Clara Hughes is an amazing Canadian cyclist and speedskater who has won multiple Olympic medals in addition to many other athletic achievements. She also happens to be an amazing person, and her list of personal accomplishments and commitment to programs such as Right to Play (an international humanitarian organization that uses sport to improve health, develop life skills, and foster peace for children and communities in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the world) is just as long as her list of athletic titles. We are very proud to call her a lululemon elite ambassador.
In preparation for the upcoming World Cup Speed Skating season, Clara completed a 19-day hike in the mountains of California for altitude training where she and her husband hiked to heights of 14,200 feet and camped in windy conditions with the temperature hitting -17 degrees celcius at times. Why would someone put themselves through something like this, you ask? Read on to find out, in Clara's own words:
A friend of mine recently suggested I take up golf. It was after an email I had sent, letting him know I had to come out of the mountains in order to pick up an ice axe, crampons and snow shoes. Why all this gear? My husband Peter and I were attempting to complete a desert mountain traverse that few, if any, have completed. When I think back to day number two of the 19-day hike, as Peter and I huddled beside a fallen tree in futile attempt to get out of the raging wind and -17c temperature to eat our dinner, I think that maybe that friend is right. We crouched down on a nameless ridge up at 10,800 feet wondering just where was the warmth we had traveled so far from Quebec to enjoy. There were many days on this trip that left me questioning my rational for such endeavors.
The place I'm talking about is a little known, little hiked, mountain range in California. First with the Inyo and then the White Mountains, it's a desert range that runs about 200 kilometers as the crow flies. It begins at an abandoned mining camp called Cerro Gordo on a rough dirt road that branches off the highway to Death Valley. The elevation along our route along the range never dropped below 7,000 feet and reached peaks up to 14,200 feet. Because it's the desert there was no water water to be found, save for a few springs. But we didn't see any of those. Our sole source of drinking water was snow, melted over an open fire or the cook stove. Though purified or boiled, it was still at times dirty, smokey and hard to swallow. It's amazing what you drink when you're thirsty.
This 'trip' was my idea of altitude training. No team, no guide, no group- just me and Peter out there to fend for ourselves against the elements. It's a situation I crave compared to my normal existence as an athlete. It's organic and it's real. There's something about being self-contained and the challenge this situation entails that thrills me. When I think back to two years ago when the National Team funded the purchase and installment of an altitude room at my training location in Calgary, Alberta, it makes me laugh. I lasted approximately two hours in that set-up. I woke up, gasping for air, from a nightmare that had Darth Vader (the ultimate Star Wars villain) haunting my room. The sound of the generators made me crazy. I have made many sacrifices for sport, but some are just too much for me. Thus, this idea to live and train high that our team physiologist suggested that I decided to take to my own extreme.
While packing for the trip we prepared for mild to cool weather. In fact, we could see the range from our friend's home in the town of Bishop as we planned and packed. It took two days and we spent much of the time looking up at the massive range spread before us, wondering how much snow waited for us up there, or if we'd run out of snow pack to melt.
With eight days of food we set off for the first leg of the traverse, and I now know what it's like to weigh 220 pounds. Those first few steps with the burden of gear and supplies on my back made me feel like a pack mule. It was up to us to make sure the carefully measured and planned contents of the backpack would get us to a food cache we stashed about 100 kilometers ahead in the pinyon forest on a 4 wheel drive road a few miles below the mountain crest. We would be taking a layover day at the cache so I packed a few treats in – beer, chips, salsa, cookies – along with a 5 gallon container of water.
The first day was hard and it remained hard for the rest of the trip. There were no trails but at times we could follow along an abandoned mining road. The rest of the hike was navigating with topographic maps while trying to find the best route through the mountainous terrain choked with sage bushes and little-leaf mahogany trees, enormous boulder fields that formed ridges up peaks and at times, some very sketchy snow fields on the steep northeastern slopes off the highest peaks.
My husband and I don't really care to sleep in tents. Instead, we prefer sleeping out under the stars, bringing along a lightweight tarp for shelter in case it happens to snow. For some some reason, this trip we brought a small tent made for one person but big enough for two, 'just in case'. The weather is always unpredictable in the Spring and it happened that instead of sleeping out, which we did on only two nights, we found ourselves taking shelter from the raging winds that made camping out in temperatures averaging from -3 to -17 a little more than I bargained for. We'd finish a grueling day of walking, navigating, climbing and/or tearing through unforgiving desert brush and set up that tent, working as a team so that the paper thin shelter did not blow away with the relentless winds.
