail starts climbing at once, up into the aforementioned heavy forest, the extreme fringe of which blocks the view of the lake from the parking lot, as I mentioned earlier.

After about 15 minutes of walking, the trail leaves the forest for a short stretch, contouring fairly steeply across a hillside for a few hundred yards before passing back into heavy tree cover.  Here I get my first views, eastward, down into the striking Bow River Valley, along whose namesake river runs the Trans-Canada Highway, on its way westward from the Village of Banff, 35 miles down-valley, up here to Lake Louise, and then up and over the continental divide and down into British Columbia, bound for its western terminus on Vancouver Island.

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The steep trail up Fairview Mountain. The continental divide looms behind.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)3

I’m looking out across the tops of the trees of the forest through which I have just passed.  On the far side of the valley, a row of formidable-looking mountains form a barrier against the lands beyond.  The front-range peaks of this group: Mt. Lipalian, Castle Mountain (at the base of which we camped last night), Mt. Ishbel, Cockscomb Mountain, and Mt. Cory stand tall over the Bow Valley Parkway, which parallels the Trans-Canada Highway, offering access to the various trailheads, campgrounds, and various other points of interest along this stretch. The upper reaches of these giants are largely hidden behind the glistening white cover of hanging glaciers, which in a few spots are angled just right for reflecting the sun’s light directly back into my face; and at these spots the light explodes into dramatic rays, some of which pass through the lingering moisture above the valley- remnant of an earlier rain shower-, launching multiple rainbows skyward before my eyes.  Impressive though this vista is, I choose not to linger long, considering the hour, my goal of catching Lake Louise still bathed in sunlight, and the obvious knowledge that the views are gonna just keep getting better.  I move on.

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The Bow River Valley, seen from the Saddleback Trail. Whitehorn Mountain Ski Area can be seen across the valley.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

Back in the woods again, I continue to climb steadily.  I ask a group of passing hikers if they have seen any sign of bears today; but they haven’t.  The trail soon switches back on itself; and so now I’m walking with the mountain on my left side, the forest below me on my right.  At the next switchback, the trail again leaves the cover of the forest for a few yards; and I stop to survey the view briefly.  The view has been beefed up dramatically since my last stop.  Now I can see the northeastern end of Lake Louise, the rest of which is hidden behind the main mass of Fairview Mountain.  A few hundred yards back from the lake, across a large cul-de-sac, looms the 8-story Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, a 4.5-star hotel, for those who must see the wonders of Lake Louise, but are above sleeping outside.

(to be continued)

 

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Long Days in the Canockies – Part 2

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Gratuitous.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

Lake Louise

5:15 PM

I stand outside the Rav 4, in the parking lot for Lake Louise and the Saddleback Trail- my trail to the summit of Fairview Mountain-, eating a hastily-assembled tuna-melt, and mixing up another bottle full of icy lemonade.  My wife tinkers with the bear spray canister, eager to confirm its functionality, and that I know how to use it.  I pick it up and investigate, peering intently into the barrel while being extremely careful not to unlock the trigger.  I think of the time ten years ago when, while fidgeting with an ex-girlfriend’s protective Mace spray, I inadvertently painted my face with red-hot-pepper-optical agony, for no good reason at all.  The orientation of the trigger mechanism appeared sort of backwards from what I would have expected; so I misjudged the device entirely and blasted my grill. I guess this is how idiots with real guns manage to take their own heads off while cleaning their weapons.  Anyway, I never made that mistake again with the Mace; and I wasn’t about to make it with bear spray either.

I demonstrate to my wife’s satisfaction that I know how to correctly aim and administer a cone of eyeball-busting hellfire, should the need arise; though I don’t actually pull the trigger- everything but.  It’s not really a very good idea to deploy a canister of bear-spray for any reason other than you are under real and present threat from an actual charging bear.

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This here constitutes what we would call a do-spray situation.
(photo property of www.animalstown.com)

I take only essential gear: A Twix, a Snickers Bar, a bottle full of bone-chillingly cold lemonade, a camera (with extra battery), a weak-but-sufficient trail map, a fleece shirt, and a windbreaker.

