How can you explain to someone that has not felt it? The moments when your consciousness expands and you see and feel things that you did not think were possible. Even yourself, a few days removed, cannot quite grasp onto the feeling exactly. It slides past your consciousness, past your mind, past your language, and only leaves a reverberation across your body. A simple fact – you know that the feeling once existed.
I can scarcely explain it to myself. I can only trace small points that make up a much grander vision. I can recall the vast expanse of glacier below me. I can remember a fissure through the granite, cutting a line towards the sky. I can replay the response of my warm hand to the cold hard corner of rock as I balanced the expanse to my right and the chasm to my left. But it is another feat, to find the reason and meaning in between those small points.
The Familiar Pull
After scoping out the approach to our climb, Erik and I returned back to Applebee Dome to set up camp and try and get some rest. The Bugaboos were buzzing with activity. This time of year, late July, was prime season and there was barely a spot to set a tent. I was happy to set up a solitary spot for my bivy sack away from Erik and his wife, Nicole. Normally, I crave company, but in the presence of the largest and scariest mountains I had ever laid eyes upon I was feeling demur. Big Up Productions was in the Bugaboos to film Matt Segal and Will Stanhope’s attempt to free climb the Tom Egan Memorial Route, a 13 pitch, 5.14, dead vertical climb with “barely passable” and “laser etched” finger cracks and traverses. The notion that something as hard as the Tom Egan Memorial Route is humanly possible, put my mind at ease but left my stomach in knots. Just as I couldn’t have imagined climbing the Bugaboo Spire two years ago when I started climbing, there was a time when something like freeing the Tom Egan Memorial Route seemed impossible to anyone really.
Before settling down for the night, I did the thing that calms me down and reminds me that I am prepared – sort gear. The day before, at the car, we had split our gear so we wouldn’t have to bring up two whole racks. After deciding which cams to bring, I asked Erik if he had a set of stoppers and he said, “Sure I will bring mine.” That night at Applebee Dome, we were breaking the gear back down into the leader pack, when I noticed something was off about the stoppers. There was only about 6 of them racked on one carabiner – all random sizes (13, 9, 6, 5, etc). Holding the paltry set of stoppers in my hand, I asked, “Where are the rest of these?” Erik looked at the set, and stated, “That looks about right, what are we missing?” “How about half the set!” I responded, incredulous. Erik set about counting the stoppers, “Oh, I guess there are a few missing there. Oh well, who uses those things anyways?” It became the mantra for anything we forgot, overlooked, or messed up, “Who needs these anyways.”
I tucked into my bivy sack that night, feeling a familiar pull in two opposing directions. I am pulled toward the things that I am comfortable with: the leisurely mornings sipping tea and gentle hikes around camp; weather setting in and preventing a climb; the dejected walk back to the van, having done nothing. But I am also pulled toward things that scare me: the hastily eaten breakfast sitting uncomfortably in my stomach; gulps of air that seem never to quite fill my lungs; the excitement of the unknown.
Fire in the mind
Months removed from the Bugaboos, I sat at the campfire’s edge grateful for the embers entrancing those around me. My thoughts couldn’t detach from the mountains. I continually felt the sting of my inability to connect with people, and even as far away as the Bugaboos were, they formed a permanent boundary between me and everyone else. I could thankfully stare into the glowing fire and not have to speak at any length. I was at a family gathering at my Dad’s new lake house, and I was in unfamiliar territory. For as long as I could remember, I wanted to stand out in any crowd. I desperately sought the approval of everyone: family, friends, and acquaintances. The approval of others was almost exclusively the reason for trying so hard. Whether it be working hard in school, as I suspect every child does for the satisfaction of their parents. Or in artistic endeavors, for the acknowledgement that your creation is worthwhile. Or in athletics, for the recognition that you are exceptional among your peers. Or as a compassionate human, that someone knows you are taking care of those around you. Such were the achievements that I had been reporting to my family for 30 years, eagerly waiting for approval.
This night, I felt as if I spoke a different language. Each time I recounted a vision from the Bugaboos, my mind set ablaze and I was sure that the fire could be seen for miles. But I could not elicit an impassioned reaction. It was as if I immolated in front of everyone, and they responded, “That looks fun.” After that night, I was content to leave the fire in my own mind.
Dawn and Desire
One hour before dawn, Erik and I met up at our gear stash, and after a quick bite to eat, got under way. We had our work cut out for us. The Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo Spire is not quite a test piece at 11 pitches, Grade IV/5.8. But the route is well known for being a very long day out even for experienced mountaineers. The approach is not tricky but includes 400 feet of simul climbing to gain the col before the technical pitches start. And the traverse between the North and South Summits is well known for not being straightforward. We had heard that onsighting the descent on the South side can be tricky. And to top it off, the standard descent from the Bugaboo-Snowpatch col was out due to a low snow year, which forced us to add a few miles of glacier travel around the far side of Snowpatch Spire. A few miles of glacier travel that was almost assuredly going to be in fading light at best. Oh, and I had never set foot on a glacier until that day.
