It’s been nearly twenty years since I met the aboriginal woman in the Canadian Rockies. She was friendly, clever, and wise beyond her 29 years. I’ve forgotten her name. But not her message.
She was having troubles in her life. She was very pretty and was dealing with an onslaught of unhealthy male energy. She had come to the mountains to seek guidance. When she talked, I noticed a flickering of light coming from her mouth and asked her about it. “It’s a tongue ring,” she said. “I’ve gotten into trouble speaking out of turn. It got so bad that I felt the need to bore a hole in my mouth to stop it. I opted for my tongue instead. It’s a reminder to listen more and speak less.”
She asked me about my need to conquer these mountains, why I needed to bag so many peaks in as short a time as possible. I didn’t really have an explanation for her.
“If you choose to slow down and open up your spirit, the mountains will whisper their secrets to you.” She said this so simply and knowingly that I began to believe it myself.
The next day, I climbed another mountain. But instead of racing my way to the summit, I cut my pace in half and tried to open my spirit. I didn’t actually know how to do that, so I would stop, take deep breaths, and imagine my heart pouring forth into nature. “What do you have to tell me, my mountain friend?” I said out loud.
And then, as I crossed a small plateau well below tree line, I did sense something. I stopped and waited for a message. It was a bear. I knew for a fact that I was in the presence of a bear without being able to see it. I turned my head to my left, and then out from behind some bushes, not 10 meters from me, a full-grown black bear stood up on its hind legs. I didn’t move. He didn’t see me, but he sniffed the air. He too sensed something. And then he dropped back down behind the bushes. I was downwind from him. Perhaps I hadn’t sensed him as much as I had smelled him. After a second episode of the bear standing, sniffing, and then dropping back down behind the bushes, I moved on. I was enjoying this new relationship with the mountains.
How many bears have I walked past over the years in my race for the summit? There was one for sure. It was a grizzly near Moraine Lake outside the village of Lake Louise. I know that I passed him because he was still there on the descent, foraging for food, and was still there for hours afterward as I watched him from the safety of the trail below. I must have climbed within 15 meters of him, with my head down, concentrating on where I would place my next step among the boulders.
I spent the next couple of days climbing mountains slowly, opening my spirit to the hills, and genuinely enjoying the journey instead of just the accomplishment of the summit.
But then my old habits reemerged and for the next couple of decades, when climbing alone, I attacked the mountains with my old familiar gusto.
Today, however, I was going to take things more slowly again. I was back in familiar territory, up in the mountains near Lake Louise, poles in hand and ready to climb Fairview Mountain. I’ve been on her summit a dozen times or more in the past and felt that the vertical kilometer I would climb was just the right workout I needed to see how well my body was recovering.
It was chilly, so I decided to grab a pair of gloves and some hiking pants to throw in my pack. But when I looked in the trunk of my van, the storage container with all of the clothes and footwear I would need for my travels for the next ten months was missing. I realized instantly that I had left it back in Penticton.
I was angry with myself. I had taken a plane from Edmonton to Penticton to pick up my van and all of the gear I would need to travel in Europe and survive a Canadian winter. I had taken considerable time selecting what I needed and put it in a storage container. But I must have just left the container in my storage locker and carried the few other items down to my van. How could I have made such a stupid mistake? To get my stuff would mean another full day’s drive back to Penticton and then another day back to Alberta. Damn.
Fairview Mountain is a minor summit in the Lake Louise area. It’s a relatively easy scramble compared to some of the other peaks, with only a few places requiring the use of your hands to maneuver around rocks. But the view from the summit is spectacular, rivaling even the higher peaks in the area.
The parking lot at Chateau Lake Louise holds more than 400 vehicles, and it was nearly full when I arrived at 9:00 am. But I only saw about 20 people on the trail. Ninety-nine percent of the tourists will walk no further than the end of the paved walkway in front of the Chateau. From the sidewalk, visitors have a view across Lake Louise toward Mount Victoria. More than a million visitors each year have their pictures taken with the lake and mountain as their backdrop. And to think that the famous outfitter, Tom Wilson, called it just another pretty lake, and later, explorer Walter Wilcox called it “a muskeg filled with mosquitoes and stumps”. To me, it’s one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen, even if it has become quite familiar to me over the years.
The route to the summit of Fairview Mountain is in two parts, a hike up a beautiful, well-worn forest path to Saddleback Pass, which lies between Fairview Mountain and Saddle Mountain, and then a scramble above tree line up the slope of Fairview Mountain. I tend to think of a scramble as requiring the use of one’s hands during an ascent, but if you have hiking poles, the scramble up Fairview Mountain is more like a very steep hike.
