Tag Archives: snow

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!

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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.

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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.

Signal Mountain summit stories

Just a cruisy six hour return hike we thought. Ouch, how that didn’t turn out to be the case.

Take a look at the mountain. Looks kinda small right? Like a big hill, no real “mountain”.

But as we found out looks can be deceiving! The trail was covered in snow so with every step we sunk and slipped backwards ever so slightly. Over a few hours and with the steepness rising we felt the mountain trying to repel us backwards.

Signal Mountain - the target for the day
Signal Mountain – the target for the day
The going was tough through the snow
The going was tough through the snow

As we climbed through the tree lined trail I couldn’t help but think how lucky we were to have such brilliant sunny weather. Yesterday the prediction was overcast and a high of 3. Just our lucky day I guess.

The views in every direction are so worth the effort
The views in every direction are so worth the effort. Just a little further Gedas!

Once we finally got above the treeline we could see the summit for the first time. Life was good and we were within reach but we also glimpsed the challenging slopes that loomed in the distance. “We’re another hour away” was Gedas’ accurate guess.

At one stage it got steep enough that I and my Lithuanian climbing buddy had to monkey it up on all four hands and feet. The going was very slow and steady all the way to the top.

Gedas and I at the summit!
Gedas and I at the summit!

Now we well and truly realised that this “big hill” was definitely a real mountain. 2300m above sea level and views in every direction. What a fabulous feeling standing a top the snowy dome. For interests sake Pyramid Mountain (the tallest one on the right) is 2750m.

After three and a half hours up and just an hour and fifty back down we both settled for a soothing hot tub and a good feed. Awesome day!

How to: Build a quinzhee

A couple of days ago I got the chance to learn how to build a quinzhee – like the one I slept in in a previous post. Great fun and satisfying when complete. Take a look.

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Compact the snow by foot. Tiring work when the snow is this deep and soft.
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Start shovelling snow into the centre and compact regularly.
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Keep shovelling and compacting until the cone is complete.
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Allow snow to harden for at least 2 hours. In this case we let it harden overnight.
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Hollow out the inside. By far the most fun part!
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Walah! A nice cosy quinzhee complete with two sleeping platforms. This took me two hours to dig out alone.

Just poke a couple of breathing holes through the roof and you’re all done.

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My first quinzhee!

So all up you’re looking at a six hour job. It’s not easy but I got to say digging out the inside of your own “snow cave” into any style you like is really fun and exciting. It’s like sculpting your own “home” right before your eyes.

Now I just hope it snowed enough so I can build another one on the lake. Then try and find good hard snow (so far very elusive this year) so I can try building an igloo!

Crazy caves and crazy carpets

The last couple of days have been adventurous alright – first day spending hours trudging through knee deep snow and discovering three caves and more untouched frozen waterfalls, and the second day hiking 8km up a steep and exhausting trail, and crazy carpeting down. Pretty much just jumping on a small slippery piece of plastic and letting gravity do what it does best. So much fun!

Woo! Crazy carpets in their element
Woo! Tim shows us how crazy carpeting is done – with the face to match.

The ice canyon was pristine, untouched and even un-named. Very few people know about this place which makes it so much more exciting to explore. Donny and I actually didn’t even go there to find caves, but we certainly got lucky. After a couple of kilometres of tiring work hiking along the very much snow covered frozen river we arrived at the start of the canyon.

It was really awesome watching the canyon slowly form until we were surrounded by these marvelous  8 metre high chiseled walls and every now and then another waterfall frozen in time. No other human footprints were around, just the odd animal tracks – most likely Elk.

First glimpse of this cave
First glimpse of this awesome cave

It was then we came across our first and most impressive cave. Certainly was very exciting seeing this image come into view. The cave roof inside was at least ten metres tall and had two natural skylights. Very nice.

There's me in the entrance
There’s me in the entrance

The second cave was quite mystical, being located above a frozen waterfall and proved quite hard to access. However this one was ice plugged right at the start but just check out it’s location in the picture below!

See the second cave
See the second cave at the top right?

The third cave was cut into the face of the canyon wall and while easy to get to we didn’t really check it out. It was time to make the steep climb back out to the road and find the car.

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Just one of the splendid views encountered while trying to find a way across to the other side

In the words of Tim, the crazy carpeting day was “so amazing” even though we didn’t reach the Palisades viewpoint we set out for. After 8km and still 3.5km to go the snow became so deep that without snowshoes we had to turn back. But we came prepared and had a ball on the way home. I’d say we reached speeds of about 30km/h and made it back in half the time plus half the effort!

