Friday, 23 June 2017

Chillin' at the Falls

I haven't been out wandering that much. I have a nasty foot problem (that I need to address) that limits me to about 8-10 km of "normal" hiking with some ups and downs, or a lot of hiking on the flat, or a little tiny bit where vertical is significant.

An (overworked) friend of mine was looking to get into the wilderness to take a break, and asked if we could go hiking. Karen was out volunteering this week, so it was just Kim and I out for a wander. We were originally planning to go to Spencer Creek but the weather wasn't really favouring that with some snow forecast for that elevation. So instead, we took a peaceful wander to Old Goat Falls, a pleasant and easy lower elevation walk up a creek to a very cool waterfall.

It was not warm when we started, but the walk up the creek was pleasant as always. I hadn't been up here since the 2013 floods; there's still some flood damage, but not that much.
The creek flows...
We saw some pussy cat (probably bobcat) tracks along the path on the way up.
A distinct lack of toenails
There were also elk tracks and possibly moose, but no bear evidence despite a bear warning out for the campground below.

The falls were certainly churning when we got to their base, and there was still lots of snow, all covered with the dead trees of avalanche debris.
The falls and the snow
 We plunked ourselves down for lunch, and sat here...

...for 3 hours.

Just watching the world go by, talking about stuff, and having the entire valley to ourselves. Well, us and the odd Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel...
Watching us 
Kim watching him
...and the marmots. They were running around on the snow and generally being marmots.
Out for a walk 
Arguing about who gets the rock
The walk up from the falls to the glacier above is still pretty snow covered, but two folks we ran into made it up just fine. I like going up there, but today, it was just nice to waste away 3 hrs sitting in the mountains with my friend.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

A First Timer's Impression of the F1 Grand Prix of Barcelona - Catalonya

Note: This post was written after the 2016 race but for a lot of reasons, I couldn't post it until June 2017. Things may have changed, but probably not.

While I have certainly not been to a lot of F1 races -- a dozen or so, and mostly in Montreal -- there are things that I wish I would have known about the Barcelona Grand Prix that I couldn't really find out before travelling. Maybe this post will help someone else.

How To Get to Montmelo, near the Circuit du Barcelona - Catalunya, by public transport:

You can take a direct bus, from Barcelona or the R2 train. We opeted for the train, and aside from noting a LOT of people take the bus, can't really comment on it.

We went to the Barcelona Sants station to catch the train to Montmelo (the closest station to the track). The R2 train you want (part of the efficient Rodiales local train network operated by Renfe) doesn't originate at Sants; it's the R2 that starts at the Airport (or at Casteldefels or at Sant Vicenc de Calders). In short, it's a commuter train that passes through Sants (and Passeig de Gracia, and El Clot-Arago) on its way to Montmelo and beyond. And it's a BIG train, that can carry +2,000 people. Getting on the train to get to the track is therefore never an issue even on race day.

On our first day, we got to Sants and stood around waiting and watching the monitors for the track to be assigned for the train. It never happened. A nice Renfe lady was wandering around telling people to head to Platforms 13/14. An ad in rotation on the TV monitors was saying to go to "Vias 13/14", but I missed that "vias" is "platform". My fault, not theirs. Still, with 10 min to the train, there was no platform assigned. By Sunday, there were sandwich board signs around the station pointing to the platforms for Montmelo.

The platform was crowded; the train, not so much. The 40 min ride out was comfortable and simple. Most people heading to the race get on at 
Passeig de Gracia.

Note that the Rodiales trains are part of the integrated transit system. So if you buy, say, a 2 zone T-10 card, you can ride the metro to one of the train stations, then hop on the R2 to get to Montmelo. You MUST have a 2 zone T-10 card, though, because Montmelo is in Zone 2 and Barcelona in Zone 1.

