by Andy Stradling
Early on the Sunday morning of our departure, I checked the weather forecast for the Slocan Valley one last time. “BC may endure a month’s worth of rain by early next week”, it said. Not the best news to receive when you’re heading into the mountains for seven days.
We had chosen July for this year’s Boy’s Hiking Expedition. The hope was to avoid the wildfire smoke that has kept so many of us outdoor recreationalists from enjoying our local mountains, in late July-early August in recent years. Last year in late June and early July, British Columbians experienced our first ‘heat dome’. Temperatures over 40°C broke records for several days and claimed the lives of over 600 people, across the province. Hard on the heels of this, came BC’s third worst wildfire season on record, with over 1,600 fires burning 8,000 square kilometers of land.
In contrast, this year we were not concerned about heat and smoke. We would have welcomed some warmth and sunshine. June had been wetter than normal, and although the temperatures were close to the historical average, our spring snowmelt had been delayed. The snowpack in mid-June was reported to be double normal levels. This could present us with some challenges, given much of our route was going to be at elevations over 2,000 m.
Our plan was to traverse the Valhalla Range from south to north, beginning at Gimli and finishing at Shannon Lake. I had hiked the traverse in the opposite direction back in September 2002 with two good friends, Sean Thornton and Dave Reynolds, in celebration of my 40th birthday. A big chunk of life has ensued over the twenty years since that first Valhalla adventure. Kids have been born, grown up, graduated and left home. Some parents are approaching the end of their lives. Others have already passed on. Careers have advanced and some have ended in retirement. Despite all this change, the three of us continue to share the same love of the mountains and are still hiking together. This year, 2022, would mark the 20th Anniversary of our first traverse of the Range. This seemed to be a fitting way to celebrate my reaching the notable age of 60.
There were many memorable moments from our 2002 traverse, that over time have grown into legends. We never seem to tire of hearing stories from this expedition, and other great hikes. They get told, and retold whenever we are together sharing a few cold beverages. Each summer, for the last five years, Dave has been organizing the ‘Annual Boy’s Hiking Expedition’. The tales and images from these expeditions have attracted interest from other friends, expanding our group from three to as many as seven one year. Expeditions have typically been over two or three nights in July. This allows us to get by with 60-65 liter packs, weighing between 30-35 lbs. Heck, we have even been known to bring dessert along as an after-dinner treat, and lightweight camp chairs to relax into, in the evenings.
Back in mid-February I sent out an email to the Boys suggesting that we get together at our local watering hole to discuss this year’s expedition. My invitation mentioned that I had lately started contemplating tackling the Valhalla Traverse again in celebration of turning 60. Was anyone interested in joining me? The atmosphere turned thoughtful as we sipped our drinks. We all understood that this was a very different proposition from the typical Annual Boy’s Hiking Expedition. This would be a significantly more challenging undertaking, requiring cars at each end, contingency for emergencies, menu planning, gear purchases, training hikes, and careful scheduling.
Lubricated with more beer and cider, the legends of past adventures were recounted. Nostalgic grins on faces around the table gave away, how our hearts felt about new adventures in the same vein. At the conclusion of the evening, we had tentatively picked the first full week of July for our expedition. We had three experienced hikers interested in tackling the full traverse, myself, Dave and another regular from the Boy’s Hiking Expeditions, Greg Barrett. Sean didn’t think he would tackle the whole traverse again. Instead, he said he would try to get some of the Boys not doing the full traverse, to join him hiking towards us from the Shannon Lake end. Sean would start out on day six or seven, and could be our pickup person, saving us a car drop. So, with the plan hatched, we all thanked Greg for craftily picking up the hefty tab for our drinks, and went home to tell our wives the exciting news.
Planning for a seven-day expedition focused mostly on what to pack in terms of gear and food, and importantly, how much did it weigh? A sophisticated piece of technology, called an Oura ring tells me that in a typical active day, I burn about 3,000 calories. I spent some time surfing the web identifying foods with a high caloric value to weight ratio, preferably those that tasted good and didn’t need refrigeration. The result of this search was a menu that would give me the 3,000 calories I needed for about 640 g. Freeze dried meals were purchased for dinners. Breakfasts were oatmeal with nuts and seeds added. Lunches were crackers, cheese, dried meat and fruit. Instant soup, energy bars, nuts and chocolate were added as snacks. I had enough for six breakfasts, six dinners, seven lunches/snacks, plus one extra meal for emergencies. My food weighed 4.3 kg.
