Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Cypress Hills for the Prairie Pitch

I just got back from 6 days in the Cypress Hills, checking it out as a possible location for a future Prairie Pitch Adventure Race.

On the way down I stopped in Swift Current to gas up and asked if there was a coffee shop in town with espresso and lattes. The attendant said there was but he couldn't remember the name or where it was exactly. He gave me general directions and I headed downtown. When I got there I realized this was the same place where I'd been told the best they had was Tim Hortons (when I was on my way back from Colorado). Which was correct? I was just about to give up when I saw the Urban Ground Coffeehouse, which turned out to be quite a classy place with hardwood floors and black leather couches. I'm not the only one excited! In case you're looking for it, it's at 167 Central Avenue North. It was busy when I stopped there about 3pm - I grabbed the only remaining chair (a single spot in the window). Several people turned away when they found it was full. Obviously there is sufficient demand at the moment. I was annoyed that I hadn't found the place on my way back from Colorado, but it turned out they have only been open for a few weeks. I stopped here a second time and they had sushi for their lunch special (they don't serve much food otherwise). I had the veggie rolls and they were tasty. My only complaint was that they were closed on Sunday when I was heading back to Saskatoon. Too bad, but it appeared the whole of downtown was shut down, not just them. (It was also Remembrance Day, which may have had something to do with it.)

I also discovered a very nice little restaurant in Maple Creek of all places. Nothing against Maple Creek but it's pretty small and not where you'd expect to find a classy restaurant. When I drove by I noticed the white table cloths and wine glasses and figured it was worth checking out. It's called The Star Cafe and Grill (not sure how long this link will be valid). The chef has recently moved here from Rome (yes, Italy). You have to wonder why anyone would move from Rome to Maple Creek, but I'm not complaining. It's in an old turn of the century building and they have done a great job of the interior. I liked the huge abstract landscape painting that one of the partners painted. They didn't have a lot of vegetarian choices but the pasta I had was very tasty. We even tried a bottle of wine from the nearby Cypress Hills Winery (the only winery in Saskatchewan). If you're looking for a nice meal in the Maple Creek area I'd definitely recommend it.

Lots of people had told me how great the Cypress Hills are but I'd never been there. I wasn't disappointed, but I wasn't overwhelmed either. I guess I imagined a bunch of "hills" and instead there's really just one big "hill" or plateau that's been eroded into several pieces and into big gullies. It is a pretty big hill for Saskatchewan - about 200 m (600 ft) high, but not exactly mountainous. The lodgepole pines are a contrast to the usual prairie vegetation, but not all that different from up north.

One issue for the Prairie Pitch is that the area is pretty spread out. Most of the facilities (camping, lodging, etc.) on the Saskatchewan side are in the Center block. But the more interesting terrain seems to be in the West block (and in the adjacent Fort Walsh). And the only decent sized lake is outside the park entirely. So a race here will probably require a fair bit of cycling to get between the areas, although on the positive side, there are fairly interesting off-road routes to use.

So the resort is in the Center block and the West block straddles the Alberta/Saskatchewan border. But where is the "east" block? According to Wikipedia: "The "east block" of the Cypress Hills, situated near Eastend, Saskatchewan, is not part of the park." Strange.

I covered quite a lot of the area and I came up with a reasonable plan for a race. But ... then it turned out that the resort is all booked up for the weekends in September. That's bad news since I'm not sure if there's anywhere else out there with a hall for roughly 200 people.

I was a little disappointed to find that the park is used for grazing cattle. I'm afraid a bunch of dumb cows is not my idea of the great outdoors. (I was going to say "wilderness" but that would be a stretch!) According to the signs the reason for the cattle is to take the place of the buffalo. If you ask me, I'd rather re-introduce buffalo. No doubt there are a million reasons why that's "impossible". (Although they've done it at Old Man on His Back)

I was also disappointed to find "Designated Hunting Trail" signs everywhere. It always seems strange to me that hunting is allowed in provincial parks. I have been told that they "have to" because hunting isn't allowed on much private land. As you can imagine, I don't find that a very convincing argument. There were also signs up for the "Elk Management Hunt". Maybe we could leave the "excess" elk and let them do the grazing instead of cattle. Why do people think they have to "manage" nature? Things worked for a very long time without people "managing" them. A common justification is that we've screwed things up so badly that we have to work to "fix" them. But our track record at "managing" such things is pretty dismal; I suspect in most cases things would have been better off without our meddling. (Along these lines, I just finished The World Without Us - quite an interested read.)

On a more positive note, there were signs for a "Reptile Conservatory". Another somewhat incongruous thing to find in Maple Creek. I didn't have time to check it out and I wasn't even sure they were open but being a reptile fan, I'll have to stop in next time I'm in the area.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Thoughts from the Banff Mountain Festival

For the last 10 years or so Shelley and I have made an annual pilgrimage to the Banff Mountain Book and Film Festivals. We like the book festival best. There are talks by authors, panel discussions, and interviews. It's more personal and interactive than just watching films.

