Category Archives: My Life

How to Beat the Blerch

This was going to be a story about laughter and rocket-powered pandas, about comicbook dreams and hilarious runs through the September sunlight. I was going to tell you how I beat the odds, came back from my injury to win the glory of a full marathon. But on the way to the finish line, the story changed. Now I have to tell you more, about a truth that so often eludes us. Flitting away like sunshine through autumn branches. The truth is that every day on this green earth could be our last. I’m here to tell you about love, and loss, and the reasons that we run. I’m here to tell you about Beat The Blerch.

All race pictures courtesy of Comer Photos. Free of charge, minor miracle.

I awoke with a start, sleep no longer possible in the pre-dawn light. Kevin’s little head was nestled on my shoulder, Ryan’s little elbow pressed lovingly into my side. I checked the time, steeled myself as best I could. Then I sat up in one fluid motion, just a whisper of sleeping bags, Ninja Daddy unleashed. No one stirred, because I am ninja. Gingerly I unzipped the tent door, stepped into a field wet with dew. I was ahead of schedule, but already I could feel my nerves building up. Border delays a day before had cost us our reconnaissance, and I wasn’t exactly sure how to get to the start line. I put on my race gear, everything except the shoes. I was standing in a goat pasture, and there was far too much poop around at the present time. When you go full marathon, it’s no fun to have a shitty run. And not at the temperatures they were predicting: a late September surge to 34° C (93° F). I had woken up in America, far off the beaten track. A farming town called Carnation, Washington. Best to control the one factor I could, and keep my shoes clean. Clean shoes are good.

Beaaaaaat the Bleaaaarch. Dog Mountain Farm.

Breakfast was late, and we scrambled to get the kids prepared for the day as our hostess scrambled to scramble our farm fresh eggs. When they finally came, the meal was insanely delicious. I could hardly eat any, my heart was beating so fast. Why the pre-race jitters? What was I scared of? Six weeks before, I couldn’t walk more than half a mile without sitting down, the stitches in my knee pulsing like electric shocks. I was just lucky to be here, lucky to put my feet on the start line (if I could find the start line). God I was nervous! Beside me, my siblings were sweating it out just the same. Kyle was worrying over his first half marathon like a dog worries a bone, and even normally calm Laura was getting jumpy, wondering why on earth she should care about her third 10k. We really had to go. With less than half an hour to gun time, we sped down the dusty road towards Tolt MacDonald Park.

One of the joys of traveling beyond your country is how smartphones become a sort of glorified iPod, unable to see or care where you are. We rattled into town with old fashioned verbal directions bouncing around in our brains, arriving with just 12 minutes to spare. I said my goodbyes, took off running through the parking lot. I was still a half mile out from the start line, and this mad dash would serve as my warm up. I followed green arrows past rows of porta potties, past kids carrying rolled up banners, runners lazily arriving for later starts. Of the 2000 participants of Beat the Blerch, only 10% were going full hog. The rest were going half marathon (half hog?) or 10k, and the path was full of these people. A lot of them begin to snicker and giggle as I went past, and I wondered fleetingly if I was dragging toilet paper behind me. Thankfully it was just my bumper sticker: “IT’S MY ACTUAL BIRTHDAY — STOP EATING MY CAKE!”. Katie had pinned it to my back, and this must make people happy. Unless I had forgotten to put on shorts, and I really was in a runner’s nightmare. Okay, shorts intact. I made it to the start line, fist bumped my friend David as he rose majestically from the crowd. Both of us had suffered from training disruptions: mine from falling off a mountain in July, David by climbing up every other mountain until he had no time left for running. But we were here, sunglasses in place, grinning and growling. Ready to go, ready to finish. Ready to run.

At five minutes to 9, a man in an enormous green fat suit stood up and addressed the crowd. The air rippling through his outfit made him look like a creature never before seen on earth, a kind of Incredible Hulk Leprechaun who was also an astronaut wearing a sweatband. If you are a person of size looking for a new self image, I suggest this one: it’s pretty cool. This man was in fact The Oatmeal, also known as Matt. This was his race, his idea, based on a comic he put on the Internet about a year ago. “Hey, I’m The Oatmeal. I draw panda bears in my basement for a living,” he said. He seemed kind of amazed to see us all standing there, hundreds of us, with thousands more in the wings. It seemed weird to us too, weird but ever so fitting.

And for my next number, I’d like to sing “Only the lonely…”

Mr. Oats is an expert on farting mammals, brewskis, kitty cats, grammar, and coffee; it is no coincidence that the Internet loves him. But this guy is more than a funny face. He’s also a real person who owns a fat suit, a Tesla Model S, and a pair of trail running shoes. Maybe even more than 1 pair, since the Internet loves him with real money. He wrote a comic to explain the Terrible and Wonderful Reasons why he runs, a six page epic of ink and sweat and truth. Some of his reasons are not my reasons, but they all make sense, deep down inside. “Running is not about building strength,” wrote Mr. Oats. “It’s about finding strength. And measuring yourself every single day.” Because if you don’t, the Blerch might win.

