Saturday, June 18, 2016

west of the river 1: echo lake

Mt Murchison from my bedroom window
From a reclined position on my bed, if I have woken up sufficiently to have opened the blinds, the windows frame a view entirely of mountains. There is no sign of human activity at all.

This is a great luxury for which I count myself fortunate. However, it is hard to deny that - at least superficially - these are not the most exciting mountains. From late fall until early summer the high ridges are typically white with snow, but there are no glaciers. The summits are rounded not sharp. There are a few cliff faces, but none with any distinct architecture (unlike the Stawamus Chief, which I can see if I get out of bed, step out on the balcony and crane my head south). Even the mountains' names are not especially inspiring: Murchison, Lapworth, Coneybeare. Further north in the same Tantalus mountain range, the mountains get spikier with year-round ice and snow, and have been christened more dramatically: Alpha ... Omega ... Serratus.

Nevertheless over time I have come to appreciate subtleties of the view. Much of the visible rock is granite (or some variant on granite: granodiorite, a geologist pedant has often suggested to me) but a large swathe is actually volcanic in origin. With cloud swirling low enough in the valley, the basaltic Touch and Go towers become well-defined within the view, the largest being the ghostly Castle. Surprisingly this may be where the first climbs in Squamish took place in the 1950s, as they were then easily accessible from downtown over a footbridge (now long gone) unlike the Chief which then had no road under it.

The Castle

Also prominent is Monmouth Creek, a system of almost continuous waterfalls and cascades descending the entire 900m hillside down to the Squamish River.





Monmouth Creek

The lower part of the creek passes between the granite and volcanic rocks, creating - I now know - a deep and wildly-sculptural canyon. The creek itself has its source in Echo Lake, a kilometre wide feature hidden in the bowl below Murchison and Lapworth. A trail has been created up to the lake from the west bank of the river, staying as close to the falls as possible. I had heard that it was very worthwhile but the practicalities of crossing the river were off-putting.

In May this year Leo had some free time together, as Shoko had taken James to visit family friends in Arizona and his soccer season had ended. Leo had recently developed an interest in video editing and had obtained a second-hand drone to capture raw footage. Necessarily this implied some outdoor adventuring to access places to film, so for the first time in several years we had some commonality of interest. Around the same time I happened to mention to my neighbours, Shawn and Sharon, that I aspired to visit Echo Lake. Very generously they offered to lend their Canadian-style canoe and remarkably didn't retract the offer when I pointed out that I had never used one before. Helpfully I then stumbled over some GPS coordinates for the river crossing and first section of the hike and discovered that tide timing was suitable for the coming weekend. Leo bought into the idea, based on my over-optimistic estimate of the time required and promise of unique views from the lake. A plan was hatched. As final preparation, we watched some online videos on the paddling and steering of Canadian canoes - it looked easy enough.

And so, on a Saturday morning around 8am (about four hours too early in the teenage circadian rhythm), we cautiously clambered into the wobbly canoe and - to my relief - onsighted the river crossing. 

crossing the Squamish River
The take-out spot was easy to find. From there just one trail leads onwards ...

Looking up the line of the lower falls
Lower Falls "keyhole" feature
The trail gets a little crazy
Gorgeous hidden valley with old-growth cedars and firs
Echo Lake outflow
... which we followed, reached our objective and came down. Normally I would add more detail about days like this, but Leo made a video. (Highlights are around 3:30 and 6:00 in my opinion.):


A few things I should add for anyone researching this hike:
  1. It is genuinely very worthwhile. In my experience the usual BC hike involves hours of tedium deep in the trees before anything interesting can be seen. This one throws surprises at you all the way. 
  2. The river crossing deters people so you have a good chance of being alone all day.
  3. There are multiple trail options, of which the most challenging are close to the falls. On the way down we chose the more sedate trails more distant from the creek. 
  4. Do locate the take-out point for the canoe back on the east side of the river before you start. We didn't (and ended up paddling unnecessarily far).



Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Freeway

Last summer I climbed Freeway for the first time. Not that significant an achievement for me, even adjusting for my age, decrepitude or any other handicap, real or imagined. But, nevertheless, a big day on an exceptional route. So I thought that I should document it, before the memory fades.

