We hike knee-deep through white-laden hills of sun-sparkling snow drifts, wind beating at our cheeks, sweat pouring down our backs, trotting upwards towards a craggy, broken side of a mountain shrouded in legends and mystery. Glacial etchings carved deep into mountain skin like cerebral crevasses, zigzag before us. Stone relics of time scattered beneath a massive wall lay like puzzle pieces emptied from a box. Jagged arrowhead sized stones are pilled and pilled creating a mountain of talus, a wobbly and loose, yet, inescapable path towards our destiny. Above us, layers of tectonic plates are forced vertically into a wedge-shaped tower creating a scene out of a fairy-tale. The only thing missing is an evil sorcerers castle perched on its summit.
The sun is at high noon and we are late as usual. Damn, Jason, if he hadn’t taken that tumble down the slabs yesterday we would surely be on time today, then again, maybe not. It seems we are notoriously late to start each day. His arm, still wrapped in a homemade sling, his glasses, still taped together, and his upper-body movement obviously adversely affected by yesterday’s vicious fall; all tokens to his endurance of pain and his unyielding love for climbing.
Jason was a good twenty feet above his last piece, an aged piton, when his feet slipped. He thought the pin would catch him but it popped and he went tumbling like a rag-doll down the granite slab and past his belayer, Alex. There wasn’t anything Alex could do except lock off the rope and let Jason skid and scrape past the belay ledge. Luckily it was a cold day and Jason had on several layers of Goodwill clothes, they protected him fairly well. He was left with a raspberry that completely covered the underside of his left forearm, and a few other minor cuts and bruises, other than that he seemed fine, though a bit shaken up.
Nonetheless, we had set the date to climb Mount Louis, injured or uninjured, so-be-it. I suggested to Jason that maybe we should forego the climb but he would have none of that. We were to continue as scheduled.
So here we are, continuing upwards, hopes high, our motivation just barely keeping up with our stride, now hiking up a snow-covered scree pile, awaiting the first glimpse of our route: Homage to the Spider.
Homage, as described in the Canadian Rockies guidebook, is about 10 pitches and was first climbed by Tim Auger, a mountain guide infamously renowned for his habit of sandbagging ratings. This route, rated in the old guidebook as a measly Grade III, 5.8+, follows a prominent prow up the east face of Mount Louis, located in Banff National Park. Mount Louis was first climbed in the early 1900s via the south ridge by the great mountain guide, Conrad Kain. For a while, it was considered the toughest rock climb in the Canadian Rockies. Now, Mount Louis is noted as one of only two peaks in the Canadian Rockies that require the use of technical climbing to reach its summit.
Scrambling upwards, I realize we haven’t tied in yet; we should because it is steep, very steep, with little to stop one’s fall should you begin to slide. Every step emits the grinding sound of stone against stone and the settling of my boot into a precarious suggestion of equilibrium. I maintain this balance just long enough to take my next step. Nervously, we speed up the pace. Scree changes to crumbly rock slabs and the possibility of retreat narrows with every step
“I found the base,” Jason announces, “there’s a short rappel and it looks like that’s where the climb starts.”
Looking down the gully there is a ledge about 30 feet down, beneath it a colouir that drops for several hundred feet into a sea of snow speckled with islands of black rock. Rappelling to the ledge locks us into a single option: climb, our only escape being up.
“What do you think?” I ask nervously. In my head I’m hoping that he will say that we should turn back, that it’s too late in the day to start, that the weather looks questionable, that the wall looks too wet to climb. But I hear none of this. Instead he says, “Well, we came all the way out here, we might as well give it a shot.”
It’s not until weeks later that Jason finally confesses that he was thinking the same thoughts as I.
We rappel the short gully, and prepare our gear for the ascent. Shortly after, I’m tying in to lead.
“Aaron…” Jason says. I’ve known Jason long enough to know that when he prefaces a sentence with my name, what he’s got to say is going to be bad.
