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Evan, on glacier, in The Bugaboos
Photo credit: —William Canning

Will
Photo credit: —Evan Belknap

Bugaboo Provincial Park—Purcell Mountains, British Columbia
Photo credit: —Evan Belknap

The Bugaboos

—Evan Belknap

Once upon a time—like a couple weeks ago—my friend Will and I woke up very early and got on a plane. A few hours later, we got off that plane, got onto a bus, then a train, then another bus and then, at long last, we rode out of the evil metropolis of Calgary, Alberta, with its oppressive skyscrapers and predictable ebb and flow of well-kempt people, and got our first glimpse of the Canadian Rockies. I’ve been trying to think of how to describe the Canadian Rockies for this entire trip. It is a wild and unholy bubbling of earth so vast and impressively big that it makes one’s existence feel like the mist off a raging waterfall—if even that. On the bus, entering the gates of those mountains, right there at sunset, I pressed my face against the window so as to see the cliffs above but I also shirked into myself, and a slight, daunting uneasiness grew towards the ambitious plans we had ahead of us.

By nightfall we were in Banff. We found a place to sleep for the night and then, each with a bomber of beer, finally took a breath by the side of a river on a bench after an 18-hour travel day.

In the morning, we rented a car and started driving into the mountains, down through Radium Hot Springs, north to Brisco, and then onto a dirt road until we were surrounded by peaks and glaciers. After dealing with so many forms of public transportation, people and cities, we were elated and free with the windows down, blasting music on those mountain roads, so close to our destination.

At the parking lot, we built a fence around our car with chicken wire, sticks, and rocks to keep the porcupines out of our rental’s engine and then, all packed up with our gear and ropes and axes and crampons and tent and about ten days worth of food, we started our hike up into the Bugaboos.

Bugaboo Provincial Park in the Purcell Mountains in British Columbia is an incredible landscape of glaciers and glacier-sculpted granite spires. It is a dream-come-true for adventurous alpine rock climbers. The trail went about straight up for four miles and was not the easiest thing I have ever done. But it ended at Kain Hut—named for Conrad Kain, one of Canada’s most famous mountaineers—surrounded by alpine flowers and berries of all kind. Pikas were running about, chirping, foraging leaves for winter, and glacier water cascaded down through granite scree all around us. We finally dropped our packs, with chafed hips and bruised shoulders, wolfed down whatever we had within an arm’s reach, and stared in awe at the landscape, exhausted and elated—so psyched for the days ahead. We went to sleep with big plans for the following morning.

And then it rained and hailed and tortured us with lightning storms for two-and-a-half days. As New Mexicans used to the sun, this was a hard time for us. There in the hut with our new best friend Heidi, the hut caretaker, we read books, invented hut games, went on short hikes on the glaciers on the short intervals between storms, picked berries, and suffered great existential crises brought on by our boredom, lack of booze, and our unwhetted desire to just, for the love of god, climb something.

At night, lying there listening to the hail on the metal roof, I felt all sorts of dismal thoughts creeping in. As Steinbeck put it in Travels with Charlie, “Oh, we can populate the dark with horrors, even we who think ourselves informed and sure, believing nothing we cannot measure or weigh. I knew beyond all doubt that the dark things crowding in on me either did not exist or were not dangerous to me, and still I was afraid.”

But things were about to look up; the storm was slowing outside. On the third morning, I wake up early to Will’s voice saying, “Evan, get up. It’s perfect outside.” The peaks were shrouded in golden fog but it wasn’t raining, and no thunder shook the horizon. As Steinbeck puts it: “The sun was up when I awakened and the world was remade and shining. There are as many worlds as there are kinds of days, and as an opal changes its fire to match the nature of a day, so do I. The night fears and loneliness were so far gone that I could hardly remember them.”

We racked up our gear and ropes and headed out across one of the glaciers to the Donkey Ear Peaks—one of the relatively smaller but still impressive features of the Park, about six hundred feet tall. We nervously eyed the foggy sky, and I started climbing. The first pitch in several days was a wide, wet crack that had my hands numb with cold, and I rained down grit and plant-life on Will with every grunting move. About half way up, my one hand was scraped and bleeding, I couldn’t feel my toes or fingers, I hadn’t found any protection for several body lengths, and the clouds were continuing to build up above Bugaboo Spire. But I continued on and decided that I really must be a true climber at heart, that I had a continuing desire to thrutch my way upward given the circumstances. Within fifty or so more feet of climbing, the rock quality improved and dried out, and I found myself doing tenuous moves on perfect white-green granite, way up above glacial lakes, and then the sun came out, and I looked up high to the summit of our spire, and the intermittent blue skies, and I had to laugh. I yelled to Will, “This is it, man!” The weather held out for us all afternoon, and we moved fluidly and quickly, until we stood on our first summit, admiring the world from high above.

The weather stayed nice for us for three more days, and though we realized that we weren’t even going to be able to scratch the surface of such a place in the time we had, we were climbing at last and it felt good. At the end of about a week, dog-tired, we packed up our stuff and left. It was a bittersweet feeling. On the one hand, we hadn’t climbed half of what we had set out to do. We’d climbed some good stuff, but I felt that I’d been emotionally and physically beat down by those mountains practically on arrival. Feeling so small in the presence of such terrain and such weather and such uncertainty—uncertain even on your steps as you cross the crystal blue glacier ground—it’s hard to continue on. To climb those mountains has less to do with technical skills, I realized, but more important was having the drive, persistence, and willingness to walk into the unknown. Being a strong climber was not quite enough on this particular trip. On the sweet side, I’ll have to return someday soon and bring a more iron-clad heart.

An all night bus-ride got us to Squamish, BC, and we’ve been here in a luxurious campsite under the Chief for about a week. We’ve climbed every single day. Life is almost too good here when the sun is out.

 
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