The kids are bundled up. The sky is sunny. The thermometer on the car reads -21 degrees celcius…but it is still early. The pulk, is not what we had envisioned… but it will work and we have ingeniously fit it , beautifully, behind our seats in the Yaris. My four year old sits in the shape of a V… but it isn’t much farther to the trail-head.
I sit in the passenger seat using a pocket knife to spread peanut butter and jelly on tortilla wraps for lunch. There is no music. Cell service has died out and the kids are moody, but sandwiches will fix that.
That wind though…
We get to the parking lot and my husband starts to unload the gear. Getting himself dressed and strapped in to the large pack, struggling with the skis on the sled and the harness, grunting and cursing at the wind. But the parking lot is exposed and we will be fine once we are in the tree-line and the kids will be out of the wind in the sled and we will warm up once we were moving. Start cold right? It is only 8km after-all…
Ariadne, 15 months old, starts screaming. She is not happy, not comfortable, too tired, the wind is biting her tiny cheeks and the mittens are making her mad.
Roman, 4 years old, starts to cry. He wants to snow shoe. He doesn’t see why he can’t walk. His sister’s screams are hurting his ears.
Daniel, 30 years old, starts to grumble. We need to get moving, out of the wind. His toes are already frozen. This is crazy. LET’S GO!
I tell him to start walking. I will catch up.
Off they go into the trees, where the wind will, surely, be less and the kids…they’re protected in the sled and she is just crying because she’s tired and fussy and keeps spitting out her soother. I checked her, she felt warm…
I struggle into my snow-shoes and strap on my pack. I jog into the trees to catch up. The climb will be at the beginning of our hike, 2km uphill to start. This will warm us up and the wind is much better here.
Off we go. They are still crying. Roman says it is warm in there though. Roman will be our temperature gauge. They have blankets and each other.
20 minutes in.
Nearing the top of the rise.
They are still crying. Ariadne keeps dozing off but her cheeks feels cold to me and she has kicked off her boots and mitts more than once and her little toes…
There is a heavy feeling in my heart, stirred well with that healthy fear and respect that the elements should always inspire. The look on Daniel’s face tells me all I need to know. He feels it too. Worry, tumbled together with disappointment.
One last shot. If we get to the top of the rise and it’s protected, like we are now, and flat, I can send Dan ahead to the hut. Roman and I can walk, which will make him warm and the baby can get out of the cold more quickly.
Our heads break the ridge and a blast of air that feels as if it must have recently embraced a glacier hits us hard.
What are we doing? I think. I look at Dan. The kids start to scream as the wind makes its way easily into the Chariot.
“What are you thinking?” I finally ask, raising my voice above the roar of the wind.
“I’m thinking this is crazy.” His short, matter-of-fact reply.
“If we need to go back it should be now. We don’t want to get any further in and have to turn around. What do you think?” I ask, already knowing the answer.
Without hesitation, “We should go back. I’m not comfortable with this right now. We have no way of knowing what she’s feeling, the kids are miserable, and what if the car won’t start when we hike back out? There’s no cell reception so, what? We use the spot beacon? It’s just too big of a risk…” He trails off.
“I think so too.” I state. Heaving a heavy sigh. “This sucks.”
“Yup. Let’s go.”
We turn back down the mountain, stopping just out of the wind. If Roman is still eager to snow shoe it will help him warm up.
I am determined for this to end on a positive. We ask him if he wants to walk now. He responds with a cheerful, “YES!” and I pull him from the sled.
With him out, I can see that Ariadne has again removed her mitten and her hand is bright red. I push her mitten back on getting the sleeve as far over her coat as possible. She is whimpering now, such a sad little beast and guilt hits my heart hard. I wrap her in the blankets and seal the sled as tightly as I can.
Dan will go ahead, reaching the car quickly on this short down hill stretch and get her warm and happy. Roman and I will follow, hopefully enjoying a nice little hike out. It is warm enough in the trees if you are moving. He his covered from head to toe in mountain gear and snow-shoeing like a champ.
Dan and the sled quickly disappear ahead of us as we walk like bears, like monsters, like dinosaurs and our snow-shoes make that crunchy-squeak against the snow. Our breath leaves clouds in the air and frosts the strands of hair that escape my tuque and hood, but we are moving now. We are warm and we are happy.
We work up a sweat and sing snowy songs and run and tumble and smile. I ignore the crazy voice in my head, berating me for even trying this and focus on the one that says “You kept them safe. You turned back when you needed to. You’re a good mom. Adventures come with set-backs. This one wasn’t meant to be.” I give in a bit to the angry one that says,”FUCK YOU COLD SNAP! YOU COULDN’T HAVE WAITED TWO MORE DAYS YOU SHITTY PIECE OF A WEATHER SYSTEM!” I focus on Roman’s mittened hand in mine as we walk the last couple hundred meters. I laugh as he steps on my snowshoe and we tumble in a heap. I embrace the unpredictable nature of this crazy, beautiful, powerful thing called the back-country and I hope that the lesson learned is one of safety first and look on the bright side.
Back at the car and everyone is fine. Ariadne seems grouchy and confused about why she had to be dragged up and down a mountain in the cold but a snack and a snuggle and she cheers right up. The question is…what do we do now? This was our winter adventure, our break, I was supposed to be refreshing my soul with mountain air and unplugged, outdoor, family time!
We settle for some tubing at Nakiska, hot chocolate, of course, and some toddling about for the baby. A night in Clagary and an easy-going morning at Gasoline Alley’s family, culture-fest, a short family visit on the way home with some cousins I’d never met, some shopping and an amazing meal, at what may very well be a mafia front but their pizza and pasta? OMG!
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a let down.
As we’d turned our backs on the mountains I wanted to cry. My heart screamed, “NO! I haven’t had enough time, don’t make me go back to the prairies yet! Don’t say that this one, short day is all the wild I will have for months, if not longer!”
But my head said sternly, “Suck it up princess, this is the way it goes sometimes.”
And my husband said softly, over and over, every time I sighed or frowned or my shoulders dropped and my head lowered, “We made the right choice.”
And of course, he was right.
In the short course of this blog I have mentioned many times that taking kids, especially very young kids into the back-country is not something to take lightly. Taking yourself into the back country is a risky enough endeavor, but you are an adult. You know what your body is feeling and what that might mean. You know when you need to rest, drink more water, eat more calories, get warm. With very small children, they can’t always tell you what they are feeling, and even if they are a bit older and have mastered the art of speech they often don’t know what their body is telling them or when it has gone from discomfort to danger.
In short, you have to be their danger barometer. You have to be VERY aware of the risks and err heavily on the side of caution. Days like the one described above, SUCK HARD! At first, I felt like we had failed. But in the words of Rick Wormelli, a fail is only a, “First Attempt In Learning.”
This was our first try at anything winter, back-country as a family and we learned a lot. We will try again in February. A different hut (due to availability, not determination) and a different set of gear and this time I am confident we will not only make it to our destination, but we will have an incredible and enjoyable experience.