“You’re not going to believe this,” he says, “but I forgot my helmet.” I say nothing in return but give him a stern look. The proposition of climbing a mountain of this caliber without protection for one’s cranium is delusional. But what good would it do to get mad at him now?
There’s a short silence, then I ask, “On belay?”
“Belay on,” Jason replies. Then I remember: we are both a bit delusional. The rest of the climb would be spent sharing a single helmet
Shortly into the climb I’m panting. I’ve got too much gear on me. Plus, if I knew I was going to be climbing a waterfall, I would have brought a scuba mask and neoprene.
A right-facing dihedral doubles as a waterfall and that’s where I am supposed to place gear. Next to the waterfall is an exposed face with flakes as scaly as the skin of a sea serpent. Since climbing the dihedral is out of the question; I am forced to climb the serpent’s back while placing gear in the thin dihedral crack. With each flake I touch a tiny piece breaks away. I’m no good when it comes to fragile rock. I feel like a cat trying to sneak up on its prey. I remember some advice a buddy of mine gave me years ago, “Grab the holds like delicate eggshells,” he said. This I recall as my foot rakes a series of gritty foot chips off the wall. I hear the pea-sized rocks showering Jason below. “Delicate eggshells, delicate eggshells,” I repeat to myself. After 10 minutes of clawing and smearing, my nerves are frazzled and I am thoroughly terrified.
I whimper to myself like a child, telling myself how dangerous this is, how stupid this is, how this is not worth it, but somewhere inside me it must be worth it because I continue to grip, although I’m not climbing. I’m frozen in the void of not wanting to go up yet not wanting to come down. I don’t want to climb above my piece but I sure as hell don’t want to fall either. So I’m stuck.
“This is crazy,” I announce, “I’m going to die doing this. I am going to die, climbing.” Did I say that out loud? I think I did. I convince myself that at any moment I am going to slip, my piece is going to rip from the wall and I’m going to fly through the cold Canadian air until I meet my horrific and painful death below. I know Jason hears my whining but it doesn’t matter to me. He may even bring it up later; that I whined like a child on the first pitch, but so what. What if I die? Then what? Then he’ll have to go home and tell everyone the story about how his partner announced that he was going to die, how he yelled it out immediately before it happened, then won’t he be surprised, I, announcing my own demise. I’m not more than 50 feet up when I yell to Jason that I can’t go any higher. I hang on my gear, thankfully it doesn’t fail and he lowers me to the base.
Watching Jason scurry up the face without a care in the world doesn’t surprise me. He is fearless. He must be in shock from yesterday’s fall and doesn’t realize the seriousness of the climb. He runs it out past my lower-off piece to a poor belay stance and before I know it he is yelling, “off-belay!”
Shit, I think, Now we are really committed.
The climbing is easy on top-rope; I’m a lot less nervous. However, when I arrive at the belay chills shutter through my body. Jason has set two stoppers equalized and situated simply to keep them from falling out of the crack. This “anchor,” for lack of a better word, would be illustrated under the heading of “INCORRECT” in any Climbing Anchors book. Without the option of retreat or the benefit of more solid rock, I am forced to trust my friend’s judgment and the gear.
As much as I hate to remain at such a questionable belay station, I shake my head at the proposition of leading the next pitch and let Jason have it.
Pebbles the size of acorns race at random through the air as gravity-induced bullets. He warns me when he feels a handhold pull off or a foothold give way but it’s the other rock that I am worried about, the kind he doesn’t know that he is knocking off. If he makes a move and his foot scrapes the face, quarter-sized pieces of rock reach terminal velocity almost instantly without him even knowing it. I feel like a single pin at the end of a bowling lane and Jason is trying to pick up the spare. I try to focus on my climber but my attention is fixed on the open sky awaiting incoming missiles.
