It has been ages since I had a weekend with my dad – just the two of us, no fixed agenda and no rigid plans. Our time together is usually dictated by some compelling outside force that brought us to the same place at the same time. A wedding, a graduation, a family vacation, etc.; there was always something going on. Whatever that something was, it meant that our time and attention was already focused elsewhere. There was a plan – put in place by someone else, and we were lucky if we could sneak away from that plan even for an hour.
Last summer I did manage to steal away, from a week with relatives celebrating my cousins wedding, for the better part of a day with my mom and dad. It was a huge ordeal and clearly a disruption from the predetermined plan. The result was a hasty trip to the Shenandoah Mountains, where we felt rushed and in a hurry to get back. It was hard to stop and enjoy the moment. (Not to mention the, while beautiful, Appalachian’s lack of rugged Cascade peaks to which I am growing accustomed.)
So, when my dad said he was coming in town for a weekend, just the two of us, I was quite excited. I began to formulate ideas in the back of my head for things we could do together. The time was ours and we could spend it however we liked.
My family has always been incredibly active – A trait that I hadn’t adopted until recently. I wanted to share my passion for the outdoors with my dad, who I knew would appreciate the somewhat unique ways that I choose to experience. More importantly, my parents were to ones to first get my excited about skiing (and I guess snowboarding). They have been skiing since before I was born, but always at a resort.
I wanted to take my dad out backcountry skiing and he was all for it. We couldn’t have asked for a better weekend either. A spring bluebird day on a volcano seemed like the perfect place to start. The question then, where do I take my dad for a first tour? I immediately thought we should go to Camp Muir. A day touring on the tallest mountain in the state, with incredible views, would surely be impressive and memorable. But there was an element missing. The views on the way up to Muir are incredible, but arriving at camp is somewhat underwhelming. Rainier still looms above you and I always get a sense of incompleteness when I turn back at Muir. Incredible? Yes. Breathtaking? Sure. I can do better.
Last year, I climbed St Helens on my birthday. It was an awesome day, and something I had been itching to get back to. I remembered it as a much bigger day than Muir, but nothing toocrazy. I decided to leave the final decision up to my dad. I gave him the options Muir or St Helens (I know…I am a nice son). Both consist of (for the most part) fairly mellow touring, both have incredible views, both make for a great day. Muir ends up higher at just over 10,000’, but St Helens is a longer day with more elevation climbed, by a considerable margin. With St Helens, you get to stand on top of a mountain.
I tried to be objective but I think my desire to get back to St Helens was apparent. So when I asked my dad, which he would prefer, he said he was “up for a longer day.” So, St Helens it was. I did have my reservations. My dad is 62, has never used AT skis, and has been living in the desert for the past several years. But, he is my dad and he is a badass. So when he said he was up for it, his enthusiastic attitude was all of the convincing that I needed.
I’ve come to realize climbing a mountain is a lot like many other pursuits in life. In the moment, you can push yourself sometimes harder and further than you could have imagined possible. After the fact, you completely forget about the challenges you faced, remembering only glimpses of your struggles, your memories dominated by the overwhelming satisfaction of succeeding at whatever it was you set out to do.
St Helens’ was easy last year. I woke up early, on my birthday and climbed a mountain. The view from the top was incredible and the ride down was awesome. On top of that, we were home at a decent hour, too.
So, I may have forgotten just how early we woke up. I may have also forgotten just how long it took to reach the rim and how late we got back to Seattle. Yes, it is a very doable day trip, but it is a longday.
My dad showed up Friday afternoon, after driving over from the Tri-Cities. I got him set up with rental skis and boots, touring in rental boots sounds absolutely no fun. The afternoon sipped by and by the time we were both hungry, our plan was thus: we are waking up early, to climb St. Helens and that was about it. I’d yet to look up how far the drive was, where we had to pick up the permits, pack food, or really pack anything for that matter.
On the way to dinner, it became apparent that my dad was exhausted. During the drive, he would ask a question, then fall asleep before I had a chance to answer. A few minutes later, he would wake up and, without a missing a beat, ask another question. At some point, I stopped answering. I was starting to get worried. I had just done the math, and realized our alarm needed to go off at roughly 4:30 am if we were indeed going to climb St Helens.
