Imagine – it is a dewy, gorgeous morning alongside a forest road in northern Montana. The sun is peeking through the tall pine trees and the roar of the river can be heard 200 feet below. Song birds’ tunes fill the air. We had found a perfect overnight spot in the company of huckleberry bushes and wildflowers.
The day before, we left Flathead Lake and headed for Stone Hill, a small cragging area alongside a county road overlooking the beautiful Koocanusa Reservoir. Our time spent there was relatively short, mostly due to the routes being stout for their grades. We both laughed and cursed at 5.9 trad routes that felt more like high tens. Had we taken too much time off at the lake? It had only been a week since we climbed! Still, we had an enjoyable day there. As typical, Eric excelled at powerful liebacking moves, while I finessed my way up using my ballerina toes (as Eric calls them) one of the hardest 5.10 starts we encountered on the trip.
Back to that gorgeous morning of ours. We had arrived the night before, cooked dinner, hiked down to the river with the dogs, and settled in for a night of good rest before we made our trek to Canada. That gorgeous morning, though, was a bit interrupted. Both of us noticed the dogs were concentrated on the front of the van, sniffing ferociously. “Do you think something is up in the engine?” I asked Eric. “Maybe,” Eric replied.
We both slowly approached the hood. I envisioned a squirrel, or something like it, flinging itself out at us as the hood opened. I laughed, imagining us with clubs and ready, stern faces for whatever came next, like two kids playing war and exploring in the woods.
Eric lifted the hood, and there sat a mama pack rat and its kiddo, a nest and all. It seemed like long seconds went by – they stared at us, we stared back, both groups not knowing exactly what to do next. Eric yelled and banged, and the rats burrowed themselves down further into our beloved engine. We had a problem. What if they chewed some of the wires overnight? What if there was more than two? We had to get the van looked at before going any further.
We packed up quickly and drove towards the town of Whitefish. By the time we got there, we were sure the rats had fallen out. But, the rollercoaster did not stop there. Two Whitefish auto shops directed us towards the town of Kalispell, 40 minutes back the way we came, to an authorized VW auto mechanic to take a look at the van.
Around and around we went it felt. I will spare you the drawn-out details of the fix-up days (yes, we were delayed by two days thanks to the rats). While the rats did not cause any actual issues (besides a few chew marks), the ignition coil turned out to be bad. Thanks to the rats…I guess…we did not break down in the middle of Canada or the middle of nowhere. When we pulled into the auto mechanic’s parking lot, there were at least five VW vans of varying years waiting patiently to be fixed. We thought this might be a sign…oh, rats.
The day the van was diagnosed and while waiting for a part to be delivered, we drove into Glacier National Park. Holy. Moly. Words cannot describe this place, as typical of many of the places we visited this summer. It was a short day in the park, and we most certainly will be back to explore it in its entirety.
Following the van repair the next day, we made our way into Canada. The drive to Banff National Park took us about five hours from Kalispell, the trip offering sweeping views of towering Rocky Mountain peaks. The Canadian Rockies are quite different than their south sister, the American Rockies. The Canadian Rockies have more vertical relief and jagged drama due to being more glaciated. This created the sharply pointed peaks and gauged-out glacier valleys you see. The American Rockies, those in our backyard in Breckenridge, are much more rounded and surrounded by V-shaped valleys carved by rivers.
We pulled into our campsite and it immediately reminded us of our home base in Tuolumne. A well-kept site, busy place but great people, and surrounded by the alpine. We settled in for the night, prepped our gear for a day of cragging and entertained our attention-hogging pups. It felt good to be back in the van after our extended break in Montana.
Breakfast. Coffee stop. Lake Louise. Lake Louise was to be our home for the day. Lake Louise is well known for its turquoise, glacier-fed water and the luxurious Chateau Hotel. Here, we walked the easy perimeter of the lake (the views stopping me in my tracks numerous times) to where we would trad climb pitch after pitch of the fun stuff. Though we were not alone at the crag, we met friendly beginners to well-versed climbers – Eric even ran into the owner of a ski hut he had visited previously in Canada. Small world!
Our great day at Lake Louise fed the fire – we were antsy to get to the Bugaboos. We camped one more night in Banff, enjoying a few beers, pup-lovin’ time and a healthy campfire thanks to all of the ‘free’ wood the park provided*.
*When you reserve your campsite in Banff, you pay a nominal $9 fee for a Fire Permit. You must purchase this in order to have a campfire, but they provide the wood…all the wood you want. Coming from the United States, where any mom and pop shop can make a buck with their ‘premium firewood’ bundles, this was a huge change of pace. Trust us – at this point in the trip, we knew the good and not-so-good prices of firewood!
Now – to the Bugaboos. Bugaboo Provincial Park is situated in the Purcell Mountains of southeast British Columbia. This area draws climbers from all over the world, thanks to its airy peaks and stellar granite. It is a place of commitment, no doubt – with unpredictable weather, even during its peak climbing months, a climber may visit for a week and only get two (or no) days of climbing in. The year 2016 is special here. The first climb in the Bugaboos was completed 100 years ago to date by the legend, Conrad Kain. Kain is considered the leading pioneer of the Purcell Mountains and also has numerous first ascents in New Zealand. I cannot imagine climbing the impressive spires we saw with the equipment, clothing and gear they had 100 years ago!
