because this story is a bit long, i'm going to break it into two parts even though the parts are inextricably linked and are, as i understand-experienced, two faces to the same coin. also, be forewarned that the first half of the story is filled with some pretty boneheaded mistakes. as such, i hope it is received with the spirit of compassion-humility that i am intending to tell it from…
Mt. Joffre’s North Face: a cautionary spanking
0. classical arcs.
have you ever "lost it all"?
i suspect every human must experience on some level, at some point in their life, what to them feels like they've lost it all.
while it's easy to share stories of daring do and daring don't, it’s often harder to be honest about where the most dramatic of those stories, that shape us for years to come, truly bubbled up to the surface from. sometimes this is because we don't have conscious access to those depths… and sometimes it's because being truly vulnerable and honestly speaking to our understanding of the waters flowing beneath the surface, opens us to the sometimes frightening complexity that is other humans.
so while i won't completely expose my softened underbelly, the roots to these stories are pretty straight forward and in some ways classically trite...
even if it did take a couple years to have the necessary perspective on them in order that i might hope to have a better ability to articulate some of the collision course that resulted in the lived hopes/fears/dreams/nightmares… that occurred on twoish days in the early spring of 2015.
you see the classic trajectory of the greater foundational story follows a familiar arc:
boy meets girl.
boy loves girl and girl loves boy.
boy and girl live together saying fUck it: we don't need no gawd damned papers to certify the commitment we've already made privately to each other.
boy and girl get sick of sleeping in separate bedrooms while visiting fundamentalist christian grandmas so rationalize a public celebration that also happens to include signing some damn papers.
boy and girl have beautiful wedding in the mountains.
boy and girl struggle together for close to twenty years to fight themselves out of some first world poverty. [ie. parallel to first world problems, it is a type of poverty that spiritually/emotionally enslaves at the same time that it rarely physically starves]
boy and girl have magical adventures together during those twentyish years that are both mind bogglingly beautiful at the same time that they are sometimes horrifically painful.
also after a few of those early years, boy accepts/admits both to themselves and to the girl the depth of the gender dysphoria they’ve felt for as long as they have had memories.
and then the boy/girl makes repeated promises to the girl to sort out who they are... soon.
i thought this was supposed to be following a "familiar arc"?
well, every familiar arc has unique and peculiar twists...
and the above was one of ours.
now, this is where a kafkaesque metamorphosis-like shell is going to be pulled back over the softened underbelly.
and so i'm going to skip to the end of the arc as far as it pertains to establishing the foundation for the two stories that follow:
girl waits for years for "soon" to happen.
girl and boy/girl gain footholds on escaping said first world poverty.
boy/girl rolls dice with their business and temporarily comes up snake eyes.
girl is, in retrospect view from the boy/girl, on basically every front without hope and broken hearted, and so after two decades asks for a divorce.
boy/girl in trying to keep their head above water, had missed, what in retrospect were, obvious signs of the coming of the above and is filled with a capsize threatening rage and humiliation that the loss of long dreamt for children and in general a now apparently lost but hard and long fought for future must bring.
well, this is kind of an awkward and shitty start to a story…
and for the climbers in the room: it’s probably looking from the outside like we're headed towards the classic "human who just left long term relationship throws themselves into soloing scary shIt because they don’t care whether they live or die" arc then, eh?
because, i understand, that on the surface... it could be read that way...
it would however, be an only book cover deep reading.
when a person loses "everything"... in part due to their own doing, and also seemingly in part not... they have two general options:
lash out or lash in.
i didn't lash in because i'm a "better" person than others who lash out. in all fact, from my perspective, that is the greatest mystery to this story: what is the difference between those who "fall down" [0.1: in the michael douglas sense of the phrase] and those who roast themselves over coals of their own making?
while i hope i'll never judge another human after seeing some of the depths of my own potential, i also have no solid idea why the rage resulting from the loss of a hard fought for, but now lost future, was [mostly] turned inward, rather than outward.
1. going to war.
[while inhaling through the nose]
the smell of melodramatic napalm in the morning.
no, i didn't retreat to the jungles of the lower bc mainland and start to stockpile small and medium sized arms so that i could overthrow my oppressors.
but that was only because i didn't see oppressors so much as i saw systemic cancer.
and that cancer wasn't just outside of myself.
it was also embodied by the human i have no choice but to know the best… the one who had too often engaged in a life that had been lived "for a future".
and so therefore… a life that too much of the time had been lived to one degree or another with an attempt to control… an attempt to control a future that was now… no thing.
so... no time like the ever present present to be who i'd mostly always understood/believed a significant portion of myself to have been.
and so i returned to the mountains that i had both night/day-dreamed about [with a regularity that had verged on the continuous] throughout my life.
and i started to plot intended paths that would allow me to, if i was lucky, live some of those oft postponed dreams [1.1].