Before I begin my ascent, I take a walk down to check out the lake with Katherine and Peanut.  A 90-second walk through a heavily wooded area ends with the shockingly-abrupt unveiling of a lakescape of the highest order.  Completely hidden from view when you’re in the parking lot, Lake Louise demands, captures, and holds your attention effortlessly once you’re standing by its shores.

Viewed from its northeastern end- the “developed” end-, Lake Louise appears as a bed of implausibly green glacial melt-water, framed gorgeously by the long, deep, and towering V-shaped canyon that abuts its southwestern end.  The lake’s emerald radiance (often referred to as “glacial milk”) is attributable to the abundant inflow of what is called “rock flour”- essentially just silt-sized particles of limestone that has been methodically ground down to a virtual powder by the mighty and ceaseless forces of erosion and bedrock grinding that are nature’s process way up here on the continental crest, where the great tectonic plates of the Pacific Ring of Fire ply their trade, wrestling with one another for dominance.  Particles of rock flour are typically so small that they don’t even get pulled downward by gravity to settle at the bottom of the lake, but are instead suspended in the water, clouding it up and infusing it with its famously green hue.

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Lake Louise, with the valley of the Victoria Glacier behind it. In the distance, behind the glacier, is Mount Victoria itself.
The Pean Bear is not impressed.
(photo by Some Dude From the Other Side of the World)

We gaze out at hundreds of red kayaks, which lay like slices of red bell pepper all across the glistening surface of the lake.  Hundreds of tourists crowd the scenic area at the end of the lake where we are standing.  In the less than five minutes that we’ve been standing here, I’ve heard at least five languages being spoken. A Swiss-looking couple wanders past, the woman quizzing the man in some eastern-European-sounding tongue.  A large extended family of Indian descent muscles in on our spot, seeking for an appropriately scenic backdrop for their imminent family picture.  I step aside accommodatingly, then offer to take the photo, so the patriarch/cheerleader of the family can be in it, too.  He’s happy to oblige, though somewhat overly-insistent on subjecting me to a tutorial on the proper procedure for using a basic point-and-shoot camera.  I tolerate his unnecessary tutelage, and take a photo that will doubtless find distribution and prominent placement for years to come on mantelpieces from here to Sri Lanka.

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You can’t be Cirrious.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

Looking southwest across the lake, I see, from the right, Mount St. Piran, Mount Niblock, and Mount Whyte, a trio of great peaks that are the first three in a great horseshoe of nine or so towering rock pigs that half-encircle the business end of Lake Louise.  Straight ahead and about four miles away looms Mount Victoria, at 11,365 feet the highest peak of those that look down upon the shimmering emerald waters of Lake Louise, a lake named for the fourth daughter of Britain’s beloved Queen Victoria, for whom Mount Victoria was named.  It’s a family affair, y’see. Hanging from the upper reaches of Mount Victoria is the Victoria Glacier, which breaks and crumbles its way down the Plain of Six Glaciers to eventually dump its ice and silt into Lake Louise, which sits at 5,740 feet above sea level.  To the left of Mount Victoria stands Mount Lefroy; and in front of it hangs the Lefroy Glacier, from which comes most of Lake Louise’s melt-water.  Set back in a deep recessed canyon, the Lefroy Glacier, as well as the three peaks of Mount Aberdeen, Haddo Peak, and Sheol Mountain, are all hidden from me by an intervening mass of shale and limestone lurching skyward from the lake’s southern shore.  This intervening mass is Fairview Mountain; and it is upon its uppermost pinnacle that I aim to stand, before the end of the day.

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Sheol Mountain, Haddo Peak, Mount Aberdeen, Mount Lefroy, and Mount Victoria (from left to right) sit atop the continental Divide above Lake Louise.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

Better get movin’ then, being that it’s almost 5:30 PM now.  I establish an 8:30 PM pre-set turnaround time with my wife, which is always a good idea when starting a hike so late in the day- especially a grueling climb such as this one, and superespecially when an aggro grizzly is known to be active in the vicinity.

I kiss my wife; and tell her to expect me most likely before 8:30, though not to panic until I haven’t returned by 10 PM.  Even then, it’ll still be light out, we’re so goddamn far north; but it’d be nice to have time to find camping before the headlamps have to come out.  Like I said- it’s only a 7-mile roundtrip; and even with a 3,300-foot elevation gain, I trust my body and mind to carry me quickly up this trail, and without incident.

(to be continued)

 

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