Last June was the first Father’s Day that passed for me without my father, who had died the previous November, 11 days after his 85th birthday.
It was also, it seemed to me, possibly the last one that I would spend with my son, who had graduated from university a month earlier and would soon be pushing the canoe that carries his life away from the shore where I had stood with him since the day he was born.
So, instead of the Father’s Day round of golf that I had for years shared with my dad and later my son (which I thought would be a little too maudlin without Dad), I thought it would be a good idea to climb a mountain.
This was for a couple of reasons.
One was that, forty-three years before, my dad had taken me on a hike up a mountain in Banff National Park. I had decided that “climbing” a mountain would be my personal Centennial project, 1967 being the year in which Canada was celebrating its 100th anniversary. I thought it might build a similar memory for my son who might be able to remember me as something other than an old man—the way I still remembered my Dad in 1967.
The other was that, having undergone two hip surgeries in recent years, I was feeling capable of doing something I had, for several years, thought I would never be able to do again. I wanted to find out if I could do it. Since my hips went bad far too young (the same sort of ailment that cut short Bo Jackson’s career, seeing as you asked), I had missed the view of the world that I used to get when downhill skiing—that breathtaking, awe-inspiring take from the top. I wanted, if only one more time, to see it again.
The mountain we chose was Ha Ling’s Peak, which soars about 8,000 ft. above Canmore, Alberta, on the south side of the Bow Valley. For many years it was known as Chinaman’s Peak until, in deference to the individual involved and amid concerns that the term was derogatory, it was officially changed. Ha Ling was a railway worker and, in 1896, he took a $50 bet that he couldn’t get up the peak, plant a flag at the summit, and return in less than 10 hours. He left at 7:00 a.m. and was back by lunch. No one believed him so he went back, this time with others, and planted a larger flag alongside the smaller one he had placed at the summit in the morning. He won the bet.
For me, from where we were starting, it was only 3 km to the top. But, oh yes, over the course of those 3 km, we would be ascending 700 metres. That’s steep. Most mountaineers refer to it as an “easy scramble.” For me, an overweight 55-year-old with a lot of metal in his hips, it was sort of like Everest. I considered the risk of heart attack, but thought my very regular golf course hikes (which contain some pretty brisk elevation changes), lap-swimming, and occasional gym stints would give me a chance. And, if this was where God planned to take me home, I frankly couldn’t have thought of a better place.
We arrived at base camp (a parking lot) occupied by only one other car and a couple of Big Horned Sheep at around 8:30 a.m. and found the trail through the trees. It wasn’t long before I had to stop about every 10 minutes just to catch my breath. One guy—jogging!—passed us on the way down. Another couple passed us on the way up. My son, who played hockey for 4 years at TWU, was patient, and though he might have been worried, he didn’t look it. After more than an hour, we burst above the tree line to find ourselves in the company of a herd of mountain goats and, finally, we were able to take in the incredible views of the valleys to the south and west. We scrambled up the rock the rest of the way and, to my great pride, made it to the top in roughly the two hours I was told it would take. There were a handful of other folks here and there and a fellow who appeared—mystically—at the top. He, apparently, had climbed up the sheer 800 ft. face on the north side of the mountain and was now jogging down the “easy” part. (It gave me some solace later, when I noticed “joggers” heading up this trail, that the Canadian Olympic winter sports training camp is in Canmore, and these weren’t your average suburban joggers.)
I am not particularly good with heights, have never totally recovered confidence in my balance since the surgeries, and was conscious of the fact that wind gusts have been known to push people over the cliff—and that that would hurt. So, while still trying to appear poised, I sort of bum-crawled my way as close to the edge of the precipice as possible.
And there we sat; father and son—me nibbling on a sandwich, and him snapping photos with his cell phone and sending them as text messages to his girlfriend (yes, the same one he’s going to marry this summer). How the modern generation has grown to assume cell phone access will be available 8,000 feet up in the Canadian Rockies is an entirely different story for another day, but it was comforting to know that if I had had that heart attack, a 911 call was possible.
Going down was, in a way, the hardest. My lack of confidence in my balance meant that I was, well, let’s call it “deliberate” in finding my way down the scree. My son was patient and looked at me fondly but I felt, well, old. It was as if that bald, grey-haired guy I see in the mirror but never recognize was actually me. But we made it down the rock and further down through the woods and to the parking lot. The next day, the muscles in my thighs were so sore I could barely move.
My son smiled the way young men do.
I once heard the poet Rodger Kamenetz say that heaven would be when, with your dying breath, you could smell the scent of your newborn child. I don’t know about that, but the conquest of Ha Ling’s Peak meant I got to share one last little adventure with my son and, in my own quiet way, one more with my Dad.
And I smiled too. The way older men do.