Cold, Dark and Scary

September 15, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

The popular saying in the Rockies, is that “If you don’t like the weather, then wait 10 minutes.”  It’s not uncommon for 30 degree temperature swings, and such was the case when I set my sights toward a campground in the Kananaskis backcountry.

The day before had been 30 degrees, and I languished in the hot sun watching Mr. Bastard and our friend Shevaun cruise up the last climbing route of the day.  All three of us had required long rests on our way up the rock face, signaling our time to pack it in lest we sacrifice half a dozen quick-draws to stronger climbers.  As Mr. Bastard rappelled down, I slowly stood up from the smooth flat rock I’d been sunning myself on and waded down the creek next to us to an inconspicuous pile of rocks.  Beneath the rocks, chilling in the cool glacier fed creek were a trio of après climb beers, safely out of sight from a dozen or so other climbers in the small canyon, though I suspect ours wasn’t the only beer cache in the creek.  I reached in to the ice cold water to retrieve the drinks from their cooler, and handed them to my grateful climbing partners, who had also opted to wander through the creek to our picnic area rather than skip across a cleverly crafted log bridge.  After a quick snack, we slowly waded down the creek on our way back to the trailhead rather than scramble over a narrow, exposed trail through the canyon. A perfect way to end the day as we splashed through the water, pausing to take a sip of ice cold beer or talk about the day’s adventure. It was a perfect summer afternoon, and I soaked it in hungrily. If the forecast was correct, I would need all the sun I could get.

Backpacking + Photography - do not recommend.... - awkward parking lot cell phone photo

A mere 24 hours later, I found myself with a loaded backpack, hurriedly setting up camp before the rain began. The day had started out warm enough as I hiked through pockets of cool lush forest and pools of warm sunshine, but as I neared the day’s destination the skies began to darken and the air was thick with humidity. I knew the weather would change soon.  Once my camp was set up I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that I had a dry place to sleep. The rain had mercifully held off while I set up my tent.

Not one to sit still, I packed a smaller bag with some camera gear and other essentials, and started on the trail again.  There were a few lakes further up the valley that I wanted to scout.  It wasn’t terribly long before I broke treeline and scanned the surrounding peaks for potential light catches. My ultimate goal was to be in this spot for sunrise the next morning, so I made note of landmarks as I wandered up the talus slopes.  From a distance, the valley would look like one large bowl full of rocks, but up close there was a switch backed trail climbing higher and higher in to the alpine.  Hug the trees to the left, stay south of the avalanche patch, turn right at the large cairn. I repeated the landmarks to myself, partially to prepare for doing the trail again in the dark in a few hours, but more importantly to distract myself from what could possibly be ahead of me at the end of the narrow valley I was closing in on.

The days prior I had been checking the trail reports religiously, through multiple sources. I was prepared for anything the trail could throw at me: gaiters for mud, boot spikes for snow and ice, hell I’d even had the forethought to pack little adhesive cushions to take the abuse level down a notch or two on my toes.  No, the trail itself wasn’t much of a concern, what bothered me was the sheer number of bear sightings being reported, and not just any bears, the trail reports had specifically mentioned “aggressive bears.” A momma grizzly and her cubs had charged a large group of hikers the week before. A black bear had been reported as chasing another group of hikers well over a mountain pass. And these were groups of hikers, as someone who generally prefers to travel alone, I was not entirely comfortable with how the bears were treating large groups of people, what would happen if a lone hiker were to run into one of these so called aggressive bears? Sure enough, when I had started the hike that morning, a small post-it note on the trailhead message board had noted yet another bear on the trail not even 24 hours before. 

Thankfully I’d reached the first lake without incident, and then the second lake. Finally I was nearing the third lake, its entrance guarded by a cliff band, a small canyon and a conveniently placed blind corner – all of which funneled me into a mountain bound bowl with a single point of entry.  Had it been earlier in the day, I would have thought nothing of stepping through the final doorway, a beautiful location would have had at least a few other humans on which to rely on if there were danger. But it was evening,  the weather was rapidly changing and sane people had gone home hours ago.  The last sign of life I had seen was a group of hikers picking their way down the opposite side of the valley over an hour ago. 

No. I was alone, and if there was an aggressive bear waiting for me around the bend, I would be meeting it on my own.  

