Sunday, 12 July 2015

Getting Lost on Howe Sound Crest

somewhere around the Lions

This past Saturday, six of us started out to run the Howe Sound Crest trail from Porteau Cove to Cypress. The group included Katie, one of my longtime trail friends, Cam M, her lab-mate and sub-6hr Kneeknacker veteran, Tara, who was doing Squamush 50miler as one of her first trail races, Diedre, a Kona-qualifying triathlete who was doing Transrockies this year, and Cam, my running partner who I met at Transrockies last year. Two weeks ago, Diedre and I had been en route to Hanes  when I rolled my ankle and had to turn back. Diedre is still new to trail running, so I wanted to show her some of our awesome mountains, and this was to be one herfirst 'big' runs on the North Shore.

The route is 28km and 2,600m elevation gain on trails filled with roots, rocks and views. Well, just kidding on the views.

It had been a weird summer - early spring broke to a hot summer. The last week, our sky turned yellow with the smoke of fires burning across the spine of BC. That morning, the heatwave finally broke to grey skies. Here's the thing - we packed for the hike with the memory of the previous month's heat: two emergency blankets, three jackets, two buffs and a couple long sleeve shirts between six people. Before we set out, I texted my very patient friend with our trip plan and expected time back. I told her - 6pm, then call search and rescue. It was barely 8:30am.

We started the long climb towards Deeks lake through dark, muggy forest. After 45minutes, even my hair was sweating. At Deeks, the lake had disappeared into mist. We climbed, and kept climbing. The mist came in and out. At times, we had great views of the muted mountainside; clear blue lakes, stunted cedars, fields of purple nettles and grass growing next to boulders. Other time, the wind rushed over the mountain's spine, the rain picked up, and we struggled to see to the next trail marker.

Katie and I had done the trail before, almost three years earlier, on a clear late summer day, in a buzzing forest. The thing with Howe Sound - there are a lot of mountains around, and the ocean to one side. If you can keep track of those, it's more or less okay. Today, the ocean, the other mountains, were wrapped in cloud. We saw trail markers, noted lakes, kept going.

After 3 hours and 14km, we were all soaked by the steady rain. We had just finished a tight downhill, with sharp, angry bushes on either side. By this time, we had climbed over 1,800m. We were somewhere close to the Mt. Harvey pass - I know this, because that was one of the last Howe Sound Crest signs we were to see for a while.

I should note that it was raining steadily at this point, with cold winds. Dierdre was getting cold. When we set out, it was cloudy but muggy and hot, so Dierdre didn't bring a jacket. But she was still prepared with a gold emergency blanket. Which she opened up, wrapped around herself, then fastened her backpack over. This was helpful, as even in the increasingly limited visibility, we could hear the crinkling noise from the blanket as she approached.

I think that, if there was one point where the run became much more interesting (I think 'interesting' is a better word to use than 'daunting') is when we encountered a large boulder field. A large, wet boulder field where the markers seemed to peter out. With Cam's route-scouting, we happened along a smaller trail. The trail started to steeply descend. We couldn't see the ocean. We couldn't see any other mountains. Katie and I were pretty sure that we hadn't taken this route the time we had gone - but it was starting to look all the same, all the wet roots, yellow-green moss, pines and mist and rocky trail and the wind was colder so we wanted to keep moving.

The trail had flags, and kept dropping steeply. We kept going, although by now we were pretty certain that it wasn't the right trail. We thought - maybe we had accidentally taken the trail to Brunswick or Mt. Harvey? By this time, we were getting tired. It was four hours in. We gambled - we would follow the trail, and would hitch-hike back to our car from whatever trailhead we ended up at.

No such luck.

After an initial drop, the trail climbed back up, steeply. We went up another boulderfield, and couldn't tell if it was a new one, or if we were re-crossing our steps. Cam M and Katie bounded ahead, looking for the next trail sign. The rest of us lagged, wanting to conserve energy.

Most of the trail had no cell reception. However, at one point, I had a weak signal - not strong enough to check a map, but enough to let Renee know we were lost somewhere around Mt. Harvey (or, as I put it: "Hey! Guess where we are - because I have no clue."). The trail kept climbing, and we had no idea where it was going. Everything looked the same. By this point, it was 16k and 4hours in, and we were debating re-tracing all our steps to turn back, if we could remember them. At this point, I was wondering how long we'd need to wait until North Shore Search and Rescue would find us.

Just before we turned around, Katie caught sight of a solo hiker above us. We asked him - where were we? It turned out, we were just below the Howe Sound Crest trail. He had just come from the Lions, so he pointed us in the right direction. Just before we left him, I asked, again; "Are you sure this is the Howe Sound Crest Trail?, which prompted him to ask us if we would be okay, really.