That was much earlier than I had anticipated or remembered. But, my dad took it in stride and was wide-awake and ready to go in the morning. We made excellent time on the drive, stopping only once and well, twice if you count the speeding ticket.
Upon picking up our permits, we were delighted to discover that we were near the tail-end of nearly 375 like-minded individuals who wanted to spend the beautiful day climbing a mountain. I’d expected a crowd, but was yet again shocked by one of the small details that I had forgotten since climbing the previous year.
So we took off. There was still snow all the way to the car, allowing us to start skinning right away. My dad threw on the skis and so began his first backcountry ski experience. There was a bit of a learning curve. It’s hard to relate skinning to any one other activity and it takes some practice and getting-used-to before you learn to balance and trust that you can indeed stand up straight without sliding back down the hill.
We weren’t in any sort of rush, so we took our time. After all, we didn’t need to reach the summit to have a great day. As we meandered through the woods, my dad started to get the hang of it. I was having a great time and I think he was too. The slog to the summit really is just a long push. There were a couple of short tricky sections where we carried our skis, but for the most part, it was just skinning, all the way to the summit.
In the morning, I set a turn-around time of 4pm, in case we hadn’t made the top by then. During our last lunch-break, I looked at the time. It was 2:30 and my best guess pegged us at about 1000’ from the summit. Doable for sure, but my dad was clearly getting tired. I pulled out (one of several) energy reserves I had stashed in my pack and hoped that we would make it.
I’d been staying with my dad the whole way until this point, I didn’t want his first experience to find him climbing all alone and it was by no means a race. I knew my dad could make it to the top, but we were going to have to hurry. Apart from the lure of chocolate and beer, one of my best motivators is to not want to fall behind. So, I took off and told my dad I would see him at the top.
Sure enough, my dad made it to the top of Mt St Helens, just shy of our 4pm turn-around time. At that moment, I was so excited and proud. I think that anyone familiar with the sport would agree, for a first time in the backcountry, climbing to the top of Mt St Helens is no small feat.
While well over 100 people had already left tracks, down the south face of the volcano, we still enjoyed some fantastic spring corn and even found a few sections still pristine. The reward for a hard day’s effort. We were able to ride all the way back to the car, with just a few hazards to navigate. With the warm weather, it was likely one of the last days that you could ride all the way to the car without getting extra creative.
If the weekend had ended there, it would have still been fantastic, memorable weekend. But it didn’t. I think it was our ambitious plan that fueled a friendly father-son competition of sorts. It came to be that neither of us wanted to admit that we were in fact tired or sore. So, when one of us mentioned a Sunday bike ride, our response was, “sure that sounds fun!” It was like a game of chicken and the loser was our legs.
In all seriousness, we had a delightful bike ride, broken up with breakfast at Portage Bay Café (with mimosas!), a nap at golden gardens, and a beer at the Fremont Brewery. It was actually really nice and, if anything, helped keep us limber.
The fun didn’t stop there either. When picking up the skis on Friday, my dad mentioned that a hike up Mt Si sounded fun. So, naturally we had to do it. We dropped off the rentals Monday morning and set off for a hike. The view from the top was spectacular. You could see south past Rainier and north up to Baker. The Olympics were in clear view, creating a dramatic backdrop for the Seattle skyline. Truly impressive, especially once we made it to the top of the haystack.
For whatever silly reason, we decided to trail run down. I’ve made the mistake before, but did it again. Running downhill destroyed whatever strength was left it our legs.
When we made it back to the car, I was thankful that we were parting ways, not because I didn’t want to spend more time with my dad, but because I was afraid of what bogus idea (we actually did mention trying to waterski, but just didn’t have time.) one of us would throw out next and I was seriously concerned that I was going to be the one to have to say no more.
So there you have it. A weekend with my dad, one of the most incredible men I know; spent backcountry skiing on volcanoes, biking through Seattle, and hiking up mountains. I look forward to the next weekend we can spend together and the wild adventures that we will accomplish next.
I wasn’t entirely sure where to go after Glacier. I was planning on driving in to Banff, because I had heard great things about the area. Realizing that it is a huge tourist destination, I was curious to visit, but not looking forward to finding somewhere to stay. I had subconsciously decided as part of the trip it was my goal to camp as many days as possible, avoiding civilization whenever possible.
