I’m dreaming about snow. I know what you’ll say; it’s only August, enjoy the heat while it lasts. Snow will be here soon enough. Well, whenever the temperature starts to drop from it’s summer peak, when the car steering wheel is too hot to touch without gloves, my thoughts turn more frequently than usual to the mountains in the west. I see them every day on my way to and from work, and often get out into them at the weekend, but I find myself thinking of them as I’ll see them in a couple of months. Covered in thick snow, with cloud drifting among the shattered pinnacles and buttresses like smoke. Get far enough out and you can experience a silence so profound that it has mass. Standing among the high peaks as large heavy flakes fall in the great empty spaces is one of my favourite things. If you’re lucky enough to find somewhere quiet enough, the only thing you can hear is the hiss of blood running through your ears.
This week has seen the start of Autumn, or the Fall, as they call it here in North America, in Calgary. At the moment, it’s fairly subtle, just patches of leaves changing to yellow and orange, with a few dropping from the trees on the way to work. Still, other visual cues tell me the earth is beginning her roll away from the sun, shorter days – driving home from Taekwondo there is now less light; daytime temperatures are finally, finally(!) starting to dip towards something more comfortable for a Scot from the West.
The local landscape changes greatly with the advent of snow. Tourist traffic drops off significantly, and it is possible to visit places and see absolutely nobody. There is something to be said for experiencing a place in every season. Much as I love to visit Lake Minnewanka in spring, summer or fall, I miss the sound of frozen trees cracking in the dark, as the stars wheel above Cascade Mountain, and the silent dance of the Aurora Borealis. Driving on roads that for six months will be hard packed snow and ice is a challenge, but fun, requiring careful thought about vectors and when to brake. More importantly, when not to brake. Avoiding snow-filled ditches is another good thing to try, particularly when the blizzard outside drops the temperature to around minus 35ºC. At least you won’t have to worry about that this year, May. Up along the Icefields Parkway, on the way to Jasper, the glaciers are visible year-round, but I prefer to see these colossal walls of ice when their mountains are swaddled in snow.
I love the clear light of winter, and cold, sharp air that chills as you breathe it. This season gives me more opportunities to drive and reflect in peace, as most normal people don’t like to head out into the back country when the conditions are less than ideal.
Mostly though, I think that winter improves the mountains. While they’re always impressive, vast sheets of snow and frozen waterfalls add character. The Weeping Wall is transformed from a large cliff into one of the best ice-climbing sites in North America. Driving down around Big Bend, near the Sunwapta Pass, the snow highlights the truly epic grandeur of the scene. Snow deeper than the Armco gives you the impression that if you don’t get your speed right, you will sail straight out into the valley, followed by a tumbling plummet to the pine-forested slopes below.
When you do meet people out there in the heart of winter, they tend to be good people. I’ve noticed that people almost always stop to check on stationary motorists. I’ve done it myself. Nine times out of ten, they’ve stopped for some mundane reason, but in the more remote places, breaking down runs the risk of freezing to death.
So, in reality, it’s probably about six weeks or so until we’ll see snow. In the meantime, I have to content myself with thinking about the conditions above. Western Canada is beautiful year-round, but when we sink into winter, that’s when I love it the most.
I like to be outdoors as often as I can. While it can be very relaxing to sit with a book and while away a day or two, there is always something to be said for getting outdoors and feeling the wind, rain or sun on your face.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have driven out to the west, into the front ranges of the Rocky Mountains, in weather that could best be described as poor. When traveling alone, the trip gives me a chance to reflect. At this time of year, as autumn gives way to winter, the tonal palette of the landscape changes from the greens and yellows of fields and trees, to the burnt oranges and browns of winter. Often cloudy, the skies possess a beauty not seen during the rest of the year, as tendrils of water vapour coil their way among the shattered crags of the biggest geological car-crash between here and the Pacific Ocean. The worst weather often puts off the multitudes of tourists who normally jam up the roads with their people carriers and waddle about waving selfie sticks. I understand and accept the need for tourist-generated income for local towns and villages, but find the self absorption and utter lack of awareness of anyone else around them that such tourists generally exhibit quite annoying. I mean, when people are stupid enough to step backwards into moving traffic, in order to get a better photograph of their friends on a sidewalk, doesn’t that tell you something fairly basic about what’s going on (or not) inside their heads?
