Several years ago, we took a family vacation to the Canadian Rockies. We went primarily to attend the 100th anniversary of the Calgary Stampede, and to see for the first time the beautiful Canadian Rocky Mountains. Our home base was a time-share in Canmore, one of the locations for the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, about an hour west of Calgary. Canmore is a resort town at the foot of a range of mountains that runs north as far as the eye can see. On the descent in the airplane, and then on the road from Calgary, we could see the mountains that we were headed for, but by the time we arrived, late at night after a full day of travel, we were tired, and simply wanted to find our rooms, get our luggage in, and have the fight over who gets what bedroom, and who sleeps on the couch. And as the adults, we knew we would not be sleeping on the couch. The woman at the reception desk explained what we needed to know, and mentioned those words that a coffee addict lives to hear: free coffee in the lobby starting at 6:00 a.m.
The next morning, I was out to the lobby at 6:00 a.m. for the coffee. I saw several people outside, looking up, and so went out to see what they were seeing. The sun was coming up behind us, and putting on a spectacular light show on the flat vertical face of the mountain that rose up behind our development. The mountain looked a bit like the vertical face of Half Dome in Yosemite – a mountain cleaved in half, with just the bare vertical face of it rising up and presenting itself for the morning sunshine to play on its surface. God’s large screen HD television.
Barb came out to join me, and we simply watched the show, the warm orange of the morning sun lighting up the mountain face and turning the grey stone into a colorful montage that changed every few minutes. I had my coffee, she had her tea, there was a cool breeze so we had light sweatshirts on, the children were still sleeping, we had successfully traveled a large part of the continent to get there the day before, and this was Miller Time – just standing in awe of something that we had never seen before – the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Some of the most memorable experiences of life can be that simple.
As I found out later, that mountain that put on a show for us each morning had a name, an unusual name, and a story behind it. It had for years been called Chinaman’s Peak, but in a politically correct age, the name had been changed to Ha Ling Peak. Both names refer to the same man – Ha Ling – a cook working for the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1896. The crew was in Canmore, where you can look west and see the peak, and in what sounds like a bar bet, Ha Ling was offered $50 if he could climb the mountain, plant a flag on the summit, and be back to Canmore in 10 hours. He took the bet, climbed the mountain, was back with time to spare, and collected his $50. And his name has been associated with the mountain ever since.
Each morning I would repeat the first morning’s routine, grab my coffee and go out and watch the show on Ha Ling. On this and surrounding mountains, you could see the tree line – the place on the mountain above which nothing grows. I thought to myself “I’ve never been above the tree line.” Lots of symbolism in that thought. I’ve never been above the tree line in life. I’ve read with enthusiasm about men climbing mountains, but I have never been one of those men. I wondered if people climbed up Ha Ling – I never saw anyone on top. How long did it take? How difficult was it? Could you do it without gear? Not on the sheer face we looked out on. Maybe there was a back door? I wonder what the view is like up there?
We had arrived in Canmore on Saturday. I enjoyed the morning coffee and the view all week. And then in the Thursday newspaper, on the front page, there was a story that grabbed me and shook me: Richard Guy had climbed Ha Ling the previous Saturday. In the words of the article “the 95 year old mathematician made the slow, steady six-hour hike to the top of the mountain, gaining 8109 metres of elevation along the way with single minded fashion.” Richard and his wife had climbed the peak about 20 times together, but she had passed away a few years before. He wanted to climb it one last time in his life in her memory. And so he set out early Saturday morning, and he and his friends made the summit, raised a glass of single-malt scotch in celebration, and then “Coming down was the real test. Richard had to dig down deep … He was down to running on empty, but he joked he didn’t have a choice”.
While I was sitting there each morning with my coffee, navel gazing and wondering whether I had the guts to get above the tree line, 95 year old Richard Guy was out there doing it. He climbed Ha Ling. A part of me, the lesser part, thought “If a 95 year old can do this, then I can do this too.” And the better part of me thought “Richard Guy must be one tough bird. A real 10 on the Man Scale. God bless him.”
Back at the time share, I found information about the trails leading up to the peak on the internet. You could not approach from the eastern face that we saw. You had to drive about five miles to the back side of the mountain, park, and find the trail that led up the mountain. I bounced the idea of doing the climb off my wife, a fount of wisdom and common sense. Opposites attract. She was not thrilled. I had two heart stents put in about six months earlier, and was proposing to go out there on my own, inexperienced in mountain climbing, in a place where we had been told about what evasive action to take if we came across bears and mountain lions, and so she imagined the worst. But I was determined to give it a try. Why? The age old question – “Why do men climb mountains?” And the age old answer, sufficient for most men: “Because they’re there.”
On Friday, I was up in the dark, at 5:00 a.m. and found my way to the trail head - a beautiful drive through the woods. I was the only car in the parking lot. Bears were on my mind as I headed to the Porta Potty. Cautions from my readings – berry season so they are out and about. Look for scat. Be loud. Carry pepper spray. Travel in groups. If you encounter a black bear, you should run; if it’s a grizzly, play dead. Or is it the other way around? In the Porta Potty, I heard noise outside. “Oh my God – the bear has me trapped in the Porta Potty. Can’t play dead in here. Could I sprint to the car? Will he knock down the whole damn thing to get at me? How will I taste, covered in old crap and pee? Or perhaps, just perhaps, it is not a bear.” I peeked out – no bear in sight. I tiptoed out, feeling like a 1 on the Man Scale. Do I really have what it takes to climb this thing? Or should I go home and go back to bed? I headed off to the trailhead to find out.
