Day 1: Friday
This story doesn’t start with an alarm clock; it starts with a mad rush from class. I switch out my school bag for my 60L backpack, my jeans for nylon hiking pants and my Converse for waterproof hiking boots. I run across campus and jump the puddle in front of Walter Gage as Roland’s blue Jeep pulls up to the curb. Four of us stuff our bags into the trunk and squish into the back seat. Introductions are made and we excitedly discuss the upcoming weekend. Apprehension can be heard in everyone’s voices as the weather report calls for rain all weekend. But for now, that’s just a report on our phones, and where we are going, phones don’t hold much weight.
Roland tells us the stories of every mountain, river and gully we pass as we drive north. Our car is heading up to Phelix Creek and the Tolkien Range so we can spend the Thanksgiving long weekend hiking.
After hours of driving, we pull off the road to fill up the car with gas and our stomachs with McDonalds in Pemberton and then hit the road again. It is nearly dark and it begins to rain. The road narrows the farther from civilization we go, eventually squeezing into a single lane, dirt logging road. It’s now pitch black and rain is coming down hard. We pull off the road and scramble to set up two tents as fast as we can, before the rain soaks everything. Then we snuggle into our sleeping bags and settle in for a night of ninja camping — camping somewhere where camping isn’t explicitly allowed or disallowed.
Day 2: Saturday
I wake up to an elbow hitting me. Jonathan, whose sleeping bag was next to mine, is pulling on layer after layer. I grumble as I pull my sleeping bag off and wiggle into all of my clothes. Roland has a pot of boiling water. I pour some over my oatmeal and sit on a stump to eat breakfast. I look around; I am surrounded by mountains and trees that are just beginning to change colour. I’m slightly disoriented as we arrived in the dark and I had no reference from the night before.
We take down the tents, repack our bags and jump back in the car. Then, under Roland’s control, we hurtle up the dirt logging road to the trailhead. I am silently thankful that the car is four-wheel drive and we don’t have to hike the five kilometres to the trailhead. I also hold my seat, scared to death that one loose rock will slip under the car’s weight and we will hurtle into the creek.
It is, of course, raining when we reach the trail. So we throw on our rain jackets and shoulder our packs full of food for the next three days, layers to keep warm and a sleeping bag and mat. To reach the trail, we need to cross a stream. In an attempt to keep our boots dry, we scuttle across a log bridge slick with Pacific Northwestern rain.
There is a little more to walk along the logging road before we enter a field. The brush towers over my head. The rain has stopped but the plants are covered and as I walk through the field, I am showered with every step. We clear the field and then the switchbacks start. A muddy path carves its way through evergreens, turning nearly 180 degrees every few metres. Mud wraps around my boots and pulls, trying to steal my shoes. It is slow going and we stop often to shed layers, take a drink of water, or replenish calories through a handful of granola or a cereal bar.
After about two hours of hiking, the switchbacks level and the trees clear, but the visibility doesn’t improve. We are encompassed in fog so thick that it’s hard to see the person hiking in front. But we trust the trail and continue, eventually coming to a simple metal bridge that crosses a stream. I take it slowly, the bridge is soaked in dew and my boots barely find grip. I step down on the other side of the bridge and am surprised to find myself on a beach, sand and all. We have reached Long Lake. We follow the beach around until our little blue hut at the foot of two mountains comes into sight. Gratefully we toss our bags on the ground, pull our wet socks out of our shoes and crack open lunch.
With only four people to warm the hut, the cold quickly creeps in and we head back out to warm up. We start scrambling (hiking with the use of your hands) up a mountain behind the cabin, but it soon becomes obvious that our route won’t get us very far, so we head back to the hut just in time to meet up with the second carful of hikers to make it to the hut. Four of us grab our helmets and decide to scramble up a different peak, one we think is called Cabin Hill. It is far from a hill. We climb hard for an hour and it pays off. As soon as we summit, the clouds clear for a few minutes and we are treated to a view of Long Lake, the hut, Mt. Gandalf and Mt. Aragorn (the latter two named by the Varsity Outdoors Club in the 1970s). The plan for tomorrow is to hike Mt. Gandalf and then walk across the ridge to Mt. Aragorn before returning to the cabin. While I’m excited by the prospect, I can’t help but notice the snow covered peak and vertical cliffs; it’s going to be a hard hike.
After soaking in the sun and the view, our little expedition heads back down to the cabin. The rest of the crew has arrived and everyone busies themselves by pulling out camping stoves and food for dinner. I warm up some soup over my burner and listen to people take turns on the hut’s old guitar. Before long the day’s hike sinks in and everyone heads to bed. The cabin has two floors, the second an open space that allows the sixteen of us to comfortably spread out. Instead, we huddle together in the corners to stay warm.
I pull off my jackets and slip into my sleeping bag, drawing it tight over my shoulders. Someone gets up to blow out the candles and smacks their head on the low crossbeams. Everyone’s chuckles fade into silence, and before long the room is full of gentle breathing and loud snoring.
