The roar of the propeller blades and engine was deafening. As we lifted suddenly off the ground the Haberl Hut, where we’d lived for 3 nights, became a speck on top of a rocky ridge below us.
“Want to check out the Rumbling Glacier?”
We’d met this Helicopter pilot before. He had flown Ron and his friends up to the Cabin to do maintenance on it. While he waited for them to finish we talked to him about our plans. We had mentioned the heavily crevassed “Rumbling Glacier” on the East side of Mount Tantalus and how we had hoped to see it up close. Even from afar the huge, jagged seracs and crevasses that make up most of its mass can be made out.
Now that we were flying out, he remembered our wish and offered over the intercom to take us on a close flyby of the glacier. This was a surprise to us as we had only booked a flight directly down to the Tantalus Hut, but we both instantly nodded “Yes” and gave him a thumbs up.
To see this immense, fractured glacier up close, as we hovered above it, was amazing. I’ll likely never set foot there and this glacier will likely disappear in the next few decades so I felt privileged for the experience.
After a few moments we were whisked back to Lake Lovely Water and after a brief detour around the lake we got dropped off on a rocky bluff near the Tantalus Hut.
As the Chopper took off again and left us behind I understood the energy and stoke those climbers had exuded when they were dropped off up at the Haberl Hut. That short flight in the Helicopter had felt like a shot of adrenalin right in to my chest.
We grabbed our heavy packs and began to make our way towards the Tantalus Hut. We’d packed our last day pretty full. After effectively resting at the Haberl Hut for the past 2 days we felt itchy to get moving again. The plan was to dump our unnecessary equipment in a storage container in the Hut, then hike up and scramble to the summits of 3 peaks nearby; Iota, Pelops and Niobe. After that we’d hike back down, retrieve our stashed gear, hike down to the Squamish River and then float our Canoe downstream for several kilometers and take out near the “Watershed Grill”, a restaurant that sits above the banks on a wide bend in the river, where we’d meet our friend who was going to pick us up.
Back at the Hut we bumped into the Youth Group that was staying there and had solidly booked the place up for the next few days. Unlike the energy we usually get when we meet fellow hikers on the trails there was a definite feeling like our presence was unwelcome. The Youth leaders gruffly instructed us about which container we could use and then turned their backs to us. We dumped our equipment quickly and headed out.
With light day packs and cloudless skies we made quick time around the lake and up towards Niobe meadows. We quickly ascended up the slabs that we had been on before near the beginning of our trip. Back then it was raining so these slabs had water running over them. What had taken us close to an hour to navigate in wet conditions took less than 10 minutes now that it was warm and dry.
We ascended up snow slopes and easy ramps. The scrambling was enjoyable and in no time at all we had went up and over Iota, Pelops and were now standing on the summit of Niobe, looking down on Lake Lovely Water, and out towards the peaks we had planned to visit, but will have to travel to again in the future.
This kind of terrain was our wheelhouse, so we felt comfortable. It felt good to be moving again and reaching summits. I was glad that we’d chosen to stay here for the day rather than flying out, not only was the weather amazing but it was good to be reminded that the mountains can feel easy and safe in equal amounts to feeling difficult and scary.
Time was against us though, so after a brief respite on the summit of Niobe we turned around, going back up and over Pelops and Iota.
Looking at the time I realized we were going to need to move fast now to make it to the banks of the Squamish River with enough daylight left to float the 7 or more kilometers down to our takeout.
We made good time back down and around to the Cabin and packed up the equipment we’d stashed there. The trail out felt long but good. Our adventure was coming to a close and I was already thinking about future plans to return. As I was passing the area I’d been bitten by a wasp on the way in I smiled. It seemed like an inconsequential event in comparison to what we’d experienced after it. Just for good measure though another wasp stung me, this time on the back of my leg. I swatted it away and winced at the searing bolt of pain but didn’t break stride.
As we got closer to the where we’d stashed our Canoe I began to think about what we’d do if it had been stolen. What if we hadn’t hidden it well enough?
The only other relatively safe way across was a cable car downstream of the trailhead that is private property of BC Hydro. Most years the locks on it are broken and hikers and climbers use it frequently to cross back and forth. Even when it remains locked people will simply walk the cables to get across. So we had options if the Canoe was stolen, but we were pushing our luck in regards to daylight, I didn’t want to be trying to figure out how to cross this river without a Canoe in the dark. The Canoe was also borrowed so I’d have felt horrible if somebody had taken it because of the risk that we took with it.
Spring headed out ahead and as she anxiously rounded the fallen tree that we’d hidden the Canoe behind breathed a sigh of relief. It was still there.
At this point we still had a good hour or so of daylight left so we felt confident that we could still float downstream.
