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Escalade

“I like the mountains because they make me feel small. They help me sort out what’s important in life.”

Mark Obmascik
Mount Victoria and Abbot Pass, by RedWolf, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Yes, the Rockies can make a prairie boy feel very small. I have returned many times over the years, but more as admirer than adventurer. I am not one of those A-type personalities with a burning urge to conquer peaks, not the least because I have an acute fear of heights. A ladder gives me more than enough of an adrenaline rush to banish any thought of scaling cliff faces.

Requiem for a refuge

If you’ve ever been to, or seen a postcard of, Lake Louise, then you’ve likely also seen Abbot Pass, the glaciated canyon between Mount Lefroy and iconic Mount Victoria. This year marks 100 years since Swiss mountain guides of the Canadian Pacific Railway constructed a solid stone building (for many years the highest habitable structure in Canada) at the top of the pass. I wouldn’t have known that myself, had I not stumbled upon the fascinating March 28th article, Requiem for a Mountain Sanctuary, by Sid Marty.

“Parks Canada did not announce a centennial celebration for the beloved refuge. Instead, the hut will be removed this summer. Like the Lower Victoria Glacier that it overlooks, the hut is yet another casualty of climate change and glacial recession.”

Morning outside the stone refuge (1975)

I was saddened to read of the hut’s passing, not only because it’s yet another casualty of climate change, but because of the memories it triggered of my own overnight there before climbing Mount Victoria in 1975.

“Woah!” you might be thinking. “I thought you said you were scared of heights?”

Well, chalk it up to my being a cocky 22-year-old at the time, with more bravado than brains. The Office national du film du Canada (ONF), the French wing of the National Film Board, was funding amateur projects in 1975, and I had been invited to be the cameraman for documentary that would follow a couple of avid Franco-Manitoban mountaineers in the Canadian Rockies.

“But, my acrophobia might be a problem, non?”

“Don’t worry, you don’t have to do the climbing, only the shooting.”

Magnificent seven-and-a-(better)half

The Seven (and Carol) at the Abbot Pass refuge

The proposed documountainry, Escalade, was the brainchild of two brothers. Then Artistic Director of the Cercle Molière, Roland, would be the film’s Director and one of its two main characters. Our other “star”, André, worked as a teacher and would go on to found the Club d’escalade de Saint-Boniface (CESB), a section of the Alpine Club of Canada.

We were two Guys on the team. A self-employed carpenter at the time, I had been doing quite a bit of amateur film and video in my spare time, and taking two weeks off for the project was pretty easy to arrange. The other Guy was a school principal and, though a climbing neophyte like me, the fittest of us all. He had been enticed to come along as our Production Assistant.


Mountain goat takes a peak

Sound recording fell to Denis, a fearless and effervescent sound technician from Radio-Canada (who I swear was a reincarnated mountain goat).

Our ONF budget allowed us to hire two mountaineering guides. Thank God. Pierre was the most experienced of the two, not very big, but bright, energetic and nimble. Buck was more the strong, silent type, and would prove to be my personal deliverer. More about that later.

Rounding out the group was Carol, André’s wife, who came along for the ride. She joined us on some of our training climbs and kept us clean. She and Buck were the only two on the team who did not speak French. Nobody’s perfect.


The prep

Once we had arrived in Banff National Park, our guides decided that a few training climbs would get us comfortable using our equipment: crampons, ice axes, ropes, harnesses and, of course, my brand new climbing boots. All that gear had me a little concerned.

“Do we really need all this stuff? I’m afraid of heights, remember?

“Don’t worry. Better safe than sorry. You’ll be fine.”

I began to suspect that my apprehensions weren’t being taken too seriously when the climbing helmet they supplied me was too small, and kind of sat on top of my head rather than around it.

“You’ll be fine.”

Did I detect some sniggering in the background?

Then, for some reason, we were short one ice ax.

“No big deal, Guy; we’ll get you a nice stick. You’ll be fine.”

A nice stick?!?

Preparing for the worst

Surveying Mount Victoria from the side of Devil’s Thumb

Some 7 km from the Chateau Lake Louise parking lot is a small 2,458m peak called the Devil’s Thumb, our first training scramble. Full disclosure: I bailed just short of the summit—a bit too scary for me. But the view was spectacular, even from the point where I let the others climb on without me. Surveying Victoria, soon to be the first real mountain in our film, we noticed blocks of snow falling off the base of the glacier that cuts a neat horizontal line across the mountain.

“Some of those are actually the size of a house,” Pierre explained.

“Avalanches are pretty common there on hot, sunny days like today. About 20 years ago, one famously swept four experienced and roped-together Mexican climbers over those cliffs to their deaths a thousand feet below.”

