Traveling eastward from Hope, every road ascends.
No more warm-up rides.
I approached the day with the mindset that the ride from Hope to Princeton would be one of the most difficult stretches of my entire cross-Canada trek. Hope is nestled in a valley, less than fifty meters above sea level. At Allison Pass Summit, the highest point between Hope and Princeton along the Crows Nest Highway, the elevation reaches a peak of 1342 meters. A nearly 1300-meter ascent into Manning Park.
A more experienced or better-trained cyclist would be able to endure the challenging 135-kilometers from Hope to Princeton in a single day without feeling wholly drained. A more prepared rider would have already known the unforgiving climbs to come. I appreciated and respected those cyclists. But, I was not one of them. I had no previous experience in long-distance cycling. I was still building my modest endurance and strength. I didn’t know any better. I viewed Princeton as my next finish line.
I was entitled. Irrationally confident and inflated. Inevitably, though, I was due for a failure. A true humbling.
You’re only here?
You wanna lift over the peak of this pass? That’s where we’re headed.
Put your bike in the bed and jump in the cab.
My would-be saviors. My escape. I had met the old man and his wife a few hours earlier, at the Sunshine Valley Resort, near the western edges of Manning Park.
Following a seemingly endless climb out of Hope into the mountains, I had reached a temporary respite of flatter highway. Already battered down by my first taste of defeat along the Crows Nest, I was longing for a break. An extended one. With the greatest dose of honesty, I’ll admit I seriously entertained the temptation to roll back down to my hosts in Hope and relieve my delicate self from this chosen treachery. Can we go for another hike? Tell me another story in the forest. Tell me anything.
As the Trans-Canada steadily ascended out of Hope, I slowed to a stop dozens of times. Along the steepest grades of road, I counted progress as riding whenever a vehicle was in sight. I was privately embarrassed, and I was determined to prevent any living soul from seeing my struggles. No witnesses. As soon as every vehicle passed, I stopped, slumped, and cursed quietly. My distorted form of control in this darkened scene.
Somewhere along the way, immediately after an eighteen-wheeler cruised by my sight-line from the opposite side, I spotted a cyclist further ahead, speeding down the highway toward me. Brutal. Now I’ve gotta keep crushing these pedals till he passes, too. As the cyclist approached, he slowed his roll and veered to my side of the road. As soon as I realized he was stopping to connect, I quickly dropped my feet to the ground for another rest. I noticed the man carried no baggage. Mid-fifties, most likely. He was sweaty. Clearly far from winded or drained.
Yup. Victoria to St. John’s.
Where are you going?
Just finishing my morning training, up to the summit of Allison Pass.
I’m cruising back down to Hope.
What are you training for?
I’m climbing K-2 later in the spring.
Don’t congratulate me just yet.
This summit is only a small taste of the real thing.
With a fist-bump and good-luck wishes, Mr. Everest bid adieu hastily. As he raced away, I heard the sound of his shoes clipping into his pedals. I turned to watch him descend. In a few blinks, he had disappeared.
He clipped his shoes…
At this point in reminiscence, without fail, a brief memory of the bike shop in Victoria always emerges. Always. The bike specialist urges me to buy pedal clips and bike shoes for the climbs. I steadfastly refuse, congratulating myself for not succumbing to his upsell. From my flawed and limited view, they didn’t feel necessary. Take that, consumerism! Essentials only!
Somewhere along the Crows Nest, between Hope and the Allison Pass Summit, those clips sure began to feel essential.
Simple science, man. I was riding in a pair of old running shoes, all of my energy fated to only pushing down on every pedal. On the climbs, I lost momentum on every single rotation. If I had bike shoes and pedal clips, my feet would have been attached to Sonja. I would have been a part of my bike. I could have pushed down and pulled up and around.
My choice. A falsely essentialist fool. Willfully ignorant and woefully underprepared, as usual. I’d fated myself to the old-school, unintentionally linked to cyclists of generations past. I needed only my brother’s old ten-speed instead of my present-day twenty-seven to truly follow suit.
On the bright side, I did learn that Mr. Everest had scaled this summit in only a couple of hours.
This summit is only a small taste of the real thing.
In the moment, I believed I wasn’t too far away from the top. I’d yet to be humbled enough.
