Interview/Biography of your dedicated Board members – Orvel Miskiw

Interview/Biography of your dedicated Board members – Orvel Miskiw
February 24, 2018 Nathalie Drotar

Hi Orvel, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions! So how long have you been a member of the Alpine Club and/or Calgary Section and what motivated you to become a member at the time?

I joined the Calgary Section in 1981 and have been a member ever since then, ie., nearly 37 years. At the time I had just moved from Edmonton where I was a member of the Northwest Mountaineering Club, a branch of the Canadian Youth Hosteling Association.  So once in Calgary, I first looked up the Calgary branch of CYHA but found they didn’t have a mountaineering club and I didn’t feel at home with that group, so next I checked out the ACC Calgary Section:  that turned out to be just what I wanted.

What started your connection with the mountain world? 

As an Alberta prairie farm boy, I was far from the mountains most of the time, but was always physically active and learned a little about camping first in my pre-teens with my parents or brothers and friends at nearby lakes and rivers, as well as on our own farm, which had over 600 acres of forests, meadows, lakes, hills, and even seasonal creeks, as well as 380 acres of fields.  My first ‘backpack’ was my chuckwagon-style metal lunch box that I always took to school.  I learned that was awkward to handle while hiking and dealing with fence-crossings, branches and other obstacles.  I also learned that raw eggs mixed well with dirt, matches, and other well-intended camp items and food:  one memorable first night out camping with Ron and Danny at the far corner of our farm was cold and cheerless as we huddled in a thin sleeping bag on damp ground with no fire and little food; we scurried home at first light and left the lunch box and our camp to be picked up later with Dad.

Later I got in to the Boy Scouts in Mannville and learned a lot of both good and questionable things about being outdoors with minimal supplies and support, and dealing with the wide range of weather offered to us during a year.  After that I went to university in Edmonton, where I joined the CYHA and did a lot of XC skiing and mountain hiking, ski touring, and year-round camping.  I heard about the NWMC, enquired in person, and was soon spending much of my free time learning about mountaineering.

Two of their members took me up Mt. Schaeffer at Lake O’Hara for my first climb:  it was a chimney route in the steep north(!) face right above the lake.  They tied me in and did the leading and belaying, all I had to do was scramble up between them; I don’t remember much about the trip or what I learned, but I enjoyed it as an exciting day of exercise and terrific views.  At the time I had a girlfriend working at Deer Lodge, so I was in the area to visit her on some weekends, and if I remember right, my next climb was a solo effort on Eiffel Peak.  In retrospect I was lucky to have decent weather, but was already quite at home in  the mountains, using guide books and reading maps; I started early in the day and carried a real backpack, containing several sensible things — basically most of ‘the ten essentials’ — water, food, sweater, toque, rain jacket, map, compass, knife, small telescope, etc.  I don’t think I had a camera yet.  But I’ve been up there several times since then with more experience and various groups, and always found it a significant scramble and usually with some problems along the way.

What are your favorite activities in the mountains?

Actually my favorite activities are summer mountaineering and traditional rock climbing, mainly because of the relatively pleasant conditions of summer.  Winter can so easily create a joyless environment, especially with no sunshine, but it does have the advantages of no bugs, bears, or rain, as well as spectacular high-contrast scenery.  I’ve done a lot of ski touring around the Rockies and B.C. but have spent most of my outdoors time in winter at ice climbing. because of feeling a need to ‘keep-at-it’ in order to stay in tune and so able to enjoy it — more so than skiing.  (No, I’m not a very good skier in the downhill sense, and would also benefit from spending more time on my downhill skills in various kinds of snow, but then I’m primarily a ski tourer rather than a downhill skier, and to me, touring means traveling to get from one place to another, rather than to find steep snow to ski down.  If steep snow is met during a tour, then it has to be dealt with as a potential problem rather than an objective in itself.)

Have you visited different mountain ranges around the world, where and when?

I’ve done only a bit of international mountaineering:  I suppose I started with some volcano scrambling in New Zealand in the early 70’s — which had some mountaineering flavor.  About a decade later, I signed up with Chic Scott for a climbing trip to Peru; it was his attempt at a commercial guiding venture, but when I turned out to be his only client, he agreed that we’d go anyway, but as partners.  He wanted to try a new route on Nevado (Mt.) Yerupaja — possibly similar to nearby Siula Grande of “Touching the Void”.  (Un)fortunately at the last minute Chic was not able to go, so I continued on my own, but found many other Alberta/B.C. climbers happened to be in Peru at the same time, so that made things a bit more relaxed for me.  I eventually teamed up with an Austrian and a German for climbs of Nevs. (Mts.) Pisco (18,800′) and Huascaran (22,205′) in company with parties including familiar local names like John McIsaac, Nigel Heliwell, John Calvert, Elaine Brooke, and Allan Burgess. Although the German and I were nursing our Austrian partner through a stomach bug that he picked up on a prior attempt on  Alpamayo, we still managed to summit Huascaran a day before anyone else, through self-discipline and a steady slow pace between camps while moving up.  These were not technical climbs, but did have hazards of crevasses, icefalls, altitude, and weather, plus on Huascaran I did descend about 20 metres into a crevasse to retrieve someone’s escaped sleeping bag — crevasses can be good at times, otherwise the sleeping bag may have ended up a mile downhill and lost.