The Blerch. © The Oatmeal 2014.

The Blerch is a kind of obese cherub, an embodiment of self satisfaction and apathy. Why go running at all, when you have unlimited Netflix? Why dash out of your house into a minor rainstorm when you’ve had such a long day? You should just stay in and eat cake. You deserve it. And when you do, the Blerch beats you. Running is a shout in the darkness, a stand against the La-Z-boy life, this modern world we live in.

Our jolly green giant stopped speaking, saluted the crowd. Giant speakers came to life, and the Star Spangled Banner rang out. I looked at the runners gathered around me, men and women in Lycra and tutus and superhero costumes, the vagabonds and hipsters, the ultra runners and weight watchers. All of us so different, but here right now, shoes on the tarmac, toes to the line. Who cares about the finish, this is where I feel most proud of us all. Then the airhorn went off, and we ran as one under the bright green archway. I dodged a support post and there was The Oatmeal, bounding out of our way like an overweight gazelle. His hand was out towards us like the pope, like he was the emerald pope of running. I dodged sideways, planted great big high five in the royal palm. It felt like latex, like fist bumping your doctor during surgery. It felt good.

Following captain underpants.

Then we were out, running along a feeder path towards the Snoqualmie valley trails. I was running beside a man wearing an invisible tuxedo, and I was okay with this. His grin flashed like a thousand lumens, almost lighting the bridge we ran under. The pavement ended, and we struck into the unknown. Wide paths, strewn with leaves, old stones, and the occasional pile of something else. “Horse SHIT!” A man gasped beside me. “Are we at the swearing section already?” I asked him. My pace may not win awards, but by God I’ve got quips. I ran for a while, smiling like a gentle idiot, watching the light play across the Tolt river. People were setting to fish from the far banks, casting long flies out into the rushing water. The sunlight touched everything like a painting, like a dream of the way things used to be. For as long as I am able, please let me move like the water. Rushing free and true, over all obstacles. Laughing on my way to the sea.

I had started this thing fast, mainly to swat at The Oatmeal’s hand. Now I throttled back, let the multitudes surge past me. Tuxedo man disappeared, jumping girl jumped on by. “Happy birthday,” they all said, laughing at my bumper sticker. “Happy birthday!” Someone else asked me what I thought about birthday asses, which seemed like a strange question. Never one to be at a loss for words, I said I was WORKING IT right now. That was apparently the consent she needed to swat me right on the butt, causing quite a lot of hollering (most of it not from me), and now I know what birthday asses are all about. Heaven help the Canadian, my friends. Heaven help him now.

Tuxedo man (Benjamin Chan) is just glad he has nothing pinned to his back.

I merged onto another path, this one chock full of Half Marathoners. Suddenly I was running past hundreds of people, feeling sleek and fast although my pace was unchanged. The mobs parted for us, the crazy and the few. And as I went past, they began to sing. People I didn’t know were singing Happy Birthday as we ran through the forest, and the song spread all around me. I grew up in woods not so different than these, a loner most of my life. I think I will remember this as long as I live.

“Next time I run a race, I’m totally saying it’s my birthday even if it’s not,” my spanker called over. “You are SO lucky,” and she was right. Two months before, I fell off a mountain, sliding 20 meters (65 feet) down a slope that had no apparent bottom. Now I was running in light, surrounded by people chanting my name, with a handprint on my apparent bottom. Maybe I never stopped falling, maybe I was lying in a coma somewhere making all this up. I wasn’t about to ask her to pinch me. It’s funny to run a race and realize halfway through that you already won.

The faster half marathoners were already returning, zipping past us on the other side of the path. I kept my eyes open, watching for a fit young man in blue. There he was, my brother. Going strong, still not holding his arms the way I taught him, still with the t-rex moves. But always faster than me. “Kyle!” I yelled. My own arm went out, and we rocked the hardest high five I’ve ever experienced, a full speed hit that seemed to break the sound barrier. I was so proud to see him, near the front of the damn pack, owning his first HM. For the number of times my brother skipped on training, he sure needed to Beat the Blerch. Aw yeah. And suddenly everyone was gone.

I had passed a sign, the HM turn-around point. The crowds thinned enormously, from 1000 to 200, now spread far and wide down the trail. A few remaining runners went round the bend and I was alone, running by myself in the silent woods. And it was hard. The first ten miles had just flown, but suddenly I was dragging. Where was 11? I ran and ran. The path canted upwards, gaining elevation in the sweltering heat. I noticed for the first time how beautiful the forest was, the cedars wreathed in golden moss. A man in his forties was my only companion, a few paces behind me. He caught me on a bridge across some nameless creek, a sprawling concrete footbridge with no people and one perfect pile of horse poop. “Who poops here?” he asked, like a man who finally chooses to break his vow of silence. “And where is everyone?” All runs ask us questions, but sometimes there are no answers. Sometimes you just keep running.

