“Mighty Oaks from little Acorns grow”
I’ve been thinking for a while now about doing a series chronicling our first humble forays into learning to explore the wild. I’ve never really documented them in any way and I think I’ve learned some important lessons from reflecting on them. I’ll get into what I feel those lessons are in the later parts of this series.
Something that I feel is unique about myself and Spring is that we have learned almost everything about the activities that we engage in, in the Outdoors, since we moved to Canada a few years ago. Before arriving in Canada I had no idea what Gore-tex was, or Vibram. If you’d uttered the words Gaiter, Crampon or Adze to me while I was living in Ireland I’d have imagined you were speaking a foreign language, don’t get me started on randkluft, krummholz and bergschrund. I’d never owned a tent, sleeping bag or even a pair of hiking boots before coming to Canada in 2010.
This may seem odd to many people in Canada, at least in the West, where a connection with nature seems to be a part of the cultural tradition but in the Capital of Ireland, Dublin, where I am from, I was happy to spend all of my time in cities and suburbs, watching movies at the cinemas and meeting friends to chat in coffee shops. Cities do a great job of providing ample amounts of distraction to keep you from leaving their walls and streets behind for the untouched wilds.
So what changed?
Well when we moved to the town of Squamish, British Columbia, in the Spring of 2010 myself and my wife knew absolutely no one here. We also knew absolutely nothing about the town. Really, our decision to come here was based on the fact that it was north of a large city, Vancouver, and south of a resort town, Whistler. Hiking or climbing near Squamish was not even a consideration. Thinking back I remember imagining that I might just replicate my life from Ireland in Canada. I would meet friends in the city for coffee and take in a film at the cinema.
In Ireland I had been meeting up with friends to play a video game called “Street Fighter IV”. I had been taking it quite seriously and actually wanted to start playing in competitions. I imagined starting a “Street Fighter IV” community in Squamish. Amongst my sparse belongings that I brought with me from Ireland was a large, arcade style, gaming joystick along with other gaming controllers and a host of other gaming equipment.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when my motivations changed from wanting to replicate the life I had in Ireland to building a new, different life but I know that a seed towards that end was definitely planted within the first few hours of my first day in Canada. I remember being driven north from Vancouver Airport to Squamish, turning a bend in the road and seeing the Stawamus Chief, an immense granite monolith that overlooks the town, for the first time. I pointed and exclaimed “What’s that?”. The driver, puzzled, responded “That’s the Chief, people climb it and hike it, isn’t that why a couple like you guys are moving here? Why else would anyone move to Squamish?”
As we passed below it, its sheer scale was staggering. I had never seen natural walls of rock as high as it before. The world of climbing was still completely foreign to me, I could not have named even one famous rock climber at that time, so the knowledge that people actually climbed this face of rock blew my mind. It must have rewired something because I never unpacked my gaming controllers or looked into finding other Gamers in Squamish to meet up with.
So along with knowing nobody and knowing nothing about the town we also didn’t have any jobs lined up either. But we did have our meager savings from Ireland that we hoped would allow us to coast through the next few months untethered before needing to look for work.
What this situation gave us was time, and lots of it. Every minute or every day pretty much. What do you do when you have nobody to meet and no where to go? Well, we started to explore the town we now lived in which is flanked by wilderness and a large network of trail systems, used by hikers and bikers alike.
In the pictures from our first days in Canada in 2010 there seems to be quite a few of me about to eat something. I’m not really sure why this was?
Our first hike in Canada was a rather banal affair. We walked along some trails from our apartment and found the local Walmart. I was still pretty unhealthy and overweight at that time and I remember that short walk of a few kilometers feeling like a marathon, it wore me out. I limped into the Walmart, bought some Gatorade and drank all of it before resigning myself to the fact that I needed to walk all that distance again to get home. Very little about that hike was enjoyable.
After recovering from that “hike” for two days we did another hike near our apartment and found Coho Park. We’d visited a tourist center in Squamish and bought a trail map for the vicinity. On it, it showed a trail that started near our apartment building that led through Coho Park and ended at a lake called Alice Lake, a few kilometers away. As we started out on the trail we passed an elderly man exiting the park and asked if we were on the right trail to Alice Lake. He took one look at me and could tell how inexperienced I was. I was wearing a cotton shirt, jeans and a fancy pair of Adidas sneakers with no backpack or water. He warned, forebodingly, that it was easy to get lost on those trails and end up stranded out there overnight and that the woods were filled with Cougars and Bears. His warning actually worked, we were pretty tense walking the trails. We reached a point where the trail branched left and right. Not feeling confident that we could remember this intersection if we had to come back this way we turned around and walked back home.
Nowadays, I regularly run that trail midweek in the evenings. Getting to the lake and back takes me less than an hour. But back then it took us the better part of the day just to get half way along that trail and return home. I remember needing a few days to recover from that hike afterwards, with my legs stiff and aching and my mind racing imagining all those Bears and Cougars that were likely hiding in the forest, watching us.
A week or so later we did another hike that I feel was a bit of a turning point for me. Up until that point we’d walked along trails that largely kept us in the forest and close to sea level. On this day however we decided to explore some of the trails in the Smoke Bluffs, a park close to downtown Squamish.
It seems ridiculous now, but thinking back I remember that day in the Smoke Bluffs feeling like absolute hell. The trail around the park goes up and down and around bluffs of granite. These trails are mainly used by climbers to access these Bluffs for climbing, but we knew nothing of climbing yet so we were here really just to explore someplace new. I remember the short sections of uphill hiking were extremely taxing on my still largely unfit body. My heart felt like it was going to beat out of my chest and I had to stop numerous times to not only catch my breath but also to slow my heart rate as it was beating hard enough to actually be painful inside my chest.
Recalling this seems ridiculous because I regularly walk these trails now for climbing. I don’t even recognise the uphill sections because they are so short and generally insignificant compared to the ascents we do in the Mountains. We’ll usually carry +30lbs of climbing equipment each to access the various bluffs that we want to climb and we view these excursions as “rest days”.
A “Before” shot from 2010 beside a recent shot when we were hiking around the Smoke Bluffs during a cold snap in Squamish looking for walls of ice to climb.
But back then, the Smoke Bluffs were my personal Everest. As I trudged along, shoulders slumped, face beet red and pulsing to the slow “wa-whump-wa-whump” of my heart, I questioned what on earth I was doing. What was the point of this torture?
We crested the high point of the trail and could make out a clearing through the trees. We walked towards it, past the trees and out on to the top of one of the bluffs of granite. From here we could see Squamish from above, we could see the Howe Sound that we’d driven up on our way into town for the first time and the Stawamus Chief overlooking it all.
At that moment something clicked. The effort was worth this reward. Gaining this vantage point through stressing my body physically and pushing my mind that kept telling me to stop was valuable to me.
Trying to give a definition to this feeling is extremely hard. Mountaineers have written libraries worth of books about “Why” people climb up places just to look out from them.
I might elaborate on it at some point in the future if I can form the words but, suffice to say, at that moment in time, I understood the drive of men to climb mountains. That the higher one climbs and the harder that climb is, the more one sees, both internally, about what it is to be human, and externally, about what my place in this world can be.
I don’t think I recognized that shift in my mind at the time, only that I had become more motivated than ever to repeat the experience again.