Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Asthma, Mountains, Hiking, and Friends

I hardly exercise or jog/run more than a block (i.e. from one road intersection to another) here in Metro Vancouver. The main reason being physical exertion in the cold and dry Canadian air quite quickly triggers heavy panting in me, given my asthmatic history.

Once I ran just over a block along a pavement and paused panting profusely while waiting for the traffic light to change. A stranger nearby -- I think he was in nursing scrubs, the Vancouver General Hospital is in the vicinity -- stared with concern at me as I half-bent (hands on my knees) panting away. The lights changed, but I was still panting, so I looked up, gave him my best "I'm ok" wide grin and waved him on.

So it is a miracle how my friends managed to get me up mountains and back down safely, twice.


One evening towards the end of last summer (Sep-2011), my friend AA called me asking if I would like to join his group (AA, his girlfriend EM and another France-French friend) for a hike the next day. In my mind, I visualized a slow and lazy walk though the woods, much like the MacRitchie jogging track in Singapore. I said, "Yes!" readily and looked forward to a stroll in the park, without asking them where we're headed.

We met up at a Skytrain station just before 7am and drove northwards from Vancouver up West Vancouver to Stawamus Chef. According to B.C. Parks, the First Peak is a "1.5-kilometre trail with an elevation gain of 540 metres" and the Shannon Falls is a "1.5-kilometre hike from the Stawamus Parking Lot." [Note: I didn't know any of this beforehand.]

Many steep flights of stairs, 
from carpark to "Starting Point"
[Photo courtesy of my friend AA]

Just climbing half-way up the many flights of stairs to the "Starting Point" of the hike had me panting non-stop. When we got to the starting point, I thought that we have already reached the peak! When my friends told me that we have only reached the starting point, I honestly told them that I doubt I could make it any higher up. Recognizing my limitations, my friends became my sherpas (carried my bag and pointed out the path), coach (advised how to cross obstacles and cheered me on) and buddies (lifting me here and there). At a nice viewpoint, we took our first break. Thereafter, we pushed on to the First Peak. After surmounting various mossy climbs, bridges, several ladders, ropes and chains, and finally bare rock, we reached the peak. What a view greeted us!

Photo taken by me of my friends,
as they descend the rocky peak.

When we descended to the "Starting Point" at around 2pm, I was pretty happy to achieve what I thought was "mission impossible" for me. Then my friends suggested that we go up the Shannon Falls as well since we have time. I was like, "Err, you guys go ahead, I don't think I can make it."

Once again, my friends convinced me to push on and supported me all the way. Another awesome view, wrapping up an awesome hike. By the time we climbed down the flights of stairs from the "Starting Point" to the carpark, my legs felt like they did not belong to me and could drop-off anytime.

When I reached home, I thanked my friends in my heart as I thought, "Well, that was a really nice once in a lifetime experience!"


When we gathered for a picnic to celebrate Canada Day about fortnight ago (on Monday), my friends started chatting about hiking again. This time it was PN (a Singaporean), ZS (from PRC), AA (France-French) and his girlfriend EM (France-French) who were all keen on it. GX (a city folk PRC) and myself declined joining. I told them that while I love the views, I was not as fit as I looked, jokingly cited the miracle that AA, EM and their friend had achieved last summer.

PN, ZS, AA and EM were not about to let their good friend (yours truly) miss out on the beauty of nature for a lack of physical fitness. They coaxed me to join them, citing that it wouldn't be as tough as the Stawamus Chief climb. They assured me that if I cannot make it, they would carry me down themselves. So I was once again roped in for the "next hike".

ZS was quick to follow-up, emailing us on the following Thursday about his plans to hike up Cypress Mountain (Hollyburn hiking trail) the next day. Unfortunately, PN could not knock-off from work in time to join us, so it was ZS, AA, EM and me.

