Saturday, April 28, 2018

Best Mom Ever! - Rafting the Grand Canyon

My mom is awesome! For her 60th birthday, she wanted to do something special so on her request, the whole family met up in Las Vegas. This was not to hit the strip, but to venture down the Colorado River in a raft for three days with Western River Expeditions. Let me put this in a bit of context. My mom is very outdoorsy and the opportunities Angela and I had to spend our childhood skiing, camping, hiking, and at the cottage in Northern Ontario significantly influenced my passion for my current outdoor pursuits. As a kid, mom taught me how to J-stroke a canoe, run rapids, windsurf and waterski. She is definitely the water lover in our family! When she suggested rafting the Grand Canyon for her birthday, I was surprised, but not shocked. She wanted to do something special that the whole family would enjoy and remember forever and try something new at the same time!
Running rapids on the French River with my mom back in 2007
We all met in Vegas the night before the trip but spend the evening eating way too much mexican food and packing before passing out around 9 pm (7:30 for Kyle). It was a 6 am departure the next morning. The logistics of getting into the Grand Canyon are complex, but the Western River Expeditions staff made the whole ordeal run like a well oiled machine as we were shuttled by bus from Vegas to a small plane in Boulder City, followed by helicopter transfers from Bar 10 Ranch to Whitmore Wash where we met our guides and rafts.
Boarding our charter flight from Boulder City to Bar 10 Ranch
Aerial view of the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead
Birthday girl looks out the window at the Colorado River below
The huge airport and airstrip at Bar 10 Ranch
Boarding the heli for the short flight to Whitmore Wash
It was unseasonable hot for April with temperatures in the high 80's. We spent the remainder of the morning on the beach at the side of the river getting briefed on safety and an overview of how the trip was going to go. After a quick shore lunch, it was time to board the rafts! There were about 24 guest on our trip plus the 4 river guides. We were split into two groups on two rafts, but we traveled down the river together and stopped for breaks and to camp in the same places. The other guests ranged from having never camped before to experienced outdoors people. The only 2 people on the trip that had ever been down into the canyon before were in our party - Kyle and Connor (who had done a private raft trip last year and knew the river really well)!
Excited to get on the river
We had flown into the canyon to meet the rafts at Whitmore Wash. The guides had been on the river since Lee's Ferry with another group of rafters that were just finishing a 7 day trip from the start of the canyon. As we unloaded the heli, they loaded in to head home, while the guides stayed behind to continue down the river with us. Our trip three day trip would travel from Whitmore Wash (mile 188) to Pearce Ferry (mile 277) in three days thanks to the motors on the back of the huge custom-built rafts.

Day 1 was mostly mellow water as we got used to life on the river. It was quite relaxing motoring down the river (you could barely even hear the motor) and checking out the amazing scenery from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. We passed through a few small sections of rapids but stayed mostly dry, which was lucky because despite the warm weather, the water was COLD!
The first of many splashes
After a few hours on the river, we arrived at our campsite for the evening. The wind had picked up through the day and the fine sand that lined the waters edge was picked up in gusts, sandblasting us as we set up camp. As one of the guides said early in the trip, "embrace the sand." Through the rest of the trip, I often reflected on these words as sand carried by the wind filled my eyes, nose and toothbrush. Newty's recommendation was simple, "just grab a handful of sand, put it in your pocket and you will be good to go."

All the tents and sleeping bags were provided and you had the option to sleep out under the stars on a cot. We all opted for the under the stars experience and set up our camp as the guides (Newty, Joey, Parker and Ben) got to work on dinner.
Camp for night #1
Cots set up under the sky
We went for a wander up the big wash by our camp. Our guides told us that if you kept following the wash, you would end up in Salt Lake City! We didn't make it that far, but we got some amazing views of the high walls of the canyon and beautiful colours as the sun was setting.
Exploring up the wash from camp
Who invited these two along??
Amazing light on the walls as the sun goes down
After a delicious dinner, we went to bed. It was a restless night with strong gusts of wind. We were woken by the sound of the trumpet signalling that coffee was ready shortly after 5 am. There was sand in my hair, teeth, and sleeping bag and I did't feel like I had slept much. Nonetheless, we quickly packed up our camp and joined the group for a breakfast of eggs, bacon, and fresh baked muffins straight out of the dutch oven.

