Tonquin Valley in 3 days

Trip Diary: 16-18th September

16 Sep – 6pm

I’m in my tent huddled in my sleeping bag keeping warm. It’s drizzling as it has been all day. Today I started hiking from Portal Creek trailhead at 9am and arrived at Maccarib camp at 2:45pm, 19km in total. First 9km to Portal Creek campground was through a valley covered by many trees, and beyond 9km was through wide open meadows where I was expecting to see a Grizzly at any moment.

In the meadows
In the meadows

Trail was really muddy and in desperate need of repair. Overall not too big a day. Past a handful of people. Awesome green, yellow and red foliage all around, winter is just around the corner! Cooked up noodles and made a hot cup of tea already, very satisfying. Then since it was raining hoisted my food up the bear pole and crashed. Hope the rain eases so I can go down to the lake and scope out positions for sunrise photos when first light hits the “wall” that is the Ramparts. Excited to get wicked photos. Fingers crossed!

Rest break from my 20kg pack (45 pound) at Portal Creek camp.
Rest break from my 20kg pack (45 pound) at Portal Creek camp.

18th Sep – 5am

It’s early and cold but I’m wide awake once again tucked in my sleeping bag. Yesterday wasn’t an enormous day but it was enough to do me in early. I got up at 5:30am and walked half an hour to the lake shore. Turned out I was well and truly early enough since the first rays only hit the mountain tops after 7.

Before sunrise a wicked view about 1km north of Amethyst camp.
Before sunrise a wicked view about 1km north of Amethyst camp.
Enjoying sunrise
Enjoying sunrise

As it usually happens my best photo was unplanned as I was walking back to camp.

The swampy, wet marshlands of the Tonquin Valley from the northern end of Amethyst Lake.
The swampy, wet marshlands of the Tonquin Valley from the northern end of Amethyst Lake.

After breakfast and packing up I left Maccarib at 11:30am and walked back down the muddy, horse beaten path 9km to Surprise Point. On the way I got lucky seeing a rare species. I turned to my right and woah – two woodland caribou 40m away staring at me.

This is the rare species the woodland caribou
This is the rare species the woodland caribou

I just stayed still and watched them for 15 minutes. One even used it’s antlers to tear the branches off a tree. I’m not sure why as it left all the branches on the ground (since found out it might be to remove the fur off it’s antlers to look more attractive). I arrived to the awesome location of Surprise Point at 2:30 and by 5 took a lay down which turned out to be bed for the night. I’ll try for better sunrise photos today, then begin the 17km back to the real world.

19 Sep – 11pm

The sunrise never prevailed through the clouds that next morning unfortunately, but good news is it didn’t rain on me. I gunned it out of there at 8am to get to work by 4pm and ended up doing the 17km in just shy of five hours. 3.5km/h with a heavy pack is solid pace. When I reconnected to the main trail (Astoria River trail) I was so grateful to finally be out of the mud, and hopping over rocks and logs. For a while there I was following some fresh animal tracks but didn’t see any this time.

I believe these were moose tracks I was following on the way out (my foot is pointing in the wrong direction)
I believe these were moose tracks I was following on the way out (my foot is pointing in the wrong direction)

So how did the Tonquin compare to other similar trips in the area? Straight up Berg Lake and The Skyline are both superior in my opinion.

For me the Tonquin was hyped up to be a magical “Garden of the Gods” experience, but it wasn’t. Yes, the Ramparts are an incredible sight and I know the weather wasn’t perfect (if I was there a few days earlier it would have been 10 degrees warmer) but the fact is the trails are so beat into the ground which just takes up too much focus to avoid sinking ankle deep every step. Your eyes are spending too much time on the ground instead of marvelling at the surroundings.

And how do you compensate for this? You can’t go earlier in the season before the horses have eaten the trail apart because you’ll get eaten alive by mosquitoes and flies. In June and July avoid the Tonquin at all costs! Those marshlands are a mosquito breeding ground heaven.

Am I missing something here? Was this year just particularly bad or is the trail condition just part of the deal? Maybe a March backcountry ski trip is the way to go.


Why do we climb mountains?

In light of me crossing another two mountains off my list on the 9th and 10th of September it got me thinking about why people climb mountains…

9th September. Mt Hardisty 2716m.
9th September. Mt Hardisty 2716m.
10th September. Pyramid Mountain 2774m.
10th September. Pyramid Mountain 2774m.

Now I’m not going to try and put such a vast topic into my own words just yet, but I have found some excellent quotes that align with me.

These first three come from the book “Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies” by Kathy and Craig Copeland.

“Though unaware of it, human beings exist on the thin seam of extremes: earth, and atmosphere. Only on a mountaintop does this dawn on us. Only then does it exhilarate us. Our reality doesn’t shift when we climb a mountain, but our perspective does. So be it. If that’s what it takes to open our eyes, let’s climb. But for mere hikers to climb it can’t be just any mountain. The climbing must be merely ascending, not dangling from ropes. And the mountain should be close enough to much bigger mountains, so we can revel in the rewards of climbing without assuming it’s risks. (Pathetic, but true.)” p129

On top of Pyramid Mountain looking towards the Colin Range
On top of Pyramid Mountain looking east towards the Colin Range

“The desire to explore is bred in the bone. Hiking fulfills that desire for many of us.” p149

“To promote peace, to advance social justice, to foster more soulful living, we need new ideas. But we won’t find them by hunkering longer at the office, behind the newspaper, or in front of the TV. To change the world, we must join it. We must get outdoors where we can see, hear, feel what’s happening around us. The answer is to walk. It can shift your awareness to the here and now. It’s the optimal pace for allowing your senses to appreciate your surroundings. And, by emulating the rhythm of your beating heart, it balances and centers you, inducing clarity and focus. Walking, anywhere, will open you to what really matters.” p152

Two hours up Mt Hardisty overlooking Horseshoe Lake
Two hours up Mt Hardisty overlooking Horseshoe Lake

“One cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: what is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.” Rene Daumal

“What is hard to endure is sweet to remember” Unknown

Nico soaking it in a top Pyramid.
Nico soaking it in a top Pyramid. Jasper town is middle right.

