“There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.”
- Ernest Hemingway
I successfully completed a ski traverse of the Wapta Ice fields in April this year.
When I tell most normal people that they ask me “What does that involve, exactly?”, so I suppose a little background information is in order to help the uninitiated put this trip into some kind of context:
How long did it take? Six days. At about Day 4 I started saying things like “Sure glad I don’t do things like this for a living anymore.”
How far was it? Approximately 60 ‘horizontal’ kilometers, cumulative. I travelled at the rate of about one big blister per 20 kms. We traveled roped up for about half the total trip length due to crevasse danger.
How much vertical did we climb? Approximately four ‘vertical’ kilometers, cumulative. Yes, I was permanently bathed in my own sweat most of the time.
What was the terrain like? 90% of the route traverses active glaciers and high altitude ice fields that sit at between 7000ft and 10,000ft. The crevasses were mostly fully covered and the snow was awesome. A lot of the uphill is really steep but the ski downs were pretty mellow: like a blue or green run through cream cheese.
How much weight did we carry? From 30 to 60 lbs. / 13-27 kgs. We carried all our own food for six days, ropes and other emergency gear as well as sleeping bags and personal clothing. I know… ouch.
Which mountains did we climb? Mt Gordon 10508 ft. / 3203 m and Mt Olive 10270 ft. / 3130 m. Although this may sounds impressive, super fit and experienced ski mountaineers, of which I am not one, handle these bumps like you handle the front steps of your house.
What was the weather like? 50% flawless blue skies, 50% blizzard / whiteout conditions. Minus 5 to 15C. When the wind blows, Richard’s morale will fall.
Where did we stay? In a succession of 4 huts managed by the Alpine Club of Canada: Petyo, Bow, Balfour, and Scott Duncan, in that order. Luckily, we didn’t have to carry tents. ACC, please fix the ‘Suicide John’ at Scott Duncan hut; think of the children.
Who was on the trip? Dave, from On Top Mountaineering, was our (awesome) guide and there were five of us ‘on the rope’. Three of the party were older than me, and I want to be like them when I grow up.
What score would you give it on the physical difficulty meter? 12 out of 10.
How beautiful was the scenery? As above.
So what did I learn along the way, apart from things like ‘remember to wear sunscreen’?
You can do anything, as long as it’s within your capability envelope
I like to take on difficult challenges in the great outdoors, but I also want to be realistic about what I can expect to successfully achieve. Everest? Not going to happen; not just yet anyways. But this was a challenge that I felt was clearly within, but at the outer edges of, my capability envelope. With six months hard work I found that I measured up to the physical challenge just fine. Except for my feet (Note to self: toughen those tootsies next time).
Lesson learned: Set challenging, not completely impossible, goals and stick to them.
Fear is a fantastic motivator
You can be as positive as you like but the best motivator is fear. Abject, naked fear. Fear of failure, fear of being humiliated, fear of losing the cost of the trip and, especially, the fear of suffering serious injury or death. These fears are all great motivators if you use them in the right way. For example: I trained just about every day of the week in the lead up to this trip. I didn’t always train hard, but I knew that just about the only variable I could control was my personal fitness levels. Fear, not sunshine and kisses, kept me going to the gym and running up mountains with a 40 lb pack - in the rain.
Lesson Learned: Use fear as a springboard, not an excuse.
You probably need to seek help
OK, I know you’re thinking ‘mental health’ type help, right? The help you seek needs to be aligned with your goal. In my case, I wanted help with improving my fitness levels without injuring myself. To do that, I broke a long standing paradigm; I joined a personal training gym. Who, me? The former paratrooper/commando/tough guy? You bet. I used to do this stuff for a living, about 30 years ago, and have smartened up enough to know when it was a good idea to engage the pros. And it worked great. In fact, I don’t think I could have done it without them.
Lesson Learned: You don’t know everything, even if you think you’ve already ‘been there, done that’.
Don’t go out there alone
If you go out onto an active glacier by yourself, you are playing an icy form of Russian roulette with more than one chamber loaded. So, aside from the obvious fun factor, it’s important to go with others. It’s also important to realize that you are not just traveling with a few other people on the ice; there are many others, family, friends, acquaintances, back home who are rooting for you.
Lesson Learned: It takes a community to sustain someone operating on the edge of the possible.
Celebrate, like crazy
The whole purpose of getting out there is to have fun. Even though it’s hard work at times make sure you take time to, if not sniff the flowers, ski the powder. That’s why you got into this in the first place, right? When you’re skiing uphill for several hours with 60lbs on your back, in a snowstorm, it might be difficult to think beyond the next bump on the near horizon. However, the fact that you are there, doing that stuff, is proof that your plan worked. You’ve made it this far, so you might as well enjoy it with a few ‘yahoos’ and ‘yeehaws’.
Lesson Learned: It’s OK to go a little nuts during the doing.
Think ahead to your next adventure, before it’s too late
It’s all about momentum. During the whole six days on the Wapta I was thinking of my next trip, which sounds crazy, right? I mean, most people would seem satisfied with just finishing the next few hundred feet. But I looked at it like this:
1. I want to do more interesting and challenging stuff
2. This is a pretty tough challenge
3. I seem to be doing OK
4. My capability envelope is getting larger
5. This means that I can safely think about doing another, tougher challenge in the future
Building on this kind of thought process, based on immediate interaction with reality, helped me mentally springboard to the next challenge. Sharing ideas with likeminded individuals during the trip is a great way to stoke the fire. If I was to be satisfied with the latest accomplishment to the point that I’m ‘glad I’ll never have to do THAT again’, then I start to lose.
Lesson Learned: Go for it, before ‘life’ intervenes.
So what’s your next hill to climb? Let’s go!