The morning is fresh as I step out of the Beast and start preparing my hiking gear. My heart is beating a rhythm of anticipation as I inhale the sharp mountain air in the empty parking lot. Clouds hang over the Bow Valley just west of the sleeping town of Canmore and the sun threatens to chase the gray morning away from just under the horizon in the east. I can hear the stream trickling under the rocks of the nearby drainage and the grassy banks are heavy with morning dew.
My boots are laced and my pack is resting against my back as I start up the paved path to the base of the Lady. I am a little nervous as I leave the pavement and start up a wide gravel path beside the creek heading into a steeply walled canyon. The creek and canyon are aptly named after North America's biggest cat. I recall how last winter a lady was walking her dog very near the spot where I'm walking and was stalked by a hungry cougar. Only the quick thinking of her neighbors saved her. I have no neighbors as I walk along listening to the creek and the tapping of my hiking poles on the gravel path. The clouds roll in a little farther and now I'm in a world of mist and shadow and my breathing mutes the sound of my poles.
The path takes a sharp turn into the gloom of the forested slopes of the mountain and I grudgingly start up the steep hillside my senses alive with the realization that I am alone. This is why I hike, the sensations of the morning and the smell of the mountains. The sound of my boots crunching on the path and the jolting rhythm as I dig my poles into the climb. The beads of sweat that almost immediately begin to soak through my clothes and the cold breeze blowing against my exposed hands and face. I feel alive. I feel liberated from the concrete and steel mess of the city. The smell of exhaust and the pressing humanity of 900,000 people fade from my memory until it's just me.
As I continue up through the trees my eyes strain against the foliage, striving to pick out anything big enough to eat. Eat me that is! Last week an old guy somewhere in BC was out walking around his hamlet when a cougar attacked. As the cat clawed him to shreds he calmly pulled out a pocketknife and dealt the feline a fatal stabbing! I now hike with a large knife in a sheath at my side, just in case. All morbid thoughts drift away as I grunt up the steep-angled slopes that round out into a stiff west wind. My heart is beating furiously with the effort of climbing. With only about 200 meters vertical under my belt I have over a kilometer left to go, not good. Oh well the worst case scenario is my heart leaping out of my chest and flopping around on the ground like a blob of jelly and until that happens I guess I'll live. I duck under a low branch that crosses the trail and begin to pick my way up through a large rock garden. There are lots of bright orange flags showing the way up through the maze so of course I promptly get hopelessly lost. If you get lost going up a mountain just keep going up until you get to the highest spot, you are now on the summit and the trail back down should be obvious. The way down is a little trickier but no one gets lost going down a mountain, do they?
I have managed to find the trail again and am climbing up a ridge fully exposed to the cold breeze. I have pulled on my Gore-Tex shell and the sweat that has long soaked through my shirt is raising goose bumps on my neck I climb along the ridge until the trail cuts back into the forest and out of the gale. I am rejuvenated as I step out of the tree line and into a grassy sun-drenched meadow. I walk through the opening with the smell of pine and heather producing a primordial sense of belonging.
Finally I see a wooden platform structure ahead of me on a rocky ridge. As I get closer to the structure my anger rises. I absolutely hate it when human beings exercise control over nature in a destructive manner. Littering is one of the banes of my existence and this is the most annoying sort of littering. Some entrepreneurial jerk decided half way through a teahouse project that he didn't really like the idea anymore. Instead of being responsible he capitulated to greed and selfishness and left behind a pile of rotting lumber for all to stumble on in the middle of nowhere. Don't get me started!
The sun is shining brightly now with wisps of cloud skittering over the slopes below me. My anger dissipates with the beauty of the morning as I take a refreshing pull on my water supply. I feel tired and the spot where I'm standing is sheltered from the wind. The sun feels good and I just want to lie down for a little nap before heading back down to the Beast. But wait! I have come to climb the Lady, not to give in to her charms half way up! I look at my watch and decide that I will climb to the top of an imposing scree slope just ahead of the ridge. If I'm not at the top within 45 minutes than I will head down.
