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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!”