“ROOOCCCCKKKK,” Jason yells as loud as he has ever yelled. I can see nothing, but what I hear indicates a meteor-sized mass of stone entering my atmosphere. It makes a sound like the whir of blender and is discernible only as a blurred object growing ever clearer. Quickly, I tuck my head in, place my forehead against the wall and suck my shoulders into my chest. The rock smashes into the top-lid of my backpack and knocks me off balance. I paw for the rock in front of me trying hard not to overload the anchor. But I have no choice; the force of the rock causes my knees to buckle and my feet to slip. The slings tighten as my weight hits the stoppers. I reach for the gear above me and pull myself back onto the ledge. My heart is racing and I am truly scared.
“Sorry about that,” I hear from above. Shortly afterwards the upward movement of the rope decreases and Jason says he is “off belay.”
I am finally safe, standing next to the culprit that was sending fist-sized blocks of terror my way and happy to be comfortably clipped into something stationary. Except, the “something” that I am clipped into consists of two indiscernible pieces of metal mashed into a horizontal seam, one of which can be wiggled from side to side.
Glancing up, I see that this pitch, like the last, is a rock gauntlet game in which a player; myself, will earn points by successfully dodging gravity-propelled stones which his partner; Jason, will drop. Upon succeeding, said player; myself, will advance to the next round only to play another round until said player; myself, is ready to lead. A game ends when one and/or both players are seriously injured or dead, or, both reach the top safely. I adjust my helmet, set my feet, and ready myself for another round.
Running it Out
The air is cool and moist, the sky, enshrouded in gray clouds, hints of foreboding weather. A wispy white cloud, like steam from a dragon’s breath, crawls up the face of Mount Louis and circles back on its self like a tumbling acrobat.
I am suspended in space, hanging comfortably on the most solid belay station we’ve had yet; two equalized cams in a horizontal crack. I glance left and notice a flake that rises from the ground to several hundred feet high and sets away from the main wall a good 20 feet. It is the largest flake I have ever seen. It makes up the entire face of the mountain, yet from the ground you cannot tell that it is not touching the face. For a moment, I imagine an incredible free climb on thin edges that goes for 5 or 6 pitches directly up the face to meet the summit of the massive flake. Then, standing on the top of the flake, the climber would jump to the face of the mountain, place a piece, and continue upwards. Even the thought of making a jump that high above the ground makes my stomach turn.
“You watching me?” Jason asks, snapping me back to reality. I glance around the corner and see Jason making a difficult move up a gully made of conglomerate stone. Then I notice he hasn’t put in a single piece.
“You’re run-out, you know that, right?” I tell him.
“I know,” he says, “there’s not any gear.”
“And remember,” I add, “you don’t have a helmet.”
Perhaps I shouldn’t have pointed that out to him, but I can’t help but notice that a fall from there would mean that he would tumble down the gully and disappear in the void beneath me. On top of that, he could shock-load the belay and send us both to death.
The rock is wet in spots and Jason does not look nearly as carefree as he has on the past pitches; I think this mountain is getting to him just as it has gotten to me.
“I see a piece of webbing up there,” he yells.
Squinting, I can just barely see what he is looking at; about 12 feet further is a ratty-looking piece of webbing at the top of an angling chimney. I swallow hard. There’s nothing I can do but watch. Every noise, every scrape against the rock, every grunt, every clank of gear that Jason makes is amplified in my mind. All I can do if he slips is start pulling in rope as fast as I can in hopes of reducing his fall. Directly beneath the webbing, he turns his hip into the wall, stems onto a wet spot of rock, and looks down to me.
“It’s a piton!” he announces. I just smile and shake my head. It’s been 24 hours since Jason’s incident of breaking an old pin and taking the terrible fall that left his arm in bandages. He attaches a carabiner to the worn piece of webbing, which is threaded through the eye of the old pin and clips his rope in it. I hear a short sigh of relief from above and then he continues up.
I’m not sure whether he has bettered his situation any. The climbing has not let up. As he exits the chimney section he moves onto a face and hasn’t been able to place a single piece of gear. The rope disappears over a bulge and the only reminders that Jason is safe are the upward pull of the rope through my belay device and a few passing pebbles.
Five minutes, and 20 feet of rope later, I hear Jason yell, “Off belay!”
