Written by Ross (Montreal, QC)
At 2192m, mount Baldy in Kananaskis country, Alberta is, by any measurable means, modest. As two somewhat experienced and over-confident young climbers, Dean and I set out on a seemingly nice day in late winter to get an early start on the hiking season and scramble a nearby peak. Worst case, we head home if we run into deep snow.
Of course, this disclaimer didn’t exist at the time (whether we would have cared is another question). Dean and I had climbed bluffs on this mountain many times in the past so we were dumbfounded to find we had trouble knowing where to start the scramble. In any case, we started up a catchment basin until we reached bluffs forming a dead end. It was a scramble so we figured we might as well get to higher ground and locate ourselves. We wanted to ensure we were heading in the right direction and, if not, find the right trail.
For context, if scrambles were rated, they would typically fall between a grade of one and three. Units of what? Units of human-powered difficulty moving on the ground? I looked it up and it’s an arbitrary decimal system based on consensus. Climbing starts at five, a point that would implore most people to consider using gear (e.g., ropes, climbing shoes). It looked like a short section. So, throwing caution to the wind, one hand over the other, we ascended. At the top, exhilarated by this ostensibly dangerous feat, we congratulated each other on our estimable climb in bulky hiking boots.
“That must have been a 5.8!”
“Way to go!”
Certainly, we doubted we were on the right trail at this point. But we must have been close. It was a matter of having hiked up the wrong drainage system and, now, on top of the bluffs, we would find the trail.
We looked up. Another set of bluffs. “Gulp. Well, we can’t easily go down now. We’ll have to climb this section, too.” Unexcited about the prospect but fueled by bravado, we marched on. We knew that more exposure increased the risk and led us into unknown territory. But we were confident, damn it, remember?!
Naturally, atop the second set of bluffs, we boastfully heaped praise on each other once again. I mean, look at what we are capable of. Self-actualization, I do believe, is an important part of fulfillment. Onwards and upwards, we were undeterred.
By now, however, it had clouded over and snow began to fall. We were high on the mountain and the snow was already deeper than expected. We were wearing gaiters, fortunately; that said, as per the norm, Dean, the king of fashion, was still in shorts—yup, gaiters and shorts.
We took turns postholing, as one does, rather despondently, of course, through the thigh deep snow up the ridge towards the summit. Every step more exposed than the last and every step ensuring that returning whence we came, was less of a possibility. And this is when the experience and my interpretation of it gets difficult to disentangle. As the risk of turning back increased, my belief in my ability to persevere despite the mercurial mountain weather also increased. Out of necessity. A decision of what to do next had to wait until a new possibility presented itself. Up we went, over ice covered cliffs, yelling, “keep going up... the only direction is up.”
"We needed to find a way down."
With the peak in sight, we stopped for a moment. Despite the whiteout, we could see enough to tell we were off course and not going to make it. We froze. We looked around. Until now, we had been cutting laterally across an exposed cliff. A couple hundred metres below us was a sheer drop. The sort of drop one should stay away from. Our options were clear now, though. We needed to find a way down. At that moment, Dean slipped. He was sliding down toward the cliff but quickly stopped, only 30 meters away. “How did you stop?”, I asked. “I don’t know,” he muttered. But now he could see a potential way out of this mess. If we continued down a handful of metres to a small ledge, we could traverse from there a few hundred more metres to a safer ridge and hope to find a way down. We both fully realized that traversing this ice and snow covered rock face meant taking several death-defying steps, each accompanied by a silent prayer to find solid ground under our feet. I started to wonder if I would make it off this mountain today at all. Situations like this can be hard to diagnose in the moment. How much worry was a product of my imagination and how much was appropriate? What I wouldn’t do for an ice axe!
"I started to wonder if I would make it off this mountain today at all."
I made the decision to slide down to where Dean mysteriously stopped and then climb down the rest of the way to meet him. Only what actually happened was that I didn’t stop sliding. No projecting rock to catch myself on, no bump, not even a rough patch. Only ice. “How did he stop?” I thought to myself. I continued toward Dean. As I came sliding past, he stuck out his arm and pinned me against the mountain. Forever grateful, I felt eternity in a moment. I stared below, at the cliff and my potential fate. In a two-hour span, I witnessed my self-assurance from conquering a small slab of rock dissolve into a pool of self-doubt. And we still had to trek across the precipice we were currently on to the safety of the ridge.
With each step, I relived the previous rush down the mountain side wondering if this was it. With each step, we both found solid footing and after an indeterminable amount of time reached the sweet blessèd ridge with level ground. To be honest, I don’t remember much of the rest of the way down after that. I believe time slowed down enough for us to focus on our fear for the first half-day that it had some catching up to do once we were free of its hold. But we made it.
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Bivouac Stories are tales told by real people about real places, adventures and experiences. They are told to inspire, educate, and connect us; because we all have stories to tell.
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