So we weren't lost anymore. We had found the right trail, and to wind up at the Cypress Mountain parking lot, all we had to do was keep going.

Keeping going was really hard. We were all soaked. It was cold and windy. The trail covered wet rocks, slick roots, had chains and knife-edge rocks disappearing into clouds. As we didn't know how much off-course we had gone, we had no idea how much distance we had left. We kept moving to stay as warm as possible. Every turn, we climbed further towards summits hidden in the mist, hoping that we were still on the trail, hoping that we were going in the right direction. We started to get quiet.

the figure in gold is Dierdre wearing an emergency blanket

Actually, that isn't entirely true. For five of us, we were worried (Tara: "Will we be spending the night up here?" Katie: "I think we are going through something.", Me: "I wonder if I can keep going?' Dierdre; " WILL I EVER BE HAPPY AGAIN??!!"). Cam, however, after giving away all of his extra clothes and most of his food, was having a great time. I know this because, at regular intervals, he would tell us. These intervals, often coinciding with an especially treacherous downhill, or a sketchy section of the trail that needed rope.

Right before what ended up being the Lions we once again lost the trail going through a boulder field covered in cloud. Again, Katie heard voices, and we met up with another group of hikers. These ones showed us, on their map, where we had gone on a longer version of the trail with extra climbing. Being at the Lion's was good, but still meant we had a long, long way to Cypress.

No energy to fix my crazy hair

By this time, my feet felt bruised and my lungs scraped out. I couldn't think about going another five minutes, let alone three or four hours. I couldn't picture what it would look like to finish, get into my car, and drive home. I didn't really care much if I kept going, or if I stopped. I didn't care much about anything.

In the cold, eating food - taking off a backpack, unzipping compartments, opening packages - seemed like too much work. The thing is - I noticed the trail slipping away - Cam would catch me missing the orange spraypainted rocks, edging towards the wrong side of ridges.

Out of the mist, we saw a group of hikers wearing fresh, warm clothes and eating a snack. They saw us: "Where did you guys come from? It looks like you've been through the war." They generously shared all their food with us. And when I say all their food, I mean I stared at the piece of apple one of the hikers was eating like it was my soulmate, so much that he offered it to me. And I took that half-eaten piece of apple, and it was delicious. Katie had spied a bag of dried cereal, and was eatig handfuls. The hikers had even brought a clean, white flannel blanket. They offered it to us to use to mop off some of the mud and water from our faces.

The last couple hours brought us back into the forest, picking our way down roots. We spread out, re-grouped, spread out for the final drop from St. Mark's to the parking lot. Katie and Cam M had gone down ahead, with the car keys. Diedre and Cam were behind. It was me and Tara, edging our way down mud and along logs in a silent forest. After hours and hours of mostly silence, Tara turned to me: "So, what do you do for work? Are you training for any races?"

So, after nine hours, 31km and 2,860m of elevation gain, that's how Tara and I finished: running down the last couple kms of graded, clear trail until we saw the parking lot.

(Actually, in a manner representative of how the day went, I tried to "shortcut" to the parking lot by running directly down a ski run filled with brambles, shrubs, and loose rock.)

We changed into whatever warm, dry clothes were on hand, grabbed an after-run beer and chocolate pop tart, and piled into the car with the heat on full blast. All of us expressed that, at some point, we had had doubts about being able to finish. all of us, apparently, except Cam: "I can't wait to come back and do the trail again! Maybe in a week. Actually, maybe I need a few weeks." (additional feeback from Cam, after being out for 9hours: "I had to work overtime this week so I didn't get my Tuesday and Thursday runs in. So it was good to get in some extra time today!")

I finally got back to my apartment, ran a nuclear-hot shower, and cried until I wasn't quite sure what I was even crying about.

 And here's the thing about that run: even when we were on the right path,, we didn't know it was the right one.  Even when we knew where the end was, it didn't make it any less hard to get there. For the six of us, no matter how much anyone was struggling in their head: nobody cried, nobody lost it, nobody just stopped, nobody got injured.

The thing is - the last little bit, in my life, I'd been feeling a bit lost. Some days, it felt like it was already getting late, and I was going in the wrong direction. I think (or I hope, at least), that there can be the same achievement in the keeping going when things are uncertain, when the finish line or the path isn't clear. That same faith in persistence, the same trust in myself, the acceptance that it might be hard, really hard and things might not be easy or finished for a long while.

This doesn't sound very inspirational, really. It's easier to be inspired on days with bluebird skies, where my legs and my heart are both fresh and there's always something beautiful far, so far ahead. There is a balance to everything, and there is a darker beauty in starting on tired legs and running through uncertain forest right into the clouds.

I woke up the next day to sore legs, scraped ankles, and an itch to get back into the mountains again.