Hiking with Peter Austen and Austentours
Three Day Hike
Dates : June to October
$899 CAN single
Hike moderate Sea to Sky trails or Splendid Garibaldi
Park volcanoes including the Opal Cone on some of the most scenic trails
in Canada. Bed and breakfast and hut/camp accommodations.
Two Days of Hiking to Waterfalls in Squamish/Whistler
Over two days you will visit Shannon Falls (1500 ft high), Madden Falls (2000 ft high), Nairn Falls (100 ft high, but big), Brandywine Falls (200 ft high), Mystery Hotel Falls (100 ft high and hidden), spectacular Birken Head Falls (600 ft high), and Carls Berg (200 ft high and wide).
$599 CAN single
The Joys of Berg Lake
By Peter Austen
Reaching Berg Lake in late August after a 12-mile hike from the Yellowhead Highway is a sublime pleasure. The mosquitoes have all gone back to the Yukon; their southern biting holidays over and the last of the alpine gentians are packing it in for the winter. Fall is in the air, leaves are just turning light orange and the north face of Robson is bare of snow. In its place blue and green ice hangs suspended below giant gargoyles. Oh joy! We have pork chops and Cajun spices and a small bottle of unopened Drambuie. Icebergs drift lazily around Berg Lake and the occasional splash whips your head around as another Volkswagen sized berg hits the lake from the Mist Glacier.
I can hear vague shouts from the ghost of Curly Phillips, the horsepacker, and the clients of Konrad Kain in 1913 as they made ready to have a crack at "The Mountain of The Spiral Road" as the native people called Robson. Mount Robson is a very difficult ascent from any side. The weather is notoriously fickle and believe it or not on average Mount Everest welcomes three times as many people on its summit as Mount Robson does. In some years no one reaches the one square meter of snow on top.
Toboggan Falls tumbles along to the side of the Robson Chalet and it is a super half-day hike along its banks. There is a hidden cave on the lower slopes of Mumm Peak about one hour above the Chalet. Take a flashlight or lose yourself forever in its slippery labyrinth.
Wandering by the shores of Adolphus Lake reminds me of my childhood in the English Lake District. Meadows, poplars and conifers meld into the landscape. It is peaceful here at the turn of the summer season.
Snowbird Pass is three hours hike from Berg Lake Chalet and is occasionally closed to save the trails from erosion but when I can go up I wait in the meadows high up for about an hour. Then I am usually privileged to have ten Hoary marmots sit on my lap and cast their big brown eyes into mine. Nuts, give me nuts, their hypnotic secret code implores. I know I shouldn't but I give in ø they are so cute and I can't live on one thing all the time can I? A complete circumnavigation of Robson takes about ten days and is a wilderness undertaking starting at Moose Pass. The trail can be very hard to find. The north boundary trail starts from Berg Lake and goes through some glorious isolated country to finish at Celestine Lake in Jasper Park. I knew it was isolated when I ran into a grizzly bear and we took off at high speed in different directions.
Dawdling in the Dolomites
by Peter Austen
Escaping Fog and Rust
The Dolomites are a unique mountain range in the northern Italian Alps in Europe. Lake Como borders them on the west, Udine in the east and Belluno in the South. Innsbruck is the next major town to the north of them. The huge overhanging walls of the Dolomites are made of limestone mixed with manganese which gives them their strange characteristic reddish color. The redder they are the looser they are and hence they become more dangerous to climb on or walk underneath.
In misty weather it is like entering a mystical and dreamlike world of castles with the odd brick falling from the sky and bouncing off your head. Spectacular storms take place most afternoons in summer. I often watched as lightning jumped from jagged peak to peak accompanied by ear splitting thunderclaps. I climbed many of these walls while living in Austria but I had never linked up a walk through all the different groups of peaks. It would be a wonderful and strenuous walk of over 100 miles through some of the world's most spectacular scenery. Kay, my wife, was game so I shot her -sorry a momentary lapse -and we made preparations on the back of an envelope. Tilman, a famous British explorer of the thirties once said that if a trip, no matter how major, could not be planned on the back of an old envelope then everything was getting unwieldy and out of hand and you were losing the "raison d'etre" of doing the trip.
