Monday, 10 October 2011

Hiking with Kids in Kananaskis: Tryst Lake (A death and life situation in Kananaskis)

With kids: tiny fairy shrimp
With adults: a big moose
Tryst Lake with adults.
Tryst Lake with kids.
October 1, a bunch of us adults hiked to Tryst Lake in Kananaskis to see the larches turning gold. The day was overcast. In the parking lot, we saw a mother moose and her calf. On the trail to the lake, we saw a third moose grazing beside the path. On the hike back, we saw a massive male moose lying beside the path, munching on grass, its antlers absolutely huge. The larches? Although they towered over us on the slopes above Tryst Lake, all we could see were there faint, gold outlines through the clouds that were socking us in.

On October 9, I returned to Kananaskis and Tryst Lake for a kids hike with eight kids and their parents. Halfway up, the trail was covered in slippery snow although the sky above was blue. At the lake, most of the larches had already lost their needles, but the kids didn't care. They'd found fairy shrimp--or sea monkeys as the kids called them--in the frigid lake and collected them in a jar. Tiny little swimming creatures spotted by tiny little eyes and curious, growing minds.

Click here for more kids hikes in Banff, Kananaskis, Kootenay and other areas of the Canadian Rockies.

It was a reminder that as adults, we've lost sight of the details that make the mountains, and life, such a mystery. We see the big things. They see it all. On the first hike, we'd gone to see the wonder of the fall, literally the fall of the needles that mark the end of growth for the year. On the second hike, the kids discovered new growth because they weren't burdened down with the preconceptions that we older, wiser ones were carrying.

Distance: About 6.6 km round-trip
Elevation gain: About 260 m
Hiking Time: 4 to 6 hours
Directions:  From Canmore, take the Smith Dorrien / Spray Trail to Mt. Shark Road (about 35 km from the Nordic Centre). Follow that road for a kilometre and turn left into the parking area. Hike down the old logging road for about 1.5 kilometers. A cairn on the right marks where the trail to the lake starts.

Click here for driving directions.

Monday, 1 August 2011

When does a steep hike become a scramble?

On the hike to Sparrowhawk Tarns, we encountered a very short section of rock that required us to use our hands. The question arose of whether it was scrambling or not. My answer was, "That depends. If the thought of scrambling scares you, no. If the thought of scrambling doesn't scare you, yes."

Although I'm sure my answer didn't instill confidence in my qualifications to be leading a hike, it's the best I could do. Ask 100 scramblers for a definition of when steep hiking turns into scrambling, and you'll get 100 different answers. While most of us can identify a moderate or difficult scramble when we see it (considerations include how often you have to use your hands, if you fall whether you'll get hurt bad, get hurt real bad or get so hurt you'll be dead) you'll find considerable disagreement over what constitutes an easy scramble.

In his book Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies, Alan Kane defines an easy scramble as "easy hiking, much hands in pockets stuff, little exposure, no maintained trail. Not surprisingly, easy scrambles are not really scrambling at all but are mostly off-trail hiking."

Although Kane's easy, moderate and difficult ratings don't exactly follow the UIAA or YDS ratings, they're the most useful if only because you can actually make sense of them (apologies to the UIAA and good people of Yosemite). Back in the day when I was a but a kid trudging up Heart Mountain in running shoes and blue jeans, most of the things we call scrambles today were called steep hikes. In fact, there was only hiking and climbing. Need to use your hands? Steep hiking. Need to use a rope? Climbing. It was simple.

All too often, I hear people say they'd like to try scrambling but aren't sure if they're ready. Don't let the word "scramble" intimidate you. If you can do a hike with significant elevation gain, you can do an easy scramble. Then go to work on Monday, tell everybody what you did on the weekend, and figure out for yourself how to explain what a scramble is.

Mountains, mentorship and [insert something else that starts with M]

This weekend I led two trips. On Saturday, we did a moderate scramble up Little Hector, which isn't so little. Steep right from the start, it had a little of everything: hands-on scrambling, route finding to gain the ridge and again to get up the final rock band to the summit, scree slogs up and scree slides down, and amazing views from the top of the Hector Glacier below and mountains that stretched beyond the horizon. On Sunday, we did a moderate hike up to the Sparrowhawk Tarns. Again, it had everything you want in a hike: grand views once we got above the tree line, a mix of terrain that included rubble heaps and soft alpine meadows, and amazing little lakes hidden at the back of the cirque.

