I wasn’t originally going to write a trip report on this relatively uneventful weekend, because this Bow Hut trip was really supposed to be a training weekend for doing the Wapta Traverse, which got cancelled due to the Coronavirus. So, I spent some of my extra time writing this little summary reminiscing on a time that feels like a lifetime ago (but it was just two months ago).
Over the February long weekend, I had the pleasure of joining the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC), Calgary Section, on a trip to Bow Hut for an introduction to backcountry skiing in the alpine. Earlier this summer, I spent a night at Bow Hut with my dear friend Victoria (check out that post here), and now it was my first time visiting the majestic Wapta Icefield in the wintertime.
Vi and Sue are two wonderful ladies and long-time members of the ACC who have a deep love of the mountains and big heart for sharing their knowledge and skills with newbie members such as myself. They co-coordinated this weekend trip to give relatively new backcountry skiers an opportunity to gain some experience skiing on glaciers. Along for the ride was Karen, who I met when I took the intro to backcountry skiing, or BITS, course through the ACC two seasons ago (not that she needed to take the intro course, already being an extremely strong skier!) and Wayne, a seasoned skier who has been a trip leader for many BITS excursions.
I was thinking about writing a trip report initially, but the weekend I realized, in retrospect, had very little to do with backcountry skiing or glacier skiing at all. While I came away from the trip with a little more knowledge about making good decisions in the backcountry, the more valuable lessons learned on this trip were life lessons. So, first, a brief summary of our trip and what we did, followed by some thoughts on these life lessons learned and what it means to spend a lifetime loving the mountains.
We met at our carpool spot at 7 AM on Saturday and hopped in the car with Sue to drive to Lake Louise where we had a coffee and chatted about avalanche and weather conditions, and the general plan for our trip. Then we parked our cars at Bow Lake, strapped on our skis and skins, put on our heavy packs, and set off for the hut. The winter approach is slightly more efficient than the summer approach, as you can ski right across the lake instead of circumventing it, and then you ski through the canyon (which a creek runs through in the summer).
After settling into the hut and having some tea to warm up, Vi, Karen and myself went to check out the glacier as Vi wanted to test out the snow depth and layers in preparation for tomorrows goal of summiting Mount Rhondda. Along the way we explored a magnificent ice cave at the toe of the glacier, and enjoyed some fun turns on the glacier.
That evening, the hut was at full capacity and was buzzing with energy as various groups mingled and cooked their dinners before tucking in for the night.
The next morning, Wayne and I slept in until 7:30 AM to find everyone else already in the kitchen area finishing their breakfasts. The visibility was low so we were in no rush to head out onto the Wapta icefield, but after an hour or so, the skies cleared a little so we decided to venture out to tackle our objective for the day. We stopped at the cave again so Wayne and Sue could check it out, and then set up our rope teams and discussed some basic crevasse rescue theory before we began our trek towards Mount Rhondda.
While the air temperature didn’t feel terribly cold (probably around -23 degrees Celsius), there were intense wind gusts up to 50 km/hour! We trudged slowly across the glacier, and the strong winds blew in varying levels of cloud cover. We truly were on top of the world, skiing inside the clouds, with nothing but pure white snow and ice all around us. After around three hours of being blasted by icy winds, our fingers and toes were going numb, so we decided to take a break and huddle as a group underneath Vi’s tarp tent (a thin, windproof tarp that you can sit underneath and use you butt to keep it anchored to the ground). We tried to warm up in our huddle by drinking tea and having some snacks, as the wind howled outside our little tarp. After discussing the pros and cons of whether to continue, we opted that the best decision for the group was to turn back to the hut.
I was happy to thaw my frozen toes in front of the stove at the hut, but was soon itching to move my legs so more, and somehow convinced Vi and Karen to strap on their skis and venture out into the cold again to get some more turns in on the glacier to make the most of the rest of the afternoon.
Monday was our final morning at the hut, and we finally had some clearer skies and magnificent views of the snow-capped peaks surrounding us. We spent the morning tidying up the hut and doing some chores (gathering snow for water, chopping firewood, and sweeping the floors) before skiing back to our cars at the lake and exchanged high fives and hugs at the parking lot before heading our separate ways.