What we hadn’t factored for though was that we were now both feeling fatigue from moving swiftly all day. When we had hidden the Canoe, at the start of our trip, we were full to the brim with stoke. We had hauled the Canoe 100ft down a dry riverbed, under some low hanging branches, through a maze of tangled Alder and chained it to a large fallen tree trunk.
We were pretty confident that nobody in their right mind would go to through the effort to steal our Canoe from this location.
Well now we needed to “steal” our own Canoe and get it back to the water. This took way more time than expected. We were both tired and trying to coordinate moving this Canoe through the underbrush was causing tensions to rise.
We finally got into the water, loaded our packs into garbage bags to keep them dry, and pushed off. As we did I noticed the sky turning pink with hues of orange overhead. Beautiful I thought, but this meant the Sun, which we needed, had now set.
I’d researched online about floating this section of the Squamish river. There are no serious rapids but there are a lot of hidden dangers lurking just under the surface, like sand banks, dead head trees, etc. The river also branches at a few points so you need to be aware of which channel to take. There are also confluences with other rivers to be attentive of.
Adding to these concerns was the fact that we were sitting low in the water. With myself, Spring and all our gear there was well over 400lbs being carried by this Canoe.
We also noticed that the river was moving a lot slower than when we had crossed it on our first day. Back then it was swollen from recent rains, but now, after it had been dry for a few days, its level and discharge rate had dropped.
I looked at my GPS, we had at least 6km’s to cover and we had potentially 25 minutes of twilight left before it would be too dark to navigate.
Up ahead we heard the disconcerting white noise of our first rapids. I don’t imagine they were more than Class 1 or 2 but it was an unknown how this Canoe would handle going through them with our weight in it.
The Canoe started to rock. We worked hard to keep the bow pointing downstream. At one point we hit an undercurrent which turned the Canoe around 180 degrees on the spot. It was disconcerting to suddenly lose control like that. We made it out the other side and as we slowed down again I noticed a First Nations child staring at us from the river banks. The east side of this portion of the Squamish River is all Reservation land. I became aware of the numerous little shacks and tipi’s that lined it. The salmon run was starting and a lot of First Nations people were setting up camps along the banks to begin fishing. We moved our Canoe away from those banks to avoid hitting their fishing lines.
After our second set of rapids we began to get a feel for them. We knew that we and the Canoe could handle them now so we felt confident. On my GPS I could see the various channels coming up ahead so we switched to different sides of the river ahead of time.
It was getting dark quickly so we began to discuss our options. We decided that if it got so dark that we couldn’t effectively make out the obstacles that we’d just takeout on one of the many sand and gravel bars that we been passing and camp there for the night. We had cellular reception also so we could just let our friend know our plans so he wouldn’t have to wait or worry.
This was a less than desirable option so we paddled hard to make up time. We hit one confluence with rapids hitting us from the side rather than head on. Of all the rapids that one was the most unnerving. We got hit hard a few times with intermittent waves from the side that would slosh water over the gunwale and rock us up causing us to lean hard against the swell to stop from tipping. We made it through those rapids and encountered another anomaly. In the flat light it appeared the channel continued in front of us but suddenly the Canoe started getting pushed sideways, towards the banks. It was a really weird sensation. The Canoe got turned around a few times before we realized we were in a narrow channel moving it’s way around a wide gravel bank submerged only a few inches below the surface.
We paddled hard and as we rounded a corner we could finally see it, the lights of the Watershed Grill a kilometer or less downstream. It was getting close to completely dark at this point. As we neared the final set of rapids we seen some headlamps on the shore, then heard somebody shouting our names. It was our friend waiting for us. He had found a better takeout for us that was only a few steps from a parking spot that we could carry our Canoe to.
We quickly beached the Canoe where he was standing, and shook hands as we stepped out. That was it, our adventure was over.
“We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” – John Dewey
In the days and weeks that followed I had time to reflect on that trip. Putting the Canoe in with so little daylight left was a mistake. A smarter decision might have been to either just camp at the banks for the night, or to take out sooner. We could have taken the Canoe out at the Cable Car crossing and portaged the Canoe down the road, or when we’d seen the First Nations people on the banks taken it out there. Like they say though, hindsight is 20/20.
I began to question also whether we should have pushed onward at the col, or if we should just have turned around right there. Had I known or been able to see the route ahead I may very well have not pressed on, but, at the time, there was no way to know the conditions ahead. Were I sitting here now reflecting on not pushing on I imagine I would be kicking myself for giving up before I had ran out of feasible options. In the end, the obstacles we faced weren’t technically difficult but more mentally taxing as we were being forced to make decisions about our route that may have lead us into a dead end.
“Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.” – Rita Mae Brown
I began to think about how I could write this story, or if I’d write it at all. I could merely have mentioned that we successfully made our destination, the Haberl Hut, and that we didn’t attempt any peaks nearby due to conditions and put the lions share of my words into talking about the summits we did successfully reach.
