Mountain in the shadow of light
Rain in the valley below
Well you can say you’re Peter, say you’re Paul
Don’t put me up on your bedroom wall
Call me King of the Mountain
– “King of the Mountain” by Midnight Oil, 1990
Despite being a world-wide force in mainstream rock music from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, I only got to see Midnight Oil in concert once. I saw them play second-last on a stacked bill for the inaugural Another Roadside Attraction festival in Winnipeg in the summer of 1993. I don’t remember much about the show, other than lead singer Peter Garrett getting very pissed off when kids kept throwing shoes at the stage. His stage banter was something akin to “Hey, your parents paid a lot of money for these shoes! And some twelve year old in a factory in Guangzhou worked her fingers to the bone to make them. So stop throwing shoes at us!” Like a lot of humorous moments, it would have been blackly funny if it wasn’t so true. On the same bill, I remember the Hothouse Flowers being surprisingly good, while headliners The Tragically Hip were pretty ‘meh’.
Years later, I had a chance to see the Oils on a tour in support of their Capricornia album. I skipped the gig because it was at a terrible venue and none of my friends wanted to go with me. The band went on indefinite hiatus shortly after, when Garrett’s political aspirations finally took him away from the band. It turns out that was Midnight Oil’s last tour of Western Canada, and I regret my decision to this day. You should always go see your favourite musicians when they play a gig in your hometown – even if the gig is at a glorified bowling alley on a weeknight.
On the third day of my grand hiking adventure, it was time to take things to the next level (literally and figuratively). It was time to attempt a hike that would challenge my body and inner character. On this day, I would scramble to the summit of Mount Fairview.
The day began quietly enough. I awoke from my fitful slumbers at 7:00 am and whipped up a batch of pancakes & sausages on the trusty camp stove. Then, loaded with carbohydrates and proteins and the best of intentions, I set off once again for the Lake Louise parking lot.
The Mount Fairview trail begins with a 90-minute hike from Lake Louise up to the Saddleback. The grade is relatively steep but consistent, gaining 600 metres of altitude in the first 3.5 kilometres of trail. While on trail, hikers are treated to occasional views across the forested floor of the Bow Valley. The construction of the railway in the late 19th century united the lands that would eventually become the nation of Canada, and it brought the original tourists to the sulphurous hot springs of Banff National Park. Even in 2012 you can still see evidence of the importance of the C.P.R. as a trade corridor, snaking its way along side the recently twinned Trans-Canada Highway.
If you drive the TCH from Banff to Lake Louise, you can easily spot the Saddleback on the west side of the highway. It’s a high U-shaped pass between the true summit of Mount Fairview (2,744 metres) and one of Fairview’s appendages, the 2,437 metre Saddle Peak. It makes a fine destination for a half-day, out & back hike from the lakeshore, with a grand view of the village of Lake Louise and its world-famous ski resort across the way.
Many day hikers use the Saddleback as an intermediate destination. Descend the back side of the pass and you will find yourself face to face with the imposing black cliffs of Sheol Mountain. The Sheol valley is a fine way to access the trails in Paradise Valley, and a group of ladies from Canmore that I met on the trail offered to let me tag along with them, but on this particular day I had my sights set a little higher.
After enjoying a light lunch while seated on a Saddleback stone, I took out my trekking poles and began the ascent of Fairview’s southeast face. The trail quickly rises above the tree line, opening up views in most directions. Calling this a ‘trail’ is a bit generous – in places it’s little more than a twisted mountain goat path scratched into the rock and shale. You have to keep your wits about you to maintain your footing and to not get sidetracked. It’s also difficult to stay focused when your heart is beating 140 times a minute, your legs are burning, and your lungs are complaining like a Grand Caravan full of kids on a twelve-hour road trip. It pays to stop for 30 seconds here and there, take a look back at the inspiring snow-capped peak of 3,543 metre Mount Temple, and drink in the view while you sip from your water bottle.
It’s only 1.5 km from the Saddleback to the summit, but it’s 400 metres up as well, so the grade averages over 25%. The switchbacks seem to go on forever. At one point, my GPS told me that I had left the Saddleback just 45 minutes earlier, but lunch seemed like a distant memory. But after rounding the umpteenth switchback, eventually you start to hear, then feel, the summit winds. One last scramble over an outcropping of rocks and – voilà – you’re on the summit!