Yes, this constitutes running.

My life was in slow motion now, caught in amber. Runners slowly passed me, faltered, faded back. A dutch foreign national caught up, and asked in a wonderful accent if I was the other foreigner. “There’s always someone,” she said. “Well, do Canadians count?” I asked. The runners nearby took a vote, and we agreed. Canadians count. I gave her some travel tips for my country, my great foreign land to the north. Then I let her go. She took a long time to disappear. “Happy birthday,” she called back. “Thanks,” I whispered. Then gunshots rang out.

Bang! Bang! Bang! The valley shook with sound, sharp and unmistakable. These were no pea shooters, these were serious munitions. A small pause as the patriot reloaded, then another series of reports, at least eight. No one dove for cover, so I could only hope that a shooting range lay nearby. This was not the kind of run you fall asleep on, not a monotonous jog through big city streets. I was awake. I could walk later.

My bottle went dry at Mile 14. I had been using the plentiful aid stations as a kind of car wash service, dousing myself with Dixie cups as I spend past. Now I needed a refill, and with great delight I stumbled into the final aid before our turning point. Only problem was, I could not open my bottle. My hand gripped at the top uselessly, laminated in sweat. My bottle seemed to be glued together with contact cement. A volunteer approached me, a girl with arms like small twigs. She opened the bottle easily, amazing me with her superhuman strength. I accepted a full bottle back, started to run as I tore open a packet of electrolyte powder. I stumbled a bit, hands twitching over the powder like I was addicted to something else entirely. I got most of it in, added a powder coat to my sweat stains. Then I was into a tunnel, long and beautifully cool, running blind with people coming and going around me, running for a circle of light that winked and shone like a power button in the dark. I left the tunnel, noticing for the first time how hot the day actually was. I was more than two hours in, and noon was approaching. But here was our own turning point. “Pick it up, birthday boy!” my spanking nemesis called as she ran past. Then I was around and down, heading back towards the tunnel, the aid, and the finish line. Still so incredibly far away.

Although the slope was with me now, I wasn’t gaining speed. My birthday ass was dragging, and the miles were dragging too. There’s no avoiding it: when you take 3 weeks off your training plan to fall down a mountain and put your leg up in full recovery, it cramps your style. Don’t say that word! My legs cramped a bit, then recovered. I heard some distant sirens, someone being pulled from the course. I tromped past the gun range, tried to reassure the marathoners who were still coming up. “Just keep running!” Just keep running.

Trail like a runway, can’t quite fly.

I passed a girl walking like a zombie, shell shocked and quiet. I passed her, and suddenly I had to walk too. My legs were steaming. I couldn’t run, and the Blerch sat heavily on my shoulders. In a few minutes, zombie girl passed me at a kind of stumbling march. This was it, the serious part of the race. The part where you live in the shadow of the wall. I threw my mind back to my last long run, pacing Nicola G down the Sunshine Coast Trail. Nic bit off 180 kilometers of singletrack, smashed the course record to smithereens. What was her secret? What had I learned? We already had the same shoes, we were both fairly calm people. Our running style was similar. But what did she do? I did remember one thing, the way she was bizarrely enthusiastic about small landmarks ahead. “Only half an hour to the next ridge, that’s so cool!” Never mind the 24 hours after that. Break it down, that must be her trick. Break it down, before it breaks you down.

At the time, I was looking for Mile 22. I had no idea how I could run another 4 miles, so I moved for 22 like it was the finish line. I even wrote that marker a love song, a piece of poetry with all the creativity that running a marathon gives you. “Twenty two twenty two, where are you? Twenty two twenty two, where are you?” I whispered under my breath. If zombie girl heard me, she gave no sign. And suddenly, to my amazement, there was 22. And I was still running. I licked dry lips. “Twenty three, twenty three, where you be?” And with my head held high, I reached the last aid station.

This should be interesting.

The last aid station had a couch, an enormous comfy couch. On the couch was a sasquatch. Was I hallucinating? I didn’t even consider it, just walked right over and shook his hand. “So there you are!” I cried. I hadn’t realized just how badly I wanted to meet a sasquatch, until now. His grip was strong and friendly. “Why don’t you sit a while, take a load off? It’s your birthday, buddy.” And for the second time today, a group of strangers broke into song for me. Only this time, they were lead by a sasquatch. It was a beautiful song, filled with haunting birthday harmony, and kind of like a lullaby. The couch was damn comfortable. Who was that sitting beside me? Just a Blerch. That’s cool, Blerches are cool. This one was a girl Blerch, and she seemed tired. I was tired. Oh well. Nicola would be going by now. It was time to get going. With a sigh, I bounced to my feet. “Off so soon, brah? Why don’t you stay a while?” There were more Blerches around me than before, their eyes gleaming in the afternoon sunlight. I made to brush them off. No other runners were left in sight, either gone on without me or fallen at this last comfy crucible.

