Trip participants: Phil Tomlinson, Kyle Milino, Kevin Canning, Susan Twitchell, Noel West, Signe Bray, Matthew Breakey, Paul Barclay, Jenny Strong, Reade Wolansky, Shea Wolansky, Katherine Valentine, Charlie Breakey, Sheena Lambert, Warren Strange, Kiran Sharma, Gig Kingsford, Danielle Marechal
The annual Family Less-Friendly Elk Lakes trip. Just reading those words should instil a pall or hushed reverence. A name steeped in tradition, it effervesces the spirit of true mountaineering, hearkening to a simpler time when people went into the mountains, not to play, but to survive.
Survival is the best anyone can hope for on the Family Less-Friendly Elk Lakes trip.
Surveying the hut Sunday morning, I got the distinct impression that there were some that felt that death would be merciful release from their waking nightmares. Surrounded by the detritus of the night before, I could not argue that death was not perhaps a hidden blessing.
I’m getting ahead of myself though, the present and inevitable state of our dishevelled selves had been set in motion days before.
We met at the Our Lady of the Assumption School parking lot at 5pm. There was laughing and camaraderie as we sorted out the carpool and struggled to find a pen that would work to fill out the extremely necessary trip waivers. Like the calm before the storm, we were at ease, relaxed and looking forward to the weekend. We were naive.
At the trailhead a little over two hours later, it was cold, but calm; as if mother nature was bracing herself for what was to come.
Last to arrive and with a higher than average level of required faff, I left the parking lot bringing up the rear with Sheena and Katherine who nearly froze to death plodding along at my less than blistering pace. The hut nominally sleeps 14, however I had overloaded it slightly with a couple of late entrants -guests and people whom I thought were likely to be organize trips of their own in due course. I had used the additional funds collected to provide some extra beverages to share with everyone. The 100L duffel bag I would be dragging to the hut weighed in the neighbourhood of 35kg and contained, in addition to the regular accoutrements of a hut trip, 12L of beer, 4L of cider, 3L of wine and 1.5L of rum and daiquiri mix. The total booze weight clocked in at over 20kg not including the containers.
Dragging this duffel bag behind me for 11km reminded me that winter is different than summer. Winter is the season for people who are hard and the long summer had softened me. Towing this boat anchor as it got hung up on Christmas trees and in creeks, this would make me hard again.
We reached the hut at 11pm with my duffel bag, whom I now affectionately called ‘Piggy’ after, during a brief hallucination I had decided was a pig who’d lost it’s legs in some terrible accident but still wanted to shred the GNAR. I wondered if anyone was still up to have a beer with Piggy and I.
Apparently people were game. What started as a beer before bed went the way things in the mountains normally do. A simple plan, a number of simple mistakes (like bringing Elderflower infused Strongbow) and things, without anyone realizing it, steadily spiralled out of control until we found ourselves, at 3:30 in the morning, suitably battered by hydrating for our mountain adventures, and decided to pass out so we’d be ready for an alpine start in the morning.
In a stroke of brilliance others failed to comprehend, I slept on the front porch.
Fuzzy from the night before, we were on the skin track at 9:30am. Our alpine start had not afforded us much sleep. Our small party consisted of Matt and Charlie Breakey, Reade, Warren and Sheena.
Our goal was to explore an area we’d never been before since none of us had ever seen this much snow at the hut. A long-ish tour involving Sheena’s first winter creek crossing got us to the base of what we convinced ourselves was a promising slope. What ensued was true to form. The thin snowpack left us with limited route finding options up a 40deg heavily treed slope. Trail breaking ranged from strenuous to the nearly absurd and following the skin track was no better. Matt led us through the worst of it somehow managing to link together pathways through the continuous deadfall. I could barely follow the skin track. I cannot even comprehend how he managed to lay it in in the first place. The rest of us could only do our best to follow up and wonder how the hell we would ski down this.
We climbed until we hit our turn-around time. And then we started one of the most delicate and cautious descents of my life. We picked our way through the deadfall, threading our skis through a minefield of season ending collisions with half buried trees and rocks. Eventually though, the slope eased off and we could cruise down through the lower angle and better covered terrain which made the whole sortie worthwhile.
We had explored a new area (that we will probably never return to), skied some cruise-y trees and now it was time tour back to the hut for dinner. 20+km of touring for one short run seemed like a fair exchange.
Back at the hut we were reunited with the other parties all returning from their various missions.
We were having an 18 person communal meal and we walked through the door to Team Appetizer prepping a ridiculous amount of food. Sausages, cheese plates, humus, crackers and a damn cheese fondue. While we gorged ourselves, Kevin, representing Team Main Course, nearly single handedly prepared a monster batch of pasta to pack into our stomachs over top of the first course. Team Desert then plied us with a collection of different brownies and other delicious stuff.
Moving quickly in the mountains requires light packs and our packs were still looking pretty heavy. We needed to fix this for the next day. We did our absolutely best to make sure our packs would be as light as possible for the ski out by drinking the remainder of the drinks we’d brought in. These are the sacrifices you make to perform at your best.
It was a disaster.
Sunday morning, despite the fervent belief that light packs would make us super fast, our intensive hydration regime had resulted in very few people moving quickly at all. Discovering that the unlabelled baggy of oats I brought was actually instant quinoi did not help my spirits.
Surveying the bloodshot eyes, nearly visible throbbing headaches and looks of intense pain, I felt for the rest of the team. I didn’t feel as badly for them as I felt for myself, but I felt badly none the less.
The solution was skiing. Some people slowly toured out to the cars. Noel, Charlie, Matt and I decided that we needed to get some real skiing to re-energize ourselves so we toured up to what we arbitrarily called Huckleberry Hill. The weather was perfect. The terrain was fantastic. The snowpack still a touch thin. Who cares? Nothing works off a hangover like breaking an up track.
Eventually though, I realized that I was going to have to drag that duffel bag back out to the cars so trailed by a very patient Matt, Charlie and Noel, we made the slog out.
We survived Family Less-Friendly Elk Lakes for another year, but we need to remember, train and prepare for the inevitable truth – it’ll be back next year.