Thursday, March 6, 2014


I am sewing a couple of sails for our kayaks. It is slow, somewhat painstaking work which I am trying to do right the first time. While I am cutting, piecing and sewing my mind has been wandering back across all the strange and quirky, strong and determined people I have met in my outdoor career, a few of whom, are remembered here. 

In the winter of 1987, after I had just finished my midwifery certificate in Devonport, Tasmania, I walked the iconic Overland Track from Lake St Clair to Cradle Mountain over 5 or 6 days (I can't remember which). We started out as a group of five, one of the other nurses in my midwifery course and her husky policeman husband, one of my room-mates (unfortunately, the unfit one), and my room-mate's sister. Almost 30 years later I can only remember the name of the other nurse (Debbie). Debbie wasn't all that strong and also suffered from asthma. On the first night of the trip, after we had been ploughing through Tasmanian bog all day in the pouring rain, she had a bad asthma attack and Debbie and hubbie decided to turn back. The three of us continued on through typical Tasmanian winter weather, rain, wind, rain, snow, wind, rain, wind and rain for the next several days. My room-mate turned out to be a real whiner, but her sister was probably one of the strongest women I have ever met. She was built like a line-backer with huge shoulders and upper back, and big stocky legs. Over the course of our walk, I came to admire her greatly. A year or two before she had paddled a single sea kayak, with a group of men, across Bass Strait from Tasmania to Melbourne. This trip is done reasonably frequently these days, but, 30 years ago, this was a pioneering journey. I spent the long hut evenings questioning her about sea kayaking. Although she was tremendously accomplished, she downplayed all her achievements, a trait I have since recognized in all really adept outdoor adventurers.

 Doug leading the crux pitch of Will The Wolf Survive
Portero Chico, Mexico

That same year, I met a young doctor doing locums around the island. We both worked odd hours and so spent time exploring the Tasmanian wilderness on mornings before afternoon shifts, or on the days off after night shifts. David was the first person I met who planned big walking expeditions (he was one of the first white men to walk through the now famous Bungle Bungles) and could navigate through, what appeared to me, featureless forest. At the time, I really couldn't read a map or use a compass at all, but, I was in awe at how he managed to lead us from one valley to another, up a peak, and over a ridgeline, using a bit of paper and a magnetic dial. I got my first navigation lessons from David. I wasn't very well equipped in those days and used to return from our forays in the Tasmanian highlands battered, scratched and bruised, which excited much comment from my fellow midwifery students, all of whom were much more sedate than I was.

Doug was one of the first people I met when I moved to Canada, and the stories of our adventures fill many pages of this blog. Together we have survived climbing accidents, avalanches, wild weather at sea and on land, crevasse incidents, torn ligaments, weight loss and semi-starvation from too little or no food, and, we've had a few good times too. Doug has always been my best teacher, my biggest support and my best friend. 

 Robin on the Hurley River Horseshoe traverse

But, I met some other really interesting people in Canada, including Rick Collier, who I had the privilege of accompanying on many adventures. It was through Rick that we first met Robin Tivy and Betsy Waddington. In 2002, Robin organised a week long ski traverse into Mount Elaho for “Bivouac” members, and through Rick, who rarely left his beloved Rockies (and didn't leave on that occasion) Doug and I were invited along. This was our first ski traverse in the Coast Mountains, our other big traverses had been through the Rockies or Selkirks, and we suddenly realised how magnificently well suited the Coast Mountains are for ski mountaineering expeditions. Initially, however, we thought Robin was mad. We started our six day trip in the middle of May. In the Rockies, skiing sucks in the middle of May. You might get an hour or two in the very early morning when the snowpack is frozen and you can actually travel, but, once the day really begins, the snowpack falls apart and travel becomes virtually impossible. On previous traverses in the Rockies and Selkirks, we had suffered through isothermal conditions as early as mid-April and had barely been able to travel at a kilometre an hour. 

Robin is, as any one who knows him will agree, if not mad, at least outrageously eccentric. He is also one of the most entertaining, albeit maddening people I've ever met. Every year since 2002, we have done a traverse with Robin and Betsy and these trips quickly became the highlight of our ski year. Each traverse featured a motif that mushroomed out of Robin's psyche and became inextricably woven into the fabric of our week together. On the Elaho trip, it was the Incident Command Post, on the Hurley Horseshoe it was the sinking of the Queen of the North ferry, on the Maligne Range traverse it was “this isn't a retirement home, it's a prison camp.” Each April, when Doug and I were planning that year's ski traverse, we would always wonder what the motif for the upcoming trip would be. It was impossible to guess. 

Betsy hauling all her own gear and Robin's gear on the Maligne Range traverse

Betsy is another one of those strong women that I feel fortunate to have met. While not a technical climber, Betsy will give anything a go, and has amazing inner determination and strength. In 1996, Betsy's husband Brian was tragically killed on a 21 day ski traverse of the Monarch Icefield, and, after the accident, Betsy and the other lone survivor skied four days out to civilization. I've been on many trips with Betsy who is generally quiet and reserved while the rest of us are loud and boisterous – verging at times on the obnoxious - but, when Betsy speaks, we all listen because we know that whatever she has to say will be of great value. The list of Betsy's mountain accomplishments is long and impressive, but, she too, downplays her many achievements.

Hamish on Reflections, one of his new routes at Whirlwind Wall, Castlegar, BC

In Nelson, Doug and I had the good fortune to become friends with Hamish Mutch, best known for climbing University Wall with Tim Auger, Dan Tate, and Glen Woodsworth in 1966. Hamish first started climbing at the age of 15, and, over 50 years later he is still putting up new routes around his home town of Nelson, BC. The list of Hamish's first ascents, both in the mountains and at local crags is simply astonishing. One of my favorite mountaineering camps was in the Findlay Group of the Purcell Mountains where Doug, Hamish and I camped high up in a hanging valley and went out climbing every day. Each evening, Hamish would regale us with tales from his misspent climbing youth, and, after that trip, we dubbed him Uncle H., a moniker that spread throughout the local climbing community. Hamish must have been over 50 at the time, but I was hard pressed to keep up with him, particularly on the loose technical mountain terrain where he moved like a mountain goat. I can remember soloing a low fifth class route behind him, wishing I could catch him as I really would have liked a belay, but Hamish had the rope tucked away in his backpack. 

The greatest gift of life is friendship, and I have received it.” H. H. Humphrey. Take some time out of your day to remember all your wonderful friends.

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