Freeway is widely regarded as the best of the Chief’s long free routes. It has loomed large in my consciousness since my first summer season in Squamish in 2005. My climbing partner then, Andy Donson, had done Freeway on a previous visit. He and I did Grand Wall together, an intimidating climb for me at the time, and definitely at the edge of my granite trad competence. Though he was too tactful to rain hard on my parade, it was fairly obvious from his comments that Freeway was a much bigger deal and something I needed to work towards in the future.

The line of Freeway on the west face of the Stawamus Chief © Squamish Rock Guides/ Marc Bourdon
Over the next few summers, when I typically spent 3 or 4 weeks in Squamish each year, I gradually ticked off most of the easier long routes like Angels Crest, Squamish Buttress and the Ultimate Everything, mostly with my friend and fellow “Japanese Wife Club” member, Bob Jasperson. Though I didn’t fall off anything, the 5.10 pitches on those routes seemed hard enough and the cumulative effort fairly exhausting. A route with multiple solid 5.11 pitches like Freeway seemed a very distant prospect. In fact during that period I never even tried single-pitch 5.11 routes. In 2010 I made my usual summer trip to Squamish but left the family behind, which raised the possibility of getting more climbing done than usual. Colin Spark, an expat Brit, then between jobs, was staying with me. We actually set out one morning specifically to “have a go” at Freeway, but - fortunately, I suspect - got cold feet once we had arrived at the parking lot and decided to do Milk Road instead, a 5.10+ multi-pitch which follows a parallel but inferior line nearby.

After I moved full-time to Squamish in 2012, Freeway was promoted from the "maybe one day" list to "really must get it done". But it was a surprisingly long time before the stars aligned and I felt ready. Generally I have restricted my trying-hard efforts to sport routes, and kept my trad-climbing as low drama as possible: climbing onsight on routes well within my limit and focusing on placing good gear. Somehow, though, my comfort level rose. A few standouts included Yorkshire Gripper and Crime of the Century in 2013 and Hungry Wolf in 2014. Earlier this year I changed tack slightly and "head-pointed" a couple of routes: the quite bold Electric Ball and tough Spiderfly, my first Squamish trad 5.12. A sad affliction of Brit climbers, at least of my generation, is to translate trad ascents into Britain's weird E-grades. These last two seemed respectably in the E4 to low E5 zone, roughly the highest level that I used to manage on British cliffs in my mid-20s, before I discovered sport climbing.

Simon benchmarking himself for Freeway with an onsight lead of Yorkshire Gripper at the Smoke Bluffs
Another auspicious factor was the impending visit of my friend, and business partner, Simon Lee to Squamish for three weeks mid-summer. Simon is almost exactly my age and has had a very similar climbing evolution to me, both in terms of duration (decades …) and the objectives we have pursued at similar times (though he has managed to push the bar a little higher). He wanted a target for the trip, so Freeway was adopted even before he arrived. Simon has put in some time in Yosemite, including an ascent of the famous Astroman, to which Freeway is sometimes compared; success therefore seemed reasonably assured.

Ahead of his visit, I read as much as I could about Freeway on the web. A recurring theme was off-putting descriptions of the 4th and 5th pitches. For example:

“The 100 meter dihedral which is one of the best features of the route … can be split up into 3 11b-ish pitches or the first two can be linked together to make two monstrous 50 meter endurofests …. the climbing was spicy, extremely technical, with occasional wet finger locks, and cruxy dead dihedrals that were negotiated with many calf-burning stems on micro features. … the cruxes are short. The thing is: every pitch has a handful of them with no places to hang out and rest.”

Or, even more discouraging, from one of the best female sport climbers in the US:

“I found myself trying harder on the 11c pitch 4 than I tried during an entire month projecting Dreamcatcher (5.14d) in the forest below”

Consequently, I got a little anxious and began a long period of what - with hindsight - I realise to have been over-preparation. In particular I became obsessed with finding the correct shoes for Freeway (and sent stern emails to Simon suggesting he think likewise). Whilst I hate painful feet from over-tight shoes worn on long routes, the “calf-burning stems on micro features” seemed to require a precision shoe. My usual shoe choice for easier long routes is a baggy pair of old-school La Sportiva Mythos, and for harder single-pitch trad the same firm’s Miuras, sized as tight as I can bear. Neither seemed right for Freeway.

