Oh Canada!

The mountains from downtown Banff (the town) in Banff (the Park) in Alberta, Canada
The mountains from downtown Banff (the town) in Banff (the Park) in Alberta, Canada

After crossing the border into Canada (see the previous post), we headed north past several small towns. Interestingly, many are much cleaner and more affluent in appearance then their counterparts just south of the border. I wonder if the Canadians think of this part of Canada as the “Deep South”? At any rate, we continued north towards Calgary. Jess commented that the roads were in fabulous shape. For the most part, she was totally correct. I wonder why?

Along the way, we had to pick up gas at the Gas Bar (an interesting Canadian fuel service center). The price was about $0.954 a liter (1 US gallon is about 3.8 liters) which comes to around $3.61 a gallon! I’m sure most of this is in additional taxes. In Canada, the fuel tax rate is province dependent just like it is state dependent in the US. According to Petro-Canada, Alberta currently charges $0.19 + 5% (GST) per liter of gas while Colorado, in comparison, charges around $0.404 per gallon (state and federal) + any applicable local taxes. Again, putting these into consistent units gives a ratio of $0.722 to $0.404 for the fixed taxes. That’s about 32 cents per gallon more in Canada than in the US and doesn’t include the 5% GST charge. While that may not seem like a lot, based on 2008 gasoline consumption in the US (137,800,488,000 gallons),  total state and federal taxes for 2008 should have totaled almost $55.7 billion. If Canadian consumption was equal to US consumption (of course it wasn’t) they’d have collected some $43.8 billion in federal and provincial taxes. Since the Canadian and US dollars are almost equal, I won’t bother with exchange rates, which muddy the discussion.

Road damage or wear is roughly proportional to use, and use is determined by miles driven and vehicle weight—both of which directly influence fuel consumption. The actual Canadian fuel consumption isn’t critical because consumption and wear are roughly proportional. All that matters is the effective tax rate per unit volume of transportation fuel. Based on these numbers, it’s clear that more funds are collected per mile driven than in the US. Assuming the bulk of these funds are earmarked for road construction/maintenance it makes sense that the roads should be in better shape. Just think what an extra 40 billion per year might due to improve federal roads in the US!

Back on the road to Banff, we encountered some rush-hour traffic around Calgary. For some reason it had not occurred to us that the map of Alberta in our big Rand McNally atlas of North America might not be sufficient. Our pathetic attempts to route around Calgary to the southwest instead put us right downtown at 17:00 (Canada-style time). We arrived in Banff with just enough time to drive up to the Mountain Culture Center for the first evening’s talks. On the agenda were climber Chris Sharma, conservationist Mike Fay, and the book awards.

Lake Louise from the trail to the Lake Agnes Teahouse in Banff (the park).
Lake Louise from the trail to the Lake Agnes Teahouse in Banff (the park).

Chris spoke first and discussed his life growing up in the climbing community and his two most recent accomplishments. The first was a new route on a beautiful arch near Mallorca, Spain, called Es Pontas (9b). It’s been called the most difficult deep-water solo in the world, and it’s likely the most beautiful as well. Next up was Sharma’s new route called Jumbo Love (5.15b) on Clark Mountain near the Nevada-California border. Both routes are currently unrepeated, and the latest success is documented in a new film by Peter Mortimer of Sender Films called First Ascent: The Impossible Climb. After Chris’s talk, they announced the book awards from the concurrent Book Festival. Several sounded quite good, including a nonfiction book about geology with climbers as the main audience. Flakes, Jugs, and Splitters by Sarah Garlick (Globe Pequot Press) might actually help me achieve my full Cliff Clavin potential. After Sharma’s talk and the book awards were announced we bailed, as we hadn’t had time to eat beforehand and Jess was getting especially hungry.

Friday morning was our only sight-seeing opportunity of the trip. We were scheduled to watch some more speakers and films that night, and with full days of films on Saturday and Sunday, we really had to make the most of this opening. We hopped back into the car and drove the hour or so from Banff (the town) to Lake Louise. The weather wasn’t spectacular from a picture-taking perspective. The skies were overcast and cloudy with intermittent light snowfall all day. The lake was also mostly frozen, but we did get a chance to see the spectacular blue water from the hike up to the Lake Agnes Teahouse. The teahouse was also closed for the season (remember the theme from the last post), but we did expect as much. Nevertheless, it was a nice hike of about 14 km (round trip) and fit perfectly into our schedule. We had a little fun on the ride home as the roads iced up after the sun set, but the speed limit in Banff (the park) is low enough that it didn’t make much of a difference. We got back just in time to get a little dinner before the night’s speaker.

