by Lisa Toner
WHOOSH! Calm skies become turbulent, jarring me out of my climbing-induced reverie. The wind rips loudly over the sharp ridge upon which I stand, with a sound like tearing canvas. Huddling closer to the wall of cold granite, I pay out rope to my climbing partner – who also happens to be my husband. The rope twitches. He is braving unpleasant territory far above, but is moving up quickly. As I respond automatically to the slight tugs on the rope, my mind begins to swirl with the wind.
I gaze at my surroundings: granite, ice, sky. I realize, as if for the first time, that I am high on the Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo Spire, deep in British Columbia’s Purcell Wilderness. I find myself in this wild landscape thanks to a mixture of premeditation and spontaneity. Only three days ago, we were surfing weather websites. When an unusual high-pressure system appeared, I was prepared. I pulled out the packing list and route descriptions that I had filed away years before. By the next morning, we were driving north across the border into Canada.
At the Bugaboo trailhead, we wrapped our car in chicken wire to prevent the notorious Bugaboo rubber-eating porcupines from dining on its soft parts. We hefted our packs and hiked the steep trail that would take us to the base of the iconic spires and the Applebee Campground.
Our first climb was a fun warm-up on the West Ridge of Pigeon Spire, where we enjoyed easy climbing, classic photos, and even an alpine composting toilet. Over hot chocolate that evening, we gazed at the next day’s objective: the Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo Spire. This is a striking line that climbs 12 pitches up a sharp ridge, traverses a convoluted, knife-edge summit, and descends the other side via the long, technical Kain Route. From camp, we could see the entire route. It looked big.
The alarm rang early. Hurrying from camp in the predawn, we initially felt the frantic “off to the races” feeling one gets when approaching the base of a popular climb. Glancing repeatedly over our shoulders, we preemptively dreaded the inevitable crowds and backups. However, as the sun turned the glaciers pink, we had an eerie realization: nobody else was coming. As we roped up for the first pitch of the climb, it was silent. We would be the only people on the mountain.
As promised, it was amazing: the climbing consisted of enjoyable, aesthetic moves on solid granite. The setting was spectacular due to the exposure and surrounding scenery. It was all that I had imagined. Then, halfway up the route, where our guidebook told us to move right into a series of easy chimneys, a beautiful 5.9 crack variation beckoned us. We climbed it, but failed to reconnect with the chimneys. Instead, we hurried up into increasingly bare and breakable rock, entering the dreaded territory known to climbers as “off-route.”
Now here I am – alone on a windy ledge, thousands of feet above solid ground. I’ve done dozens of long routes in the mountains and usually enjoy the solitude of alpine belays. But I can’t stop staring at our dubious anchor, a horn of rock slung with a thin cordelette, a simple loop of 4-millimeter nylon cord. It breaks nearly every safety rule in the book, but it’s our only option. I look away from the anchor, hoping to find solace in the beautiful scenery, but I only notice the increasingly threatening clouds nearby. The Bugaboos make their own weather and are notorious for sudden, severe thunderstorms. The wind gusts louder, and a cold wave of dread creeps through me as I peer upward, trying to spot Jon. I begin to wonder, Why are we here?
In one sense, the answer is obvious: we are climbers, the weather is good, and this is one of the most coveted moderate routes in North America. I have had my sights set on it ever since I was a 19-year-old newbie climber. When I bought the Mountaineers’ climbing textbook, Freedom of the Hills, I was struck by its iconic cover photo: climbers on Bugaboo Spire. I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be crazy if I climbed that someday?” Subconsciously, I set my mind on writing this climb into my life story.
Climbing is a relatively new human experience. Before the 1800s, mountains were seen as ugly, a curse upon humanity. Today, our eyes are open to the beauty of the mountains and we readily yield to their call to adventure. But why do climbers climb? The mountaineering literature is filled with various attempts to explain this. Some wax poetic about the transcendence of living on the edge in remote places. Others, such as David Roberts, question climbers’ self-absorbed, competitive bent. James Tabor says that climbers want to enter the realm of myth and icon by completing legendary routes.
Perhaps the most famous quote about why we climb is George Mallory’s quip about Everest: “Because it’s there.” People still debate whether this was a flippant comment meant to shoo away reporters, or a simple, yet profound, statement about the human condition.
My personal motivations for climbing are probably a combination of all these, but if I had to summarize it I’d say this: I climb because it takes me into a story that is larger than ordinary life. I was fortunate to have friends and family who were very accomplished climbers. Their speed, efficiency, and skill inspired me, and after going on trips with them I wondered what challenging route I would climb next. I read countless climbing trip reports, whose nonchalant tones and factual descriptions made the climbs sound easy. Few mentioned the fear and emotions that come along with climbing, and though I got scared at least once per trip and witnessed a few serious accidents, I brushed it off, not believing that anything bad would happen to me.
I continued to rack up ascents and my ‘to-climb’ list grew ever longer. The Bugaboos in particular had attained legendary status in my imagination. However, when I find myself belaying my husband into unknown territory, my reasons for climbing no longer seem quite so clear.
As I wait for Jon to finish the pitch, all these things whirl through my mind. It is only noon, and the weather is good so far. We’re living the dream, right? We are slightly off route, but nothing has actually gone wrong. Yet, the wind taunts me, pulling at my jacket and puffing up the clouds nearby. Instead of the usual peace and concentration I feel when I’m high on a belay ledge, I feel incredibly small and empty.
Jon tugs on the rope, interrupting my bleak ruminations. He has reached the top of the pitch! Finally, I can climb up. Quickly, deftly, I organize the gear, don my heavy pack, and begin padding up the steep granite. It feels like 5.10, and the rock is lichen-covered – never a good sign on a popular climb like this, which is usually polished white from thousands of hands and feet. One by one, I remove the sparse pieces of protection Jon placed, clipping them back onto my harness. Tenuously, I balance right as the pitch traverses a lichen-laden blank section. A fall here would result in a serious swing. How did he do this, I wonder in amazement. I yank a lone nut out of a tiny crack, already knowing the answer: he had no other choice.
At last, I see Jon. Through some bold climbing, he has brought us back to the chimneys. Relieved, I snap back into climbing mode, regaining my usual mixture of focus and detachment. Soon, we arrive at the north summit. From here, we rappel once, then embark on a long and wildly exposed traverse. At some points, I shimmy across knife-edged ridges with sheer drops on either side. I revel in the spectacular position, taking photos and peering gleefully downward. It is exhilarating to move confidently over terrain like this. We rappel some more, unrope, and begin climbing, solo, down the Kain Route. The shadows lengthen and we hurry. I grow callous to fear and cruise through down-climbing moves that would normally give me pause. I achieve a state of utter focus and concentration. Finally, we reach the last section and the mental crux for me: the steep, icy Bugaboo-Snowpatch Col, complete with crevasses and ugly pockmarks in the snow from the near-constant barrage of falling rock. I am terrified of steep snow and become tense and overly cautious. More than one rock whizzes by our helmets as we slowly descend.
As darkness envelops the Bugaboos, we stumble back into camp. I’m elated, fatigued, hungry, and…empty. After big climbs I normally feel fully alive, buzzing with possibility, speculating on future adventures. Now, I’m strangely hesitant to look ahead to the next climb. A big goal of mine – perhaps the goal of my climbing life so far – has become reality. Now, it’s a great memory. High on Bugaboo Spire, I confronted the complex mixture of dreams, fear, and elation that is a part of every climber’s experience. It’s an emotional shift that makes me re-think why I climb, even as I dream of returning to the mountains.