On Standing Down

The annals of mountaineering, especially those of social media offering, are so often filled with the stories of success. That is, you plan the trek, face the adversities, and eventually stand triumphant and heroic on the summit before staring down the descent. The truth, however, is that sometimes victory eludes you, yet in defeat there is often a story worth telling. If you have the courage to look back on the bad days, you might even get a laugh or two out of the spanking you’ve taken. Whatever the case, the most important thing is to keep on going back to the mountains. They are always worth the effort!

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Doug, Steve, and Wally on the summit of Seven O’Clock Mountain. There’s always a reward in reaching summits!

Here then, are a few excerpts from my three and a half decades of history in the hills, some rather inglorious. The mountain has a way of finding you when you’re not having the best of days, you know.  As long as your ego isn’t too closely shackled to grabbing the summit every single time, and even if it is, you can still learn a lot from your misadventures.

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Ted and Alan happy to have made the top of Mt Callaghan. We were still one helluva long walk from the beer!

What follows here is a retrospective of some climbs on which I ended up turning around, and the variety of related reasons for those retreats. I was surprised to find, to my chagrin, that there were a few more of them than I thought there were! Most of the real epics were concentrated in a ten year period that I’d characterize as the most trying time in my life, yet those same years were crammed full of discovery and elation as well.

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Remember, it’s all about the determination, as you can see Doug demonstrating here!

First up? Mt Elsay, the avalanche… It was late one spring when I finally had my first experience setback in the mountains. I was close to my 39th birthday, and was feeling pretty immortal back then. I was, after all, at the peak of fitness at the time, having finally quit destroying myself playing baseball, and freshly off successful knee surgery. In many ways I felt unstoppable! Spoiler alert, I wasn’t.

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The Coquitlam Divide from Wes’s Staircase, taken on a successful ascent of Mt Elsay later in 2007

That trek basically ended for me almost before it started. No sooner had I descended Wes’s Staircase on the Elsay Lake Trail, than a haunting mist obscured the entire valley. I continued on for a spell, knowing the route well, but almost immediately I froze in my tracks. There was a deep rumbling off the eastern slopes of Mt Seymour. It sounded powerful, so I stood and waited a minute or two to see what had happened. When the clouds drifted away momentarily, I could see a massive runout of wet snow that had carried with it the twisted limbs of small trees and continued on well over the trail I had intended to walk! This was an omen, had I been five minutes faster it’s possible I might not be telling this tale right now! It was a timely reminder that nature couldn’t care less how much you want to reach a summit. Though my wife sometimes begs to differ, I can sometimes take a hint! I turned around, and didn’t return again until over eight years later to climb the mountain.

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Tim Jones Peak, Mt Seymour and Mt Elsay. The eastern slopes here hold danger sometimes. I think this experience subconsciously kept me away from Mt Elsay for some time

In 2006, I only missed out one summit, and that was the rock tower of Ben Lomond in the Britannia Range. Simon, Alan, Denis, Chris, and I had planned on climbing Ben More, Ben Lomond and Red Mountain in one long day. On our way up Ben More, I felt something pop in my left hip, which I had injured the year before on Mt Price. I knew right away it was going to be serious, but I badly wanted to stand atop the high point of the Seymour Valley. Though I did manage to summit Ben More, by the time we reached the base of Ben Lomond, I could not move my leg high enough to kick steps into the precipitous snow slope. Frustrated, I sat down with Chris, then chipped off a piece of snow with my ice axe to stuff in my pants. Chris, meanwhile, was suffering with a painful foot injury. We were not happy campers! This was the first time I ever had to sit idly and watch other people climb a mountain and I didn’t like it.

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Left to right, Alan, Denis, and Simon descending Ben Lomond

It made me kind of nervous to be a spectator, but of course Alan, Denis, and Simon pretty much pulled it off without a hitch. When they came down, it was time to climb the less technical Red Mountain, which I had decided I was going to do come hell or high water. It hurt like hell, but I did it.