This past couple of weeks, I headed off the main tourist trail near Banff, to Lake Minnewanka. This is a favourite of mine, especially once the lake freezes, giving access to the interior on snow shoes. This time, it was the kind of day that I normally associate with the Pacific Northwest, whenever I think of the art of the Haida. Rainy, damp, not really too cold, but lots of moisture in the air, with dark still lake waters. Even here, on a day like this, it was impossible to completely evade the selfie-brigade, but their numbers were greatly reduced. I don’t like crowds, in case you haven’t noticed. Lake Minnewanka is ten minutes from Banff, but I suspect that most shoppers have never seen it. I really like Banff, girdled with mountains of different characters and possessing a river that I could sit and watch forever, but it isn’t the main reason I head west and north. The Palliser Expedition passed though here just before the American Civil War, heading out from the Great Lakes, with the remit of surveying everything to the west. Standing at the monument above Lake Minnewanka and looking out at wind ruffling the surface of the lake betweeen Cascade Mountain and Mount Girouard, I can’t imagine what that trip must have been like. I find the character of the people that set out to the west inspiring.
I like to get as far away as I can from cities sometimes. I don’t deal well with crowds, and the braying jostling masses sometimes make me want to shout at them. The view below is of the Crowfoot Glacier, on the Icefields Parkway, during the summer. I’d like to see this in full winter, with sharp clear sunlight and air that burns your lungs. Better still, I’d like to take my gear and get off the road, so often crowded with more tourists, and strike out into the back country across the lake to the west. There’s a lot to be said for breaking your own trail, and learning the skills necessary to be self-sufficient. Wilderness camping, under the stars, with only what you can carry, is one of life’s luxuries. Thoreaux and Emerson had it right when they talked about the wild. You can keep your satellite TV and two hundred channels of pap. Give me a good backpack and an ice axe and my own company. Chances are, I won’t fight with myself, and the trip can be a source of considerable catharsis.
Again, to find solitude, it isn’t necessary to get far from civilisation. Sometimes getting a couple of hundred feet higher up can do the trick. The picture below is from high above Lake Louise in Alberta, another destination for the busloads of tourists. Going off-piste, led on by a sign warning of danger of serious injury proved irresistable, and rewarded us with this view. Not many people from the carpark make it up here. The silence was palpable, and the light special. These are ancient rocks, from the Cambrian period, 540-480 million years ago.
Moving down the frozen expanse of Lake Louise, it was possible to leave the selfie-stick wavers behind, and enjoy the magnificent mountains towards the Victoria Glacier. The only people out here were snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. Out here, there are endless miles of trails, of a fairly serious character. Need to get fitter before I can tackle them.
Mind you, Canada isn’t the only place where you can find peace and quiet. The high tops in Glencoe, in the western Highlands of my native Scotland, offer good places to get away from it all. The first peak I managed in this group is below, Buchaille Etive Mor, the Great Shepherd of Etive, looking over to Bidean nam Bian. I have the First Midlothian Scouts to thanks for teaching me to navigate, camp, and most of all, to love the mountains of my homeland. I’ve not got the skill or head for heights needed to rock-climb, but scrambling is fine. On a clear day up here, you can literally see for miles. Choose the wrong day, as I did on Beinn a Bheithir, and you can’t see the end of your nose, with potentially fatal consequences. Those are when you learn hard lessons. I have never been happier to see the Clachaig Bar.
One of the last true wildernesses in Scotland is Knoydart, often referred to as the Rough Bounds. If nowhere has a middle, it is somewhere in there. The hills are serious, and carrying in everything you need focuses the mind. It helps to forget the humdrum and banal elements of “everyday life”, and sometimes the day can be distilled down to breathing and putting one foot in front of the other. Again, these are ancient rocks, cooked and compressed over geological ages. We’re privileged to be able to witness their testament to hundreds of millions of years of rains and snow. The span of time is almost impossible to imagine. Beside all of this, we are less than ants.
