After may months of training, in late July, I joined Jim Lamont for our Rocky Mountain expedition to Woolley's Shoulder.
The trip started with a few nights in a hostel, preparing gear for the hike. At 5am, we meet up with Neil and Isabelle who will be joining us for the ascent. We start our 13 hours of intense vertical hiking with very heavy packs. Everything we needed to survive for a week along with 15lbs of camera gear was strapped to our backs.
The first challenge went well: crossing the icy Sunwapta river. Careful steps across the gushing water, get us across the braided river without a spill in about an hour.
5000ft of vertical ascent ahead of us. Raging rivers, rocky cliffs, dense forest, gigantic boulders, all ahead. To my dismay, I discovered that the mosquitos don't give up with altitude.
After the first few thousand feet, fatigue starts in. Legs are becoming heavy. Breathing increased. Sweat soaks my forehead and my now wet shirt cools my body. Periodic rest stops become more difficult to resume from. The scenery is magical but fatigue is overwhelming and prevents me from really taking it in.
By about 5pm, we are stopped at a glacier lake, an amazing pool of almost fluorescent green water. I am now very tired, unsure of my ability to go much further. Each step becomes uncertain. I cannot see our path forward. I ask Jim, "where do we go from here?" and he points up at a vertical wall of rock and snow. My heart sinks and I utter, "you've got to be kidding!" This is about 400ft of steep snow slope followed by about 1000ft of sheer vertical scree slope with bands of cliffs that look positively impassible.
We rest a bit longer and Jim encourages me to eat as this next part will be extremely difficult. I'm not hungry but at his suggestion, I consume another protein bar and a small chocolate bar.
We continue up the mountain. The snow slope goes on forever and I fall into a trance, hearing the rhythm of my boot toe digging in to the snow slope, my poles stepping forward. The exhaustion overwhelms me. My mind wanders as my body goes through the motions.
We finally reach the end of the snow slope and rest for a moment before continuing up the steep, sliding rock slope. The way forward is not clear. The cliff bands seem to be impossible to overcome. I watch as he scrambles and slides while he scouts out a path. Just then I see two other hikers coming up the mountain. I meet with them and they know the way up. We follow.
With the tree-line a distant memory, every footstep slides backwards in the loose jagged rock. The fatigue is now unbearable. Emotions rise and fear sets in. It is now approaching sunset and we have climbed over 4,000 ft. Our bodies are sending signals that shutdown is imminent.
We push on, winding up a steep path on all fours, scrambling for the top. My pack now feels as though it weighs 200lbs. I eventually summit the shoulder and feel only relief that it is over. No sense of joy from the accomplishment, just relief that the pain is over.
The view from 9,500ft is stunning, I can see for dozens of miles. Photographs simply don't do justice. The cold mountain wind whips over the mountain shoulder and we immediately proceed to setup a tent. Within a short time, I am resting in the tent and feel a sense of security that is welcoming. Through the night, I hear nothing but the wind against the unsheltered tent and the hourly avalanches that sound like a crack of thunder followed by a freight train going by.
We spend another week up there. Mid-week, we are hit with a storm that hits in the night and the tent feels like it's going to rip apart in the heavy winds. Snow beats down while the night sky flashes with lighting. We wait until morning with overnight temperatures well below zero. Strong winds continue for about 36hrs and we mostly stay huddled in the tent to avoid the loss of body heat. The turbulent skies bring some amazing photographic opportunities that we do our best to capture.
The journey down the mountain was equally challenging but thankfully split into two days. By the time we reach the car, my knees are injured from the intense load and constant downhill jarring.
In the end, it was an incredible life experience. One filled with intense physical challenge beyond anything I have known, but balanced with beauty that I have never seen with my own eyes.
A special thanks to my wife and best friend for her constant support, her hours and hours of help in preparation, and her joining me in so much of the training.
Also, a big thank you to Jim for including me in this incredible adventure.