The walk, one of the finest in the world, goes from North to South and takes from two weeks to a month depending on how many intervening peaks you climb or how much cheap and addictive red wine you pour down your throat in the mountain huts.
At the time I was teaching English in Innsbruck and Kay was running a student cinema called "Cinematogafischer Salon." This title was painted in psychedelic colors on the back of our Volkswagen beetle. In this way the cinema owner paid our car tax while we advertised the cinema. In law abiding and reactionary Austria it was a cop attractant but there was little they could do if we upheld the traffic laws. Foreigners had multicolored license plates so the mildly sadistic police could pull them over and fine them more easily for minor infractions than the local inhabitants who had dull green plates, could vote and thus had more political clout. Innsbruck, the beautiful capital of Tyrol, was situated in a deep fairly isolated mountain valley and was at this time a very conservative and Catholic German speaking Austrian town, still mired in anti Semitism and discrimination against foreigners. A professor acquaintance of mine was summarily thrown out of his flat when the landlady found out he was Jewish. Anti Semitism of any kind was a criminal offence in Germany but not in Austria.
The Tyroleans were described by the northern Germans as "Stur" (hidebound and intransigent).The Tyroleans, in their turn called the Germans "Pifken," which was an abbreviation for Pekingese, a term of derision for a Teutonic facial type. Some Germans have squarish or round faces with small eyes and short necks which give them this look of the small dog. On the other hand Austria is a tourist paradise and if you were a high paying German tourist they fawned: "Was moechte Der Herr." (What would the gentleman like?") And to a lady "Kuess die Hand!" ("Kiss the hand" - an old Austrian custom where you say it instead of doing it.)
We took off over the Brenner Pass into Italy collecting stares along the way from the kids and local inhabitants in villages we passed. They were not used to VWs with multicolors. South Tyrol now is part of Italy and the signs are all in two languages. The inhabitants are mostly mountain farmers and of Austrian stock. From years of inbreeding in the hidden mountain valleys their genetics have stayed basically the same and they all look vaguely the same: five feet seven, of slight build, have a Tyrolean hat with a nine inch feather, a wooden curved pipe mostly unlit, heavy shoes and small moustache. The women look like this too although they wear brown and green skirts instead of leather pants and they don't smoke much. Some of them have thinner moustaches.
Italy claimed South Tyrol after the first world war and some patriotic semi terrorist Austrians still occasionally blow up a piece of railway or the odd house that looks too Italian. The whole thing is about as silly as Viennese Operettas - where too plump matrons sporting fat bustles and daft officers with monocles and lamb chop sideburns from the bygone days of the Hapsburgs prance about trilling high pitched songs in annoying voices in court soap operas.
We reached a small village named Pragser Wildsee and left our trusty but old V.W. to R.I.P. (Rust In Pieces) for two weeks. I looked down and saw my legs bowed under the strain of the rucksack. My right leg is slightly bent and my boots always wear more on the outside edge of one boot making for expensive hiking when I have to buy new boots all the time. I have a whole stock of left boots rotting at home. I have not been able to find a boot repairer who can magically transform left boots into right ones. We had frameless packs as I have never seen the point of carrying extra masochistic metal on the back. In true chivalrous style I carried all the heavy stuff - sleeping bags, tent, water, emergency rope, TV, sink and spaghetti. Kay carried sun cream, snacks and necessities like my mascara, eyeliner and mirror. Kay's pack weighed about nine pounds. Mine was around fifty. In life women have the babies but men carry the weight. It takes a day or two to get used to the weight and rounding a corner I fell into a dried up river bed and hit my fairly substantial nose on a big limestone block.
"Ouch", I said. "Twit," said Kay.