2. sleeping in the parking lot.
beep....... beep........ beeeep........ beeeeeeeep....... beeeeeeeeeep!
gawd damned mother fUckin alarm…
do you have a mountain [metaphoric or physical] that you're impossibly and inexplicably intertwined with?
one of those mountains that you attempt over and over and over… but never have full summiting success with… at the same time that you never fail at completely… and so you continue to learn on and so continue to return to?
because of the way i've chosen to attempt it, kananaskis country’s mt. joffre is one of two physical mountains that have, to date, served in that role for me.
and so over the years i've made a number of attempts with varying degrees of commitment on this [only partially] albertan peak. the first attempt almost got turned around in the parking lot because my brother forgot his gloves... a couple were turned around by weather… at least one by route finding failures on the hike in...
you get the picture: the type of attempts that occur along the road towards any truly worthwhile adventure.
the only thing that stayed constant was the how: joffre had to be single pushed. 28ish km round trip and 1750m of gain with some tricky navigating through a bermuda triangle like area that has at times temporarily left me turned sideways… and combined with some tricky avy hazard early in the approach to keep things committed/complicated.
but also very doable. this 3450m, highest point in the portion of the canadian rockies south of mt assiniboine, was first climbed in 1919 by feuz [2.1] and hickson [2.2] with the north face proper not being climbed until a winter ascent in 1970 by grassman, jones and simpson [even though it is technically not much more difficult than feuz and hickson's ridge route].
finally, the skiing crux, consisting of a 45ish degree at its steepest, 400 or so metre north face was first tackled by the legendary doug ward [2.3] in either 1978 or 79.
so in good conditions the theory was no technical axes would be needed because “if you can ski it, you can climb it with one axe”.
but all in all, still a solid adventure to do in a skiing push [even though it is somewhat regularly done in a push these days]. one that requires patience to allow for the necessary but tricky to find suitable conditions to coalesce, in order that both the route findy "lowlands" and the glacier covered "highlands" are in nick.
3. smokin’... after a [very] late start.
after having first awoken to feelings of indifference [i try to make it a rule, not to solo the deeply personally adventurous on anything but a belly full of desire] and shutting the alarm off at god awful hours of the morning, i had once again crashed back to sleep and slept soundly.
as people started to arrive in the parking lot i finally woke back up. it was late, like 11:00, but i figured i was already there, so i should at least do another scouting run of the first half and sort out some of the route finding as i was kind of pumped and it looked to be a beautiful day.
i geared up and headed down the trail.
and it was beautiful.
fast conditions had me making it across upper kananaskis lake, past hidden lake, through the exposed cliffy area [3.1], successfully navigating the bermuda triangle and then heading out onto the frozen aster lake.
as i boogied across, i started to salivate... and rationalize:
sure it was a late start... but i'll just go a little farther.
see what's around the next corner as it were...
and so i kept on efficiently plodding.
after making it across aster lake [3.2] i started a steady climb up the side of a rounded ridge [3.3] which eventually deposited me onto the mangin glacier just below joffre's north face [3.4].
with about 1000m gained and a little over 10km skied in 5 hr the full ascent seemed tantalizingly within reach.
shIt... at this rate i had thoughts of a sub 10 hr round trip...
hahahahaha... hahahahaha… ha!
4. a human tractor pull.
you ever seen one o' them there tractor pull competitions? the ones where the weight keeps moving up a sled and though the tractor keeps pulling harder and harder… spinning its wheels faster and faster… forward progress suddenly grinds to a halt?
if some of you city slickers haven't made it down to the county fair, i'll attach a vid at the end of these words for your edification... and for the hillbillies who know what i'm a talkin’ about i've made sure it is a vid of crashes to hopefully keep you entertained as well… [4.1]
well that's what i started to experience as i approached the base of the face. very subtly at first, but consistently becoming worse. soon i was stopping after every hundred, then fifty, then etc ski steps even though the slope angle was still only 10 or 20 degrees.
what i didn't realize [at the time] was that i was starting to have mild then serious heatstroke.
i hadn't been pushing it very hard, but the sun was beating down pretty good, i had taken my shades off, i was't wearing sunscreen and most importantly: i have at certain points in my life been v.e.r.y. susceptible to heat stroke. like, if the sun shone its rays on me i'd immediately have to cross to the shaded side of the street to stop the pains that would suddenly start to shoot up the back of my neck, type of very susceptible to heat stroke. [i'm sure it sounds crazy, but is true].
but i'd come so far and the summit was so close!
and i didn't really realize what was happening… and so i just thought i was a bit tired or maybe feeling a bit of the elevation.
yes: not only did i have heat stroke but i'd also come down with a bad case of summit fever as well.
given what was to follow, it’s not a combination i can recommend…
and so despite the ridiculous amounts of time it was taking i kept working my way up the face [4.2]. when i got to the steeper sections i avoided what looked to be pockets of more recently deposited snow in possible thin slabs and stuck to the greyer styrofoam snow, telling myself to remember to pick my way back down on skis the same way i was coming up.