My first experiment was to buy some Miuras one half-size larger than usual. They were - initially - disappointing. I did a lap up Grand Wall in them, with Eric Hildrew, another Brit visitor, in town a few weeks before Simon and his family. The Miuras hurt, yet didn’t feel very precise. In a panic, I made a very left-field choice: a pair of Mythos, sized tighter than usual, and, for extra impact, in the women’s style which is significantly narrower. For a while I managed to delude myself that these were good shoes, and even took them for (another) lap up Grand Wall, with Simon and his son Tom. But a couple of obvious negatives were hard to ignore: one, that they were scarcely less sloppy than my normal Mythos, and, worse, two, that my feet were tending to pop out of the shoes’ shallow heel cups.

Simon and Tommy on Grand Wall
Eventually, in search of objectivity, I carried a bouldering pad and my entire shoe collection to a slab near my home, notable for some thin problems. In particular there is a sandbag V2 which starts with two consecutive rock-ups on small crystals, on which I often fail. The only reliable shoe I own for moves like that is the Five Ten Anasazi White, a stiff “plank” too foot-crushing to wear for any significant time. Predictably the problem wouldn’t go in Mythos of any flavour, nor in any of the other oddities I have accumulated down the years (Five Ten 5X’s, Red Chilli Spirits … czech carpet slippers … etc). However the aha! moment came when I did manage the two crystal moves in the new upsized Miura's, even though they felt awkward and clunky. I decided to stop fussing and just concentrate on getting those shoes thoroughly broken-in.

The chosen Miura's (and nut key)
Another issue was how many ropes to take. Double ropes are a common choice for the route, as it makes a retreat easy if the crux middle pitches go badly (the route is equipped for 50m rappels). On the other hand, double ropes are a time-suck on long routes with small stances, as they usually need frequent untangling. A single climbing rope plus a haul-line is an other option but still comes with a high clusterfuck risk. We decided to just take a single rope and assume we would either top out somehow or sacrifice some gear to rappel if absolutely necessary.

Besides agonising over equipment, I also asked around as to whether there were any lesser routes Simon and I should complete together as “a Road to Freeway”? My very keen friend Travis, who seems to have ticked almost every trad pitch at Squamish sub-5.13, offered the non-intuitive suggestion that the best preparation for Freeway would be the first pitch of Freeway itself. I now know that this is excellent advice, as the first pitch is indeed a microcosm of the whole route, but I wasn’t wholly convinced at the time, and certainly couldn’t motivate Simon to do it. So it came to pass that out first encounter with the route - on 3rd August - was the real deal, the actual send, rather than a reconnoitre.

We decided to climb the route in two blocks, with me leading the first five pitches. My web research had convinced me that the big dihedral pitches (pitches 4&5) were the crux and the roof (pitch 6) more of a formality, but of sufficient substance that Simon would feel he had participated adequately. As with most plans, the actual implementation played out quite differently.

Getting to Freeway from the Chief parking lot is much like getting to Grand Wall. You wander in amongst the forest boulders, expecting to find a single upwards trail but are instead confronted by a confusing plethora of trails eroded by boulderers, from which you randomly pick one. After a few minutes you are overcome by doubt, walk back down and try another one. Or at least that is how it usually works out for me.

The base of Freeway isn’t. Steep uphill dirt transitions subtly to steeper scrambling then a fixed rope up a smooth slab. “Where do I change into my climbing shoes?” I wondered. At the top of the fixed rope, of course, but when I got there I found Simon lashed to the anchors and nowhere to stand but a smooth groove full of cedar needles. The day after our ascent I wrote on Facebook that the crux of the route is finding a way to clean your shoes before starting the first pitch, and, honestly, I still hold that opinion. The pitch is technical and insecure right from the first move, so you don’t want any extraneous material between your rubber and the rock.

In various sources pitch 1 gets 5.11a or 5.11b or a split-grade in between. Whichever, it is stout. Lots of thin laybacking and undercutting with poor feet for 20m or so. Eventually the holds grow and there are few jamming moves but the angle steepens. The anchors were more distant than I anticipated. Pitch 2 starts with a blind reach around an arĂȘte. The rest is easy jamming up a nice splitter. Some recommend linking pitches 1 and 2 but the rope stretch would guarantee some very long slides for the second if they fell low on pitch 1, so I wouldn’t suggest it. Pitch 3 is very aesthetic: a long downwards traverse along a flared feature to a nice belay ledge, mostly protected by bolts. Not very hard climbing but stimulating: as the face below is steep and blank and the ground already quite distant. Somewhere in the middle of this pitch I realised that I was having fun; an emotion that sometimes eludes me for the whole duration of multi-pitch routes. Unfortunately my positivity drained away whilst Simon seconded, as I had time to fret about the “I tried harder than on Dreamcatcher” pitch 4 above. It looked very similar to pitch 1, but steeper.