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Simon, Alan, me, and Denis on the summit of Red Mountain in 2006. I do some of my best smiling when I’m in pain, but this is still a great memory!

Meanwhile, we watched from afar, cheered, and celebrated as Chris got up off the snow and proceeded to climb Ben Lomond! After that, we all walked out, and I returned the next summer with Denis to finally climb this peak. It was all I had hoped for! It was, however, the start of a ten year battle with that serious hip injury. Hip flexors are difficult, as they may heal, but in the process, they often tear again frequently. It took me a decade to properly rehabilitate from the injury, but then, I never stopped hiking, so maybe that is why. I resorted to taking up yoga to help the healing process, and it worked better than anything else I had tried.

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Denis and me on the summit of Ben Lomond in 2007. All smiles here!

July of 2008 on Cayoosh Mountain was the best of times. Ted, Denis, and I spent the night camped out having more than a few beers before starting out the next morning for the summit. The conditions were ideal, but we were going to have to move fast to avoid the high temperatures of midday.

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Ted on the way to Cayoosh Mountain in 2008. You work hard to climb mountains, and this peak was no exception!

It had been a big snow year and we knew the route could become dangerous if we tarried. As it turned out, I basically managed to louse that up by getting us off the right path. We passed the correct gully and instead I led us to a ridge we cliffed out on. That meant we had to double back before ascending the correct line, which we did, eventually.

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Denis in the Cayoosh Valley, Joffre Group in the background, in 2008

Once we reached a steep bowl below the sub summit, however, I knew our day was done. The snow had become too isothermic, and was now too unsafe to cross. The only sane decision was to walk away. We haven’t returned yet, but maybe someday we will. That one’s on me, boys!

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Cayoosh Mountain lived rent free in my head for a few years, then somehow it became a fonder memory. Still haven’t given up on this one!

Later in 2008, Chris and I were attempting Tulameen Mountain in the Cascades. We began, sans helmets, by climbing a very sketchy gully and veritable shooting gallery of falling rock that I began calling the Jingfest Couloir. With that bit of Russian Roulette out of the way, it was a question of digging in and making our way through a big field of shifting rock and up the southwest ridge of the mountain.

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Tulameen Mountain, so close and yet so far! It’s just in behind the southwest summit, which is in the foreground here

On that day, the weather had looked unsettled, and then suddenly we could see a storm moving very quickly up the Fraser Valley. This was not good! We were only another hour from the summit of Tulameen but our position was much too exposed.  The next thing we knew there was lightning, and more threatening clouds, and we were scampering back to the cover of the woods below! It took a while, but we struggled back to the truck in one piece, none the worse for wear. Chris often tells me he’s a magnet for bad weather. I’m not sure about that, but on that day it was a funny enough explanation!

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Chris in Kennedy Creek with one of his better finds!

 

A different fate struck on Castle Towers in 2009, where Doug battled vertigo gamely and scrapped his way up to the west summit on a perfect summer day. The week before he’d been down with the flu and an ear infection. Climbing the true summit, just a half hour away, just wasn’t going to happen. While I took summit photos, Doug took a seat just below the cairn trying to gather his bearings.

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Castle Towers west summit, looking at Garibaldi, 2009

He offered to wait while I attempted it alone, but we were a long way from civilization and if anything had happened to me I was not sure he was in the right shape to walk out alone. I made the only decision that I felt right about, and we enjoyed the west summit for a good thirty minutes more before beginning the long walk back. In the end, this trip was among the finest we have ever done together, and over a decade later I still talk about it!

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Charming summit shot, all smiles and no pain, brother! This is me and Doug on Coquihalla Mountain in 2015. Reaching summits has never seemed to be our biggest concern in the mountains. We seem more concerned with good jokes and cold beer, which I think is why we’ve been successful

The year 2009 also brings to mind one of the more strange and happy days of my life. In September, Chris and I drove up to the North Creek Valley near Pemberton to have a go at Hemionus Mountain. As we hiked up the south ridge on that cold and sunny day, we were treated to some phenomenal scenery. Just as we reached a high sub summit with a commanding view, we made the mistake of sitting down.

