Or if you’re looking for a more badass name: Climbing “Thya-chul”.
So I should probably start off by explaining this title.
A few weeks ago the crew went to the Kluane Research Station, about 20 minutes down the road from Squirrel Camp, for our weekly game of rugby. As fate would have it, about 5 minutes into the first game of the season I received the ball, turned to run with it, my knee went “pop” and I went down like a sack of potatoes, and about as gracefully at that. After a couple minutes of rolling around in the dirt, clutching my knee and laughing slightly hysterically, I limped off the field and attempted not to cry hysterically at the thought of having potentially screwed over my entire summer in the Yukon.
Since then I’ve been limping around grid and slowly nursing my knee back to health with ice packs, plenty of Naproxen, and a hot water bottle at night. It has been a major struggle for me as the weeks tick by and even though I manage to get around the forest quite well strapped into a knee brace, I can only do a fraction of what I normally would. And every hike we’ve done since that fateful day has been an internal battle between pushing my body to the limits of its current abilities in the desire to do more and see more and the caution that nags at my brain, forcing me to think about my priorities as a PhD student and all the opportunities later in the season that I could potentially screw up. In the end caution has won out, forcing me to turn back mid-way through hikes when the first tinge of soreness starts in my knee, even though my skin itches with the desire to go further.
At last four weeks of patience and caution have finally paid off.
This week marks the second full week that our new squirreling crew has been in camp. On May 1st Jack, Eve, and Sarina arrived and we have wasted no time in introducing them to the wonders of the Yukon.
On our day off this past Friday, May 8th, the entire crew packed a picnic lunch and went out to hike the trail into St. Elias Lake. An easy jaunt on a typical day, 2.5 miles into the lake, took us a bit longer than expected since much of the trail was still snowed in. The deep, wet snow made walking a challenge, causing us to break through the top ice-crusted layer every two or three steps, jarring knees and various other joints alike. But otherwise it was a lovely rolling hike through a mountain valley amid spruce and aspen, the view eventually opening up to mountains on both sides until the valley fell away to St. Elias Lake, still encased in its icy sheath.
Of course an 8 km hike is hardly enough to tire out overworked squirrel-campers, and so a portion of the crew decided to scramble up a small mountain next to the trail. The two gimps (Monaly, who has a sprained wrist, and me, of course) slogged our way slowly up the hill behind the rest of the group, wading through wrist thick willows and aspen growing so tightly together that you had to turn your body sideways in places in order to get through. While the rest of the group pressed on, Monaly and I made it up high enough to get out of the thicket and gain a view overlooking the valley and lake. Painfully (emotionally so) I forced myself to turn back at that point and clamber down the hill and we made our way our of the valley in plenty of time to have a nice nap in the car before the rest of the crew made it back down. Of course all of the exclaiming over the hike on the drive home did nothing to improve my mood or what Sean would call my “FOMO” (Fear Of Missing Out). It’s a serious Squirrel Camp sickness. I can’t count the number of nights I have stayed up well past my bedtime to avoid the horrific FOMO sensation. Needless to say my knee was killing me slowly, one missed hike at a time.
So this week when Stan Boutin arrived at Squirrel Camp with his two daughters, Savannah and Roslyn, and suggested that we all hike Sheep Mountain as a crew on Monday I almost broke down and cried in frustration. We had planned to hike Sheep as a crew in week or two, at which point I thought my knee would be able to handle it, but not this soon. I decided to tag along anyway and at least enjoy part of the hike. After running around trapping squirrels that morning we piled into the cars around noon, already somewhat exhausted from having been up since 6am, and headed for the trail.
Sheep Mountain is called “Thya-chul” by local Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, which means “the place where hide-scrapers are found.” I am not sure if this is a reference to the people who subsided off the sheep that live on the mountain or if hide-scrapers are made of the bones of sheep, in which case there is also likely to be a plentiful supply on the mountain. Either way Sheep Mountain takes it’s English name, unsurprisingly, from the quantity of sheep that can typically be found on the mountain. The food supply is exceptionally rich on the slopes of Sheep due to wind-distributed minerals, called loess, which are carried up from the flood plains of the Slims River and deposited on the mountain. The flood plains of the Slims River are rich in minerals ground from bedrock by glaciers and deposited on the river valley during run-off. The resulting fertile soil on Sheep allows a variety of plants to take root including, sage, saxifrage, willow, and mountain aven, all of which are well loved by Dall sheep.