Some two hours later after Mr. Everest and I parted ways, I huddled my shivering bones against the main building of the Sunshine Valley Resort. I shielded myself from the bitter winds and scarfed down a plastic bag of pesto pasta gifted from my host family that morning. About twenty kilometres further along, still outside the gates of Manning Park. No jacket in my packs. An older couple completed some maintenance duties nearby.
The old man gradually meandered my way, introducing himself as the co-owner. As the old man moved garbage bins and pulled on doors to ensure they were locked, he interrogated my decision to bike through the mountains in early April. Another curious mind questioning the unexplored roots of mine. My response, once again, was surface-level and underwhelming. I wanted a challenge. I remained far from ready to truly explain my purpose on this ride.
Thankfully, the old man didn’t linger on my unsatisfactory answer. He steered our encounter to its original direction. In an everyone-already-knows-this-but-I’ll-say-it-anyway tone, the man revealed, like nearly every other year, there was still snow all around, and all park facilities remained closed.
At this time of year, there is no civilization for the next hundred kilometres, through Manning Park, till you reach Princeton.
He wasn’t done accidentally imparting crucial information to an embarrassingly uninformed cyclist.
I trust you have plenty of water. The water’s turned off here, and the next place to refill isn’t till Princeton, either.
My mind raced to keep up. Snow? Manning Park’s closed? The water’s shut off? As I peered into a near-empty water bottle, with only one more bottle left, I felt another eruption of naïveté and carelessness within. Outwardly, I shrugged in response, reiterating my desire for an adventure. No witnesses. The old man continued his offseason maintenance duties, casually unimpressed. I was just another roving cyclist passing through his world of wilderness.
As he fulfilled his duties, I sat frozen for a few nerve-wracking moments, frantically processing his offerings. I envisioned myself sobbing uncontrollably as I staggered along the highway into the dark night, alone, torturing myself to reach Princeton. Never pulling up and around in my old runners, always pushing down.
With a few heavy breaths, I calmed and continued eating. As I finished the last of my pesto, my mind quickly latched onto the ease of pitching a tent in the vast wilderness, in any spot I pleased, whenever I wanted and without a hassle. I had planned to camp at one of the park’s sites; I’d do the same on unmarked territory. The wilderness doesn’t charge a fee.
The old man wished me well and left the premises with his wife, driving westward to discard a truck-load of garbage. I perked up and prepared for the next stretch. I put on my thrift-store smoker’s gloves, added a second pair of socks to my feet, and covered myself in another layer everywhere else. My sunglasses, a pair of ridiculous six-dollar aviators, would shield the increasingly bitter winds from my untried eyes.
Some hours later, further up the pass, I succumbed to unfamiliar levels of cold, hungry, and exhausted. Depleted. I’d never exposed my little world to this extreme state. Every moment was filled with struggles to meet the challenge.
I abandoned my policy of avoiding public humility. My struggles to reach my feet to the ground grew more frequent. I couldn’t be bothered by the eyes of passers-by. Why should I care? I’ll never meet these people again. Let them witness. The summit was still ahead, unseen.
You’re only here?
The old man’s disappointment had floored my already sapped self-confidence. He didn’t know I hadn’t trained, or that I had no cycling shoes or pedal clips. He had no idea of the extent of my unfamiliarity with this type of experience. His world was different from mine. I’d never seen the mountains until a few days prior. All he could see was the weakened form of a cyclist in front of his face, too far from any signs of respite ahead and too far along his climb to turn around.
I felt I was in the heart of the middle, alone. Fully exposed and humbled to newfound depths. The old man and his wife noticed my obvious fatigue.
From a rolled-down window on the passenger side, the old man had offered a way out: a ride to the summit of Allison Pass. Just as I began to feel entirely without control for the first time, I’d been gifted a convenient escape.
My guiding strangers waited silently in their idling truck, enticing me from the wintry eve. I entertained two choices. One, I could accept his generous offer and nestle into the comforts of a warm, motorized carriage for the rest of this climb. Or, I could struggle on the path I’d been ascending along, straining the integrity of my bike chain with every push down on my pedal. Never pulling up and around.