After Jason’s harrowing experience on the last pitch he does not want to lead, and why should he? He has lead everything up to here. I am forced to get over my fear and get us through this pitch.
Looking ahead, I cannot tell where the pitch ends, or what gear to bring. Actually, we don’t know if we are on route at all! We try to remember the short route description given in the guidebook but we can’t. Jason hands me several small stoppers, a couple of cams, and some 24-inch slings. The most natural belay point is in a notch behind a large flake up and left. Unsure of what I’m going to do to get there, I clip the gear on my harness and begin up the wall.
My fingers strain from pulling on pencil-width horizontal edges. With each meter of height I gain my muscles tense up a bit more and my courage drains.
Place some gear. You have to place some gear. Something bomber, I tell myself.
Looking down at my feet I am reminded of my job at the climbing wall back home and the familiar words of a mother watching her child climb for the first time, telling her, “Don’t look down honey.” All the while, the child whines mercifully to be lowered to the ground. I tell myself, Don’t look down. Don’t look down. You are never afraid of heights. Why are you afraid now?”
I fumble with the poorly selected gear inappropriately placed on my harness. I search for a small stopper, something that will fit into a centimeter-wide vertical seam. From my harness, I unclip a carabiner filled with stoppers and maneuver the chosen sized stopper into place. It doesn’t fit and I choose another, and another, and then another. Finally, I find one that suffices; one that stays in the rock with the weight of a long sling and two ‘biners on it. I clip it, regardless of the fact that it may not hold a fall, and resume climbing.
Usually I feel secure knowing that I am tied in safely to my harness, that my belayer is constantly anticipating a mistake and subsequent fall, but now, at this moment, I am not assured of my safety. The further I venture from my marginal gear the greater the shaking in my legs becomes. I am reminded of my feeble attempt on the first pitch.
Underclinging a horizontal downward facing flake, I take a deep breath and prepare to place another piece. I eyeball the fissure behind the flake, place a number one Camalot in it, and clip a long draw to it all in a matter of seconds. My psyche is a time bomb I must diffuse before I explode off the wall. While traversing left and reaching out to a similar flake, the right flake shifts in my hand. My left hand struggles with the newly found hold in hopes of compensating for my right hand and keeping my body in balance. I shuffle my feet on broken edges and nearly sprint to the notch, the end of the pitch.
“Give me a second to set up a belay,” I say. Looking around, I realize that there is no place for gear. I place a single cam in a crumbling crack and position myself so that if Jason falls, I can use the position of the rock notch and my counterweight to catch his fall.
“On belay,” I yell. I don’t tell him about the belay because I don’t want to worry him; that may only add to his fear.
It’s starting to get dark. There is no way we can make it to the top or down by nightfall so we decide that we need to find a place to sleep. I am mad at myself for starting so late in the day but there’s no time for that, we have to find shelter. As if by magic, relief appears. Behind the facade of the rock face we’ve been climbing is a giant chimney with a ledge system leading into it. The entire face is like the false front of a movie set, the chimney system hidden behind it runs like a hallway for 40 or more feet. It is similar to the incredible flake that I saw earlier. Just inside this hidden corridor is a flat area sufficiently level for a cramped bivy, but further up, the hallway is clogged with boulders covered in hard-packed snow.
We unwind the rope to use as padding and insulation onto the flattest rock we can find. We set our packs down behind us, sit on the rope, and pull our jackets around our knees. We are too tired and cold to eat. It’s a good thing because we have only a couple of Powerbars.
Sitting side by side we are huddled in a space no bigger than the width of a doorframe. My left hip is pressed painfully against Jason’s right hip and we are both sitting upright in a fetal position with our arms wrapped in front of our legs, pulling them as close to us as we can. The sun has disappeared over the horizon, and already, I feel shivers radiating through my body; I didn’t expect to get this cold so soon.
“You think the guys are wondering about us?” I ask.
“Probably. They know we got a late start though, so I don’t think they’ll be too worried,” he says.