“I gotta go, man…” I started to walk. Left foot, right foot. “Do you like Game of Thrones?” a kindly Blerch asked me. “How about Batman? Batman is awesome. Let’s stream the movie now! Come on back to the couch and relax! No one knows how long a marathon is anyway. You could tell them it’s 23 miles, and they’d be like Good For You Dude! So what do you say. Do you wanna chill with us? Do you wanna take a break, take it easy? Do you wanna… aw… ” and like stepping out of a marshmallow pile, I finally unstuck myself and broke into a run. Not a sprint, not a blistering pace setter. Just enough to get away. I ran and ran, leaving the doleful Blerches behind.

“At least send a postcard!”

Nothing could to stop me now. I was proud and free, like a slow moving majestic elk. I strode past two women, who inexplicably called after me: “Aw, you are so cute!”. I was closing the final gap, rolling up that first mile of trail. I passed a guy who got daggers in both legs each time he flexed them; his pace was suffering a bit because of this. Then I was under the bridge and on to the paved feeder path, feeling the true heat of the day. When you run for a number of hours, you become separated from your environment even as you become immersed. Light ceases to blind you, heat ceases to burn you. I came in running hot, sweat covering my body like a hard coat of plastic, but at my core I was shadowy cold. The sunlight on my shoulders felt like an embrace, touching me in these last moments with fleeting warmth. Another few turns and I could see it, a puffy green arch, the finish line. I scanned the crowd for faces, needing to see them, their smiles. Kyle and Laura we standing just ahead of the arch, palms towards me. Welcoming me home. Some 275 minutes before, I had dodged to my right and high-fived the mighty Oatmeal. Now I dodged right again, hand out beseechingly. Smack! Smack! Our palms connected, and at that moment both of my legs locked up solid. Turns out that dodging sideways was no longer on the menu. With the finish line just ten feet away, I hobbled, hopped, and leaped towards victory. And I finished, I staggered across the line and a nice person took my shoe tag away and gave me a medal. My son came running from the crowd, tugged somewhat dangerously on my shorts. “Daddy, you ran an entire marathon! Did you know that?”. I did know that. The Blerch was beaten, the fives were high. My buddy David was right behind me, unstoppable after a hundred mountains. Kyle had finished in the top 10%, Laura ran her fastest race ever, I came in out of the cold. We had survived.

And yet…

(Sunlight through the trees, leaves rustling in the wind. Sirens on the breeze, under a bluebird sky.)

On the way to the finish line, a man we didn’t know began to feel tired. There was less than a mile ahead of him, so he did his best to press on. Evan Sebenius was about the same age as my brother; like him, Evan was running his very first half marathon. His feet stumbled on the feeder path, and he fell just 200 yards before the line. Runners clustered around, offering water and chews, putting their own plans on hold. Forming a protective circle around him. The first medics to arrive yelled for backup: subject was semi-catatonic, with no palpable blood pressure. Somewhere off in the woods, I was starting my long run back down the hill. The sirens I heard were for Evan, fallen in his hometown of Carnation. Much of what I saw that day, he also saw: the sunlight, the hilarity. Maybe he was one of the singers, maybe he was the first guy to start singing behind me. I’ll never know, because Evan Sebenius didn’t come back. They tried for 45 minutes at the ER, but he never came back.

Image from the Evan Sebenius Memorial Fund.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. When you spend time sliding helplessly down the face of a mountain, you think about how fragile a gift life is, how vibrant and amazing and fragile. How close have I been to my own line in the sand? That day at Triple Peaks when I should have brought crampons instead of snowshoes, inching and slipping just above the ice cliffs. That time we were lost overnight on a frozen ridge line, as temperatures plunged and our headlamps began to fade. Biking casually home from a service call when I had to swerve off the road, just missing a minivan speeding the wrong way along the 101. All the bears I have met at close quarters, especially the ones that charge me. The time my flashlight died in the woods where a cougar had just been sighted, and I only got out by lifting my laptop above my head, using it as a beacon in the night. Looking back, these things seem stupid risky. Going outside seems risky, and maybe the Blerch was right. Maybe bad things come to those who try.

That’s another thing we think about, we the fallen. We think about how much love is in our hearts, for our friends, our partners, our kids. On November 2nd, runners everywhere will join to “Run Evan In“, symbolically finishing the race that he could not. His family has been overwhelmed by pledges of support, by the way this community of sweaty action people have come together in solidarity. By the one thing that endures when someone is gone; by love.

Before my leg was healed, for practice, I would march around my house with baby Kevin on my shoulders. Whenever we passed by the front door he would give a kind of leap, kicking me neatly in the chin. My son wanted to glide right off the summit of Mt. Daddy and into the arms of adventure; he wanted to open that door. The world outside was big and loud, and that world had messed me up, put me (and his brother Ryan) directly in harm’s way. And yet… this world is inseparable from our life.