Glen Affric is another good escape. It is possible to walk all day here and not see many people. The shot below was in the Autumn, looking to the west. Typical for many highland rivers, the water was peat-coloured and shockingly cold. The trees were just on the turn, as the country slid into winter. I remember the smell of the foliage after rain.
The far northwest has some of the most ancient mountains, including mighty Suilven, here seen from the east, near Loch na Gainimh (Sandy Loch). These massive butresses rise from the underlying rock, dwarfing everything around for miles. These are names to conjur with, Canisp, Stac Pollaidh, Cul Mor and Cul Beag. I have seen these mountains lined up in the gathering dusk, casting massive shadows on the ancient land. They will still be here when Man has ultimately passed back into dust. Again, good for getting a sense of our own lack of significance.
The eastern side of Scotland also has great places to get peace. Here, under the gaze of the Cairngorms, there are many tracks giving access to woods and water. Funny to think that the blathering crowds aren’t actually that far away. If this reads as though I am fairly antisocial, it isn’t the case. I just prefer to be able to choose my company, and those people tend to be those that don’t constantly fill the air with prattle and noise. They’re the kind of people who can sit in the car with me for an hour and not feel the need to say anything. Sometimes just being there is enough. Wind and water, tree and hill. Give me moss and bracken, and rain in my face, and I will be happy. Cities are for other people.
This is probably going to be a short-ish post, and different to my normal ones, as it will cover places I haven’t been yet.
As a walker in the United Kingdom, I have been blessed with some spectacular scenery, most of which is pretty close to hand. Even a long drive, by UK standards, is only about ten hours or so. I’ve decided to turn my attention to some places on my wish-list. If money were no object (if only!), where would I love to walk? Well…
Canadian Rockies – Banff and Jasper National Parks
Do you really need to see why? OK. Have a look at this:
(Photo from CCEL.ca)
The Rocky mountains – how can two words conjur up such amazing pictures? OK, as a geologist / geochemist, I have something of a crush on rocks to start with, but surely even non-geologists can appreciate this? When I think of the Rockies, I think of wilderness hiking and camping, and the chance to get away from the city. OK, as with many other national parks (Yellowstone, Wyoming and the Lake District, England spring immediately to mind), you can end up viewing beautiful scenery in the company of many, many people, but hey, that goes with the territory. Some of my favourite moments have been in the remote hills of Knoydart (Scotland), reaching the head of a mountain pass before my friends caught up, and enjoying the sound of the wind rushing over the barren broken rocks. Other times, it has been knowing that the nearest main road is 30 miles walk away, 26 of it on a dirt track, or looking at the eroded roots of mountains in the northwest Highlands of Scotland, and knowing that you are looking at pretty much the dawn of time.
Jasper National Park also seems to offer what I am after – the chance of getting away from everything. Have a look at this beautiful image:
Jasper National Park
That looks incredible. I am planning to start canoeing again, and this would be one of the places I’d love to do it. Ray Mears eat your heart out. This looks stunning.
Forgetting the Rockies (if you can), Canada has a wealth of walking opportunities, and pretty decent people, from what I’ve heard. I look forward to someday exploring this beautiful place.
Cows – in a field (From Truths and Half Truths blog
Cows, in a field, near New Brunswick. This could be South Lanarkshire, but the cows’ accents give it away. Not mountains, I know, but Nova Scotia is a place I would love to visit. Apparently it does have a lot of good hiking trails, so I’ll have to get my boots on and explore.
The Appalachian scenic trail
2184 miles in length, crossing 14 States – what’s not to love? I first read about parts of this in a book by Bill Bryson (A walk in the woods), and was hooked. Geologists have described the Appalachians as having formed in a similar way to rucks in a carpet or rug. That’s some rug! You’d have to be mad not to love this place, mad.
Just about anywhere in Norway
The Norwegians have great mountains. I mean, just look at this! Again, how can you not be impressed by the majesty of nature?
The Troll Wall
The Troll Face is apparently popular with people base-jumping. Why someone would want to jump off a vertical mile-high cliff is beyond me, but hey, each to their own! Here’s a link to a video on Youtube of some fearless people doing just that: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjdqGZdzUDU
This list could run on for quite a while. I’ve not even started with the Alps, Austria, Africa or South America. There are so many places that I’d love to see and do some walking in. I think this post will have sequels…