You'd think it would be relaxing to sit and listen and watch for four days, but it gets a bit tiring. We usually make it through all the sessions of the book festival for the first two days but often end up skipping a few of the films in the next two days just to get a chance to stretch our legs and grab a coffee.

One of the presentations was by Ian McAllister, the author of The Last Wild Wolves: Ghosts of the Rain Forest The Great Bear Rain Forest is on the west coast of British Columbia and is the largest remaining temperate rain forest. He had fantastic pictures of wolves and bears and rugged coast. But he also had stories of lumber companies clear-cutting swaths of land and trophy hunters slaughtering wolves and bears. These stories always raise a flood of emotion in me, a mix of anger, guilt, anguish, sadness. Part of me wants to kill myself just to escape being a member of such a human race. I start to understand the monks who immolate themselves in protest over the foul actions of mankind. Another part of me wants to lash out, take action, fight, get revenge. I want to join Edward Abbey's monkey wrench gang and sabotage the clear-cutting machinery. Or take up hunting myself. Hunting seems to be a good way to wipe out species. Maybe we could hunt the trophy hunters and endanger their kind. According to Ian, roughly 80% of people agree with stopping trophy hunting. What happened to democracy?

Geoff Powter's interview was supposed to be with Jim Bridwell but apparently they wouldn't let him into Canada. But I enjoyed Krzysztof Wielicki instead. I've always been amazed by the winter Himalayan climbs by the Polish. 8000 m climbs are hard enough in the summer; I find it hard to imagine what it must be like in the cold dark depths of winter. The Poles are known for "the art of suffering". But it's "good" suffering, "enjoyable" suffering, according to Krzysztof. Later, in a panel discussion, Barry Blanchard voiced a similar sentiment, saying "it doesn't have to be fun to be fun". Shelley and I often joke that you can't really be having "fun" unless you're "miserable". Krzysztof is 57 and still climbing hard. He says he has to keep tackling the winter Himalayan ascents because he can't find anyone else to take over. The "kids" these days don't care so much for the "art of suffering".

One of our favorite films was about 24 hour solo mountain bike racing. Again, I find it hard to imagine biking for 24 hours straight, let alone racing hard. Another favorite was a film about Chris Sharma. He is one of the best rock climbers in the world but it doesn't seem to have gone to his head and he comes across as quite humble and likable. It's hard not to be envious of his lifestyle of traveling and climbing full time.

We also really enjoyed Steph Davis's talk. We bought her recent book - High Infatuation. A film about her husband, Dean Potter was also good. Dean especially, but Steph also, do hard rock climbs solo, with no ropes. Scary stuff. In a film about Dean he describes how he struggles to differentiate fear from premonition - are visions of your broken body simply fear that you should overcome, or are they "intuition" that you should respect. This resonated with me. I still struggle with memories of being overwhelmed by fear on Manaslu. When I talk about it, people assume it must have been a premonition that I was "wise" to obey. But it's hard to believe that when others in the team continued and summited with no problems. I can't help but think it was just plain fear that I should have overcome. I still wonder why it overwhelmed me on that particular climb so much more than any other. You can always find rational reasons not to go up - there really are legitimate dangers - if you really wanted to be rational you wouldn't be there in the first place. When Krzysztof was asked if it was true that Polish climbers were crazy his reply was that all climbing/climbers are crazy when you get right down to it.

Although the festival always gets me psyched up to go climbing, it's also a little depressing to see how minor my own accomplishments are in comparison. I know it's all relative and that it's irrelevant what other people are doing. No matter how good you are at something there's likely someone out there who's better. And I know that to many people, Shelley and my accomplishments are impressive. But I can't help but feel twinges of envy and inferiority.

Of course, the friends I run into at the festival want to know what my next big project is. I've been thinking about Gasherbrum 2 next summer and it seems to have firmed up enough in my mind that I started telling people that's what I was planning. It's another one of the "easy" 8000 m peaks. It would be my 6th 8000 m trip. If I managed to summit it would make my record 3 out of 6. I know it smacks of ego (and insecurity), but I can't help wonder how many Canadians have summited three 8000 peaks (or even two for that matter). I wish Shelley was still able to go to high altitude with me. I do have one possible partner for the trip, but if he falls through I'll go solo again. It seemed to work well for me on Cho Oyu. The political turmoil in Pakistan is a question mark but the risk of a few days passing through Islamabad seems relatively small, especially compared to climbing an 8000m peak!

Shelley and I had been talking about going to Vancouver for a week for our anniversary in early December, but after getting revved up by the festival I suggested maybe we should go to Kananaskis Lodge and ice climb instead. For some reason it's been several years since we've been ice climbing. Part of the reason is that there are only so many moderate ice climbs we're willing to do "off the couch" and it was hard to get excited about climbing them again. But it's been long enough that it seems attractive once more. And it's a fitting anniversary since we stayed at Kananaskis Lodge and ice climbed (at -30c!) for our honeymoon.

And we're still hoping to get to Ecuador in January to climb and to go to Galapagos. We had originally planned to go in November but Shelley had things for work that conflicted. I'm lucky to be in a situation where I can take off pretty much whenever I want.