In keeping with tradition, I climbed a mountain for my birthday in August. For newer readers: this is something I’ve done every year for quite some time, but began documenting on Legal Nomads a few years ago.
There was Rinjani in 2009, spewing lava throughout the night. I lost several toenails and a good chunk of skin on my foot in the process, but that didn’t stop me from climbing Agung several weeks later.
In 2010, the mountain was South Sister in Oregon. That was a beautiful climb that involved camping out at the summit in a snow-filled crater, the Perseid meteors shooting overhead. And this year I climbed Gros Morne in Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland, joined by my brother and his girlfriend Sarah.
Gros Morne National Park is a Feast for the Eyes
The trip to Gros Morne National Park was part of my first ever trip to the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The province’s official name was just Newfoundland until 2001, when its name was changed to include rocky, barren Labrador, changing postal abbreviations from NF to NL everywhere. Despite many complimentary stories about the province and its rolling fog banks, colourful houses, and the unbelievable diversity of landscape, I had never made it there.
A Little Newfoundland History
For those unfamiliar with Newfoundland and Labrador as a province, it joined Canada quite late, in 1949.
Prior to the mid-nineteen hundreds, it was a colony, and quite an independent one at that. Newfoundland rejected joining the confederation with Canada in 1869 and again in 1892.
In 1907, Newfoundland acquired Dominion status, meaning that it was a self-governing state of the British Commonwealth, despite the fact that the rest of Canada was governed independently.
After a series of debates and national commissions as to its future, Newfoundland held a referendum in June 1948, but there was no clear majority in the results.
A second referendum in July 1948 resulted in a 52.3% vote for confederation, and the province Newfoundland officially joined Canada at midnight, March 31, 1949.
Oh I mention that it’s beautiful? Because it is.
Is Gros Morne a Table Mountain?
If you’ve searched for any photos of Cape Town in South Africa, no doubt you have stumbled upon many of Table Mountain, which looms over the city. On cloudy days it is not visible when you wander around town, covered in a “tablecloth” of clouds, but as the view clears its flat features come into focus.
So what gives the mountain its trademark shape? The mountain’s plateau is about 3km (1.8 mi) across, with Devil’s Peak on one side and Lion’s Head on the other, and contains quartzite (sandstone that is almost fully made from quartz) as well as granite. The sandstone is called “Table Mountain Sandstone,” and is accompanied by a second kind of rock called the Graafwater Formation.
As a result of its durable rock types, Table Mountain currently has some of the slowest erosion rates on earth, leading Live Science (a science news website) to call it the “world’s strongest mountain.”
The mountain owes its relative summit flatness to the fact that it is a syncline mountain. This means that what we see now “as” the summit of Table Mountain actually was once the bottom of a valley floor, one that was likely worn away by the sea. At the same time, the mountain’s strong granite deflected some of the pressure downward. So instead of rolling hills or other geological formations, the earth’s mantle was displaced by a steady downward pressure, with mass added to the earth’s crust and the mantle pushed toward the centre of the earth.
There was basically an “equal standstill” between the surface granite and the mantle underneath, so the mantle dented and moved out of the way under the pressure.
Geologists have noted that eventually with the mantle “bounced back” (and by “bounced” I mean “rebounded slowly over many thousands of years”). As the mantle returned to where it was pushed aside, the mass on top was pushed upward. What we know as Table Mountain rose slowly as it floated on the mantle of the earth.
Oh ok, so Gros Morne’s Tablelands were created this way too?
Actually, no. Gros Morne includes a huge slab of red periodite rock called the Tablelands, created via tectonic collisions about 500 million years ago. Studying these rocks helped scientists develop the theory of plate tectonics, and the geological formation led UNESCO to designate Gros Morne National Park a World Heritage Site in 1987.
The difference here is that the Tablelands are part of the earth’s mantle, which is a pretty trippy bit of mountain to walk on. It’s extremely rare that a part of the mantle is exposed in this way, and Gros Morne’s Tablelands are one of the few tourists can access. They are barren because the rock is low in nutrients and has a toxic amount of heavy metals and iron.
