Sunshine, Crud & Skimo Lust

3On the first of November we were hammered by snowfall in Banff. I looked out the window and exhaled a sigh of relief. The previous seven or eight months felt like the longest season ever in terms of running around in the mountains and now I was ready for a break. I hung up my sneakers in the basement, swapped them for ski boots, and continued the whole practice of climbing and descending steep-ass hills, except with skinny planks clipped to my toes instead.

The first and most important thing that happened in November is that I stopped running. During the first couple days of the month, I fought the urge to go climb Ha Ling in whiteout conditions for no reason other than my habituation to doing it. I got a gym membership at the Canmore Nordic Centre, started lifting weights and killing myself with circuits, started walking more and stopped running entirely. My goal was to take my body completely out of running shape, into a more traditionally mountaineering, “slow and heavy” type of fitness, and move back into increasingly faster and lighter activity starting in the new year.

All this is tempered by the fact that I essentially traded trail running for fast and light ski touring AKA “Skimo” as soon as I was able this season. Last year I purchased a lightweight Dynafit setup with the intention of staying fit and exploring the mountains during the wintertime when options for running in the alpine become limited. I didn’t expect to do much true backcountry travel, more avalanche-safe objectives where I can rack up some vert and get sweet views solo without the risk of getting buried.

nakiskaskimo1 The month started with a few forays to get myself reacquainted with being on skis. I skinned up to Sunshine Village the day before opening; broke trail halfway up the backside of Sulphur; climbed and skied unopened Mystic runs at Norquay and messed around at Nakiska too.

That was when a tingling lust for the Ski as a tool for mountain travel began stirring in my heart, and I felt obligated to reciprocate with some type-2 fun adventures…


The next three days, I hit the skis hard. The goal of climbing a thousand meters on skis stood out in my mind arbitrarily. On my previous trips this year, I just hadn’t been able to accumulate it so far.

On November 26, I skinned up the old Norquay ski-out that begins at the Juniper Hotel. This is my (and Sean’s) now standard route from town to reach the trailhead for Cascade Mountain. I fortunately found someone’s skintrack up the old black-diamond run but it was so steep I had to bootpack for long sections in deep powder. At last I reached the top of the yet unopened North American lift which services the longest and steepest of Norquay’s ski runs. The view overlooks Mount Rundle, the town of Banff and the Bow Valley corridor stretching towards Canmore. I shredded the wide powder slopes of North American then whizzed back down the narrow ski-out to the Juniper. (6.6km/838m/Movescount/Strava)

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On November 27, I still hadn’t climbed a thousand metres on skis. I decided to stay close to home and see how far I could make it up Sulphur, my usual springtime stomping grounds. I started at the Cave and Basin, 0.5km from my apartment and walked for another half kilometre with the skis on my back before reaching good snow where I was able to start skinning. I made good time along the river and up my old tracks from the previous week, seemingly walked-in by someone (or something) and topped up with a few inches of fresh snow.

All of the various animal, boot and ski tracks petered out around my high point from the previous week and so it was trail-breaking time. I slogged for another four or five hundred vertical metres, step by painstaking step. The thought that I could turn around and ski down at any moment was as stifling and omnipresent as the sun but I continued to march — I wanted to touch that stupid observatory on top of Sanson’s Peak, just like in the summertime, but with skis on my back. I haven’t experienced that level of deathmarch in a long time.

Cue the boardwalk, the upper gondola terminal splayed open among tarps and cranes, and that little brick observatory sitting on top of the mountain. I threw the skis on my back and walked up the wooden steps, wading through the snowdrifts, to touch the stupid little brick house that means so much to me. I took some pics, walked back down, click-click, then skied one of the most fun downhill runs of my life. (18km/981m/Movecount/Strava)



Whilst deathmarching up Sulphur, I had plans to go ski touring with ultrarunners Majo Srnik (@majocalgary) and Andy Reed (@canmoremd) the following day. Fuck, I said to myself, I hope I don’t die… Next morning we met in a surprisingly busy parking lot at Sunshine Village at 8am, an hour before opening. Andy and Majo both had brand-new Dynafit PDG setups with race bindings which, combined with my last year’s PDG skis, definitively made us the Dynafit rando crew.