Over the last few years, I have methodically upgraded most of the major items needed for a hike of this nature, with new lightweight versions. Technical improvements in fabrics and design mean that my current backpack, sleeping bag, Thermarest, tent, and Gortex jacket were together 4.6 kg lighter than the ones they replaced. I weighed all the clothing, toiletries and equipment I wanted to bring along this time, and then started categorizing items as either mandatory or discretionary. One pair of long pants was mandatory, the second or a pair of shorts was discretionary. The same went for socks and underwear, etc. Once all the mandatory gear was listed and weighed, I made some decisions about what discretionary gear would improve comfort for the hike, and was worth the extra weight. For example, should I bring a 200 mid-weight or a 260 heavy-weight merino Icebreaker as a warm layer; the first being mandatory, the heavier warmer version, a discretionary choice.
At our last planning meeting on the afternoon before the hike, we weighed and divided the communal gear between the three of us. This included the stove, fuel, cooking pot, tarp, rope, first aid kit, water filter, etc. Once these items were added to our personal gear, food, and water, each of our packs weighed about 40-45 lbs. For Greg and myself, volume was more of a challenge than weight. I only had a 65 liter pack so things had to be both light and compact.
Greg and I were grateful that Dave had purchased a new InReach satellite communication device, in anticipation of this hike. This would allow us to send a daily report of our progress relative to the route plan, to someone back in Rossland. Sean agreed to act as our quarterback person and share our daily communications with our wives. He would also be the point person in the event that we were forced to abandon the route and needed a pick-up. At this meeting, Dave requested we delay our departure from Saturday to Sunday 3 July, to provide some extra care for his Mum. She had needed an emergency hip replacement earlier in the week.
My wife Jana, kindly agreed to ferry the three of us to our starting point at Gimli, early on Sunday morning. Fortunately, the Bannock Burn forest service road was snow free all the way to the trailhead. When we arrived there at 9:30 am, it had already started raining. Jana took the requisite photo of the three of us, all booted up and ready to start the trek up to Gimli. Our objective for the first day of the traverse was Valhalla Lake. We hoped to be able to make camp before the forecast thunderstorms hit. Long before shouldering my pack and stepping onto the trail, I knew I was going to face some additional challenges that morning. I was suffering from a bad case of dyskinesia, a movement disorder that occurs in people with Parkinson’s Disease.
I have been living with this progressive, neurological disorder since 2014. Parkinson’s Disease (PD) reduces the brain’s ability to generate dopamine, a vital neurotransmitter that controls movement. The symptoms of dopamine deficiency are tremors, slowness of movement, freezing and rigidity. In the eight years since my diagnosis, I have maintained an active lifestyle and good quality of life. Much of the time a casual observer would not be able to tell I have the disease at all. This would not have been possible, without a life-saving medication called levodopa.
Almost all PD patients take levodopa, which is converted in the body and brain into the dopamine, that the brain is deficient in. I take Sinemet (levo- carbidopa) regularly over the course of a day to ward off the symptoms of the disease. Too little levodopa, and I feel very sluggish and don’t move well at all (Wearing off or Off-time). However, too much levodopa over-stimulates the dopamine receptors, causing dyskinesia.
On the last hour of the drive up to the trailhead I started to feel a bit shaky. This was a warning signal that my first two Sinemet doses of the day, were wearing off. In fear of arriving at the start of the trek completely dopamine deficient, and unable to move, I had taken a third full dose of levodopa at around 9 am. This had pushed me over the top. Normally I would not have needed to take my third dose until between 11 and noon. On this morning I had let buried anxiety about my ability to undertake this adventure, overrule my judgement, as the reality of what lay ahead of me had loomed near. Now I had to accept the consequences.