If Kevin jumped high enough and fast enough, or if Ryan asked in a really nice voice, I would go and get my keys. I would limp outside with my tiny team of sons, embarking on a painful quest around the block. Walk 50 paces, rest. Walk 50 paces, rest. Sometimes our cat could come with us, because I could never lock her inside. This world, this place where we all live and die, this is only life. Life in all its grandeur and horse shit, life in its breathtaking miracles and stupid tragedies. I can’t not try, I can’t see the door without feeling my own heart leap. How many heartbeats do we have left, you and I? With luck and kindness, we may yet live to see our children grow. See them taking their own risks, some that they seek and others that seek them. May we live to fall and climb again, as long as this fair world will have us. May our hearts be brave, even in the face of loss. May we all have our moments in the sun.

Photo by Katie McLean.

That time I fell off a mountain

On July 20th, 2014, I fell off a ledge on the side of the West Lion. My backpack shifted, the rock was slippery, and I went down fast. I slid a meter or two, feet first, hugging the wet rock. My chin took a glancing blow from the place my feet had been moments before, and I landed on all fours on a steeply pitched slope. The weight of my multiday pack flattened me out, and I slid another 15 meters downward, unable to compensate or slow my speed. My world filled with sound, the grinding roar of my backpack’s metal frame on rock, my brother yelling and yelling above me. After a few seconds I ran out of ramp, dropping into a cluttered gully of broken rock. My feet locked in, and I stopped.

“Calm down,” I called to my brother. “I’m all right”. But I didn’t feel all right. I was ten kilometers from the trailhead, on one of BC’s most technical through trails. We were surrounded by cloud, insulated against most forms of rescue. My left knee was starting to throb, as a 3 inch gash got ready to bleed. This was all pretty bad, but what hit me most was a horrified sense of responsibility. I was here with my son, my three year old hiking buddy. He was with me now, crying in the backpack, shaken but unharmed. I had fallen with my son.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. When my brother Kyle changed our plans to include the Howe Sound Crest Trail, he swore up and down that it was family friendly, a literal walk in the park. He had already done the north and south sections, leaving only an undefined middle part. I interviewed him extensively on the topic, then researched the trails myself. The BC parks brochure admonished me to watch my footing and stay on the marked path, things that I was very good at already. Internet forums were full of chest-thumping tales, where sweaty masochists discussed how fast they had “done the crest”. If it took these boisterous brutes 9 hours, couldn’t we do it in three days? My brother and I were strong, experienced hikers, with the tenacity and general disposition of mountain goats. There was nothing ahead of us that should pose a problem.

The first day played into our expectations, rising steeply but smoothly though beautiful stands of hemlock and cedar. Waterfalls fell around us while Ryan snored gently in the Deuter pack, a heavy but robust carrier not unlike a fabric Humvee. Secured in his five point harness and wrap-around cockpit, Ryan would be my constant companion for the next three days, alternately singing, laughing, sleeping, burping, and asking where the parking lot was. We were multiday hiking, one of the best things on earth. The forest was our home, and we were awesome.

Ryan & Kyle at Deeks Lake
At Deeks Lake, day one

The second day was even easier, a short haul between friendly campsites along the trail. Thick cloud had set in, as forecast. Our views faded away, but there was beauty all around. Heather and wild blueberries, yellow lichen shining in the diffuse light. The path was simple, weather-worn with the boots of all that had come before us. We spent a quiet night at Magnesia Meadows, with glimpses of the distant city through pockets in the cloud. 14 clicks remained of our 29k hike, and Kyle knew that the last 8 were easy. There really wasn’t a lot to do, but I was worried. Something I had read about crossing the Lions, some inner sense that I would be leaving the edge of my comfort zone. As the sun went down, I texted my wife goodnight. “Tomorrow we pass right between the Lions!” I told her with exclamation points. After some hesitation, I decided not to say that I was afraid.

Ryan at Magnesia Meadows
Toddlers in the mist at Magnesia Meadows

We hit the trail at 6 am, drifting past the other tents like Gortex wraiths in the rising fog. Ryan had woken us before the alarm, speaking out of the inky black. “I know it’s just a dream,” he said, “but I think the Little Daddy is out there. If you look out the window you might be able to see him, walking in the dark.” That was suitably ominous, although not as bad as something he said three weeks before, as we sat in the living room. “Daddy, are you falling?” he asked abruptly. “If you’re falling, you have to duck your head.”

The trail took a beating just past the campsite, almost lost under steep fields of wild blueberry. Our pace slowed as we skidded and slid along, soaking ourselves to the bone with bits of cloud and bracken. In the midst of this purgatory, my most peaceful memory of the trip: an impossibly small pygmy owl, gazing bashfully at us from the branches of a fir tree. Turning his head 360° to look at Kyle, then all the way back to me, showing off in the sudden perfect stillness. A moment without cameras, without almost anything. And then onward.