We followed the river bed and clambered over huge eroded blocks occasionally having our legs being scraped by "krummholz" - dwarf pine. If you want revenge then you can burn the dead ones in a fire when the weather goes nasty. That night we reached the "Sennes" hut at 7200 feet and sheltered from the usual light show and rain put on by Thor for our benefit. Huts are great for food but because Italians are so garrulous they can be noisy. We slept in our two kilo tent. The tiny Italian hut guardian prepared us minestrone and "Pasta aschiutta "- spaghetti with meat sauce which we washed down with too much "Val Policella" the local dry red wine. Foreigners do not know the power of this wine and the hangovers from it are literally mind blowing. Consumption goes down when you discover this fact or the next day you do not walk much and your itinerary goes down the tubes. The rain drummed on the tent all night and occasional flashes and booms woke us up. The scents of sage and thyme accompanied us next morning as we passed by old shepherds' huts and headed to "Monte Castello,' a huge fortress like peak in the distance. A long and strenuous ascent led to the top of this peak. On the way we passed the remains of dugouts and artillery points from World War One. Some of the longest and hardest battles had raged along these high peaks and passes of the Dolomites as Austrians and Italians fought to maintain positions. In the depths of the winter they would fire mortars into the high snowfields and bring down avalanches on the heads of the enemy. Many soldiers were killed in this crafty but cowardly way but anything goes in a war. We ferreted around in dug outs made from huge boulders and unearthed interesting relics: bullets, shell pieces or shrapnel, tortuously twisted barbed wire, old tins of soldiers supplies, blasted bricks. There were no skeletons or bones naywhere. I think all human remains must have been all removed or consciously buried. I remember being very impressed as a student by reading the poem "Grodek" by a German poet where he paints a metaphorical picture of imminent war by describing a giant's activities: "On the mountains he is beginning to dance." We were there where he had danced.
It was good to move on across a superb high level traverse on Monte Cavallo and then do a long and fast scree or talus run to the Val Travenanzes. After a long eight hour day we camped here amidst plunging waterfalls above which chamois (mountain goats) gracefully trotted. More spaghetti and salad we had brought from the last hut was avidly consumed. Wine was too heavy to carry. I wondered if anyone had managed to dehydrate it yet and then you could carry around bags of powder.
Next day Kay and I, in pouring rain, skirted the huge face of Tofana di Rozes which I had climbed earlier on in the season. The overhanging crack splitting the middle of the wall looked evil and greasy in the wet conditions prevailing and for once I was glad I was underneath it and not dangling from an overhang 300 meters up.
The world famous resort of Cortina was next. This is the Whistler of Italy. Glitz and glitter rule. Hotels are vastly expensive and people parade around in the latest designer clothes: denim with fur on top; red wet look plastic leather; colored hair and rings in every orifice; anything to make an impression. We stayed for our favorite "Four Seasons" pizza; thin crust perfectly done and each of the four segments with a different topping. The toppings are classic: anchovies, mushrooms, tomatoes, provolone cheese and artichokes. The wine is Chianti in the bottle with the wicker basket. In the restaurant we were served by a plump and slightly frumpish woman who sailed in and out like a galleon under full sail. Her arbitrary and no nonsense manner with the serving staff pegged her as the owner. She was deferential verging on obsequious to the well heeled middle aged German customers:
"Moechte die gnaedige Frau noch eine Flasche Wein?" =" Would the gracious lady like another bottle of wine?" but was terribly patronizing to us scruffy Brits with tatty jeans and splattered anoracks. It was a joy to watch her acting skills as she slippily changed from one demeanor to the next. The Germans didn't notice us and they loved the attention of the hostess. Germans are noisy in restaurants. They also do not line up for anything. The biggest and loudest usually get the most attention, at least in Italy and in German speaking countries. The quality of service depends on how well dressed you are as Kay often found out while shopping in casual clothes in Innsbruck. We got ourselves stuffed and left as fast as possible having resolved to eat in eateries of less pomp and more character in more human places which are usually found in underprivileged sections of towns and cities. The French have an expression for this desire to seek "the dirt": "nostalgie de la boue" or "longing for the mud." I am often drawn to slums and shady areas. They tend to be full of people who have lived a checkered life and had more earth shattering experiences than the more bourgeois types. I lived in suburban Prince George, B.C. for fifteen years. My neighbors were nice middle class types with 1.8 kids per couple and sport utility vehicles but were they very staid. I moved to the downtown area and lived there 6 interesting years. A motley crew of "Walking Wounded" passed the house each day. There was Gary who was a quadriplegic from the effects of multiple sclerosis possibly caused by pulp mill pollution. He blew into a straw on his wheelchair to keep himself mobile. A bubbly haired girl aged about 25 stumbled by every day with jerky movements. She walked miles talking to herself, completely oblivious to everything around. I heard her say "Don't be so stupid you pig. Off we go. When? Now!" The blonde female weight lifter next door was a dead ringer for the fully fronted girl from the film "Cool Hand Luke" She had a beautifully maintained Harley Davidson and took an iron bar to a burglar trying to break into our house. The police took him, unconscious and probably much wiser, to hospital and no charges were laid on her.
