Canada 2016 - Part II. The Hunger and The Strain

Summit of Mt. Athabasca.  Photo: Uisdean Hawthorn

Summit of Mt. Athabasca.

Photo: Uisdean Hawthorn

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

After the north face of Mt. Alberta we were hit by a deep fatigue and a constant hunger - the kind where you wake up starving and stumble straight to the kitchen. We would eat breakfast, then second breakfast, 10 o’clock snacks, elevenses, an early lunch… it went on. Climbing in the mountains always seems to take it out of me; ‘it’ being about two kilos, and I have to eat peanut butter out of the jar to recover the loss.

Our legs were also a little tired. We’d spent five days in the Rockies mountain range and began to develop limps to compensate for the stiff muscles. Uisdean’s double-shuffle-dance resembled an old man who’d lost his walking stick, and I was confined to the sofa for fear of collapsing in the lounge, out of reach of the peanut butter.

In time, however, the sensation returned in our legs and we pulled on running shoes, enjoying the trails around Canmore. For a few days it was perfect Fall weather: sunny and cool, but dark clouds always boiled on the horizon. Our tired legs slogged along wide paths, trainers crunching in the gravel. We passed aspen and pine trees as we followed the Bow river downstream, snaking lazily along the valley floor. Orange and brown leaves scattered the ground; autumn had officially arrived. The river was cold already, but in the warmth of the sunshine I managed a quick swim. The water soothed my aching body and I felt refreshed. I wondered if the river ever froze in the 6-month Canadian winters, where temperatures reached -30ºC and the locals said it was ‘a bit chilly oot.’ 

On the back of our success, we also indulged in some Canadian traditions. We craved pancakes, and the desire made us drive 20 minutes up the road to the town of Banff. Pancakes with maple syrup - when we finally found them - were delicious, and were the perfect starter to a ‘pizza-burger’ (such culinary genius is as good as it sounds). We grinned as a contented, tipsy glow settled over us after one pint. Both Uisdean and I were very fulfilled after climbing Mt. Alberta, and our normal psyched attitudes were surprisingly reserved; I think this illustrates our fatigue and satisfaction.

Whilst shopping in a popular supermarket one day, we went to the ‘Pick ’n’ Mix’ section: actually an entire aisle filled with sweets, nuts, candy, trail mix, chocolate, dried fruit… it was a little slice of heaven! We filled our plastic bags with goodies but I was so hungry I ended up eating half of it by the time we got to the checkout. I felt like a criminal who’d got away with the perfect accidental steal - eating about $1.20 in chocolate raisins - and buzzed from the thrill. Our shopping experience was never the same after that.

But soon we longed for the mountains again. Our laptops constantly refreshed the weather forecast, waiting for a window of opportunity. We wanted to climb the shattered limestone towers; to feel the crunch of snow under our boots; to soak in the wilderness from a lonely summit. If - or when - the next good weather arrived was anyone’s guess; Canada’s accurate forecasts are reserved for the Park Rangers. The government-run ‘Environment Canada’ website only gave a vague picture of happy sunshine or rain, which is fine for dashing to the Pizza-Burger joint, but not for the mountains.

A week before arriving in Canada, we’d been in the Alps and climbed the American Direct route on the Dru, in a day. 24 hours before that, we climbed Divine Providence, one of the ‘wilder’ routes on the Italian side of Mont Blanc. This was good preparation for Canada, and our exhausted legs were actually well prepared after a weeks rest. This also helped us to develop into a strong team and to be more comfortable in the mountains. In complete contrast, I spent my week off enjoying life with Victoria, eating ice cream and pizza in Italy.

A week after Mt. Alberta, a blip in the Canadian forecast appeared- it was no more than a flicker, but we immediately started packing again. We might be able to squeeze in a one-day route if the weather materialised, but the chaos of the previous route still hadn’t subsided. ‘Ice axe! Where’s my ice axe?’ The usual drama ensued: shall we take one jacket between us, or two thin jackets… or one warm jacket and one thin jacket, or…? Many hours later we drove up the Icefields Parkway and into the mountains.

The Andromeda Strain, on the north face of Mt. Andromeda, is a classic mixed and ice route which we had attempted during our trip last year. The mountain had been shaking off a recent storm and appeared to be alive - fresh snow was blown high into the air and spindrift avalanches hissed as they sloughed down the face. We climbed a pitch before realising it would have taken us all week to reach the summit. Turning around was a simple decision. We hoped for better weather this year.

We woke to find the jeep being rocked by strong gusts; it whistled and howled as we curled deeper into our sleeping bags. The alarm continued to beep. My mind flicked between optimism and the reality. ‘The route could be sheltered. I’m sure it’ll be fine…’ ‘It’s going to be pouring with spindrift again.’

We walked towards The A-Strain again, my hopes lifted by a perfect alpine dawn. Daylight, however, revealed the same as last year: waves of spindrift washed down our route and the winds grew even stronger after dawn. It was a painful but sensible decision to switch to Plan B: we walked up Mt. Athabasca, a neighbouring ‘11,000er,’ buffeted by the wind but enjoying the brilliant alpine views. It felt good to look to the horizon again, endless mountains stretching into the distance, and dream of other routes, other adventures.

I’m sure I’ll be back, Canada. Thanks for a good’un, eh.


Thanks to Uisdean Hawthorn for a great trip. 

Special thanks to Nick Sharpe for his incredible generosity in letting us stay in his apartment and use his car - a real legend.

Thanks to all the Canadians for their advice and wisdom, The Alpine Club of Canada, and to Mountain Equipment for their support.

Tom LivingstoneComment