Day 3: Sunday
I reluctantly turn over in my sleeping bag and look out the tiny window. I can’t see anything. The fog is covering everything. But there is little I can do about the weather, so I climb down the ladder and warm up some more oatmeal before rushing to pack my bag for the long day ahead. I pack minimally, no need to carry extra weight up the mountain. Some pepperoni, cheese sticks and tortilla for lunch. My raincoat, extra layers, gloves, my helmet and a hat all get shoved in the bag. As usual, I’m the last to leave the hut and meet the others out front.
The hike to Upper Lake is easy and people tell bad Lord of the Rings jokes. After an hour, we reach the end of the lake, and on top of a rock we see Roland, who had disappeared ahead of the group, dressed in a bright orange rain jacket and toque.
He had been reborn as Roland the Orange, and he warned of the trails that lay ahead of us: “It looks like a rock garden from hell.” I share a glance with the hiker next to me, wondering how to interpret the warning. Someone asked Roland if he was going to hike up Gandalf with us. “No, I have to go eat my avocado in the cabin.” Fair enough. Everyone else straps on their helmets and marches forward.
The going is slow and the group soon breaks up into a faster group and a slower one. I stay with the slower one and scramble up several hundred metres of rock with Tim, a fellow VOCer. The terrain changes from rocky to wet alpine brush and back. It begins to rain. I constantly look up and down, judging the distance we have covered and still have left to cover. It takes ages before I can see that we’ve made any progress. Eventually we reach the col (the lowest point of a ridge between two peaks). I pull on some extra layers. Everyone is excited when they see enough snow to start throwing snowballs at each other. We are still only about halfway up, the steepest parts yet to come.
Climbing the ridge up to Mt. Gandalf is surreal. The ridge is five to ten metres wide, covered in snow and short evergreens, and both sides drop straight down hundreds of metres. As Tim and I carefully pick our way up, it begins to snow. I huddle behind a rock, shove some food into my mouth and pull on my gloves and winter coat. After a nerve-wracking hour of climbing, we reach the end of the ridge and are on the final stretch. It’s snowing so hard that the group has to stay in shouting distance of each other. If someone were to go farther, it would be incredibly hard to find them again.
We meet up with the group that went ahead and they tell us they couldn’t find a way to the summit or to Mt. Aragorn. 20 more minutes of scrambling up snowy rocks and across narrow trails yields no new route, so we decide to head back. But there is a problem; our path has been covered by fresh snow. Martin, staying calm, pulls out his GPS and we retrace our steps back to the ridge. We hike down to the col at a near run, trying to avoid being stuck in the worst of the snow. At the bottom, everyone takes a breather and stops for lunch. We still have half the hike down to go, but we’ve escaped from the steepest and snowiest part of Gandalf the White.
As we hike back down the snow turns to sleet and finally rain. I stumble back into the cabin, drop my dripping bag on to the floor and pull off my drenched boots and socks. I’m convinced to go swimming in the lake so I strip off all my clothes and sprint into the water. I’ve never moved faster than after that dunk. I sprint back into the cabin and dive into my sleeping bag. I curse those who convinced me to go swimming but I know that it was worth it, it’s type II fun in its purest form (the VOC defines type II fun as “something you don’t enjoy at the time, but will in retrospect and will probably do again”). I warm up, eventually, and my food tastes as if it had come fresh from the kitchen of a five star restaurant, even though the rice is crunchy and the pasta is watery.
Tonight is special. Clemens hauled up a box of wine and a bottle of rum to make Feuerzangenbowle, (say that five times fast) a German mulled wine made by pouring rum onto a sugar cone suspended above warm, spiced wine. Occasionally, the rum catches fire and everyone is treated to a fireworks display. The wine is finally finished and everyone grabs a mug (or bowl, for those who forgot their mugs) and enjoys the warm alcohol.
Day 4: Monday
I’m woken by the hiss of air being pushed out of deflating sleeping mats. I make myself some — you guessed it — oatmeal, enjoying the warm sludge far less than I did on the first day. Everyone packs their bags, now significantly lighter and wetter, and we head out. I hike most of the way down in silence, the closest hiker just out of my sight. It gives me time to enjoy the serenity of the backcountry. I reach the stream and don’t even bother crossing the bridge. I just trudge through the muddy creek; I’m so soaked I don’t even notice. Everyone agrees to friend everyone else on Facebook and share pictures. I climb into the jeep and fade in and out of sleep as we drive back towards Vancouver through the heavy rain.
I’m not writing this to show off or brag about what I accomplished. I’m writing this to tell you that you can do it too. Some people on the trip had never been on a hike before, and yet they survived and enjoyed the experience. Sure, it sucks having wet socks and cold fingers and eating oatmeal for breakfast every morning, but as soon as I had showered and crawled under my duvet, I started dreaming about heading back out to the wilderness. Smartphones, laptops and Facebook are great, but it isn’t what we humans were built for. We were built to climb mountains, drink fresh water from mountain streams and explore our beautiful planet. We were built to adventure — so go find one.