ViewfromBowHutOkay, who tried to fool Mother Nature?  A perfect storm brewed in the Canadian Rockies in mid-June, expanding rivers to historic proportions and tearing apart anything in the way.  This included the highway I was supposed to travel on to Canmore, AB for my Intro to Mountaineering course in early July.

The first story I caught on the Web was about Momo the cat swimming to safety after his hapless owner drove a work truck into a bloated, drunkenly raging river.  When the truck went under, the driver busted out the back window and was surprised to see Momo making waves for shore way faster than he did.  Momo, a giant cat (supposedly half Maine Coon) made it to rescuers, who were perhaps not thrilled to save a cat that turned out to be mighty mad about the whole thing.

Experts say most cats are capable swimmers, and Momo the cat was put to the test after the Highwood River began sweeping away the truck she and her guardian were in.

Momo swimming for her life, and objecting to the experience (photos from Jordan Verlage, Calgary Press. Visit site for full story and  more amazing  photos:

Momo appeared to be less than impressed with the ordeal, but was reportedly back to her usual self on Friday.

I’m thinking Momo is either advertising for a new owner, or newly committed to her role as Kevan’s protector.

I was panicking about whether the class would still occur, and really reluctant to terrorize Yamnuska Mountain Adventures staff while they were in the thick of it, but the travel insurance folks told me that my cancellation insurance didn’t cover acts of nature or terrorism or other types of force majeur, so I either had to attend or beg a reschedule.  Katherine at the Yam office was amazingly responsive and polite, and I tried my best to cringe apologetically in email for bugging her with my travel angst during such a time.

Amazingly, within two weeks our worthy neighbors to the north managed to whip the Trans-Canada Highway back into travel condition and return everything very much back to normal.

BoilWe arrived in Canmore to the last sign of the actual flood response- the celebratory sign indicating the “boil water” order was lifted.  Now the cleanup begins, including restoring the miles and miles of wildlife fence that got torn out and left in snarls along the side of the road.  Long confined to crossing the road via over- and underpasses, wildlife roamed confused on the Trans-Canada Highway, like this mountain goat playing chicken with speeding cars.

I went back to the beginning of my mountaineering training and started over with Yamnuska Mountain Adventures in an Intro to Mountaineering class. With a deteriorating hip, I hadn’t been on a roped climb since early 2006 and wasn’t quite the same after I got the blessed gift from the Wizard of Oz (well, Dr. Clabeaux at Virginia Mason).

I’m sure the Scarecrow experienced a few unintended consequences from receiving that diploma and starting a new life as a thinking creature.  And the Tin Man may have committed some indiscretions after getting liberated by a Jiffy Lube treatment and traveling through fire to get a heart.  After the surgery, I immediately put the new hip to good use, quickly discovering a disconcerting change in proprioception. My brain couldn’t track where my right foot was when I was looking forward and stepping down a slope, and would refuse to move my right leg.  I reported this to the stand-in orthopedic at my 3 month check-up, having just returned from a solo hiking trip to Death Valley, where I spent a lot of time looking at my foot a lot to keep it moving.  He looked perplexed and said, “We usually don’t see people doing this much this soon, so we don’t get this question.  You lose pressure sensors on the native bone, and you have to rewire.  It will take time. A year.  Maybe two.”

After two years of hiking, snowshoeing, backpacking and skiing, this has improved greatly, but not without creative problem solving along the way, like the time I had a friend whistle a tune to me so I could stay oriented and mobile while traversing a short but steep and slick snowfield with poor runout.DescentfromHabel

I figured it was better to avoid too much high altitude hijinks, especially wearing crampons.  So I elected to return to glacier mountaineering under the watchful eyes of extremely well-trained instructors, which I knew Yam would have on board, despite an apparent change in ownership and overhaul of business model since I last visited in the 1990’s.

Back then, I was stronger, more fit, an Intermediate Climbing student troubled by the accidents that occurred in classes run by the large volunteer outdoor organization I had joined a few years back.  A member of the climbing committee had recommended I hire someone to go to Canada and train for ice climbing before I had to take the Ice Climbing field trip so I didn’t get hurt.


Rather than do something illegal, my friend David and I signed up for the Intro to Alpine Ice class, both of us determined but so traumatized we almost cried and turned around when we saw Mt. Athabasca, one of our destinations, from a pullout on the Icefields Parkway north of Lake Louise in Alberta. A week later, we were not only alive and uninjured, but feeling exuberant, and for me, unwilling to go back to being trained by random volunteers.  I hadn’t paid for a class to take another class, had I? And we both went on to rock and alpine climbs with no accidents.

Starting again with help from an organization I had long ago trusted seemed like a sensible thing to do.  What I learned from the pre-trip email made it seem like a lucky choice: one of our instructors would be Barry Blanchard, the iconic Canadian mountaineer. I was puzzled by Barry’s willingness to instruct a beginning mountaineering class. He guides on his own and has established clientele for both backcountry skiing and climbing. But there he was.BarrysMtns

It would be impossible to capture the humor, depth, and complexity of who Barry is in a blog post- and face it, we barely knew him by the end of the week.  Suffice to say that we were very fortunate that Barry’s long and sometimes troubled path through life eventually led him full circle from the Canadian Rockies to the mountains of the world and then back to his roots. He made that life circle with open eyes and heart, passion, and thoughtfulness, and came back with a pack full of rich stories.