If you're at the track for all 3 race days -- and you should be -- it's cost effective to buy a 2 zone T-10 for the 6 trips you'll make out and back to the track. Be aware you can't actually buy a single ride ticket that covers the metro and the R2 (and the local bus at the other end; more on this in a moment) to get you to the track and back. There is no such ticket. Assuming you just want to go to the track Sunday for the race from somewhere in Barcelona, you need to buy:
  • A metro ticket. In 2016, that was €2.15. That gets you to the train station;
  • An R2 ticket. Out & return ("ida i vuelta") to Montmelo is €5;
  • A local single ride ticket (€2.15) for the bus from Montmelo to the track.
Add it up, that's €13.60. Per day. A 2 zone T-10 is €19.60, so it pays for itself in 2 days. That, and you don't have to visit 2 ticket machines and fuss with the bus driver in Montmelo.

Getting between the track and the Montmelo station:

Upon arrival in Montmelo, the "fun" begins. The station is between 3 and 6 km from the track entry gates, depending on where you are sitting.

We had heard here that there were shuttle busses to take you from the station to the track, to avoid the "45 min, unpleasant walk". The walk isn't that unpleasant and is well marked. But it's undeniably long. If you're where we were in Grandstand B or G or H, count on an hour walk or more.

We stepped out of the train station expecting busses. Nope. But very nice, and very helpful, and well marked, information folks from the town of Montmelo were there to tell us we had to walk about 500 m into town to catch the bus. There were signs to follow, and we wandered along the pleasant streets of the pretty town to the bus stop.
The pretty and pleasant (if busy) streets of Montmelo
Along the way we passed:
  • Endless numbers of shops selling track stuff on the sidewalk, such as earplugs, cushions, and stuff;
  • Endless numbers of tents selling F1 related stuff, like shirts and toys;
  • Endless numbers of tents selling beer (at 9 AM), coffee, sandwiches and bottled water.
We got to the bus stop, and found out your T-10 ride 2 zone ticket is good for the Sagales bus that goes from from Montmelmo to the "vicinity" of the track IF you are within the 90 min, 2-zone transit window. We got on our metro at 8 AM, and on the bus just before 9:30 AM, so it was good. If you don't have a ticket, in 2016 a single ride ticket on the bus cost €2.15 to get to the track; the drivers had change.

The bus travels all of 1.8 km (in about 4 minutes) before dropping you off at a traffic circle sort-of near the south track access (which I call the Transit Hub), marked here with a black star. The direct busses to Barcelona also stop at the transit hub.  Most custom charter tour busses stop or park at/near the Transit Hub.
The "transit hub" marked with a black star
Note that the Transit Hub is a long way from most of the track. What we didn't find out until late Friday is that there is a free (small) shuttle bus that does laps of the outside of the track running about every 15 min. It stops at Gate 6, 7, 1, 2, something relatively close to Gates 3, 4 & 5, and the transit hub. There were exactly 2 signs up advertising his little shuttle, and no one was on it (it's primary purpose is to take VIPs to the Accreditation Centre, then onto their gates, but it's open to the public to use).

Do note, however, that this little free shuttle only runs Friday 8-5, plus Saturday and race day 8-noon. We spent 45 minutes waiting for it at 5 PM on Saturday before finding this out.

So it's easy to get to the your grandstand on track despite the Sagales bus dropping you nowhere near the track. It's harder to get back to the Transit Hub.

Note: On our arrival at the Transit Hub on the first day, I asked the official Circuit reps at the Transit Hub how to get to our Grandstand, marked B in the above map, as far away from the transit hub as you can get. I was told by official Circuit de Catalunya staff we had to enter through Gate 3 and walk the whole way. WRONG. The correct answer was take the free track shuttle to Gate 1, 50 m from our Grandstand.

Getting home at the end of the day:

Getting there is half the fun. Getting back to Barcelona is another adventure.

I mentioned that the shuttle bus will get you to the Transit Hub Friday -- but not Saturday or Sunday. On these days, you're walking. From Grandstand B, we tried several routes, and all took almost an hour. Don't forget you MUST enter and exit the track using one of the 6 entry gates.

On the way back at the end of the day, most Sagales busses  heading for the train leave the Transit Hub and take you back to the centre of Montmelo, still 500 m from the train station. Once per hour, the regularly scheduled Sagales #510 bus comes by the Transit Hub and actually goes to the train station itself, using the route you can see here. There are other stops, so stay on the bus until you get to the station. Don't count on getting the #510 bus. Punch in your T-10 2 zone card when getting on any Sagales bus and you should be good to get to Barcelona and a metro station within the 90 min window so long as you don't loiter in Montmelo (have your beer before you leave the track area).

