Hello readers of the MLP Blog!
I hope your holding on, because you’re about to experience the uncultured product of my inaugural plunge into the mysterious realm of blogging! A wise individual (Mandy) once said, “the key to happiness is to keep your standards low”. As I forge my way into these first few paragraphs I’m beginning to hope blog readers follow a similar mantra. Pulling together something in the free form land of blogging has been a challenge after semesters hemmed in by the rigorous structure of academic papers. What exactly is this thing that I am writing? Is it a journal? Is it an essay? Is it a pseudo news article for my very own imaginary paper! I’m not really sure, but I guess we’ll soon find out. Whatever this turns out to be, I’ll do my best to bring you up to speed on our adventures and perhaps provide some entertainment with tales of our antics in the field.
Hope you enjoy reading about our exploits and following along as I explore the world of Blog!
Where to begin? Already, the unstoppable Lesley has dug well into the task of Blogging and my efforts to catch up have been so far been unsuccessful. However, with some persuasion, I’ve secured the task of summarizing our escapades since our arrival at the Elbow Fire Base on May 22. Which, I suppose, suggests a natural starting point: that cold and miserable day at the Elbow.
Alright, the weather wasn’t that dismal, but after the 30 degree weather and sunshine we were enjoying throughout BC it was a rough transition. On the bright side, those first few days gave us the time to do some much needed field prep work. Which included the vital task of triangulating the 25-odd stations where the photographs were taken from. Fortunately, we had some help from the legendary Rob Watt, and pinpointed almost all of the locations without much trouble. (Nevertheless, there still remain a few mystery, low-elevation stations tucked in the hills by Longview).
While we finished up our mapping efforts, it quickly became apparent that Wheelers 1989 survey covered ground further south than we had first anticipated. Accordingly, after a spending a short week longer at the Elbow, the crew migrated south to our favorite fire base: the Livingstone Gap.
Hold on, I’m getting ahead of my self here, before we left the Elbow two important things happened: Eric came to visit, and we had hover exit training!
Eric’s visit was fantastic, as always he was happy to offer insight into the complex world MLP fieldwork (Lesley’s field notes, written under Eric’s close supervision, still standout as an impressive example of fine note taking!).
During Eric’s visit, Rick Arthur dropped by and, since the weather wasn’t the best, decided it would be good fun to inflict a two-hour reconnaissance helicopter ride on us! Admittedly, The first half-hour where Rick outlined the plans for the Mt Nestor prescribed burn were fascinating, and the Spray Lakes area is as beautiful from the air as it is from the ground, so it wasn’t all terrible. Even so, I’m sure that I’m not the only one who’ll admit that it was nice to be back on solid ground, once again in contention with the computers, the following day.
Despite the numerous rainy days in the office, we still managed to get to a few great stations with Eric. On the list: Fluhopps, Pine Tree, Hester Signal Hill, H-South as well as a gorgeous day on Plateau.
On the 27th, Rick and Rob once again joined us for a day in the field. Along with Eric and the rest of the crew we convoyed south to Plateau Mountain. After some confusion, missed connections and time spent waiting around for Rick and Eric, the whole crew converged on a snowy PetroCanada lease road as it snaked across the top of Plateau. It turns out Eric and Rick’s late arrival was due to some impromptu schmoozing with the PetroCan guys. We’ll happily forgive them for their tardiness, as this stop off ended up producing a key to all the PetroCanada gates in the area as well as an interesting morning of Sour Gas training the following week! But lets get back to Plateau: this area is an incredibly unique place. As the name implies, the mountain is both very high and very flat. It wasn’t long before we discovered that these features are not only picturesque, but are perfect for wind!
Eric, Lesley and I headed to a station on the southwest corner of the summit and made our way up to a striking cairn, poised on the edge of a massive amphitheater cutting into the side of Plateau. This impressive bowl acted as a perfect funnel, driving the already stiff winds straight at us. Not the most ideal conditions to demonstrate our suave field skills to Eric, but an exciting day regardless. The attached video and photographs will give you a far better idea of the conditions than I can here.
It still amazes me that, at the peak of the wind bursts, we were feeling 92.6 Km/h winds! Imagine standing on the hood of your car driving 92.6km. Then try taking photographs.
By the end of the day everyone was a little wind burnt, but it was a lot of fun and the images turned out fine. There is nothing quite like leaning in close to the power of the earth; it never fails to show us what it means to feel alive.
Most of the remaining stations were considerably tamer than Plateau, often beautiful, low elevation summits awash with meadow flowers overlain onto vistas of the foothills and the snow-covered Rockies. Despite our best efforts, we were unsuccessful in wearing Eric out with either our endless questions or the array of hikes we threw at him. Perhaps we’ll have more success once we have a few more months of hiking under out belt! We’re already looking forward to his next visit and can only hope it will include more great days in the field (Mandy is no doubt thinking “and ones with horses too!”).