In 1990 I was back in New Zealand , just traveling around with my wife — a decent climber.  We did some hiking as well, and also decided to try the magnificent North Island volcano Egmont.  Because of a tight schedule and in spite of being detained for some time by an enthusiastic ranger giving us a lot of advice about the hazards, we decided to try it with a late start (10am?), ‘from the ground’ and on the same day.  Before long we hiked past the mountain hut en route, with all the keen Egmont-climbers hanging over the balcony handrail in beautiful weather and waiting for a pre-dawn attempt the next day.  Waving back and forth, we continued up their hill:  wooden stairs were the main difficulty for a good part of the route.  Above those, we found gullies, scree, and rock ribs leading shortly to the summit snow and picturesque pinnacles, but were careful to note landmarks and take bearings for our descent.  Sure, we were lucky with the weather, as it was calm, cool, and spectacular under a clear sky all afternoon — not to denigrate the advice we got, based on local mountain experience — but we quickly returned down the gullies to the wooden stairway, and eventually strolled past the hut again, assuring the same climbers of “good conditions on the mountain”.  And so we continued south to the ferry and the South Island.

What was your longest or hardest, most epic mountain adventure?

Well I’m not big on epics, and try to avoid them — quite conservative.   But I’d have to give it to an ACC climbing camp at Mt. Waddington that I managed in 1983 — wow!, can it be 35 years ago already?  It wasn’t especially long (2 weeks) or hard or actually an epic, but had elements of all.  The expedition was planned for 25 people but when only eleven applied, it was scaled back by eliminating cooks and guides.  I had applied as a participant, and was known in the ACC as an active leader, so they asked me to manage the trip for half my fee.  Eventually, ten of us flew in by helicopter, with 6 hoping to climb Waddington, and the other 4 planning to watch from any of the other spectacular peaks nearby.  On arrival, we set up a base camp for the whole group across the valley from Waddington, but with good and stable weather, we six Waddington aspirants started immediately for the mountain the next morning.  Because of soft snow after noon every day, we were limited to a maximum of only about 6 hours of travel daily, and set up 4 camps on the way to a summit attempt.  Our weather was generally quite good, though some new snow on the third day whitened the final peak and gave us some concern about our prospects, as it was steep rock.  We met two parties descending en route, having had no success because of the bad snow.

For the summit attempt, we formed two parties of 3, with me leading one, and Hamish Mutch–an experienced and well-known B.C. climber– leading the other with two new acquaintances from the U.S.  We tried different starts to the initial rock wall from the upper glacier:  Hamish first tried what ended up being our descent gully, but soon backed off and followed us up a short vertical waterfall onto a long section of rock and snow scrambling, that took us right to the base of the upper steep rock tower. Having heard about rock chimneys, we tried them first but I didn’t like the combination of chockstones and ice in steep gullies, so I moved to the wall out right and up for one pitch.  My first partner finally prussiked up to my belay and said she would wait there; the other didn’t like my choice of route either, but finally arrived without incident and was keen to push ahead.  In that pitch he fell 3 times on a nut in one spot about 80ft up before taking my advice to try moving left into a bay.  I followed him up and we were then at the start of 3 rope-lengths of styrofoam snow to the summit.  Meanwhile Hamish and his team had persisted in the chimneys for a while, but finally retreated, collected our waiting partner, and descended.  My partner and I found ourselves at the summit of Mt. Waddington alone, although we expected to see either Hamish or his boot prints there.

We descended the snow, then rappelled 3 times down the rock to the head of the descent gully.  There we could see the other team below, setting or securing anchors for 4 more rappels to the glacier.  I felt really bad, especially for Hamish as a B.C. native and an experienced climber, and encouraged them to try again in the next day or two, but the weather turned worse and also we were low on fuel after a loose-pump incident, so we all descended the next day, to the base of the mountain. 

Waddington has a long history of unsuccessful – even fatal – early climbing attempts and is still not climbed very often,  so I like to look at a couple of pictures I have of the mountain and especially our route, and show them to friends — who doubt my word.

What would you say is the biggest difference between mountain adventures when you started and now?

I find the main thing is the explosion of electronic equipment for communication and security.  In the past we thought little of going out toward our objectives with little encumbrance of that kind.  We left word of our plans with our friends or families, and set out with simple personal equipment and the intention to take care of ourselves.  Of course it may be that we were also more cautious or conservative, at least certainly in ‘safe’ ways like not extending our trip an extra day or two when we could do that safely, just because we had promised to be back by a certain time or date, whereas now a cell phone, sat phone, Spot, etc. could be used to get word out and stay a bit longer.