So it wasn’t with the greatest composure, grace and ease that I stepped onto the trail to begin our seven- day traverse. Dave and Greg, sensing something of my condition, had suggested I set the pace. With dyskinesia, fighting to stay balanced while walking up a steep rocky trail is a bit like walking a tightrope. Unfortunately, the 40 lb pack on my back was more likely to throw me to the ground, than act as a counter-balance pole. I stumbled forward determinedly, breathing heavily as I fought to remain upright, after each step up the mountain. I found myself stopping every ten minutes or so to catch my breath, allow my racing heart to slow. I let my teammates know that I would be alright and called out to the doubters and sceptics in my head, to back off and give the Sinemet time to wear off.
Typically, my dyskinesia episodes last somewhere between 30 and 90 minutes. I knew that I could handle the unsteadiness as long as I was on the trail. However, I had no hope of crossing a boulder field safely, or kicking steps in the side of the steep, snowy slope above Mulvey Lakes, if I was still dyskinetic. Although Dave and Greg said little as I stumbled my way up the path, I felt their support. The expression on their faces, spoke volumes about how they were with me in my struggle. The going started to get easier above 2,000 m as we hit snow and the path became less steep. After what seemed like too long, we arrived at the campsite on the shoulder of Gimli. I had to stop, “Out of energy, I need to refuel” I said as I sat down on a rock and started rummaging in my pack, for an energy bar and some nuts.
I felt better after I had eaten something and gave some thought as to how this dyskinesia episode might be playing, for the two guys who had agreed to join me on this lengthy expedition. I gave them the ‘Coles Notes’ version of what I knew about dyskinesia and tried to reassure them. Although it might have looked as though I no longer had any control over my movements, this was only temporary. I fully expected it to wear off as it always had in the past, and I would be able to walk normally again very soon.
Sometime during the climb up, the rain stopped. Gimli and most of the surrounding peaks remained enveloped in clouds, but it looked like the weather was clearing to the west. Dave led the way up to the base of Gimli and traversed around the west side of it, on a mix of snow and boulders. By now I was feeling much more steady on my feet. I reached the menacing rockslide and carefully navigated the wobbly boulders to join Dave and Greg, at the Gimli-Nisleheim Col. Although it had taken three hours to get to this point, I was thrilled to be there and even felt a faint smile, forming on my face.
Ice axes in hand, we stepped onto the steep, and often icy, snow slope beneath Nisleheim and started traversing to the north. This wasn’t a place for unsteady legs. The consequences of an un-arrested slide were grave. Happily, this technical section was soon behind us without mishap. We reached the Nisleheim-Midgard Col and were rewarded with views of the Mulvey Basin, 300 metres below us. We made good progress descending about 200 m from this point, to traverse around the south side of Midgard Peak, towards the Col above Twin Lakes.
We encountered our first rotten snow ascending the south-west face of Midgard. We began post holing and this slowed our progress. It was exhausting work, hauling our bodies and heavy packs out of holes that swallowed our legs. To make matters worse, sometimes the other leg would break through the crust, while we were trying to regain our feet. Climbing toward the Col, we started hearing the ominous sound of thunder in the distance. We knew then that the forecasted storm would likely hit us, before we reached our proposed camp for the night.
Having assessed the snow conditions, we decided against attempting a new route to Valhalla Lake, around the south- west side of Mount Prestley. Given the rapidly approaching storm, we made the wise decision to follow the same route Dave and I had taken twenty years earlier. This route would have us descend to the Twin Lakes at 2,300 m, and pass between them. We could then climb up what we hoped would be firmer snow on the south-east side of the basin, to gain the Col above Valhalla Lake.
We reached the Midgard- Prestley Col at 2,400 m and looked down on the frozen Twin Lakes. After six hours of hiking with heavy packs, we were all feeling pretty tired. We couldn’t afford to stop long in such an exposed spot, so we each grabbed a quick snack before starting our descent. The storm was getting much closer now but we still had a good hour and a half of hiking in front of us, before we could make camp for the night.