The crew loaded up the rafts and we were back on the river. Everyone was appropriately dressed in rain gear and splash jackets in anticipation of the larger rapids we would encounter through the day.
Day 2 - ready for rapids!
Parker and Ben getting the rafts all set up for the day
Drowned rat after a big slash
Staying dry on the cooler seats
Kyle is ready for some more rapids
Splashes for everyone!
Photo-bombed by Newty

Someone is having a great birthday!
The wind on the river was cold and despite the layers, we were shivering as we pulled ashore for lunch. That didn't last long because as soon as we were out of the wind we were cooking. Our clothes dried instantly as we hung out on the beach for lunch. After lunch, we stopped at Travertine Grotto. A short walk up some ladders in the canyon brought us to a beautiful warm waterfall we enjoyed a good rinse in the falls.
Taking a shower at Travertine Grotto
Mom and Dad at Travertine Grotto
Through the day, we passed numerous other groups of rafters. There are a limited number of trips down the Grand Canyon every year and the majority of the trips are will commercial guiding outfits, like Western River Expeditions. The minority are private trips. It is difficult to secure a permit and it requires entering a lottery every year for a small number of private groups. A trip down from Lee's ferry can take about 3 weeks and requires a lot of logistical preparation. The smaller rafts are rowed and it can be a struggle to fight the strong winds in a boat loaded down with camping and cooking gear. In addition, you need to pack all your food in, and all your waste out - including your human waste. There are very strict rules about all the little details of paddling in the Grand Canyon to allow the area to be enjoyed for years to come.

We had our motor and passed the private groups with ease. I did not envy the river runners that had to paddle the whole way and it was a nice change that we hadn't had to do any of the research, organization or prep for the trip. Our guides were fabulous, telling us stories about different historic characters in the Grand Canyon story, pointing out the various layers of rock in the canyon walls and sharing folklore about the rapids and beaches along the way (what was fact and what was fiction was difficult to discern).
Our rafts vs. their rafts for scale
Big waves ahead! Mom was frequently front and centre on the raft through the biggest rapids
Our second night was spent on another beach and we were treated to a fancy dinner of shrimp cocktail and steak, followed by two types of birthday cake! The guys pulled out their instruments and provided a sing-a-long as night fell. We were in bed early and were treated to magical views of the stars overhead and a much calmer night than the one before.
Camp for night #2
A poop with a view
The final day started early again to the sound of the trumpet. We broke down camp and hit the river again for a few final rapids before the flat section of river before Pearce Ferry. We were met by a jet boat that sped us down the last 40 miles of flat water to Pearce Ferry, where we were met by a bus that shuttled us back to Las Vegas. It was surreal after spending 2 days in the quiet, remote canyon to leave the National Park and enter the Hualapai Reservation. Suddenly there were numerous helicopters, tourists on the edge of the river and visitors high above us on the Grand Canyon Skywalk!
Blueberry pancakes with Newty and Joey
Family photo!
Happy Birthday Mom! What an fantastic way to celebrate the amazing lady who continues to inspire me to explore new places, try new things and celebrate the importance of family. I love you Mom, this has been a trip we will never forget!

Friday, April 6, 2018

Crowfoot Glades and Narao Shoulder

Instead of skiing the Wapta over Easter, we checked into the Mosquito Creek Hostel at the last second and did some day trips around the Icefields Parkway. We had brilliant sunshine and frigid temperatures on Saturday and made out way out to Crowfoot Glades.
Mosquito Creek Hostel
Beauty weather on the trail to Crowfoot Glades
We found great snow and did lap after lap in knee deep powder and ran into some friends out on the trail!
Fresh pow in the Crowfoot Glades
Powder farming in Crowfoot Glades
Hot cider and warm puffy
Excellent spot for lunch
Back at the hostel, we made a huge dinner and enjoyed the sauna. Other people at the hostel generously shared their copious desserts and we went to bed feeling well fed, warm and happy.
Tired Kyle after a good day out
A nice warm nap by the fire in the common room
Sunday, we skied Narao Shoulder and glades. It was a mellow tour up but we gained about 650 m of elevation and had a fun ski down through the trees. The snow was better than anticipated with fresh powder on a supportive crust. It was a good consolation prize for the weekend!
Getting ready to drop in at the top of Narao Shoulder

Rejected by the Wapta

The Wapta Traverse is a classic Rockies ski traverse that I have been wanting to do for a while, but there was always something else going on and it just never happened. This year, it wasn't in the plan but thanks to an awesome friend, we ended up with the Bow, Balfour and Scott Duncan Hut booked for 4 people over the Easter weekend! Unfortunately we didn't get to do the traverse. We didn't even make it into the Bow Hut...

