This is an excerpt from Steven Adams’ book, Monkey on the Wing, the true story of an Aussie larrikin’s youthful adventures around the world, up until the accident that took his eyesight and could have taken his life. The chapter this excerpt is taken from tells of Adams’ 134 kilometer hike through the Canadian Rockies.
The next morning, I rose early, lit the fire, untied the bags and boiled some water before waking everyone else. Casey, Pete, Pete and I soon finished our breakfast and, after dousing the fire, we set off for our second and final camping spot, Fish Lakes.
Fish Lakes was an eighteen kilometer hike from where we’d camped. We marched wearily all day over the toughest ground yet, and while walking through some thick forest, we came across some massive footprints that were clearly those of a Grizzly Bear. The bear had traveled the same trail that we were on for quite a distance and, at one point, had stopped to leave proof of his presence. We could see where he’d squatted and left a big pile of berry skins, which my book referred to as “scat.” I silently hoped that the bear was long gone.
When we eventually reached the place where the turnoff for Fish Lakes was supposed to be, a good-looking man in a yellow wet-weather jacket suddenly appeared from out of nowhere and came walking toward us. We all stopped to say g’day and when I asked him where he was headed, I was surprised to hear him answer, “Fish Lakes!” I said that we were also headed for the same place and he replied in a matter of fact way, “You’ve walked past the turnoff.” When I began to argue the point, he said, “Come on, we’ll look for it back here.”
Sure enough, we had only just missed the spot where the trail had turned off to our right, less than fifty feet away from where this mysterious man had appeared.
To reach Fish Lakes from where we were, we had about a five to six hundred foot climb at about a sixty degree angle. Because we were at the end of the day, the climb was a bit of a struggle, but we all just trudged on up until we reached the top, and when we got there, it was freezing. It was not a very picturesque lake, but rather a body of water surrounded by green grass. As soon as we got there, we pitched our tents and set up camp – at an altitude of eight and a half thousand feet – and everybody except me and the man, who was about my age, went to bed. We sat and talked for a little while. I asked him where he was from and no matter what, he wouldn’t say. I asked him a few times, but every time he’d give my question the slip until I was sure that he must have been on the run. He assured me he wasn’t on the run and when he saw that I was getting annoyed by his evasiveness he said, “I’m from Philadelphia.”
But I knew that wasn’t the truth.
It got way too cold to sit up talking any longer, so I went to bed to warm up. As I lay in my sleeping bag, blowing warm air over myself, I started thinking about this man. I considered the stranger’s timing, for if we had missed that turning of the trail, the hike would have blown out to one hundred and nine kilometers. We didn’t have the food for that, so we would certainly have run into big trouble. I eventually faded off to sleep, still thinking about him.
When I woke in the morning, I was surprised to feel that it was really warm. I came out of the tent for a smoke and was amazed to find that during the night it had snowed, and where there was green grass the day before, now everything was blanketed in a brilliant white gown. There was about a foot of snow everywhere, which had buried the tent by around a fifth and had, in turn, insulated it against the cold. That, along with our body heat, had warmed it right up.
I found the stranger was already up, had packed up his gear, and was waiting for us to rise, so I spoke with him for five minutes before waking the crew. After we’d packed away our gear, we were faced with the hardest task of them all. The trail we had to follow went past Fish Lakes and up a steep, thousand foot climb at a sixty- five degree angle, but now we had to guess the way, as the trail was covered in snow. The snow didn’t make the trudge up the mountain any more difficult than it already was—it just crushed and crunched under our feet—but it was pretty different, and made me think of early explorers and mountain climbers. For every step of hard work it took to reach the 9,500 foot high mountain’s summit, we were rewarded tenfold when we got there. To say that the view was absolutely grounding would be a total understatement.
When we finally reached the completely snow-covered mountain peak, we were presented with a view of the mountain range spread out a thousand feet below us.
A friend of mine from Jurien, Kim Man, shared with me a formula that can be used to calculate how far a person can see, depending on the height that they are standing at. Going by this formula—which is
2.01 times the square root of the height that you’re at—I could see for 196 kilometers. This was too good to just race by, so, as it was such a sunny clear day, we decided to have a cuppa and sit there for a
while. The stranger had a little gas bottle, like the one I’d had at Lake Llewellyn, so he fired it up and I got one of my pots out. I threw a few handfuls of snow into it for the coffees and I really was
amazed to see, at that altitude, how long it took to boil.
While the others sat talking together, I moved away to a place on my own, sat on the snow, and let my brain soak up the utterly astounding view. As I sat there looking over the mountains from my perch in
heaven, I realized just how minuscule people are, and thought, How can something so small cause so much damage? Finally, the cuppas were ready, so I joined the others in conversation and in taking our time over a well-earned lazy coffee.
It was a bright, sunny day when we arrived at the crest of the mountain and remained that way until we’d almost finished the drinks in our pannikins, but then the weather came in very grey and
ominous-looking. We were three kilometers or more up the mountain, when all of a sudden the skies unleashed a terrific snow storm, and by the time we’d stowed our cups, we found ourselves caught in a severe blizzard. Visibility almost instantly went from nearly two hundred clicks to about fifteen feet. We quickly got our packs on and began our long trek down. The blizzard kept up until we were about a
kilometer below the summit, and when it started to ease, I raced ahead and got a photo of the others laboring along in single file.
A bit over an hour after leaving the top of the mountain, we were safely under the tree line and clear of all snow. It was as if we’d walked through an invisible doorway that led to another moment in
time. We decided to get a photo of ourselves after our battle with the mountain, so we pulled up at a small clearing that was perfect for the picture. Casey, the two Petes, and the stranger gathered around while I organized the camera to take an automatic shot. When it was set, the timer gave me ten seconds to take my place in the group. I lit a smoke and as I stared at the lens, for the first time in my life, felt that all of my walls were down and my insecurities were temporarily gone. Casey and I had spent nine days trekking one hundred and thirty four kilometers through some of the most rugged country on earth, and I felt at that moment that I had conquered it. This was the hardest physical thing that I was ever to accomplish in my life and the most rewarding. At the moment that picture was taken, I was thinking, This is how I want my kids to see me.
From the clearing where we took the photo, there was still about two kilometers to go to get to where the car was. Casey and I became like two horses nearing the end of their ride, and just like two bolting
horses, we ran the whole way, trying to beat each other. When the black car came into view, I had such a feeling of victory, for I felt I had conquered the Rockies. I was also one of the few people—according to Eric in Lake Louise—who actually finished this trek.
Steven Adams was born in Albany, Western Australia in 1968. His life has been filled with adventure both in Australia and all over the world. Being blinded in an accident 14 years ago, changed the course of his life and he now lives quietly in the countryside of WA, with his wife Diana and two children. His full book can be found at www.monkeyonthewing.com.