Amongst Giants

Words: Josh Barringer

Cougar Sighting In Area. The bright yellow sign is posted at a trailhead at the edge of a North Vancouver neighbourhood. Wi-fi and the wild. Within a few kilometres of the safety of home, there is no phone reception; rugged wilderness abruptly begins. The North Shore mountains are the gateway to the Coast Mountain Range, one of the most easily accessible wildernesses in the world.

The North Shore is part of metro Vancouver, but it is also home to an extensive network of trails that support a style of mountain biking known worldwide for its technical terrain and world-leading riding design. Most trails start with hefty inclines, eventually opening up to views of Vancouver, Howe Sound or the near endless mountains beyond to the north. Arc’teryx Head Office and Design Centre are literally only metres from this North Shore wilderness.

Warning signs greet with information on proper gear, hoping to deter underprepared hikers who all too often underestimate this wildness at our backdoor. Popular local trails are a mecca to those searching for a simple hiking experience and the perfect social media moment, but more advanced trails quickly lead to high exposure terrain and weather conditions that change at a moment’s notice. It is not uncommon to hear that even the most capable outdoor enthusiasts require extraction or go missing. Towering trees and shades of green mask direction; flowing water steals noise; everywhere looks the same. Weather systems hover, dampening search and rescue attempts. Urban proximity beguiles safety.

Farther north in the Coast Mountains, the ease at which one can access extreme terrain is unparalleled. Parking lots and trailheads are just off the highway. Muggy, dense temperate rainforests covered in gnarly roots and mud turn upwards as moss-draped evergreens give way to alpine meadows and boulder fields to precipitous summits. Ascending, the oddly sweet smell of decaying fallen trees is overtaken by crisp alpine breezes across wildflowers.

I recall returning from an overnight adventure where more snow lingered than expected for mid-June. Hours after witnessing an airlift evacuation, I passed a man carrying a DSLR camera a few kilometers from the parking lot. “How far is it to the ridge?” He stood in front of me, outfitted in a blazer, jeans, and dress shoes. “It’s another 10km but there’s a ton of snow. You might want to come back another day with appropriate gear.” He continued anyway. It’s not surprising that the local Search and Rescue teams are some of the busiest on the planet.

A mountain outing here is a multidisciplinary adventure that can teeter along the edge of survival; the area is so remote, something as minor as a small sprain means airlift extraction. Foot placement and route finding become taxing as the views demand your full attention. Hard efforts are often not rewarded with anything but achievement through movement. Weather here is not compliant. Too often, at the peak of a mountain, you see only clouds. Standing just a moment to catch your breath, the hammering cold rain invites a shiver. One becomes an expert in Type 2 fun.

My relationship with the mountains is through the perspective of running. We dance in energetic bursts. The mountains are fickle and unforgiving; demanding respect. This cathedral gives suffering and solace. It’s a tough love compelling me to explore deeper into the wilderness and my soul. Kwíyeqel lheq’elómet.

Every adventure in the Coast Mountains is incredibly humbling. This environment can be unkind, but it makes us resilient. Accomplishments are contagious here. It creates in me a stirring to continually push myself; to learn new skills. The farther I go, the more I realize the vastness beyond.

* Kwíyeqel lheq’elómet means “climb a mountain, know yourself” in the First Nations language of Halq̓eméylem.

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