We reached the upper village in about an hour and proceeded towards Lookout Mountain AKA Brewster Rock via a wide arc just outside the ski area boundary. We approached the sustained climb up Lookout and Andy charged towards the sky, setting a steep track across hardened snow where little more than our steel edges gripped the slope. Did I mention Andy is “tapering” for TNF 50 in San Francisco next weekend?

The higher we climbed, the crustier the snow became and bare rocks started to punctuate the skimpy snowpack until we topped out at the Great Divide lift at 2700m, eleven hundred vertical metres above our start-point.

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After a brief snack overlooking the crest of the continent, we skied down the run, ducked the rope and descended through steep crud to reach an area of thirty degree champagne powder that we milked for two laps of exquisite riding. Then we were off in another wide arc through the meadows — over rolling terrain that had us stripping skins for short downhills, then replacing them moments later — to reach Mount Standish at 2398m.

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After taking in the views of Rock Isle Lake and a snowy continental divide, we stripped off our climbing skins for good, stashed them in our jackets and tore down through the ski area and back to our vehicles in the parking lot in less than twenty minutes. (23.5km/1446m/Movescount/Strava)

My newfound respect for the skis are akin to how I came to recognize the bike as a tool for mountain travel this past summer. Each tool has its place in the kit of a well-rounded mountaineer and I suppose the goal is to become competent in each domain, whether it’s running, hiking, climbing technical rock, skiing, biking, swimming, etc. Besides, if you live in the mountains in Canada and don’t ski, snowboard or do something to keep yourself busy, then winter just sucks, and as a summer-loving mountain runner it’s more like some kind of sadistic hell.

And now it’s a buttery heaven of lung-hucking bootpacks and surfin’ through pow. Hallelujah.

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Sunshine, Crud & Skimo Lust

The Longest Season

baowhI was slogging up some mountain the other day when I started counting on my fingertips: how many months had it been between February and now? I’d started training consistently last February, bagged Rundle in March, got injured in April, ran the Mont Blanc 80K way back in June… Now here it was, practically November, the days increasingly short but the weather fine, scramblers still making summits throughout Banff.

In other words it was the longest peak bagging season ever.

In northern-ish Canada, we tend to complain about the shortness of our summers, especially in the mountains, where we love to do stuff during our four months of occasionally decent weather. Well, last winter was rather springlike and this fall has been gloriously summery, making for the peak bagging season scramblers could only dream of.

After fourteen hundred kilometres on my spindly little legs this year — a total of 238 hours moving fast and light in the mountains and over a hundred thousand metres of ascent — you can bet I’m stoked for our recent powder days.

Unfortunately, I’m already thinking about next year. A few days ago, I gained entry into The North Face Lavaredo 119K in the Italian Dolomites for 2016. Though I’m not quite sure how next year is going to pan out, I’m excited to have what is commonly described as “the most beautiful race in the world” tentatively on my calendar for next summer.

Onwards to the events of October!

5October 11 was Grizzly Ultra in Canmore, a fun late-season 50K that draws together runners from all over Alberta. Paddy and Jordan from Mountain Stride Fitness raced whilst Sean and I stood around cheering everybody on. Jordan finished in 9th place in 4h52m and looked solid all the while. Way to go, buddy!

6^ Jordan Sauer en route to a top-ten spot at Grizzly Ultra.

The weeks before and after Grizzly comprised a bunch of random jaunts, shifting back and forth between bigger and smaller objectives as the weather would dicate. During the middle of October, I did a sunny loop on Yamnuska; climbed to the false summit of Observation Peak on hard snow with an ice tool; mucked around for 30km in the Castle Mountain massive and tagged EEOR and Goat’s Eye as well. As conditions continued to be snowfree, it was hard to say no to a run in the alpine though difficult to commit to anything too crazy as the mornings grew frigid and hours of daylight scarce. I wrote about this internal conflict a little bit last year in Fall Moods over on the MSF blog.

