Phew I did it (mostly!)

Hello from Beautiful British Columbia. I am on an epic family road trip, having driven with my teen sons and husband from Southwestern Ontario to BC’s Sunshine Coast where I grew up. We had two very long driving days to get the Prairies and then we spent a few days in the Alberta Rocky Mountains, near where my husband grew up. On our first day, we went to Ptarmigan Cirque, a bowl-shaped end of a valley carved by a glacier.

Image of woman staring at camera, standing in front of green field of brush and trees, with mountains in the background.
At the start – that’s Ptarmigan Cirque behind me

The walk is relatively short at 4.5km and I had been there once before a few decades ago. I didn’t love doing it, but I had done it. I was excited to try it again, with newly repaired hips (2019 and 2021) and a newfound love of hiking. I was also excited because the access point is from the aptly named Highwood Pass, Canada’s highest paved road, at 2,206 metres. I expected I could make the hike and have an alpine experience with my kids, a first for me.

The first kilometre was flat and I was excited. We set off in high spirits and I took this photo of myself at the bottom, thinking of this blog and how I’d like to post that I hiked to the back of the cirque here.

The trail ascends a total of 258 metres (700 feet). As the ascent came, I slowed down and we eventually let the teens power up the hill, while my husband Martin kindly stayed with me. I took some breaks but pushed forward, as I didn’t want to miss out. About halfway up I got significantly out of breath and suddenly remembered my asthma doctor encouraged me to try using a ventolin puffer to see if it helps. Martin, loving a mountain challenge, agreed to run the 2km back to the van (and then back up) with the puffer. I thought I’d continue to mosey up the hill and would catch my breath. That’s what I did for a few dozens of metres, but I was having to stop frequently. The trail is fairly steep and there was not much space for stopping, especially with other hikers going by. It was also hot, about 26 Celsius, which is fairly rare in the mountains.

At a certain point I stopped for a rest and realized I was a bit dizzy, not a great thing when I was on my own on a steep path. It passed, I kept going and it came back. I realized I was not being terribly wise and found a semi-stable place to sit. After about 5 minutes it passed again so I went up the trail a bit. It came back and I found a proper resting spot and stayed put until Martin was back.

Martin gave my my puffer (it didn’t help!) and insisted we wait a little longer than I wanted. We went up a little more, I got dizzy enough that I sat down on the ground and put up my knees. We waited probably 10 minutes that time and a teenager appeared to check on us. We realized we nearly at the end of the rise and I steeled myself for the final ascent, which was fine.

Once at the top, the trail goes around the back of cirque. There is a small lake, a trickling waterfall and snow, even in August. I was looking forward to that part, but realized I needed to stay put so I could make the walk down. We had lunch together at the start of the alpine meadow, and the teens went off on a 30 minute adventure around the cirque.

Photo of an alpine meadow at the treeline. In the foreground are small evergreens and some flowers. In the background is a tall circular mountain ridge with loose stones in front of the ridge. THE sky is bright blue.
At the top of Ptarmigan Cirque; this is the view I missed, but my son Jacob captured it for me

From that point, the hike was not difficult for me. We waited, met up with the teens and walked down the trail without incident. The teens eventually got impatient and motored ahead. Martin suggested that he bring the car around to the bottom of the trail, sparing me the 1km bottom walk. I didn’t love that, but thought it was wise. That meant that I walked the last 200 metres down the trail on my own (while he did more trail running!) and I waited at the roadside.

Selfie photo of a woman looking at the camera, standing on the edge of a narrow highway with mountains in the background. On the right is a sign that reds "Highwood Pass, 2206 metres, 7329 feet."
Reflecting on what I accomplished, and what I wish I had accomplished

My takeaway from this experience was quite mixed. I guess I just vastly overestimated my aerobic capacity. We were just arriving in the mountains that day, and certainly I was not habituated to any elevation (living at about 250m above sea level). I also hoped that, having been intentionally exercising, I would be able to push myself a little on the trail. That was clearly not the case. I remained slightly dizzy going down, although I was no longer out of breath.

I had a very encouraging family with me, who tried to remind me that all the folks motoring by saying “it’s worth it!” “You can do it!” “It’s not so bad!” were really just being kind and not judging me. And they also reminded me that many people in my position / physical condition would not attempt this hike. Nevertheless, I was pretty disappointed. I thought I could manage it and I couldn’t, at least not in the way I wanted.

It seems clear I need to do some hill walking. That’s ok I guess (although I grew up abhorring them!). I can’t really get started on that now, since we are still on our road trip. Yesterday I swam for a solid 30 minutes in the ocean though (SO fun!) and my fitness tracker registered a solid workout. We return home at the end of August and I start a new job (I got one!) which is very regular in terms of hours, and significantly office-based. I have plans to build an exercise schedule.

Image of a woman and man floating in blue water with the sun shining on them
Bobbing in the Georgia Straight with my husband Martin

I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences. Have you dealt with something like I’m describing? How have you dealt with it? I find myself living the experiences that inspired the creation of this blog: I’m middle-aged, not necessarily meeting social norms for “fitness” (not skinny!) and wanting to be active. I’m SO glad I have you, readers and community members, to share this experience with. I need it.

Amanda Lynn