The Mountain Bug

I’ve always been a bit wobbly with serious heights.

I don’t know when the phobia dates back to, but despite much time spent in mountainous countries, hours in small planes and several years now as a trekking guide in the sub-alpine and alpine, I still get the willies when the drops around me become too vertical.

And so – muttering to myself that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and other manly aphorisms that I unfurl when my natural timidity threatens to overwhelm me – I decided to bite the bullet this summer and head for the upper reaches of the Canadian alpine.

These were not to be the nice wide trails we occasionally take our bear-viewing guests on that lead to eye-pleasing snowy approaches and gently ascending summits. Built for loggers and their vehicles, I can often drive a 4×4 up those with several feet to spare.

My chosen destination was instead the rarely-climbed peaks where the North Selkirks butt up against the Rockies – snow-capped giants interspersed with glaciers and with long exposed approaches named after the early 20th Century mountaineers who made their first ascents (or sometimes died trying).

I had a number of possible entry points into the world of mountaineering. Forest, our sometime guide, has climbing skills. But he is away right now working in northern Alberta. There is a friend in Nelson, too, but I hadn’t spoken to him for a while.

In the end I went with the Alpine Club of Canada. An impressive outfit of professional mountain guides, excellent amateurs and dozens of volunteers, it is surely one of the most impressive and well-run mountaineering clubs around.

I forked over my cash and, a couple of weeks later, was helicoptered onto rocks below a noisily-calving glacier where I shared a tent with a fine and bearded man from Toronto called Eric for a week.

There I discovered, to my horror, that I was the only member of the 20-odd strong group who had no mountaineering experience at all. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. On the very first afternoon I remember looking around the camp at the – to my eyes – almost sheer walls of rock, snow and ice and feeling my stomach begin to churn.

The first day the guides laid on a refresher course of basics. Knots, glacier travel, crevasse rescue, how to use crampons and other rudimentary skills. There was much talk of prusiks, discussions about different breaking weight of ropes, clove and munter hitches and other fancy terminology, but I lapped it all up and was soon throwing around the lingo as if I had always talked that way.

After a longish walk on a glacier, four of us roped to each other, I learned to self-arrest: you close your eyes (or at least I did) hurl yourself down a slope and then try and slow your fall by thrusting an ice axe into the snow and digging in your elbows and knees. It doesn’t work if the snow is too steep. And it’s not recommended on rock.

Our guide for the day, Jenn, had been voted, one of the other climbers whispered to me, one of Canada’s top 20 sportswomen (rock climbing was her niche) and she looked the part with sinews of steel and a confident step. (At the end of each day, as I lay exhausted in my tent, she hung from the roof by her fingers for an hour to keep them in climbing shape.)

That was the extent of the training. The following morning it was into the gear at 6.00am and up the mountain. My first mountain. Alpina Dome. Something above 9,000 feet. At times I barely dared looked down and when I did was overcome with horror.

One old-timer who had been coming to the annual camp for decades described my feeling accurately when he said mountaineering amounted to “hours of fear interspersed with moments of sheer terror.”

But on Day Three I was up another mountain. Belvedere Peak. A little over 10,000 feet. Glaciers, steep snow and then a rocky ascent to the summit with a vivid view over the Adamants. Still the weakest in the group, I was nevertheless beginning to feel a little less jelly-legged.

And coming down I was so euphoric that I slid several hundreds yards on my bum (on purpose) – glissade a derriere I think is the technical term for it – and did a headstand in the snow to celebrate.

On Day Six it was Mount Azimuth. Lower than Belvedere it nevertheless included a mile of clambering along an exposed ridge. At one point, with the mountain falling away on both sides, you had to sit astride the ridge like you would a horse and sort of bounce your way along a 20 yard stretch. A whole new frontier of fear. Blindly terrifying.

If I am giving the impression that I was hanging out with the top 10 percent of the world’s mountaineering fraternity, would-be Olympians and twenty-something-year-old adrenalinised BC mountain dudes, I don’t mean to.

Most of my fellow guests were my age or a little older and respectable professionals from different parts of Canada and Europe. Once a year, for a week or so, they leave their offices and homes behind and give themselves over to the mountain.

Every year a small handful of climbers are killed in western Canada. There are more broken bones. But the climbers shrug off the inherent risk, talk down the dangers, and dwell instead on the incredibly vistas and the sense of serenity that rules at the top of the world.

And after a week in the company of the mountains and my new alpinist friends, I was completely taken by the whole experience. I don’t know if it’s the endless cycle of terror and relief, or the sweet physical exhaustion at the end of a long day’s climbing, or just the sense of escape from the small frustrations that plague our everyday 10,000 feet below.

There’s something almost meditative in the fact that your worst-placed footfall counts not your best, because that will be the one that kills you. In our modern world where threats are exaggerated and dangers ring-fenced, I love the understatement when the mountain guide says: “Not the best place to slide.” He could equally say: “You slip, you die, and, what’s more, you will take the rest of us with you”.

There is certainly something cerebral about the long hours spent picking your way through the hazards of ice, rock and snow. An experienced British climber killed this year in the Alps harkened back to the Romantics’ talk of the Sublime and, at the risk of sounding hugely precious as a complete novice and after barely a week in the mountains, I shared some of that awe.

Of course, the summer season is drawing to an end now and the grizzlies will soon be on the river. (I hear the first salmon are only a few miles away.) Time to switch gear. So I’ve put away my ice axe and my crampons for the year. But come next July I’ll be whipping them out again, dressing up like an extra in a cheap S&M flick and getting on the blower to my new climbing buddies.

Wobbly I still may be, but I’ve definitely got the bug.