For this name confusion we can blame Captain James Cook, who was sent to map what is now Newfoundland for the British Admiralty in the mid 1700s. He was right; it does look like a table. But several hundred years prior, Portuguese Admiral Antonio de Saldanha climbed Table Mountain and in 1503 named it tabua da caba, table of the cape. Both called it like they saw it, and similar names have stuck with each of these very different mountains ever since.
Climbing Gros Morne
But, back to the mountain itself.
From Cape Spear, the eastern most point in North America, my brother and I drove over 1000km to Gros Morne National Park, in the west of the province. We stayed a night in Greenspond and then arrived at the park at dusk, pitching our tent with flashlights and car lights with an early rise to get our mountain on.
From the car park, it’s an alleged 4km walk to the base of Gros Morne mountain in the National Park. I say “alleged” because it feels like much longer, despite the fact that it isn’t a challenging trek. It’s a bright green forest hike but by the time we reached the fork in the road leading up to the mountain itself, we were laughing at the distance.
After those 4 km, signs at the fork in the path note “DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THE MOUNTAIN”. This is because while looking up you see nothing but a pristine lake and a mountain in the distance, like so:
However when you get a little closer, you notice that there is a sea of scree. And what you don’t see yet is that once you get past that scree, there is more scree. And even more scree. And looping around the corner you are met with…..
That’s right. Scree.
Back at the beginning of my trip, I tore two tendons in my ankle, which has put quite the dent in my birthday mountain plans. I still climb the mountains, but it hurts quite a bit. Despite it being several years, I still need an ankle brace when I’m on loose rock or uphill gravel, meaning that scree like this (or the loose rock from last year’s South Sister climb) does not feel terrific.
From what I thought was midway up the scree slopes:
And the view down from the next rest point, after the video was shot:
Even the summit of the mountain is one giant rock-fest.
I did love the proliferation of Inukshuk at the summit, small markers of passage to everyone summiting next.
After posing for photos at the top, we clomped across the rock to the edge of the mountain and began the winding descent, which took us by some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen. Huge fjords rising out from the water, fields of grass in the distance and a perfect place for a picnic.
I shot this photo to give a sense of size to our passage – you can see the people in the top left of the capture, standing at the edge of the summit crater before the descent.
Circling downward, we passed the highest of the campgrounds on Gros Morne, around a tiny lake.
From here, it’s a long trek across more scree and down to that fork in the road, and then the additional 4km to the parking lot. First order of business: to the ocean, to soak our aching feet.
Second order of business: much-needed shower.
Third order of business: fish and chips on the pier, while watching the sunset.
Where to stay: Parks Canada has five camping grounds available for use within Gros Morne National Park. We stayed at Berry Hill, which ran us $25,50 a person per night. It was an RV-free zone, so tents only and quite secluded in the forest. Hot showers, bathrooms and water / kitchen area available for all.
Where to eat: Rocky Harbour has a few restaurants, but we kept returning to Earle’s Restaurant, first for their moose burger and then their fish & chips. Very nice people, helpful information about the area and good food. Grocery stores, smaller ones, are available in Rocky Harbour.
Discovery Center: Because of the glaciers that carved the park into the scene you see today, the rocks (long buried) are available to discover and according to the geologist we spoke to at the Discovery Center, are a geologist’s dream. I can see why – fossils and volcanic coastline and undersea avalanches all bookended by huge fjords from an ancient continent. Well worth stopping in on the drive out of the park.
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I’d be remiss not to mention the fact that there was actually a second climb, much closer to my birthday: my brother surprised me with tickets to the CN Tower’s Edgewalk, dangling high over Toronto (116 stories high, to be precise).
I posted a few photos here but wanted to add this rousing Happy Birthday from above the city:
All told, an excellent birthday and a real treat to spend it with family.