Next day we toiled up to a pass, the "Forcella Giau." The mist (fog) rolled in when we were half way along "Il Balanzole," the "balance beam." This knife edged ridge snaked away in front of us. Luckily I had brought a piece of thin climbing rope and I slowly let Kay move along the ridge. She sang so I knew it was not easy. No mountain range in the world can touch the Dolomites for mind bogglingly vertiginous cliffs. Luckily the mist obscured the abyss below us, keeping our natural fear in check but route finding was still a problem.
"Move left. I think. Stop. How is it?" "I can't see. It feels like a huge drop."
It was. We moved gingerly and snail like along the two feet wide ridge for ninety eternal minutes. It was too cold, even in summer, to hang about. If I held my hand in front of my arm I could just make out fingers. London fog, in the nineteenth century was probably not as dense as this. The rock was greenish and slimy with the moisture from the fog.
"Aah. Hold me!"
She slipped off the ridge to the right but I had her on a short leash of two meters of rope. The jerk almost pulled me off but I dug in my heels. Breathing heavily, we sat, relieved, and had some tea from a thermos.
"Bloody Hell," I said. "This is way worse than climbing vertically, on technical rock, where every move is protected."
Kay's eyes were glazed. She had had enough already. We had to get down and soon. My heart was still in my mouth when I felt the ridge widen and as on cue, having released us from its grip, the fog rolled out and we could see green meadows below. We cantered out on to the flat and I let out a yell: "Yahoo, Booboo. Free. Free!"
Wouldn't want to do that again in a hurry. No way Hosay.
After the beam, to find the trail marked 466 on the map, I had to use the compass and soaked in tense sweat we eventually slopped down through muddy and still misty fields into the village of Pescul, fighting off large brown cows which poked you with their noses if you sat down and made lunch time movements. We came upon small Italians with wrinkled faces poking and picking things from the ground. They had the intensity of experts. They were fungus hunters and very gnome like. They would not have been out of place with pointed hats sitting on large mushrooms in a circle. One person picked one enormous particularly horrible looking spotty sort and disregarded another brown one that looked more palatable. They were looking for the one called "Cepe" in French and "Steinpilz "in German. These grow only in limestone areas in Italy between about 1,200 meters and 2,200 meters and taste like delicate chestnuts. They fetch great amounts of cash in gourmet restaurants in France-almost as much as truffles. There are many similar ones like birch mushrooms which are not as good. For every Cepe I have found in Canada I have found a hundred other birch ones. In Jasper Park I once found a huge grove of birch mushrooms at 1,300 meters. Some of them were 60 cm across. Dolomite mushrooms are not plentiful and only in the lower greener areas can the really good culinary ones be found. White puff balls proliferate and make good eating if found at the right time. You also come across many beautiful types of alpine flowers, my particular favorite being "Enzian" or alpine violet.