KiwiCoilsBarry is a lively, colorful personality, and a master oral storyteller, a lost art in the electronic world.  We pressed him all week to tell stories, especially the story about being treed by a grizzly bear.  A Canmore shop owner who sold me a knife insisted “Ask Barry about getting treed by the grizzly- you absolutely have to hear Barry tell that story.”

On the last night, we sat transfixed after a hearty dinner of bison stew as Barry described the event. He described running across the bear, then trying to back out, lifting us up into the tree to experience the three hours of terror he experienced with a Japanese client who had limited English skills and trusted Barry implicitly.  He told of the scarily hilarious Southern savior who tripped up the trail and ended up running back to tell the rangers. Then he carried us down into a world of grief when the bear had to be killed for going on a rampage perhaps prompted by a lifetime of hazing and chronic relocation brought about by his inability to cope with people in habitat being decimated by resort development.  Barry sought understanding of what transpired from bear experts and found that maybe, just maybe, he could have defused the encounter if he had known how to read grizzly behavior.  I found the Patagonia site for climbers that the company sponsors and learned that he has given proceeds from talks to grizzly conservation.  Barry’s recommendation to read Doug Peacock’s books (especially Grizzly Years) was a spot-on tip for someone soon to venture into the Yellowstone backcountry for a week.

For a more comprehensive view of Barry, read The Happy Tormented Life of a Mountain Legend  by Geoff Powter in Way Out There: The Best of explore, Greystone Books.  Barry is working on a book of memoirs as well- watch for that coming up as well.

RichardTeachingRichard Howes was a superb complement to Barry:  highly intellectual, an encyclopedia of knowledge on diverse subjects, many of them scientific, and a supremely curious person with an expansive perspective and sense of adventure.  Richard and his wife worked with an architect to design and build an energy-efficient house in his home country, Germany.  He guides in Canada and sometimes New Zealand.

A question about how each instructor felt about the massive retreat of glaciers in the Canadian Rockies highlighted their different personalities.  Richard saw it as a component of a larger problem, a sign, a symptom of something greater that needed to be solved.  “It’s really depressing,” said Barry. “To see places you’ve climbed just disappear in your lifetime is depressing.”PeytoOuthouse

Barry and Richard both emphasized skill and safety in the mountains, but Barry always drifted to having fun – safely, that is.  He hadn’t always had fun, he said, and described the body-wasting, grueling trial of living at high altitude on Himalayan climbs as “just not fun”.  He lit up talking about backcountry skiing, but in a later conversation about avalanches, said it wasn’t important enough to risk a slide just to get perfect powder on the first bluebird sky day after a big storm, and said he avoids taking that risk with his clients even if they are disappointed.

MtOliveMidSummitThe week on the Wapta Icefield served me well, transporting me to the Zen of glacier crossings that hypnotizes us out of our multi-tasking world.  All we get to think about is stepping when the rope whispers across the snow in front of us breathing, staying not too warm or cool, and scanning the snow surface for signs and the summits for routes.  The summits were not complicated nor were they too lofty, but instead, impassive and lovely, and lots of fun as the class was filled with folks who still knew how to laugh and play.  I learned about the “photo bomb” in this class.

We spent the first stormy day in Bow Hut going over practical information about gear.  Who knew that you weren’t supposed to use a 20-year old harness (AAACK)?  I learned that not only was I supposed to cut up that old rope (done, in use for the horses), but also chuck every piece of nylon I owned.  When the weather cleared that afternoon, we took pictures of the gorgeous double rainbow and went out to practice ice axe arrest.  I was a little tentative about diving head down and whipping around on the point of an axe,  but no harm was done to the hip. BowKitchen

RainbowBowThe next day, we skipped peak-bagging, instead trekking across to Peyto Hut for the night, stopping for a few hours to practice crevasse rescue on the way.  Peyto Hut has the world’s most scenic outhouses, with little windows inside to enjoy the view.  Oh, and a lovely lake nearby, with a REALLY long trek to get water (the guys who did really, really hated being on KP duty, they said).PeytoHut

On the way back, we made it up the gentle arm of Mt.Habel (Rhonda North) and then scrambled to the summit behind Richard, who strides up these things like a gazelle and therefore had to slow down to lame gazelle pace for us so we didn’t run out of oxygen huffing and puffing.

We traveled back to Bow Hut.  For our last climb, we post-holed to the trail on the ridge of Mt.Olive, hitting the middle summit area (good enough, lovely views).  We did more crevasse rescue practice by St. Nick before going back. We finished the last day practicing self-rescue from ropes secured to the hut’s deck.MtOliveApproach

The alpine huts are situated in high, dramatic places but of course, you have to be good with no running water and electricity, laying side by side like sardines in long bunks at night, and not having cell phone reception or use of electronic toys.  And you have to close the kitchen windows at night to keep the wood rat from coming in for a late night snack.

As a couple of the very hardy women on this trip learned, the approach to Bow Hut is not hard, but can be murder on your feet if you wear the rental plastic mountaineering boots – like wearing downshill ski boots hiking, I imagine.  There were scary, oozing blisters and swollen tendons, and amazing fortitude by the extremely good natured victims.  I usually bring approach shoes and carry boots to avoid this sort of agony, which I don’t wear nearly as well.BowHutView

There are scores of awe-inspiring  pictures and stories of these places on the Web; I can add nothing great to this collection.  I’ll give two  thumbs up to Yamnuska for a nice, safe return to the mountains, and for the nice meals, which are made in their commercial kitchen, dried (well, except for the most wonderful Nanaimo bars), and portered up to the hut.  I owe thanks to both Richard and Barry for sharing their knowledge and stories and for being pretty patient with the lot of us.

Onward and upward.