So with those deep thoughts I’d like to leave you with a bit of a photo diary of the last couple of days…

First up, Hardisty.

Hardisty is a steep sucker. 8.5 hours of bush bashing.
Hardisty was a steep sucker. 8.5 hours of bush bashing.
What a spot for a break on Hardisty.
What a spot for a break. Pyramid Mountain is the tall one in the distance on the right.
Enjoying summit views on Mt Hardisty.
Enjoying summit views on Mt Hardisty.
On the way down the lighting was awesome!
On the way down the lighting was awesome over Horseshoe Lake and back towards Pyramid Mountain.

And now from Pyramid.

Nearing the top.
Nearing the top from the back side. Still one hour to go from here.
Love this view back to Roche Miette mountain.
Love this view back to Roche Miette mountain.

Until next time.

Skyline trail in a day

“The Skyline Trail” in Jasper is a premier backpacking trip. Arguably the best trail in the Canadian Rockies! But who needs to backpack it over two, three or four days when you can do it in just one!

It was a huge day of 44km but in hindsight it was easier than I had anticipated. My conditioning for big days is peaking thanks to lots of practice over the last few months.

Our group of four hiked it in the more common south to north direction starting at Maligne Lake. This way saved 500m of climbing. We made the distance in 14 hours, 7am to 9pm, sunrise to sunset, what a day!

It never felt like we were rushed for time either. We stopped to marvel at the landscapes often and took plenty of photos.

This spectacular trail even reminded me of trekking in Iceland by the way the scenery just kept changing constantly.

We even deviated off-trail for four hours while we scrambled up Mt Tekarra which proved more difficult than expected but so worth it.

Tekarra was a mountain that beat me back in early August when I gave it a shot but didn’t make it, time and weather stood in my way. So this was a day of redemption for me as well.

So far September has provided nothing but brilliant weather. The clouds that typified August just disappeared as soon as the 1st of the month ticked over. Let’s hope this weather lingers. It’s perfect!!!

The colours of fall are starting to pop up all around too – the greens of summer morphing into bold yellows, oranges and reds. Awesome. My first “real” autumn is underway.

These photos show snapshots of the day from beginning to end.

From dense trees into sparse open sub-alpine meadows – perfect Grizzly territory.
A convenient stream to top up depleting water bottles.
A convenient stream to top up some depleting water bottles.
Up into alpine heights. Snow covered for most of the year, in summer a desert like landscape is unveiled.
Up into the alpine heights where we stayed for over 20km! Snow covered for most of the year, in summer a desert like landscape is unveiled. “The Notch” is ahead – the low point between the two mountains on the left.
Halfway point (22km) at the Notch. Laura, Grayden, Joel and I.
Halfway point (22km) at “The Notch”. Laura, Grayden, Joel and I. Feeling fresh.
View like these were everywhere
Commanding views like these were everywhere. In the background the aptly named “Watchtower” mountain overlooks the valley to keep everything in order.
Now my favourite mountain in the area, Tekarra is like a castle in the clouds.
Now my favourite mountain in the area, Tekarra (2693m) is like a castle in the clouds.
5pm on top of Tekarra.
Oh yeah!
Oh yeah! 9th summit of the year.
Descending a super steep scree gully on the north side of Tekarra.
Descending a super steep scree gully on the north side of Tekarra.

In the clouds up Mt Temple

Mount Temple is a big sucker, it stands mighty at 3544m and dominates the Lake Louise skyline. In fact it’s the 9th tallest in the Canadian Rockies, so climbing it was a very rewarding feat but certainly not without it’s challenges.

What’s bewildering and yet enticing is how the biggest mountain is actually one of the easiest to summit! It’s sheer cliffs make it look an impossible endeavor but nature worked it’s magic and hidden behind the south west ridge is a relatively easy scramble route.

So with this challenge in mind four of us set off out of Jasper for a couple of days in the hills of Lake Louise. There was Arne (Arn-ee) from Spain, Donny in his homeland Canada, Jakob (Yak-ob) from Czech Republic and Aussie me.

That afternoon before the next day’s climb we “warmed up” around the shores of Lake Louise with the 7km one way Plain of Six Glaciers hike. Thankfully by 5pm most of the 4000 visitors per day were gone.

The last kilometre to the viewpoint was wicked. Glaciers galore and within stones throw of Mt Lefroy and Mt Victoria.

Mt Lefroy
Mt Lefroy (3421m)

Some carbs before bed, alarm set to 5am and we were set to go bag a peak the next day. Or so we hoped…

Our hearts sank the next morning as we sat around in darkness looking at a sky full of grey clouds and mountains swiped from view.

The weather forecast issued last night was no joke as it tends to be in the mountains…showers.

Donny and I just about called Temple out of the equation to Arne’s extreme dismay but after a pancake breakie and news of a better forecast we agreed to do the hike to Sentinel Pass anyway and see what’s up from there.

8:45am we hit the trailhead at a beautiful cloud covered Moraine Lake. The hike to Sentinel Pass through Larch Valley is premier but it also surprised me how short it was, around 6km and 700m vertical.

