In just one week our feet spanned over 500 million years of earth’s history. We climbed over ancient tropical sea floors, touched volcanic coastlines, and stood on 1.2 billion-year-old-blocks of granite. The mystery of this out-of-time place – with its ice-fluted faces, uncharted grounds, and wilderness spread out across the horizon like nothing we had seen before – took our breath away as we stood high in the clouds on its landmark.
“It’s going to be a hell of a trip,” I told Terry, who was only half listening to my detailed plans about camping for the first time together in the wilderness of Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site located on the west coast of Newfoundland (pronounced as ‘New-finland’ by the locals).
Named after Newfoundland’s second highest peak The Cabox, Gros Morne towers across the park at 2,648 feet and is connected to the Long Range Mountains that are a continuation of the Appalachian chain. Locals call it the big lone mountain, but despite the name this peak has become a driving force for tourism after the fishing industry that was once the bread and butter in this most easterly Canadian province, went from boom to bust. Many tourists flock to this park just to stand in awe on the summit, if they make it that far.
Terry and I start our journey at Trout River Campground, which overlooks the Tablelands that are comprised of a rusty-barren landscape resembling Mars. From our campsite we can see the stretch of barren landscape merge with lush green vegetation and a silver ribbon of water called Trout River.
This landscape tells the incredible story of Earth’s transformation. Here glaciation has laid out earth’s skeleton, helping geologists understand plate tectonics and the collision of two continents. The rocks are considered the best example of exposed mantle material in the world and from our vantage point it’s easy to see why.
In the evening, the landscape stretched before us is bathed in gold. The stillness and quiet is so thick that we can almost touch it and we whisper as if in an alien land. Terry and I clamour to the edge of the cliff and soak in the scene below as it sparks and glistens under the rays of the sun before darkness envelopes the land and stars begin to pepper the sky. We then crawl into the tent and fall asleep. To be alone in the wilderness, away from technology and the noise of society, is to be close to the heart of everything.
In the morning we are awoken by the squawking of low-flying gulls and the clicking of an ambush of pesky small black flies and mosquitoes. We hurriedly get dressed, spray ourselves with ‘Deet’ while trying not to inhale the chemical smell to keep the insects away, and set off through the woods. There are over 100 kilometres of trails in this park, where Arctic hare, moose, and caribou occasionally make an appearance, but today we are climbing the landmark of the park that is Gros Morne Mountain.
It’s a sticky summer day as we move through the Arctic-alpine environment. The air is warm to breathe and I feel beads of sweat drip down my forehead and stream through my shirt as we hike along the rocky trail while occasionally sinking boots into thick mud.
The James Callaghan Trail (named after the former British Prime Minister in 1976 in recognition of his conservation efforts) is four-kilometres to the base of Gros Morne, but on this day it feels so much longer while climbing the elevation of 320 metres through the swamps and dense wooded areas.
Terry reminds me to ration my two litres of water and that we still have a long way to go, so we take small breaks and sip cooling drops under the shelter of the branches of fir trees. Scattered in the meadows is the floral emblem of Newfoundland and Labrador. The insect-eating pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea L.) is bizarre and beautiful and I find it an ideal representation of the landscape we are in.
We enter a wide open space as the trail juts out to the base of the mountain and I can see a couple of dots slowly ascending to the summit. The dots in the distance will soon be us and there’s a part of me that wants to turnaround and head back to the campsite. I keep this thought to myself as a warning sign marks the start of the trail that ascends the mountain. The sign reminds climbers that they are responsible for “their own safety” and to “not proceed if the top of Gros Morne cannot be seen or if weather conditions are deteriorating.” But the weather seems fine, if a little windy, so we jaunt on.
I manage to traverse my way over the moving boulders and rocks’ scrambling on my hands and feet as the climb cuts upright. I can’t help but chuckle as I compare myself to the black (harmless) spiders that scurry under the rocks – I am spiderwoman!
“We’re almost at the top,” I call down to Terry, who looked exhausted and dehydrated while hugging a boulder as the wind breezed down from the summit. But as I twisted around the corner and looked up, I realized the mountain had tricked me. There were many more bends before reaching the top – a sharp reminder, in life, to keep putting one foot in front of the other no matter how hard it gets.
I combed the horizon for a minute as I rested and waited for him to catch up. Sprinkled below were valleys, ponds, and more summits coated in snow that we would explore later in the week. But for now time felt as if it was slowing down and I caught my breath in the freshness of the wind. I thought about all the climbers that had gone before throughout the years and gradually smoothed this rocky trail for us to climb. In life we stand on the hard work of those that have gone before, but are reminded of those that come after. I made sure I left no trace of litter while also treading lightly as the rocks moved under my feet.
Several more minutes pass before we reach the top. “Hurrah!” I wave triumphantly as a rush of fulfillment crashes over me. The wind is picking up and storm clouds are gathering so we don’t spend long admiring the 360 degree views of the impressive glacier-carved landscape: Ten Mile Pond and the deep fjord of Bonne Bay below. All the problems of the world below are forgotten in this glorious moment on the summit and we snap a few scenic pictures before making our descent. The path loops around Ferry Gulch and there are three back-country campsites that overlook a peaceful lake rippled only by a baby breath of wind.
By the time we reach a small fishing community we’ve hiked a total of 16.9 kilometres over a span of six hours. Parks Canada estimates the mountain is usually completed in seven to eight hours at a leisurely pace, so it’s no wonder my body is exhausted and tired but I am thankful to have conquered the big lone mountain.
Climbing is as much about perseverance as it is about triumph and I am continually drawn to the magnetic pull of mountains and the wilderness surrounding them. In the words of Sir Edmund Hillary, “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”