As I followed Erik up the early simul pitches, my nerves started to calm down, partly thanks to some sunrise humor from Erik. I came across a stopper placement, with all of the other stoppers left on the carabiner. “Who needs these anyways.” It was just what I needed before I was about to lead the crux first pitch. Fizzing, I charged into the first pitch not quite realizing that I was off route. My hand probed through moss and jammed behind a hollow flake that flexed under my weight. I peered to my right and saw where I should be and began a dance to try and regain the route. My little dance took one too many steps and I ended up taking a fall. Adrenaline coursed through my veins as I struggled to meter it out over my block of pitches. My block ended and I exhaled and gasped in relief, feeling as if I had held my breath since the fall. I had to resist the urge to nap as I brought Erik up to meet me just below the halfway point of our climb. The thin rope slid through the belay device with not enough effort to keep my attention. I got my first look at the Vowell Glacier as the last drips of adrenaline faded from my body.
Maybe it was the peculiar mixture of fight or flight hormones mixing in my body. And maybe it was because the crux was complete and we were sitting on a spacious ledge. Or maybe it was seeing the biggest and most powerful thing I had ever laid eyes upon, the Vowell Glacier. But one of these ingredients or a cocktail of these things have etched this moment into my consciousness like few other events in my life. Like running through glades of cattails with my childhood friends sending sprays of water showering around us as we fought imagined battles. And finding myself alone for the first time in my life, so enrapt by the wonder of tadpoles that I looked up to find no one around. And finding pure and beautiful effort, bicycling to beat the sunset to the last ridgeline only months after my mother’s death. In those moments, as on that ledge, I was present.
Erik and I simul climbed most of the remainder of the route and started the traverse. The summit itself was meaningless to me, and we hurried on to the descent. The walk between rappels on the Kain Route of the Bugaboo Spire was equally as breathtaking as the first time seeing the Vowell Glacier. When walking a ridgeline like that it is easy to feel like every feature was crafted for your hands and for your feet. We walked with the abyss to our left and to our right, the perfect arcing precipice forming a handrail that cut a more beautiful line than any architect could ever dream. I could have walked that ridgeline all day, such was my satisfaction with our effort and our surroundings, but the reality was that with the standard descent unsafe we still had a long day still ahead of us. The trudge across the Upper Vowell Glacier, Snowpatch Spire rappels, and nighttime navigation of the Bugaboo Glacier drifted by like a dream, as the sun set on us. Tired and hungry we stumbled back into the safety of the Conrad Kain Hut.
The day after our climb I was content to do or not do anything. The sun came far too soon and the cramped quarters of the hut provided little maneuvering room for the early rising neighbors around me. The top floor of the hut was buzzing with the excitement of one more day to tackle a goal before weather turned bad again. My neck arched toward the window above my head to catch the last fleeting streaks of sun and blue as the clouds lowered onto the glaciers. The Northeast Ridge of the Bugaboo Spire was the first objective that I had obsessed over and coveted so much. Not just in climbing, but in all my life. I had covered my desk at work with topos and beautiful photographs of the spire. I had even explained to anyone who was willing to listen: the what, the when, and the whys of our trip. And if you would have asked me before the start, I would have thought that I was going to be stoked to race back to tell everyone of our success. But at that moment, I wasn’t ready to go back to the world. And I wasn’t yet prepared to explain anything about yesterday. As it turns out, I might never be.
A few days after our climb, we arrived at Calgary Airport to pick up my wife, Lindsay. She was nervously waiting for our call when we left the Bugaboos, and now I was anxiously driving to get her. It is a common theme in our relationship. I come back from an adventure somewhere, and I feel as if I am full to the brim; full of life, energy, and excitement. However; this was the first time in our years of adventuring, mountain biking, climbing, that I just could not explain myself in a way that I felt did the experience justice. On the drive back to the mountains, we talked about the experience from a 10,000 foot view. On small hikes, we talked about the feelings from the experience: the fear, the joy, the excitement. But as we started our multiple day hike of the Rockwall Trail in Kootenay National Park, I could convey no further understanding. And it frustrated me. What I craved most after my time in the mountains was to share my experience. And most of all I craved sharing this experience with Lindsay. And I tried. I told her about the first time gaining the ridge and looking out onto the Vowell Glacier. About how seeing something so big, so suddenly, and from such a spectacular position opened something inside me that I seldom see. But those are just words and fall astonishingly short of the truth. And I knew it as soon as I said them. It was no fault of Lindsay’s, I was just not going to be able to convey the truth in a way that I felt was meaningful.
After this realization, I began to lag behind the group as we hiked. I used the time to really think about my experience, to try to figure out a way that I could show the people I loved how meaningful it had been. I spent hours trying to work it out in my mind. I had no lack of inspiration as we walked along the east side of the Rockwall to Wolverine Pass. This stretch of trail is among the most scenic in the world and offers stunning views of the Canadian Rockies. But by the time we reconvened near Wolverine Pass, I had no further answers.
We hiked a bit off the main trail to gain Wolverine Pass proper, which cuts through giant limestone monoliths on either side. Wolverine Pass was our one chance to see through the Rockwall to the west side. We sat down to have lunch on top of the pass. To my surprise, as we looked to the west, we could faintly make out the striking features of the Bugaboo and Snowpatch Spires, 50 kilometers away. I excitedly started pointing out features of the spires to Lindsay. For a moment, our route was crystal clear, the sun striking the southeast of the spire, leaving the ridge a dark knife jutting towards the sky. But as I pointed and stammered, a few clouds moved in making the route less and less obvious. I fell quiet, squinting into the distance, as the sunlight in the Bugaboos was blotted out entirely. All that remained was a vague notion. Something truly great was hidden by those shadows.
Authored by Andy Munas