The trail led through the woods – twisting and turning but always going up. Zig zagging up. Some straight up. Some places where the trail was washed out and so I detoured around and went up. I had a day pack with food and water – so I would stop for a nip of water and to catch my breath. The first 20-30 minutes I was gulping for breath, could feel my heart racing a bit – but then as my body warmed up, it all started coming together. The breath, the heart, the mind – finally stopped looking for bears and bear poop at every step. You have to pay attention to your footing – so you are looking down a bit – but also taking in the surroundings. An hour into the climb, I was feeling pretty good.
About an hour and a half into the climb, I finally came to the tree line. The walk in the woods ended – the trail itself largely ended. The view spread out – you could see up the mountain – nothing but mountain in front of you – and the surface was rocky. Not a tree, not a bush. You picked and chose your line of ascent – at times the rocks slid away beneath your feet – at other times there were stretches of bare rock path with solid footing. You could not see “the top” – you simply looked up and the saw the mountain sloping up and away from you – and then it ended in the distance and the sky began. I was above the tree line – and feeling good about life. Feeling fully alive.
As I got higher, the destination came into view. The peak is not actually a single peak – this is a range of mountains and they are connected at the shoulder, and so there comes a point when you choose to head to one or the other places. Up ahead was a giant U – a saddle (see first photo). A peak on either side, and a lower and closer edge of the mountain in the middle. I headed for the edge. At that point, I could look to either side and see a peak, and straight ahead, the earth fell away and you could see the entire Canmore valley below.
The view was wonderful. I could see down to our resort – did not see anyone out drinking coffee and looking up, but waved down to them anyway. I had my cell phone – it picked up a signal and so I tried calling Barb to tell her I was safe at the top. Could not get through – but then tried my daughter and left a message. We live in an incredible age of technology.
So what to do when you are up at the top and have taken in the sights? I ate my peanut butter and jelly sandwich and granola bar. Drank my water. And entertained a guest – a chipmunk was up there at the top with me. How did he live up here? What on earth did he eat when there was not a visitor throwing him bread and nuts? Did he retreat down to the tree line for shelter come the winter? How long must it take him to get there on those little legs – it was twenty minutes away for me. Actually longer going down – as I found out.
From the top where I was – Ha Ling simply ends – the sheer face just drops down a long way. I had my camera. Tried to capture what I was seeing with photos. The battery light was blinking at me – oh hell – not much battery juice left. I had what I thought was a brilliant idea. I set up the camera on a pile of rocks and turned it to video. Scrambled out in front of it – just at the edge. Gave my speech (see link here for the actual video). Tongue in cheek. Dancing on Ha Ling peak with James Brown. The camera quit right as I panned down the valley. But, I had a few photos, a short video. Proof that I had made it to the top.
I did not plant a flag. It was enough that I was there – at 8:00 a.m. while the rest of you ordinary mortals were sleeping or chowing down on your breakfast sandwiches. I was standing on top of Ha Ling. The first man to ever set foot on it. Today at least. No one else in sight. Yes, 95 year old Richard Guy was here a week ago. But he is a 10 on the Man Scale. Ha Ling himself was here more than a hundred years ago. Walked all the way out from town and then climbed it and then back down and back to town. Definitely 10 on the Man Scale. And now, Doug Humes from Broomall, Pennsylvania was here as well. Feeling very full of himself. Feeling very “10 on the Man Scale”.
I said goodbye to my chipmunk friend, and began making my way down. Down goes more slowly than up. The rocks slide away under your feet. Not big enough to start an avalanche – but I could see how in the right circumstances a rock slide could occur. I did not want to twist my ankle up here – can’t out run a bear with a sprained ankle. So I went slowly. Eventually found my way to the tree line and back into the woods. And within a few minutes I heard voices, and soon the source came into view. Three young men – 20 somethings – carrying huge packs on their backs. Were they going up to camp? Above the tree line? At 9:00 a.m.?
We exchanged pleasantries. “Are you going to camp up there?” “Nah – we got parachutes. We’re going to jump off.” “Where do you land?” “Down in the big field by the reservoir.” “Wow. Good luck with that!”
I had passed the reservoir on the drive in. I wondered whether I could get down the mountain in time to drive back there and witness their flight. Probably not. In hindsight I should have followed them back up and watched them go. But people were waiting and worrying at home. And I had no battery juice left in my camera. Does an event actually happen if I am not there to take a picture of it? I didn’t wait to find out.
After that encounter, I was feeling a bit deflated. If I was really a 10 on the Man Scale, what were these guys? All I did was climb up the damn thing. I didn’t have to eat that chipmunk to survive. Didn’t have to cut my arm off with a pen knife to get out of a tough fix. Didn’t have to drink my own blood or urine to stay hydrated. Just climbed a moderately strenuous peak, on a beautiful summer morning. And met three guys who had done the same hike, with heavy packs, and were headed up to the top of it. To jump off. A thought that would never have entered my mind.
In the movie “Spinal Tap”, the guitar player is asked about his amp – and he proudly points out the volume setting – generally manufactured with a range from one to ten. His volume setting goes up to “Eleven”. And that morning, I found out that so does the Man Scale. I was still a Ten, but the young men I passed – they took it up to Eleven. And they earned it. We all did. It was a kick ass morning to be alive.