There was debate over which one was Temple, until it came into full view and all doubt was dashed.

First views
That giant monolith on the right with a sprinkling of snow is Temple. Sentinel pass is the low point to the left.

The word from Banff National Park was there were five grizzly bears in the area, which is the reason they had a minimum group size of four law in place. We didn’t see any of them unfortunately.

Upon reaching Sentinel Pass we had sun and blue skies! It felt amazing and we decided to push on and be willing to turn back at any time if things changed. From here it’s still 2.5km and 900m vertical to the top.

Sun at Sentinel pass. Looking over the pass towards Paradise Valley.
Sun at Sentinel pass. Looking over the pass towards Paradise Valley.

The next incline was straightforward. Follow the trail, stay close, and don’t kick rocks down the mountain. Thanks to Arne we had the route description in hand, and that proved really handy – even if Arne’s rock kicking prowess wasn’t so helpful.

Lets go!
Lets go!

The biggest danger on this mountain is rockfall and yet even knowing that I was surprised at just how loose the ground is. You need to be extra careful and you’d be crazy not to wear a helmet.

The crux of the mountain (hardest part) is really not too bad at all. If your good on your feet and can scramble up rocks you’ll be fine. We took a harder way up by mistake and Arne got stuck there for a bit, but with some help we got him moving again. Not before I kicked a rock down onto his helmet though – whoops.

The crux
The crux

From here the summit ridge is really close and upon reaching it the views were incredible back down over Paradise and Larch Valleys.

Donny and I
Donny and I
Arne and Jakob enjoying a seat and snacks with a view.
Arne and Jakob enjoying a seat and snacks with a view.

Standing here looking upwards it literally looked like a trail into the sky – where upon reaching the end you’d be given a set of wings to glide off the mountain ever so gracefully.

The only way is up
The mountain eerily disappeared ahead under a blanket of clouds

But no it was just hard heart pounding work up the steepest continuous grade of the whole route. I lost track of time but I think it took about an hour along the summit ridge.

At 3350m – ish we were engulfed in clouds and cold. Progress vertically slowed and I definitely noticed the lack of oxygen in the air, although not nearly to the extent as on Mt Blanc which spirals up to a dizzying 4810m!

Jakob ahead. We made sure to stay in sight of each other.
Jakob ahead. We made sure to stay in sight of each other from here on.

Never knowing where the summit was it jumped upon us all of a sudden. We did it!

The summit flag was a welcome landmark. Even if we could only see 20m ahead and had no view we had done it. It was a new experience being engulfed by clouds. We hung around at the top for about 20 minutes before another couple joined us and by then we were feeling the chill and ready to head down.

I love this photo, it shows just how happy we all were to be here.
I love this photo, it shows just how happy everyone was to make it. From left, Donny, Arne, Jakob and I.
There was a book to sign for making the summit. Credit to Arne for the nicknames.
There was a book to sign for making the summit. Credit to Arne for the nicknames.

Descending was really fast and fun sliding through the scree. My hiking pole was invaluable in helping keep balance and take some weight off the legs.

We returned back to Lake Moraine in good time at 4:30pm (total time of 7:45) where I jumped in the lake to complete my brother’s challenge set back in November.

Wooo! Chilly, refreshing and yet so satisfying. I’m sure I surprised a good amount of tourists ha.

This day presented many challenges of leadership, teamwork, and collaboration – and even despite missing out on unbelievable sunny views and the leg work involved to reach the top was not that physically demanding, Temple is one of the most rewarding mountains I’ve ever climbed.

Thanks to Arne, Donny and Jakob for making this day a day to remember.

Berg Lake trail and back in Jasper

I’m back in my second home, Jasper, and the mountains are a calling. I’ve sorted myself a job until mid October and right now summer is in full swing. There’s no time to waste! Let me explain…

Summer in the Canadian Rockies is oh so short when compared to seven months of snowy winter. Snow snow go away come again another day.

For people like me who want to walk along ridges and stand in places looking down on mountains, summer only lasts two and a half months. That’s it. Mid July until late September.

Let’s break it down. That’s 75 days. Factor in working five days a week and I’m left with 21 days off. Furthermore consider that one in three days are likely to have some form of precipitation that leaves just 14 days.

14 days of work free and snow free summer days. 14 days…

I’ve made a list of adventures for the summer and one of the big ticket items was a three day backpacking trip to Berg Lake. It’s a hidden gem behind Mount Robson – the tallest peak in the Canadian Rockies by a long shot at 3954m, a whopping 3100m above the visitor centre.

Mount Robson from the highway. It's almost always covered in clouds.
Mount Robson from the highway near the visitor centre. It’s almost always covered in clouds.
Interesting comparison. This was Robson on 21 Dec 2012 when I visited it.
Interesting comparison. This was Mount Robson on 21 Dec 2012 when I visited it.

Ben and I started our adventure hitch hiking from Jasper. We waited an hour which wasn’t too bad and arrived fresh at the visitor centre at midday.

Our destination was Adolphus campground, still a whopping 28km away with a heavy pack.

The 21km trail to Berg Lake is the most popular in the Rockies, so when we started out we were pleasantly surprised. We only saw a dozen others on the trail all day. We figured as it was the day after a long weekend we hit the jackpot. Ding ding ding.

The first 10km was nothing too exciting. Kinney Lake was the highlight, but pressing on and up the first part of the 800m days elevation gain we were engulfed inside the Valley of a Thousand Falls.

Valley of a Thousand Falls.
Valley of a Thousand Falls.

It’s an impressive place. A big wide valley with mountain peaks protruding in the distance and a fair few giant waterfalls cascading down the vertical walls. It reminded me of Yosemite even, and that’s saying something cause that place rocks.

