For the first time, this mountain experience had me wondering if I was going to make it out alive.
On Yukon Hiking, this mountain is described as a difficult, 8hr, 13km hike. With my experience, I brushed it off as an easy 5 hour hike. The photos looked lacklustre at best, and the trail, clear with a gentle incline. I’ve got this!
The trailhead is 6km or so down a muddy ATV/powerline “road”, that I couldn’t quite make it to without getting stuck in the miniature mud lakes, so I opted for driving through the low-lying shrubs and young trees (sorry babies), and parked. The walk to and from the actual trailhead was an extra 2-3km per way.
The incline quickly took our breath away, but I wouldn’t describe the terrain as “Difficult”. Until the snow…but that would come a little later.
For now, I enjoyed feeling my burning calves, my short and erratic breathing, and the sweat beading on my forehead. My body was being tested, and I loved it. The sky was overcast with a very light breeze, making it the perfect temperature for hiking.
The vibrant violet crocuses dotted the mountain side, their petals open like eager arms deep-stretching after this long, cold Whitehorse winter. Their yellow insides as bright as the sun itself. Spring, I thought, is finally here. Goddess in hell, was I wrong…
With breathing heavy and decent conversation keeping cognizance at bay, I hardly noticed the bare, winter-trampled grass had turn to ankle-deep snow. I felt relieved to have boots on, which I had been regretting for the first hour of this barren hike. But my relief turned quickly turned to discomfort as the snow began piling in these low-cut boots, creating cold toes and soggy socks. WHY did I leave my gaiters in the car! But I knew why.. we could see the mountaintops from the base and estimated, from 1500+meters below, that the snow couldn’t be more than a few inches in some places. But if humanity has learned anything, it is to never judge a book by it’s cover. Especially when it comes to the mountains.
One step, fall, get up, fall. We had been Breaking trail for two hours with the summit in sight. We were getting nowhere fast. Up to our thighs in snow trying to maintain an upright position on the steep slope was already exhausting our muscles, add on trying to constantly dig out our legs, just to fall right back in the next step. My sartorius muscles were throbbing, wearing by the minute.
People often ask what I find so bewitching about the Mountains, and I can never quite articulate this adequately. But let me try.
My love for the wilderness, is something I feel in my bones. It is more of a home to me, than any house I’ve ever lived in. The wild spaces are ones that I am reluctant to share with other people because it is the most sacred place I have ever known. I am in love with the solitude; the silence broken only by nature’s voices. Being a solitary human in nature is the most bittersweet feeling on Earth; Simultaneously I feel as though I belong here, more than anywhere, but in my human heart, with my human hands and human needs, I know that nature belongs to itself, outside of any, and all, things human.
I am not a religious person, but The Wild is [my] God. Walking through these ancient woods; witnessing the sun rising from the highest mountaintops–the Wild is my salvation.
4 hours and 36 minutes later with a high five and the clink of a Yukon Brewing double IPA, we had made the summit. The quiet was welcomed. After hours of constant struggling, it felt like that moment you step off a trampoline as a kid, the gravity and stillness hit you, heavy as hell and all at once, until you feel like your feet will solidify to the Earth below you.
I took in the views as we peeled off our soaked footwear and wrung out the lakes from our socks, then tucked our freezing feet into a warm sweater, together. Together? I realized here, for the first time, that I liked sharing the mountains, my salvation, my Wild, with the woman beside me.
Even the dogs briefly stopped competing for Alpha, and had a 30 second sleep. I fired up the jet boil and we waited, salivating, for the Pad Thai to fill our hungry tummies. During the scarfing, we estimated the easiest, quickest route back would be to descend the neighbouring peaks snow-free face in attempts to shave off the 2+ hour section of trying to trudge through that thigh-high snow again.
With food and beer fuelling happiness and the prospect of being over the difficulties we had endured thus far, we made our descent with a skip in our step. The skip did not last long. Once at the bottom of that range, we realized our mistake.
We were stuck in thick willow brush and sun-warmed packing snow up to our waists that not even the dogs could get through. We kept trying to cut across the mountain to stay away from deeper snow, but after a couple of hours, we had no choice but to ascend to the top of the ridge, hundreds and hundreds of meters above. In between us and the top of the ridge, laid deeper snow, thicker brush and large boulders to navigate.
I could tell we were both scared, exhausted and holding back tears. The dogs couldn’t even get through the snow. They stuck behind us, just trying to trudge through it. Aspen, Ashley’s 10 month old husky, was bleeding from a nail pretty bad and at this point I was pulling at my pant leg trying to coerce my right leg to even move. That sartorius muscle was shot, and we were still hours and hours away from the car. It was already 7pm, and in April, in the mountains, the sun could dip below a range at any point and leave us stuck, in the dark, in waist deep snow, with no tracks and no trail in sight. We were in trouble. I started thinking we were going to have to call the police and get a rescue team out here for the 6 of us. But I refused to say it aloud, I kept telling myself to KEEP MOVING! Get to that ridge and find your tracks! KEEP. GOING.
And we did. We finally scaled the mountain, and made it to the top of the ridge. WE. DID. IT. Our moods both improved as we were consoled by the safety we had found in our footprints from this morning. It was almost 9:30pm and the sun was finally setting, as if having waited until we found our way. We chatted happily, openly sharing our food daydreams to one another as we made our decent, the snow gradually dissolving as we lost altitude.
Hungry, soaked, and shaking from exhaustion, we were finally on flat ground. That 13 kms turned into 20+. 8 hours into 11.
Another reason for my attraction to these wild spaces, is that you truly are at the Mercy of them. And the Mountains are no exception. Despite how well prepared you think you are, you can never, really, be certain what a day in the Wild will bring. And even after a menacing day like this, I cannot imagine loving the wilderness, any less. If anything, I am compelled to love it more.
I am always learning; Nature is always teaching.
To see more of Ashley Swinton’s incredible photography: