As I reach my final week of classes in university this year, my mind wanders again and again to the mountains. The wilderness expanses of British Columbia have my heart clutched in its mountainous claws and oceanic palm. As I struggle to sit still and focus on school, I think writing about the poignant elements of my experience this past spring in the Coast Mountains will help. It was definitely a superb experience; characteristically because the moments of pain, the moments of fear and the moments of fatigue helped to starkly portray and contrast the moments of exhilaration, of intense joy, of sense of place, of friendship, of adventure and of exploration.
Maybe I’m not making much sense. To really know what I mean, to really feel what I’ve felt and to experience what I’ve experienced, you’ll have to go out and do it yourself. Even then your experience and mine will be different; both unique in time and space. Maybe though, I can share some moments of my experience with you and aid myself in shedding this school-born angst.
Friendship is the most logical place to start for without these amazing individuals the trip would not have existed. These three characters have had to cope with me over the course of the month. Throughout the trip we live together 24/7: we eat together, travel together and share conversation. Who are they?
Meet Nick Matwyuk: Powerhouse of enthusiasm and physical energy. Likes powder turns, can’t make up his mind between telemarking and alpine touring, smiles 100% more than he frowns and love pancakes no matter how badly I botch them!
Meet Lena Rowatt: Legendary embodiment of female fortitude, likes warm drinks and cold dips, wears a pink skirt on sunny warm days, and is the only one who can compete with Nick in smiling, enthusiasm and energy. Fittingly, they are recently married.
Meet Laura Catton: Fits in her pack (and tree wells), likes snacks in the tent, her laughter is directly proportional to the weight of her pack, likes her sunglasses much more than she hates alder and manages to surprise with strength ridiculously un-proportional to her size repetitively. I often think of her as a pocket rocket!
Together these 3 characters (and yes they are characters) know how to turn a bad time into a good one and make a good time into a better one. For that I am grateful.
Pain and Fatigue
To say that pain doesn’t exist on a trip like this would be a lie. Yes pain exists and at times it is a prominent component. In retrospect though, relative to past experiences the pain wasn’t especially dramatic. This is the trademark of a trip that probably won’t make it as a book or feature film but was that much-more enjoyable.
We experienced uncharacteristically bad weather (over and over again), excruciating skiing conditions (breakable crust like you can't believe), devastating muscle and mental taxation, and cold; freezing cold moments. Despite it all, it wasn’t hard to laugh it off and smile about the shittyness of the situations. Terrible bush-whacking, difficult route-finding, challenging trail breaking and long days all defined this trip. Thankfully, the friends I shared these moments with were there to support me and vice versa.
Hand in hand with pain, fatigue came to me from the feeling of “I’ve been in the mountains too long.” Ironic considering my current thoughts of “I miss the mountains so much!” It’s true that when day after day you spend every waking hour in the mountains and then take off for an expedition, you suffer from a bit of a sense of repetitiveness. There were moments where I kept thinking: “I just need a break”, “I just want to sleep in”, and “I’m going to skip out on this run because I’m just drained.” Sometimes my mind can only take so much cold, so much hunger and so much physical strain before feeling intense fatigue. It diminishes the experience and I’m sorry that I couldn’t always be more resilient for my teammates. Luckily those moments of weakness are temporary and now I can look back on the experience from a different viewpoint. Already I’m thinking about the next adventure and I have the experience to know my limits and be prepared for next time!
Joy and Exhilaration
That perfect ski run, the lofty summit, those great evening conversations around a hot meal, the amazing landscapes, the beauty of it all… I could go on. What all these things have in common is the intense joy that they bring upon me. I remember walking, endless flat walking and I was in my head. And my head was stuck up my ass… but the moment I stopped to get out of my head and look around I started noticing the shadows of the clouds. They were moving so explicitly fast, splitting, joining, drifting and rolling over the mountains; a black and white canvas with brushstrokes only lasting that instant. Moments like these brought on huge amounts of appreciation for my fortune in being in such a place and being able to witness such things.
I remember as Nick and I goofed around with some crappy creek gulley we were navigating. We joked and imagined how we could slay it like a pro star but the packs were the only thing holding us back. And then we realized, why let them hold us back! I laughed so hard at every little jump going down.
With joy comes exhilaration; that feeling when time disappears. Moments of euphoria mixed with excitement, cooked in an easy-bake oven to produce cupcakes of pure awesomeness. These are moments when the world couldn’t have been a cooler place.
I recall that sunny day when we rose to sunshine and blue skies. The morning was slow and long but soon temperatures started to rise and we were shedding layers. We peered over a rise and had a drink to peel off the skins, what came next was an amazingly long run in one of the most aesthetic places I could imagine. Not very hard skiing, but a cruiser that lasted forever. To the left, crevasses at the edge of the glacier and with the others a little ahead of me. I could feel the edges of my skis as they grabbed and whipped left and right. With my legs burning under the weight of the heavy pack I would swing left and right and feel the wind as it caused my shirt to flap in different ways. When we finally reached the bottom after nearly a kilometer of skiing it was just laughter, smiling and high fives. Everyone had felt that same amazing exhilaration. This would happen repeatedly over the trip with various key runs down similar glaciers with ridiculously awesome backdrops. "Shredding that Gnar!"