Thoughts on a Lifetime of Loving the Mountains
What was a true highlight of the trip for me was getting to spend time with these wonderful, mountain loving people and listen to their stories. While I don’t want to advertise peoples age all over the internet, let’s just say that I was in the company of those who are around my parents age! Vi, for example, has been part of the ACC for nearly 30 years! Not only that, but she didn’t start backcountry skiing until after she was married and had children! Wayne is semi-retired and didn’t start backcountry skiing until he was over half a century old! While he may be slow and steady on the up and up (but can continue at this pace endlessly), he easily ripped past me with finesse on the downhills!
Here are some of the biggest take-aways and lessons learned for me after spending time with these seasoned outdoorsmen and women:
It is never, ever too late to try something new and learn a new skill!
When I started backcountry skiing two years ago, I bemoaned my sub-par skiing ability as I hadn’t grown-up on the slopes. But don’t let the fear or being “bad” at something stop you from trying. Everyone starts as a beginner, and it doesn’t matter if you are a beginner at age six or sixty-six. Wayne told me that one of the participants in his BITS group this year is a 71-year-old (with the fitness level that rivals most forty-year-olds to boot!) and was really inspired by this septuagenarian hitting the hills! Non-skiing related, my mother decided to learn to play piano in her retirement years. She didn’t let age discourage her and is doing brilliantly! Is it as easy to learn something when you’re 65 as it is at 5? No. But can it be done? Yes, of course!
It is worth the investment (both in time and $$) to develop your skill, especially at the beginning.
And furthermore, it is not only worth the investment, it is a necessary prerequisite. Backcountry skiing, for example, is not something you can just blindly start doing and hope for the best. There are some serious risks involved, and you need to get educated and be prepared! Take an Avalanche Safety Training course from a professional, practice your skills in a safe and controlled environment, find teachers, guides and/or mentors who can pass on their knowledge to you. You get out of something whatever you put into it, and you’re not going to be an expert (or even good!) after doing something only a handful of times. My first year of backcountry skiing I couldn’t make it down a slope without falling at least once (turning in deep powder is nothing like turns on a groomed resort run!). Yes, it was frustrating at times, but I just had to remind myself, “if I’m not ever falling, I’m not trying!”
There is always going to be someone better/faster/more knowledgeable than you. In the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “Comparison is the thief of joy”.
This applies obviously not only to backcountry skiing, but to everything in life. Stay humble, keep an open mindset, and always be willing to learn from your mistakes and from others. Whatever you choose to do is your own personal journey and progress looks different for everyone. For an activity like backcountry skiing, comparison is not only “the thief of joy”, it can be downright dangerous. When you are out with your friends or your group, you can’t race ahead of everyone else or leave anyone behind. It’s not about being “faster” or “better” than everyone else, it’s about having fun and making sure everyone gets home safely.
Also (a good reminder now more than ever before), the mountains will still be there tomorrow, and next week, and next year… you may not be able to meet your objectives this time around, but that doens’t mean you can’t try agian later!
You don’t have to be “young, unattached, and childless” to go on outdoor adventures, pursue your passions, and live a full life!
Ok yeah, it might be easier to take off for a weekend ski trip on a moment’s notice if you don’t have a partner and kids. But having a partner and kids and adult responsibilities doesn’t mean your days full of adventure are behind you! Vi was a great example of this – although her husband doesn’t ski or accompany her on backcountry trips, they’ve been happily married for over 40 years and can support and encourage each other to pursue their own individual interests, while also finding time to spend together doing mutual activities. They also have two children (who are now adults), and Vi told stories of how she hiked up to Bow Hut with her son when he was just 5 years old! Now that they are grown, she still spends time with her children in the outdoors and is heading to Nepal with her younger son for two weeks of trekking this summer! This was super encouraging for me to hear, because now that Ryan and I are married, we are talking about our plans for a family in the near future, and it’s a good reminder that having kids doesn’t mean your “life is over”.
A lifetime of loving the mountains is a lifetime of taking care of them
The great outdoors can offer us the greatest adventures! There are few things that can bring us more joy than standing on a mountaintop with views of endless vistas, plunging into a crystal clear alpine lake, and breathing fresh, sweet air perfumed with the scent of wildflowers. In order to enjoy these beautiful landscapes for generations to come, we need to protect and preserve them. These precious landscapes are natural treasures of our planet – let’s all make sure we are the best stewards of nature and the planet we can be!