I found Edelweiss only on one occasion on a high inaccessible alpine meadow. There were hundreds of them over an area of 100 square meters. I have never seen a single one since. There are heavy fines for picking them without government permission and permits are hard to get. A hunter was showing us his bucket of captures when the shout "Bellissima" came from above. A gnome had located and was pouncing on a Cepe! The gloomy mood of the day lifted and with apologies to Jack London we felt "the Call of the Wine" and gravitated to the only restaurant in Pescul for our usual inspection of the local vino. We were only checking, of course, to see that the same standards of quality were being upheld throughout northern Italy. After a wonderful sleep that is only to be had in an alpine hay barn, we breakfasted on fresh bread, cheese and wonderful, typically Italian, milky coffee and set off for the Coldai hut. The famous peak of Monte Pelmo emerged from the mist like a giant grey cathedral. A crazy Englishman with the highly appropriate name of John Ball gained the summit in 1857 by crawling on all fours along a very exposed and exciting ledge which narrows to twenty cm in places and overhangs a huge drop. We snaked through the wet mists and used compass bearings to find the Coldai hut trail. This hut lies at one end of the amazing Civetta group of peaks. This set of peaks is three miles wide, almost a mile high and has some of the longest and most difficult rock climbs in the whole of the Alps. I had previously climbed the "Solleder" route in two days with a British friend. This climb is described in the book "Rocky Horrors, Frozen Smiles." Upon reaching the cold and glacial lake, "Lago di Coldai" I tried some unsuccessful fishing and then went in for a swim. I rushed out screaming like a bat out of hell when the cold water almost put me into shock.
Next day we strolled along the huge Civetta faces, passing the modern "Tissi" hut and continuing through light larch woods on to the "Vazzoler" hut. Kay pointed at the leaden hued sky and asked the guardian of the hut, "Va una tempesta?" (Is there a storm coming? "). "No, No tempesta." One hour later a terrific lightning storm burst over us. We watched with fascination as the lightning hit the top ridges and set stones rolling down the walls, now streaming with torrents of rainwater. The gods were truly raging and we were happy to be in the hut out of their fury. The guardian was worried about the rare Alpine flowers growing in the garden.I asked him about the possible storm damage to his flowers. " Si,si. molto perigloso per las gentianes." or some such statement. The storm blew itself out and the next morning dawned beautifully clear. The sunrise pulled out a giant brush and painted the Civetta walls in brilliant grey and red hues. We followed indistinct paths to the "Col del Orse" at 2,000 meters passing on the way some shattered pinnacles bizarrely shaped like ships' figureheads.
The Dolomites were originally the accumulated droppings from sea creatures. Perhaps artifacts from the sea are much more related than we think. Astronomers and physicists have noticed that when atoms move in one substance they move in exactly the same way in similar substances millions of miles apart. Coincidence has been ruled out. Strangely the terrain then turned to soft high meadowland like the South Downs Way in England. But there was a weird sense of isolation in these wild valleys such as we had never felt before in Europe. Near the Passo Duran we found some gorgeous woods surrounded by long lush grass and as there was a gurgling stream nearby we camped for the night. The camp was surrounded by huge red lilies and in and out of these slid surrealistically and slowly tiny salamanders with big red spots. After a night in the isolated Pramperet hut the next stage was the most memorable and scary of the whole trip, indeed a day that would stay with us forever. At five in the sunrise we blearily and stupidly lurched off. Marmots foretold our moving up. To make a marmot call, insert twenty five cents and dial mar.... sorry... blow out the back of the cheeks while you whistle in a hole made at the front of the mouth. If you have thin Irish lips like me a high pitched wail should come out and if you sit there for half an hour the marmots will come out, being incurably curious, just like cats, and wander over to you.
As the day warmed up we were constantly attacked by huge horseflies with multicolored stripes of black, green and yellow on the bodies. "Why do they have such cool stripes?" said Kay.
"Well you know how the Italians love football (soccer)"?
"The horseflies have evolved like this: there are many people at soccer matches in striped clothing and cheering for their teams. Many years ago, at the dawn of soccer in Italy the horseflies knew love at first bite when they saw it and headed for the collective human smell in stadiums in the big cities like Rome, Milan and Naples. The brownish ones, for some genetic reason, probably because they were dull buggers and not extroverts, all got swatted. The more colored ones were making more effort to be noticed by the opposite horsefly sex (called mareflies) and were probably genetically stronger. These stronger ones with fast and powerful wings were initially easier to see and escaped being swatted. As the years went by they developed bodies to resemble team football colors to avoid being squished. The ones bugging us are tired of the cities and high mortality rates of their buddies and have realized there are people as well as horses out here in the wilds. Another reason, moreover, is that if the teams change their colors from time to time then the genetically developed horseflies in that stadium are in deeper doodoo than they usually like to be in. So now you know why they are here and why they look like that."