This part of the Howe Sound Crest was something new, something not entirely expected. Each stage took a bit longer than planned, each scree field a little crazier. These slopes were active, shifting slightly around us. Out there in the fog we could hear movement like muted thunder. We soldiered on, each step bringing us further into the crazy zone. In one of these fields we passed two middle aged men hiking like war refugees, shell-shocked and grim. Poor chaps, I thought. Bit off more than they could chew. Then a trio of trail runners, improbably energetic. 30 seconds after they left, I realized I had once run side by side with one of them, down the Sunshine Coast Trail. That moment seemed so far away, a different person’s memories. We passed over a ridge that dropped sheer into the clouds on either side, as I held a rope that had certainly seen better days. Maybe this was the place I was worried about, I thought. I stepped onto solid trail and began to feel the stirrings of hope.

The HSCT is not kidding. James Peak traverse, photo by Natalie Ord.
The HSCT is done kidding around. James Peak traverse, photo by Natalie Ord.

We had been hiking 8 hours when I reached the first ledge. Just a rude cut in the wall of the mountain, embossed with defiant graffiti arrows. How could this be? We were caught flatfooted, totally unprepared for the sight. The good trail, the promised land, was still a few km ahead of us. The way behind was full of hazards enough, and so, I crossed the ledge. And it was fine. I passed along some more mountain track, reaching another ledge. That too went easily by. And then I reached the third ledge, what turned out to be the last one. The final place were you crab along, facing the rock, holding on to wet stone. No cracks and crevices, just the rough texture of granite to press yourself against. The drop was small, but I didn’t like the run-out below. It looked bad, disappearing off into the mist. Kyle got along just fine, and then it was my turn. I put my fear aside, crabbed along the ledge, got to a place I didn’t like. I could feel my centre of gravity pulling back, tugging at me with eager hands. So I fled back to safety.

“I’m worried about this,” I said to Kyle. “It seems like I’m at my load capacity.” I really was, although I didn’t know how close. I had been pushing margins all morning, and the boundary was about to give. I tried the ledge again, this time taking one more step. The crack I was standing in was not flat anymore, canting slightly downward. I felt my centre of gravity change, and I braced against it, calling for help. Kyle started taking his pack off, a process he wouldn’t finish until I hit the scree field some 20 meters away. I remember looking at my two hands, arched over this little hump of rock, each finger pushing in. For the first time on the hike, first time in years, I wasn’t sure if I had a good grip. And then I was falling, and all the fear was gone, washed out of my mind. I was falling and I hit the rock and I was still falling.

“Well, here I am,” I thought. “Sliding down a mountain. And I’m still fairly intact, which means I survived the first bit. Now I just have to wait.” And I slid along with the backpack frame roaring and the world blurring before my eyes.

There had been other ways to get past the ledge. None of them were great, but there were choices. I could have backed off further, divided up the backpack, enlisted Kyle’s help in a reasoned and proactive manner. I could have picked my way along the slope I was now racing down on my tummy. We could have tried to do something with our rope. There were a lot of choices that I didn’t take, because at 8 hours in you tend to go with whatever looks best at first glance. It’s actively dangerous to stand around searching for perfect ways to do things, because energy (and daylight) are so finite. I thought I could make it in safety, so I took the chance. Usually things work out, and in fact they still worked out. I skidded to a halt, and Kyle ran up to me, shouting apologies into the rain. He got the backpack up, confirmed that Ryan was intact. My son was crying freely, so Kyle held his hand. Ryan says it was this moment when he started to feel happy again, out there on the bitter edge of the north shore mountains. As for me, I crouched with my legs hugged to my chest, staring out into the fog. The aftermath was hitting, and I had to be strong. I hid the tremors from my son, let them go into the wind. I didn’t know then if I was capable of walking, let alone carrying him another 10 kilometers out. And I felt so bad about it, like I had stepped into the path of a car while holding his hand. Like I had really messed up, despite trying so hard. Messed up not because I fell, but because I had allowed myself to reach a place where falling was so easy. I came with nothing to prove, I didn’t visit these parts to learn how hardcore a dad I am. I just want to show him the world.

Without the clouds, this part of the world would have looked like this. Our route so far that day.
This is what the world looks like, when you can see more than 10 meters. Our route so far that day. Image © Hollyburn Heritage Society.

There was no time for regret. My mind was already stepping towards what was next, a sprawling list of question marks. I sent Kyle back up the hill to grab the first aid kit, then spoke to my son in a strong voice, a voice from a deeper part of me. “Ryan, we fell down, and I bumped my knee. But I’m going to fix this, okay? Daddy is going to fix this. I promise.” I’m going to fix this injury, this mistake, this place we’re in. I’m going to get us out of here, although I don’t know how any more. I’m going to do it, absolutely. “Yes,” my son said, and he stopped crying.

I pulled out my phone to check for service, and found that it had been bent into an arc by some unseen blow. I stood up on the scree slope, blood trickling down my leg, holding the world’s first curved iPhone. Feeling kind of ridiculous, I bent it back into shape. Everything was still working, and I texted Katie. “I can has injury”, I wrote sadly. It was 1:30 PM, with the day halfway done. The highest part of the hike was still ahead of us.