A gust of wind carries frozen rain and snow from the valley below, up the mountainside, and into our bivy space. When the gust from below lets up another one comes from the corridor above, blowing snow and ice at our backs. I am shivering uncontrollably now, imagining far off places, hot soup, melodic music, the orange glow of a fireplace, convincing myself that I am not here, that I am somewhere else, safe and warm. I imagine lying in bed snuggled up with my girlfriend, smelling her hair and feeling her warm body pressed against mine. I imagine a blast of warm air from the heater inside my car, I imagine burying myself in my sleeping bag and having a soft pillow to rest my head on, and I imagine hot water from a shower pouring over my shoulders.
Standing up, I look out of the corridor to the forest veiled in green and the hills covered in wildflowers and criss-crossed with trickling streams. The sun blazes through pillow-soft clouds and in the distance I can see a person running the trail back towards the parking area. My vision becomes magnified, like that of a superhero, and I can see details of the person running; it is a young man, with blonde hair. As he exists a grove of trees I can see that someone is close behind him…another man with darker hair. Both are wearing t-shirts and shorts and both are smiling and laughing. Charging downhill with packs on their backs, jumping in slow motion, and gaining speed, they are excited to be going home.
A sudden pain clinches my left-calf muscle and squeezes it like a vice. The burn shoots like a lightning bolt to my brain and rips me from my dream.
“Arrggghhh!” Instinctively, I stand straight up and begin vigorously massaging the tensed muscle.
“Ahhhh!!! Sit down! Sit down! I’m freezing,” Jason yells, half laughing.
“Cramp! Cramp! Cramp!” I scream the mantra as if to soothe the pain. Slowly the pain subsides and I ease back into my position. Pulling my leg towards me causes the cramp to start again so I sit with my leg extended out as far as I can. My leg is freezing because it is uncovered, but at least it is not cramping anymore.
Electric waves of cold overtake my body and I shiver as if I have Parkinson’s Disease. The absurdity of the situation lends to the greatest warmth I’ve felt all day, the warmth of a good laugh. Amid the pain, the cold, the uncomfortableness, the fear, and the frustration, I find that at this moment of laughing with my friend, I am actually having fun.
The weather is brutal. A fierce ice storm sets in and I can feel the tapping of sleet on the hood of my jacket.
“Thank goodness I dressed well, at least I did that,” I think. I am cold now but I could be much colder. I have on my fleece thermal pants, my wool gloves, my Windstopper hat, and my true lifeline, my North Face Mountain Jacket. If I had not brought this jacket I would have been in big trouble.
“What time do you think it is?” I ask.
“I don’t know, maybe 2:00.”
“What time does the sun come up?”
“Probably around 4:00,” Jason says.
Two more hours, two more hours, I can last two more hours.
Something reassures me that everything is going to be fine, that morning will come, we’ll get up, move around, and once we start climbing, we will be warm.
Staring out of a small air hole opening in my jacket, I can see the sky as it begins to lighten. The clouds are thick overhead, we probably won’t see the sun today but at least there will be enough light to get us moving.
When the sun finally appears I stand up and stretch my legs. It feels like heaven. I continue to shiver uncontrollably, I am having a hard time with pronunciation because my lips are numb and my teeth are chattering.
“Re-ad-y to to to go? I ask Jason.
“So we’ve got the ch-ch-ch-chimmney pitch next, ri-ri-right?” I ask.
“I think so,” he says. We both stare up at the snow-packed corridor running to an apex where two walls, parallel to each other, are separated by five feet of air. We are running low on energy and not sure how much further we have to go.
What was snow the night before has now become ice, making it a little tricky to climb. With cold fingers and toes, we manage to make it up the snow clogged gully. Standing at the base of the short chimney pitch, I put Jason on belay and he stems his way up and onto a large ledge. From this ledge there are only two more “technical” pitches and then some “4th class” climbing to the top.