Not one to be deterred by the abject terror I had welling up in my chest, I let out a few desperately loud “Hey Bear!” and turned the corner.  Instead of a bear, I was met with a picturesque turquoise lake, an impressive headwall and the first drops of rain. 

“Of course…” I muttered to myself as I quickly picked my way down a steep bank and dropped my bag behind a boulder so that it wouldn’t roll away into the lake.  My attention had rapidly switched from potential dangers to setting up the camera as quickly as possible.  The tripod and overstuffed camera bag were retrieved from my backpack and I perched the camera on the tripod. Then, an umbrella was unearthed from my bag, ceremoniously opened with a FWOOMP and then balanced exclusively over the camera set up.  A non-photographer might look at the addition of an umbrella to a backpacking gear list as a bit excessive, but as someone who can descend rapidly into a combination of blind fury and misery over a wet lens, the umbrella is invaluable. 

Low clouds drifted down the face of the mountain ahead, threatening to shroud the face completely and ruin the shot I had in mind. I clicked the shutter as a precaution, and then took a step back to watch the cloud snake its way through openings in the mountain.  Though the mountains may seem still from a distance, once you are fully engrossed in their elements, you begin to realize how dynamic they really are. A distant rock fall, a moving cloud, flowers and trees swaying in a stiff wind and precipitation in all forms come and go. Sometimes it takes the ability to be silent and still for the steady progression of the mountains to reveal itself to you.  A camera can never capture the gesticulation of the mountains, it’s a moment that is revealed to you and you alone, a gift provided to those who can open their eyes, their ears, their nose and their heart and allow the wilderness to seep in.

Quick! Take a photo before it disappears!

For me, if I didn’t have a camera and a constant mission to find nice places with good light during hours most people reserve to be safe at home, I too would be sitting around a kitchen table with family and friends, or sleeping cozily in my bed, or even trading stories with other hikers safely back at camp.  On this day, perhaps I would be heating up some dinner, or lazing in my tent with a book waiting for the weather to clear. My focus on the everyday tedium of life, unaware of the whispers of the mountains. Eons of secrets left unheard.

While I silently took in the views, listening for mountain secrets and camera clicks, the story back at camp was unfolding.  As forecasted, a low bank of fog was rolling into the valley, at first obstructed by the cliff band behind me, but the rain was slowly intensifying and I knew the storm was rolling in. I packed up my bag and began slowly stepping my way down the field of boulders until the lake my camp was at, far below me, came back in to view. Not long after I spotted the lake, it disappeared again in to a sea of atmosphere. The forecast had been for snow, and I giggled at what might be in store for me as I snapped one last photo and walked into the clouds.

Good bye summer, it was nice knowing you...

At 2 am the sound of rain beating against my tent changed. The sharp racket of rain drops suddenly dulled into a din of heavy splatters. Snow.

Being one of those people who is always cold, I probably should not have been surprised to find myself shivering in my tent all night. I was wrapped in a sleeping bag liner and my brand new North Face sleeping bag, with a -7C comfort rating, cinched tightly around me so that only my eyes and nose were visible. Over top my sleeping bag I had thrown two more down jackets. Underneath my sleeping mat I had also added a section of foam to add R-Value along the length of my core, and for a little extra warmth I had tucked a pair of hand warmers in to the waist of my pajamas.  Still, I shivered violently, and I could feel panic beginning to rise.  I had been too cold to sleep, and getting colder by the minute. My chin convulsed in a teeth chattering vibration.  Despite the addition of multiple layers around me in an attempt to stay warm, it wasn’t working, and I could feel the fear of hypothermia well up inside my chest.  I needed to get warm, but first I needed to get a hold of myself.

Deep, slow breaths. Breathe in. Pause. Breathe out. Pause.  “You’re okay, you’re fine. Just move” I thought, but I curled up even tighter in my sleeping bag, cowering from the cold air outside. “MOVE!” I screamed silently at myself, and I began to do whatever movement I could inside my sleeping bag. I did sit ups and leg raises and tiny, constrained, prone jumping jacks. Finally, I could feel a little bit of warmth returning to my body, and I fell into a chilled and restless sleep until 4:15 am when my alarm clock rang.

