The sunset is mostly obscured by clouds, so darkness sets in gently. With just the faintest glimmer of light left and a light snowfall beginning, I strap my snowboard to my backpack and snowshoes onto my feet. The summit’s up there in the clouds somewhere. I start climbing towards it. The sound of music blasting from below—at Everest Base Camp—chases me up the hill as I head into the darkness. It’s beautiful, strange, exhilarating. Wait a second… Everest Base Camp? Are we in Northern BC or the Himalayas?
Every year, the ski hill in Smithers, BC, Hudson Bay Mountain, is the site of an extraordinary 24-hour event: the Extreme Everest Challenge. Entrants skin up and ski down the mountain 18 times, to achieve the equivalent elevation of the world’s tallest mountain. That’s 8848 metres, or 29,029 feet. In other words, it’s a whole lot of “up”. You can do it solo (but you have to be a little bit crazy) or as part of a relay team. Profits earned through registration go to the Live It! Love It! Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to promoting “adaptive adventure” for disabled athletes. That’s not a random choice. The Smithers event was inspired by Dr. Rod Leighton. Leighton was the first to complete 18 self-propelled laps—up and down—when the event was still chairlift-assisted. A few months after he quietly accomplished this feat of endurance, Leighton was involved in a mountain bike accident that left him paralysed. He was told he’d never walk again.
Three years later, I’m steadily slogging upwards in the dark, accompanied by my girlfriend and surrounded by friends and friendly strangers. I’m not out here to take on 18 laps; one is enough for me this year. I get to stay up all night at Base Camp playing tunes with Smithers Community Radio for all the athletes. Plus, just taking part like this is an amazing experience. The camaraderie out here on the mountain is incredible and the setting unreal. The clouds have lifted for now, and the yellow lights of Smithers glow far below us in the snowy darkness. An occasional headlamp whooshes by in the darkness, briefly illuminating a skier on their way back down. Someone produces a flask and we warm our bellies.
After a solid push up the steep slopes, we arrive at the summit’s warming hut sometime around 9 pm. The warmth of a wood fire greets us as we head into the hut for a drink of water and a quick gear change. People are everywhere in the semi-darkness, busy making adjustments, changing clothing, or just talking, laughing, and joking. And in the corner, getting his gear ready for the ski back down, sits a Smithers legend: Dr. Rod Leighton. For the first time since his crash, Leighton has made it back to the top of mountain. Refusing to be told “you can’t do it”, he’s fought against the immobility of his spinal-cord injury. And today, he came out here and gave it everything he’s got—which happens to be a hell of a lot. Like everyone else at this event, I’m awed and humbled by this guy. And like everyone else, I’m inspired.
As I head back down the mountain, I can’t stop thinking about Rod and his accomplishment. I emerge from the darkness back into the lights and sounds of Base Camp, and I already know that I’ll be back next year. One lap is not enough. Maybe next year, I’ll do two. And the year after that…who knows?