It feels good to be climbing again. If that is what all bivys are like, then I don’t ever want to do another one. How must it have been for Conrad Kain? Did he sleep on the side of the mountain? Did he make it in a single day? And what was he wearing? Certainly, he didn’t have a Mountain Jacket, probably had wool or some kind of animal fur coat.
What is described as, “4th class” is actually 5.7 in some sections. Not to mention, the tricky route finding and dangerously loose rock, which I have come to realize is standard affair for this route. I catch a glimpse of the serrated summit ridge and realize that we are in the home stretch.
The sun is just slightly hidden behind a wall of grayness as we climb the final feet to the summit. A light breeze strengthens with gusts strong enough to make us lose our balance. We’ll stay roped up for now.
Mt. Louis’s summit is the epitome of a mountain summit. A knifeblade carries you to a single point at which you can go no higher. There, protruding from the top of a rock cairn stacked 4 feet high, is an ornate metal cross, like one found in a gothic church. From this summit you can look in any direction and see the peaks of the Canadian Rockies stretch into the horizon. Everything looks and feels downward, the earth falls away from you on every side, and all things seem small. But nothing seems smaller than us, standing like two ants atop a massive pile of rock. For a moment I imagine that I am on the ground, hiking the trail to the base of the mountain just as we were yesterday. Looking up I can just barely make out two figures waving their arms above their heads, as if to say, “We made it!” In that instant, it occurs to me how vulnerable we are and I am ready to get down.
Jason and I take only a moment to admire the view before we start recoiling the rope and looking for the descent.
“Where the hell are the rap anchors?” I ask out loud. The guidebook makes it sound like there is an escalator-like descent on the backside of the mountain. Of course every climber knows that half the journey is getting down. Unfortunately, the descent is usually the most unpredictable part of the whole climb. This is magnified by the fact that you are exhausted and ready to be off the mountain. Reaching the top is great but I never feel that sense of achievement until I reach the ground safely.
“Maybe if I climb out that way I can find the anchors,” Jason suggests. He points off to the side at a wall of conglomerate rock, as unstable as anything I’ve ever seen. Beneath us is an eroded rock gully like a giant waterslide plated with sharp stone, some molded to the mountain some have broken away due to wind and weather. The gully tumbles downward over humps and drops and makes a sharp turn about 100 yards down.
“Maybe the anchors are down there,” I suggest pointing down the steep gully.
“I don’t know,” Jason says. We begin down-climbing as delicately as possible, testing each step before we commit to weighing it.
Jason is continually looking around. He notices a notch high up in the side of the gully.
“I bet they are up there,” he says.
“Maybe,” I say reluctantly. At this point I’ll try anything, just get me off this thing. We throw our gear down and flake the rope. Jason ties in and climbs to the crest of the gully’s sidewall. Crouching down and crawling upwards, it looks like he’s surfing a pipeline and about to be sucked into its vortex. Leading further and further upwards and away from me, he hasn’t placed a single piece of gear.
“I don’t see anything,” he says nervously. I can’t see the other side of the wall but his legs are shaking so violently that the wall must drop all the way to the ground on the other side of the ridge.
“Do you see anything?” I yell as Jason disappears from view. The snaking rope continues to slither through my belay device. If he falls now my only saving grace is that I’m on the other side of the wall. But, God, what a fall that would be.
“I’m coming down,” he yells.
Gently, he down climbs as I reel in the rope to bring him back to the “safety” of the gully.
We pile the rope into the bag and continue hiking down the gully, hoping to see some sign of man’s impact on the mountain (i.e. bolts). After turning the corner at the bottom of the gully I find exactly what we are looking for: two shiny bolt anchors with chain links.
“I found them!” I yell.
“Alright!” Jason says. We pull the rope out of the bag and thread it through the anchors.
“It would be nice if we had two of these,” I say sarcastically. Jason just nods.
We are graced with three very safe and well-protected rappels. Smiles seep from within our worn-out bodies. We should be on the ground in no time. And then we reach the fourth rappel station.
