28 November 2015
With Priyesh, Sarvan, Elias & Wen
Canada is one of the few places in the world, in my opinion, where complete strangers can become friends very quickly. And making friends applies especially to the mountains of course, where you depend on one another and where joining forces is often more fun, safe and productive than going it alone. Our Mount Haffner trip, which Wen and I had planned as our first snowshoeing outing together, was the perfect example. Where else in the world can two groups of complete strangers become instant friends and then hike together for the next 11 hours!?
As Wen and I pulled up in the deserted parking lot across from Mount Haffner in Kootenay National Park that Sunday morning at 8 am, it was a chilly -18 degrees outside and we were not surprised to see nobody else around. We half-heartedly pulled out our gear and started putting on the layers in the frigid cold, quietly wondering if the day wasn’t better spent at the hot springs in Banff instead… Then, to our surprise, another car appeared and three guys hopped out. The first one – dressed all in blue – happily wished us a good morning and approached us with a big friendly smile. “Are you guys going up Haffner as well?” His name was Priyesh, and he instantly formed a connection with us, breaking the ice between two groups of complete strangers. Priyesh and his friends Sarvan and Elias had coincidentally planned their first trip on showshoes at the exact same place and time as we had. Needless to say we all happily agreed to do the trip together. After all, 5 snowshoers are much stronger than only 2 or 3 alone!
There were absolutely no traces of anyone else having been up the slopes of Mount Haffner recently. The snow was deep and soft and right from the start we struggled quite considerably to make any headway. Perhaps in summer there is an obvious trail starting from across the parking lot, but today everything was covered in at least 1-2 feet of snow so we just took the “easiest” route between the trees. That quickly got us into bushwhacking terrain and short, steep slopes with messy deadfall in the way – not easy to navigate on snowshoes! We started taking turns breaking trail as it only took about 10-20 minutes for the first person to exhaust their energy. After an hour or so it felt like we had barely made any progress… we had hardly gained any elevation and still couldn’t even see the summit, but we were already tired. It was quite disheartening. However, in only an hour we had already developed such a good routine of taking turns in an incredible display of teamwork and mutual reliance, we simply put our heads down and tramped on. It was really amazing for me to see what team spirit can do to you, especially for us two groups who didn’t even know each other. Despite our miserably slow progress (the snow just kept getting deeper and softer!), we all had so much fun chatting and laughing and swearing along the way as we were getting to know each other. The sun came out in full splendor and it was turning into an absolutely beautiful day with blue skies as far as the eye could see. Our rotation method worked wonderfully well and after hours more of carving a nice trail into the snow we finally reached the broad ridge near the col between Vermilion Peak and Mount Haffner. Thus far, the terrain had actually been quite gentle and it was easy to snowshoe through the widely spaced trees that in 2003 had fallen victim to a lightning-induced forest fire, one of the largest ever in the Canadian Rockies. Practically the entire section from the highway to the ridge was burnt forest and I believe the snow actually helped cover up a lot of other deadfall and shrubs underneath, which would be quite annoying in the summer.
At the col we angled right and from here, with the exception of one short steep slope, it was a fairly straightforward hike along the ridge all the way to the top. The angle was certainly steeper than before on the lower slopes, but there was pretty much no exposure and no hands-on scrambling was involved. Some 200-300 metres before reaching the summit I took off my snowshoes as I found it easier to use my boots on the rocky parts of the ridge where the wind had blown off most of the snow. We reached the summit just after sunset and were treated to a fine display of alpenglow on the horizon to the east. Mount Ball, Beatrice Peak and Mount Stanley formed a formidable backdrop, while to the west Mount Whymper was slowly disappearing in the fading light.
Normally, I really dislike summiting late and returning in the dark. But today, fortunately, it was a cloudless evening and the weather conditions were perfect. We took our time trudging back. It was quite a magical experience to follow our tracks through the snow which reflected the smooth but steady light of the moon. The black tree carcasses casting their long shadows across our tracks added a sense of eeriness to the beauty of this strange place. Even the stars came out to join the spectacle on this wonderful night.
The last couple of hours of our trip were a bit of a blur. After some 10 hours on the go, we were all pretty tired… everyone except Priyesh it seemed. He was the only one still happily chattering away, cracking jokes, and keeping all of us entertained by slipping and sliding down the trail mostly on his behind. His snowshoes were the cheapest kind from Costco and he vowed to return it all and never buy any gear from them again! While we all thoroughly enjoyed the day with our respective new friends, we were also quite glad to be back at the parking lot. Truly, today was a beautiful outing and an accomplishment that was possible only because two groups of strangers joined forces. Strangers who became friends in the process :).
DISCLAIMER: Use at your own risk for general guidance only! Do not follow this GPX track blindly but use your own judgement in assessing terrain and choosing the safest route.
IN MEMORIAM: Priyesh Menon
My dear friend and hiking partner Priyesh passed away in a tragic accident on Mount Lawson in Kananaskis on May 23rd, 2016. He was only 30 years old. He touched on countless lives with his most generous and loving spirit that will be remembered by many, many people in Canada, India and around the world. Like many other hikers and scramblers from Calgary, I feel hugely honoured to have met him and to have had the chance to hike with him. To preserve some of the beautiful moments we shared, I have decided to keep the reports of my trips with him on my site (after consultation with his family). We would like people to remember him for who he was: the most joyful, uplifting, kind, and selfless boy who never stopped smiling. As many of his fellow-hikers recounted, he had the unique ability to bring people together and bring positivity into their lives. There was genuine happiness wherever he was. A true ray of sunshine in our world! Thank you, Priyesh, for enriching our lives. You will be dearly missed.