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The North Creek Valley is alpine perfection, if you ask me

I had slept only an hour and a half the night before and Chris had been doing a lot of trekking the weeks before as well. Though we might have had the summit, instead we just kicked back, relaxed, and let it all sink in. This was the first time I’d ever done that on a mountain trip, and it was outstanding! We laughed a lot, and then strolled back down after a while. Some of my friends were a little incredulous, wondering why we would drive all that way and not at least try a little harder. I just shrugged, to us it had seemed right. Still does.

Then there was Ring Mountain, a dormant volcano in the Squamish Valley. I set out with Doug, Denis, and Chris on a spectacular spring day in 2010 with the goal of standing atop this tuya. The year before, Doug, Chris, and I had approached it from the Callaghan Valley, and due to a lot of faffing around on the wrong side of the mountain we had already spent a fair amount of time on the objective.

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Chris approaching Ring Mountain in 2009. I guess we are both 0 for 2 on this mountain, come to think of it!

I was to fail again that day, as despite Doug’s stellar efforts at breaking trail I simply did not have the strength to follow.  What I didn’t know at the time was that I had previously picked up a very devious intestinal parasite which only affected me especially in times of hard physical effort. With it came chills, shuddering, fever, nausea, and sometimes the complete and random evacuation of my bowels. That day featured all of the above. While Doug and Denis reached the summit, I waited below, cursing my fortune. In fact, I was damned angry! Chris also had to turn around on that day, but it was more a matter of time constraint, not for lack of strength. Current score: Ring Mountain 2 Mick 0.

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This view of Ashlu Mountain was as good as it was going to get for me on my second attempt at Ring Mountain. I sat in the snow for over an hour while my head was spinning

Only months later, I would make an attempt of Mt Bardean and Mt Ratney with Gerry and Sabine that turned out to be all too familiar. In those days I was pushing the envelope on every trip, and surviving on the absolute minimum of sleep.

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The summit of Bardean was only half an hour away, but I would not see it that day

My wife and I raise a son with autism, you see, and for the better part of about 20 years, we lived in a partial state of exhaustion. I made it to within just 150m of Bardean’s summit that day, but could go no further.

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A pretty nice place to take a nap, if you ask me

It wasn’t as bad as all that though, because I enjoyed a 90 minute nap in an idyllic alpine meadow while Sabine and Gerry climbed the two peaks. I’ve not managed a return yet, but would love to try again!

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Illal Mountain October 2008, Gerry’s wearing the red toque!… Photo by Silvia Bakovic

Curiously enough, since 2010, every summit I have attempted has been met with success and for the most part with far less difficulty. As time has passed, I don’t get up mountains with the quite the same speed I did in younger days. Who does? What I do is finish off the efforts with a combination of persistence and well, more persistence. I live by two important mantras: “Just put one foot in front of the other” and “Those beers down at the truck aren’t gonna drink themselves!”

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Me ascending the steep gully below the west ridge of Chanter                                                Photo by Simon C

 

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Hey, in the end, it’s all about the tailgating! This is Denis, me, and Ted after climbing Mt Gillespie in 2012

 

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “On Standing Down”

  1. I actually really love these tales. We all have lists of failures, but tend to share them less often than the stories when everything goes to plan. I love that you are keen to go back and re-visit the peaks that you didn’t quite reach. I always feel that way too. 😀

    So far this year I have changed plans and adapted several times, but we somehow still had fun each time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess I see it as being real, after all, you can’t develop character without adversity and failure. It’s all good as long as you’re doing it for the right reasons. As an example, I’m very much into fitness and hiking but I don’t really care about the Strava scene or racing. I just like getting outside and exploring!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s great to hear about the trips that didn’t work out otherwise we begin to assume that every trip is (and must be) successful. More people, and especially beginners, need to hear that it’s okay to turn around – “the mountain will always be there” is a bit of a cliche, but it’s (usually!) true.

    Liked by 1 person

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