Hover Exit Training:
The other notable event at the Elbow was Hover Exit Training. After several questionable “landings” in the helicopter last year, it was decided that the crew needed some official SRD training. I’m sure the fact that it meant we would be climbing in and out of a hovering helicopter for an afternoon had absolutely no influence on the decision.
Following the obligatory morning of dry handouts, malfunctioning PowerPoints and past-their-prime videos, the crew headed out behind the base. Clad in our matching, standard-issue, yellow jumpsuits and red hard hats, team MLP logged our three exits and four entrances with out much mishap. Although, Chris did manage to hang, monkey style, underneath the helicopter at one point. Predictably, his helmet fell off just as he was negotiating the challenging, mantle-cum-pushup, stage of climbing in. From my view in the front seat I have a vivid memory of his shocked and somewhat confused face looking up as he hung from the skid! (Stay posed for some exciting video footage that should arrive soon.) Hover Exit lessons learnt: approach slowly, from the front of the craft; weight shift smoothly onto the skid; tighten helmet.
Wrapping up our days of street hockey and Fruitloops at the Elbow, we headed south to the Livingstone Gap Fire Base. Tucked in the mountains about 35km north of Coleman and the Crowsnest Pass, the base runs at a different pace. Mandy, Lesley and I have moved into our own little cabins complete with their sagging mattresses, an invasive smoky smell, explosive wood burning stoves and copious mouse droppings; a true Alberta experience. Scott and Chris have sensibly opted for the comfort of the new ATCO trailer and, despite the cabin’s charm, when I’m chipping the ice off my boots in the morning I can’t help but see the sanity in their decision.
Our days at the Gap have been productive: We’ve worked our way though many of the more accessible stations north of the base including two at the Raspberry Ridge fire lookout; a 2000’ bushwhacking epic up K North (in only 1:40 by Scott and my self, setting the season record); and many sunny days in the foothills south east of Longview.
Omitting our nautical adventures at Lime Ridge, (which Lesley will recount in the next blog installment) three notable adventures stand out: Hailstone, Stevenson North and the day we attempted Coyote and Fritz.
Hailstone was one of our first real mountain days of the season. A steep-sided ridge, lying due west of the high pass negotiated by the Indian Graves forestry road (Highway 541) and topped by two stations on its rocky summit ridge. Motivated by our success on Raspberry the day before, we decided to attempt the somewhat fierce approach up Hailstone’s east face. Our choice was driven by the elevation advantage offered by the road as it winds through the pass. Unfortunately, our optimism was short lived, for the east face of hailstone appeared to be insurmountable upon first inspection. Edged by a 15ft rock band and draped in slippery rivers of scree, we almost decided to resort to the much longer, southern approach through the trees. This alternate approach would quickly reach the southern most station, but almost double the distance (in both elevation and across ground) to the northern station further up the ridge. It was this northern station to which Scott and I happened to be assigned. I’m sure you can guess where this is going to end up.
Scott and I are certainly not to be deterred from a good scramble – especially when the alternative is a monstrous bushwhack and our climbing gear just happens to be in the back of the truck. After much careful contemplation, we picked out a weakness that followed some large, stable scree just up slope from a reaching tendril of trees. A few hundred meters later, the scree connected with a sizeable ledge that conveniently cut though the rim of cliff, depositing us on the summit.
50 sweaty minutes later we found ourselves pushing ourselves up a rocky spine that bridged the skeletal remains of a cornice clinging to the ridge line. Directly in front of us lay a magnificent cairn – a perfect approach! Mandy, Lesley and Chris had chosen the less aggressive route up the south side based in an effort to avoid the loose scree. Ironically, they ended making their way to the same summit as Scott and I when they realized that our location estimate for the southern station placed them too far down the ridge. As you can see in the video, it was well worth the extra hike for Chris, who developed his own technique for the descent.
Although, the biggest reward was definitely hand delivering a letter from the Raspberry fire lookout to the Hailstone fire lookout. MLP’s one-day, door-step-to-door-step service; UPS has nothing on us!
Stevenson North is part of a series of six stations just east of the iconic Bar U National Historic Site on Highway 22. The day we headed to Stevenson, Environment Canada was calling for rain later in the afternoon, and our plan was to beat the weather by doing an quick, low elevation station. After the hour drive to Bar U, another hour of visiting ranchers to get access, the weather was beginning to roll in. A transcription of the field notes from the day should paint an appropriate picture of the situation:
“Stevenson North – June 6, 2009: Hurried by heavy rain clouds and an icy arctic front, the team headed east to Stevenson North. Departing from the Gap Fire Base at ~9:30 we drove out to the 22 and then North to Bar U. Arriving at a scull encrusted ranch house (a décor only and Albertan could love) we were granted permission to walk up the small ridge behind the ranch, North-West of Bar U.
