One can hardly visit a Whistler coffee shop without eavesdropping on some uber-athlete’s tale of epic proportion. Up and down the Sea to Sky corridor, whether people traverse treacherous new backcountry ski routes, slackline across an 1,000-foot abyss, or forge new mountain bike lines that look more like cliffs than trails, there is always someone out there who is far more visionary, strong, and bold. But what is left for those of us who hear accounts of these grand outdoor adventures and think, That sounds incredible — except for all that pain and suffering?
This describes my relationship to extreme sport. I’m drawn to a notable number of people who have accomplished astounding physical feats. But I admire them only vicariously. An ex-boyfriend of mine once canoed across Canada. Or, I should say, he dragged a 40-pound shell of fiberglass across our nation’s swamps and forests, in between the occasional paddle. There’s a name for this type of activity, coined by the climbing community: Type 2 fun.
“Miserable while it’s happening, but fun in retrospect,” particularly once you later regale people with the stories of your struggle, describes U.S.-based outdoor retailer, Recreational Equipment, Inc. “It usually begins with the best intentions, and then things get carried away. Conversely, Type 1 fun is enjoyable while it’s happening. Also known as, simply, fun.”
Most of us would never even consider attempting as punishing an effort as my ex-boyfriend’s cross-country paddle. Yet the desire to push our personal limits is universal. “Human beings have an inherent drive for self-improvement and growth,” concluded renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow, along with many other scientists who’ve studied motivation.
Perhaps it was this intrinsic drive that brought me to the top of North Vancouver’s Grouse Mountain on a perfectly sunny bluebird day last July, my belly full of well-earned fries and beer, with far more smiles than sweat to show for the almost 10,000 feet of elevation I had gained since breakfast. Grouse was the last of three summits — including Blackcomb Mountain and the Sea to Sky Gondola — I completed that day, along with my partner Geoff Cross and our friend Craig Cameron.
Averse to both competing and risk, I had only once ever participated in a running race before pursuing this epic triple hike I had been scheming for years. In 2011, I completed the Vancouver Half Marathon, driven by the singular goal to finish without pain. Luckily, thanks to disciplined training with a friend, I succeeded.
Yet my subsequent effort to run and hike the 52-kilometre Baden Powell trail solo in a day did not end so well. The shin splints and three weeks of crutches I endured as a result left me cursing myself for such self-inflicted injuries. It’s no wonder the route is referred to as the Knee Knacker. This having fallen squarely into the category of Type 2 Fun, my original intentions were certainly pure enough. With a deep passion for the mountains, I had simply wished to get to know the peaks that make up the canvas of my beautiful city more intimately. However, after that debacle, I knew there must be a way to do it that felt more like Type 1 fun. The strategic combination of factors that made up our so-called “Three to Sky Hike” proved to be just the challenge I was looking for.
All wordplay lovers, Geoff, Craig and I spent months coming up with the name for our epic trek. KneeSaver, TriplePeak, and 3G (for the three gondolas we rode on) were early cuts. But when Craig came up with Three to Sky, we were sold.
Blazing a trail
Since completing this goal, I’ve spoken with several local athletes — from extreme adventurers to race directors — about what drives them. I’ve learned that, at the heart of most newly designed hiking routes, is a similar origin story. Living amidst the grandiose backdrop that B.C. is blessed with, there is a natural pull to know the lay of this land more closely.
“Adventure and challenge is all around us,” says champion adventure racer Jen Segger.
An endurance athlete, ultra-runner, mountain biker, and paddler with podium finishes in over 20 countries, Segger’s achievements are far too many to mention. Having lived in Squamish for years, the classic Stawamus Chief hike was her regular training run. So, given her inclination towards what many would consider extreme pursuits, she naturally wondered how many times she could repeat the feat in a day. The answer? Seventeen — roughly equivalent to the same elevation gain as an Everest ascent! With her personal goal, Segger set out to raise $5,000 for a local non-profit, Girl in the Wild, and easily tripled her original target.
Though an avid racer, Segger often sets personal adventure goals for herself, too. In 2018, she created the Vancouver Island Quest, connecting many of the island’s iconic trails and logging roads to bike 750 kilometres from its northern to southern tip. She did it alone, in only four days.
