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.

5

The Longest Season

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