It is snowing now. When I look out the window, all I can see are the flakes falling on the nearby trees and formations of cracked granite. Robeson is working on the electrical system in the kitchen and all I hear from that corner of the hut is laughter. Robeson Gmoser is the son of the famous Hans Gmoser who, along with the equally famous Bill Putnam, built the Battle Abbey hut in the 1970s. He has been running the Abbey for about 5 years now that Hans has retired. Apparently Bill had done the wiring given its randomness.
The radio blares and we hear Marco’s voice calling in. He has taken the boys out to Schooner pass to find some good lines. An early snow left a layer of instability, keeping us off of the summits this trip. The boys are a group of forty somethings from Colorado and California who have abandoned their wives and children to have a week of reunion and bonding. They are a boisterous friendly bunch who are quick to share their stories and their drink. Usually, we are all out climbing but today several of us have rediscovered the joys of sloth and are kicking back in the hut.
Kelly made some amazing soup for lunch (she used to run a haut bistro in Victoria) and we looked at old photos of Bill Putnam, Hans, and other members of the climbing community. Here one feels less like a guest and more like a distant relation welcomed back into a branch of the family that was hidden until now.
Bill Putnam is quite the character. He made his name in broadcasting, wrote a number of books, and built several huts in the mountains of Canada. The Battle Abby hut (where we are comfortably ensconced) was built due to an argument. Bill had built the Fairy Meadows hut in collaboration with the Alpine Club of Canada. I’ve been there and it is a solid but simple affair. Apparently, Bill had a falling out with the club and proceeded to take everything that was his (whether nailed down or not!) to this nearby location in the Battle Range and with the help of Hans Gmoser and many friends, built what is now this much larger and very comfortable hut. He wanted to bring his mistress, Kitty to the hut but she refused unless flush toilets were installed. Thank you Kitty!! Being able to pee comfortably at night on a mountaineering trip is insane luxury and we love it.
To enjoy mountaineering, one must enjoy climbing. I don’t necessarily mean the vertical sort with ropes (class 5) but rather just the act of going higher. For me there is a sort of excitement that builds as I ascend from forest to those sparse islands of tiny knurled alpine evergreens called krumholtz and on to the carpet of micro vegetation known as alpine tundra. It is difficult to enjoy this sort of thing unless you are in shape so it definitely helps to visit the gym regularly. Several of the boys packed a respectable belly and yet all kept up a ferocious pace of climbing and skiing. I would bet if we measured their insulin sensitivity we would find it to be quite good. This brings up the important point that as far as type 2 diabetes goes, activity is key. My guess is that diabetes is not in their future and that this is solely because of their choice to live an active lifestyle (heart disease is another matter however…). Interestingly, over drinks one evening it became clear that several of the group were brought into this active lifestyle by virtue of their friendship. I’ve heard this story over and over again and it is still music to my ears. Whether we are talking biking or tennis or ice climbing, socializing around a sport is a fantastic way to keep motivated and keep moving.
Skis open up the terrain to winter ascent. The carpet of vegetation is covered with deep snow and skis afford a way to stay on top of it. Often the wind scours the snow above tree line leaving it with a tough crust covering the soft fluffy stuff below. Skiing it is tricky as you don’t want to break through the wind crust but you need to cut into it to carve your turn. Once back in the trees, one plays the slalom game trying not to wind up topsy turvy in a tree well. Many times though the snow fall exceeds the wind and we get to ski powder above tree line.
Descending on skis in any condition is a treat. As any hiker can tell you, the decent is hard on the knees and feet and it seems to go on forever. Even for someone as unskilled as me, skis transformed the descent. The ability to substitute several thousand steps with several dozen face plants is definitely worth it. I can still remember one camping trip where I kept trying to turn while my heavy pack which, slave to Newton’s laws, kept on its inexorable straight line and the results were predictable. (Ski mountaineering requires a certain degree of humor.) It took some time to become proficient (years) but now the down hill path is sheer joy. It is a very different experience from the developed ski hill. First of all, there is only you and your friends. The balance between solitude and camaraderie is delicate but somehow it is maintained in the backcountry setting while lift skiing on the weekend sometimes feels like commuting in heavy traffic. Second, the ski hill runs are usually groomed while the backcountry snow is extraordinarily varied. No two days in the backcountry are alike. Third, the backcountry holds many dangers both obvious and hidden and one must be fully present in the moment. Decisions as to route and timing can have serious consequences. We turn back quite often if the conditions are sketchy. The mountains will still be there tomorrow. Knowing that you and your friends made the right decision brings you closer together than any day on the ski hill.
One way to get around at least some of the dangers of making a bad decision while mountaineering is to go with a guide. We don’t bother with this on our own turf but up here in the big mountains of Canada it makes good sense. The guides of Canada are world class and I routinely trust them with my life. Marco Delesalle, our current guide, trained for almost a decade before becoming fully certified in all aspects of mountaineering.
(Jan 9: Marco led a group over to ski “The Waterfall” on the way down to Butters Creek about 1500 feet below the Abbey. We were hoping to summit Little Ahab that day and the creek descent was necessary to get to the base of our objective. “I don’t recommend my line,” he shouted up. “and your line doesn’t look so good either!” I was soooo glad I went with Robeson’s group where all we had to contend with was mystery moguls with unknown surprises below each one. Once again our snow pit on the summit approach warned us away but the ski descent was fantastic and the dinner table was again wild with traded stories.
Robeson is done with the wiring and Jeff has finished chopping wood. Kelly suggests a run up to the pass and a hair raising decent down the only moderately rocky “Kitchen Envy”. A warm cup of tea or a hair raising run? Ahhh……vacation!
If you are interested in trips run by Marco Delesalle click here.
Robeson Gmoser also runs trips (often with Marco – his boyhood friend) and can be reached by clicking here.
To see pictures of Battle Abby click here.