We dropped off the dogs for boarding and jumped on the 30 miles of twisting, rough road that took us to the trailhead. Even at the trailhead, we felt far removed from the modern world. Throughout the drive it had been raining hard. The Bugs could barely be seen through the low clouds, mysteriously looming above us. With it being almost dinner time, we decided to cook grub and camp at the trailhead for the night. We watched it rain and avoided the swarm of mosquitoes and gnats outside our van. Before going to sleep, we had to prep the van with two things – chicken wire and rocks.
This idea is standard here in the Bugs. The nemesis? The porcupine. Who knows how long ago, some poor group of climbers returned to the trail head to discover their vehicle’s wires chewed to heck by porcupines. Thanks to them (and I am sure a few other stranded climbers), the park began supplying chicken wire to all vehicles.
The next morning was stunning. The sun warmed the foliage as we hiked, releasing steam that filled the air. Three miles – beautiful landscape – gaining 2,200ft – we had heard about how strenuous this hike was. However, we thought the trek to base camp under Mt. Whitney was much more difficult. Not to mention, Canadians know how to groom their trails. While still rugged, steep climbs hosted natural stone steps, cables and even a ladder.
Eric and I originally booked this week to the Bugaboos well before we knew the campervan life was even an option. Snowpatch Spire sat on my desktop background at work for months. But, the picture did not do justice as we crept closer to the base of the park. I cannot even begin to describe what we saw once we reached the Conrad Kain Hut, our home for the week. Dramatic, surreal landscape at 7,500ft. Fields of wildflowers and waterfalls surrounded us and the Kain Hut. The ginormous Bugaboo glacier was unreal. Snowpatch and Bugaboo Spire soared above. Everything about the Bugs was incredible and dreamlike.
We checked-in and settled at the hut. The hut had everything we needed, the first floor consisting of a kitchen fully stocked with pots, pans and dishware. The walls were covered with historical photos, as well as route maps and descriptions. The second and third floor is where all thirty of us would sleep.
Our first day in the Bugs led us to McTech Arete, a 5.10-, six pitch beauty of a climb on Crescent. Finger locks, hand jams, toe jams…it had it all. Each pitch, with the exception of one, offered sustained, aesthetic crack lines. We had a blast on this route, climbing efficiently despite being sandwiched between two parties. The raps went quick too, thanks to the collaboration and shared ropes amongst the other climbers who completed the route that morning. We could not have asked for a better kick-off. We hiked the quick hour back to the hut, enjoying the snow and sights.
The next few days offered unpredictable and lingering weather. We knew, with plenty of alpine pursuits under our belts, you have to get up and go if it is dry…even if it may rain later in the day. Two mornings in a row we decided to play on shorter climbs instead of bigger pursuits due to the weather forecast and questionable skies. Both days, we could have gone for more.
Something was up.
The third morning, the hut community was startled awake by thunderous booms and flashes of lightening. A severe storm was right on top of us, pounding rain and hail into the hut. This particular morning we were going to do an easy, but exposed traverse on Pigeon Spire. Due to the weather, though, we opted out once again and made our way to Crescent Towers for a few pitches of fast, easy grades. Easier routes are sometimes harder to navigate due to the multiple variations and features on the wall. Harder routes are typically on a wall where the specific climb is obvious. This particular morning we were struggling to find the route. Unlike sport climbing, trad does not have placed bolts to help identify the route. We both got frustrated. And I, admittedly, got upset. I wanted to climb, but I didn’t. I wanted to push, but I didn’t. I was mentally exhausted – the last two months were no joke with so few days of rest.
Eric comforted me. He, too, admitted he was struggling to keep his psych high. It was not that we were ready to go home. We. Were just. Tired.
We did not climb that day. It was hard to be honest with ourselves while others around us were getting after it, psyches high. This was their vacation, this was THE trip of the year for many of the folks we met, we reminded ourselves over and over. We met people from all around the world, once again, bagging as many climbs as they could. It was neat to be immersed in our own little climbing community for the week, even when our psych was waning.
We discussed a plan, as our food was getting low and a trip down to the van and back would be necessary soon to restock fuel. Did we have one last big day in us? That is what we came for, isn’t it? We both had been eyeing Snowpatch Spire all week…could we make it happen, be safe and efficient, and have fun with it? We decided to stretch our food* and go for it the next day. If it did not happen, we would restock and try once more. If it did? Time to go home.
*Throughout our backcountry trips over the last two months, we ate primarily freeze dried meals and easy, on-the-go food. We both will refuse peanut butter sandwiches, sausage and cheese, oatmeal, and granola bars for the next few months!
