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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

10:46 a.m. - An Englishwoman on Mount English

When my alarm rang out at 6am, my brain convinced me it could see bright sunlight out the window. Sadly, when I came round for real this was not the case. We set up the couch in the toad and made our tea behind closed doors watching the rain running down the window. We packed our stuff into our rucsacs for the last time then huddled under the tarp to wait for the others to catch up. Ha ha! I won the largest pack competition.

In fairness, the weather was not extreme. It was drizzling lightly on and off.

We set off through the forest to calls of, “Wo! I lost the trail here” as we immediately began to crash through the undergrowth and, “Hey! I’m getting my boots dirty!”

With instructions to meet at the lake if any of us got separated we continued to trudge up hill close to the stream. Really though, we all kept in fairly close contact except for a few, including Hubby who was feeling rather fragile from 2 Old Speckled Hens and the tinned dog-food we ate last night. At one point I joked, “OK Who’s pushed Hubby off a cliff?” and expected 5 instant marriage proposals for the car but thankfully he caught us up.

Once at the lake we all hit a breakdown moment. The cameras came out because suddenly there was something to look at instead of just trees. The mountain rose steeply from the other side of the little tarn and our route was actually exposed to us for a while so we snapped it whilst we could. A few broke into song of, “You are my sunshine” which worked for a moment and even the Monty Python lines were flying, “I’m not dead yet…”.

I found out a new thing about Canadian Mountaineers – they don’t like to get their boots wet as they tiptoed around the shores of the lake and I splooshed along behind. So long as your wax is good and your gaiters are tight – where’s the harm? As I followed Brenda through the meadows I also found myself musing how odd that she should be carrying an ice axe in one loop of her rucksack and folded umbrella in the other. Forgive me but I believe any English mountaineer with an umbrella would be laughed off the hillside but sure enough, when we stopped for lunch 6 umbrellas came out – 4 held by Canadians and one by Chris who was from Tenby, Pembrokeshire but has been Canadianised (and yes the resemblance is frightening). Carla and I mused that this is definitely a Canadian thing and Chris explained that it’s a great idea which just wouldn’t work in England because you’d either be holding your brolly at 90 degrees to vertical to stop the horizontal rain or fighting to keep the wind from dragging you away. Fair point. The other was held by Geoff (with the Co Durham accent) who ate his lunch under his umbrella in his tee but then he is a life-long hardened mountaineer that’s seen the worst the North of England and Scotland can throw at a man.

Beyond the lunch stop the meadows were littered with yellow and white flowers, providing great, though a little guilty, skipping potential. So many flowers you couldn’t avoid stepping on them with every footstep… until we reached the snow line. Altitude was starting to hurt so I dug out my ice axe for something to lean on and less weight on my pack and off we went, wheezing a little.

The gentle slopes soon gave way to 45 degrees and pink streaks of algae growing on the snow made for an interesting display. I realised I have never seen this in England because the snow doesn’t stay around long enough. I’ve never seen it in Europe because I’ve never really been off-piste to such an extent.

Two of the club kindly hung around at the back for me and hubby to be unfit - though I was pretending of course. I demonstrated this by hanging off the back to cut myself a wee-lay ledge on the downhill side of the only rock bluff for 200m, waited for Steve to pass then relieved myself on the most comfy wee-lay ledge I’ve ever known. The view was excellent too so I multitasked and took a photo or two (yes, I was desperate so I had time). Then I caught everyone up again and huffed and puffed to the saddle. The whole gang was waiting ready for the joy of screes where we marveled at a few determined little pine trees clinging to the edge desperately sucking what oxygen they could from the air – reminded me a little bit of how I was feeling.

At the bottom of a rock bluff, Steve and Cat were waiting for us again, calling, “The Burger King is still open if you hurry”. I protested that I’m more of a Wendy’s kinda girl (better salad). We skirted the rock bluff and attained the final ridge via another snow slope and it was snow all the way to the top on a path about 3 feet wide – one of those spectacular moments when you come to a quick stop because you know if you step any further you could be in trouble. When I reached the top I said, “Hmph, this is just like England – get to the summit and it’s packed” but it was just my 15 companions waiting to give me a high-five and take some pictures. But let’s face it, it could’ve been anywhere for there was no view.

I didn’t need my down coat so could’ve escaped the biggest-pack award, though I did need my goretex mits to keep my hands warm and that made eating crisps difficult so I gave up and resorted to cereal bars.

The descent of the scree was awkward – slippery lichen, snow and sharp rocks made it slow so it was my turn to hang at the back and make sure Australian Robin was OK as she was a little nervous on her feet. One couldn’t take all that pain without a little pleasure and so came the 500 ft bum slide to the meadows. On and on. Hubby collided with me legs either side shouting “farster farster!” and off we went. Enough speed for foot steering, practicing axe-arrests and taking air over the final jump. YEAH! Sometimes being at the back with everyone smoothing the path is way better than climbing in someone else’s steps.

Of course, no sooner had we left the summit than the clouds lifted and we could see the far side of the mountain range. Beautiful it was. It occurred to me that most mountaineers get into trouble on the descent, not because they’re tired but because Murphy’s law indicates that the clouds always lift after they’ve left the summit and they’re too busy admiring the view to watch their footing. The meadows with yellow flowers extended up the other side of the valley. Snow lined gullies and a towering ridge faced off against us like an angry tidal wave. Andy surfed past me in the snow on his belly and Brenda objected to my suggestion that she slide down the slope sitting in her umbrella – just because it had a steering column.

The descent was otherwise fairly uneventful. We trudged down fairly deliberately to make it to the car in time to run Deren back to Lumby and get home by midnight (only! Ha! I was so tired). When we got home we collapsed into bed so fast we didn’t really have time to enjoy the come-down though I am still enjoying the pain today.

I had a fantastic trip full of the things that I have missed so much over the last couple of years since we last went on an IMC meet. At the same time, this trip (I am sorry to IMC members for this) was much better in a way. I felt little pressure to conform, not conform, be funny, be drunk, sleep with anyone. It was all about the mountain and the atmosphere. Sure we had a beer or too and exchanged long tall tales but no-one was embarrassed to talk about climbing, their jobs or the fact that they’d seen a Canada Goose nesting in an Osprey’s nest last week.

I also got the impression that I was surrounded by some of the most experienced mountaineers / back country skiers / best athletes in BC but no-one was saying anything too loudly. And they were athletes. I’m glad of all my running now and I really hope to see them again very soon.

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