5. I may have slept with Satan last night.
as i was standing on the summit [5.1] my isolation was rudely but beautifully interrupted.
i'd left my phone on as there was no coverage at the kananaskis lakes starting point, let alone during the approach… and so i had it on only for fast picture taking and time checks.
so i was very surprised when in one of the most isolated and alien landscapes that i have ever been in… and as clouds rolled in and nightfall approached, i suddenly heard the familiar ring of a text coming in [5.2].
here is all it said:
"I may have slept with Satan last night. I love my life."
i probably should have taken this as a warning or an omen, but at the time it seemed pretty funny.
especially if i could tell you the whole back story... but it's a bit too much of a digression so it will have to suffice to say that i felt a deep kinship with the person who sent it as i was in that moment in a place that was beyond wild.
and while i wasn't currently sleeping with a satan i knew given the internal and external conditions that were developing, there was a good chance i was about to dance with him.
6. breath caught in my throat.
as i started to ski down the top of the face, the sky rapidly darkened both due to the setting sun, but also due to the clouds that were starting to drop big fat lazy falling flakes.
i just needed to get off the face and i should be good, i told myself.
as i rounded the cliff band that is near to the top and committed to the steepest part of the face it became so dark that i couldn't see my tracks from the way up.
and suddenly, as the snow changed underfoot, i knew what i had done.
i immediately froze in my tracks.
i probably stopped breathing as well.
without realizing it at first, i had committed to an area of the white snow i had avoided on the way up. as i slammed my light touring axe in, it was clear i was no longer on the consolidated styrofoam, but was rather on a layer of snow about 4-6" deep that was seemingly wind deposited and slab like in consistency.
and as i pushed the snow away it was evident that that snow was over top of ice.
not just classic snice.
but straight up “blue” water ice.
i had no idea how the snow was bonded to the ice in a strong enough fashion that on the 45ish degree slope with hundreds of metres reaching out below me, the snow didn't just shear off.
with no confidence that the snow would support the aggressive turns that the descent was going to require at that point on the face, i slammed my "kiddie" axe in even further.
and with a promise to myself that i'd never allow myself to be in a position like this without technical ice axes ever again, i gingerly began to take my skis off and replace them with crampons.
during a period where time stretched to what felt like hours [but was probably closer to only a half hour] i quite literally backed my way down the slope until i was confident with the snow and i could one again replace crampons with skis and start skiing again.
7. breathing again.
i had made it off the face.
but now it was nearing pitch black.
and it was snowing fairly significantly.
at least there wasn't a lot of wind... so i could still see what was directly in front of me even if i couldn't see far.
if i could just make it back to aster lake i should be good, i told myself.
but i was exhausted. the descent had left me mentally fried and the heat stroke had left each muscle and thus my body holistically near seized.
one step at a time, i told myself.
as i made it back to where i knew i needed to make it back over the ridge i got confused in the dark by a smaller ridge and once again too late i realized i had committed myself to another unknown.
rather than returning out the valley i had intended, it became apparent i had committed myself to a smaller valley to the west. a valley i had never seen nor been in and with quite a bit of elevation to lose before i would reach aster lake.
and so while the objectively nerve wracking part was that i didn't know if this valley was going to be cliffed out… the more overwhelming part was that in my exhausted state, my mind started to ask questions that in a calmer state i wouldn't have been asking: am i even in the valley i think i'm in? what if this valley heads another direction? and etc
questions that the map and compass told me were fine, but that in my state of paranoia, i wasn't able to fully rule out.
as i continued to work myself down i finally got to what i assumed must be aster lake.
but with the darkness i couldn't be 100% sure as i couldn't see the really big peaks to orient myself and everything i could see looked strangely unfamiliar now coming from the other direction.
but i skied across the flats hoping i knew where i was at.