Simon following the easy splitter crack on pitch 2
The interesting downwards-traverse on pitch 3
In maximally-apprehensive mode, I indulged in various spurious gear-rerackings and shoe-retightenings before setting off. To my surprise, the style of climbing seemed to suit me, progress was pretty smooth and my good mood returned. One question mark in my mind was whether to split the pitch at a small ledge with gear anchors or keep going for a full 50m pitch? A team ahead of us, now struggling on pitch 5, had split the pitch. I decided to do the same. As the climbing had gone well up to that point I assumed the crux must still be ahead, so I was happy to minimize rope drag and recover all the small cams I has used below. In fact, it wasn't a great decision. As I intended to keep leading, we had to contend with an awkward swap-over. And then the pitch - let’s call it 4(b) - proved no harder than 4(a) and even had a bolt at its crux. So: top tip #2 if you are contemplating the route - don’t split pitch 4.

Simon following pitch 4(b)
Simon at this point was getting a little impatient for the sharp end, so he set off first up pitch 5. I had seen the guys above doing some horrific-looking tips laybacking, so wasn’t wholly upset. However, being an independent-thinking kind of guy, Simon found some much easier beta, using … well, maybe I shouldn’t say. Following the pitch, I found one of the toughest sections to be passing a dead tree stump in the main corner. One day, when that falls out, the pitch will be harder. Near the belay ledge the climbing becomes quite runout and changes character from crack grovelling to big face moves between knob features. I wasn’t wholly unhappy that he got the lead on this either.

Simon starting pitch 5
... and higher on the same pitch. The large overhang above the Truckstop is visible above.
The ledge system above pitch 5 is known as the Truckstop. Though you can just about sit down, it is not the most relaxing place. The ledge is partially filled with jammed boulders and the whole thing is capped by a large horizontal overhang. Then there is lot of air underneath. Overall it is both claustrophobic and vertiginous, a weird mix. We caught up with the other team here. Embarrassingly I failed to recognize one of them, who reminded me that we had spoken together at length on two previous occasions, about adventure tourism opportunities in Oman. They decided to rappel down, feeling that the route was too hard them(or maybe in disgust at my senile forgetfulness?).

The next pitch breaks through a two-tiered overhang slightly left of the anchors, with only the first couple of metres visible to the belayer. Simon again took the lead on this. He managed to pull through the first overhang OK, and disappeared from my sight. Unfortunately he then botched the next moves, and took a short expletive-laden fall back into my view. One more misfire later, he deciphered the moves and finished the pitch.

As he started to take in the rope for me to second, I realised that I badly needed to shit. It would be an understatement to say that this was bad timing. I pondered trying to hold out for longer, but from what I knew of the pitches above, there were no ledges until the top of the cliff. An obvious problem was that there was no question of removing rope or harness on the Truckstop, but a quick trial revealed that my cotton trousers were just sufficiently lycra’d and stretchy to be pulled out of harm's way whilst the harness stayed on (thank you, Patagonia). I tied off the rope at the anchors, leaving about six or seven metres of slack, then shuffled backwards in a crouched position as far as I could along the ledge, ass-outwards, hoped that no-one in the parking lot had binoculars or zoom-lens trained in my direction, then did the deed. For good measure, I wrapped the turd in some tissue and hurled it even further down the ledge, with a silent prayer that it would be sufficiently distant to decompose or mummify without stinking out future Freeway ascentionists, perhaps earning me such notoriety that I might have to leave town forever.

Simon meanwhile was getting confused by my lack of progress on the pitch, and had pulled the free rope super-tight. The possibility of being catapulted into the void caused me some anxiety as I removed the anchors and started climbing. This eased once I was over the first overhang and we could communicate easily again. Somehow I then failed to fall off the crux move above, though my beta - a long lurch to a distant finger-lock - was not elegant.