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Tim and I now loving these once leg burning slopes

Jasper winter pentathlon – a soloist’s account

A ‘winter pentathlon’ you say with a big question mark?

Just think: Triathlon + two extra legs + snow and ice = the Jasper winter pentathlon.

Like the Polar Bear Dip this event was also part of the Jasper in January festival and the fourth annual pentathlon had a solid turnout of 22 teams. Of the 22 teams there were 6 of us who took the dive into the challenge of a solo conquest.

The weather was absolutely beautiful for some physical suffering. Blue skies galore and a pleasant (by Canadian standards) high of -1.

Angry birds team!
Angry birds team!

So first up for the day, what I thought would be the easiest of all legs – a 7km mountain bike. When the cap gun fired I started off strong but a decent hill combined with a severe lack of riding had me gasping for air like a fish out of water and fingers going numb like…arrr the polar bear dip…

Next up was the 5km cross country ski around the edge of the lake. For the second time ever on cross country skis I did pretty well. Passed a couple of people and had some others zoooommmm past me like they had an invisible jet pack strapped on. Clearly Canadians. Even though these zoooommmmers were just doing the one leg they were still flying at double my pace.

So sitting somewhere around the middle of the pack it was time to don some snowshoes and go for a 2.5km run around the lake again – this inevitably meant run – walk – run – walk – run – walk – run. I’d have to say this was the toughest leg. The big clumsy snowshoes (which you lock your boots into) are not made for running and everyone running this leg had their work cut out for them.

Snowshoeing
Snowshoeing fun

Back at transition it was time for ice skates! Little did I know the time I was about to lose on the ice…

So yeah I’ve skated a few times and thought I was decent until…de de derrr…meet Canadian ice skaters in a race! For starters we had to skate 7km! A mission in itself that took me 43 minutes – meanwhile the fastest did it in 21 minutes. Crazy stuff!

So leaving me in dead last after a mediocre skate I began the final leg with gusto. A 4km trail run through hardened snow. In a way like running through wet sand but with much greater risk for ankle injury. One section I walked – just too precarious.

With only a few hundred metres left I caught and passed the team in front and made it back to the finish to a roaring reception after 2 hours 42 min total race time. It really was fantastic hearing everyone’s support. Great team spirit Jasper and a great event! Thank you.

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Look its me about to be overlapped

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A happy finisher :)
A happy finisher 🙂

Driving dilemmas

What’s it’s like learning to drive on the other side of the road?

Very very strange for the first week!

At first the weirdest thing wasn’t driving on the right (as you would expect), but sitting on the left side of the car and changing gears with your right hand! I found myself unintentionally drifting towards the right – so that I was over the right wheel path and gear changes were so slow.

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Rubber floor mats are perfect for the snow melting off your boots
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Same layout but different side

I also had pedestrians wildly waving at me when I started down a one way street in the wrong direction.

And other times I went to turn into the left lane from a T intersection, but realised my mistake in time…the oncoming cars are a good indicator.

After a month as a Canadian driver I thought I had got the hang of things…until today!!! Donny and I had just explored this amazing ice canyon when I got bogged…then locked the keys in the car with the engine running.  It was an hours walk back to a phone where we called a tow truck. What a day.

Other quirky Canadian driving phenomena are:

No roundabouts – instead they use 4 way stop intersections (so slow, but cheaper to build I guess)
Turning right at a red light is legal
Cars always stop and give way to pedestrians (something us Aussies never do)
It’s law to have your headlights on at all times

Snow drifts – where snow blows across the road in fascinating ripples

Before you can drive you need to scrape/brush the ice/snow off the glass

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Sometimes its just snow but here it’s ice

And there’s these big snow ploughs that hoot along

Snow plough chasing me
Snow plough chasing me

Sleeping in an igloo

Some would say crazy, others stupid but I say why not? Yes it was cold and I had a terrible sleep but now I’ve slept in an ice box and lived to tell the tale.

It was a little chilly outside, a crisp -16 (it was in the -20’s the night before). I never found out what the reading was inside but I’ll put it this way… even dressed like I was going skiing and in a double sleeping bag it was on the colder side of comfortable, “sleepable” though. I felt as if I was a caterpillar in a cocoon with the sleeping bag tightened around me.

I didn't have far to run back to the hostel in the morning
I didn’t have far to run back to the hostel in the morning

To be specific this is a quinzhee rather than an igloo. A quinzhee is built by hollowing out a pile of hardened snow whereas an igloo is made by cutting and assembling blocks. Quinzhee’s are more of a temporary shelter that might be used in survival situations and igloos are more permanent yet take more time and energy to build. This one was already built when I arrived, in the near future I plan on taking a shot at building an igloo!