Sunset loomed, hidden behind clouds and drifting snowflakes. Hours earlier, I had bid fond farewells to my hosts under the morning sun, about four-thousand feet below. Now, I stood amidst a roll-call of switchbacks on the Crows Nest, suffocated by the scene instead of reveling within it. No horizons, only climbs and turns.
What am I doing? Why am I doing this?
I was surrounded by mountains and snow, limbs cold and nose frozen. Princeton remained a world away. A world I’d never before known. I felt intensely tempted to accept their offer and cheat myself, to make my experience a little easier.
Some combination of emotions simmered to the surface, inspiring the feeling that I would be all right. Hard to explain. Fear didn’t feel abundant. Fear only pervaded the surfaces within, and I felt drawn to something further beneath. To this day, I wonder if my deep-rooted stubbornness prevailed. Perhaps, I desired to avoid shame. Most likely, some combination of a sprawling web of connections inspired my resolve. Impossible to truly understand.
No matter the case, I re-emerged to my senses. I politely declined the old man’s invitation.
Thank you, but I think I’ll keep going on my own. I’ll be fine.
My answer wasn’t convincing. With a concerned look, the old man’s wife leaned over her husband and chimed in from the driver’s seat.
Son, it is ten degrees below zero. It’ll only get colder. There is nothing in any direction for a long drive. Please, hop in.
I was beckoned to accept. Submit to my visibly weakened state.
Still, I refused.
With identical sighs and a weary shake of their heads, the old man and woman both wished me well. The old man rolled up the passenger window as they drove away. The truck disappeared around the next bend.
I carefully sipped some of the last remnants of water from my final bottle, peering into the bottom. With no other option, I pushed on. One pedal at a time.
Between curses, I searched for meaning. Why am I here? I had been confronted by my first dose of adversity, though it was a chosen taste. I felt the need to figure out the reasons for bringing myself to this nowhere. What am I doing?
I wasn’t yet ready. This wasn’t the place or time. I quickly realized I wasn’t fit to find any answers beneath the surface. Amidst this struggle, my deeper thoughts subsided. I could focus only on the next pedal. Narrow my views. Fix my gaze on every next bend, till I finally reached that peak.
In this endless day’s fading light, I caught a distant glimpse of my prize: a lonely sign, blowing in the wind.
Allison Pass Summit, Elevation 1342m (4403ft)
From Hope to here, I had felt deeply humiliated and exhausted. A succession of moments filled with challenge and uncertainty.
In an instant, all was changed. With that summit sign in sight, I felt a surge of ecstasy and shameless pride. A final burst of adrenaline propelled my life to the top. I’d made it.
This is why. This is why I’m here.
I was victorious. All felt right.
I stopped aside the sign and slumped heavily against the handlebars. I surveyed the surrounding wilderness, lifted by my accomplishment.
How do I mark this feat?
I sought to think of something to honour this memorable moment. Something meaningful. No signs of life, human or wild, in any direction. No witnesses to stroke my ego. Only me and Sonja. Alone in the middle. Still, I felt compelled to do something.
I intended to settle on a dignified, thoughtful choice to recognize my achievement. Something worthy of the feat. Instead, I fumbled. I succumbed to the expected reaction.
The memory still burns fresh. I flipped back the mitten of my left smoker’s glove, and I balanced my camera on the frozen fingers of my outstretched arm. I feigned a conqueror’s face and pose to obscure my actual state, and I snapped a picture.
I took a selfie. My first selfie. Ever.
I wasn’t done.
At the top of Allison Pass, on the edge of the Crows Nest, cold and hungry and exhausted, in the middle, alone, I checked the result of my recording. I was unsatisfied.
I can do better.
I reached out, again. Another selfie. My second. Ever. With an ever-so-slightly different facial expression. A forced, ridiculous smile. An entitled clown. A worn-out mess disguising his true world.
I’d reduced a moment of ultimate triumph to a manipulated memory. It wasn’t enough to simply live and experience, to feel fulfilled and proud in that moment. I felt compelled to record the occasion for future reminiscence, to assert permanence onto that moment. To always remind myself and others of this monumental day.
But, is this wrong? Isn’t this OK?
In truth, I still can’t conclude. All I can argue is my memory has been muddled by the picture. My recorded face and pose has irreversibly obscured my actual emotions in the moment. The story forever altered by a click. Ever since, admittedly, I’ve leaned more toward the feat than the humbling.