Nothing is more disconcerting than crossing a wide-open basin with a thunderstorm approaching. Soon lightening was flashing all around us. Each of us tracked the storms progress by counting the seconds before the thunder followed. Dave was once again out in front, tirelessly breaking trail in the firm snow, while Greg and I followed in his footsteps. The storm finally struck us as we climbed up the steep, exposed slope to the Twin Lake-Valhalla Lake Col at 2,500 m. Twenty minutes of large hail, big rain drops and driving wind soaked us through to our underwear, and propelled us upwards to the Col.
Looking down the other side at the frozen expanse of Valhalla Lake, we could see that it was very unlikely we would find any bare ground, to camp on when we reached the lake. We would be pitching on snow. We were relieved that the storm cell seemed to have passed over, and that at least we had done all our climbing for the day. We had 360 m to descend to the lake, where we could drop our heavy packs, and get some water on the boil for a hot drink.
Another storm cell hit us hard, soon after we left the Col and started our descent. Heavy rain, hail and wind accompanied us for 30 minutes as we plunged down the slope, towards our much-anticipated camp. The snow on the west-facing slope was even more rotten when we got closer to the lake. Many a curse was uttered as the snow collapsed beneath each of us, twisting knees and ankles, and we had to haul our tired bodies out of the gaping holes we created.
One of the legends of our Boy’s Hiking Expeditions, tells of the first time Dave and I hiked into Valhalla Lake. It was on the seventh and last day of our 2002 traverse. Sean had called for a pick up at the Drinnan trailhead, while Dave and I decided to continue on to Mulvey and finish the traverse at Gimli, the following day. We chose to explore a low elevation route to Valhalla Lake from Drinnan Pass and found ourselves in the middle of a huge field of Volkswagon-sized boulders, in a torrential downpour.
Navigating through these mammoth boulders was both tiring and frustrating. We had already spent a long day hiking over from Hird Lakes. Being pelted by rain was one thing, but we really didn’t need to face this obstacle course as well. We would scramble up one huge boulder, often only to be confronted with a second, that was insurmountable, forcing us to backtrack and look for another way forward. We must have spent nearly two hours lost among those boulders, before we finally gained the elevation of the lake.
Soaked through and exhausted, and with tell-tale cuts and grazes on our hands and knees, we made our way around the east shore of the lake. We were looking for a sheltered spot to get a tarp up and pitch our tent. As the legend tells, it was at that moment, in that isolated spot in the Valhallas, that two mugs of hot tea appeared out of a copse of trees. Bearing these very welcome gifts of sustenance, were the familiar faces of two, seasoned hikers, Ken and Bert. As we shared stories over our tea, we learned that they had just set up camp at Valhalla Lake, after the first day of their south-north traverse of the range. Twenty years ago, they had started out from the Gimli trailhead, just as we had this very morning.
Regrettably although we had arrived at the same spot exhausted and wet through, there were no hot cups of tea to revive us this time. Instead of the alpine meadows of September 2002, we found three feet of snow. There was no bare ground to be seen. Knees and ankles were tweaked on the treacherous, rotten snow, as we searched the shoreline for a campsite. We needed somewhere to pitch two tents and shelter ourselves from the driving rain, and soon.
We stumbled into a small clearing in a copse of trees and threw our packs down. I dug the Sil-Tarp out of my pack and we strung it up. Dave got his stove out and tried to fire it up for some hot soup. “We have a problem,” he announced. His lighter wouldn’t work. It was either out of fuel or just damp. Concern showed on his face when I reported that I had imprudently left my lighter at home. Greg didn’t have one either. We were in a tough spot. We had stopped moving, and were now feeling cold. All three of us were shivering in our wet clothes.
Dave pulled his box of emergency matches out of his wet pack. These were our last hope of avoiding going to bed without hot food and drink. It took almost half a box before he finally got one to flare long enough, to light the fuel. It was a great relief to hear the sound of a roaring stove under a pot of water. Greg suggested wisely, that we all change into some dry clothes, before we got hypothermic. Soon we were wearing our warm base layers and down jackets under our Gortex rain coats, and each had a mug of hot soup in our hands.