The most awesome part though was witnessing a bizarre stream junction. One stream flowing with brown water and the other blue water. After intersecting there was a definite line separating the two shades for hundreds of metres.

Brown vs blue
Brown vs blue
The stream in the valley
The stream in the valley

Stretching the legs again the trail turned evil, presenting a steep grade that just spelled out lactic acid. This must have been round about kilometre 12 and over the following 3.5km we gained 450m. But it was worth it.

Up here we glimpsed a rather ferocious looking waterfall – Emperor Falls. I didn’t think too much of it until we branched off the main trail to check it out. Woahhhh!!!

Emperor Falls
Emperor Falls and Mount Robson behind

The endless power in this fall was tremendous. Constant, unrelently, loud. I have to say the most impressive waterfall I’ve experienced. It is a showcase of the extreme forces of nature.

What contributed to it’s impact was we could walk right up beside where the water was crashing down. On our hike out we even braved the tame looking mist (which is actually painfully strong) and stood beneath the edge of the fall. It was like being hailed on!

It really puts things in perspective
It really puts things in perspective. Nature rules.

We reached Berg Lake near sunset and it’s just like the postcard. Bliss.

Ben and I take it all in
Ben and I take it all in. Berg glacier on the left, Mist glacier on the right and mighty Mt Robson.

Camping out in Canada is different than in Australia.

Over here it’s all about securing your food away from a hungry bear’s grasp and definitely not keeping food inside your tent. Unless you want an uninvited guest at night. I slept within reach of bear spray to let my mind rest easy.

We cooked our three course meal of pasta, pasta, and rice well away from our tents and hoisted our food bag up a tree. Even at this height it’s a bit low but it’s the best we could do.

Lucky bears can't untie knots
Lucky bears can’t untie knots

It’s off putting to think a mighty bear might be roaming around me while I sleep but I was fine. Slept great after such an exhausting eight hour grind.

The second day we lightened our loads and hiked up another 800m higher and 25km round trip to Snowbird pass. It was really worth it.

This trail takes you right beside Robson glacier. It’s so close and gave me such an appreciation of the size of it, especially when compared to the tiny dots that were people.

See the people down by the blue pond bottom right...
See the people down by the blue pond bottom right…

On top of that you are presented with a 180 degree view of the Reef icefield upon reaching Snowbird Pass. It’s a great tough day hike, but take note that it’s only open from 1 July onwards.

At snowbird pass. The halfway point of our trip. "It's all down hill from here" says Ben.
At snowbird pass. The halfway point of our trip. “It’s all down hill from here” says Ben.
Ben checks out the view. Not bad, not bad.
Ben checks out the storm on the horizon. Not bad, not bad.

The last day we spent hiking back out with a good dose of time allocated to swimming in Berg Lake and Emperor Falls. We were so so grateful that the sun appeared after we awoke to mist.

There was no way I was jumping in a biting cold Berg Lake with the sun hiding, or the Falls for that matter.

Arrgghhh. The hailing waterfall.
Arrgghhh. The hailing waterfall.
I love this one. Ben just feeling the moment.
I love this one. Ben just feeling the moment.

I said to Ben as we were pacing along the shore feeling refreshed after our swim, “This is just how hiking in the Canadian Rockies looks in guidebooks”.

The sun was out, the glaciers shining, and the water was vivid.

There’s no doubt this is a premier trail and it’s popular for a reason. It presents the most glaciers I’ve seen in such close proximity, plus blue lakes, waterfalls, tall mountains and provides plenty of camping space. Just try to go mid week.

I’m at the Tour de France!

A bit of a belated post as I’m actually in Vancouver right now, but I was in France a week ago and was lucky enough to get to two stages of the Tour de France – Alpe d’Huez and the Champs Elysees.

I think there is something fascinating about watching the big mountain stages. It’s a real survival of the fittest and there’s no where to hide if you’re hurting. As the riders climb higher the elite group at the front becomes ever smaller.

Alpe d’Huez is the most famous mountain in Tour de France history, not because it’s the hardest to climb (13km at 8%) but because of the famous battles that have taken place on it’s slopes and the dramatic way the road winds up through 21 hairpins.

The lower slopes of the mountain with Bourg d'Oisans townsite marking the start of the climb.
The lower slopes of the mountain with Bourg d’Oisans townsite marking the start of the climb.

With the 2013 race marking the 100th Tour de France the organisers made this stage extra special by making the poor riders climb the mountain twice in the one day. Pain for the riders but fantastic for the thousands of spectators that crowded the roadside. I spoke to a number of roadside campers and one had been camped out for a week for premium turf!!!

I watched the stage from turn 10 (also known as the Irish corner) with a couple of Irish lads Dave and Dee that had climbed Mont Blanc with me the week before.

Dee, Dave and me
Dee, Dave and I

I borrowed Dee’s bike to give this mountain a crack but unfortunately time stood in my way. I made it up a third of the way before police told me to get off as the parade was coming through.

This parade surprised me as it’s something you don’t see on TV. About an hour and a half before the riders arrive there are literally a hundred or more wild sponsor cars that drive by honking their horns like crazy, dancing, and pumping music, all the while throwing out samples and gear into the crowds. It lasted a good half hour!

The first time the riders passed us I got myself a good vantage point up on the cliff. I got some great photos from here.

The peloton goes round with team Sky and Froome at the front. Next time round the peloton was obliterated.
The peloton goes round with team Sky and Froome at the front. Next time round the peloton was decimated.

It was awesome to be there that day but it wasn’t my last day in the Alps.