The hike began with a steep uphill climb (who knew?) through juniper and sage, quickly gaining elevation and beautiful views over Kluane Lake over the first 1,500 ft. The grade was steep enough to make all of us (or maybe just me) question our choice of hike and consider a quick butt slide down the sandy path back to the car. But as all of us hikers know, gathering our momentum at the start is the hardest part of the hike. (Or so I tell myself when I don’t want to dwell too much on what is yet to come.) Shortly after the first steep scramble the trail passed around the first hill and dipped into a ravine. There the “well-defined” herd-path began to peter out into numerous ill-defined trails, forcing us to pick our way across the 60-degree slope over boulders and loose rock to make it to the next ridge where the trail began to climb again. I got halfway across the rock scramble and realized that I didn’t have the flexibility I needed with my knee brace on to maneuver safely across the rocks. So balanced precariously on one leg and one hand, fully aware of the rocks falling away and the ravine below me, I ripped off the Velcro my knee brace, sweating profusely the whole time and swearing rapidly under my breath and stuffed it one- handed into the back pocket of my backpack. And then, I am unashamed to admit, I said, not very calmly, that I was scared as F*** and pleasedon’tleavemebecausemykneemightgivewayatanyminuteandsendmetumblingtomydeath, all of which was, of course, a major exaggeration on my part, but it is a huge fear when you can’t fully trust your body parts to support you. Marina, bless her heart, stayed with me the whole time and saw me through to the other side. It was at that point that I realized I really shouldn’t be on this hike at all with my knee and the point at which I also realized that there was no way now that I could turn back alone, because someone was going to have to drug me before they got me across that ravine again.
So slightly terrified for what was yet to come there was no choice but to continue on and hope that the terrain got easier. Which…. it did not. But hands down, that was the scariest part of the hike. Somewhere in the haze that followed the ravine crossing we lost the so-called “trail” again and wandered aimlessly through dense willows for 15 minutes before finding it again, at which point I again questioned what the hell I was doing here and bemoaned my trapped state, unable to turn around because of the ravine and afraid to go on because of my knee. After a bit of a reprieve along a gradual up-hill the trail began to climb very steeply again, and with the sandy soil we were climbing up more often than not I had my hands on the ground while muttering to myself donotlookdown donotlookdown. Eventually the scree and loose rock gave way to tufts of hard grass pockmarked with the dens of ground squirrels as we made one last push to the ridgeline, desperate to see how far we were from the summit.
From the top of the ridge we could see the rest of the path laid out, snaking to the peak where a few black dots (Stan and his daughters) were already summiting. With the goal in sight I finally realized that I might actually make the top, bad knee and all. And despite being officially lapped by Stan and his daughters the realization brought a new burst of energy. The ridgeline took us right along the edge of the mountain, climbing through craggy passes of rock while just a few feet to our left the ground fell away in long beds of scree that ended somewhere near the base of the mountain. The last 50 meters brought to hands and knees again in a fight against gravity and loose rock as the crew on the summit above cheered us on. Ally, Freya, and Marina were my comrades to the end and when the four of us finally plopped ourselves down among our fellow squirrellers I felt like I had officially achieved badass status having climbed over 3800 feet in 2.5 km with a bum knee. (That, as least is according to the Kluane Hiking Guide, although I have some serious doubts about the accuracy of that distance…)
At 6,380 feet, after 10 minutes at the summit and a few granola bars crammed into my mouth I was too cold to sit still any longer and hustled up the last 15 m to the actual peak where the Slims River Valley spread out below us, tributaries snaking across the flood plain and into Kluane Lake. To our right the ridgeline continued, climbing to higher and snowier peaks. Despite the overcast weather we snapped pictures and then glanced nervously at the weather rolling in over the mountains while we debated our best route down. Our options were to either hike back the way we came, which didn’t seem overly appealing given the number of hand-and-knee scrambles that we had faced on the way up, or to head right over the peak and ride the long, steep scree slope down, which was positively terrifying.
Yet within moments I found myself standing at the lip of the snow-crusted peak, letting out a little yelp of terror as I slid down the snow bank and onto the scree. In the end it was far less scary and more fun than I had imagined. The scree was so thick that it strangely resembled riding an escalator, or one of those fast-moving conveyor belts that you find in airports, down the mountain. Each step you took carried you 5-10 feet with the movement of the rock, but moved slow enough that you had a surprising amount of control over your descent. And the gentle sliding motion was far less punishing than the typical pounding that your joints take when descending a peak. We passed in and out of ridges, huge formations of rock dwarfing us to either side, feeling absolutely minuscule as pinpoints of life on the face of a gigantic mountain. Glancing back the way we came was enough to give me shivers. In many places the grade of the slope we had just coasted down was so steep that we couldn’t see the point at which we had started from.
But by half-way down the novelty of surfing down the mountain had begun to wear off and the sand-like scree had given way to fist-sized rocks, beautiful in their hues of red, green, and purple, but too large to sift down the mountain under our weight, causing us to stumble our way down the last portion until we finally reached vegetated soil again. By the time we reached the car we had climbed up one side of the mountain, slid down the other and hiked clear across the width of the peak to get back to the vehicles. I was covered in dust from head to toe and utterly exhausted but elated beyond belief at having finally conquered a peak (and one I’ve been dying to hike) after my injury. And, of course, who can hike Sheep Mountain without actually seeing some sheep? After having traversed the entirety of the peak they were there, waiting for us at the very base of the mountain, practically on top of the road. Their languid “baaaas” might have been saying, “gotcha suckers” or just “go home and sleep”, which, after a dinner of homemade pizza and beer, we promptly did.