My pace was slow, but steady. And I only took a couple of 30-second breaks on route to the pass, primarily to see how my body was holding out. I still felt light-headed, but no worse than the day before. There are a couple of spots through the forest where the trail opens up to views of Bow Valley and the Chateau Lake Louise, but the smoke from the British Columbia forest fires left everything in a haze. Still, to be at altitude looking over a mountain landscape is a feeling unlike any other. Such peace. And freedom.
At Saddleback Pass, I took a longer break to eat some food. I wasn’t sure yet if I would make a summit attempt. I wanted to see how my body felt after a rest. But soon, the mosquitoes found me and I dragged myself to my feet, grabbed my poles, and headed up the rocky slope.
I meditated on the words of that aboriginal woman I met so many years ago. I climbed slowly, every step, every breath, every spot I planted my hiking poles being deliberate. I imagined my heart expanding out of my body into the mountains. It was the only way I knew to open my spirit, as the aboriginal woman had suggested I do.
At one point, I stopped to see if I could spot some mountain goats across the pass on Saddle Mountain. It’s rare to see mountain goats in the Canadian Rockies – mountain sheep are much more common – but Saddle Mountain is one of their favourite feeding spots. Mountain goats are covered in white hair, so I searched the slopes for a hint of white against the dark rock, but I didn’t see any goats.
Then someone spoke to me. “You don’t need it.” It was as clear as if the person was standing right next to me. I turned, but no one was there.
The mountain had spoken to me.
I didn’t for a second believe that the mountain had really spoken to me. I have far too logical a brain to believe such a thing. When the aboriginal woman said she had come to the mountains to seek guidance, I believed it to mean that she had come to the mountains in order to quiet her mind and seek answers from her Higher Self, not to receive actual messages from the mountains.
So when I heard the words “you don’t need it”, I knew it was simply my internal monologue. Still, it did freak me out a bit. The words really sounded like they had come from outside me.
Of course, the message was referring to the missing storage container. I was to understand that I didn’t really need to go back to Penticton for it. Most of the stuff in the container was just more of what I already had with me – more clothes, more footwear. But there was winter kit as well. Winter gloves and long underwear. Those were things my conscious mind believed I really needed. I would have to spend money to replace them. But perhaps it would cost less than the gas to try to go retrieve what I already owned.
I decided to listen to the message. I would not go back to Penticton to retrieve the container.
With the decision made, I carried on to the summit, still being deliberate in my breathing, and where I placed my feet and poles. I passed a group of six, who were chatty and clearly enjoying the day. The mountain air does wonders for a person’s state of mind, even when the air is hazy with smoke.
I had the summit to myself for ten minutes or so when I arrived there, which is unusual in July. Once, years ago, I shared the summit of Fairview Mountain with nearly 40 people. It’s a popular climb.
For the first time in my life, I said some words of gratitude on the summit of a mountain. I thanked the landscape for the view. I thanked my body for being fit enough to still carry me to the top of a peak. I thanked Past Dave for making lifestyle decisions long ago that allowed me to be here now.
On the descent, I met a dozen people coming up the slope. Everyone asked how much further they had to go. “Not far,” I said out loud. “Embrace the journey,” I said inside my head.
Closer to the pass, one young woman, who was clearly winded from the climb and who was climbing with her boyfriend, was more pointed in her question. “How difficult is the rest of it? And don’t lie.”
How difficult is it? It’s a tougher question to answer than you might think. For experienced scramblers, it’s taken for granted that the physical part of climbing is always difficult. You can’t get to the top of a mountain without exerting physical effort. So when experienced scramblers describe levels of difficulty, they are talking about levels of exposure to danger. A difficult scramble, then, would mean you are probably scrambling over some rocky spots where a slip could seriously injure or kill you. An easy scramble would mean there is very little chance of injury from a fall.
As far as scrambles go, Fairview Mountain is easy. But I could see from the kit these young people were carrying and the way that the woman asked her question that she was asking more about the physical exertion difficulty than the exposure difficulty. Perhaps this was the first mountain these two had ever attempted.
I said, “It’s definitely a workout to get to the top, but it’s not dangerous. The good news is that if you make it to the top, for the rest of your life, you will be able to say that you climbed Fairview Mountain. Nobody will ever be able to take that away from you.”
It’s probably not the answer they were hoping for, but oh well. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.
The rest of the descent was unremarkable. The lightheadedness was still there, but seemed slightly less intrusive.
At the parking lot, I dropped off my day pack, made some sandwiches and headed down to the lake. Hundreds of tourists lined the shore in front of the Chateau. Many more were out on the water canoeing.
I looked out across Lake Louise at Mount Victoria, barely discernible in the haze, and thought that, yes, despite the smoke and despite the hordes of tourists, this really is one of the most beautiful views in the world. And it’s right here in my home country, Canada.
The next day, when I was unloading some kit from my van, I noticed that I had packed all of my winter gloves and long underwear in my backpack. I hadn’t put them in my storage container after all.
I guess it was true. I really didn’t need it.