It bugs me that Sagales charges a regular transit ticket price of €2.15 for the ~2 minute, 1.8 km bus trip that doesn't take you where you want to go.  The track should have chartered busses that run continuously from the train station to a lap of the track entrances, and it should cost €1. They would make a fortune. The fact that the bus doesn't go directly to or from the station is especially a pain if you're mobility restricted.  There are a few reasons it doesn't, most evident on Sunday, when the line up for the train itself is more than 300 m long.

Because on Sunday after the race, I don't care how long you hang around the track drinking beer. There are ~50,000 people taking the train home. Even if you rush, there will be a HUGE line to get on the train. And the process of scanning your ticket and getting down the narrow flight of stairs to the small platform will make you feel like a cow in a feedlot. Trust that there is more space on the train than anywhere else. AND the trains after the race run like metros, leaving every 10 min (there's no schedule that says this).

Just a part of the train line up after the race
By the way, there are ~5,000 people taking the direct bus back to Barcelona from the Transit Hub. The lines for those busses were immense. The busses were loading and leaving fast, but they're trying to move a LOT of people.

And there are no taxis. Well, OK, you might be lucky and find one near the Transit Hub on Friday or Saturday, but don't count on it.

As noted, take the opportunity after the race on Sunday (or heck, Friday or Saturday, too) to partake of the awesome, fun and reasonably priced food vendors around the track, like the ones in the photo near the Transit Hub -- which both looked and smelled fabulous.
Mmmm... BBQ

Where to sit, where to sit..
  • On a track that's notoriously hard to pass on, the end of the start/finish straight sees the most action (Grandstand F, but A could work).
  • There are plenty of low speed corners to get good photos; Grandstand H is particularly popular, but I is also good and features views down the start-finish straight.
The view from H
  • The general admission grass-sitters like the straight between corners 7 & 9. I NEVER recommend the General Admission tickets in Montreal, but here, they're pretty good. There are lots of places to sit on the entire backside of the track.
The General Admission area facing Corner 8. Popular.
  • We were in the Corner 10-15 complex (Grandstands B, G & C); LOTS of seat choices all basically the same, cool views but not much "action" other than coming into Turn 10, which no one can see that well. Worse, it's as far away from the public transit accesses as you can get; better to be in the start/finish straight grandstands if you can't walk that well (and they're covered).
  • A few Grandstands are covered, like N, and all on the start-finish straight.
  • The "island" (Grandstands L and M) is more private, but the views seem less interesting (though they had a ringside seat for the Hamilton/Rossberg tussle in M)
Remember that there is a tunnel under the track from entrance 5 starting at Grandstand E and going all the way across to the general admission and island bridge area.

On-Track Info worth noting:

Once on the track, here's some stuff you should be aware of.

On Friday, you can sit anywhere. Other than 3 isolated grandstands, you get to sit in any grandstand with any view, even if you just have a General Admission ticket. There just aren't enough people around, so you won't bother anyone sitting anywhere. They should do this in Montreal.

There are almost no food services open on Friday, other than the numerous Aramark operated restaurants that are located around the track. Hot dog vendors: wrapped in plastic and closed. Ice cream guys: closed. Ham guys: closed. The much touted "Paella" place: closed. The much touted Tapas place: closed.

The food at the Aramark restaurants is (a) overpriced and (b) may not be available, especially on Friday. Hotdogs are €5.50. Water (available for €0.40 off the track) is €3.  A 500 ml bottle of Coke is €4.50. Really awful bacon sandwiched are €5.50. They can't make fries; expect a 15 min wait. They won't serve Patates Bravas on Fridays at all. Fridays seem like "practice" day, though the service isn't much better/faster/more organized on the other days.