Before I went to Paris I made a point of it to ride up another famous mountain – the Col du Galibier. From my understanding the most picturesque mountain in the Alps and that’s saying something!

This one was a leg burner for my completely “un-bike fit” body. 17km with the grade pretty consistent at 7 to 8%.

I started the climb from Valloire and as the wheels starting turning I was thankful for two things – the first five kilometres was a leg friendly 5% which provided a nice warm up and secondly when the slope did kick up I was sitting on a bike with super low 30×25 gearing.

Just how hard is it to cycle up a famous Tour de France climb though?

Well a picture tells a thousand words so you be the judge.

It goes halfway up
It goes higher!…at halfway up
Almost at the top of the 17km Col du Galibier climb
Burning legs but determination almost at the top of the Col du Galibier

It’s amazing how the pro’s have the legs to “race” up these hills – it’s challenging just to ride up competing against the road itself.

Reaching the top was awesome and relieving. From here I could look down on the slopes from that famous day in 2011 when Cadel Evans pulled the peloton up the mountain in pursuit of Andy Schleck to save his Tour de France hopes.

What a view looking over the other side.
What a view looking over the other side of the Galibier.
The proof of my efforts.
The proof of my efforts.

Watching the final stage in Paris was a completely different experience and in my opinion had nothing on the mountain stage. It was so crowded that I stood roadside for an hour an a half to get in the second row. Nevertheless we got to see the riders go whizzing by ten times.

Froome wins the Tour
The winner of the race, Chris Froome in yellow.

One of the highlights of the day was seeing the Arc du Triomphe lit up in a completely unexpected spectacular light show. It was amazing watching the lights jump around this famous landmark.

Being at the Tour was a dream and the Alps will certainly go down in the highlights reel of my trip. I’ll be back with my bike and a bike-fit body in the future.

100 for the 100th Tour
100 for the 100th Tour

Scaling snowy Mont Blanc

Well at last I’m back on level ground after a remarkable journey skywards to the summit of Mont Blanc – the tallest mountain in western Europe 4810m. What an adventure!

A rare moment where the sun aligned perfectly
Battling upwards

I am writing this post from the perspective of a prospective climber who is trying to find out what’s involved in a Mont Blanc summit. Hopefully I can shed some light on this…

First up I know some people will be put off by Mont Blanc’s infamous record of consistently 20-30 deaths each year. Why is this number so high though?

The reason is Mt Blanc is just so accessible and cheap! That brings potential high altitude dangers such as rapidly changing weather, glacier travel and altitude sickness in direct contact with inexperienced and unassuming climbers.

If you go with one of many reputable guiding companies then you should be fine and have a blast. The people in the most danger are the ones who underestimate the difficulty of the mountain and stroll up in jeans and sneakers. No joke!

I spent a good deal of time researching companies and in the end decided on a company which in hindsight I’d definitely recommend, Mt Blanc Guides. They’ve been guiding on this mountain for 25 years.

A big part of making the summit was acclimatising to prepare our bodies for the 11.4% oxygen levels ahead (at sea level air is 20.9% oxygen) so that’s what we did. We drove a couple of hours into Italy to get a feel for things on Gran Paradiso, a reasonably challenging 4060m peak. Well past my previous highest of 2300m I’d climbed in Canada.

As well as providing good acclimatisation, starting here also gave our guides a chance to test our fitness and to give us a chance to see what we were getting ourselves into. A fair few clients bale out of Mt Blanc after they see just how hard this one is…regardless they still have a blast going on other mountaineering adventures around Chamonix.

The first day was an easy few hours climbing from 1800m to the “hut” at 2750m. I say “hut” because it was more like a hotel than what you envision a mountain hut as. This one had a restaurant, bar and slept more than 50 climbers. Alcohol is the enemy if you are trying to acclimatise so I stayed off it.

It was quite funny that first day though as all eight of us were making sure we didn’t lose a step in order to “pass” the silent fitness test. With a couple of hundred metres to the hut the guides stepped on it and it really felt like a definite test of fitness.

Keeping the pace
Keeping the pace
The hut and Gran Paradiso in the background
The hut on the right and Gran Paradiso in the background

That night was almost sleepless for me as I felt my body working hard to adjust to the lack of oxygen. My breathing was heavy and my heart was racing at 92 bpm. I was also a bit anxious about how I would cope with the altitude.

Summit day was a tough 9 hours but satisfyingly all of us made it and the guides cleared us all to give Mont Blanc a crack. We learned how to use crampons, scramble down rock faces, travel roped together across a glacier and how our bodies coped with altitude.

Making our way down above the clouds
Making our way down above the clouds was remarkable

Thankfully I fared pretty well, I felt a slight headache at 4000m but nothing worse. Still enough to keep me slightly concerned about how I will be 800m higher. Unfortunately there is no way to tell beforehand how your body will cope however the head guide said that only 10-15% of people don’t summit Mont Blanc due to altitude sickness.

After spending a second night at 2750m we descended and spent a night in Chamonix (1000m) before we embarked on the monstrous Mont Blanc the next day.

Chamonix sits on the valley floor and the mountains loom all around. I pointed to the mountain peaks from town and found my arm at a 45 degree angle!

The first day on Mont Blanc was similar to the first one on Gran Paradiso except this time we caught a train from a nearby town up to 2400m, then hiked up to our sleeping quarters at the Tete-Rousse hut at 3200m. It seemed like cheating a bit catching the train but with still 2400m to go I was happy to take the metres.

The Le Nid D'aigle train station was the last stop
The Le Nid D’aigle train station was the last stop
Hiking up from the train
Hiking up from the train. Here we are about 3000m (2000 above the town down there!)