Fortunately no bears, cougars or wolves had taken a fancy to my bed
Fortunately no bears, cougars or wolves had taken a fancy to my bed

Cross country skiing in Jasper

So here I am in “outdoorsy” Jasper in the north of the Canadian Rockies. Before getting here I’d read all about how Jasper is “wildlife central” but nevertheless it still surprised me to see a herd of elk roaming the main street when I arrived. They sometimes come into town at night to use humans as protection from wolves, smart!

The drive up from Lake Louise sure was brilliant; it’s called the Icefields Parkway and is one of the most scenic drives in the world. 230km of snow-capped peaks, lakes and glaciers. I’ve posted some pictures into Canada Snaps!

It’s been almost a week and todays the first day that I haven’t been out and about either skiing or walking on water – well ice to be exact but water sounds better right?

Maligne Canyon icewalk is one of Jasper’s main attractions and it sure was a fun and slippery experience. These huge frozen waterfalls were majestic and our group even got to wriggle into a cave – as Andy from Australia rightly pointed out “we’ve now been in the Rockies too”.

15/12/12 - One of a few frozen 20+ metre waterfalls at Maligne Canyon
15/12/12 – One of a few frozen 20+ metre waterfalls at Maligne Canyon
Walking on water at Maligne Canyon
15/12/12 – Walking on water at Maligne Canyon

Then there was skiing…again. Last time I had skied was four long years ago so I had to recall all the muscle memory I could when I went skiing at Marmot Basin with Andy – bit of a stretch? No way!

Surprising myself even, I was back on some black runs by lunch – albeit not with the style or flair of some…

This skier shows me how it's done
This skier shows me how it’s done at Marmot Basin

One of the most memorable days in Jasper so far would have to be giving cross country skiing a go for the first time. No doubt it’s a tough sport. Think of it as a cross between speed walking, sliding on timber floors wearing socks and skiing. It’s all about the glideeeeee.

I just so happened to go with two Canadians who had been cross country skiing for nearly ten years so they were fast. They said I did really well so gotta be happy with that. Boy I was happy to get back to the car though, 19km and 5 hours later. We saw plenty of wolf and cougar tracks but no sightings of the wily beasts – maybe not a bad thing?

18/12/12 - Keeping up with the two speedsters.
18/12/12 – Keeping up with the two speedsters, Andes and Bree, on the ski to Moab Lake

Something I didn’t know beforehand (but realised straight away) was how dark the skies are here. In fact the dark skies have been officially recognised and Jasper National Park is the largest Dark Sky Preserve in the world. Great for star gazing but northern lights are still quite rare here. Come on northern lights!

“Moose”ing about

What an awesome experience! Just me and a moose in an up close and personal encounter for nearly half an hour.

Here’s how the story unfolded…

I went for a drive to Spray Lakes in search of a “photogenic” sunset. What? No sun? The sun didn’t come out at all. Oh well I thought – another day.

Then as I was walking back to the car I spotted a prime “car photo” opportunity. So I jumped in and moved around into perfect position – wheels turned and all.

Camera in hand, I jumped out and started running down the snow covered road for the photo. “Woah”! I stopped in my tracks. Something big, brown and tall about 100 metres away.

A moose! It’s elongated horse-like head gave it away straight up. What else did I see? No antlers. Mrs Moose.

I scurried back to the car pretty quick though I can tell you that. My first thought was I can drive up and get a photo out the window. But then I remembered what Damien had told me.

So I stayed in the car, windows up, just a tad anxious as it was coming.

12/12/12 - I see it approaching!
12/12/12 – It’s coming!

Next thing I know I’ve got a big moose licking the boot. I can see it in the rearview. Yep Damien was right! Moose love licking cars. Random I know but I’ve since found out it’s for the salt.

I figured what could possibly go wrong… so cautiously opened my door and hopped out. As I moved around the car to get a photo so did she. Always one eye on me and one tongue on the car.

12/12/12 - Huh?
12/12/12 – Big alright hey. See where she’s licked already?

She was a peaceful giant though, if I moved towards her she would back off and run away. Then slowly and carefully amble back to the (unbeknownst to me) astronomic salt supply. But as you can see I got really close, only a metre or two away. Amazing stuff.

12/12/12 - Just me and a moose
12/12/12 – Just me and a moose
12/12/12 - Compare the pair
12/12/12 – Compare the pair