For my vacation this summer, I decided to challenge myself even more and embark on a guided mountaineering journey. After thorough research, my choice landed on Yamnuska Mountain Adventures, based in Canmore, Alberta. A little more than a month has passed since I came back, and the adrenaline of this adventure has faded. But there is one thing that I remain absolutely certain of - I would not hesitate a second to take on a new challenge with Yamnuska.
On the first day, we gathered at Yam's headquarters where we met our guides and the other people in our group. The guides had a look at our gear and clothing, and then we shared some of the food for the week, repacked and hopped on the van. We were dropped at Bow lake where we hiked up to the Bow hut.
The trail is mostly groomed and accessible to anyone with a minimum level of fitness. It's a 7 km hike with an elevation gain of 400 meters where we first climbed over a boulder that had fallen over a gorge and is now a bridge across. We then climbed stairs, hiked on a dirt/forest trail, over rocks and boulders and sometimes on a smallish ridge. We went across (and right into) a few streams, down a valley to finish up a steep but short hike to the Bow Hut (elevation: 2350 meters).
The rest of the day, we learned the hut rules, the clean water location, had food and spent the rest of the evening chatting with each other to get to know better the people with whom we would spend the week.
On the second day, we were distributed our gear: cords, a variety of carabiners, an ice screw, crampons, harness, mountaineering axe and helmet. We practiced coiling cords and ropes, how to put on the crampons, how to adjust the harness safely. Then, we had lunch and left for the glacier - our new playground for the week! I have to mention this - streams running down a glacier is the best water source - no need of boiling or filtering! We learned cramponing, using the ice axe, getting out of a small crevasse with the front point of the crampons and the axe.
When we were judged good at all that, we went a little higher on the glacier and learned to install an ice anchor. Once the anchor was installed, we were dropped in a real crevasse with two ice axes and had to climb our way up. Of course, we were tied up to the anchor! I warned my guide that I was afraid of heights, and that this exercise was quite challenging for me. He took the rope and proceeded to lower me down. As soon as my full body was in the crevasse and I couldn’t see them anymore, he let go of the rope for a good meter and catched it back. I screamed! But I didn’t drop either of my axes and made my way up and out the crevasse. Phew… And I went down again a second time. Finally, we learned short/long roping and returned to the hut.
At night, we learned and practiced knots and hitches and discussed the plan for the third day. While we were stretching and enthusiastically playing with cords, our two guides were busy doing 100 pull-ups while making dinner...
On day three, we hiked our first mountain - St Nicholas peak, 2932 meters. We made teams of two and roped up to each other. We went up and around the glacier and climbed on the south west side of the mountain. We stopped for lunch when we were out of the glacier, and the climate changed very suddenly to a little snowstorm. As we were now on rocks, we removed the crampons, but remained roped up.
There were a few scary spots to go across, small ridges and steep sections, but especially one grey slab. We crossed it by holding on to the top part with both hand and sort of crawling sideway across the slab. We made it to the summit and enjoy a beautiful blue sky that allowed for breathtaking pictures.
We stayed at the summit a few minutes and started climbing down. That grey slab again. Just about two meters long. Our lead guide told me to follow exactly his steps over it, standing this time - after recomposing myself, I followed his direction and across I went. The adrenaline boost was incredible, I stopped shaking as soon as my first foot touch the rock, and it suddenly didn’t seemed like such a big deal while I was slowly reaching the other side.
When we cleared the peak, we went down the mountain on the other side. We learned scrambling and went back on the glacier for a while until we arrived at a point where the glacier was too steep for us to continue. Our guide started building and anchor and left, stating that our second guide would know what to do when he will see the set-up. Repelling!
At night, we practiced our knots and hitches more, and discussed plans to traverse to Peyto Hut and stay there overnight. This means getting up at 4 am. Meaningless to say, we all went to bed pretty early.
In the morning of the fourth day, the weather was pretty bad so we all got to go back to sleep a few more hours. The weather was still not very good when we woke up, so we stayed around the hut and learned a few different crevasse rescue techniques. The guides had set up a few ropes off the balcony, and we started by learning self-rescue using two prusik knots. The idea is to create a loop around your foot with the first prusik, and then tie the second directly to your harness. It replaces ascenders and allows you to climb your way up the rope by creating enough friction to hold you in place when the prusik cord is stretched, while allowing you to move up the hitch when there is no tension.
