a Canadian Rockies Christmas

By Ken Wylie

It was Christmas in Calgary in 1972. I was seven years old. Christmas in our household was usually anticlimactic. Lots of hype and hard work with little delivery. Harsh but true. My mother was brilliant in preparing ice-cream-bucket-loads of treats and goodies for us to eat. This was perhaps her language of love, though I did not understand it at the time. She was too busy trying to be the perfect mom. For me.

Months beforehand she would be busy making cookies, fruitcake, perogies, cabbage rolls and meatballs; all for the greatest feast of the year — Christmas Eve dinner. This dinner was a Ukrainian 12-course affair; the one dinner of the year where we did not try to get food off of each others’ plates. At that point there were seven of us kids. Enough said. Eat or be eaten.

With all of the food and celebration, there was still something missing; a shortage of one commodity — time. Skilled time for each other. That is why Christmas was anticlimactic.

Among all of the food, beverages and celebration we typically did not make real and important connections with each other that were based on acceptance, interest and the desire to understand. The epidemic of anonymity existed in our family of nine; all of us wanting attention but unskilled at giving the kind of focused attention that leads to understanding. Parents just as needy and lost as the children. So forgivable. In a crowded house, everyone was lonely.

However, the seeds of change happened for Daryl, Shauna and me on Christmas 1972. It was an enterprising move for my brother Daryl to offer an activity as a gift: time together in nature. It was intrepid because it was a change to the normal pattern in our household of sitting around the house watching TV and killing time. Thoreau wrote, “When we kill time we wound eternity.”

Daryl brightened my eternity that Christmas. He was 17 and in high school. He was turned on by the bold Canadian Rockies. He had been on a school trip cross country skiing with Mr. Hergott, one of his teachers at Bishop Carroll High School. Daryl decided to spread this newfound awakening to the joys of cross country skiing to two of his siblings.

I am not sure of the reason, but Daryl chose the youngest two for this gift. He could have easily made arrangements with Debbie or Pat, Floyd or Peggy, but for some unknown reason he chose Shauna and me — the youngest. Easier to lead the young, perhaps.

I awoke Christmas morning, like most children, early. There was a pair of wooden cross country skis leaning against the wall next to the Christmas tree. Unwrapped. They were much too large so I completely ignored them. I suspected that they were for Daryl.

They were used. Perfect. With so many people in our household, the space under the tree was heaped with gifts; piles of miscommunications that rarely addressed a precise want or important need. Inanimate, lifeless messages that intended to convey love but, more often, conveyed a lack of understanding, almost without exception, for me. Feigning appreciation for these items deepened the rift. Does our human penchant for tools rob us of the real connection to all things? Is it possible to use stuff to convey love?

The skis, however, were promising. They represented an activity. They had a note on them, “To Shauna and Kenny. Love, Daryl,” written in Daryl’s nearly illegible handwriting. This was baffling. How were Shauna and I to use these large skis? And there was only one pair. Daryl explained that they were his skis and they were there to represent the day out we would have together and that he would rent us skis in order for us to go. I nearly short-circuited. The best part was that we actually went. Now this was my first real Christmas gift.

Walking into the Norseman cross country ski shop to rent skis is a foggy memory for me, except for the smell of pine tar and the feel of purple kick wax. The pine tar smells like both the words in its name simultaneously. A vegemite kind of smell — love it or hate it. I also liked how, when I touched the wax, it created strings between my finger and the wax stick. I still play with ski wax.

We sized the skis to the vertically extended wrist, poles to the armpit and boots with thick wool socks on. Daryl paid the rental fee for skis, boots and poles, which was a few dollars each set, and we went clattering out the door. This was the first of what was to become a lifetime of trip logistics for me. Now that I am a mountain guide, I understand that these were not mere tools. They were a vehicle to my soul.

The drive out west to the mountains is as clear and crisp in my memory as the day. It was the first trip in my memory of going west; west into the bold Canadian Rockies. We were in Daryl’s first car; a Rambler sedan. It was cold. Really cold, and the car strained through the thick minus-20-degree air.

At Scott Lake hill, we were all lurching forward in our seats in an effort to help the car make it up the hill. We passed Morley and, as we were walled by the mountains on either side of the road, the anticipation of the day enveloped me. The tall and striking summits on either side of the car carried strength yet, at the same time, were inviting. Daryl knew some of the names of the peaks, which I found impressive. Their names hinted to a history, which gave them character.

What I remember most about the drive was the park gate. For a boy of seven, with a natural draw to the outdoors, this was the equivalent to the gates of heaven. The log architecture of the National Park gate booths were so completely laden with snow they were like some magical gingerbread house. They completely fit the landscape and they reached out to me. They still do today. When we crossed the threshold, I remember feeling like I had come home for the first time in my short life.

The deep, deep snows of 1972 created a world I had never experienced before. Everything was so pristine, quiet and peaceful. Cold comfort. It was then that I realized that life could be magic; really magic. It was that moment I learned, though I could not articulate it in words at the time, that natural places have great power to inspire the human spirit.