Step to the northern edge of the summit, and look down. There lies Lake Louise in all its iridescent blue-green glory, a full vertical kilometre below your feet.
The panorama from Fairview summit is nothing short of spectacular. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the mountains at Banff, plus you get an unobstructed view of Mount Temple and most of the summits around Moraine Lake and Lake Louise. You can even see most of the way to the world-famous Columbia Icefields to the north. The canoes on Lake Louise look like red ants scrambling around on a turquoise carpet. On this particular day, with some inclement weather in the area, the view was more limited but just as satisfying. I truly felt like the King of the Mountain.
I could have spent all afternoon on the summit, soaking in the scenery. But in the Rocky Mountains, the weather can change with very little notice. The barometric altimeter in my GPS was showing a sudden downward pressure trend, and sure enough some storm clouds started to slip over the Continental Divide behind Mount Victoria. Not wanting to descend to the Saddleback in the pouring rain, I slipped on my backpack and got ready to leave. I quickly but safely made my way back to the trailhead, just five kilometres but seemingly half a world away.
It’s hard to explain the exhilaration that comes from summiting a mountain in mere words. Rest assured that it’s an intoxicating mixture of catharsis, physical exhaustion, and pure unadulterated joy. Everything afterward is filtered through the rose-coloured glasses of accomplishment. Back in Lake Louise townsite, I bought an aerial photograph of the Devil’s Thumb area (prominently featuring the peak that I had just conquered a few hours earlier) as I proudly recalled my feat to the store clerk. I then slipped over to the liquor store to pick up some celebratory Granville Island pale ales. Even a perfunctory stop at the local gas station for a couple of bags of ice and some peanut butter M&Ms seemed like the greatest thing ever, while my feet hovered six inches above the ground. Back at the campground, I took a shower that surely rates within the Top 5 most satisfying showers of my life. From there, it was back to site K3 for a nice thick grilled striploin steak, some wonderful side dishes, and a bottle of 2007 Mission Hill merlot that I had been saving for a special occasion.
And yet, somewhere in the darker recesses of my brain, I knew that the party wouldn’t last forever. In the Craven Hermit’s pragmatic world, the highs are always balanced out by lows. It’s a survival mechanism. As I sat around the campfire that evening, nursing my sore feet while peeking through the treetops at the Fairview summit, my perspective shifted. Every notable ‘king’ throughout history was only successful because he had a graceful and trustworthy ‘queen’ at his side. An equal partner to share in the accomplishments of the day, whether they be summiting a mountain or just putting in an honest day’s work. Someone to share a roaring campfire with, someone to hike with, someone to talk to or, better yet, someone to listen to. Someone to fall asleep next to, someone to wake up next to. Someone to meet him at the airport after a long journey, or someone to slump over and doze on while listening to records. Someone with an endless list of inspired suggestions for what to do on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Someone with that secret sparkle in her eyes, and a sense of mystery and imagination and intelligence in her choice of words. Someone to share hopes and fears and desires. Someone with vision and compassion and ambition and drive. Someone to cheer you up with a small but thoughtful gesture in a moment of self-doubt.
I’ll pick some daisies from the flower bed
of the Galaxy Theatre while you clear your head
I thought some daisies might cheer you up
– “Daisies of the Galaxy” by Eels, 2000
But none of those lovely qualities sat with me around the campfire that evening, only the muted ghosts and shadows and thoughts of what might have been. Throughout this Hermit’s life, I have been fortunate to cross paths with a small handful of wonderful people that would have made absolutely brilliant co-conspirators, but for one reason or another they never ‘ascended to the throne’, as it were. As much as I appreciate all that I have in this world, it seems like such a waste that I don’t have a regal consort to share in all life has to offer. Like a song with a decent melody and catchy verses, but missing a beautiful chorus and a contrasting middle eight to really make it ‘click’.
And without a queen, even the King of the Mountain is just some doofus in a purple crushed-velvet jacket and a silly hat.