We arrived at the parking lot of Cypress Mountain just after 3:30pm. This time around, I passed the snack I prepared to EM and left all the rest my things in my friend's car boot as I knew that I could barely lift myself up the mountain, forget about carrying any weight. We started up the wide gravelly path (which would turn into ski slopes in winter) and we soon met with snow on our path. What we had not taken into account was that the spring/summer climate arrived late this year and the trail was still snow packed. None of us had snow boots on. In fact, I had my nylon/canvas/rubber Singapore sneakers on -- thinking that it would give me better grip of the "mossy grounds"!

Fortunately, ZS, AA and EM were experienced hikers in good physical fitness and they patiently guided me up the snowy slopes. ZS lent me both his hiking sticks which were really useful in stabilizing my base with each step up. Occasionally, AA (the recce) would borrow one of the hiking sticks to test the depth of the snow ahead. That was important as there were areas where the snow was thin and we would fall into a hole/water if we mis-stepped. Interestingly, despite the snow beneath us, the air was no colder than an air-conditioned room in Singapore -- perhaps because of the sun in the clear blue sky shining down on us. We had a break on an outcrop with a nice view of Vancouver downtown in the distance. Then we pushed on up.

At around 5:30pm, I noted the time to everyone as we had planned to return to the starting point at around 7:30pm. That is, we have already spent half our allocated time. The snow was thicker as we went further up. In fact, at some places, the snow was so thick that we were at the heights of tree-tops and walking on tree branches covered in thick snow. EM was worried if we would be able to climb down safely in time (before nightfall), so we decided to forgo the peak.

We began our descent at around 5:40pm. Along the way on a (safe) wide plain, we had fun turning a raincoat into a makeshift toboggan and took turns "sliding" down. [Note: It wasn't steep enough to slide, so someone had to pull the toboggan and its passenger down.] True to his words, ZS offered to piggyback me when I was lagging behind on the descent. Since the Hollyburn trail was not as steep as Stawamus, I pushed on to make the descent myself. When we reached near the "Starting Point", we took out our food and shared a lovely picnic dinner. We returned to the car-park at around 8pm just as the sun was beginning to set.

Me, carefully making each step up the snowy mountain.
[Photo courtesy of my friend EM]

Another "first" for me -- a climb up a snowy mountain. In a straw hat, long-sleeved cotton T-shirt, cotton cloth scarf, jeans and sneakers! Another "mission impossible" accomplished! Another miracle!


More than the blessings of 2 miraculous "mission impossible" mountain climbs, I count myself very blessed to have a group of close, supportive and reliable friends in Canada. In my heart, I keep repeating, "Thank you, my friends, thank you!"


  1. I was on my own for 16 years before I got married i.e. no family or relatives locally. Many friendships were made during our orientation at the university hostels. These friends would always offer help without being asked. The best way to maintain that friendship is to reciprocate their help whenever they needed any. We still remain the best of friends now.

    The one fear I had was falling sick, not the normal coughs and cold but major ones where you are incapacitated. Thankfully, I have never been in such situations so far.

    Start doing some exercise. Low impact ones are the best if you are not the sporty type, such as yoga or taichi. These require only minimum space and can be done almost anywhere. You will appreciate it when you are older and it is better to start when you are younger. Most of us take our health for granted.


  2. Hi FFT,

    Thanks for your comment and sharing.

    I had the "blessing" of being hospitalized for pneumonia in Singapore back in 2009. I am at that age where health issues starts to creep in, so I don't take my health for granted -- which also one of the contributing factors of why I choose to live in Canada (Universal Healthcare) over Singapore.

    Sorry, if I gave you the wrong impression that I'm a couch potato. By "hardly exercise" I mean that I hardly "sweat it out". Nevertheless, I remain physically active. E.g. My previous part-time job at a store requires me to go up-and-down ladders to re-stock the store shelves, I often stroll about in Metro Vancouver (walking the distance of several Sky Train stations), and I sometimes swim and do yoga headstands.

    The main thing is that I don't like feeling hot and sweaty, even when I was in Singapore. Add to that the risk of the cold, dry Canadian air triggering an asthma is no joke. So while I accept the occasional mountain climbing as a "mind-over-matter" challenge, I certainly recognize my physical limits (especially potential asthma attacks) and avoid over-exerting myself.

    Cheers, WD.