We then formed teams of 4 and practiced team crevasse rescues. We started with the simplest: just pulling the fallen one out of the hole. The idea is to walk in the opposite direction, step by step, regularly checking on the person in the hole to ensure all is good. The rope near the hole has to be elevated slightly to prevent it from cutting a deep groove at the edge of the crevasse, which would make it harder for the climber to get out. The second group rescue we learned is equivalent to the first one, except that the second team is helping to pull out the victim. We then spent a fair amount of time practicing a rescue technique that requires building an anchor first, and then proceeding to the rescue. Finally, our guides demonstrated a pulley technique to get the victim out of the crevasse.
In the evening, we had an orientation session using a topographic map, learned to calibrate our compass, how to do back reading, how to find your location while pointing the compass at something known and then using a map to find your location. We then discussed the plan for our last day at the hut and went to bed. Whatever the weather, we will climb Mt Habel (3087 meters).
On day 5, we got up at 4 am. Our gear was already packed and we only needed to eat breakfast and were ready to go. It was pitch black outside when we headed to the glacier. We formed into the same group of four and roped up.
As the sun came up, we realised that we didn’t have the best day ahead of us. We were navigating almost blindly, relying on our map and compass and the knowledge of the area the guides have. We completed the first leg and stopped for a bite. We were in a complete blizzard. Interesting fact, our lead guide is not a big fan of waterproof-breathable jackets, so he strapped an umbrella to his backpack instead. I have to admit that it helped in being able to see him!
We changed our direction a little and started going down a valley. We could somewhat see the shape of a mountain. We headed for the south face and ended up in a crevasse field. At first, we could clearly see the crevasses and had to jump over them. It was challenging to navigate through that crevasse maze while ensuring that there were no slack in the rope. Every time one of us would jump over a crevasse, the one in front and the one behind would keep the rope very tight and follow the movement of the middle person. That way, it reduces the shock if that person fall in the crevasse and helps the other two to keep their balance. It lasted quite a while, to the point that despite my vertigo/fear of heights, I was able to jump with confidence and even look down the crevasses.
It was snowing more and more as we made our way to the summit. We entered a section covered by a layer of snow, and couldn’t see the crevasses anymore. We knew they were there, and consequently were very diligent in keeping the rope taut at all time. But it had to happen - as I was slowly walking, almost knee deep in fresh snow, I felt the ground falling beneath my foot and one of my leg completely disappeared in a crevasse. The panic didn’t last, but the sensation was intense! As we continued, a few others had the chance to experience it also. The storm was getting very bad so the guides went scouting the area for a way to the summit. We had to increase the pace a little since it was snowing so much that we couldn’t see a lot ahead of us, and the trail they were making wouldn’t last long in this weather. It was a long climb.
We were now very close to the summit and on rocks again… plus a small layer of fresh snow that had been falling for the last while. We removed our crampons and broke free of the rope while we ascended the last part to reach the summit. My biggest accomplishment so far in my favorite activity, that I achieved in challenging conditions, and all I can see around me is white. For a while, we had been in an almost complete whiteout, and could barely distinguish anything more than a few meters away. Despite all of this, I will still remember this moment very clearly in my mind for a long time.
Coming down was a little more challenging. We had to first scramble down snow-covered rocks, and then walk through a section of boulders coated in snow. It was very slippery, but the poles were helping a lot in keeping our balance. We made it back to the glacier and started the long return to the Hut.
After a few hours, there was a break in the weather and we could see Mt Habel, standing just beside us. We stopped to get water as there was a stream running down the glacier. We heard a loud sound, and turned around to see a rock avalanche coming from the mountain next to us. We then noticed we were standing in the path of recent avalanches, so off we went. We continued for a few hours and reached the hut at the end of the day.
At night, everyone was tired - it was a long day. We spent a fair amount of time just drinking tea, coffee and soup to rehydrate ourselves. After dinner, a few survivors decided to play a game of pictionary. You want some advice? If you want to win, ask a French guy!
In the morning of the last day, we had breakfast and packed our stuff. We said our goodbyes to the Blow Hut and started heading back down to the lake.
The hike down was mostly eventless, and the weather was beautiful again. We met a few people on the trail and before long reached the parking lot. A few of the group decided to jump in the lake before heading back to town, I decided on a freshly brewed coffee.
It was an amazing trip, an unforgettable experience. I’ve accomplished my goal of climbing a mountain taller than 3000 meters. In only a week, I have gained so much confidence in my abilities and skills in the mountains, that I can envision so much more in the years to come. I leave now for Mt St Helen’s with no remaining fear or concerns, only the certitude that I will make it to the summit.
And as I was on my way to Seattle, with the plane about to land, I had a glimpse at Mount Rainier and knew instantly that I had to climb that mountain.
For more photos, see my Adventure Gallery
Upcoming blog - Climbing Mount St Helen’s