June Wells vividly remembers her first trip with the University of B.C.'s Varsity Outdoor Club to climb Sky Pilot Mountain southeast of Squamish. A native of Britain who attended UBC from 1961 to 1964 as a grad student in chemistry, Wells said she found the VOC to be a warm, welcoming group, even if their adventures weren't always so toasty.
"I came from England because I wanted to climb mountains and I thought I might get a Masters in my spare time," Wells joked. "But on my first VOC trip it was November and I didn't have a tent. There was snow on the ground and the others just lay their tarp down and put their sleeping bags on top. I was horrified! I'd never camped in winter before and here I was with all these Canadians who were sleeping rough in the snow. I hightailed it out of there and bought myself a tent."
Fortunately, that experience didn't scare Wells off VOC trips entirely, and over time she climbed a number of prominent peaks including Mounts Baker and Rainier in Washington, and Mount Tantalus in B.C.'s own Coast Mountains.
Earlier this month she was one of two dozen veteran VOC members who gathered in the Rockies for their annual Larch Lurch hiking week. Ranging in age from mid-60s to 80, the hikers have been gathering at Banff National Park's Castle Mountain Hostel every September since 2003 to admire the region's legendary larch tree needles turning brilliant gold in autumn.
This particular gathering, explained Sandy Robinson, a Parksville, Vancouver Island resident and event organizer, is one of several VOC reunions scheduled annually in different locations in Alberta and B.C.
"We all like hiking and talking," said Robinson, 73, who attended UBC from 1961 thru '66. "We thought we should call this week the Larch Lurch because that's what we do now."
None the worse for wear after more than 50 years on the trails, the participants, most of whom have known each other since their UBC days, put a few more miles on their boots at Sunshine Meadows, Bow Lake, the Lake Louise area and Lake O'Hara in B.C.'s Yoho National Park. Some members are third and fourth-generation members of the VOC, which was founded in 1917.
"This has been a unique experience in my life," said Nanaimo resident Nina Evans-Locke, who at 67 was the group's second-youngest member. Like many of the others, as young UBC student she appreciated the inclusiveness of the club and its solid reputation as safe environment for single women.
"The older, more experienced members knew what they were doing," Evans-Locke said. "I often wonder what my parents thought when we went off hiking for 10 days at Garibaldi Lake. We'd head off right after exams before work started. And they trusted us."