On May 15th I met up with a few other trail/mountain runners to set out on a mountain traverse. The plan was to run from Dawson Creek Recreational Area, head up Cox Hill, to Jumpingpound, to Moose Mountain, and down to the parking lot. We had split up into two groups of runners; one group would run from Dawson to Moose Mountain, and the other group would run from Moose Mountain to Dawson. The two groups would meet somewhere in the middle and exchange car keys and carry on their way.
Sounds like a solid plan right? Well a few things went awry, and this ~35 km run turned into quite the adventure…
The day started off well enough as my group headed out from Dawson Creek Recreational Area. I was running with two other guys that I just met (Nick and Mac). I’m always a little nervous when running with a new group because I’m not sure how fast they are and I don’t want to end up slowing others down. Right out of the gates Nick and Mac took off at a very quick pace. I was able to match the pace easily enough but I knew this was a pace I would not be able to hold for 3-4 hours, which was our estimated time to complete the traverse. After about a mile or two they slowed down and said the fast pace was because they needed to warm up to counter act the cold brisk air. This may have been the truth, or they heard me sucking wind behind them and decided to slow down…I like to think that they weren’t slowing down because of me (I hate to hold people back), but in all likelihood they probably were.
The first section of the run consists of forested trails with moderate inclines as you climb Cox hill. There were a few patches of snow along the trail, but other than that the trails were in really good condition. The climb up Cox Hill is roughly 4 miles long with 690 m of elevation gain.
Located in the front ranges of the Rocky Mountains, Cox Hill has gorgeous views on its summit. On top of Cox Hill if you look to your left (east) you’ll see the vast plains of the foothills and if you look to your right (west) you’ll see spectacular mountains. The juxtaposition of these two views is remarkable, and it reminds you how amazing the mountains and this world are.
Jumpingpound was our next destination on this route. The trail continues from Cox Hill to Jumpingpound so it’s really easy to get to. This part of the run is by far my favorite. The trail takes you a long a gentle meadow like ridge. It’s simply a gorgeous section to run. Although on this particular day the entire portion of my favorite section was covered in crunchy snow which made running challenging and frustrating (similar to running through sand).
Atop of Jumpingpound we had a look at Moose Mountain and saw that the traverse we will be making is completely covered in snow. All 3 of us have never gone beyond Jumpingpound before, this would be our first time doing the full traverse to Moose Mountain and we jokingly stated “how the hell are we going to get across that?” as we looked at the snow covered mountain. We figured it couldn’t be that bad because we knew of a few runners that had done the traverse a few weeks earlier (although they likely had less snow, as it snowed only 3 days before we ventured out). We were hoping to have run into the other group of runners coming the other way by this point, but figured the snowy traverse likely slowed them down and pushed on without a second thought.
Making are way from Jumpingpound to Moose Mountain we had to do a little bit of trail blazing. After bushwhacking a few kilometers we ended up on a Husky Oil facility road that takes you to the north side of Moose Mountain, where we’d begin the final stage of our traverse.
As we approached the north side of Moose Mountain we saw no sign of the other group. There were no figures moving along the ridge nor were there any foot prints in the snow. We were concerned that maybe they didn’t make the traverse over Moose Mountain. If this were the case were they waiting for us on top of Moose Mountain? Or down by the car? As far as the other group knew, we were still making our way across so we figured they must still be on Moose Mountain somewhere or at least in the area so we would not end up stranded at Moose Mountain without a car. Assuming they were waiting for us on Moose Mountain we proceeded to make the snow covered traverse.
Having never done this before section before we discussed how we should do tackle it. I suggested that we zig zag are way up to the ridge and then walk along the ridge to the summit. Nick figured it’d be easier to walk diagonally towards the ridge till we caught up with it. We ended up going with Nick’s idea because it should be faster.
Marching up the snow slope was pretty exhausting, but the snow was crunchy and provided good foot holds. The route we chose took us between two cliffs, one above and one below. The slope between the two cliffs was incredibly steep. Reaching out to the side and bending my knees roughly 45 degrees and a slight tilt into the slope allowed me to easily touch the mountain with my hand. As we began to cross the steep slope things were going fine. Mack went across with ease while Nick and I followed. Looking down the steep slope I began to realize how vulnerable we are. One little slip and no one would be finding your body there were no trees or rocks to stop you from sliding all the way to the base of the mountain.
Along one particularly snowy section Nick called back saying we should take this section one at a time. At this moment my mind began to run away with some terrifying thoughts. “Why does Nick want to take this one at a time? Is the snow unstable? I don’t know anything about avalanche conditions, or snow pack, or anything like that. Snow clearly has fallen down from the cliff above (there were varying sizes of snow balls, some larger than a basketball that had dropped from the cliff above and rolled down. This was made clear because of the path in the snow the balls left behind). This snow could give away at any second, and there’s nothing below me to stop my fall if something were to give away” I thought to myself. I am not one to be scared easily, however as these thoughts ran rampant in my head I could feel my jaw quiver and my heartrate rise as I stood there on the snow pack. “I’m on pure snow right now, what if this snow pack fails? I’m dead” as that thought zipped across my mind, without hesitating or thinking about my actions I quickly moved along the slope to a patch of bare rocks about 15 meters away. I can’t recall ever acting out of pure instinct like that. There was no clear thought process, my mind told me to get to the exposed rock and my body immediately carried out the request.
