12 March 2016
Our original objective for today was Wapiti Mountain, which is best done using a bike for the approach due to the total length of the route (52 km using the route by Steve Song, potentially only 30 km using an alternate route we wanted to scout out). But when we arrived at the parking lot near the Ya Ha Tinda Ranch, I found that my rear tire was flat… the third flat tire in 2 weeks! It was 8 am and we had the whole day in front of us, so we quickly had to think of an alternative.
Thankfully, I had saved a GPX route of nearby Labyrinth Mountain and Mount Minos in my GPS device – two mountains that can easily be done together in the same day, especially since the trip involves crossing the fridgid Red Deer River. So we drove to the suggested spot along the Ya Ha Tinda Road and started our day without the bikes. Priyesh had never done a river crossing before and he was super excited! It was actually really enjoyable to see someone be nervous and happy at the same time to be doing something completely new to them. Of course we had no extra shoes with us for the river crossing, so I had to use my sneakers and Priyesh used his flip flops. Not a good idea! He almost lost one of them as he crossed the 20 m wide, ice-cold river that went up to his knees in the deepest part. There was still snow and ice on both sides of the river embankment, which made it extra challenging to step into and out of the water. Priyesh was screaming and shouting and swearing… it was so cold!!! It made me laugh, but I have to admit I felt sorry for him as he had absolutely no idea what to expect. Of course I felt the pain, too (it was truly mind-numbing!), but at least I had done things like this before and could brace myself. After clearing our heads and warming up our feet on the other side, we headed straight into the forest and started bushwhacking until we hit a horse trail about half an hour later. The bushwhacking wasn’t too bad, but it was so much nice to be following a good trail! It lead us up the small valley between Labyrinth and Minos and then contoured around the west side of Labyrinth. At a certain point where a grassy clearing appeared, we decided to leave the trail and head directly up towards the summit of Labyrinth Mountain. There was some minor bushwhacking at the beginning, but in general the forest was light and easy to hike through.
We were on the forested summit ridge, not far from the true summit, when it happened. I was a few steps ahead of Priyesh, when I suddenly heard him scream from the top of his lungs. Immediately I turned around, slightly apprehensive, thinking that a bear or goat or some other animal had attacked him… Not in the least! There was nothing. Just Priyesh standing there holding his face with cupped hands, screaming. And then I smelled it… it was bear spray! He had accidentally sprayed himself in the face with his own spray bottle from only a foot away! I made him sit down and take off his pack – he was still covering his face with his hands and of course couldn’t see anything. The pain must’ve been excruciating. I quickly pulled out my water bottles and told him to flush his face, but he couldn’t even open his eyes. His whole face was swollen and I really started to worry. He refused us calling for a rescue (using my emergency SPOT device) and said he could tough it out… a reaction that perplexed me but I also admired him for his tenacity and resolve. There was a small patch of snow nearby so I held some snow against his face in an effort to soothe the pain. More water to flush his eyes followed, and eventually after about 45 minutes the swelling subsided and he could open his eyes again. At this point he even started joking – only Priyesh would do that in this situation! – “oh don’t worry, I’m Indian… this is nothing compared to spicy Indian food!”. When I suggested we head back he just looked at me and shook his head… “No way, the summit is right there, I’m not going back now. Let’s go!”. I have never met anyone else with the perseverance and mental strength that Priyesh displayed in this situation. I was truly impressed!
A short hike along the treed ridge brought us to the rather unimpressive summit of Labyrinth Mountain with its diminutive cairn (no register). The views to the east were blocked by trees whereas to the west you could only see a broad, forested valley with Dormer Mountain in the background. Labyrinth Mountain isn’t very high, so we didn’t expect great vistas from the top. Instead of backtracking, we decided to descend down west-facing slopes directly from the summit. We first traversed a neat area of faulted and chossed up rock – this is perhaps where the name Labyrinth comes from, although it barely qualifies as a labyrinth! – then along partially open, partially treed slopes until we hit the good trail in the valley again.
After following the trail back a short distance, we then crossed the small creek valley between Minos and Labyrinth and headed up the NW slopes of Mount Minos through light forest. Travel was easy for the first hour until the healthy forest abruptly came to an end and a vast area of burn trees with tons of deadfall lay ahead of us. It didn’t look all that bad, but boy was it miserable! And it slowed us down considerably. Numerous dead tree logs were spread all over the place and stacked on top of each other in a big mess. It required lots of effort and some precarious balancing acts to “dance” across this sea of logs, and it certainly was a mentally exhausting exercise as well. I was so glad to have Priyesh by my side… he had all but forgotten about the earlier bear spray fiasco and his company was a really blessing in this difficult terrain. We joked and laughed and sweared and then discussed the merits of different techniques of climbing over chaotic piles of logs for hours, which kept us going and took away a lot of the suffering (or at least we kept it out of our minds!). Progress was extremely slow and it seemed like the summit would never come into view. Higher up, there was quite a bit of snow left on these slopes and at one point we had to sidehill to traverse through a wide gully. Slowly, the terrain opened up and the deadfall became more palatable. When we finally reached open grass slopes the relief was immense and we just pushed ourselves to get the final hike to the broad summit behind us. There were some survey markers at the flat top, but no cairn or register. This time, the views were a lot more attractive: Kimchi and Maze Peak to the east, a long unnamed ridge to the south, and Dormer Mountain to the west. We took a well deserved break at the top, a bit puzzled that it had taken us that much energy to get up such a lowly mountain.
It was getting late and the sun was already very low when we descended. We opted to stay close to the edge of the north ridge. This worked well in the upper section, but soon turned into the second fiasco of the day. The ridge we took eventually ended in steep terrain and a sheer vertical cliff – in fact the whole east face of Mount Minos has this huge, black cliff band that bars any way up or down this way. After literally getting “cliffed out”, we had to climb back up perhaps 200 m until it was possible to traverse over a frozen gully and back onto the main north ridge that led us through miserable deadfall back down to the horse trail. By the time we tried to do the final bit of bushwhacking to return to the river it was dark and we were exhausted. It wasn’t easy to navigate through the forest in the dark, but eventually we found the river and just followed the embankment on snow patches to where we had left our shoes. The final river crossing in the dark with headlamps just topped off a day full of adventure, misery and mishaps!
“Breakup Mountain” is what Priyesh called Mount Minos at the end… “This is where you take your girlfriend if you want to break up with her”! J And I think he’s right. It was awesome to have such a great partner as Priyesh to do this trip with – always cheerful, never giving up, and still in good spirits despite all the suffering… I certainly won’t be back to ever do this again and I will also highly recommend against doing this loop to anyone – even if you don’t spray yourself with bearspray! There are too many other, more enjoyable trips out there to consider before you subject yourself to this torture hike.
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.