Most importantly, both had good groups to share the mountains with. On Little Hector we had a mix of ages (from 21 to 40-something) and experience (some making their first summit, some taking the next step from easier scrambles to more advanced, and some more experienced scramblers). On the Sparrowhawk Tarns hike, we ranged from people in their 20s to those of us in our 40s, advanced beginner to experienced hikers, and people from Canada, Spain, Japan and India.

Growing up, this is how we learned. The mountains were a form of apprenticeship and mentorship. There were no introductory hiking or scrambling courses. We didn't even call scrambling "scrambling". They were just steep hikes. More experienced hikers took those of us with less experience onto trails and we learned by watching what they did and listening to what they said. We made some mistakes, got lots of scrapes and bruises, but we absorbed some of their knowledge and developed our own connections to the mountains. As we progressed and gained more experience, we passed on our knowledge to those coming up behind us with less experience. And as we got older, we realized that we were learning as much from them as they were learning from us.

That's what made these two  hikes so good. On Little Hector, a couple people set new personal records for how high they'd climbed. I relearned some things that I'd taken for granted by watching them. At the Sparrowhawk Tarns, one hiker gained the confidence to commit to going on her first scramble. Others gained more confidence descending over rocky terrain. I was reminded of how fun it was to just take off my pack at the objective and explore. I even found half of a geode, scuffed and imperfect compared to polished specimens you find in the souvenir shops on Banff Avenue, but that's what the real mountains are all about. Scuffed and imperfect, they'll teach us a lot if we listen.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Tyranny of Trekking Poles

A couple years ago, I was with a group ascending Sarrail Ridge in Kananaskis. About halfway up, I heard a loud snap behind me. When I turned around, a somewhat heavy-set hiker was holding half a trekking pole. He'd been leaning heavily on the $200-plus carbon fibre pole when it snapped under his weight. The look on his face was one of shock and, dare I say, horror.

"I have to turn back," he said.

"Why? What happened? Are you hurt."

"My hiking pole broke," he said, looking at me like I was an idiot. "I can't go up a hill this steep without it. How would I get down? I wouldn't be able to balance."

I looked down at my hands, which were conspicuously sans poles. I thought about saying something witty like, "I'm doing okay without them," or "The same way you'll get down from here without it" or even "Huh?" Instead, I held my tongue. After all, how can you argue with someone who has bought into the tyranny of the trekking pole? And, I have to admit, the sight of him virtually crawling down the slope in the new, pole-less world he found himself was quite entertaining.

Since this incident, I've taken note of the many forms that the tyranny of trekking poles can take. I've seen hikers on a flat trail dutifully swing their arms forward and back, focusing on their poling form so much that they repeatedly plant their poles where they get stuck under dead fall and in shrubs, almost yanking their arms out of their sockets. I've seen scramblers concentrating so hard on where they're planting their poles on rocks that they lose track of where they're putting their feet, stumble and tumble down the slope. And I've seen other scramblers reaching to the sky in order to plant poles that are adjusted far too long for the angle of the slope, pulling themselves up the mountain with the small muscles of their arms instead of pushing with the larger muscles of their legs.

For the record, I own trekking poles. Sometimes on a steep slope I'll use both, but I'm much more likely to use one extended to the length of an ice axe for balance. I've also seen others use them effectively on the descent to take some of the load off of their knees and hips. But for the most part, I see people using them not because poles make hiking or scrambling easier, but because they think they have to use them, even if somewhere in their minds they know they don't.

The same can be said for countless other gadgets that too many hikers think they need: GPS, water filers, Spot SOS devices, altimeters, and on and on. When used correctly, all of these can be helpful and even provide a higher level of safety. But when leaned on like a crutch, they actually put you in more danger. What happens when the pole snaps on rocky slope and you don't know how to get down without them? Or the GPS fails and you didn't take enough note of the trail to find your way back? Or the water filter doesn't work and you don't know how to tell safe water from bad?

Worse, for me anyways, is that these devices all too often distract from the experience instead of adding to them. For me, going to the mountains is all about getting away from our reliance on technology and gadgets, and pursuing something more natural. Wandering through the wilderness as humans have for millenia and as I did as a child, engaging all of my senses, heightening my awareness of my surroundings, feeling fear and bliss every now and then, and truly experiencing the moment I'm in.
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