“What do you need?” her reply came back. No alarm, no demands for answers. Just support, immediate and real. The way it always has been.

“I don’t know,” I replied. Tiny raindrops fell on the Ziploc bag I held over my screen. I needed to get my son home, but I wasn’t sure how any more. I needed help, but help seemed remote, far away. I dreaded making the call to Search and Rescue, telling them that Dad of The Year Joseph McLean was stranded in impossible terrain well beyond the pickup points, so come and get me, boys! Hope you like carrying a stretcher up sheer mountain passes. And by the way, I totally brought a three year old!  I tied a clumsy bandage around my leg, daubed at my chin with a moist towelette from the kit. In a few minutes I’d try to climb out of this gully, see if I could still be some use. Otherwise I would have to make the call. My first aid towelette had dried out long ago, giving it the shape and texture of a saltine cracker. Typical, I thought. Typical. And that’s when I heard the voices of our rescue team.

The Howe Sound Crest Trail is a lonely place, especially when it’s being harassed by rainclouds. Although we had met a few parties heading north that day, no one else was going south towards Cypress. No one except Peter, Colin, and Natalie, who strolled out of the fog just ten minutes after my fall. They navigated the ledge with something approaching ease, walked down to us on the slope. Was I okay? Maybe. Was there anything they could do? Well… could someone help carry the kid? Just for a moment, just up to the next crest. My legs seemed to be working, but I was still unsteady on my feet. I didn’t want any more surprises for poor Ryan, not even a stagger. And that is how he came to meet Peter, or more precisely, Peter’s back. Up into the air went my pack and my boy, and off they went for the top. I called after Ryan that Peter was a good hiker and very strong, silently praying that my snap analysis was correct (some people can’t even lift the carrier). At any rate, the man was an alpine ox. I scrambled ahead, feeling buoyant without a pack. Marvelling that my knee still worked, with a gash the size of a slug. Soon we were at the top of some anonymous peak, looking back at vague ripples in the clouds that could have been mountains.

And still I hesitated, unsure if I should ask for more. I had a full range of motion in my leg, and a fine show of strength from the adrenaline coursing through my veins. If Kyle cleaned out most of my pack, I could still carry my boy. But the trail ahead was rough, with promises of more “technicalities” before the last easy grade home. I just wasn’t sure, and I said so. “We’ll stay with you for a while,” our nonchalant saviours said. “Until you get sick of us.”

And that was that. Well, that plus other things, too many to tack on. Seven more hours of hiking, no one getting sick of each other. Restorative garlic sausage on one of the countless summits of Mt. Unnecessary. Washing out my wound, which also looked like sausage. Laughing with real warmth, even as the day around us grew cold. Playing musical backpacks, so that I was left with the lightest one and Ryan was paired with his new best bud. Watching my son going up crags in his undamaged backpack, passed from hand to hand by three strangers who were fast becoming friends. Meeting my sister-in-law near km 27, just half an hour from our car, as twilight settled in to the woods.

    Kyle was not letting go of me again. With Peter and Ryan on Mt. Unnecessary. Photo by Colin Alexander
Kyle was not letting go of me again. With Peter and Ryan on Mt. Unnecessary. Photo by Colin Alexander

I took Ryan onto my shoulders for the last steps down. We were both coming out of our daze, waking up to the fact that everything was already okay. Ryan spoke up for the first time in ages, reminding us that the sound we just heard, the distant fading sound as we walked the final steps to the parking lot, was the hooting of the last woodland grouse. The soft farewell of the forest, and a smile from my child. I was utterly amazed that we were out. The feeling would last through the next sunrise, when I got back from the hospital to see Ryan sleeping peacefully on cotton sheets, as if he had been there all along.

On July 20th, I fell off a ledge on the side of the Lions. I gained some bruises, a few scratches, 8 prim stitches just below my knee. And something changed. Something left me that day, a barrier I had raised between myself and the world. I learned what it is to ask for help from perfect strangers, and I leaned that I have a unshakable strength for getting home. I found out what it’s like to betray a sacred trust and win it back. In the days following, I felt deeply ashamed, damned by my own foolishness. I was afraid to tell people where I had taken my son, afraid to admit that I had been so stupid. Slowly, as my leg healed, I came to accept what happened to us as almost normal, and to take solace in our response. I’m not proud of the event, but I’m proud of what was left. We got out together, and we were smiling. I didn’t break my bones, I didn’t hurt my son. And I didn’t break our love of the great outdoors.

Falling is the original teacher, and this fall changed me. These days I feel more powerful and more vulnerable than before, although in a way I’ve always known this. Truly, we are so good at hiding things from ourselves. Our purpose and our power, our strengths and our failings. Out there on the mountain, I met up with ground truth (and hard). It hurt, but I heard. I left some blood on the rock, and some pretense also. This shell may grow back, but for now I’m closer to myself than I was before. I’m closer to ground truth.