7 8 2^ Observation Peak

From October 17-24, my folks came to visit so I took the opportunity to step back from incessant peak bagging and tried to be a good host. Via my suburban parents, I looked at the Rockies through a child’s eyes — or at least with tourists’ eyes — as we ferried around to the many jaw-dropping locations that have been photographed and gawked at time and again.

As the end of the month approached, it was obvious that I wasn’t a hundred percent satisfied with my summer, though I certainly had lots to be grateful for. On October 20th, I wrote:

I guess the feeling is that at the end of the season I haven’t really faced my fears and have largely stayed inside my comfort zone, and after all the side-stepping around the real challenges I ultimately feel disappointed and unfulfilled.

Disappointment is a theme I’ve touched on in my last few blog entries, but suddenly I knew why I felt disappointed, that I was justified to feel disappointed but also knew how to fix it. My disappointment stemmed from my own unwillingness to push myself out of my comfort zone, to face my fears of exposed, technical terrain, and I wouldn’t be truly satisfied until I did something scary. On October 23rd, I wrote:

The eternal conflict between comfort and fear. I’ve always been afraid to explore and push my boundaries, but if it gets too comfortable, I start to get bored. I can do Fairview and Ha Ling over and over but I will never attain the feeling of satisfaction that comes from having met and overcome fear. I’ve said this before: this whole activity, for you, is all about pursuing fear.

As the weekend approached, Sean mentioned he was coming to the mountains and had an objective in mind. Sean wanted to explore an esoteric scramble route up the steep, rocky north bowl of Ha Ling Peak, a route considerably more exposed and hands-on than the standard trail to the top of the mountain. We were aware the bowl had been ascended previously by non-climbers so it wasn’t necessarily a death sentence, but I was inherently uncomfortable. A part of me deeply desired to send this route but my mind immediately started thinking up alternatives: Sean said he was open to other options, maybe I’ll take him up Observation Peak… Maybe we can bike into Moraine Lake and do something there… I.e. something that doesn’t scare me.

Having reached the previous conclusions, it became obvious what I was doing and that a big, fat dose of facing my fears was precisely what I needed. So around 10am on October 25, I met Sean in Canmore and we drove up to the climber’s parking lot at the base of Ha Ling and started slogging.

2Other runners who have done this route might snicker — and in retrospect it’s not that bad — but on our approach I was gripped. We treaded loose cobbles on our way to the bowl, frost covering everything on the shadowy north aspect. We rounded a corner into the bowl and left shitty terrain for really shitty terrain, scrambling up short slabs littered with scree and interspersed by green patches. We reached a sizeable class 4 pitch that we spent a good half hour probing, convinced we had to climb it in order to continue. After basically giving up, we traversed along the base of it until we found a weakness in the rock band weak enough to suit our scrambling prowess and clambered up.

3One weakness led to another and we zigzagged back and forth on exposed and chossy ledges, climbing up broken slabs in between. By this point we were closer to the col than the base where we started and it seemed that the most difficult challenges were behind us. Adrenaline tinged with paranoia transformed into euphoria mixed with enthusiasm and suddenly I was stoked. We gained a “green ramp” which deposited us onto the Ha Ling-Miner’s Peak col amid a conga line of hikers headed for Ha Ling’s summit.

4The first words out my mouth were, “That was awesome! I would totally do that again!” or something to that effect. We trotted over to Miner’s to inspect a possible Grassi traverse, then trotted back over to obligatorily tag Ha Ling as well.

Mountain running has taught me many philosophical lessons and has become more purely metaphysical throughout the past year. When I was training on Sulphur in the springtime, I learned to reduce my resistance and embrace the elements. In Chamonix, I learned to trust my training and let myself be guided towards success. On the northern aspect of Ha Ling last week, I learned that when I push myself outside of my comfort zone and do scary things, it somehow opens the doors for new opportunities to happen. This is my newfound perspective on fear.


The Longest Season