The track is dry -- no alcohol is allowed on track at all. They do sell alcohol free beer, but it's awful. Unlike Montreal, you can't buy beer or wine on the track; you can leave the track and get it, but you can't bring it back, and you can't bring your own. They could learn from Montreal on this one. Surrounding the track's gates are places selling "real beer"; it's about €3/can that would cost you €0.60 in a store. One enterprising shop in Montmelo on Sunday after the race had ALL drinks €1. Good deal.

All drinks €1 -- and he's near the end of the train line
You cannot bring canned anything onto the track. No Red Bull, no Coke cans. But despite info on the website saying max 500 ml bottles of things, I saw folks with 2 litre water bottles and juice bottles, plus I saw people with coolers, especially in General Admission area. We brought snacks; they didn't care.  Could you pour red wine into a plastic 500 ml Coke bottle and get away with it? Maybe. We didn't try, but I didn't see a lot of folks doing anything like that.

The Paella is awesome; the paella "menu" a rip-off. Paella alone is €12.50 and TOTALLY worth it; the paella plus a coke plus ice cream is €29. Ice cream is only €4. The Tapas place has 40 items for various numbers of tickets; tickets were €3. I heard it was good but pricy.

Three chicken thighs hide in that pile of paella
The seats in the grandstands are great and generally comfy; individual plastic bucket seats with backrests, unlike Montreal's hard aluminum seats with no back. There are a LOT of grandstands. We had just over 80,000 people at our race, and many grandstands in our corner were only full on the top half. They could probably seat 120,000 with ease. The track is magnificent from a spectator's perspective. Lots of grassy hills to sit on. The track sits on a hillside, so you're looking down onto the track a lot.

The track is just beautiful. Lots of grass, lots of trees to find shade under, permanent washrooms without lineups, large pedestrian areas. The shopping is only "OK"; overpriced team gear from Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren and a bit from Force India, plus some good Barcelona track gear. As you can read here, my friend was pick-pocketed on the track and had his wallet stolen; according to the Police, not common but not unusual (the thieves took the cash and ditched everything else, and broke into his backpack to get it).

Some F1 traditions are better in Montreal. The driver parade, for instance. In Montreal, each driver is in the back of an Austin Healy convertible with their name on the car. They putter around the track as a parade, and it's easy to tell who's who. In Barcelona, they are all together on the back of a semi-truck, and they whip around at 30 mph, so you barely get to see them, nor figure out who's who.
The truck's a commin!
In Montreal, in a few corners (the hairpin, the Senna corner) one or two drivers stop during the driver parade and are interviewed. Not in Barcelona. In Barcelona, the typical support races of GP2 and GP3 occur; in Montreal, thouse GP guys are nowhere to be found, and it's  typically F3000, Ferrari Challenge and maybe a Sport Car race (like last year when they raced Nissan Micras). The start of the Montreal GP is always accompanied F-18 fly-bys. In Barcelona, the start is a non-event; no one even stands for the national anthem.

The on-track loudspeaker sound system is miserable and you can't hear any commentary, even when it's quiet and no cars are anywhere. They do. however, broadcast it on FM in English, French and Spanish. They do that in Montreal, too, but I've never been able to get reception of the low power station on my little pocket radio. The TV monitors at Barcelona are few, far between, and much smaller than Montreal's. I recommend bringing binoculars to see them. And just like Montreal, the chiron (all the on-screen graphics) are miserable. They don't show times, running order, who's on what lap, or any other useful info -- especially annoying on Saturday for Qualifying, when they show the times of the top 10, but NEVER the times of the bottom guys actually being eliminated from rounds 1 & 2. 

The day I lost my health care coverage

In 2011, when I retired, I was allowed to "roll over" my health care coverage. I was able to continue getting the exact same coverage I had while I was employed by simply continuing to pay the premium myself.

If I hadn't done this, I would have had to find another health care provider, go through medical checks to establish insurability -- and risk being denied coverage or limited in some way. Being a partially decrepit old guy with arthritis and chronic crap, this could have been bad.

So in April 2011, I signed a contract with Sun Life to continue my benefits. Six months later I moved to the mountains (the trouble began here, though I didn't know it at the time).

Since 2011, I have had a number of occasions to contact Sun Life to clarify claims; some dental, some physiotherapy, and some other stuff. No issues; they have sent me stuff, and I send them stuff. Other than being a bit of a pain in the neck to break through their telephone defence system, all has been OK.

