Thursday, September 4, 2014

Just Bad Attitudes

Rockwall Trail
Type: Traverse (hitch hike back to your car)
Distance: 53km (according to my watch, 55 according to the signs)
Elevation Gain: 2600m (N-S)

The Rockwall trail is just off of Highway 93, just south of the Trans Canada. It's a 55km traverse that has five different campgrounds along its length and most people do it in between four and six days, loaded down with big packs. The trail can also be done in a day if you like long days and you're into that sort of thing.

Seemed like a fun challenge.

Katherine and I took a stab at the Rockwall in a day idea a couple of weeks back. Katherine's still recovering from a badly sprained ankle she got a couple of months back so clearly blitzing the Rockwall was a good idea. No chance of aggravating it there. We had reasonably good weather and thanks to good trail conditions, we managed to move at a nice consistent speed.

Helmet Falls and the start of the vertical rock faces you follow for most of the day.
When we got to Numa Creek which sits at the 35km mark, we we were losing daylight fast, and thanks to our shitty blend of shitty navigation on beautifully marked trails, we'd managed to add a couple of kilometres of detours into the mix. We decided the safe and responsible thing that wouldn't have us hiking a significant distance by headlamp would be to walk out the Numa Creek trail which connects to Highway 93 and skip the last pass to Floe Lake. Doing the 'smart and responsible' thing isn't usually our style, but we decided that a beer and a burger in Banff sounded better than huddling under an emergency blanket in the rain. While we didn't do the full trail, we'd done most of it. It was a 44km, 1700m elevation gain day and we'd done it in eleven hours.

I was stoked that we had a killer day, but I felt like I had unfinished business with that trail. I wasn't tired enough at the end of the day and I have a mental disease where I like to do things to their farthest logical extent (hence my Ph.D.) so bailing before the end was sort of eating at me. It had also been stunningly beautiful and I wanted to see Floe Lake which I'd heard was worth seeing and ducking up the other end of the trail some weekend just seemed like cheating. You know what makes you appreciate a pretty lake? Suffering for a bunch of hours to get there. And as everyone knows, suffering is a synonym for happiness.

This past Sunday, I headed back to Rockwall to see if I couldn't do the full traverse. I went solo this time though. I'm not really an Ultra Runner, I'm more on the 'fat but determined' side of things, so I knew I'd be too slow for the really fast movers. On the flip side, I don't really know any hikers other than maybe Katherine who would be willing to move that fast and until her ankle heals, trying to run long distances on uneven trails is sort of a no-no for her.

So, solo I go. The real upshot to a solo mission is that you get to go at your most efficient pace all day without having to adapt to someone else. The downside is that if anything happens, you're in trouble. Oh, and bears - being a party of one, moving quickly, you don't really let the bears know you're coming and you're less intimidating to them when you run into them. And moose. Moose are just fucking terrifying.

Trying not to drive off the road with views like that is tough - luckily the road is basically dead straight until you get to Canmore.
My attempt at the Rockwall, in a day, solo, was one of the best days I've ever had in the mountains that didn't involve skis. There wasn't any technical interest in the day - you're just loping along; what made it such a great day was the contrasts, the variety, the time spent in my own head and the amazingly diverse people you meet out on the trail.

The mountains are so varied that sometimes it feels like you pick a feature and go visit it. I want to see glaciers today. I want alpine meadows. I want giant rock faces. It's the same thing with the weather - you get a day of sunshine, or a day of rain, or a day of snow. During my attempt at the Rockwall, I got more variety than I've ever gotten in a day before.

I started off in sunshine, but got soaked running through bushes holding onto the last night's rain as I ran from the Marble Canyon trailhead to Helmet Creek. I hiked through open trees and light rain up to Helmet falls. I had freezing rain as I crossed bellow the Rockwall itself, dwarfed by a massive, uninterrupted rock face that towered above me. As I went over Tumbling Pass I was confronted with desolate, empty alpine meadow as I got pelted by wind and graupel. Descending to Numa Creek, the trail had degenerated to ankle deep mud choked by alder and bushes. Seriously, for several kilometres, my shoes would completely disappear into the mud with every step and everything was so choked with sopping wet bushes that I couldn't just parallel the trail.

I stood at the top of Numa Pass surrounded by nothing but crumbling rock punctuated by a (ridiculously self indulgent and self congratulatory) cairn adorned with prayer flags (it's a pass, it doesn't need a giant frickin cairn). The sun was starting to get lower in the sky. That amazing, contrasty light I'd had for my morning drive was back.

Dropping down from Numa pass to Floe Lake I gawked at the intense blue colour of the water. As I walked and jogged the final few kilometres out Floe Creek back to Highway 93, I had clear skies with the last sunshine of the day illuminating the fireweed that choked the old burn the trail bisects.

I had sun, I had clouds, I had wind, rain, snow. I crossed creeks, open trees, trees choked with bushes, alpine scrub, talus, lakes, rock faces and water falls. I wasn't as tired as I'd hoped I'd be, my feeling is that if you aren't so tired you sleep in your car, you didn't have a big enough day, but at least I'd appeased my need to complete the trail.

We always hope for good weather. We want blazing sunshine and comfortable temperatures. We hope we won't have to pull the hard shells or puffy layers out our packs and we feel almost let down, or cheated when the weather isn't ideal. There's an old Scandinavian saying that MEC co-opted for an advertising slogan a while back - 'There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes'. My day on the Rockwall made me think the saying is actually wrong. I had the best gear - super breathable hard shell, amazingly grippy trail runners, ultra-light puffy layers and I was as happy as I've ever been. I saw other people with fancy, expensive gear like mine complaining about the mud and rain, looking truly miserable. But, I watched one couple, out of shape, hauling heavy gear, wearing garbage bag ponchos smile and laugh at the water pooling on their packs. They were enjoying themselves not despite the weather - I think they were enjoying themselves because of the weather. The saying should be 'There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad attitudes'.

The mountains owe us nothing. We are profoundly lucky that our lives are so easy that we can choose to go and suffer out there. Yea, getting rained off a route sucks, but every day in the mountains is a godamned good day. Shitty weather is just an opportunity to do something different and a day that lets you experience so much, so quickly is just frickin epic.
The day that had it all - even some sunshine on top of Numa Pass
I'm stoked that I did the Rockwall in a day. Despite weather that few people would call 'ideal', it was one of my best days ever in the mountains. It reminded me about what I love about being out there. Pushing myself, the sense of accomplishment at completing an objective, the sense of unity with my surroundings, being inside my own head for hours. It reminded me that there's no such thing as bad weather and that attitude is everything.

You can get my GPS track, elevation profile, embarrassing heart rate and speed profile and other trip details from MovesCount.

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