Recently, as the workday drew to a close, I shut off my computer and grabbed a backpack. My destination was Mount Fisher, a pyramidal mountain that dominates the skyline beyond town. For years I'd been enticed by the idea of sleeping on its summit – which lies just 35 kilometres from my front door in British Columbia – but never seemed to have the time. Why is it that adventures close to home – explorations of the glories just around the corner – are the hardest to embark upon?
It didn't take much to recruit Kalum (a young and eager filmmaker friend) to join me on the mini-adventure. We rolled out of town as soon as Kalum's last high-school class finished, our pickup bouncing down a rough track into the southern Rockies. We'd brought a chainsaw, just in case fallen trees blocked the way, but the abandoned mining road was clear. By 4 p.m., we stood at the trailhead.
The path up proved relentless, grinding over rocks and roots, through a dense forest of spruce and pine. But it was well worn. The highest peak on the skyline, Mt. Fisher's airy summit acts as a siren's call, and thousands pass this way every summer. Some race up the 2,846-metre peak in running shoes. Others return on annual pilgrimages. (One old-timer is rumoured to have reached the top 100 times.) But now it was late autumn, the hillsides peppered with golden larch, and we were alone.
It took an hour and a half to reach treeline, where we found alpine tarns frozen solid, and splashes of snow – deposited by recent storms – tucked in the shade of boulders. Boot prints in drifts revealed others had passed the same way, days earlier. A steep, scree-filled gully deposited us on the final ridge. The sun was already low in the west, its golden light sprayed across peaks below. For the first time, I wondered whether we'd reach the top before darkness fell.
So on and up we raced, travelling fast over steep, shadowy ground, lungs heaving in the thin air. Suddenly there was no more up. We were on top. After a high-five and a few photographs, we shoehorned two sleeping bags onto the tiny summit. The butane stove purred, casting a bluish light. Beyond, the darkness dropped away precipitously.
To the west, the last vestiges of a purplish-red sunset burned over the Purcell Mountains. Far below us twinkled the lights of Kimberley, our home. The first stars came out while Calgary's orange lights smouldered on the eastern horizon, 400 kilometres away on the other side of the Rocky Mountains. Overhead, the Milky Way grew bright, whispering of infinity and insignificance. We lay awake for hours, chatting, listening to the silence and drinking in the magic time and again.
The next morning we were back in town before school had even started. Yes, we were both a bit tired. And yes, our legs were thrashed. Sure, there was gear to be dried and a stove to be cleaned, but the excitement and energy – the buzz of it all – lasted for days. It ironic that I've lived in the shadow of Mount Fisher for almost a decade. Why did it take me so long to dream up the cockeyed plan of sleeping on top of the mountain? And once I had the idea, why did it take so long to actually do it? It wasn't as if time was an issue: The trip was completed in the space between work days. Afterward, several friends admitted they had thought of doing exactly the same thing for ages.
Ironically, bigger journeys (trips to foreign lands with exotic names) seem to build their own momentum. Such expeditions require advance planning, and so we carve out space for them. But something as simple as setting up a tent, or sleeping under the stars – even in our own backyard – can be put off, indefinitely.
As a teenager living in Toronto, I recall the enchantment of rising before dawn and driving deserted streets in search of fishing holes on the city's outskirts.
I have watched Nordic skiers stride down busy city streets – both in Calgary and Ottawa – after winter storms and before plows arrived. And just last winter, I stumbled upon a quinzee (snow cave) in a city park. It had been built, I later discovered, by a father hoping to introduce his kids to winter camping. And his young girls enjoyed their first candlelit snowy night so much it became a regular ritual.
Our night atop Mount Fisher was so inspiring – and so simple and fun – that I find myself scanning the horizons, concocting plans for another night spent up high. And wondering why I waited so long in the first place.