This all began at the Georgetown Inn (pictured above) in Canmore. The Tudor style inn and pub is named after the coal mining community nearby which has since vanished. Their Miner’s Lamp Pub is a wonderful place to relax and unwind with its fireplace crackling in the corner. But with the history of Canmore mountain climbing on the walls, it’s a great place to be inspired as well. Dovetailing with this inspiration is the Georgetown’s Triple Crown Challenge. They challenge you to climb the three main mountains that border Canmore namely Mt Lady Macdonald, Rundle East Peak (EEOR to locals) and Ha Ling Peak. If you take your picture atop each one they reward you with a commemorative mug and pint of lager. At this point it’s worth mentioning that they give you a summer to complete the task. After enjoying a drink with Suzanne in the pub, I was struck with the idea of trying to do the whole thing in one day.
I had no idea if this was way beyond my limit so I started to do the math. The total vertical would be approaching 8000 feet or to put in perspective, that’s like climbing a 690 story building. Last month I had climbed Mt Hector which was 5000 vertical feet (and much more technical) so I felt like this wasn’t out of the question. Daylight would be another problem. I would have to start in the dark by headlamp to avoid being up high after dark in the evening. But starting in the dark meant starting a mountain with a clear route. The only two choices were Lady Mac and Ha Ling. But I had to do Ha Ling last as it was the easiest descent. This had to be done last since I would be the most tired and it would be safest to leave the easier descent to the end. This logic problem pretty much made the order Lady Mac, EEOR and Ha Ling. But to be honest, I didn’t think it was too safe to be alone on Lady Mac in the dark as the cougars patrol that side for the sheep that graze there. I would need a partner.
I put a call out on Facebook and had two takers immediately. Glenn was first to jump. We had climbed Mt Athabasca together in August. Next was his regular climbing partner Tom who I also met on Athabasca. Unfortunately, Tom aggravated his knees and had to back out after completing an ultramarathon two days before and hadn’t recovered as well as he had hoped. I couldn’t belive he had thought of doing the triple crown and an ultramarathon in 3 days but Tom is “totally next level” as Glenn would say! After a few nightly planning sessions we finalized October 9 as our day with a start time of 5:30 am.
4:30am -2 degrees
I was really on edge the day before worrying. I slept till 4:30 and then woke up pretty awake and ready to get things going. I met Glenn at the trailhead and we did a quick checklist as we got ready to go. For giggles, I shot a quick video as we walked in the blackness through the parking lot before we turned on our headlamps. Even with the headlamps, it wasn’t easy to keep on the rough trail. After getting that odd feeling of not being where I’m supposed to be, we realized we were on the Montane Traverse mountain bike trail and had to backtrack for 10 minutes back to cougar creek and refind the trail to Mt Lady Macdonald!
It was very odd being in the dark compounded by the dense fog that enveloped the valley. The headlamps cut nice Hollywood style beams of light. As dawn approached, we had climbed high enough to be above the thick clouds and fog. Being still pretty dark, the lights of town glowed beneath the clouds producing an unforgetable scene. I would have needed a tripod to capture the dark scene without blur. As beautiful as it was, the huge task ahead made stopping pretty much out of the question. I usually take great effort to not be up high in the dark as it’s just not that safe so this was a rare treat to see the mountains in a whole new way. Our timing was perfect as sunrise was just minutes away and we were just leaving the forest and heading into disorganized rock that would require a bit of light to negotiate.Above: 7:28am Like something out of a dream, the entire Bow Valley filled with cloud. Glenn and I stop for a quick picture. Civil twilight 7:23, actual sunrise in another 28 minutes.Above: One down, 2 more to go! Our next two mountains are in the right side of the picture. We took our summit picture and had a bit of food and started down. We took great pleasure imagining everyone waking up and heading to work as we towered above them out of sight above the clouds! Throughout the day we kept telling ourselves the same things: keep hydrated, keep eating, reserve your strength, watch your footing. On the way down Lady Mac we put as much weight on our trekking poles as possible to keep our legs from turning to jello. Going down can quickly burn your legs out out. We made it back to the cars and made the drive over to the EEOR/Ha Ling parking spot. These two mountains’s trailheads start from the same location so we would use the car as a resupply throughout the day.
As we drove through town, the final two peaks reared up and I was pretty intimidated. But a can of coconut water and some nuts and chocolate later and we were ready to start EEOR.
