This story was originally published in the Summer 2012 version of Mountain Outlaw magazine.
By Chris Bangs, Mountain Outlaw Contributor
As I paused at the edge of the bergschrund, that crack between the ice face above and the glacier below, I looked down into the icy void and remembered why most people don’t climb alone.
When I looked up, the massive North Face of Mount Athabasca soared above me into the horizon, covered in ice. It was seven in the morning on the last week of September, and I had just made the approach hike up from the Columbia Glacier on the Icefields Parkway in Jasper National Park, Canada. I focused again at my feet, this time to make sure of my steps as I spanned the void of the
I swung myself onto the vertical ice face in front of me. A few hard moves of hammering my ice tools into the blue glacier and pulling up with my arms got me past the initial ice bulge that guarded the rest of the climb.
Resting for a moment, I searched through my mind and heart for any sign that I was in the wrong place, or any reason why I shouldn’t continue. This was my first time on the Hourglass route on Mount Athabasca and I felt fantastic. My passions and desires were engulfing me in this perfect moment. I decided it was all right to keep moving. I started climbing quickly, working to overcome the intense cold. I was a little underdressed, but I wasn’t about to turn back.
Three months ago I left home in Montana on my bicycle, headed for the Canadian Rockies in hopes of climbing some of the highest peaks in this impressive and daunting mountain range. Because this four-month expedition was human-powered, I had pared down my equipment to the bare essentials. I was climbing in lightweight boots, thin fleece gloves, and without the back up of a good thick rope.
Halfway up, my feet were freezing. I was dressed in all my clothes, including my down coat. I kept looking up the face, and then down below me, in awe of my perspective. I was so small, on such a large expanse of ancient blue frozen water.
Part of my attraction to this route was the beautiful crux of the ‘hourglass’ near the top. There, the ice face pinches down to a mere five meters wide, with vertical rock on one side and an overhanging serac, or cap of ice, on the other. The pure blue glacier ice spills through this hourglass, about 75 degrees in steepness for 100 feet.
By the time I reached that spot, I was in the flow of movement. In the middle of the hourglass, I was 1,000 feet above the bergschrund. I looked behind me and saw the air swirl as I experienced a bit of vertigo from my high perch. I felt as though I was a bird of the high peaks, soaring through space.
As my mind swirled, I tightened my grip on my ice tools and then recaptured my attention on the task of climbing. This is why I had come here. I’d imagined this moment for months. Imagining what it would be like to be alone, and committed to something so utterly fantastic as a mountain of this magnitude.
A mixture of intense physical cold, combined with an intense joy that only comes from being right next to my greatest fears swept over me. If I slipped, literally or figuratively, I would not return home. I was committed, and I loved every moment.
Another hour later, I stepped onto the summit and into the sunshine. The years training and dreaming had paid off. I was safe. My mind had not slipped, and the pleasure of being alive became a trophy I would forever own. I had not come here to conquer mountains. I’d come to conquer parts of myself.
I pulled off my boots and began to massage my feet, bringing back feeling to my frozen toes. As I sat absorbing the sun and the mountains around me, a song I heard a week earlier popped into my head.
I began to sing “Calling all Angels” by the ‘90s rock band Train. It seemed to fit. Then something flew directly over my head. A large black raven swooped in, landed 10 feet away from me and nodded in my direction.
“Hello there, my friend. Congratulations—you didn’t die,” she said to me through her eyes.
The raven and I hung out for 15 minutes, talking and nodding back and forth at one another. Then my new friend opened her wings and was gently picked up into the sky above, leaving me bewildered and in awe of my life and the day I just experienced.
I thought about how I had gotten here—about the bike ride from Montana, the years of climbing, and about how I got started doing self-supported climbing expeditions. In search of finding the feeling of absolute freedom, this had been my life for years: spending months riding around on my bicycle, climbing mountains for the joy of it. I silently thanked the raven as I began descending the mountain.
The next couple days were not as perfect.
The feeling in my toes didn’t return, and I was worried that I might be getting frostbite. The bike ride north from Athabasca to Mount Robson was wet and cold. The temperatures were dropping every day, and the thought of getting caught on my bicycle in a big snowstorm in October began to paralyze me.
My journey was not over. My grand objective was to climb Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. I wanted to give the north face route a shot, but now I had the feeling it wasn’t going to happen. Yet I kept riding north, hoping the weather and my toes would improve.
On the night of October 4, the sky was clear and moon was full. It was -10 degrees Celsius, but I hadn’t done a full moon ride yet on this trip, so I planned to pedal from Jasper up the highway into Mount Robson Provincial Park.
I slept on the side of the road for six hours and woke at midnight. The highway was empty except for the occasional semi truck. I’m sure I looked hilarious riding in all my clothes and three big fleece hats, but I was warm enough, and having a great time under the full moon and crystal clear sky, surrounded by the heart of the Canadian Rockies.
At about 4 a.m., the earth began to shake and tremble around me, and I heard a thunderous roar on my left. The cold chill in my body churned with adrenaline as I looked over my shoulder. Elk.
The first one ran by me, then the entire herd overtook me. The sound of their hooves on the road pounded in my ears, and I began to howl and yip and sing out loud. They surrounded me as they crossed the road and ran up a hillside to my right.
After riding five hours, I rounded the final corner into Mount Robson Provincial Park and took in my first view of the mountain, the king of the Rocky Mountains.
Humbled, I said thank you and paid a silent homage to the mountain and to my journey. Maybe someday I’ll be ready, but I knew this was not the time for me to climb that mountain. My adventure was complete.
Chris Bangs lives in Bozeman and is the owner of Human-Powered Mountaineers Inc., a grassroots business dedicated to promoting local organic farming through the challenge of cycling and mountaineering expeditions. Visit humanpoweredmountaineers.blogspot.com to learn more.