“When I’m away from home, in a foreign land, and I’m run down and hurting, sometimes I lean back and close my eyes and find myself drifting back to Yamnuska. I can feel the wind in that area and hear the trees when the wind passes through them and they speak. I can taste the water that comes from Yamnuska‘s underground streams, and I feel the accomplishment, fear, and deep satisfaction that I have experienced in 32 years of climbing on that mountain. I”ve been to a lot of places in this world, but none of them feel like home the way that mountain does”.
I made that statement 4 years ago, and it holds true to this day. I believe we each have special places in this world that rejuvenate and re-energize us when we visit or dream about them—places that help us feel the vitality in our life. That place for me is the mountain we call Yamnuska.
My name is Laurie Skreslet, and I would like to tell you a story about this mountain so that you, too, may discover its magic.
To find Yamnuska, you drive west out of Calgary, approximately 80 kilometres along the Trans Canada highway. Just before entering the Bow Valley, you look towards the north, and you will see a large fan-shaped peak, the first mountain on the Eastern slope of the Rockies. This is Yamnuska.
The steep south face of this mountain is over a kilometre and a half long and 330 metres tall at its highest point. That makes it a major attraction for rock climbers, but hikers can also make their way to the summit by following a series of moderate trails located on the back (north) side of Yamnuska.
Although that route is an 860-metre hike, starting from the parking lot at the bottom of the mountain, the easy access provided by the trails attract a broad range of people.
In the spring of 1994, I took my 6 year old daughter Natasha for a hike up Yamnuska. We camped out the night before under the mountain. While I set our tent up, she built and lit the campfire, which she tended with glee. Afterwards, we went “pretend exploring” in the dark forest with flashlights and sharpened sticks. The sticks were in case we met any bears. Luckily, we didn’t!
The next morning, we set off early and stopped at a large boulder in the forest to make a tobacco offering. This is an aboriginal spiritual practice taught to me by a native friend. The intention is to show your respect for the “spirit of the land” by offering something of traditional value (tobacco) and to ask for permission to enter an area. Natasha participated in the ceremony, helping me scatter the tobacco to the four directions, and then we headed up the mountain.
Since Natasha had attempted to climb the mountain a number of times before, she was quite familiar with the terrain and route. Three hundred metres up the mountain, we encountered a pair of women from France who did not speak English and who seemed quite upset. Since Natasha speaks fluent French, she translated for me that they had lost their way on the trail. I suggested Natasha tell them to follow her, as we would eventually link up with the main trail. I also suggested to my daughter that she go first, as I had to fix my pack.
Natasha told them this and then proceeded to hike up the mountain. I pretended to fix my pack while I watched the two ladies look at each other and then quickly catch up to Natasha and stay close to her for the rest of the way. Natasha would tell me later they couldn¹t stop talking about this little girl who had saved them, spoke French, and was a miniature mountain guide, as well.
At the base of the steep cliffs, Natasha got the ladies on the correct trail and we then proceeded onto the north side of the mountain. The weather got colder as we continued up. An hour later, it was really windy, and the trail was icy in places. Natasha slipped a few times and lost confidence in her footholds. She told me she was beginning to get scared. So I assured her we could turn around, if she wanted, but asked her to let me explain something to her first.
When I suggested that Natasha ask the mountain for help, she told me she didn¹t understand. So I explained to her that when we become afraid, we lose our ability to see clearly. Our fear can make us blind to what is real. I pointed out that I could see the footholds and handholds, so it wasn’t as though they had disappeared. Maybe she could ask the mountain to help her see more clearly, to show her where to put her feet and hands and how to hold her balance.
She thought about it then said “OK, I will ask”. We then continued climbing, with Natasha moving more confidently than before. A half hour later, the weather got worse, and we decided we had reached what would be our high point for the day.
I secured Natasha with a rope, so she could safely lay on the flat rock near the edge of the south face, with her head poking out looking down the 800 metres to the valley below. We played games, trying to identify the places we had climbed past as we came up the mountain. She began to relax and realize what she had accomplished.
I saw people moving along the trail far below, which gave perspective to just how high we were. I pointed them out to Natasha, and when she finally spotted them, she let out a squeal of joy: “Daddy, Daddy I see them,” she said. “Oh, they are so small, just like in Honey, I Shrunk The Kids”.
She laughed and laughed and, after awhile, became silent. Easing herself back from the edge, she sat up and asked me if she could have some tobacco. I asked why, and she said she wanted to make a tobacco offering to the mountain. When I said that our ceremony from the morning was probably still in effect, she responded, “Oh Daddy, you don’t understand! I want to thank the mountain for taking my fear away”.
And that is one of the reasons Yamnuska is very special to me.
~By Laurie Skreslet
Laurie and Natasha Skreslet by Laurie Skreslet.
Laurie Skreslet has been a mountain guide for the last three decades. He was the first Canadian to climb Mount Everest.
Interestingly Yamnuska (Îyâmnathka) is a commonly used but unofficial name for the mountain and one of its other names is Mt. Laurie. Its official name being Mount John Laurie.