Until May 23rd, 2017, the day I lost my health care coverage.

Karen went in to get a prescription filled, and the pharmacy said the insurance coverage was denied as my insurance had been cancelled.


I checked my records -- which I don't really have. It's not really my fault; since 2011, I have never received any correspondence from Sun Life. They bill me on my MasterCard. My MasterCard records said they stopped billing me in February 2017.

I immediately got on the phone with Sun Life -- or I tried. I broke through their telephone defence system (a 15 min exercise) and spoke with a representative. I told them my insurance appeared to have been cancelled, and they stopped billing me for some reason. I didn't want to be cancelled; could they explain what happened and get me un-cancelled?

The Nice Lady I spoke with told me I was talking to the wrong department. She apologized, patched me through to the "right" department, but that put me back in the phone queue.

Once again, I broke through their telephone defence system (a 15 min exercise) and spoke with a representative. I told Nice Lady #2 my insurance appeared to have been cancelled, and they stopped billing me for some reason. I didn't want to be cancelled; could they explain what happened and get me un-cancelled?

And once again I was told I was talking to the wrong department. Nice Lady #2 also apologized for the problem and for the fact I was put through to her. But she couldn't patch me through to the "right" department; however, she could give me their number (Sun Life has about 10 toll free numbers to contact various departments).

I called the new "right" number. Once again, I broke through their telephone defence system (a 15 min exercise) -- only to find all the agents were busy and I could only stay on hold 2 min before I was cut off.

Again, I called the new "right" number. Once again, I broke through their telephone defence system (a 15 min exercise) -- only to find all the agents were busy and I could only stay on hold 2 min before I was cut off.

Again, I called the new "right" number. Once again, I broke through their telephone defence system (a 15 min exercise) -- only to find all the agents were busy and I could only stay on hold 2 min before I was cut off.

This repeated for about 2 hrs before I finally made it through. Yipee!

I told Nice Lady #3 my insurance appeared to have been cancelled, and they stopped billing me for some reason. I didn't want to be cancelled; could they explain what happened and get me un-cancelled?

As usual, it was "my fault".

Problem #1: I got a new MasterCard that activated March 1st. They stopped billing me because they couldn't bill my MasterCard. They sent me a letter in January warning me it was going to happen, one in March when it happened giving me 45 days to update things, and one in April as a final warning that they would cancel my insurance on May 22nd unless I gave them new card info.

But the letters were pointless, because...

Problem #2: I had moved and "not told them". While Nice Lady #3 could see my "new" (last 6 years) address in the system, the "primary" address on file was my pre-2011 move address. I noted that I had worked many times with the Claims department in the last 6 years, and had corresponded with them; they had the correct address (and phone number) on file. Nice Lady #3 told me that Claims has its own system, and she was in Account Administration. I never reported my move to Account Administration, so my account has had the wrong address. For six years.

Six years? My guess is I have missed a LOT of mail from them, like, say, annual statements and premium changes. But... they had the correct phone number. Go figure.

Nice Lady #3 apologized for the problem and for the fact I was put through to two wrong people before finding her. But...

She also told me I didn't have any insurance. To get my insurance back, I would have to file proof of insurability as if I was applying again. Eeek (not that I'm not insurable, but you never know). And I wouldn't be insured until I was accepted again. More eeek.

But we talked. She could see in the Claims department records that I changed my address there in 2011, and she scolded me that I needed to change it with Administration. We agreed I was a dolt. We agreed I really should have told them I got a new MasterCard with a new expiry date. We again agreed I was a dolt.

And so recognizing she was dealing with a dolt, Nice Lady #3 reinstated us effective March 1st -- though she did warn me there would be an "administrative charge" to do so. Can't wait to see my June MasterCard bill.

Is there a moral to this story?

Probably not. Or, maybe...

Don't be a dolt. But if you do run into troubles with Sun Life, tell them you're a dolt.

I should turn that into a Motivational Poster.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Helicopters on mountaintops

I may be retired, but I'm sure busy, so even though hiking season has started, it's time for the first hiking post, as we climbed Jumpingpound Mountain yesterday.

