Learning from the mountains

The 17-km hike up the mountain in the heart of the Kananaskis was a lesson in endurance, perseverance and making it through in the end.   Photo: Courtesy of A. Rumin

By Anna Rumin

“We are not out of the woods yet!”  The double-masked manager of the car-rental wagged his finger in the air and walked us over to the last available vehicle. I could practically see my reflection in the passenger window; the interior smelled like a clean bathtub There was a small crack in the windshield, but never mind, it was an invitation to the adventure we were looking for, had been waiting for, were ready for. We thanked him, watched him walk away shaking his head and began driving west.

Thirty-eight years earlier, I made my first trip out west to Lake Louise where I worked at a small family-owned lodge with 40 or so other 20-somethings in search of adventure. I arrived in Lake Louise from downtown Montreal where I had been partying in a sundress, not in the lopi-sweater, hiking boots and jeans I was now wearing. There was snow on the ground, the lake was covered in ice. As I stared out at the Victoria Glacier and up at what I would soon recognize as Mount St Piran, The Devil’s Thumb, Saddleback and Mount Fairview, I was wonderstruck not only by their immensity, but also by the thought that somehow their peaks were attainable. That summer, I hiked almost daily and never got tired of summitting and staring out at the world around me, feeling the wind and sun and hearing only the laughter of friends. True, I did my fair share of partying as well. At the end of four months, I wondered how I could leave.

Thirty-eight years later, my husband and I were now visiting our 22-year-old son who was working at a remote lodge in the heart of the Kananaskis where he runs up and down mountains in one of several pairs of shoes or boots that he has researched and bought for specific purposes, wears a helmet, studies maps and routes and eats what he knows will fuel him up and around mountain tops. He had arranged that we stay in a room with a view; as far as we could see below us was a meadow trimmed by a forest and framed by Mount Shark, the Tent Ridge, Mount Birdwood and Mount Commonwealth. I could happily have spent the day on that balcony, waiting for the deer, moose and bears to emerge from the forest and wander into the meadow. Lying in bed, I listened to the symphony of birds and was taken back to Laikipia in Kenya where I had sat on a rock near a watering hole, listening to the birds and waiting for buffalo, zebra or elephants to emerge for a drink. And while I knew the value of patience, while I understood that the less we look the more likely we are to be visited, I did not anticipate that 38 years later I would discover what might be the greatest feeling. Ever.

I wasn’t sure whether to curse or feel flattered by the 17-kilometer climb Edward proposed where, at the halfway point, we had to hike up and over a saddle. “It’s fine,” he assured me, “It’s my favourite in the area, you’ll love it!” What could I say? I spent the evening reading reviews, all of which were glowing, though many commented that the saddle was not perhaps for those afraid of heights. I channelled my inner courage – I had done it before, even higher! The first seven kilometers were a collection of stories – an initial long walk through the forest, then a climb to a first lake where we met a young couple fishing, then another climb to the second lake that was above the treeline. Way, way, way at the other end, we saw the slope and saddle that we’d have to traverse. “We can turn around at any point,” Edward generously offered, but we didn’t, we carried on.

Up until then, the sky had been a beautiful bright blue, but by the time we started our ascent, it was a steel grey. I went down on all fours, willing myself not to look back or up. At some point I froze, then froze again; when I finally reached the top, I began to sob. Then the descent. I had been reassured by all the reviews that going down on my behind was a respectable option but when I felt the skin tear and burn, I knew I’d be scarred and hurting for a while. Edward handed me gloves, forced me to put on his wind-pants and simply said, “Mum, I got you up here, and I’ll get you down.” And he was beside me the entire way so that by the time I hit snow and began to slide, I could see him smile and I knew we had made it out of Mordor. The clouds blew away, skies turned blue again and we negotiated our way over a few kilometers of rocks before we hit the trail around our beloved Chester Lake where the only risk was a grizzly who was frequenting the meadows. I’d never been so happy to be back in a forest in the comfort of branches and needles and trunks I could hang onto. And then, on the way back to the lodge, we slowed down to watch a mother bear come out of the woods followed by her cubs running, playing and picking up rocks to look for grubs.

I thought about the hike as we drove back to Calgary – the scars on my behind were now healing but I know some will remain; I think of them as natural tattoos, a reference point for what I’ve done in my life and I have a few. Masked up again in the airport, I looked around and saw what I had missed so much – the pleasure of those who have adventured and know beauty, sweat, encountering an obstacle that is seemingly too massive to negotiate around, breathing deep, swearing out loud, sobbing, accepting help and then getting up and moving forward, recognizing that the bruises will heal. I realized that relief may be the absolute best feeling in the entire world. And as we boarded the plane, masked and sterilized, I knew the rental car manager was right: we weren’t out of the woods yet, but we would make it.

Anna Rumin designs and teaches memoir-based writing courses in Ottawa.

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