Despite assurances from several ranch hands that “thay-er aint any marker up thay-at ridge”, Mandy and Lesley made for the adjacent ridgeline to the west. Fortunately, the ranch hands were happy to point out the numerous survey stakes bristling from our chosen destination.
As we trudged up the slope behind the ranch (Nelson) Scott and I couldn’t help but notice the subtle but ubiquitous impact cattle have on the landscape. Lakeshores and wetlands are trampled into muddy swamps, hillsides carved by years of cow trails and vegetation clipped short. Cattle play such a rustic and iconic role here, yet must be the source of significant changes to the landscape.”
Then the text quickly changes tone:
“Unfortunately, the clouds and cold weather seem to have conspired against us today, as the initially sunny morning was abruptly obscured (literally) by a large cloud that has settled on the hill top! Despite our attempts to wait it out and numerous, falsely optimistic cries of ‘its clearing!’ we have been forced to abandon this station for another day.”
That sudden wave of fog, riding up over the hill, obscured both team’s stations and caught all of us by surprise. Proving once again that you just can’t win against the mountain weather.
Fritz and Coyote:
Also of a stormy theme: the crew had another exciting adventure yesterday. The whole crew (except Mandy, who was on days off) headed for two adjacent mountains just north of the base. Lesley and I headed up the peak to the South while Chris and Scott took the peak to the north. Both mountains were almost mirror images of each other, about 2000′ elevation gain, and a 4km-ish hike each way to the summit.
The forecast was for a 70% chance of thundershowers in the afternoon, but we didn’t have many other options for the day so we decided to head out early and beat the weather (you’d think we’d have learnt our lesson!). We made it to the summit in really great time, but were watching some explosive cumulus clouds build in the west for most of the morning.
One especially big cloud developed into a magnificent thunderhead off to west of the northern peak (where Scott and Chris were headed). Fortunately, it seemed like it would just miss them and pass by to the north;
we assumed that it would come nowhere near our station. Scott and Chris radioed us as they reached the summit and mere seconds later the cloud opened and it started hailing on them! After holding tough for a few minutes the cloud was still growing and didn’t show signs of letting up. By the sounds of it, the hail was pretty hard and judging by their voices on the radio, they weren’t enjoying them selves much. After a few more minutes of the hail onslaught, they decided to call it a day and headed back down empty handed.
By this time, Lesley and I had located the sites where we needed to take the pictures from and were set up, finger on the shutter button, enjoying the beautiful sunshine as the thundercloud moved by to the north. But something wasn’t quite right. Turning to Lesley I asked “My hair doesn’t happen to be standing up does it?”, she suddenly got a shocked look on her face and said it was, in a big way! We quickly grabbed our stuff, tucked it under a rock just down from the summit and hurried further down from the summit. Managing to tuck ourselves on top of our packs just as the sky opened up!
The hail was enormous and over the next 15 minutes lightning hit mountains in all directions around us. I’ve never seen a thunderstorm develop so quickly; it was definitely some of the most intense mountain weather I’ve seen in a while.
After the initial lightning died down we crept up slope and collected our things before bee-lining back down the mountain. Unfortunately we couldn’t go back north along the exposed ridge line we came up on, so we had to drop down the east side of the mountain. A 5km bushwhack though the hail and rain ensued as we picked our way back around the mountain.
Despite failing to repeat any photo’s (although we know the exact locations now!), it was still a great day. Once again I’m reminded how revitalizing it is to lean in close to the roar of the earth. As soon as the forecast calms down, we’re going to give it another shot, but we’ve had our fill of thunderstorms for now.
Don’t be mislead! It hasn’t been all fun and games. Prior to our electric experience on Coyote and Fritz, Scott had already managed to use himself as a voltmeter during a close encounter with a well-endowed electric fence near Pekisko Creek, and Lesley’s legs have seen more than their fair share of thorns (turns out shorts aren’t quite enough for MLP style bushwhacking). Thankfully the weather has provided an ample number of recovery days. Although, I did find the 3 inches of snow we received last week a bit of an over achievement.
Which rapidly is becoming a characteristic that applies to this blog entry! I suppose that brevity is the challenge one faces when working for the MLP: concise summaries just don’t seem to do justice to our experiences. Through retelling our past few week’s adventures, I’m beginning to understand what a blog really is. Its not merely a record of progress or a meter of events. It’s a tool through which we can share and to some extent repay. Giving both to each other, and everyone who visits, a taste of the incredible magic seen when living in the mountains, close to the earth, close to friends.
So, as much as I appreciate Mandy’s words of wisdom, it seems this crew of five is destined to set our standards high. And despite our mishaps, missteps and adventures, we have so far achieved nothing but blissful happiness.
The MLP Crew