Simon’s position was a hanging belay on which it didn't look easy to swap over, so I took the next pitch. Descriptions for this pitch are rather confusing, suggesting it is all about a strenuous rightwards traverse in a very exposed position. When I got to the end of the obvious traverse line, the sun was directly in my eyes and it was hard to know where to go. I blindly chose upwards, which turned out to be correct. This section is for me the finest climbing in Squamish: you venture up vertically for about fifteen metres on improbable face holds, then make a final slopey diagonal mantle on to a small but perfectly-positioned belay stance, with a 300 metre clean drop to the ground below. Before bringing up Simon I paused to enjoy the solitude and overwhelming feeling that this long-sought-after route was now in the bag.

Simon on pitch 7. The excessive depth of field here makes the base of the cliff look deceptively close, rather than 300m below. 
Simon finishing pitch 7
The three pitches of the Express Lane finish to Freeway, between us and the cliff top, are face climbing at a lower angle to the rock below. Not pure slab climbing, but reclined enough to be fairly relaxing. We alternated leads. Unfortunately Simon again took a short fall. I sensed his focus had dropped after blowing the onsight on the roof pitch. In contrast he cruised the very last pitch, a short arĂȘte with some classic barn-door laybacking, which I thought was quite fluff-able. After that, it was all uneventful. We wandered down without getting lost and headed directly to the Brew Pub. At the next table was a guy from Alberta who I had climbed with for a day two summers before; predictably I didn't recognize him ...

For me, an unexpected feature of climbing Freeway was the consistent quality of the climbing. In theory I knew that in advance, because of the online hype, star ratings in guidebooks and general reputation. But that kind of thing doesn't always correlate with reality, especially with long routes. At least three of the pitches - #3 (the downwards traverse) and #4 (the crux dihedral) as well as pitch 7 (the airy wander above the overhangs, already praised) - rank amongst the best in Squamish, and all of the pitches are good. My main emotion with most of the long routes, that have been milestones in my climbing, has been satisfaction in getting the job done, coupled with relief to have finished. With Freeway, my main feeling has been “must go do that again”.


Saturday, May 16, 2015

traversing the Chief east to west

From the front deck of our house we look south to the Chief and in particular the saddle between the third summit of the Chief and the Squaw. I have often noticed that the north-east ridge up to the third summit from the saddle is not very steep, and wondered whether it is possible to find a non-technical way up there. The only publicised hikers' routes up to the Chief's summits come up from the south-west side, all variants on the incredibly-popular Backside Trail.

My interest in this more obscure side of the Chief has also increased because of the Sea to Sky Gondola. There is a good view down over the east side of the third summit from the Gondola's Chief Viewing Platform. From there, the north-east ridge to the third summit looks easy, though from a distance you can never be 100% sure what's lurking in the trees.

The Chief third summit from the gondola viewing platform

The same view rendered in Google Earth with the possible north-east ridge route

Unsurprisingly, asking a few local climbing friends fairly quickly uncovered that there is a trail of some kind up there, though no-one was able to be very specific about its exact line. I filed the idea away in my head under "things to try with the kids some time".

This weekend (a long weekend in Canada because of Victoria Day) I was scheduled to be "in charge" of Leo. He usually has league soccer matches on Saturdays, sandwiched between evening training sessions, so it seems best that he doesn't do anything active the rest of the time. However this weekend was different: no matches and no training. So I insisted he join me for some kind of outdoor exercise. Reluctantly, as given a free choice he would prefer to be indoors gaming online on his PS3, he agreed to go for a hike. I offered a few options, from which he picked what I was calling "the Chief loop", probably because it is nearest to the house. I mentioned that I wasn't sure of the exact route, but I don't think he was listening.

The plan was that we would leave the car near the start of the normal ascent route, with the expectation that we would come down that way after traversing the third and second summits.

Our whole planned route rendered in Google Earth

This meant the hike started with a dusty trudge of about 1.5km along the Mamquam forest service road. Leo was not in a very engaged mood, but it turned out that passing under the recent North Walls rock slide zone was a worthy conversation topic.

The forest service road; Squaw rock behind

The next section is the Squaw Rock approach trail, which I know quite well. As it is completely enclosed in tall trees, it is fairly dull walking, also steep. Fortunately after 30 minutes or so, the trail meets the saddle where there are a few viewpoints and the angle eases.