We started to feel much better as the soup warmed us, but we all knew that we had pushed ourselves pretty hard that day. We assessed our situation. It had taken us 8.5 hrs to cover the 9.5 km and 1,100 m of elevation gain between Gimli and Valhalla Lake. The deep snowpack had made the going much harder than we had anticipated; very firm on the NE slopes, too rotten on the SW slopes. We were likely going to face the same challenging conditions for the rest of the traverse. The 7-day forecast had shown a high probability of rain for the next few days. Most of our clothes and gear were already wet and it was unlikely that our boots would dry out for days. We would be camping on snow every night, and it was going to be difficult to keep our sleeping bags dry, with our tents being packed away wet. These challenges aside, we didn’t have enough matches to ensure we could heat water for our meals for six more days.
It became obvious to all of us that we were not going to be able to complete the traverse given these circumstances and we should cut our expedition short. With some reluctance, we sent an inReach message to Sean requesting a pick up at Drinnan trailhead for the following day at 2 pm. Within 15 minutes Sean confirmed that he had received our message and would be there to meet us. Although it is never easy to admit defeat, it is sometimes wise to do so, given the circumstances. I sensed our spirits lift a little with this decision made, an indication that we would not regret it.
We kept the stove going to conserve the remaining matches, and boiled more water for tea. The rain was easing up, and the sky to the west was lightening. From under the shelter of the tarp, I saw a small area of bare ground under a nearby cedar, that might accommodate my tent. It wasn’t ideal, but if I pruned back a few seedlings, and moved some snow around, I could probably create enough space for the footprint. I grabbed my snow shovel and set about clearing some snow to create a tent pad.
Three days earlier, on a ‘dress rehearsal’ hike up Mt. Lepsoe with a full pack, I had run into rotten snow on the ridge at an elevation of 2,000 m. The planned campsites on the traverse route were all going to be above this elevation. This persuaded me to swap the bear spray I was carrying that day, for a lightweight snow shovel. Dave and Greg both had bear sprays; we didn’t need three of them. This turned out to be one of the better decisions I had made for this hike, perhaps making up somewhat, for leaving the backup lighter at home.
The rain had stopped by the time my tent was up, and the pot was again filled with water for our dinners. Dave and Greg decided they were going to pitch their tent out in the open, and borrowed the snow shovel to dig out a second tent pad. We all had a selection of dehydrated meals to choose from, though only Greg said he found his Santa Fe Chicken enjoyable. The macaroni in my Chili Mac was still crunchy and Dave reported that his Kathmandu Curry was bland and tasteless. We had just enough time to hang our food in a nearby tree and brush our teeth, before darkness fell. It was a pleasure to at last be able to remove our wet boots and socks. We crawled into our sleeping bags to warm our cold feet and get some sleep. I checked my Oura ring and was surprised to find that I had burned 6,400 Calories on that first day. It was no wonder I was so tired and hungry, when we made camp.
It was a wet and windy night, and although I was warm and relatively dry, I slept poorly. I had pitched my tent on a bit of a sideways slope. This caused me to roll off my Thermarest several times during the night, interrupting my sleep. Moisture had come up through the footprint and the floor of the tent, so my sleeping bag felt a bit damp as I stuffed it into its bag the next morning. I emerged from the tent to find that the rain had stopped, but grey clouds suggested that this dry spell might not last. I retrieved the food from the bear cache and started fuelling up on nuts, pepperoni and dried mango. Dave surfaced about an hour later and once again got the stove alight, with the few matches he had remaining. He and Greg had slept better on their snow pad. We enjoyed a hot breakfast of oatmeal and tea before packing away our wet tents and breaking camp. The rain, which had returned during breakfast, was easing up when we started walking at 9 am.
The three of us felt pretty comfortable with the hike that was in front of us, over to Drinnan. On our Boy’s Expedition a year ago this very weekend, we had successfully scouted out a new high route to Valhalla Lake from Wicca Lakes. This passed over the north shoulder of Drinnan at 2,300 m, thereby avoiding the horrific boulder field below the lake outflow. The snowpack this year was however significantly deeper and more variable, than last July. This would no doubt, make the going a little more challenging on some aspects, but we were fairly confident we could follow the same route.