Standing on the patch of rock more thoughts of fear flew through my mind, “If I fall that’s it, I’d be dead.” I began to think about my girlfriend, family, and friends, and how I don’t want to die I have too much to live for but I felt so incredibly fragile on this mountain slope. Anxious and nervous I looked forward and saw the steep snowy slope ahead of me and had thoughts of turning back, until I looked back and saw how far along the slope I had come. It was much more treacherous at this point to go back then it was to go forward. As my thoughts escalated towards impending death I became extremely uncomfortable.
Willing myself to move forward across the slope took an immense amount of effort, but I was able to reach the end of the steep slope. Off of the slope there was now a relatively gentle 30 m climb to the ridge. Making the climb from the slope to the ridge line was much easier but as I reached the top of the ridge and sat down on a pile of rocks I breathed a short sigh of relief. I had made it off of the slope but I was still terrified. Completely wigged out from crossing that slope I looked along the snow covered ridge and thought it couldn’t be done. I looked back at where we had come from and again I thought it wasn’t worth the risk. I began to seriously contemplate calling in the rescue helicopter. I pulled out my phone and I luckily had service and began searching the web on how to call in the chopper (these smart phones are seriously crazy for where we can get internet these days). Sitting on the ridge I was absolutely terrified and frozen in fear, I did not want to move. As I told Mac and Nick my concerns I could hear my voice shake as the words left my mouth. I am not one to be scared of heights or anything adventurous. I’m quite the adrenaline junkie always searching for the next thrill having gone bungee jumping, sky diving, and scuba diving just to name a few, and I’ve never been as freaked out as I was at this moment.
After some convincing from Nick and Mac I picked up my panties and began to walk along the ridge to finish our traverse. Once I got up and moving again, I began to relax. The ridge wasn’t has bad as I had imagined and I was feeling a little more comfortable…not a lot but a little. Nick was not has wigged out as I was but he got a little frazzled from traversing the steep slope as well. He told me “that everything will be ok” as we were walking along the ridge, and I could tell from his voice he was trying convincing himself of that too. Mac on the other hand wasn’t the least bit deterred, he took off along the ridge zipping into the distance without a second thought.
Finally making it across the ridge there was one final ascent that led to the summit of Moose Mountain and refuge. Again a very steep slope covered in snow stood in our path. Knowing that I was at the end of the traverse and that there were marked hiking trails on the other side was all I needed to climb up the snowy slope. The snow provided easy foot and hand holds to scale the mountainside but the thoughts of the snow giving away and sending me to my death weren’t completely gone. I therefore tried to encounter as much bare rock as I could on my way up.
Made it! On top of Moose Mountain the three of us exchanged high fives as we celebrated being alive and perceiving through some harrowing conditions. Now we could all breathe a sigh of relief (at least Nick and I could…Mac still wasn’t fazed).
But shit now what? We made it across the traverse but did not run into the other group of runners…what happened to them? There was no way we were heading back the way we came. We were hoping that the other group would be waiting for us at the summit of Moose Mountain but they weren’t. Nick checked his phone and he had received a message over an hour ago from the other group saying “North of Moose is sketchy, stay at Dawson we will come there” (or something along those lines)…well that would have been great information to have before we started making are way along the traverse.
Now we were stranded. There was no car waiting for us at the base of the mountain and we needed to somehow get back to Dawson to retrieve our car. Luckily we weren’t stranded for long as we discussed our conundrum between the three of us a man overheard and offered to drive us back to Dawson to get our car. I/we could not thank this man enough (Donny, who happened to be a runner as well), and all he said was “If I were stranded on a mountain, I’d hope someone would help me out”. Faith in humanity restored we all jogged down Moose Mountain to Donny’s car.
We all hopped in Donny’s car and enjoyed the long, bumpy back to Dawson Creek where we were able to meet up with the other runners, grab the cars and head back to Calgary. The run was only planned for about a half day trip, but it turned out to being a 10 hour trip given the few hiccups we encountered. Guess that’s why it’s always a good idea to pack extra food and water because you never know what may happen out there. I ended up eating all my extra Gu Gels and Cliff Bars, so very happy I brought extras!
Looking back on this day I can genuinely say that was the most terrified I’ve ever been. Never before have I been slapped in the face with how vulnerable humans are out on a mountain. One little misstep and I could have tumbled down the mountain, never to be heard from again. Initially stepping back in the car I said I’d never do this traverse again. However that is unlikely, because when I think about the route we chose along the north side of Moose Mountain I don’t think it was the correct choice. Given that none of us had done this traverse before and there were no footprints in the snow to follow, we were on our own to decide how to get across. Going at an angle roughly parallel to the ridge led us to the terrifyingly steep slope that we had to cross. I think if we had instead chosen to get to the ridge as fast as possible the traverse would have been much easier, because once on the ridge it’s pretty much smooth sailing…unless you recently freaked yourself out by crossing the terrifyingly steep slope.
Needless to say it was quite the adventure out there and I’m very much relieved that I am able to share/write this blog post because that means I’m still alive!