The approach trail up to Squaw Rock

On the saddle between Squaw and Chief, looking north to our house

The Chief third summit from the saddle

Beyond this point was new terrain for me. There are several trail forks, most of which unmarked, so we chose whichever was closest to the ridge. At one fork there was a "Chief" sign, though placed ambiguously and without any arrow, so that it could apply to either turn.

Starting the north-east ridge trail up to the third Summit

Cryptic signage

The trail gradually steepened up, and we passed two sections with easy rope pulls. Up to this point, we had been entirely alone, but at the next view point there was another father and son team. They asked us where they were. It became immediately obvious that they were very badly lost, having taken a wrong turn off the normal route to the 3rd summit, and continued contouring hopefully around the Chief for at least a couple of kilometres. I suggested they join us though warned that I only had a vague idea of the route.

Just above that point the enigmatic "Chief" sign appeared again, but seemed to want us to head downhill. Instead, I noted a faint trail leading upwards to a ~10m rock chimney full of tree roots, and partially equipped with an (old)  knotted rope. I recommended that we tried that. With hindsight it seems unlikely this was the correct way, but everyone got past the obstacle - eventually. Leo was nervous on this section and the other teenager even more so. I ended up descending the chimney to assist him, then had to stand tenuously bridged across the outside whilst telling him where to place his feet. Thankfully his father was a better climber.

The sketchy chimney

Above the chimney our trail converged with another more substantial one. Beyond that point were two more "climbing" sections, equipped both with new'ish ropes and rebar steps, in a european "via ferrata" style. The amount of assistance provided seemed excessive.

Short unnecessary via ferrata section

One of our "clients" on the final via ferrata section, just under the third summit

We then arrived quite abruptly at the third summit, which was predictably (bank holiday weekend ...) busy. No-one seemed curious that we had come up from the "wrong" side. After a sandwich break, Leo and I abandoned our "clients", suggesting that they couldn't possibly get lost again if they followed the crowds down. We then traversed over to the even-busier second summit, where we didn't linger at all. At the narrow gap between the second and first summits, I tried to interest Leo in the via ferrata there, which gives a quick route to the first summit, but he wasn't keen. As I had been that way a few years before, I was not bothered to miss it.
 
Leo starting down from the second summit

The rest of the descent passed very quickly as we stupidly decided to run, enjoying seeing how many tourists we could pass. I was pondering how embarrassed I would be if I tripped and broke a limb or twisted my ankle, when we bumped into a stretcher party bringing an injured hiker down. However, we ignored the bad omen, and resumed at the same speed. We were back at the car about 3 and half hours after we left.

Clearly this was a very mild adventure by Squamish standards but I thought I would document it as there is very little information about the route on the web. I plan to do it again some time soon and try to figure out where we went wrong. Then see if it can be done with a seven year old ...

EDIT: I did this walk again one week later, with my friend Bob, starting from home, which adds another 1-2km on roads and flat trails. This time I followed the most substantial of the trails rather than trying to follow the ridge directly. The consequence was that we ended up avoiding the sketchy chimney but did otherwise follow most of the previous week's route, including the two via ferrata sections. It is hard to describe this with great precision, but broadly-speaking the ridge is followed apart from one large dogleg away from the ridge contouring around the Chief leftwards for about 200m, until blocked by the large cliff of Above and Beyond, at which point the trail heads back up rightwards. Generally, once on the ridge, looking for combinations of 1. the most well-trodden trail 2. the occasional "Chief" signs and 3. red flagging tape, will find the right route.

Map of our route from Bob's Strava page

Same data plotted on Google Earth

... and zoomed in closer on the North East ridge (note the major dogleg away from the ridge line)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

viking

My father was born on 19th September 1914, in Viking, a small prairie town in eastern Alberta. A month ago I drove there from Squamish for the centenary with one of sisters, Sally, and my youngest son, James. Anniversaries often seem rather abstract and contrived to me, but this one made a great excuse for a road trip. We took six days to complete a big loop, passing Helmcken Falls, Mt Robson, Jasper and the Miette Hot Springs on the outward journey and Canmore, Lake Louise, Revelstoke and the Okanagan on the return. 

Our 2900km round trip - like driving Paris to Moscow

Neither Sally nor I had been to Viking before. Our main motivation for the trip was curiosity about the town and its role in our family's history. Our grandfather, William, moved there from London in 1909, the year the town was established.