From 6pm on everyday, we'd cram into the space that offered minimal protection but at least conserved some of the warmth our tired bodies gave off. Into the cocoons of our sleeping bags we'd go, Peter beginning the 3-hour process of melting the snow we'd hack away from hardened packs with our ice-axes, first for tea, then dinner and ultimately enough for two quarts of water each to get us through the next day. It was excruciating to squeeze into that tent every night, not being able to stretch and barely able to shift positions because of the space allowed and the amount of clothing we wore in our sleeping bags. Muscles ached and stiffened, and I thought many times of the amount of stretching I do before, during and after training. This was the antithesis of my life as an athlete and exactly where I wanted to be.
We slept little because all camps were above 9,000 feet, the highest at 13,400 feet. Such thin air makes sleep restless, and when combined with the roaring wind tearing away at the tent, it was as if we slept within a battle field in full tilt. That same wind raged day after day, with gusts blowing so hard we would sway back and forth in unison. We wore toques and neck gators, pulled high, while pulling the hoods of our wind jackets over our heads.
Native Americans used this entire area for hunting which was evident by the continual pieces of arrowheads found along the way. They ranged from tiny ones that, I assume, were used for birds, to points discovered above 13,000 as we walked mile after mile. Here, there were many signs of Bighorn Sheep, with droppings and resting spots found in the highest reaches of the White Mountains.
With so many challenging, beautiful moments during the journey, it's difficult to pick just one that stands out from the rest. But if I had to choose, it would be the penultimate day, a thirteen hour effort. We slept at 12,500ft the previous night, and our little tent bore the brunt of the strongest winds yet, threatening to snap its poles. With filthy hiking boots wrapped in plastic bag in the foot of my bag to keep them from freezing yet again, we rose at first light and brewed coffee, remaining in our down bags. The rising sun added some warmth inside the tent, but outside, in the wind, it was bitterly cold. We forced ourselves to get an early start.
All day we walked methodically, rarely getting to sit for more than the quickest of rests as we'd get too chilled otherwise, nibbling on trail mix and candies for fuel. We climbed even higher on the plateau to 13,000 then dropped two thousand feet at a placed called the 'jump off' to the point where we would begin climbing Mt. Montgomery, the most technical climb on the range. Its steep ridges were draped in snow. As I looked up from the saddle below, knowing we had long passed the point of no return, I gasped at the intimidating grandeur. The closer we looked, the route became evident. Without snow, it would have been a technical scramble, but this was late spring, so away went the hiking poles and out came the ice axes. It didn't look easy, but at least it looked like we would be able to climb along its ridge if we were careful and methodical. We'd step onto steep snow fields and work our way from one rocky outcrop to another. Just when I thought we'd reach the last rocky ridge and the summit, there'd be another one to get around. Back onto another snow field and steep drop-off below to another outcrop. On and on it went.
Now, let me be clear and say that this wasn't necessarily supposed to be an adventure hike so much as merely a solid base of high altitude exercise forming the foundation for the upcoming skating season. So when I found myself on those terrifyingly steep slopes, mirroring Peter's kicks into the snow and placements of the ice axe, I have to admit I questioned the situation. Thoughts like 'what the hell am I doing up here with the Olympics in nine months!' turned into 'who cares about the Olympics I just want to get off this ridge alive!' and I learned, as I have many times before, what is really important.
I also realized just how much my years as an athlete have given me. Outside of the experiences, the victories, the moments I will never forget, they have given me a resilience that I believe stronger than ever can and will get me through any situation I find myself in in life. I learned how to use that ice axe and use it well, up on those ridges, because I am an athlete. I kept the intense focus hour after hour, feeling I could go on for days if I had to, because I am an athlete. I kept calm and rational even in those moments of intense fear, because I am an athlete. I followed and mimicked someone more skilled than me efficiently and confidently, because I am an athlete.
I can't imagine a better place or experience to prepare me for the stress, the unknown and the thrills of the journey ahead. Because I survived the 250 kilometer traverse and survived it well, I can't wait to see what the next nine months throw at me. Watch out, Tiger Woods!