The rift between the old and new ways is not easy to bridge or decide, as the benefits of most new technology are obvious at times, while it seems incomprehensible that anyone would actually push beyond safety, just because he’s psychologically buoyed up by the possession of a communication, detection, or flotation device.  The statistics of rescues enabled by technological devices have ballooned in the last few years — apparently proving their value, yet it could be instead that the number of incidents has ballooned, likely because modern recreationists are pushing their luck further with the prospect of easily available help.  Without such equipment, they would either be more careful or conservative, or just suffer a bit more when they run in to trouble.  Still the appeal of electronic aids is undeniable, and even I struggle continually with the question of “where should I draw the line and quit loading myself down with gadgets?” as they could well turn out to be important.

How much do you still get out now?

As I’ve managed to stay in good physical condition in spite of my age — still about my high school weight — I still get out a fair bit now, but nowhere near as much as I used to.  I have kept my calendars through many years as a sort of rough diary system, and often go back through them to find some information on dates of events:  I’m amazed at the number of trips I used to do.  Explaining this slowdown may sound like excuses, but in fact after having ‘been there, done that’, I for one have definitely become more fussy, less keen to risk misery and deprivation — I call it wisdom; my objectives now need to be more substantial, while at the same time some of those are necessarily going out of my reach.  Also other aspects of my life have started to become more interesting and important:  hobbies and intellectual pursuits gradually replacing physical ones.

 What inspires you to get out?

While fussier now, I’m inspired by the company of certain people or friends, and by interesting objectives, and certainly to help other people, especially relative novices, to enjoy the alpine environment and gain knowledge, skills, and insights that may be useful there.

Why do you enjoy leading trips for the section?

I believe in the club environment, defined as a social gathering of people with similar interests for companionship, support, sharing, and mutual benefit.  Throughout the history of this Club, there has been a relentless tendency of some of every ‘executive’ group toward corporatism, competition, and one-upmanship, ie., emphasis on the individual instead of the group, and so destructive to the club atmosphere.  That continues in full force even today, so I’ve been eager and pleased to maintain a position of some influence in the Section, including being a Board member and occasionally leading trips,  to control that trend and slow the evolution of the ACC into the Alpine Clients of Canada.

What’s your favorite meal when staying and cooking in a hut? And when camping? 

I have few restrictions and enjoy most food, so I’d have trouble to point out a strong preference or favorite. Although groups visiting huts may make more of a point of domestic cooking for variety over a few days and generally with their greater carrying capacity, I’m satisfied with simple food, and similar  for both hut and tent stays.  I do enjoy pasta with a thick sauce as the core of many meals, and like the convenience and economy of commercial package meals like Sidekicks and Hamburger Helper; with the addition of pre-cooked ground beef or other meats and maybe some flavoring, these make excellent meals that I don’t easily get tired of.

What is your favorite piece of equipment and/or favorite clothes when going out there?

Just taking a shot in the dark because of the complexity of equipment and clothing used in our activities, for equipment I’ll quickly point out a rope of 9mm by 50metres as a favorite: much smaller becomes scarey, much bigger becomes cumbersome; 60m ropes are simply too long — a continual tangle while rarely useful and almost never needed.  Also a basic LED headlamp to extend my day and avert bivouacs — never mind anything fancy or powerful, a little light goes a long way and lasts a long time.  In case of a necessary bivouac, the absolute top item is a sleeping bag — preferably small of course; every sleeping bag is a bivvy bag for most cases, as we are usually careful  to avoid bad weather, ie., rain (aren’t we?). But it needs care and a waterproof tarp or cover bag in the rare case of a wet night — make it light, forget about heavy commercial bivvy bags, you’ll freeze.

In favorite clothing, most of it needs to be ‘breathable’ as a very-important general principle:  one favorite is a hooded hip-length parka of Gore-tex, or even 60/40 or similar — lined but not insulated: very effective active shelter against weather. Also I have to mention the great comfort and psychological value of a dickey or neck tube as an alternative to a hefty turtle neck — can be worn with any clothing. For a third, a pair of leather-palmed gloves (eg., Husky gardening gloves) for summer — great for descending, bushwhacking, and a little warmth, or for winter, a pair of light flexible nylon mitts (Cordura or Goretex) with bulky liners — fleece or even wool.

Any inspiring mountain related sentence for our readers?

For many years a Latin phrase from one of the early plastic-covered interior ranges guidebooks has stuck in my mind (the pale blue one, I believe, but I don’t have it and still trying to get one from a friend who says he has two) as a perfect fit in mountaineering:  as I recall it is “Ante Illuminatum Dictum”, which without knowing much Latin, I translated as “Until you know better, go by the book.”  That suits my psyche perfectly, as mountaineering is always evolving, and I’d like climbers to believe as I do, that even they can make a useful contribution.  A corollary of that for less assertive people is: “The book isn’t always right, but it’s best if it’s all you have.”



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