William outside the Viking homestead

He persuaded our grandmother, Irene, also from southern England, to join him. They had two sons in quick succession whilst William established a law business and a farm. We still have a letter from Irene back to her mother in Britain, which suggests that she and William were very happy. 

Unfortunately world events intervened in 1914 and William considered it his duty to return to Britain. He served for almost the whole course of World War 1, receiving a Military Cross for bravery in 1917, but was killed in September 1918 by an artillery shell, just a couple of months before fighting ended. He is buried in Tincourt Cemetery, in the Somme region of northern France.

Irene, who had relocated to Britain with her sons during the war, moved back to Viking in 1919. William's brother, Reggie, and his wife, accompanied her, and ended up settling in the town for almost two decades. Before the war Reggie had secured a job with a Hong Kong bank, which he had to give up in favour of this alternative, and very different, path. Sadly he died of tuberculosis in 1937. Not in Viking but in Victoria, as conventional medical opinion at the time was that the moister warmer coastal climate was better for lung problems (these days an arid climate would be preferred). However he was succeeded by two sons, and his descendants are now quite numerous across Canada, (with a statistically-implausibly concentration in Barrie, Ontario - click on the image below for a visualisation!).


Irene returned to Britain permanently in 1923, when my father was nine. Throughout his life he retained memories of his Alberta farm years and maintained close contact with his Canadian cousins.

In the late 1920s Reggie arranged the sale of William and Irene's farm to a Scandinavian couple. Astonishingly two of their grandchildren, now in their 60s, still live in Viking. One of them, Bryan, agreed to meet us; a very generous and trusting decision, given that we only managed to contact him a couple of days before we arrived. His local knowledge and recall of his ancestors' experiences really transformed our visit from random tourism to something more focused.

The first place Bryan and his wife took us was the site of our grandparents' old homestead. Though now just a wheat field, the remnants of the house were not removed until the 1980s.

Alberta is flat! James, Sally and I at the homestead site

He also obtained access to the town museum, which is normally locked out of season. There we found a copy of the local newspaper from October 1914, two weeks after my father's birth. The juxtaposition of an advertisement for William's law business and the newspaper's "Call For More Men" is poignant.

Viking News from October 1914

We also discussed at length what had drawn our ancestors to a remote prairie town from Europe? Bryan had a single answer: free land. The Canadian Northern Railway had laid track as far west as Edmonton in 1905 and needed passengers and freight to justify its investment. It (and other railroad firms) advertised heavily in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, selling the dream of fertile empty territory waiting to be claimed. Viking was one of the stops on that new line. The standard measure for land in Alberta in that period was a "quarter": 160 acres. Bryan thought it was likely William would have stepped off the train and "staked" several quarters, so perhaps ending up with six hundred acres or more. We also know that William's father, George, had died young and that he and his brothers were likely to have been under financial pressure. It makes sense that becoming a large landowner, even by then British standards, had a strong appeal.

the UK Daily Mail promoting western Canadian land in 1904

A strange aspect of this story is that there was a third brother, Percy, who also lived in Viking. Percy was mentally-handicapped in some way, though apparently able to work and look after himself to some extent. We think that he may also have travelled out to Canada in 1909 and probably - helped by William? - staked his own land claim. He remained in Viking until his death in 1962, aged 74. He never married nor had children. We searched the graveyard for his name but with no success. Probably there was no-one to buy him a headstone. It is odd to think that someone could live a reasonably long life leaving so little trace - a massive contrast to our modern hyper-documented InstaFaceTwit world.

The final part of the puzzle for us was what had driven our grandmother to return to Britain in 1923? Sally knew Irene quite well. She was a bohemian woman who never remarried and devoted her life to art. Looking at Viking now - a small and very dull agricultural town - and considering how it might have been in the 1920s - much the same? - it seems very unlikely that she would have fitted in there. The railway line had crossed the Rockies by then. I wonder whether she ever considered moving west to the coast? It is easy to imagine that she could have made a life in Vancouver. Anyway, she did not. My father finished his schooling in Britain then got swept up in another world war (India then Burma then Portsmouth, where he met our mother). He never subsequently lived overseas. But through a quirk of immigration law he is not regarded as having revoked his Canadian nationality when I was born, so, taking the story full circle: I was able to move here already a citizen.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

the elfin and the keith

Winter quietly ended a few weeks ago, at least in Squamish. Cherry trees have blossomed, weeds are sprouting back out of neglected flower beds and I am gradually purging my car of scarves and toques. And forgotten climbing partners are emerging from hibernation with thinly-veiled requests for belays. All good but I have let a few snow adventures pass unrecorded so thought I should catch up before the memories become too distant.

