on the Documentary Channel
The team are queuing at Tim Hortons, ready for a hit of caffeine and breakfast bagels, chatting and smiling. We have a big day today. We are heading to Jasper National Park to learn basic mountaineering skills and the techniques needed for safe passage on ice and snow - invaluable skills that will help us safely scale and summit Island Peak in the October.
We head out along Icefields Parkway, blessed by the splendour of some of Canada's most spectacular scenery. An incredible shade of jade green creeps into view on my left - Peyto Lake is breathtaking in the early morning light. We pull into a beautiful woodland camp and the team instantly click back into military mode; order and discipline that have served them well in their lives. Even though these folks are spread out across six time zones - they are a unit - courteous and pulling together.
Bright and early, we head off with a bag full of climbing gear and gorp! GORP?! I don't like the sound of that! Sounds like something we outlawed in Britain years ago! Conjures up images of Dickens and kid's stuck up chimneys - or Monty Python skits - take your pick! Someone puts me out of my 'handful of hot gravel' misery and explains that the acronym stands for 'good old raisons and peanuts'. Wow! A bag full of healthy goodness. But, I can't help but eat ALL the Smarties first.
We head up into the hills of Jasper National Park, to a steep snow slope that stretches up to high alpine meadows, pinpricked with candy coloured wildflowers. We split into small groups and our first lesson is how to walk on snow in crampons! Snagging a crampon in your trouser leg doesn't sound like much to be worried about, but people have tripped and fallen off mountains by doing just that - not something that we want to happen on the steep snowy slopes of Island Peak!
We have two metal plates of spiky teeth strapped to our feet and our guide instructs us to 'walk like a cowboy'. Someone suggests imagining we're walking with a loonie held between the cheeks of our backsides!
Do I want to imagine that? Not at all. I'll think I'll stick to John Wayne. The way I'm walking, I look more like I'm suffering from crampons rather than wearing them.
We learn to 'self arrest' using ice axes. Our team are spread out across the hill, sliding rapidly down the snow-face, laughing and flipping like fish at the last moment, ramming full weight onto axes to instantly stop our fall. I am covered in a confetti of snow, and perhaps more than my fair share of bruises, but am confident that should I fall now on the mountain, the only thing I may break, is a finger nail.
I have seen Island Peak and the long, icy gradient leading up to it's summit. Although we will be climbing attached to fixed ropes, each one of us will be going through our own private battle against the altitude, differing levels of fitness and the mental pressure of being on the side of a big mountain in a very unforgiving locale!
The afternoon takes us to the vast Colombia Ice Fields. A sea of snow and ice flows down from the summit above, looking steep and unforgiving. I shiver slightly, with more than a little trepidation for what is about to come. Using the metal fangs on the front of our crampons to kick into the snow, we learn to front-pick up a steep wall of ice. Crampons are cumbersome, but we seem to be finding our pace and footwork. The climb is exhilarating!
People's faces are fired up and glowing with the sense of achievement from a good day spent together out in the hills. The guys and gals are scattered along the ropes that snake high up the face of the glacier and, no matter what incapacity some of the soldiers are burdened with, everyone pulls together and makes their mark on the mountain.
Next morning, we head to the massive Athabasca glacier. It's rough edges are cracked like heels, with deep crevasses - the ideal location to learn safe glacier travel. We are roped together like huskies - four to a team - and I have never been so glad to be with a professional guide.
I feel like we're walking on top of a giant Slushy and at some point I am going to punch through and drag everyone with me! Streams of ice-blue water snake sinuously down the surface of the glacier, creating moulins - narrow chutes of water that have melted down through the glacier and disappear under the ice. Rumour has it, a man once slipped down one and was log flumed out alive into the river below.
I doubt my derriere would allow me that disgrace, but I instinctively take a large step away from the edge regardless. Each group has separated across the glacier - looking like ants on a giant cotton bedspread! As ants head for honey, I can see folks heading back down, gathering around a postage stamp of colour.
It is the Canadian flag!
With ice axes raised in the air, these CF vets are united under the flag, ready to face the ultimate challenge! To take that flag and the hearts of the Canadian people all the way with them, to Everest and the very top of Island Peak!
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