From the hut the route to the summit can be spilt into three distinct sections. First up is the 45 degree rock scramble from Tete-Rousse hut at 3200m to the Gouter hut at 3800m (2-2.5 hrs), next the “Gran Paridiso” like glacier travel up to the Dome du Gouter at 4300m (2 hrs), and finally the scary looking path along Bosses ridge, which is a series of narrow steep ridges, up to the summit 4810m (2 hrs).

Looking head on at the rock scramble is a bit daunting and two out of the eight of us pulled out that night. But how bad was it?

This is a side on picture I took from the Gouter hut on the way back down. You can see the Tete-Rousse hut bottom left and the old Gouter hut top right.
This is a side on picture I took from the Gouter hut on the way back down. You can see the Tete-Rousse hut bottom left and the old Gouter hut top right. 600m vertical difference.

At 2:30am the next morning it was time to roll up the sleeves and get into it. A good 12 hours of effort ahead. The remaining six of us, along with four guides headed into the blackness and what looked like a vertical wall with dozens of head torches shining way way up high.

I thought it was quite fun climbing in the dark and really quite safe too even though it was steeper than I had anticipated. Two of us were roped up to a guide who would catch us if we fell and there were steel cables to grab onto for the worse parts. The last half hour the legs started to burn but that’s expected – 600m vertical is a long way.

A half  hour break in the warmth of the Gouter hut and we hit the trail again. It was sunrise and a magical moment of the day where the snow and the clouds turned a brilliant pink. Everything felt so calm and at peace.

Magical moment
Magical moment

Section two of the climb was just a matter of grinding out slow and steady footsteps for two hours.

The grind up the glacier to the Dome
The grind up the glacier to the Dome du Gouter. See the tiny looking people…

From here standing on the Dome du Gouter we could see the summit for the first time. That was encouraging! I had a slight headache here too.

First sight of the summit
First sight of the summit from the Dome du Gouter. Again if you look hard you can see people…

Funnily enough there is a small descent here before we were greeted by Bosses ridge and a rush of lactic acid to our depleting legs.

There is no doubt that the last hour to the summit was the hardest of the whole climb. I never doubted I would make it but it was a physical challenge for sure.

The final push for the top
The final push for the top. Steeeep!

It was fantastic to come up that final slope and be congratulated with magnificent views and handshakes all round. Eve, Sam and I summitted at 9:15am Thursday 11 July 2013.

On top of Europe!
On top of Europe!
Sam and I
Sam and I

It was cold up there, about -10 to -15 degrees so after some well earned pictures and time to soak up the moment we turned back.

Descending felt so easy in comparison, but you have to keep your head in the game because a fall on the descent is more dangerous.

Sam descends Bosses ridge only metres below the summit
Sam descends Bosses ridge only metres below the summit

1 hour 45 minutes later the three of us were refueling back in the Gouter hut waiting for the rest of our party. Out of the six of us who attempted the climb five made the top. Neil made it to within 150m and had a great story how he was on his hands and knees crawling up! His legs just said “enough” but his mind was not giving in.

The most dangerous part of the whole climb was to come – crossing the Grand Couler just before the Tete-Rousse hut. Rocks become dislodged 600m above and come tumbling down the slope at ferocious speeds.

Neil crosses the Grand Couler. A rock tumbling in front of him :/
Neil crosses the Grand Couler. A rock tumbling in front of him :/ Was it his unlucky day?

We did this section in the dark on the way up so we didn’t appreciate it’s full danger until seeing it in the daylight. The risk is best managed by crossing it at the time when least rocks are falling – at the beginning of summer and in the morning when they are more frozen. Besides that we had spotters watching for rocks. If you are caught in the middle at least you have plenty of time to see it and avoid it.

All in all the week of climbing Mont Blanc was a fantastic experience. Highly recommended by me and one to be remembered for a long time. Now get out there and do it for yourself!

Part 2 – Iceland the Incredible

Where were we up to…oh yeah that’s right. Wind, wind and more wind. Arriving into Swan Lake after the gob-smacking day we were greeted Icelandic style. Erecting our tents became a 4 man job and while brushing our teeth, spitting out became dangerous at the outdoor sinks. The wind blows doesn’t it Christiane?

But despite the high winds and our droopy eyelids we gathered around in the tent and relished the simple pleasures in life. Like being out of the wind (yay), sipping on hot chocolate…maybe with a dash of Bailey’s, and chowing down on a delicious pasta dinner.

Tonight we also discovered that Alli our guide loves to dish out daunting weather forecasts. “So I called the weather station and it’s not good. They say more wind and more rain tomorrow and getting even worse the next day” he said with a big grin and laugh. He’s a mountain man and loves “Icelandic” unpredictable weather.

We managed to drag ourselves out of our cosy cocoons to tackle Day 2 (of the official trail), 18km from Swan Lake to Emstur. This was the day of stream crossings and lava fields.

Feeling refreshed after our first stream crossing

The three stream crossings required boots off, pants up and a walk through icy cold water. We learned good stream crossing technique – pick a shallow section (generally wider), unclip backpack straps, link arms with the stronger person upstream and slowly walk across angling slightly downstream while keeping your eyes on your target – the far bank. We were all super happy to get through all three and not have to face the arctic water….well until tomorrow anyway.

Furthermore some highlights of the day were eerie desert-like lava fields, witnessing angry, “tear you to pieces type” waterfalls and a magical low slung rainbow.