In the Sea to Sky corridor there are three main venues for backcountry skiing: the terrain beyond the resort at Whistler Blackcomb, Garibaldi Provincial Park above Squamish and the Duffey Lake area north of Pemberton. Of those, until this season, I had only really sampled Whistler meaningfully, probably because the access is so easy (lifts right into the alpine).

The most popular winter area within Garibaldi park is around the Elfin Lakes hut, which is approached from the Diamond Head road-head above Squamish. The road up to Diamond Head passes very close to our (old) house so I should really know that area very well. However, for the lazy, the full 12km hike to the hut is substantial. I have tried several times on foot in summer, with one or more kids in tow, but never managed to coax them much beyond the Red Heather shelter, about 500m vertically above the road-head. It doesn't help that that portion of the route (~5km) is almost entirely enclosed in trees, with nothing to distract from the grind, so it feels further than it really is. Early this winter I did do a few daytrips on my splitboard up to Round Mountain just above Red Heather, so at least had that section tamed. But making it all the way to Elfin itself had become a minor obsession.

Looking north-west from just south of Round Mountain

Luckily in February an old friend, Wolf, appeared in BC eager for some ski-touring. I had only one significant time window available, which fell straight after he arrived (flight from Frankfurt!), but it has just snowed heavily, which was a major incentive. Gamely he shrugged off his jetlag and we headed out. I wish I could report that we were rewarded by amazing weather and fantastic conditions but ... we weren't. Visibility was poor throughout and avalanche danger too high to allow any of the classic side-trips. However, for me, the hut was finally ticked.

Wolf and the Elfin

I had been warned that it could get busy at weekends. The place wasn't quite full but there were enough people for it to be moderately annoying. For some reason the hut is popular with snowshoers, for whom the sleep-over is the highlight, so they often turn up equipped to party. If I go again, I will try to make it mid-week outside the holidays and ideally timed with some clear weather. Wolf and I did at least find a few nice if short descents around the hut, and from Paul Ridge on the way back out, in ~20cm fresh powder. The other positive from this trip, and some other visits to the roadhead before and after, was the excellent performance of my 4Runner in the snow. I made it in and out several times on summer tires without chains whilst other people were having all sorts of problems.

Truck embedded in a snowbank just below the Diamond Head parking 

I also moved further up the learning curve with my splitboard, in particular dealing with skin transitions during heavy snowfall (not fun) and powder turns (theoretically fun but ...). I am grateful to Wolf for his patience during my frequent tantrums when struggling with both of these.

A few weeks later, I had some possible free time during the BC spring break. Luckily that coincided with Bob's interval between shifts and two days of clear weather forecast between snowstorms. Bob suggested we headed to the Duffey to stay at the Keith hut. Oddly I had never researched that area in any detail so had almost no preset expectations. Sometimes that can be the key ingredient for a really successful trip. Several things that I did not know about this area were a positive surprise: the mountains are really impressive (far more so than around Whistler); the hut is characterful; the approach time to gain the actual alpine terrain is reasonable (far shorter than at Elfin).

We were also very lucky with conditions. On day one, thanks to an insanely early start from Squamish, we were the first people to skin into the area after the previous day's storm. Until we got close to the hut there were no tracks visible at all, just blue sky, mountains, the forest and pristine snow. The next day was not quite so perfect but very atmospheric with light broken clouds. We both took many photographs, so, rather than give a detailed account, here are some of them (click then scroll through to view full size).

Mt Joffre from by the Anniversary Glacier moraine on the hut approach 

The Keith Hut

Or should it be "Keith's Hut"?

Mt Joffre from outside the hut

Looking down to the hut

Bob (who recently completed his AST2) digging a pit

Bob doing a column test on the snowpack 

Me on the edge of the Anniversary Glacier (we went right to traverse to a couloir on the NW face of the Joffre ridge)

Bob making the traverse

Looking up at the couloir (Bob just visible)

Bob making fresh tracks ... actually this whole valley was untracked

From our high point on the Matier sholder on day 2

Bob emerging from the cloud


Me starting our final descent ... we skied continuously to the valley floor seen down to the left (~700m vertical)