Right or wrong, I must be honest:
That selfie – the second one – has persisted in the years since. My forced, ridiculous smile hangs on my wall. My exaggerated, too-close face, partially concealed by obnoxious aviators, with the summit sign in the background. The second selfie remains graced on a prominently placed vantage point in my home, for all eyes to notice. I placed my selfie here purposefully, and, right or wrong, I am not taking it down.
I descended enough winding turns to feel the rewards of cycling over my first summit before stopping to rest my bike on the metal barriers of a sharp left turn. I looked around for a spot to sleep for the night. I pulled my phone out to check the time. 7:30pm.
I longed for rest. I needed to get horizontal. Somewhere. Anywhere.
Snow, all around. Peering over the barrier to the wilderness below, I could see only mountains and evergreens and white in the evening’s fading light.
I searched for exposed ground. Nothing. If I rode for another hour, to a lower elevation, I’d have surely found a more forgiving camping scene. But, I refused to sit on Sonja for a second longer. I’d reached my adjusted goal. I felt wholly drained.
After guiding Sonja clumsily down the roadside into the trees, I rested her for the night against a snow-covered spruce. I scanned my immediate surroundings for a camping spot that seemed hospitable. No dice.
What am I doing here? Why am I here?
I measured the snow depth with each step of my running shoes, resolved to discover a shallow and exposed spot below my mid-calf. Again, nothing. Within a few steps, my feet were snow-soaked and cold.
I’d already stopped, and I wasn’t leaving till morning.
I chose the nearest flat spot, resisting the urge to clear a snow-free space to pitch my tent.
Within a few minutes, my tent was up. I pegged the fly to cover the top. Too lazy to lay the footprint – a water-proof tarp – to seal the bottom.
I removed everything I felt I needed for the night from my panniers. No space to fit it all inside, and I wasn’t so ignorant to sleep with the fragrance of snacks close aside. I was too tired to summon the energy for any dinner, anyway. Besides, the pesto bag was empty, and all that remained in my pack was trail mix and apples.
Before checking my water supply, I already knew the answer. I shook my final bottle, hearing the hollow sound of a couple of sips splashing. In a fit of distorted reason, I decided to save the last sips for the next day. If desperation ever erupted, I figured I could sacrifice my body’s warmth for handfuls of snow to quench my thirst.
After setting up my sleeping gear, I threw the rest of my clothes and my few-sips water bottle into the tent. I walked my panniers about twenty paces away, leaving a gift of frozen snacks for any wildlife daring enough to enjoy this lingering dose of wintry weather. I’d hang my gear from a lofty tree branch another night.
I scurried into my tent and cocooned into my sleeping bag, layering my body with all of the clothes I’d thrown into the tent. I checked my phone. With a sudden flicker, my phone froze and faded to black. Too cold. I cocooned tighter.
Darkness prevailed. I was lying on my back, in a zero-degree Celsius sleeping bag, on an inch-thick sleeping pad. From there, only a thin layer of tent separated a foot of snow. By morning, the snow would soak through every layer of protection to my sore and tired body. I should’ve laid that footprint. Too late, though. I wasn’t moving.
With my head on a pillow of bundled-up sweatpants, I was still. I listened for any signs of life. The outside world offered only silence.
Then, an outburst of laughter filled the tent.
What am I doing?
I was an exhausted, laughing speck. A lone camper lying atop a foot of snow somewhere on the eastern side of Alison Pass. No training, no winter clothes, save a pair of smoker’s gloves with the fingers exposed. Experiencing the real-world consequences of my chosen darkness.
All the while, I felt a returning spark illuminate within: Man, this still feels right. I’d become overwhelmed by my inability to decipher any kind of understanding. Little made sense. I could only conclude on the wondrous feeling that persisted through every struggle on this endless day.
For the first time in my life, I was in it, truly. Laughing at my own oblivion. I’d explore the meaning of it all further down these roads. In the moment, though, I was gassed. My laughter dissipated. I shook my head at my own decisions, smiling wearily. Then, as my eyes close, the memory fades and flickers like my frozen phone. I’d settled into a long night’s sleep.