I shoved my ice axe down, trying to establish a self belay, essentially the lifeline for my travel on this alpine glacier. If I fall I would quickly grab the axe and hopefully it is well planted enough to hold my weight. The axe penetrated just a few inches in. Before it had been going deep into the snow. It happens though, there are occasional patches of ice. I pushed through again. Didn’t budge.
At this point I have managed to get myself high on a glacier in southern British Columbia. Couldn’t even name the mountain at the time. But I knew it well by this point. From the road, I had seen the summits and the glaciers flowing between them. I had chosen to take the longer scenic route on my drive down the coast and it was proving to be absolutely beautiful. It was getting late and not wanting to spend another night in my car I decided to hike the three miles up to a lakeside campsite at the base of the glaciers. It was Joffre Lakes Park and the campsite at the base of the glacier was crowded with friendly weekend warriors.
Now here I am, having skirted along narrow ledges on the face of this unknown mountain. I traversed from one glacier over to another, crossing snowfields, scree fields, and frozen gullies. It was awesome, nothing too scary but fun doing some route finding on a mountain I knew nothing about. The summit I was aiming for was a pinnacle of a summit you could never mistake for a false peak. It stood steeply above all the rest, and I thought I could surely reach the top.
Once I reached the glacier I began the pitch up, kicking steps to get a purchase on the steep summer snowpack. To my frustration my perspective had deceived me and the glacier seemed to go on forever, the summit hardly seemingly closer with each step. Alongside that, the snowpack undulated in no consistent fashion, and eventually ended with a harrowing near vertical pitch.
I moved up this last pitch efficiently but was losing my breath, not because of the exertion but because I was slowly but steadily realizing I did not want to be on the mountain any more. I would hyperventilate, return to calm and progress further, then stop again to collect myself. But when my ice axe refused to pierce the snow, the startle of not being able to establish a self belay unsettled me. My crampon points were kicked into the mountain but I couldn’t know if they would hold. I threw my axe down again. Nothing. I grabbed the handle and used the adze to chop away at the surface to see what was going on. What I found was quite possibly the most frightening experience of my life. I was standing on a near vertical slope on a concealed sheet of ice. The tiniest layer of snow above it would certainly not provide me with anything to self arrest on. It wasn’t extraordinarily dangerous, just very unexpected. I wasn’t in any immediate danger so I needed to collect myself and figure out what to do. I figured I should be roped in on an ice wall like this or at least be tethered to a partner. But here I was solo, on a mountain that I no longer wanted to be on, freaking out.
“It’s okay,” I reminded myself. I skirted over to a scree field to my right and worked my way onto a lip on the rock face. I could rest and relax and figure out what to do. I had intended to come down the backside of the mountain but unable to make it to the summit there was no way I could crest and continue down that way. I would try to work my way to the left and see if I could find deep snow to travel on. But I didn’t have the faintest clue how I was going to get back down to the snow with only loose rock to slip down on. I turned to face the wall and slid down, using my ice axe to self arrest on the crumbling debris and mud. Down back at the snow I was surprised and elated. “It worked!” I thought, somewhat nervous about my willingness to just try something when the consequences were so dire. But this is mountain climbing.
I carefully worked past the ice field to snow pack on the other side and found the ice continuing up. It was a bigger field than I expected and my only other option was to continue out from the summit to a heavily crevasses portion of the glacier. Not a place a solo traveller wants to be. I opted for turning down, shy of the summit by a mere few meters. By turn around I actually in reality did nothing of the sort. Turn around on a slope like this and you may catch yourself diving head first down to the bottom in total free fall. I stayed facing the mountain, my face nearly in the snow and repeated my motions back down the mountain. Plant the self belay, kick left foot, kick right foot, replace the self belay. I did this for a couple hundred meters until the snow leveled out somewhat. At this point I sat down and slid to the rocks at the base of the glacier, controlling my speed with my ice axe. Technically it’s called glissading, I prefer my own term, ass sledding, and it is about the most fun thing an adult can do.
Down at the rocks I chose to descend a different route, down a moraine on the west ridge. Boulders the size of refrigerators slipped out from underneath my feet. I wasn’t safe yet. Any one of these loose boulders could dislodge one above it, a larger one. And they did. A couple rouged my legs up a bit but I chose my footing cautiously and hesitantly. Eventually I found a trail back down to the campsite and found relief.
I am worried though that I won’t find my limits until it is too late. Cliches dictate that my life of exploration and adventure is a beautiful thing. People become martyrs for it. Chris McCandless, George Mallory, Amelia Earhart. These are our heroes. But they found their limits and I hardly think that is a beautiful thing. In triathlon I found my limits all the time. And the worst consequence was usually that I simply couldn’t go any faster. With kayaking and mountain climbing, I have to wonder at what point will my limits be well enough defined for me to be content. I think a lot of people my age read of my adventures and the adventures of others and see the pictures and neglect to realize the overwhelming fear that accompanies them. I know this because I used to be one of those people.
But I think my lifestyle is okay, the questioning especially okay. I think of it like a kid on a playground; they learn risk assessment and they learn about consequences. I imagine a lot of people suppress the obvious desires to stand on big mountains and go on incredible adventures until some mid-life crisis absorbs them. With no experience of true, serious fear from their early adult years, the power of adventure and conquest overwhelms them and they end up one of those statistics from Rainier or Denali.
Part of me truly hopes that my experience yesterday was all I needed. I’m content to return to school and live a safe life. But then another part of me knows that what I did really wasn’t that extraordinarily objectively dangerous, it was just really damn scary. And I know that if I were to do it again, it wouldn’t be that scary anymore. And that desensitization, more than anything else, scares the hell out of me.