Lunch overlooking a lava field
Lunch overlooking a rock-strewn lava field
This is the most angry waterfall I've ever seen
This is the most angry waterfall I’ve ever seen
A low rainbow.
A low rainbow after the rains

With poor weather forecasts for the coming days we got lucky. Alli pulled some strings and got us into huts for the next three nights. To be fair the weather didn’t fully live up to it’s expectations and we really could have camped but it was a welcome luxury.

Even so we still spent a few days hiking for many hours in sopping wet boots, soaked gloves and depending on how good our clothing was, somewhere between dry and saturated for the rest.

Day 3 we continued along this incredible trail from Emstur to Thorsmork. About 19km and 7 hours of wet and windy work. We made it up ridges, gazed down into inspiring canyons, and finished by making our way up a dry river bed in the shadow of unforgettable glacier tongues.

Here's the old riverbed
The old riverbed that likely carved the surrounding mountians

Surprisingly we even found some actual plant life! A beautiful field of Alaskan lupine flowers. As Paul said as we approached lush vegetation, “Did we just leave Iceland?”

Alaskan Lupines were imported to Iceland from you guessed it Alaska
Alaskan Lupines

The food throughout the whole trip was brilliant and more than enough for seconds (or thirds) and I took full advantage of that! By the end of the trip if someone couldn’t finish their meal they knew who to ask.

Day 4 was the last day of the trail and it was just awesome. As it turned out the bad weather prevented us from taking the originally planned route so Alli made a good call to hike halfway and then re-trace our steps back down.

The trail went up and up until we came to a wind struck plateau about 850m up. From this point on we charged head down through mini blizzard-like conditions ever higher and into snow. We were now in a solid winter environment when just half an hour earlier we were enjoying a peaceful lunch.

One exposed plateau
A wind struck plateau
1000m elevation gain took us right up between two glaciers and into a mini blizzard.
1000m elevation gain took us right up into the thick of things

The sideways sleet stung my face like little pin pricks until we eventually reached our destination and the reason for enduring this – the still warm lava field from the eruption 3 years ago. It’s smack bang between two glaciers, Eyjafjallajokull and Mýrdalsjökull hence the crazy weather.

I dug down into the loose gravel just 20cm and it’s still hot! Don’t ask me to explain how but it sure is, Iceland is wild.

The last couple of days were busy but also a welcoming wind down. Ice climbing on Sólheimajökull glacier was brilliant, seeing more thunderous waterfalls, and relaxing in natural hotsprings that got so hot I started sweating.

Iceland is just one of those places!

Ice climbing was a great experience but tough with soft soles boots
Ice climbing was a great experience but tough with soft soles boots
Skogafoss -  a picture perfect waterfall
Skogafoss – a picture perfect waterfall

It was so hard to pick which photos to put in these posts. To see the rest of my Iceland photos click here.

Part 1 – Iceland the Incredible

There’s just so much that’s fantastic about this little heard about island in the middle of the Atlantic. This is going to be a long post so I’ve split it into two parts. Get your reading glasses out.

Just sitting here thinking about the landscapes I’ve been lucky enough to hike through over the last week blows my mind. Unbelievable is not an overstatement. The landscapes on the Laugavegur trail are phenomenal….

………….yep…………your mind is not playing tricks. Ash mixed with snow causes a myriad of swirls.

But not getting ahead of myself let’s get back to basics.

Why Iceland you ask? Two reasons. Number one to explore the wild side of a wild unknown country – to uncover the land of fire and ice, volcanos, geysers, hot springs, glaciers, mountains, waterfalls and lava fields. Number two because I knew no one else who had been here, so I wanted to make my trip unique.

I booked an 8 day trekking tour way back in November and with hindsight it was the best decision. But before I get to that I want to expand on Iceland as most people just have no point of reference of what this place is all about.

Iceland is right here…..

Pretty much in the middle of no where
Pretty much in the middle of no where

Iceland was settled at the end of the 9th century by Norwegian vikings in search of new farmland. The first parliament in history was founded way back in 930 at the sacred site of Thingvellir, now part of the tourist golden circle drive.

Reykjavik is the capital and is in fact the northernmost capital city in the world. For a city of 200 000 it feels like a large town more so than a city. Everywhere is within walking distance and there’s barely any traffic…just lots of stray cats. Total population is around 320 000.

To Iceland’s credit 99% of their energy is renewable. Primarily through hydro and geothermal.

Prices are on the expensive side and it seems ridiculous when they say that’ll be 2000! (Icelandic Krona of course…) Icelandic is the local language but English is well spoken by everyone.

The tourism industry is on the rise, 750 000 last year mostly from Europe and America, a sign of things to come I think.

The country also sits smack bang on the divide between the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian plate which are pulling apart at 2cm a year. I even went snorkelling in the crack known as Silfra with crystal clear 100m visibility and dry suit worthy 2 degree water.

North America continent is on the right. Eurasian on the left.
North America continent is on the right. Eurasian on the left.

Upon arrival I made the most out of my body clock being out of sync and stayed up 8pm to 4am taking a photo every hour of the sun from the same spot…eventually I’ll make a t-shirt out of the images! Sunset was at midnight and sunrise around 3am and in between just a steady sunset glow.

Midnight sun on 20 June 2013
Midnight sun on 20 June 2013. One day before summer solstice (longest sunlight day of the year).

I met up with my trekking group and we hit up the famous golden circle sites. Historic Thingvellir, geyser hot springs, and Gullfoss waterfall.

Our trekking group for the next week
Our group anticipating the unknown adventures in store.
Gullfoss waterfall. Foss means waterfall in Icelandic.
Gullfoss waterfall. Foss means waterfall in Icelandic.

