The view of Banff from the top of Sulphur Mountain. Photos by David Lansing.
After breakfast this morning we checked out of the Chateau Lake Louise and transferred on down the road to the Fairmont Banff Springs. Since it was early in the day, our rooms weren’t ready yet. Not a problem, said Michael, our outdoor geek freak. We’ll go on a hike.
Was I the only one who moaned at this unwanted piece of information? Probably.
An hour later we gathered at the base of the Banff Gondola where we were joined by Tanya Chamberland, a mountain guide for a Banff-based outfit called Brewster Travel Canada. I could tell just by looking at Tanya we were in trouble. Or, I was in trouble. Her thighs were the size of tree trunks and looked just as hard. Obviously she was a serious outdoor girl, and, in fact, she told me, she did the trail we were headed up at least three or four times a week, “Usually just for fun.”
“Is it difficult?” I asked her.
“Naw,” she said, leading the way. “Piece of cake.”
Of course, it was for her. She lives in town where the elevation is 4,537 feet, making it the highest town in Canada; I live at sea level, elevation zero feet. She breathes thin air like a fish; I prefer a little oxygen in my lungs. She climbs over two thousand feet a few times a week for fun; I don’t walk a dozen yards without a major incentive like a cocktail waiting for me.
Honestly, the hike up Sulphur Mountain wasn’t as bad as I’d imagined; it was worse. Much worse. At first I was afraid I was having a heart attack. Then I just wished I would so that I could get the hike over with. Since we were climbing up the side of Sulphur Mountain, the hike consisted of an endless series of switchbacks up a narrow, rocky trail. After about half an hour, I was far behind the main group and Tanya fell back to keep me company (or watch me fall down dead, I wasn’t sure which). To make me feel better, she told me a story about an old hiker called Cap’n Crunch who got his nickname when his crackling knee joints go so loud they became audible to others on the trail. “But he kept on hiking,” she said. At this point I thanked her for hanging back with me but told her I’d be more comfortable if she went on ahead. I told her that her company was only making me more acutely aware of how slow I was going and how often I needed to stop.
“Are you sure?” Tanya asked.
Positively, I told her. If I wasn’t at the summit an hour after she’d arrived, she should send for the rescue squad. Otherwise, I’d see her at the top.
The crazies continue hiking to the observation tower while I nurse a Molson.
Here’s the crazy thing: the trail zig-zagged directly beneath the Banff Gondola which was headed for the same place we were. When I had the strength to raise my head, I could see the amused gondola passengers zipping by above me, pointing at the hunched over man killing himself to walk up the mountain. No doubt they were saying to theirselves, What an idiot. He could have taken the gondola and been to the top in eight minutes.
That’s what I was saying to myself.
Eventually I made it to the top of Sulphur Mountain. I felt dead. My legs were shaking, my throat was raw from trying to suck air, and my head was pounding with a headache. Everybody else was sitting around a table at the little restaurant in the gondola building drinking a Molson. They hardly looked at me when I dragged myself in (I was expecting something of a hero’s welcome).
“Hey, you made it,” Drew said. “Just in time. We’re going to hike over to that weather observatory on the next mountain over…want to come?”
Truly they were determined to kill me. But I wasn’t going to play along. I told them to go on without me. I stayed in the restaurant where I took off my hiking boots and ordered a cold beer. And then another.