Conveniently, in Glacier, I man an old-ish man from Australia, rocking some impressive dreads, who was in the middle of a greatly extended version of a trip similar to my own. I hadn’t really head much about the area, but this man told me to not drive into Banff, but instead head north into Jaspar National Park. After looking up campgrounds and hiking trails (again rated like a ski hill), I was convinced. Partially because of the Icefields Parkway, the self proclaimed “most spectacular journey in the world.”
I knew I didn’t have time to drive the entire road (I still had some semblance of a schedule to hold to) but it was worth the detour north. Not convinced that this was indeed the most spectacular journey in the world, I was at least intrigued enough to check it out. So, I picked up camp and left Glacier behind. Stopping shortly in the rain to get a bit of a history lesson at the top of Rogers pass and again in the town of Golden, where I found a quaint little café and got some work done. To illustrate just how incredible this region is, I had been sitting at the café for no more than 5 minutes when a local, Jay, walked in trying to sell his splitboard to the barista. Overhearing the conversation, I jumped in and had a nice chat with Jay. I ended up getting his number in case I was interested in buying a board…so if anyone needs one, I know where to get a good deal up in Canada.
I truly was in the heart of a region where backcountry skiing was not considered an obscure hobby, but a typical recreational activity. A concept I could get used to.
Eventually, I packed up my work, got back on the road, and made my way to the Icefields Parkway. It had been raining off and on all day, which wasn’t a particularly thrilling concept for camping, but was something I had just accepted as part of the adventure. What I wasn’t quite prepared for, the rain quickly transitioned to snow. So here I was, driving north, in Canada, to go camping.
And it was worth it. From the second I turned on to the Icefields Parkway, the views were absolutely breathtaking. It seemed every twist in the road revealed another peak, another valley, another lake, river, plateau, or canyon. The road meandered north, winding up mountain passes, and skirting through valleys. The snow came in patches, with the sky opening up just long enough for me to stop and take pictures. On top of the sheer beauty of the landscape, was the road itself. The snow wasn’t sticking, but was falling just hard enough to deter traffic. I was able to really experience the drive, as all great mountain roads should be driven.
After nearly two hours of breathtaking scenes, I arrived at my campground, just two miles shy of the Columbia glacier, in the snow. I bundled up, and set up camp in a hurry. Wasting no time, I got out my stove and prepared a hearty, warm bowl of tortellini to help keep me warm. Watching the snow start to accumulate on my tent, I decided to crawl into my tent early and read until I finally passed out.
When I awoke, not much had changed. It was still snowing slightly and not exactly warm. It was my goal to make it down to Montana by the end of the day, but I was determined to enjoy the where I was a little bit more. Dusting the snow off the tent, and throwing everything in the car, I headed down the road to check out the glacier. There is something awe inspiring about a glacier that you can drive to the edge of. There was a tour guide service running busses up on to the glacier, but I wasn’t about to pay money to walk on a little snow. I opted to enjoy the view from just below the toe.
From there, I turned back south, retracing my steps. As the day was still early, I made the most of my time by stopping at nearly every bend in the road, not wanting to miss any of the scenery. I stopped at a couple of lakes, and even attempted a short hike. I quickly gave up, as the fear of bears overpowered my desire to hike.
There was not a single person/car at the trailhead. I had been advised that the bear activity in the area was high, not to hike alone, make noise, and carry bear spray. I started seeing tracks fairly early in the hike, but dismissed them. The further I went, the fresher the tracks got and eventually, I freaked myself out. Though not before getting a couple of good pictures.
I continued south, stopping at all of the tourist spots along the road. Ending my driving journey at Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. Both were crawling with people, and rightfully so. It is funny to think how many people stop there, when they could drive 15 minutes further, find equally stunning lakes and less than a 10th of the crowds.
Reflecting on my journey as I continued South leaving Jaspar and Banff behind and entering Koolani National Park (yes, the landscapes continued to be epic for the majority of the drive), it was hard to truly describe just how incredible the journey had been. Ultimately, the world is a huge place, with some pretty incredible landscapes. I am not quite comfortable giving the Icefields Parkway “ most spectacular journey in the world”, but I will give it this – most spectacular road I’ve ever driven in North America.