We soon arrived at our first obstacle, Valhalla Creek. This was flowing pretty fast with snowmelt waters, and had to be crossed. Despite scouting up and down the creek for the safest place, each of us put a foot in the icy water when we leapt between the slippery stepping-stones. None of us cared too much. We knew our fresh, dry socks would soon be sodden, from the wet snow anyway.
It was a little disconcerting to look up at the east face of Drinnan, and see a huge cornice hanging over the steep snow slope we had to climb, to attain the high bench above the cliff band. This wasn’t there when we descended and ascended the very same slope last July. Dave moved upwards confidently, kicking steps in the firm snow, and Greg and I followed as quickly as we could. The snow was hard and firm and our ice axes were needed to arrest a couple of slides. When at last we were out from the shadow of the cornice, we breathed a sigh of relief, only to find ourselves under the shadow of a dark cloud.
We were contouring carefully across the exposed NE face of Drinnan Peak when the third thunderstorm of the hike struck us. It was miserable going in the heavy rain, but we were all very conscious of the danger of a slip and a slide here, with the cliffs just below us. The worst of the storm cell had eased when we reached the pass at 11:15 am. This would mark our highest elevation of the day. We could see Drinnan and Wicca Lakes, 300 m below us. Our spirits lifted, from here it was all downhill to Sean’s truck and cold beers.
We briefly considered a more direct route down to the east-shore of Drinnan Lake but concluded that given our condition, and that of the snow, this was no time for daring shortcuts. We wisely followed the same route down to Wicca Lakes, that we had taken last year. It was a slippery descent on wet snow, mud and scree, Greg was even forced to use his ice axe to self-arrest at one point on the descent. We would have walked straight over our 2021 campsite without noticing it, if the outhouse hadn’t been standing there with four feet of snow in front of the door. It was hard to believe that a year ago we had all taken a refreshing dip in Wicca Lake, after the hot, nine-hour round trip to Valhalla Lake. This July, the Wicca Lakes were still frozen solid.
Dave used the GPS on his watch to follow the buried trail down towards Drinnan Lake. The descent on rotten snow was again accompanied by our frequent curses. The snowpack got worse as we got closer to the end of the lake, and was rarely able to support our weight. At last, shortly after crossing Drinnan Creek at 1920 m, the snow petered out. Shortly after that, we saw Sean’s smiling face coming towards us. We exchanged warm greetings, swapped ice axes for trekking poles and marched swiftly down the trail to the awaiting vehicle and some welcome, iced beverages.
A little rush of alcohol into the system gave rise to some lively banter on the bumpy ride down Hoder Creek Forest Service Road, but there were also quieter moments when each of us were lost in our thoughts. My reflections were on our decision to walk away from the goal of traversing the full Range. I recall that when I did the 2002 traverse as an ambitious forty-year-old, I was more goal-driven. I felt happy after achieving our objective and ‘conquering’ the Range. However, sitting there in Sean’s truck, I was not feeling any sadness about not completing the traverse we had planned and prepared for.
Perhaps I have accumulated some insights and wisdom over another twenty years of life on this planet, the last ten of these retired from the world of corporate culture. Nowadays, I seem less preoccupied with the end goal, and more present and mindful of my experience of the moment. I am happy to simply Be out there in the mountains. It nourishes my soul in some way. I feel at home and at peace in the ‘church of the great blue dome’. The only ‘conquering’ that occurs these days, is of my subjugated ego and in that respect, the mountains humbled me with another lesson.
Three days later, we were all sitting round a table at the usual watering hole to reflect on the adventure we had just shared, and how each of us had fared. It was noticeable that none of us were downcast due to the decision to bail on the full traverse. Our choice to abandon the hike was the right one to make given the snow and weather conditions, we had experienced during that first day. Absent the critical problem of not having the means to light a stove, I think the three of us would still have been wise enough to make the decision to walk away and try again another year. The mountains demand our respect and always have something to teach us. We had all learned something from the adventure. The first cold beverage was replenished with a second, while each of us shared some of the memorable experiences from this year’s Annual Boy’s Hiking Expedition. Tales began to emerge, a new rich vein of stories to be mined, for many years to come. It is in the mountains that legends are born.