Ryan talks about our fall every day. His verdict is that Daddy took a step that was too big, and then Peter came to help. My stitches are finally out, and we just went on our first hike together again, on the good old Sunshine Coast Trail. He was bugging me for so long, when would my knee be ready, when could we go for a big hike, and would I fall down again. As it happened, I did slip on some moss, and he scolded me very sternly to be careful. Then he nodded off to sleep, trusting me to do my best. His soft breath sounded in my ear, and I walked forward, leg still a bit stiff but working well. Forward with careful, humble courage. On towards whatever lies ahead.

Ryan at Lois Lakeshore
Back on the trail again.

grandfather clause

One of my clearest memories of visiting my Grandfather is from about 17 years ago, on a beach near his Nanaimo home.  While the adults conversed above, I took my kid brother (I’m guessing he’d be about 5, which makes me 14) for a seaside adventure.  Soon we were running along a narrow strip of intertidal shore, between the grey sea and the cliffs.   Our dash ended in a shallow bay, where the sea reached right to the face of the rock, cutting us off ahead.  I glanced up at the cliffs.  The tide had filled a wide ditch in front of the wall, a through these waters lay a great bleached trunk, an old growth log cast loose from the wilds of Vancouver Island.  One end was lodged on the sand in front of me, and like an arrow it pointed across that trough, directly at the cliffs.  My heart began to pound, and I stepped to the log.

“What are you doing?” asked my awesome companion.

“Seeing if I can climb this,” I replied.  Grandpa used to climb things, big things.  Mountains and glaciers.  Harrowing adventure.  The log ended about two feet from the cliff.  I would have to jump over the gap and grab the rock.  If I failed, I’d fall and be drenched — in front of my little brother.

“Do you think I can make it?”


I ran lightly along the log.  I couldn’t tarry long on the far side, else it might roll.  The gap was a bit larger than I thought, but I jumped all right.  One foot missed, the other landed and both hands grabbed hold.  The rock was warm in the summer sun, a strange feeling of life-that-is-not-life that has never left me.  Robin cheered and jumped up and down, which was very encouraging.  His voice sounded thin against the waves.  I looked up… waaaaay up… and could see flowers looking down at me from the top of the cliff, some 40 feet away.  The going appeared to be steep.  Perhaps this wasn’t a wise idea.  Turning to the log, I saw that there was no way back.  I’d need my running start to cross that gap again.

“Go back around,” I called to my brother.  I was very responsible and didn’t want to see him swept out to sea.  Actually, all kidding aside, I had enjoyed a rapport with Robin ever since he could walk.  I knew what I could ask of him, and what he could be counted on to do.  I have relied on this trust more than I probably should have, I know.  It’s a brother thing.

Little Robin toddled out of sight, and I began to climb.  The cliff walls were a bit sandy, which added an element of danger but also made for many footholds, pockmarks in the weathered surface.  I only slipped once, it wasn’t my scariest climb.  My hands slowly turned black from the rock dust.  After a while I pulled myself over the lip and onto a grassy clearing.  Grown-up voices sounded nearby, and I hurried up.  My parents and grandparents where there. Robin burst from a side trail at the same moment, full of dignity from his solo quest.  We were united above the sea.

“Grandpa, I climbed them!  I climbed those cliffs!” I wasn’t interested in telling anyone else.  Here was the man, the legend, the Climbing Grandpa.  I believe I interrupted him in mid-sentence.  He looked at me and my blackened hands, bits of grass clinging to my clothes, one knee scuffed where it met with unforgiving rock.  There was an unmistakable twinkle in his eye.

“You did…?  Good for you!”

And then he drew me aside.  “See how dirty your hands are?”  Uh oh. Was the Climbing Grandpa a clean freak, like some of my other relatives?

“Well, uh, yes…”

“That’s from coal dust!  The last mine closed 40 years ago, but the dust around here still runs black.  Isn’t that something?”

And that’s how Grandpa was.  Encouragement and teaching, delivered with a smile.  I didn’t see him often, but every time I did there was something important there, something that cheered me on.  My mom has a picture of me with Grandpa and his wife Rene, back when I was younger than memory.  They flank me on our crazy old red couch.  I’m smiling like I won the lottery, like I’m sitting among heros.  And in a way I am.

My Grandfather passed away on January 22, at the age of 90.  Sitting here typing this, I wonder more than ever if I’m just a new version of him.  Sure, Grandpa Gordon never quite mastered computers, just as I never learned to ride the rails like a crazy hobo.  I’m sure we both wished we did.  Like me he loved mountain climbing, easily naming summits on every horizon.  What I feel when I take each rise, when I look out at the wide world around me, I know he felt. His numerous slides bear witness to exceptional photography skills, an obsession I share.  His empathy for individuals, and his lifelong desire to teach — both are borne in my work, where I use computers not just for the sake of mastering the logic, but to help people understand.

Maybe I am Grandpa Gordon 3.0.  So much of what made him that kind of man is in my blood.  Of course, I know my story is different, and that the differences have his approval.  Thus inspired, we carry on.

“Good for you!”

That was my Grandpa.