The Mountains Are Calling
A novice’s account of the VOC Tantalus Trip, August 2-4 2014
The Tantalus Mountains emerge to the west of the Sea to Sky Highway in formidably angled peaks, graced with permanent snow fields and modest glaciers which accentuate the dark jagged summits. They are best seen coming from Whistler, and though the average day-tripper could not name them, the Tantalus command respect from any onlooker who chooses to peer out their car window on the commute back to Vancouver.
There are many reasons behind the appeal of the Tantalus range. For me it originates both from my memories as a young camper gazing up at those peaks on the return drive from Paradise Valley, and from the accounts of my grandfather, geologist C. S. Ney, who wrote periodically for the Canadian Alpine Journal and was once also a VOC member. In “A Trip to the Tantalus Range,” written for the 1940 issue, my grandfather had described these mountains as “a powerful ‘tantalus’ to any addict of the hills,” perched alluringly on the horizon like the boughs of fruit which teased the starving god of the same name in Greek lore. From the casual observer to the experienced mountaineer, the view of the Tantalus is a siren call.
This of course incurs potential dangers. I had not experienced the alpine before, not in the way that I did this weekend. I was warned off of this trip by numerous members of the VOC during the pre-trip meeting at Tolmie Beach, among them Ian Johnston, who told me that the approach to the lake itself was like Grouse Grind and a half with a 35 lb pack. My memory can be advantageously selective when it comes to preparing for such excursions. I failed to mention to myself or the VOC that I hadn’t backpacked since high school, that I had never needed to be self-sufficient in terms of gear, that when I said “I’m in shape” I meant running marginal distances on a clear track or obviously marked trails with nothing to carry except my own weight. To say the trip was “Beginner-friendly,” was a misnomer; Cora aptly rebranded the trip “Beginner-friendly” with a postscript of “Left to their own devices.” She also admitted that it was probably one of the most disorganized pre-trip meetings the VOC had seen, for a trip that demanded a fair amount of preparation.
After a lot of email FAFF and a fair amount of frustration, rides were arranged and designated arrival times were loosely set out for our departure date of Saturday, August 2. I drove up with another new VOC member, Sam Raski, and much to my relief there was room for us to take the boat across. I wouldn’t have to face the infamous Tyrolean Traverse. I left that to some of the other VOC members and was satisfied to experience it vicariously through them. From what I heard, when it was not gruelingly tedious it was just plain scary, but I suppose that’s what Andrew would call “Type II Fun.” Those doing the Tyrolean left Vancouver at around 8:30, the same time that Sam and I arrived at Sunwolf Resort in Squamish to meet the other car group taking the boat. After a careful crawl through the backroads Sam and I reconvened with Andrew, Jared and Mirko on the banks of a murky but actively flowing Squamish River. We were ferried across in a fishing boat by Patrick, a local First Nations resident.
On the other side of the river, the bank was covered in small frogs. I chased them in playful glee to the amusement of a patient Mirko while we waited with the gear for the other members to make the crossing. We were on the trail just before 10:00 and began the steep scramble up towards the lake. It was a difficult ascent, even if I had been climbing without the pack. The unfamiliar shape and weight made agile maneuvers almost impossible for my inexperienced legs and I was grateful for the pair of borrowed trekking poles. In the summer heat, sweat had begun to drip from my chin and I ascended in awkward lunges and thrusts which left me falling behind the others.
Writer and hiker Holly Keith once wrote that “To climb a mountain is to commit an imaginative act,” and “it doesn’t happen unless your mind takes your body there first.” She also wrote of the rewards of a hike, even the most trying ones. Today, I had no difficulty counting my rewards: the frogs on the bank; the rainbow hovering in the spray of the falls; the first view of the Black Tusk and Garibaldi from the trail; the glistening surface of Lake Lovely Water emerging from between the trees ahead.
Although my greeting of choice to fellow hikers and VOC members that I met along the way was some variation of “You go ahead, I’m much slower than you are,” I was filled with gratitude just to be there, sweating in the heat, working my way up into the alpine and watching the slight elevation gain show itself in the types of shrubs along the way. I didn’t arrive at the lake until about 3:00. Mirko and Jared had gone ahead, and other VOC hikers quickly overtook us. They had already set up camp and were lounging in perfect ease on the lakeshore dock, where I joined them for a dive into the pristine glacial water.
I was told that it was unlikely I would find space at the main campsite, so I left for the sand spit in my undies and a pair of Crocs. What I thought would be a lakeshore promenade was actually a nasty half hour scramble. Not far from the trail head I was compelled to put on my clothes and boots; not long after that I found myself exhausted and thoroughly lost on a marked trail, feeling incredibly dumb and left alone to contemplate the irony of Harry Nilsson’s “One is the Loneliest Number” playing like an anthem in my aching head. I managed to retrace my steps before Elise rescued me, somehow managing to leave my dignity intact. It was a valuable lesson in a relatively safe scenario to never take unfamiliar terrain for granted.