Normally, getting dressed inside a cold, cramped tent is an exercise in flexibility and core strength as one attempts to put on a bra without touching moisture laden tent walls or tries to pull on a pair of pants with an impressive pelvic thrust while laying on a pile of sleeping bags.  But I was too cold for that.  Instead, I brought my cold clothes into my sleeping bag for a moment, in an attempt to warm them up, and then proceeded to disrobe and dress myself in tiny controlled movements while still wrapped tightly in my sleeping bag.  The entire process took an agonizing 45 minutes, and normally I'm pretty good at dressing myself.

I knew I was probably going to be late, not entirely a bad thing since racing against a clock is an excellent way to cast fear and hesitation aside when stepping outside a safe little tent and facing the cold, dark wilderness on your own.  And that is what I did.  I poked my head outside and looked at the ground, it had been transformed completely by a deep blanket of snow. A cliff near the camp had been shedding rocks weighed down by precipitation all night, and with a little help from me, my tent shed several inches of thick, wet snow.

Very comfortable camping weather - cell phone photo

After a quick stop at the bear proof food lockers to gather my breakfast, I started on the trail. The snowfall was slowed by the surrounding forest as I methodically stepped forward, yelling out the obligatory “Hey Bear!” into the darkness as I crawled higher up the mountain.  It wasn’t long before I broke treeline, and realized how difficult the next portion of trail would be.  Without a pathway of trees to guide me, the way forward disappeared into a featureless white sheet. The snow fell furiously from the sky in a dizzying dance across the light of my headlamp, threatening to send me in to the throes of vertigo. I stopped and surveyed my surroundings. An avalanche gulley to my right, a few sparse trees to my left. Yep, still on trail.

I took a few steps forward, the snow beat against my face at warp speed, and nothing else was visible beyond a flurry of snow and a blank canvas.  I paused again and seriously considered what I was doing.  Staying on the trail as I moved through the boulder field would likely be impossible until daytime, and the risk of slipping in the snow and injuring myself if I attempted to continue through the dark was high. My main objective for the morning was to capture the alpenglow on the headwall over the third lake, but given the socked in sky, the weather wasn’t likely to lift any time soon anyway.  Although I was disappointed, the risk just wasn’t worth the reward. Besides, I consoled myself, there’s always tomorrow, and I turned on my heel and started back towards camp. The view from the first lake would look identical to the morning’s objective anyway – snow, and lots of it.

I'm still not sure if I had fun or not - cell phone photo

Back at camp, I found a place along the lake shore and began the ritual I’ve grown to love. Set up the camera and point it at something pretty, in this case it was a set of snow covered logs laying in a sea of blue light. Next, brew a cup of coffee to sip, letting flavour and warmth travel down the body from lips to tongue to soul.  Lastly, while a long exposure counts down second by second on the camera, a piece of cheese is unwrapped and the first savoury bite is allowed to bring a smile to my face.  This is paradise. A cold, azure paradise.


Later that morning, as I once again shivered in my tent trying to warm up under a sea of various blankets and clothing, the truth of my situation began to settle in.

Despite the extra warm clothing, high tech sleeping bag and the care I had taken to stay dry (and failed) it would be foolish of me to stay another night.  The temperature was forecast to drop even lower overnight, and given my utter failure to stay warm the night before, I would likely be dangerously cold by the next morning. After the location research, the preparation, the effort and ultimately the failed execution - the mountains had won this round.  I wiped away hot tears, took down my camp and began the hike down the valley, pouting slightly but ultimately ecstatic at the thought of a hot shower and dry clothes once I arrived home.

At the valley bottom, the view back toward the camp was abysmal. A solid white wall of menacing clouds.  When I left the lake, the open areas had already received 10 cm of snow, I figured the total would easily reach 15 or 20 cm by the time the storm passed.

In civilization however, the weather was almost pleasant, at least compared to what I had just come from.  As I drove down the highway past a perennial favourite with photographers, I had to stop.  The piping hot shower I was craving would have to wait a little longer, as I pulled into the parking lot, grabbed my camera gear and practically sprinted towards the shoreline of Wedge Pond.

A mid-morning photo wasn’t normally my preference, but the storm clouds swirling around Mt Kidd were too delightful to pass up. I giggled to myself as I clicked photo upon photo of the mountains, reflection and swirling clouds.  After all I had just put myself through in an attempt to get a single photo, battling the cold, the sore muscles, the fear and ultimately the disappointment -the photo I ended up capturing was a mere 50 paces from the highway.

Storm Clouds Over Wedge Pond



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