We actually started hiking this year on the long weekend in May with a hike out to LM8 (Lake Minnewanka trail campground, 8 km mark -- as opposed to the LM9, LM11, LM20 or LM 22 campgrounds) along the Lake Minnewanka shoreline. This jaunt was long -- an 18.2 km round trip -- but had little in the way of elevation change. It was mostly just a walk along the lake's edge in the forest with one grunty 60 m climb over a ridge (that you had to do on the way in and out).
Looking back from near LM8. We started way back at the bump in the middle
As we rise up. Town of Banff hiding at the base of Mt. Rundle on the left.
This is not a particularly thrilling hike, but it's a good early season long distance conditioning walk because there's no snow down low. On the long weekend, it was a REALLY busy hike (never mind the madhouse of the Lake Minnewanka day use area at the end of the day), and I was almost run over by a few of the many mountain bikers who ride it. As I type this, this trail is now closed because a bear was bothering campers at LM20.

The other one we did is hard to call a regular hike; we were out servicing cameras, almost all on trail. But this particular group features a bit of height gain. We only walked 7.1 km but we climbed 520 m in the process (up 300 m, down 200 m, up 200 m, down), getting stellar views of the Bow Valley in the process.
Straight across to the Three Sisters. Ha Ling on the right 
From Ha Ling down the length of Mt. Rundle.
On one of these two hikes, I injured one of my toes, jamming it and bruising the nail (not sure which; it kinda hurt on both), so I took 10 days off consequential walking to heal. The only thing I did in that window was help plant trees to reclaim a trail in the wildlife corridor which entailed all of 1 km of walking. The weather for almost all of those 10 days was pretty nice, and I was neither healing particularly well nor happy about not being out in the wilderness.

So yesterday, we said "screw my toe" and went out for a short but favourite jaunt. We have been up Jumpingpound Mountain a half a dozen times, have taken friends up there on several occasions, and it's a favourite of our nearby hikes.

The day got off to an inauspicious start. We were 20 min down the road towards the trailhead when Karen noted she had forgotten her hiking boots, necessitating a return home -- an hour delay to start the hike. For this hike, though, that's inconsequential, and only meant lunch at 1 PM instead of 12 PM.

As I've posted before there's not a lot a views on the way up, but the few there are are sweet, especially at this time of year when there's still a lot of snow up high.
Peaks of the Fisher Range
At this point, about half way up, a helicopter flew overhead.
We found where he was off to later
About 150 m below the summit, snow patches started appearing in the trees. This was not surprising; snow still socks in most of the higher altitude hikes around here, which is part of the reason we were out at Jumpingpound. As we got higher, snow (and ice) covered the trail in spots.
Muddy, but nothing consequential
It was quite windy at the top (which made the otherwise pleasant 17° temps feel rather chilly), but the views were stunning as always.
South down Nihahi Ridge 
Northwest over the Fisher Range
Moose looms to the east
The summit was "occupied". That helicopter had landed, and disgorged 2 people to have a birthday and anniversary picnic.
Whatever floats your boat. Nice helicopter.
They left not long after we arrived, then two nice young ladies on the first ever hike of their lives joined us, proud of their accomplishment. They stayed with us for lunch for a while as we hunkered down behind the only clump of trees that act as a windbreak at the top. Hiding behind the trees facing east, we failed to notice weather rolling out of the mountains to the west, until suddenly it got cloudy.
Who took the mountains?
We have been up here before when the weather turned south, and we got caught in a thunderstorm with hail and lightning. Didn't want that happening again. But... I also learned in my days as a glider pilot that being at cloud base sometimes screws up your perspective of the clouds; they may not have been as bad as they looked. We headed off the mountain anyway, walked through a 2 min light rainshower and emerged back in lovely sunshine for the remainder of the walk down.

On our way home we stopped at Sibbald Meadows Pond. One of our recent volunteer projects was cutting wire tree wraps to protect trees from beavers at that pond.
The culprits's home 
Just one of the dams in the area
All in all, it was a wonderful day, though basically wildlife free.