I can remember the exhilaration I felt at the sight of Gypsy, our family dog sniffing around the logging road. Behind him was my dad waiting for us, and a little further back my mom with a platter of fruit, veggies, humus and dip. “Who’s that Gypsy?” my dad called. I laughed at the sight of this little Cockapoo looking left and right in response to my dad. His eyes set on us and at first he wasn’t sure. His floppy ears perked up as I called back “Hi, Gypsy!” He came sprinting with his little stumpy legs and tongue dangling. It was a great way to finish off the trip in my home-town of Pemberton.
Fear exists with these big trips. Fear of the unknown is a big one. Will anyone get sick? Will I have enough food? Will that food cache be there? Will we fail? What if the weather doesn’t break? Will I regret this ski descent for the rest of my life? These doubts create fear in the back corner of my psyche. Slip-ups can mean serious injury and possibly death.
Is there a crevasse below my feet like a jaw gaping wide? A deep black hole with an icy tongue and snowy lips, I’m sure it’s hungry. I’d like to think that if I fall in I’d live and crawl out like Joe Simpson in Touching the Void, but that’s highly improbable. With the considerable amount of glacier travel, being roped up constantly would be highly aggravating and a huge time consumer. We rely on the large surface area of skis, good route finding and a strong Coastal spring snowpack to bridge those icy voids.
The unknown is constantly present. It’s what makes it so exciting. It’s what defines adventure but it also what creates that inkling of doubt and fear.
Exploration and Adventure
The adventure and exploration involved is a huge part of what we do and why we do it. Though this planet’s entire surface has almost been completely explored, there is something to be said about the value of exploring areas you haven’t yet seen. This is especially true of the Coast Mountains; I can’t pick up a brochure of the icefields and mountains we travelled through to see what it’s like. You can grasp an idea from some pictures, route descriptions and Google Earth but beyond that, it’s all about discovering this vast and amazing area for yourself.
Growing up in Pemberton, I would explore along the Lillooet River near the house. The brown murky waters flow slowly through the valley, where once large glaciers carved out the landscape of the valley and Mt Currie’s aesthetic north face. It was incredibly special to stand at the source of the Lillooet River atop the receded glaciers that had shaped the valley. Definitely a funny thought to think that by pee’ing here, eventually, the highly diluted pee would flow through the valley in maybe a hundred years or more.
It was pretty special to explore the high terrain and remote valleys that make up the divide of the South Pacific Range. I remember looking out to see a sliver of the south arm of Chilko Lake between the mountain flanks. My vantage was from atop the glaciers that drain into the lake and the sight really put my perspective into place as to how far we were from anything really.
That kind of remoteness adds to the adventure. We were deep in the unknown of the Coast Range with the mission of getting back home. Some of those unknowns being the challenges that awaited us: weather, cornices, icefalls, route-finding. Adventure is something that often lacks in everyday life. There are many ways to find adventure that don’t even require going outside but something like our trip was definitely a grand adventure. That’s what makes it so special, that’s what justifies the heavy pack and the pain. It’s the unknown that defines the fear and thrill, it’s the unknown that makes it an adventure. I loved fantasies growing up and Lord of the Rings was a big one. To some extent, I get to feel like I’m living that fantasy. Pursuing objectives I’ve created myself puts me in this magical world and the quest is big!
Sense of Place
With everything, there are those moments where you stop and stand, and everything else disappears, replaced by the moment. My professors have defined it as peak experience. The moment transcends time and physical dimensions, the emotions feel physical and smitten just feels like the right word.
The amount of times I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing this on just one trip is worth more than anything money can buy. At the same time, this bonding is occurring, a connection to the place you’re in. It’s redefined the globe to me and my identity as a whole. These sorts of large voyages indescribably tether the landscape to your heart and soul so that they become part of your very being; part of your individuality.
I don’t know if you’ve ever watched a beautiful video clip with some soft music and visuals of landscapes you call home; if so, did you feel that pang? That appreciation? A feeling of gratitude and happiness? Imagine standing in the middle of that video clip but rather than music and a screen, what you’re experiencing is so incredibly powerful that time everything disappears. The feel of that dry cold air as you breath through your nose. The look of the snow crystals as they drift by. The spruce and firs dominating below with a raven occasionally vocalizing. Everything is so powerful.
It all served to create a connection between myself and the environment. I don’t associate myself as a radical environmentalist, nor a tree hugger or any of that sort of stereotype. That said, to senselessly destroy these places in my heart, my home, my identity. I can’t help but feel like being radical, to defend myself and the natural place we live. This is part of my purpose here with these books. I’m going to better understand how we can find that sustainable balance between humans and environment. I don’t want one without the other but instead, a synergy between the two. I think I’m ready for those exams now. Soon after I’ll be back into those mountains I call home!
People and Place. When both elements are met, how much better can life really be?