My husband Geoff is his own sort of crazy ultra-athlete. I have spent an inordinate amount of time looking at his backside while I’ve tried to keep up on bike, foot or board. (Fortunately, the view is pretty great.) Despite his preternaturally high endurance skills, he has raced very little as an adult, preferring self-driven endeavours. An early adopter of the exercise tracking app, Strava, he is actually so competitive, he recognized that focusing on the quantitative stats would compromise the joy he could experience while adventuring — so he ditched it. He needs nothing more than his own optimistic ambition to motivate his many lengthy outdoor activities. “Thatsdoable” begins the email address he has had for a quarter century — a nickname that came from several friends he’s either encouraged to mountain bike some insurmountable route with 14 km of elevation gain, roped into a four-day, 130-km paddleboard trip along the Sunshine Coast, or asked to join a “casual” run across the entire Howe Sound Crest Trail, which he completed on his last birthday.
Birthday celebrations for me are quite different from this, as is my idea of adventure. They usually involve sunshine, balloons, long breaks, and plenty of refreshments. But they have their own type of ambition. For one birthday, I arranged a 25-km urban cruiser ride with friends to try five different dumpling houses around Vancouver. For another, we shuttled bikes and cars to arrange a Vancouver downwinder on paddleboards, from Jericho Beach to Olympic Village, ending with hazy IPAs at Tap & Barrel.
A hedonist at heart, drawn to sensory pleasures of all sorts, I wanted to ensure that our Three to Sky hike echoed this same fun-to-effort ratio. Something a bit different from the recent Facebook post of another uber-adventurous friend showing him on a Baffin Island ski tour, grinning ear to ear with his front tooth conspicuously absent, having chipped it during breakfast because the -50 C weather had made it so brittle! He’s clearly far heartier than I.
Leg 1: Blackcomb Ascent
We began our Blackcomb ascent on a balmy, 18-degree morning, around 7 a.m., with no one around but the three of us and an adorable bear cub. We’d deliberately scheduled our hike close to the longest day of the year to enable a leisurely pace, and for the likely warm, dry weather. I requested to lead since I expected to be the slowest — another conscious choice I made so I could listen more to my own body. My biggest concern was the left hip pain that had been an unfortunate legacy of my Baden Powell run. But a little pre-hike stretching and a pair of excellent new shoes had me bounding past 600-year-old cedars and even older Douglas Firs with ease. This underutilized trail boasts some of Whistler’s most pristine old growth, with interpretive didactics along the way that we were gratefully relaxed enough to read. Several corny jokes, 117 minutes, 1,200 m and 6.5 km later, the Little Burn, Big Burn, and Heart Burn segments of our first peak were behind us far more quickly than expected. And this initial achievement was all the easier to savour knowing the wisely-planned gondola descent ahead would save my knees for the next two summits. So, as I took time to revel in the pristine glacier views, and deeply inhaled the mountain air, I felt my body tingle with bliss. Much like I’ve experienced so many times in my 30-year career as a performing flutist, I had reached that coveted flow state, which psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains only occurs when “one is stretched to their limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
Of course, while I’m certainly a joy seeker, I am also no stranger to hard work. Like so many people striving towards excellence at anything, I was practising five hours per day by the time I was 14. I’d reached my 10,000 hours by the time I was old enough to vote. I am incredibly grateful this single-minded determination brought me to Carnegie Hall and concert halls on five continents. It led to life-long friendships and allowed me to collaborate with world-class artists who inspired me to be better every day. But, like many extreme athletes, the intensity of my training and performance schedule eventually led to chronic overuse injuries, resulting in a major career pivot in my late 40’s. It has now become paramount that I pursue activities that do not harm my body — professionally and recreationally.
Leg 2: Sea to Sky Gondola
Enjoying a weekday, traffic-free drive south, we coasted into the Sea to Sky Gondola parking lot before noon, well ahead of schedule. After the loamy switchbacks of Blackcomb, this leg was sure to be the most difficult, but we welcomed the change of pace. The steep, gnarly terrain and loose rocks along the evac route provide a technical but fun challenge. No gear is required. But a few planted ropes and convenient root handholds were much needed. With wonky shoulders, knee and hip injuries to manage between the three of us (I may have failed to mention our collective age is north of 150), we had some concerns. However, we were confident that climbing would be far less impactful than the descent we would once again be able to avoid. Fortunately, as intended, we all summitted pain-free, though after talking to Segger, I now know how to better navigate any discomfort that might arise in the future.