When I think of Easter, my mind conjures up images of bright sunny skies, stable spring skiing and long, warm days with slushy snow. This year, winter is still in full force at the end of March as Kyle, Alan, Adam and I were getting ready to head out on the Wapta traverse. The word "bail" had been tossed around as the departure date neared because the weather wasn't looking super stellar for the weekend. The idea of spending the weekend navigating the glacier with a GPS in a cloud wasn't that appealing especially because the main draw of the Wapta is the amazing views. I was still keen to give it a shot despite the forecast. Maybe it wouldn't been that bad up there and if it was, we could always turn around.
Gearing up to hit the trail to the Bow Hut
Knowing the forecast, there was no rush to get up to the hut so we didn't get a very early start. We met in Canmore at 10 am then hung around Starbucks for a while chatting about the plan. Alan and Adam went on a side trip to pick up a second GPS from a friend (Kyle had the waypoints loaded on his watch) so that we would have another tool in the toolkit for navigating in a whiteout. We dropped one car off at the Great Divide Lodge so we would have a vehicle at the end of the traverse. You can park there for free but have to register your vehicle and leave your keys with the reception staff in case they have to move the car for snow removal. It was 1:30 by the time we started across the lake. The clouds seemed to be thinning and we had good visibility!
Decent visibility crossing Bow Lake
The clouds closed in and it started to snow harder as we were making out way up the canyon towards the Bow Hut. We were making good time and confident that we would make it to the hut.
Starting to get into heavy snowfall
As we made our way out of the trees onto the final approach to the headwall below the hut, we lost all visibility. Having been up to the Bow Hut twice before, Kyle and I knew that the final slope below the hut was the crux of the approach. Two years ago, a group had triggered a slide on that slope and one of the members had suffered some serious injuries. The weather had been bad and it was getting dark so he spent the night out not far below a large icefall and only a few hundred metres from the hut. Search and rescue was able to get him out in the morning but it was a pretty traumatic event for everyone involved. This scenario was something we had discussed prior to leaving and we were all thinking about it as we crossed below the Crowfoot Moraines.
Great visibility on the final approach to the Bow Hut 
Alan and Kyle had stopped up ahead. Adam and I were still chatting as Kyle shouted back to us, "listen, can you hear that?" As soon as we stopped moving, we heard why they had stopped. The roar of an avalanche was echoing across the grey expanse ahead of us. Time stood still as we waited and listened. It lasted for about a minute. We couldn't see a thing. We couldn't gauge how much or how far things were sliding. We didn't have a very good idea of how far we were from the slide. It was probably just storm snow sluffing off the headwall but we couldn't know for sure. That was enough for us. We had a brief discussion but everyone was on board to turn around.
It wasn't a hard decision to turn around
It always sucks to have to pull the plug on a trip but it becomes much easier when its unanimous decision. As we were taking our skins off, we heard the rumble of more avalanches. That provided confirmation that we were making the right call. On the ski out, fresh snow had almost filled our tracks. Sluff and spindrift was pouring down the sides of the canyon.
Fresh powder on the ski out
Sluff and spindrift in the canyon on the way out
Back at the car, we loaded up and drove through fresh snow on the parkway to pick up my vehicle at the Great Divide Lodge. Adam and Alan were heading back to Calgary, but Kyle and I chose to stay on the parkway to do some day trips as the Mosquito Creek Hostel had some space.
A bit of fresh snow when we got back to the car after 3 hours of touring
The next day, the weather was brilliant bluebird and the snow conditions were excellent. It was tough knowing that we could have been at the Bow Hut and that it would have been a great day on the Wapta. The remainder of the weekend was good weather and when we got back to Calgary we saw photos and trip reports from other groups that had been up on the traverse. Chances are, things would have been fine if we had continued up to the hut. But, if something had happened it could have been disastrous. It was late in the afternoon with zero visibility so there was no chance of a rescue. We would have been on our own to self-evacuate. It was the right choice to bail with the circumstances we had. We lost our hut bookings and nothing more. We gave it a shot knowing that we might have to turn around, so it wasn't that big of a deal when we had to change our plans. The traverse will always be there and we came home safe from the mountains this weekend. That's the main goal right?