Dave in front of the Lake Agnes Teahouse. I don't know why they weren't open. We made the hike in just over an hour despite the snow. Canadians are weak!
Dave in front of the Lake Agnes Teahouse. I don't know why they weren't open. We made the hike in just over an hour despite the snow. Canadians are weak!

At 7:30 we settled into our assigned seats and listened to Ueli Steck tell us about his unbelievable, record-setting speed ascents of the Eiger-, Grandes Jorasses-, and Matterhorn-Nordwand (North Face). Local hero Will Gadd introduced Ueli and told us a fun story about how he passed the mountain guide tests in Alberta without speaking English. Ueli started his talk by assuring us his English was much improved. He explained how he became inspired to try speed climbing on the Eiger in the first place, and ultimately the training regime he employed to pull off the summit in under 3 hours. He even told us about finding a British climber’s crampon on his first solo attempt. The climber eventually heard about Ueli’s ascent and e-mailed to thank him for the crampon. I guess having a few soloists around makes everyone safer!

Saturday we spent almost the entire day watching films. We misread the schedule and got out of bed a little late for the first film, but otherwise we made it to every screening, for a total of 9 different films. The films were all quite good and featured the film about Chris Sharma’s ascent of Jumbo Love, which someone in line described as better than Chris Sharma in person. I guess that’s about the best compliment a filmmaker could receive, and I kinda agree. There were a couple of films about Yellowstone. A spectacular feature about life in the park during winter and another short featured an interesting member of the previous film’s crew. He likes to swim the Yellowstone River, and the film documented both his unique pastime and the plight of the endangered Cutthroat Trout of Yellowstone. We also watched Solo, the heart-wrenching tale of Andrew McAuley’s attempt to become the first person to kayak across the ferocious Tasman Sea from Australian to New Zealand. It’s staggering what he persevered through on his 1600 km voyage only to die within sight of the coast of New Zealand.

The Saturday night speaker was ultra-marathoner Dean Karnazes. He’s recently published an experiential book about running 50 marathons in 50 days and he’s been on David Letterman. As you might expect, he’s got an awful lot of energy. Among other things, we learned what he eats while running. It includes just about anything he can get his hands on, including whole pizzas delivered to intersections at pre-arranged times by a very trusting San Francisco pizzeria. Dean explained that you order them un-cut, roll them up like a burrito, and gnaw away as you run. In a recent 200 mile relay that he ran solo, he monitored all of the calories he ate. After 72+ hours and thousands of calories, he still lost 4 pounds. He joked that an ultramarathon diet books was in the works. In all seriousness, he’s now planning to run a marathon in every officially recognized country in a single calendar year. Wikipedia lists 193 generally recognized states and 204 if you include de facto or de jure states. Either way, that’s a nearly 4 marathons a week for an entire year or a whopping 5057–5345 miles! I think even my co-worker Jim “Wildman” Fisher would call that crazy.

Sunday we settled in for another day of film watching. This time we got up early enough to not only see the day’s first film (A NOVA special called Extreme Ice that documented changes in global ice) but also get some of the comfy armchairs. Actually the Sunday morning session in the Max Bell Auditorium wasn’t as heavily attended as the Saturday sessions. Perhaps people were skiing or attending church. Either way, they missed some  excellent films. My favorite from the morning was footage of an elusive Snow Leopard and her “kitten” in Pakistan. The movie also featured probably 95+ percent of all of the extant footage of these animals in the wild. Also documented were some incredibly sure-footed mountain goats butting each other on improbably-steep slopes. Despite the crazy violence, the goats all managed to avoid toppling down the hillside as they vied for mating superiority. The leopard was no slouch on the slopes either. I know more than a few climbers that would be envious of how she moved across the rocks.

In total, we watched 21 films, listened to 3 different speakers, and enjoyed a simulcast on free soloing called “Party of One: Leaving the Rope at Home” with Peter Croft, Matt Maddaloni, Royal Robbins, Ueli Steck, and Peter Mortimer while eating lunch. We had a great time, despite all the driving, and we highly recommend attending the festival if you ever have the chance. As an alternative, you should at least plan to attend a local screening of the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour if it’s coming to your area. If you like either films or mountain culture, you’ll like what you see. I know we’ll be going to at least one of the showings in Boulder, because we didn’t see anything from the Radical Reels night and we need our mountain biking/whitewater kayaking/extreme snow sports/mountain unicycling/base jumping/rock climbing fix.

P.S. from Jess: On the way home, we stopped at my new favorite coffee shop in Bozeman for some dessert in lieu of dinner and WiFi. We got back into town at 5:45 a.m. and slept until 7:15 or so, before heading off to work. There’s no rule that says you have to be rested at the end of a great vacation!

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