We were going to Johnston Canyon and the inkpots. I did not know what an inkpot was. Daryl reminded me of the ink well holes in our desks at school. I had seen the holes but had never seen an inkpot. I asked, “Why ink?” Daryl said, “Because they are deep pools of water and, because they are deep, they are dark blue or black.”

We arrived at the parking lot with the car tires squeaking on the cold snow as we slowed down, decreasing in pitch. We stepped out of the car and were met with the visual and tactile world of snow. The buildings were deeply buried as were the trees (straining from the weight of it all), the old log signposts and the bridges. The features were buried and barely discernable. There is a silence that comes with so much snow. Snow is a great insulator and it made everything cozy, even though it was cozy, through the dampening of sound.

The allure of the snow is not only from the depth, but from the way the snow hangs and droops over all of these features. Improbable features are created as it drapes itself on the trees, logs, stumps, tree branches and signposts. Everything is downy soft, albeit cold to the touch. It is also a record of the day’s animal activities. I remember being fascinated by the interplay of the animals that was sketched out on the snow.

Having grown up in Al-BUUURRR-ta, Shauna and I needed no instruction from Daryl on how to dress and keep warm. Daryl did, however, explain about the equipment and waxing.

For instance, “The wax allows the snow crystal to penetrate, which gives us grip for going up hill. The harder the snow, the harder the wax.” Or, “We have to get the wax hardness right for the snow temperature. Too hard a wax and we get no grip. Too soft and the wax will pick up too much snow.”

“I should have a thermometer but I don’t,” he said. “It is better to start out with a ‘colder,’ harder wax and then move to something softer if need be. You can’t put a hard wax over a soft wax. We use different colored wax for different conditions. Warm colors for warm conditions”

“So how do we slide?”

“With speed, the friction warms the snow enough so the wax no longer grips.”

“OK.”

“You rub it on like this. And then you use the cork to smooth it down in one direction. Tip to tail.”

We each applied the green wax in the rubbing motion Daryl had demonstrated. This was a brand new experience. I was first required to observe nature and then take an action that enabled me to work in concert with it. Waxing is an art because it takes time to sense all of the conditions that nature is presenting. It demands that we throw in a little bit of our intuition because there may be elements of information-gathering that we are unable to quantify. So there is no real answer or repeatable formula.

Shauna and I put our skis on and Daryl showed us how to test the grip of the wax by pushing off a weighted ski and seeing if the other would glide. They seemed to both grip and glide, so we started up the Johnston Canyon trail. In those days the trail was above the canyon. Glimpses and overlooks into the canyon allowed some privacy for the critters that live there. Today, the trail is right in the canyon, with sections of platform bolted to the wall. It now lacks the same mystery, privacy and intimacy. Paradise paved.

Daryl showed us how to slap our skis against the snow lightly then hold our foot still in order to get the wax to grip as we went uphill. This was my second coming home of the day. Human power. Moving uphill is as natural a communication with the mountain and ourselves as we can get. Secrets about the mountain, and ourselves, are only released with personal effort. Such is life. What secrets have we been robbed of by mechanization or the failure to take the requisite time? The natural movement of cross country skiing was “just like walking.” But so much more.

The rhythm of movement was a little awkward, though. Today, although I am not a great skier but have skied for a long time, I joke that my mother gave birth to me by skisection. She had to be cut to get the skis out. But that is not true. I had to learn how to use skis after I was born, just like everyone else. And it took a long time. My mistake on this trip was to stare at my skis. They were called Gresshoppa Finse. I remember the name because I looked at them all day. Mine were brown and they had a snowflake-like pattern on the tip. Shauna’s were blue.

I would watch as each ski overtook the other in a rolling rhythm of momentum, uphill. I was trying to put a little hop in my step like Daryl did, in order to get some glide, but it did not really work for me. I am sure I looked like a dancing bear because I had an incomplete weight shift. Because I was looking down at my skis, my balance was poor. That is what the poles were for, I thought. Daryl encouraged us to look ahead on the trail and we would have better balance. I found this difficult. Eventually, after enough striding, I would stop and look around and allow myself to be enveloped by the place.

It was the invitation of the place that kept us fueled. The magic of the soft blue light cast on the trees, with long winter shadows, that were dressed in snow. The trail with two sinuous tracks impressed in the snow and countless ski pole holes winding through the trees, taking the natural line that fits the terrain. The promise of sights ahead. The notion of adventure. The hope of discovery. The stillness that invited self knowledge. Yielding, allowing the place to consume us.

We kept warm, for the most part. Shauna’s toes and mine got a little cold from time-to-time, numb in fact, it was cold enough that we also had to be mindful of our nose and ears. At one point we stopped, took off a boot and warmed our toes. The cold does bite and warrants respect, but we learned quickly that movement was the best way to stay warm and cozy. If cold, move faster; if warm, move slower. People around the globe know and adhere to this principle.

Our path eventually brought us to several waterfalls. Winter waterfalls; water taking much, much longer to join the creek below than in the summer. They were frozen. Anyone who has visited a mountain waterfall in summer knows that they are things of beauty. Winter waterfalls, or waterfall ice, are an order of magnitude greater in beauty to summer ones, in my opinion. Ice refracts the blue/green spectrum, which provides more color than in summer. As we drank in the view of these water cathedrals, Daryl said another thing that was to change my life.