I’ve never started up a mountain feeling tired before. Usually, when you start a mountain, you are excited and fresh. I guess we weren’t quite tired, but we could tell we had done something already that day! Glenn gave some route information for me to watch out for as we started up under blue skies and +8 degree air. EEOR has some route complications that can cause the unwary to waste lots of time backtracking and traversing around cliff bands so we were mindful to look behind us frequently to memorize where not to go on the return down.
We were constantly reminding ourselves to slow our pace down to marshal our strength. That being said, we surprised ourselves by getting above treeline by 11 am.Above: Beautiful view of Spray Lake with our next objective, Ha Ling dominating the foreground. It was pretty hard to see the entire mountain we would climb next take up so much of the visual field! It looked pretty daunting and we weren’t even at the top of our second mountain. Sunlight is a powerful morale boost though, so we tried to enjoy the view and forget what its implications really were.
12:04 pm#2, EEOR by noon! (btw, EEOR stands for East End Of Rundle) We were definitely ahead of schedule. Just behind me is Lady Mac, our first ascent. We’re laying down as it was the only way to get both us and the skyline in the picture with the sloping ground.
We were starting to feel pretty good about accomplishing our goal. In my rough schedule, I made a cutoff for starting Ha Ling before 5pm to not end up crawling around the summit in the dark by headlamp. We started down and I was getting a few pangs in my legs that concerned me a little. I started to go down in sidesteps to give some specific muscles a bit of a break. We were careful to make the correct route decisions though we did miss a marker we placed to keep us on track. It only meant a short traverse across some cliffy slabs and we were back on course.
Back at the car we did a final refuel from our water store and had some more to eat. I could definitely notice how much I needed to eat as I felt distinctly glucogen deprived. We gave a couple pep-up shouts and crossed the river and onto the slopes of Ha Ling. Almost immediately our pace turned to a crawl. We were starting to hit a wall. Glenn is always enthusiastic and yet I could hear him labouring behind me. We sat down and had a quick conference. It occurred to us that it was really our first rest stop of the day! After the self assessment, we determined that we were both very tired but okay to continue. When you get towards the end of a big goal, it’s easy to get caught up in “sunk cost fallacy.” You put so much into something that it seems like you can’t stop. On a mountain though, it is foolhardy to let those urges put you in a place you can’t get out of. Objectively assessing your condition is hard but even harder when you are purposefully expanding your limits.
We resumed but with a slow pace and decided we would take lots of very short rest breaks. I ate more chocolate and nuts along with some dried fruit and felt a second wind. One big push brought us finally above the treeline and up into the alpine and I got my usual boost of energy that I always seem to get when a summit comes into view.Above: Glenn fights up Ha Ling but the summit is tantalizingly close.
4:10 pm Success!
Above: We got to the summit and took our picture. It was a perfect day though cold at the top as I think the picture shows. Under other circumstances we would have lingered up there for a while identifying peaks and enjoying the view. But today, after I put the camera back in the bag I said to Glenn, “You wanna get out of here?” One word. “Yep.”
After our 30 seconds on the summit, we made our way down. I thought it was going to be a bit of a nightmare but we seemed to float down. We had anticipated making the summit and then all our energy draining from us knowing we were mentally done in a way. And yet we glided down. We hit treeline and I could feel a smile growing on me. I glanced at my watch and saw that we might do the whole triple crown in under 12 hours which I never thought possible when planning this.
Twelve hours after starting out, we reached the river and the waiting car. Elation, disbelief and pride mixed with a wave of exhaustion was just some of what we were feeling. 12 hour Triple Crown: done.
October 10 Post Script
Went to the Georgetown Inn next day to give them our pictures. They were pretty impressed with our accomplishment which really meant a lot to me as its pretty hard to impress in this town. It turns out that another duo had done it in a single day and smashed our time to boot. As I’ve said, it’s one of the great things about living here: someone else is always keeping you humble! Anyway, they presented me with my commemorative Triple Crown glass and shirt.
Part of the Georgetown’s Triple Crown Challenge is to bring attention to a local charity, the Rocky Mountain Adaptive Sports Centre. Their mission is to help disabled people get out into the mountains. I ran into these guys hauling a disabled person up to Rawson Lake one time. It brought tears to your eyes watching the effort to haul a wheelchair bound person high up into the wilds. To mark my Triple Crown, I made a small donation to this charity and hope to do some volunteering for them in the future.
Two weeks ago, a team of volunteers from RMASC carried Kuen Tang up Mt Lawrence Grassi, a peak connected to Ha Ling, the final mountain in our trio. It’s a good reminder for me that the mountains are something that I have the luxury of enjoying. I don’t know if the volunteers were as tired as I was when they got to the top, but one look at their summit photo compared to mine and I think you’ll agree they are all having a better time!