8. the most beautiful porta potty i hope to ever see.
the title above says it all.
as i neared to what seemed like the end of the lake i saw it.
as the trail is an unsigned one, it was the only human made element that had been apparent at any point on the ski in: a plasticky single person porta potty on a rock outcropping held down by guy wires.
to explain why it was so beautiful you have to understand that for at least a few hours i hadn’t been able to see far enough in front of me to discern features that gave me any confidence that i actually knew where i was at.
and so i had moved through a wildness that was due not only to my dark and storm filled periscope view of the rugged landscape that is that part of kananaskis...
but it was at least equally due to the wildness created by an exhausted body supported mind that couldn’t convince itself it was even headed in the right direction.
the porta potty settled all of that once and for all.
and in that moment it was without question one of the most beautiful things i had ever seen in my life.
like a sailor finally finding their port: i had found my shItter.
the door was jammed open and there was an icy drift that had formed inside the tiny, maybe 3' in diameter, circular porta potty... but i didn't care.
i sat on the drift that covered everything inside and closed the door as best i could.
after eating some food and drinking some water i let myself take a nap.
it is the only time in my life [that i can immediately recall] where i have seriously contemplated a rescue.
i had told a friend prior to leaving that i'd give him a a call by 9:00 the next morning… and so i assumed the cavalry would be called if he didn't hear from me.
i also had a personal locator beacon.
and i didn't care one way or another.
i was so depleted, the potential embarrassment of being rescued from a relatively moderate adventure on which i'd made some very novice mistakes… potentially felt like sweet relief, compared to what i'd just made it through and was feeling in that moment.
i decided to sleep a bit before deciding what to do but it was no small comfort to know i was back in a place that was at least along the expected route that i should be on and that there were people out there who would come after me if i didn't show up in the morning or if i decided to pull the plug on the plb.
9. no thing.
15 or so minutes later i was startled back awake.
i had thrown all my clothes on before closing my eyes, but i was already starting to freeze.
the heat stroke had physically taken almost everything out of me and i could particularly feel that my arms had begun to significantly cool down with my core being not far behind.
if i stayed where i was at i assumed given how quickly i had chilled and therefore how low my metabolism obviously was, that there was a possibility i wouldn't make the morning.
because now there was another new problem: between me and “safety”, the normal route i had ascended was exposed to some significant overhead avalanche terrain. [and yeah, i know, i'm guessing a bunch of you are at this point thinking something along the lines of: "really? can we just get off mr. bones wild ride already?" if it's any consolation... it felt that way in real life too...]
with all of the snow that had been falling i no longer felt comfortable exposing myself to that terrain again. this meant the other alternative was trying to make it around a 150 or so metre clifffy area on the other side of the water icefall centred amphitheatre, that the regular route was on.
and so there was no real choice to make at that point.
and so it was while i worked my way through this area that i reached a state i have never experienced in any of my many enduro challenges over the years.
at some point, what i later understood to be, the internal lizard brain, completely took over.
i no longer felt fear and i no longer had any thoughts or worries about whether or not i had found the best route or not.
at one point after doing some hand over hand tree rappelling going down a route i thought would make it past the tree covered steeps and cliffs, the path ahead disappeared into a literal abyss [9.1].
i peered into it while standing on a precipice…
and felt nothing.
i then had to reclimb about 30' of 60-70 degree 2' deep unsupportive snow. due to the steepness of the slope it meant the snow was up to my arm pits and upward progress mostly involved digging out the snow slope and using trees for upward progress.
just those 30' took me, without any exaggeration, about an hour to reclimb.
during all of that time and pretty much ever since i had left the island of psychological security that had been the porta potty there had been nothing left except, what i understood later to be, pure animal instinct.
just a skeleton, muscle and organs relying on embodied memory to do what had to be done.
i made it back to the van at 4:30 in the morning, a little over 17 hrs after i had left [9.2].
feeling nothing, i crumpled to sleep in the back of the van, careful to set my alarm so i could wake up and drive out to let my friend know i was alright.
beep....... beep........ beeeep........ beeeeeeeep....... beeeeeeeeeep!
the alarm crushed my spirit a short few hours later and in pain i drove back out towards the gas station 30 min down the road and where i knew there was a pay phone.
as i hung up on my friend’s wife letting them know i was safe, i began to weep...
i wept tears that combined at least grief for what had been lost during the last year…
a depth of gratitude for everything my partner had given me over twenty years…
and the relief that i was somehow… despite an accumulation of "small" mistakes that had pushed me further than i had ever experienced before... or ever hope to experience again, still...
still, i was here to experience it all.
and i wept like i'm not sure i had ever wept before...
nor may ever weep again.
[Click to View YouTube Video]
0.1 Opening Scene of Falling Down... "I'm going home."
[Click to View YouTube Video]
4.1 Tractorpulling thanks to MeanMachine803
[under the jurisdiction of coz’s "che guevara power to the common people act", these words, photos and a vid have been shared with thanks to the (whether you know it or not) brothers and sisters i’ve found on ye ole supertaco… (specifically thanks to tarbuster for the recent encouragement)]
[part 2 is now posted here .]