16 Mar Reflections from Kluane Lake

The following was written by Roger Friesen as he awaited weather clearance to be flown to the glacier base of Mount Logan, Canada’s highest mountain.  He was part of a climbing team who intended to face this mountain’s peculiar challenges of isolation and weather with temperatures possibly  ranging between +25°C and -40°C during a 24-hour period, combined with 100 km hour winds.  It’s not unusual for climbers to be pinned in their tents on Mount Logan for several days in a row, waiting out a blizzard.  This article appears in (Botterill & Patrick, 2003) Perspective – The Key to Life. 

The air is still.  I become aware of a stillness deeper – bigger than anything I’ve felt before.  Not the absence of sound – I hear a twittering of birds, I hear the rustle of tall dry grass moved by a slight breeze – no, this stillness is different.  Kluane Lake stretches before me, still covered by its winter coat of ice – hard, cold, unforgiving.  Beyond, the hills are just starting to come to life; a promise of the brief glory bestowed upon the northern Earth.  The North, where everything has a distinct intensity, is not a place for the faint of heart.  Its magnitude can overwhelm, its solitude can undermine.  Here I truly feel my insignificance. This place is as it has been since the beginning – changed perhaps – but on its own terms; this place knows what time is, but I cannot. I see only a blink.

Perhaps stillness is more than physical – it is at once physical as well as emotional and psychological.  Being in this place makes me wonder if these things really can’t be separated.  Here in this place my flaws confront me, there is no escape, nothing to distract, nothing to divert attention.  In this place of stillness, I begin to hear, become attentive to my inner dialogue.  Why am I here?  What’s this uncertainty I feel? What are my resources? Do I understand my mortality?  These are my questions.

And this is why I came; this is the attraction.  Places of wilderness ask everything of you.  To come into places of wilderness requires complete humility with an understanding that you are part of something bigger – bigger even than your own imagination. One comes to this place not as conqueror, but rather as a traveler fully accepting the lessons the wilderness will provide.  One must come with an open mind and heart with full awareness that failure to learn the lessons carries a consequence greater than most lessons in typical daily life.  The risks of wilderness travel offers a legacy of consequence, survivors tears, the living left asking why?

The true question however is not why – this question has no answer.  But if not ‘why’ then what is the question?  How do we understand this place, the lessons that are to be learned?

The question is best answered by our understanding of self, the inner calling placed in the very core of who we are.  We are being drawn toward life!  Perhaps the wilderness calls us to a life of deeper connection and communion at every level.  The wilderness which initially seems unsafe, random and unpredictable, is certainly all of these things, however, it is also much more.  It is a place of reconnection, a place to become grounded.  It is a place which exposes our very core.  The wilderness provides no place to hide.  Slowly as the façade is stripped away, we are left standing for all to see – we are left for ourselves to see. Initially we see our weakness, our fears, our vulnerability, are insignificance, and yet for those who stay long enough, the image begins to clear.  We begin to see ourselves as we were meant to be – a part of creation, a part of the very place we stand, a part of the very place we fear.

I sit at the edge of Kluane Lake for seven days, waiting, emotions ranging the entire spectrum from sheer exhilaration, to uncertainty, to plain fear.  Do I have what it takes to face the cold, the isolation, and the possibility of staying prone in a tent for days on end waiting for storm to pass?  Do I have what it takes to maintain team morale knowing that I will be connected to each team member by one rope for 23 days?  Talk about connection.  I will be off the rope only when I’m in my tent.

I wake each morning waiting for the sound of a small aircraft which will whisk our climbing team to the base of Canada’s biggest mount, one of the most isolated mountains on earth.  In the end the weather wins. We lose our window of opportunity, the climb is aborted.  Relief?  Frustration?  The flight home is filled with wondering, questions left unanswered.  What do I take from a place such as this, a place which to most people seems entirely inhospitable?  What do I take from this experience?  I know that I have faced my inner self in a way never before experienced.  Is this why I came?  I keep being drawn to places of wilderness.  For all its harshness, for it’s  unforgiving character, it still remains a place of profound beauty, a place of healing, a place for rediscovery of our soul, a place of rediscovery of our self as it is meant to be.

There must be more though.  The experience left for my own inner self certainly is valuable, but how will this experience benefit others?  It can’t be only for myself.  If I am moving toward connection and integration, then my experience must be shared with others, as their experience must be shared with myself.  In this way we move toward understanding.  Each of us carries a legacy of experience, reaction, action, choices, failures and successes. To live life as it is meant to be lived, we need to keep moving toward dialogue both our inner dialogue as well as our collective shared experience.  We need to nurture the skill of being attentive.  Attentive to our inner self and the world around us.

The wilderness provides a natural venue for this to occur.  It calls to us, it calls us out of our places of comfort.  It asks everything, and in return will give everything for those willing to receive, willing to listen.  And so I returned to my life in the urban environment, changed, cleared vision.  I will meet my students in two day’s. They have been part of the pre-trip preparation, and I look forward to sharing the experience with them. Lessons from Kluane Lake. Lessons for life!

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