Climbing is not just a sport or a pastime. It is a lifestyle of its own, offering a unique perspective of the world around us. It draws away focus from triviality and forces an examination of yourself and the obstacles in front of you. The idea of being suspended high above the world, fingers connected to the earth, open air beneath you, and the knowledge that in that moment it is just you and nature, is a more than humbling notion.
I started climbing at a crossroads in my life. I was attracted to the physical aspects of the strong, graceful movements, but even more so to the art of the fluid puzzle solving and ingrained element of fear. While training assists with the physical challenges, the mental tribulations are much greater. Climbing requires self-analysis, recognition of doubt, and acceptance of being. For every defeat there is a greater success and I learn something new about myself every moment on the rock. Climbing has helped me regain my self-identity, pursue my passion, and connect deeply with the world around me.
Being out in nature has always soothed me. I close my eyes, breathing in the deep piney scents of the surrounding forest, absorbing the scattered sun rays filtering down through their canopies, and I am calm. But it is only when I reach up, place my chalked fingers onto the first course granite hold, and turn my thoughts inward, that I am truly at peace. In that moment, surrounded by nature and confronted with the inherently primal challenge ahead, I am connected to something far beyond recognition. My mind is free of the outside world, worries pushed to the darkest recesses of memory, nerves tingling as they are forced to ignite in the perfect maintenance of composure.
My mind shifts upwards before my fingers, always one step ahead, analyzing the rock, sequencing the movements. My body is close behind, filling the empty puzzles with substance, floating upwards across the featured slab. Soon I am far from the ground, encompassed by the sea of rock and elements around me. That familiar fear tries to creep across my conscience; human nature’s attempt at fraying composition. But in this place, I cannot be afraid. The fear of falling and injury are omnipresent factors prevented with by pervasive focus. Self-preservation keeps me from panicking. I slow my breathing, manoeuver the crux, and continue climbing. The only way is up and it is the simplicity of that thought within such a complex matrix of difficulty that attributes to success.
My most memorable climbing experience took place in July 2016. I was awarded a grant from the American Alpine Club and provided the opportunity to travel to British Columbia, Canada, to attempt an ascent of the 1,200ft Bugaboo Spire. Not only was the spire intimidating, it was also located in one of the farthest removed places from civilization. Two hours of driving from Banff, Canada leads to an unmarked dirt road that then plunges deep across the Canadian Rockies into the heart of Bugaboo Provincial Park.
The road winds far into the wilderness and finally dead ends at a parking lot. There is one trail that meanders from the lot through the delicate alpine garden up to the base of the Bugaboo Mountains. We were planning on staying four days up top and had to pack all of our survival supplies on our backs, then haul them for three hours up 3,000ft of elevation gain to the climbing campground.
Glacial lakes stretched from our feet to the base of the looming granite spires etched like paintings across the cloud matted sky. Snow sprinkled the area in vibrant patches and contrasted the crystalline blue of the water, setting the luminescent background of this ethereal landscape.
It was like looking at a postcard, untainted beauty captured neatly upon a glossy frame. I had never in my life seen anything like this place and have to believe there are very few locations in the world that compare.
For a week we camped on the designated rocky platform not far from the tiers of the lakes, shadowed by the great spires that encircle the area, our tent just one of about a dozen world-class mountaineers. Applebee Campground is the Hollywood of alpine climbing. We spent the first few days warming up on nearby routes, adapting to the rock, and making ascent plans fringing on unexpected bouts of inclement weather. It was on our last day that we attempted to climb Bugaboo Spire.
We rose at 4am to the coldest weather of the week and a velvet, encompassing darkness. Clouds shrouded the spires, draping the area in a curtain of foreboding. Wary but determined, we headed out of the campground. It was a two hour trek to the base of the ridge, weighted down in goose feather layers, waterproof shells, and crampons scraping for traction across the icy granite. We had climbed up the ridge and snowy col to the base of the spire when it started hailing. The clouds retained their eerie grasp upon the peaks. It was only then I had to accept that it would be too dangerous to press onwards. Once we started climbing up the actual rock face, there would be no way to get back down. We would be forced to ascend the spire, traverse across the top, and descend the other side in the rising probability of harrowing weather.
That moment was the most difficult yet rewarding anecdote of my climbing career thus far. The feeling of failure was raw and heavy on my heart. I cursed the elements and their hold upon the mountain, but it left me empty. I had to accept that out here in nature, far removed from civilization, I was not in control. That I could never be or hope to be in control. Nature is a gift to us and we can only share in its beauty, not fight against it. I realized that just having the opportunity to be in this place, far removed from the touch of man, surrounded in the allure of mountains people only dream of, is more than enough.
So I keep climbing, exploring new, uncharted destinations, striving for that next perfect moment, while remaining constantly humbled by the rock through this crazy, marvelous mystery of life.