Following the day of sightseeing we hit the highlands in search of the much fabled elves and trolls hiding in the cliffs and ideally to find our Landmannalaugar campsite. I remember catching my first glimpses of these “watercolour painting-like” mountains, heart beats faster and shaking my head thinking “this can’t be possible”. Again with hindsight in my back pocket this would become the hike of my life – and it equally would for others in the group who have hiked all over the world.

First glimpse
First glimpse

When we started the day’s trek from Landmannalaugar to Swan Lake I couldn’t believe how fast the landscapes changed. One moment we were on a vast desert like lava field then in literally an hour we were pounding through snow fields then along mountain ridges…wow. It was jaw dropping stuff. 24 km, 10 hours and lots of photo breaks.

Day 3 - start of official trail. Landmannalaugar to Swan Lake, 24km.
A lava field and hot springs just to kick things off
Up the ridges.....
Up the ridges…..
Along the snowy plateaus.....
Along the snowy plateaus…..
My favourite landscape in the world to date. It's like a portal to a new world of elves and trolls. Wild mountains with 3 glaciers visible behind.
And to my favourite landscape in the world to date. It’s like a portal to a new world of elves and trolls. The most beautiful mountains I’ve seen with not one but three glaciers visible behind.

The following days held plenty of tricks up their sleeves. Buffeting winds, swirling rains and sideways snowfall. This 4 day trek is just getting started. To be continued in Part 2….

Where I went in New York City

I write this post in a strange situation. I’m sitting at JFK airport in New York waiting in line to rebook a flight to Iceland – I was supposed to fly out 22 hours ago but it’s likely to be at least another 8, maybe another overnight.

I find it slightly amusing to see how everyone reacts when things go astray like they have. I’ve seen tears, and as expected much disgruntled grumbling. The golden light though is that when things take a turn from the ordinary they also become memorable and a good story. You don’t listen to anyone talk about how on time their flight was do you?

But getting back to New York, this was my first visit and I stayed for 6 nights (now 7). The first two nights I couchsurfed with a local New Yorker who has been in the same Upper East side Manhattan apartment for 25 years.

He wrote me out a bit of a whirlwind tour for my first day which included visiting Wall Street, taking the free Staten Island ferry to see the Statue of Liberty, the 9/11 memorial, and walking along the endless Broadway to Times Square. All the touristy stuff.

Wall Street was really cool, the big statue of George Washington, the first US president being the centrepiece. The free ferry was also well worth the couple of hour round trip. Fantastic views of the Manhattan skyline was a bonus to the statue views.

Wall Street
Wall Street. You can see the statue of George Washington and the sharp pointed church at the end is Trinity church. Once the tallest building in New York.
There's a free way to see this icon, just take the Staten Island ferry
There’s a free way to see this icon, just take the Staten Island ferry.

The 9/11 memorial along with the Empire State Building observation deck, which I visited later, are security crazy. At the moment both sites are like a security check at an airport. At least for the memorial site it’s only temporary while the new world trade centre building is completed. I even took a photo here and the security guy came over and told me to delete it.

Both sites are quite special, so if you can deal with a crowd (and a whole lot of waiting for the ESB elevators) they are worth it. The views from the 86th floor are awesome in all directions but at sunset the crowd was bordering on ridiculous.

The south view of Manhattan from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building
The south view of Manhattan from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building

Times Square in addition to the Empire State draw the biggest crowds. Makes you feel like you’re a bug in “A Bug’s World” with the tall buildings representing the tall grass.

Times Square always super busy
Times Square is always super busy

Rounding out the “tourist hotspots” I visited is Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge. I’d say my two favourite of the tourist attractions. Central Park is just gigantic and there’s countless paths winding in every direction. A four-lane roadway runs the perimeter and is popular with cyclists and runners.

Central Park in New York
Central Park in New York

Since I’m becoming a bit of a photographic nut the evening I spent strolling Brooklyn Bridge on sunset was the highlight of my New York sightseeing experience. The lighting was perfect and I was continually amazed every time I took another photo and it just looked like yet another gem. I couldn’t believe it.

Brooklyn Bridge
Brooklyn Bridge
Brooklyn Bridge at sunset - beautiful
Brooklyn Bridge with Manhattan on the left

Some other less known but brilliant locations for me was the site of the US Open tennis championship at Flushing Meadows and taking a stroll on the Coney Island boardwalk at the very southern end of Brooklyn. I’m a big tennis fan and I play quite a bit so being at the Arthur Ashe stadium was a mini dream come true.

Arthur Ashe stadium at Flushing Meadows in New York - centre court at the US open tennis tournament.
Arthur Ashe stadium at Flushing Meadows in New York – centre court at the US open tennis tournament.
The massive 140 foot tall Unisphere at Flushing Meadows. It was built for the 1964 world fair to represent world peace.
The massive 140 foot tall Unisphere at Flushing Meadows. It was built for the 1964 world fair to represent world peace.

The Coney Island waterfront seems like it hasn’t changed since the 70’s. The Luna theme-park has got some real dodgy looking rides, but that’s whats great about it.

Coney Island boardwalk and Luna amusement park in Queens.
Coney Island boardwalk and Luna amusement park in Brooklyn.

Last but not least – the famous subway system. The most important piece of infrastructure in the city and the most extensive public transportation system in the world (by station number) at 468 stations. It literally drives the city with 5.4 million rides every weekday. I heard a stat that 75% of New Yorker’s don’t own a car and they can do that because of the subway. It’s fast, regular and goes everywhere. Only thing is it’s getting old!

New York has the most extensive subway system in the world. It's the backbone of NYC.
A typical subway station in New York

Congratulations for making it to the end of my longest post ever. I’m nearly at the front of the line now!

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