Leaving camp at around 7:00 AM on Sunday, tent mates Carly, Sebastian, Logan, along with Dillon and Elise joined Jared and Mirko from the main campsite and left for the ridge, aiming to scale up Iota, Pelops, and Niobe in time for supper on the lakeshore. A second group leaving from the sandspit passed Sam, Andrew and I on their way up to the ridge at about 8:45 not too far up from Niobe Meadows. Some discarded gear left on the rocks from one of the groups was further evidence that the glacier was stable, crevasses exposed, and that the ascent up the snow slope would yield to kick-steps. I was fortunate enough to do the kick-step part. The ascent is tedium, but coming down on late-day snow using the back of one’s heels and bracing casually on an ice axe is, as I remarked to my very patient guide, rather like “going for a walk” in a swinging, Charleston strut with snow spraying up from your heels.
That day left me feeling both incredibly alive and exhausted. Things that I could see came intuitively to Andrew and other VOC members were techniques that I had to consciously weigh and consider. As I descended, I was reminded of a quote from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir WILD, an account of her trek along the Pacific Crest Trail:
I realized I didn’t know what a mountain was, or even if I was hiking up one mountain or a series of them glommed together…They were, I now realized, layered and complex, inexplicable and analogous to nothing.
A mountain was no longer a subject in the distance to be caught in my graphite scribblings, not a subject for digital shots to be filed for later viewing or posted on Facebook and assigned as desktop backgrounds. It was not a pretty picture. It has now to me become a compilation of terrain types daring to be negotiated, each section presenting its own challenges and behaving differently depending on the degree of the slope, the quality of the rock, seasonal and diurnal changes to the snow and glaciation, and the presence of creeks or groundwater. These concerns of course are paired with the not-to-be-sniffed-at hazards of loose, dry dirt under your boots or underbrush so thick that bushwhacking suddenly becomes tree-walking when the trail is too steep and overgrown to keep your feet on the ground. Not that I would know from experience; the approach to Pelops, following a narrow cascading waterfall, seemed like a Jurassic paradise from my perch atop Iota. I was disillusioned when Carly Peterson, a member of one of two groups who chose to hike the ridge, told me that they had given up trying to keep their feet on the trail and had resorted to stepping from bough to bough through the trees.
Some of the attending VOC hikers had discussed attempting the scramble up to Alpha, but the view of the approach and some cautionary tales from ACC members in camp confirmed that the Twins had been a better option. That is not to suggest that many who did the ridge won’t be tantalized by the prospect of longer, more difficult hikes from Lovely Water on a future VOC trip.
We were scheduled to meet Patrick on the river bank by 5:00 on Monday, and despite the heavy ache that had settled into my worn muscles, every part of me wanted to stay in the Tantalus. Those who had made camp at the main campsite left at 11:00, some of them wanting to arrive earlier at the Tyrolean. Jared and Mirko took a morning excursion up to the Russian Army Camp and caught up with us just before we reached the bank. We exchanged casual banter with some other hikers waiting for a boat ride (theirs came with cold beer) and one of them remarked on the patchwork that the bugs had made of my bare arms. Niobe Meadows had boasted three different types of flesh-biting bugs, but I had been so distracted by the heavily perfumed wildflowers and the challenges of the climb to Iota that I had disregarded the bloody smudges and swollen bites forming along my limbs. When I later examined the blisters, pack sores, bites, snow burn, sun burn, cuts and bruises that were dappled across my body, I only had one thought: WORTH IT.
We had the jet boat driver from the other group wake up Patrick’s uncle from an afternoon snooze, and before too long we saw him coming across to fetch us. Not only did we get to watch a small black bear drink from the river on the opposite shore, but we were able to get to Squamish at about 5:30 for supper at the Shady Tree Pub. I had managed to bear the unfamiliar exertion of the trip remarkably well, but I was glad when I wasn’t the only one exclaiming over some part of my legs when we rose from the table. We were all tired from the heat and descent, but revived by cold drinks and friendly chatter, we made the long drive home.
Thoreau once wrote that every excursion should be taken “in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return – prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms.” To leave the mountains behind me did not feel like a home-coming, and I was partly serious when I suggested to the group that we just keeping going to Garibaldi. I was left with the conciliatory thought that returning to Vancouver was simply a brief, interruptive interval between adventures. I know that other VOC members are already setting their sights on Sky Pilot and other trips scheduled for the coming weeks. I listened to them, reassured by the knowledge that the mountains cannot keep us away for long.
Photo Credits to both Kathryn Ney and Sam Raski.