The Fourth Rappel Station
From this vantage point we can plainly see the ground. We have only a couple hundred feet to go, maybe a little more, and then we are out of the technical rock stuff and into scree surfing. But there’s a problem: two pitons linked by some old webbing. With a light tap Jason dislodges one of the pitons so that it is dangling at the bottom of the webbing loop. The other pin looks like it is deep in the crack but neither one of us is certain about it. In any case, we begin threading the rope through a rap ring attached to webbing.
“Don’t pull on this very hard,” he says.
With that, I begin a delicate walk backwards down a narrow dihedral. I think, If the pin pops, will I have time to reach in front of me to grab a hold? Or will I go tumbling to the ledge? And if I hit that ledge will I keep going, bouncing off the wall until I hit the talus covered earth below? Or will I hit that ledge with a thud and stop? I take a few big steps downward and keep my weight in to the wall so as not to put too much weight on the rappel line. “Almost there,” I tell myself. Looking up I notice the distance between Jason and I grow with every slip of the rope through my hand. Every few seconds I see him look over at the piton as if he is waiting for it to pull. One more step and….touchdown; I’m safe.
“Made it!” I yell upwards. I feel like a stunt double, a daredevil….an idiot. In a rush it all occurs to me. If that had pulled, if that had pulled…. A chill wrestles through my body and I close my eyes to thank whoever or whatever kept that pin in, and then I pray that it will stay in for a few more seconds so that my friend can get down too.
Moments later Jason is standing at my side safely.
A bit of down climbing and one long rappel gets us to the ground. Without hesitation and without resting we pull the rope, coil it, and slip and slide down the scree slope back to the base. My body feels ready to rest but my mind is telling me to move faster. We hurry back around the side of the mountain to meet the trail.
Staggering from the trail to the car I quickly drop my pack and open the top-lid to find the keys.
There is little in this world that feels quite as indulging as sitting down in a car seat after a long adventure. The softness of a seat cushion on your butt and the firmness of the seat back directly contrasts to the previous night of spiny protrusions of rock jabbing us from all directions. A sense of home fills the air; familiar smells like heated upholstery and dirty clothes invade your nostrils and give you a feeling of ease and fulfillment. You can stretch your feet out in front of you and lean your head back against the headrest, stretch your arms, take a deep breath, slouch down and prepare for a comfortable ride home with tunes blaring and the wind in your face.
Closing my door and inserting the key in the ignition I am truly relieved to be back. I am always relieved to be back after a long climb. It is usually at this point that I say a little “thank you” to myself or to whoever is listening. I say aloud, “thank you, I am glad we made it back safely.” When I have not said it out loud it is not because I haven’t thought it. I am always grateful for returning unharmed.
So, it was just about this time when I said my “thank you” that I turned the key, still smiling, still happy, still expecting to be headed back through Banff National Park in only a few minutes, headed towards camp, headed towards friends to let them know that we were still alive, that the car made a “click click…..click click” reminiscent of a dead battery. With that, the blood drained from my face and a frown overtook me. I turned and stared at Jason in disbelief.
One of us, perhaps both of us simply said, “Fuck.”
The doors opened and we exited the truck on either side.
“Let’s walk,” Jason said, ”maybe we can find someone to give us a jump.” So began our walk down a dirt road towards a highway that we should have been driving.
Fortunately, as we neared the end of the dirt road a Ranger’s truck turned towards us. We were saved.
Retrospect is defined loosely as, contemplation of the past. In most cases when one contemplates the past they end up looking at something they did and determining if they were right in doing it or if they wish they could change the past. In retrospect, I am grateful for the suffering, I am grateful for the rocks that narrowly missed my head, I am grateful for Jason who lead the harder pitches, and I am grateful for the sun that set a little bit later and rose a little bit earlier than usual. Furthermore, though, I am grateful for the stunning views from the summit, for the little pin that held, for the feeling of achievement and for the spirit of comradeship. There are preparations we could have made and there are things we could have done differently but changing one thing might have changed everything. My experience, as it was, was necessary to warrant the respect; the homage, that such an adventure deserves. Anything less would be, well, sport climbing.