Turns out, that glacier-filled canyon between Mts. Victoria and Lefroy (aka Abbot Pass) is nicknamed The Death Trap.

What had I gotten myself into?

The calm before the storm

The morning we left the Chateau’s parking lot for our first real climb was crisp and sunny. Trudging up Abbot Pass in our crampons, roped together in case one of us should inadvertently fall into one of the glacier’s bottomless crevasses, the day’s destination was the famous stone hut at the pass summit where we would spend the night before our ascent up Mount Victoria.

The star-studded sky viewed from outside the hut that clear night was indescribable.


A string and a prayer

By morning it was decidedly cooler, and the weather had changed. The sky had clouded over and we found ourselves shrouded in mist as we crossed the first snow covered slopes. I took comfort in the snow, feeling better anchored.

That didn’t last long.

Reaching our first rock faces, the mist (and my relative comfort) had disappeared. It was time to rope ourselves together. Visions of those four stringed-together Mexicans flashed though my mind.

Strung out

It would only get worse.

Nearing the top of the south peak, dark clouds started rolling in. Some of us lucky enough to have ice axes asked Pierre why their axes were humming.

“I think we might have a lightning storm coming, so we’ll have to pick up the pace if we want to make the summit.”

Pick up the pace? Keep going in a lightning storm? Wouldn’t it make better sense to head back down?

But we were so close by this point and the others keen enough to reach the top that I was overruled. Now in adrenaline overdrive, we did make it to the summit. But we were so wired and anxious to get down to safety by then that we didn’t even stop to take a single photo, which was OK by me.

The worst

By this point, you would think I’d be relieved to be finally heading back down the mountain, my first ever summit behind me. Our ascent had been on the Alberta side of Mount Victoria, and as we began our descent on the British Columbia side, the sky was clearing. But where we had been face to the rocks on the way up, we had to be back to the mountain coming down. I have never been so scared in all my life— no exaggeration. So much so that I refused to go any further, choosing to die there over a bloody end on the rocks below.

Clearly, I did not perish on Victoria. Thanks to Buck’s patient reassurance and his physically leading me by the hand down the most difficult stretch, I would live to fight another day.

One more mountain to climb

Mount Athabasca, taken from the Columbia Icefield Parkway (2018)

Having survived Victoria, I was determined to not let the team down and told them I would do my best see it through to the end of filming. That meant steeling myself to scaling one more mountain: Athabasca. Pierre assured me that it was a completely different ascent than Victoria. Though physically tough because we’d be trudging through considerably more snow, over a longer day, we would not be facing hair-raising verticals.

Jumping a not-so-hidden crevasse

Because Athabasca is large glaciated peak, we were again roped together for pretty well the whole climb. Even more so than Abbot’s Pass, our route’s hazards included hidden crevasses, potential snow and ice avalanches, and rockfall. The chosen day promised to be sunny and hot. meaning a 3:30 am start so we would not be crossing the avalanche prone stretches at the hottest part of the day.


Defying logic, this time the heights didn’t bother me as much as I had expected. There was no wind, and I felt anchored in the snow, especially where it was knee deep. It took us about six hours to reach the summit, by which time I was drenched in perspiration from trudging uphill in the snow for so long. But the elation I felt as we filed across that narrow snow ridge to the peak, on top of the world, is beyond words. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

Épilogue

The descent from Victoria into British Columbia traverses a pristine protected wilderness area around Lake O’Hara, only accessible by hiking in or via the twice-daily bus from Lake Louise. We overnighted in the old lodge that sits on the lake’s western shore. It’s walls plastered with black and white photos of past expeditions and legendary guides, it made a fitting end to our own adventure.

Of all the trails on all the mountains in all the world…

Lake O’Hara trail (1997)

Though I have returned to the Rockies several times over the years, it wasn’t until 22 years later that I hopped that bus from Lake Louise back to Lake O’Hara. I was keen to take my wife and two kids for a nostalgic hike up Dad’s now legendary trail

Now, you have to understand that there must be some 50 trails in that area. And we had not met a soul on ours until we spotted two hikers coming down toward us as we hit the snow line.

Unbelievably, the pair turned out to be none other than my old filming buddies, Roland and André! If that’s not enough of a coincidence for you, not only had they no idea we were coming to the Rockies, neither had returned to O’Hara since 1975.


This is another contribution by Guy to our Celebration of (Retired) Life series,

We welcome any uplifting, funny, inspiring, or otherwise simply interesting story, profile, or bit of whimsy.

To share a composition with our other retirees, simply email your 300- to 2,400-word piece to HG-Editor@RRC.CA.

Categories: All, HG Life

2 replies »

  1. Thanks for the entertaining story Guy. I must admit I was a little stressed out about the climb but of course I knew it turned out okay because you wrote the piece. Love the pics. You have done lots of interesting things in your life.

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