The Life of a Winter Parahiker – Kevin Ault
In these dark, December days, I make my call to go up Elk five minutes beforehand because of weather and general busyness. There’s almost no point planning. When you put it on the calendar, it pours rain or the wind blows over the back. Even my friend, Eddy, who lives right under the mountain hiked up and down four times last week.
Yesterday, December 22, I woke up with some hope. The day’s forecast called for light winds and a low probability of precipitation. The windgrams showed west southwest winds from 10-20 km/hr at 1500 meters. If you fly Elk and land at Eddy’s, it takes an hour to hike back up to the vehicle so it’s always great to have a retrieve lined up. I began making a few calls at midday and could reach no one. However, after several rainy weeks, I decided to drive to Eddy’s, scope out the mountain and if it looked good, just bite it and damn the torpedoes.
Imagine my joy when I saw Eddy’s black iron gate open and rang the doorbell to find that he had just arrived home. Eddy had already done a hike that day so he opted not to join me but he gladly drove me to the trailhead. It takes me about fifty minutes to hike up Elk from the high start point and the entire journey is therapy for my mind and body. The strenuous climb shakes all the “sillies” out of my stiff joints and the beautiful old growth forest and progressively dramatic view allows me to leave all my cares down in the valley below.
Parahikers are like Spiderman. Our “spidey” senses are constantly attuned to whatever wind direction and strength we feel as we ascend the mountain. With Elk, feeling a north wind coming from the Fraser Valley is never encouraging….we need the wind to be from the hiker’s right, a nice steady south breeze. If the trees are making noise on the lower parts of the trail, that doesn’t bode well either because wind strength usually increases with elevation and Elk frequently receives 60-80 km/hr winds on top, far too much to even consider flying a paraglider. I could hear a little wind on my way up and just hoped it wouldn’t be blown out at the top.
As the trail opened up at the first lookout, the wind was coming up very nicely from the south side, but there was obvious cloud forming, almost obscuring the lookout which is still one hundred meters below the summit. I continued hiking, stepping carefully on patches of ice formed from the footsteps of frequent hikers. Minutes later, I climbed the last steep stretch to the west shoulder, took off my pack and immediately changed from my sweat-soaked t-shirt to a dry top and layered up with a down jacket, shell, insulated pants, thick ski gloves and a toque. No matter how warm you are when you arrive on the the Elk summit, it is best to trap that heat quickly before the icy wind sucks it from you. Looking around, I could see that the conditions were rapidly changing. One minute, I was in a white out of cloud, the next, it would open up and the valley became visible again only to disappear as another cycle of dewpoint-induced cloud rolled through.
However, the direction and strength were perfect for launching from the west shoulder and I was sure I could navigate around any cloud that formed near this point of the mountain. I readied my gear, turned on my ham radio and checked in with Eddy who, from his house below, confirmed that the cloud layer was sporadic and only formed near my launch place.
Less than ten minutes after arriving on the summit, I clipped in, turned to face my glider, simultaneously flipping my lines over my head into reverse inflation position, gave a gentle tug on my risers and watched the orange, red and white canopy inflate and pop up over my head, eager to ascend. I did a little alpine line dance getting the glider under control and then began running down the hill towards the little mountain hemlocks at the bottom of the meadow, less than ten meters away. With only a couple of steps between me and the trees, the wind worked its magic. I lifted my legs and settled into my harness and began to soar, going steadily up as I flew away from the mountain. Within seconds, I was looking down on the west shoulder of Elk and I turned eastward to fly along the ridge using my “bird” sense to locate the strongest lift. My climb quickly allowed me to rise above the next wave of cloud that was forming on the mountain and soon I was flying along the edge of the cloud. I had a clear view out to Ryder Lake but the mountain below was partially whited out like the other side of a sauna when someone pours water on the element.
For the next half an hour, I danced above, through, and around the rapidly forming and dissipating “white room”. It was surreal and in those moments nothing in the world mattered but the swooping turns I did as I played back and forth along the ridge. The wind was strong but smooth, my control over the wing effortless, and my only regret was not bringing a camera to share the stunning views and images of the ridge below the mist. The wind had an icy kiss and I missed my annual beard as my face tingled and burned from the cold. The rest of me was warm and that made it easy to stay. I have had some flights where I have been so cold, that my shaking body vibrated right up through my lines to the wing.
At some point the wind strength lessened and with each pass I slowly lost elevation until I was soaring at the same level as the lower lookout. Eventually, I began to fly westward along the ridge, high over the trail and past to the microwave towers above Elk View Road. From here, I turned south and did a series of lazy zig-zags until I was over Eddy’s property. I could see him walking around, an ant on a grassy anthill waiting to greet me.
I touched down on his field about forty-five minutes after taking off from the top and was greeted with a warm handshake and an offer to come in for tea. I don’t know how many times this scene has been played out but it never gets old and I hope to keep going in for tea with Eddy after an Elk flight until I am a very old man.