"Aha." said Kay.
Half a mile later we came upon a meadow ablaze with a profusion of wildflowers. Kay had never seen so many varieties in one area: Valerian, Pinks, Yarrow, Gentian, and Mountain Avens. Well drained soils such as prevail in limestone areas probably have the best flowers. I was so entranced with all this sweet smelling botany that I did not see the large viper ( known as an adder ) in Europe sliding away sinuously from under my foot. It had a 'v' on its head and looked completely unwelcoming. My foot missed it by six inches as it took off into some rocks in the flowers. It was a lucky escape. Having a poisoned leg out here would not be fun at all. We were very wary from that point on whenever we came to rocky slopes with a southern exposure.
The "Forcella Del Marmol" loomed above as we gained height. This col or high pass was perfectly symmetrical and looked like the gateway to a hidden and mysterious kingdom on the other side. It resembled a pass from the film "The Man who would be King" starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine. "Do we have any pendants or rings with symbols of Kandahar a.k.a. Alexander the Great to protect us," said Kay. "I will draw an 'A' on this piece of paper like the Goons would do" I said. "That should do it," she said.
We topped out on the pass and continued up the ridge to find the start of the "Iron Way"-the "Via Ferrata" which leads down to the hut called the 7th Alpini. Through a break in the clouds we caught a glimpse of the huge vertical south east face of the "Schiara" the mountain we were now descending. The Belluno section of the Italian Alpine Club had engineered this iron way in 1965. Five hundred meters of cables, ladders and spikes ran all the way up the face making the other valleys accessible to many more people. It would have been better to leave these walls pristine and let only skilled climbers use them. However it saved a one day detour. The iron pollution was a mixed blessing and by now some of the fixtures were rusting and coming loose. The cable under me led to the first ladder which it was not tied to. One of the three holding rivets on the top cable came loose as we put our weight on it and gave us a sudden burst of adrenalin as we headed down the mountain, stopping after two meters. But we had to go down. We had to use the cables and rungs or go back. There was no other way. I started down the first ladder. The descent was spectacular and exciting. Using a two foot sling and clipping in every few feet with a carabiner would have taken ages. So we only clipped in every hundred feet or so for a rest. Anyway it was traditional not to use a rope. The 500 meter void below the feet was awe inspiring even for me as a climber. For Kay it was simply terrifying and she sang the same song over again all the way down. I didn't talk to her as she was concentrating so hard. You could just imagine falling free on to the tiny tortuous path which wound through the depths way below. The rungs were rusty and decaying. Every foot had to be placed with great care.
"Yowl!" A bloody rung came loose and my foot shot down, grazing my calf, dropping my foot inside the next rung and throwing all my weight on to my hands.
"That was a close one," I spluttered.
"Don't fall," said Kay, "I may need a rescue yet."
The hut was a tiny white dot, a speck of dust on a brown floor. We touched down, sweatily and thankfully, in a gentle gully and reached the hut half an hour later. The last few days had made us really fit so we carried on down the river which led us to a hay barn about 28 miles from our starting point that day. The longest day was over and we slept the sleep of the dead, which we would have been if those two other rivets had come out. Next morning a farmer's wife hauled us out of the barn for more Italian hospitality and a free breakfast of fresh rolls and milky coffee, the recollection of which still makes my mouth water. Italy is the most hospitable country in Europe, bar none. Over a four year period of intermittent travel there we received so many lifts, beds for the night, food including bags of eggs, snails, pasta dinners and wine that I have totally lost count. The Italian love of people and especially children is evident everywhere and I have seriously considered moving there. We hitchhiked back to our dormant Volkswagen. It was sleeping sweetly and you could see the hood gently rising and falling. It brightened up when it recognized us and joyfully started first time. We took it back to England on our way to Canada and left it with relatives. Sadly they did not want the responsibility of caring for it. They lived in a typically British restrictive and conformist bourgeois neighborhood and the cost of painting over its psychedelic colors was prohibitive. One horrible afternoon the local council took it away. When we reached the part of the letter that said the screams of our little car were pitiful we threw the rest away and started planning the next major walk and the pursuit of happiness.