“People climb these.”

The wonder of that statement captured my imagination.

“How?” I asked.

“With ice picks, ropes and screws.”

I stood there trying to imagine what ice climbing must be like. I knew I would like to try it someday.

The immediacy of minus-20 degrees C pushed us onward and eventually to the inkpots. There were white spots in a meadow, I thought. Big deal. We came all this way for this? This was my first lesson in discovery. You can’t plan to discover; it just has to happen unexpectedly.

We found a spot in the meadow for lunch. We took our skis off and immediately sank in the snow up to our waists. Rockies snowpack. The cold inland air takes all of the snow’s strength, so it can’t support the weight of a person. I learned right then how desperate winter travel would be without skis in the mountains. I was building respect. Cold, plus distance from the car, plus no skis equals bad news.

Daryl taught us to keep out of the snow by stomping a hole for our feet and to sit on our skis so we did not sink into the snow. When we had made our spots, we brushed the snow off of ourselves in order to keep ourselves dry. We did not take long to eat lunch because the cold crept into our bodies. We put our skis back on and began our glide back to the car.

But there was much more to it than that.

I can still hear Shauna’s giggles today, in my mind’s ear, as she and I made our way down the slopes of the Johnston Canyon trail. Daryl was ahead and I have little memory of him being there at all. I am sure he was near, but perhaps he was ahead just enough to hear our laughter but stay out of our way. Out of harm’s way.

Rockies ski trails are really summer trails with snow on them. They are not designed for skiing. But that is what makes them fun. Narrow, fast, trees lining the edges, long steep sections with 90-degree curves at the bottom, bumps, roots, icy corners. The heli-skiing companies today make a big deal about teaching their guests tree skiing by telling them to look for the open spaces and head for them. If Shauna and I had not employed this concept in the first 30 seconds on our own accord, I am certain we would have been maimed that day. The take-home message for me was, “Speed is good.” I have lived it ever since.

Whistling past the lodgepole pines was exhilarating, to say the least. Our only braking mechanism was to fall. We did not know how to snowplow or stop. The floppy Nordic equipment made it all the more challenging. So we fell, flopped, peeled out and tumbled our way down the mountain, narrowly missing the trees as we crashed, occasionally getting tangled in the Labrador tea bushes. Our red faces still gleamed with delight as we picked ourselves up from fall after fall.

Once in a while, we had a thrilling ride that ended victoriously on our feet, which made it all worth it. Through it all we discovered another element to the landscape, gravity. It seemed as though we were just becoming weary when the welcome sight of the parking lot came into view. The mountain had shown us all a great time. And I was hooked.

I don’t remember the trip home all that much. I do remember the frustration of trying to find words that captured the day when explaining it to others. Impossible. Adventure on the landscape is like subscribing to a secret language that can only be decoded through direct experience.

What was I hooked on? The priceless part of the day was making friends. I had made several good friends that day. I grew in admiration and closeness with Daryl because of his ability to be with us and also let us do our thing. He also mentored his connection to wild places, not by his words but by his reverent gaze at his surroundings.

I grew in closeness with Shauna because of her ability to handle the struggles of the day with good humor and delight. I became good friends with a portion of Banff National Park and the Rockies, which is a friendship that still exists to this day. I became a better friend with myself because I began to know what kinds of experiences fuel my spirit.

This was the first lesson in boldness that the Rockies had to offer me in my life. Their bold nature had inspired Daryl to embrace all of the risks of taking his two young siblings out for a day in Banff in minus-20-degree C temperatures. Lots could have gone wrong. We could have been frozen, hurt, killed or, worse yet, we might have hated him for it. None of those things happened. We loved him for it. We loved him for the time he took. We loved him for being connected to us. We loved him for introducing us to skiing, the mountains, Banff Park and each other. We loved him for providing a shared experience.

We loved him for making us feel special through his undivided attention. We loved him for creating common ground. To this day I believe that the three of us have a connection that is rooted in this day together.

Daryl was also inspired to be socially courageous. He broke the pattern of inactivity. He broke the pattern of valuing only work. He broke the pattern of the purchased expression of love. He expressed it directly with the gift of time — and adventure on the landscape.

This lesson has helped me understand Christmas and what people need. We do not need more stuff. We need to be bold. Bold enough to take the time to make memories with family. Bold enough to be challenged so that we are presented a window to our character. Bold enough to take physical risks. Bold enough to tell people not only that we love them, but why. Bold enough to embrace each other. Bold enough to embrace the landscape and the challenges it may present. Bold enough to truly live. All of this made possible by simply exploring a Rockies ski trail.

Ken Wylie’s passion has become reconnecting people with their roots on the landscape. He is an Internationally Certified Mountain Guide and the Alberta Program Director for Outward Bound Canada and resides in Calgary, Alberta. He is working on a series of stories that chronicle the passionate lessons the mountains have had for him and humanity. Ken would like to thank Lynn Moorman for encouraging him to write this article.

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