Last day, last chance – we wanted to make this work badly before our psych completely ran out. We were out the door by 5:45 AM. Once again, there was a chance of storms that day, so we played it safe by hopping on a route called Wildflowers (5.9) on the west face of Snowpatch. We made quick work of the approach, including the Bugaboo-Snowpatch col. A col is the lowest point or saddle between two peaks, which usually affords you a passage to the other side of the ridge. The col was steep and east facing – this is the sight of many accidents, specifically in the afternoon after the sun has warmed the snow and rocks come loose. Three times while in the Bugs, we heard/saw rock slides and even witnessed a helicopter rescue. Sometimes human error is to blame, sometimes you are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. With my limited experience climbing cols, Eric roped up with me and led the way after we put our crampons on, ice axes in hand.
We reached the base of the climb in roughly 90 minutes. Wildflowers was a dirty, adventurous, eight pitch climb that flowed in so many spots, while worked us in others. What I mean by dirty is – the crack where you place your gear forprotection, as well your hands and feet to climb it, is wet, muddy and even requires a bit of gardening (hence the name of the climb, Wildflowers)! Wildflowers were growing out of the route and surrounding rock throughout the way up. What an incredible scene!
The route started out with two pitches of sharp class 4…then, the climbing was sustained and enjoyable. As we approached the last pitch, the clouds began to build. We made it to the top just in time! Due to those clouds, though, we immediately started the descent down. Instead of traversing the summit ridge to the actual rap route, we decided to save time and use the rap rings on the route itself*.
*Wildflowers’ rap slings are primarily used for bailing off the climb due to weather or not being able to finish the climb….this meant the raps were not the cleanest. When raps are not clean, there is increased risk for your rope to get stuck in a crack, on a ledge, etc. This could leave you stranded hundreds of feet in the air. It was the smart decision to use these on this day, but we knew the risk behind the unclean raps with our twin 70 meter ropes.
As Eric took the first rap down, I felt sprinkles. I looked up and accepted our reality. We were going to get rained on. No big deal, though, I thought. Thunder had not cracked yet, and we just needed to get down and down quick. Then, of course, thunder struck. It started hailing. It started raining.
At this point we were into our second rap. Throughout the next three raps, our rope got stuck twice as we pulled it down, a stressful event. As we attempted to pull the rope again for our last rappel, the rope would not move. The rope was so incredibly wet that the friction between the wet rope and frankly cruddy rappel rings, prompted us to get creative. Eric tied himself in to the appropriate end of our twin ropes and used his body weight to help pull the rope through – literally letting himself fall down the rock face to force-feed the rope through up high. On the other end of the rope, I put Eric on belay.
Finally, we got down. We changed out some wet clothes for dry ones, shaking a bit from the cold, and laughing at this one last big day of the trip, a success. It is the alpine after all. We hiked down the col and returned to the hut, getting kudos from fellow climbers for attacking the not-often-climbed West Face and enduring the rain. We were overjoyed with the day, the climb, the adventure. We could go home now.
We ate an unsatisfying freeze dried dinner, slept well and hiked out the next morning. We will be back, Bugaboos.
Oh, but the adventure continued! The porcupines did not get our van’s wires but, oh rats…a flat tire. Thanks to the generosity of our Canadian friend, Woody (from the Bugaboos Lodge only a few miles away), we were able to get a spare tire on (we needed a heavy duty lift for the van…what a beast!), and drive safely to an auto mechanic. Here, we discovered the wheel frame was cracked, leading us on a chase to a welder and ANOTHER auto mechanic to help get us home. What a day, but we were blown away by the kindness of all those we came across. They were excited to help us get home and happy for our last two and a half month adventure.
Now here we are – late August already, back home in Breckenridge, Colorado. Three interviews and three job offers later, I took a job I am very excited about (more on that later!). Eric has started his work and has already traveled twice for business. Things picked up right away!
I have written this before, but more often than not folks reacted with, “Wow, how lucky are you guys! Not enough people do what you are doing!” and “What an awesome, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!” when discussing our travels. Some did not understand or thought we were being irresponsible.
As I look back on the last two and a half months, I stress that we do not think we are special for the miles we traveled in the van or on foot, nor the thousands of feet we climbed. Yes, we are extremely grateful for the opportunity to do something like this. Yes, we created memories that we will remember for a lifetime. The trip itself is only a small piece of who we are, but a monumental showcase of how we want to live. We want to explore adventure’s limits, not limit ourselves, in all things work and play. We want to live, not just be alive. This seems to be a common theme in today’s world – more and more individuals are shifting their desire for status and money to experiences and simplicity. All of us make choices, day in and day out, in regards to how we want to live. That is the adventure of living. It would be no fun if we never came across forks in our roads. This trip certainly affirmed the choices we make in regards to how we want to live and, frankly, we cannot keep our psyches at bay for what may come next, no matter what direction the fork takes us. Every day, every moment is an adventure if you make it one. I encourage you to find an adventure in each day, big or small.
So, back to work we go…’real life’ as some call it. We will have to ‘adult’ 40+ hours a week now.
But, oh rats – what an adventure that could be if we make it one?
We plan on continuing our blog to keep our friends and family up to speed, as we do not plan on slowing down. Cheers to everyone who has followed us these past few months, and let the adventure continue!
*More photos from our Canada venture can be found in Photo Highlights.