Stairway to Heaven


Stairway to Heaven

Coming face to face with some deep aspect of your inner self is a mystical and transformational experience.

This is kind of hard to explain but let me try. You can take all the knowledge and experiences and connections and patterns embedded in your brain, and try to depict them as one or more pictures. Not literally, but figuratively or metaphorically. May be close you eyes and imagine such a picture. You may find this hard to imagine, as I did, until, one day, you come face to face with a scene and you say to yourself, “I’m sure there’s a part of me, deep inside me, that looks like this.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the story. Or rather a travelogue in this case.

I visited Banff in Canada for the first time in 2007. I was there for a reunion with a bunch of my closest friends. After the reunion was over and friends had departed, I decided to stay on for another day and visit some of the sights. I had heard that the Ice Fields Parkway was a great attraction, so I wanted to keep half a day for that.

(As a side note: The Ice Fields parkway tour is a highly avoidable attraction. They basically take you on top of a glacier in these humongous vehicles and then you get down and walk around on the glacier for a bit. The whole experience only makes you feel bad about what we are doing to the glacier – both, at the global level as well as in the immediate vicinity, since a large number of tourists walking around on a glacier leaves a big visible impact on it. I wouldn’t recommend this tour at all.)

Anyway, I didn’t know any of this at the time, so the tour was definitely on my agenda. But that meant I still had another half day to do something else as long as it was somewhere close to the tour. Some guidebook recommended a small hike called Parker RIdge. A very simple name, giving you no hint about what it’s all about. But since it was on my way to the ice fields and it fit the timeframe perfectly, I decided to go on it.

The hike starts in a small nondescript parking lot by the side of the road from Banff to Jasper. It’s a small hike, about 3 miles to and fro, with less than 1000 feet height gain. Consisting mostly of a bunch of switchbacks that are quite steep, but since the whole hike is short, any healthy person can make it relatively easily.

And of course the views along the way are simply breathtaking. The Canadian Rockies, particularly in the Banff national park, are just incredibly picturesque. We Washingtonians sometimes get really cocky about the amazing natural beauty that surrounds us in Washington State itself, but I would highly prescribe a visit to Banff to completely rid yourself of this cockiness. Banff is more beautiful, hands down, no contest. The incredibly jagged and huge snowcapped mountains, the beautiful lakes in colors ranging from milky blue to turquoise to azure and every beautiful shade in between, the vast glaciers, the flora and fauna, and so on are just out of this world.

They say that in ancient times, Canada was basically one giant ice cube. Then, as the ice melted and flowed, it carved out these really sharp, jagged mountains and valleys. They look unlike any other mountains you might have seen. As the glaciers melt, they form lakes and rivers and their water contains a lot of very fine sediment from the glacier. That sediment gives the water these incredibly beautiful colors. Again, unlike any other colors you may have seen elsewhere.

Anyway, as you climb up this ridge, trees start to thin out, and the views get better and better. In any other place, just those views would make for an amazing hike. But remember that this is Banff, a paradise on earth. You can absolutely expect even more, and it will deliver. You have absolutely no idea what’s waiting for you once you reach the top of the ridge and take in the heavenly vista on the other side of the ridge.

It is hard to describe the first glimpse of the Saskatchewan Glacier and the Columbia Ice Field. I had tears in my eyes. I almost ran to the edge of the cliff and just had to sit down, taking it all in. I could hear people coming up behind me and every single one gasped and said something like “Oh my god!” upon seeing the vista. It’s a really powerful experience.

What you have is the Columbia Ice Field, which, as the name suggests, is a huge (125 sq. miles!) field of pure white snow and ice at a very high altitude. It stretches out into 6 different glaciers. The Saskatchewan glacier is one of them. The entire glacier is visible from the ridge. At the bottom of the glacier is a sky blue lake which then feeds a small winding river. On the other side of the glacier valley is another ridge. There’s a thin but extremely tall waterfall that cascades down this ridge. The sound of this waterfall echoing through the valley, on top of the background of near silence with occasional wind gusts, is just so peaceful, so serene, so calming, it’s mystical.

Another unique feature of this ice field is that the water from here reaches not one, not two, but three different oceans – Pacific, Atlantic, and the Arctic Ocean! It is known as a triple continental divide. Try to wrap your head around that. This fact alone would make this a definite place of worship!

Now that I’m talking about worship and mystical experiences and so on, let me get back to the narrative. The view affected me so much, I actually contemplated just sitting down there. As in Forever. As in taking “sanyas” – the last stage of a human being’s life according to ancient Indian traditions. A stage when one is ready to renounce all their worldly possessions and just sit down and meditate in a peaceful place. A place just like this one. I except, I had never imagined that such a place even existed.

Or had I?

That scene, with the immense ice field up in the heavens, the humongous glacier emerging from it, and the waterfall cascading down, as if making a small offering to this incredible wonder of nature, was somehow familiar even though I had never been here before. Where had I seen it?

That’s when this thought occurred to me. That scene was familiar to me because, embedded somewhere deep inside my brain was this exact picture. Metaphorically of course, but equally real to me. The ice field and the glacier represented the vast beauty, serenity, and generosity of creation, and the calmly cascading waterfall represented my tiny little offering to this place of worship.

After a while, as I came to, I realized that it was too early for me to sit down forever. There are still things to do, places to be, people to be with. Then it was time to head back. But I made a resolution to make this a place of pilgrimage for me. I would try to get here often, ideally annually.

Well, as it happens, you make such resolutions in the heat of the moment and then you return to your daily life and other things take higher priority. Also, over the years, that thought you had there expands and you discover other vistas and other situations that also represent other aspects of you. They enrich your life and your understanding of your life, in many ways.

Suffices to say that it took me more than 10 years to make this pilgrimage again. I sincerely hope the next one won’t be that long.