Segger is driven by a thirst to see the world, explore her own physical limits and have fun, yet no doubt there is still plenty of suffering along the way. In 2005, she finished 10th in the Marathon de Sables, a six-day, 251-km run across the Sahara Desert, in mostly 30-plus C weather—a feat most would consider a slog. But she has managed to take on such challenges quite creatively. For every blistered foot or throbbing hip, she mentally stores this sensation in her imaginary “pain box,” telling herself she cannot access the key until the race is done—testimony to her fierce mental fortitude.
So far, our Type 1 adventure had required no such grit. Two-thirds of the way towards completing our goal, we soaked in miles of crystal-clear views from the spacious patio of the Sea to Sky Summit Lodge’s Sky Pilot Eatery, feeling so leisurely that we even indulged in a mid-hike beer. Our faster-than-intended ascents left us downright giddy as we drove towards our final leg, optimistic that not only we, but many average outdoor enthusiasts would eventually be able to follow in our footsteps. Amongst mountain lovers, we are far from alone in wishing to design new accessible routes that may inspire others to do the same.
“I’m in the business of designing people’s finish lines,” Dean Payne says of his 27-year race directing career.
The founder of several successful events across the region, including the Sea to Summit, Five Peaks Adventures trail-running series, and the BC Bike Race, Payne has, in these last years, reflected on his own motivations, particularly as his livelihood was threatened during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the races he’s started have entailed hundreds of kilometres of difficult bike, foot or kayak travel, he emphasizes he has “never been interested in creating humiliating experiences.”
Payne’s good friend, Marc Campbell, who has started several of his own sporting events, like the Yeti Snowshoe Series, also works with Dean on the BC Bike Race and shares his value of accessibility as a key factor driving how he designs courses for all body types. When I speak to Campbell, he tears up relaying stories of grateful racers, like the one who shared how training for one of his events led to them losing 70 pounds, or another who raced in honour of a loved one who had been passionate about the backcountry. He says he started the Yeti “to put on something that was literally for everybody. We had Olympic athletes competing and people walking the 5k at the same time.”
What was clear from our conversation is the empathy he has for the racers. “I have been that super-green person who has never done the sport. I have been overweight doing a sport I love. I have been super fit and a competitor,” he says.
Consistent in the philosophies of all the athletes I interviewed is a belief that “the body is trainable,” as Segger puts it. With dedication, determination, and persistence, they all feel that anyone can succeed in the pursuit of great physical achievements, as long as they instinctively listen to their needs, set realistic goals, and start the process. “The wilderness is everyone’s. Make it your own,” Campbell says.
Leg 3: The BCMC Trail
We arrive at the Grouse Grind trailhead and quickly veer right onto the much-less travelled, though slightly longer BCMC Trail to avoid the throngs of people that hike the famed route daily. Our early morning Blackcomb start, the Squamish evac route, and this final alternative were all strategic choices that allowed us nearly complete solitude for all three hikes, rarely found in mountains so close to urban areas. I’ll admit, I still revel in one annual Grind attempt — nowhere close to the 29-minute record held by the fastest woman — but very satisfied just to finish in less time than my age. The BCMC took a bit longer. Sixty-seven is still a few years away for me, but it felt amazing when that summit came into view. One amongst us was, however, not content until he completed the “Cherry on Top” leg, up the backcountry access road that extends from the gondola to the top of the Peak Chair. He shall remain unnamed. But this extra effort rounded his achievement to a solid 10,000 feet of elevation gain, next to our paltry 9,567.
Either way, we were all elated to have made our vision a reality and had proved this to be the perfect accessible epic that can be done in a single day. The only thing that might make it even sweeter is the idea that we might be planting seeds of possibility for others. So, what do you say? Might you try the Three to Sky this summer? Or do you have your own new route you wish to forge?