I know of people who have tried to reach the summits of peaks, failed in their endeavors, and who don’t see the worth in writing about such things. They feel that people only want to read about their successes, when they have reached the top.
Somebody once asked me “Why don’t Mountaineers sandbag?”. They were referring to the fact that rock climbers will sometimes climb a route and grade it lower than it’s actual difficulty, saying it was easier, so that subsequent climbers will feel inadequate in their own abilities and strength when they try it. This is referred to as “sandbagging” a climb.
Mountaineers will go to great lengths to detail just how difficult a mountain was to climb, and don’t attempt at all to make it sound easy if it wasn’t.
I’ve found, however, that Mountaineers sandbag in another way. Mountains are rarely as technically difficult to climb as a rock route. But they can easily be extremely mentally difficult to climb. Mountaineers can have the propensity to sandbag by not describing how a mountain affected them emotionally. How it evoked fear, how it forced them to confront their own weaknesses, how they justified the risk versus the simple reward of standing on top of a pile of jagged rocks.
“I have always thought that heroism must be rarer at dawn than in the evening – I often observed the fact in alpine huts: in the evening everyone is praying for fine weather the next day, and when the next day comes they wish that it was raining.” – Ren Dittert
Ever since the days of George Mallory when he uttered those famous, indomitable words “Because it’s there”, regarding his motivation to climb Mount Everest it seems that Mountaineers have felt the need to be like stoic Sentinels, akin to the very rock towers that they climb.
In my opinion Mountaineers are very much like the peaks they climb among, but not because of their strength, but because of their weakness. These layers of rock, earth and ice that are worn down by the harshness of these places, their weaknesses exposed and beaten by the forces of nature until they no longer exist.
I go to the Mountains for this reason. Not to conquer, or to inflate my ego, but to have the winds strip away at my bravado and to feel the cold cause my weaknesses to sting from exposure. It is an arena where I can test myself. To see if I am made of soil that is easily weathered to nothing, or if there is rock underneath that can resist it.
At the Jim Haberl Hut there is a memorial to Jim on the wall which highlights his many achievements throughout his life. Being alone in that cabin at night however evoked a feeling like being in a Mausoleum. That memorial is a stark reminder to the consequences of testing ourselves in an environment indifferent to whether we live or die.
Jim Haberl died in a fall on a mountain in Alaska. He watched his close friend, Dan Culver, die in a fall while descending from the summit of K2 and his wife, Susan Oakey-Baker and family were left with the task of mourning his loss. They had helped in the construction of the Cabin we had stayed in.
Since returning from the Tantalus Range I felt the need to understand Jim’s story if I am to live a life that follows his own. I read the following books, which you may recognize the titles of as I paid homage to them in the separate parts of this story:
- “My little Everest: A story about dealing with fear” by Dan Culver
- “K2: Dreams and Reality” by Jim Haberl
- “Risking adventure: Mountaineering journeys around the world” by Jim Haberl
- “Finding Jim” by Susan Oakey-Baker
Dan Culver wrote “My Little Everest” because he accepted that feeling fear and overcoming it is part of the human experience and not to be avoided. I remember as I was reading “K2: Dreams & Reality” by Jim Haberl for the first time a few years ago that Jim mentioned that his friend Dan was new to Mountaineering, having taken it up only 7 years ago. At the time I thought “that’s odd, 7 years seems like a long time”. What I’ve learnt since is that you can learn the skills for mountaineering and can train your body for it relatively quickly, but developing the emotional control and confidence for it takes time.
People talk about their “mojo” when it comes to the mountains and what I feel they are referring to is being able to summon the ability to feel confident and positive in the face of the fears and doubts that try to overwhelm us. This confidence can be built up incrementally with time, but can be shattered in an instant. I believe this is why the lure to go back to the mountains is always there. It is only by testing our mettle against the mountain that we can be sure if we still have it.
Overall though what became clear after reading those books is that, while it is evident that mountains take lives, their greater quality is that they give life to those that go there. Death is part of life and while we shouldn’t run towards it, we shouldn’t run away from it either. It is going to catch us regardless.
We don’t choose a lot in this life. Our sex, race, culture, family… etc. As Susan quoted in “Finding Jim”, “Life is pain”, and we have very little control over it. We don’t get to control when our loved ones become sick, when they die, when we, eventually will experience dying ourselves. The mountains give us back this control, we feel pain, but it is ours, we control it, and after each encounter with it we become stronger for it.
There is a deliberate, honest quality to experiences garnered while high in the mountains, unlike any I’ve experienced anywhere else. They show me who I actually am, not who I hope or pretend to be. Even though we only spent 6 days in the Tantalus Range it felt like a lifetime of growth and personal understanding was gained during that time, and that’s why we will go back there, again and again. Life is too short and fragile not to.