I struggle to the top of the loose scree within 20 minutes and decide that the only way I'm going to make it to the top is without the added weight of my backpack. I drop the pack and slinging my camera around my neck I take off for the summit. 'Take off' is not to be interpreted as garnering a speedy ascent but rather only captures the fact that I'm going up. I come to a very steep section with loose rock on firm slabs and carefully pull myself up by holding onto some stable rock ledges beside me. As I pop out onto the final summit ridge I am breathing so hard I can't hear the wind. My ears have popped because of the wind and the pressure and as I swallow I try to focus my stressed eyes on the task ahead.
Whenever I get over 8000 feet I can feel it. I don't lose consciousness or anything but I do get a little disoriented and sometimes I start to feel a little unsure on my feet. This could be due to the altitude or because of the effort I've just expended to get to this high but either way I don't really like the feeling, especially when I'm on my own. Ever since I lost peripheral vision in my left eye that particular eye goes really wonky when I exert myself such as climbing over 4000 feet in less than 2 hours. I really can't see much out of that eye and that only contributes to the unstable feeling. Understand this; the summit ridge of the Lady is NOT the sort of place to feel unstable. It is a nasty piece of work that narrows to as little as 12 inches and tilts to near vertical on each side. I wasn't sure how I would react to this section which is exactly why I'm up here alone.
I've wanted to climb this mountain for a while already but I have never worked up the courage till now. I thought there would be less pressure to do something crazy if I was alone and I didn't want to organize an outing that could get someone else killed. On the Internet I've read that a lot of people take over an hour to slowly slide across the 100 meter long knife-edge ridge with one leg dangling over each side of the blade. Aside from sounding very painful this option just sounds like a bad idea. What if a really strong gust of wind blows you over to one side? You wouldn't have a chance of anchoring yourself quickly to the rock. I have done other less serious knife-edged ridges and I prefer to walk upright on top of the ridge just to get it done and over with. This also seems a little foolish here. The smallest slip or stumble would send me soaring with the eagles for about 5 seconds till a very messy landing would spoil that little rush. I compromise by scuttling over the ridge with my feet on one side and my hands holding onto the edge. This way if I feel myself slipping I can throw my body over the blade so that my body is perpendicular to the edge. My poles can't help me here so I leave them behind. As I go across the ridge my senses are both razor sharp and a little numb. I don't really comprehend the airy drop below my feet or sense the distance between my eyes and the canyon 2000 feet in front of me on the other side. Instead it's as if I'm floating on adrenaline, moving quickly across the sun-warmed rock. Little details pop out of the haze such as small cracks in the granite and the clouds swirling far below. Just before the summit everything tilts vertical and I scurry across and climb to the waiting cairn.
I've made it! I am now on top of the Lady! I am officially half way done my scramble. I survey the small cairn at the summit and click a half dozen pictures of the surrounding peaks. I can see the bulk of Grotto Mountain to the East and across the valley the Rundle uplift gives me a stony glare. Canmore is still asleep 4600 feet below me and the last wisps of morning cloud are catching the express out of town as I look back at the ridge. I decide to head back while I still have the nerve and quickly scramble back over the knife-edge. I glance at my watch and realize that I have done the ridge in about 7.5 minutes each way, not quite an hour! My lunch is beckoning from my backpack down in the col. below so I quickly strap into my poles and ski down the steep scree slopes.
After a leisure 15-minute lunch break in the warm sunshine and light mid-morning breeze I'm back on my feet racing down the mountain on a summit high. Scrambling is not only about bagging the peak but it sure fills me with a sense of accomplishment every time I do. I am a little nervous heading back into the forest and start wishing that I would run into some people coming up the mountain so I'd know there was nothing lurking around waiting to devour me on the way down.
My heart leaps into my throat as I dash through the boulder field. I've been so busy concentrating on finding the bright orange flags I've relaxed my vigilance regarding man-eating carnivores! Murphy nails me again as I glimpse a reddish brown creature slinking through the trees just ahead! I hardly notice the sound of my knife sliding out of its sheath as I instantly shift into the desperate mode of the hunted. I stop behind a boulder and try to force myself to calm down. My breath is shallow and beads of sweat are running down my face as a big red dog happily thumps her tail against my leg. Lassie obviously has no idea how close to death she just was and continues to hump my leg while I re-sheath my knife and force my heart back into it's proper location. I pat Lassie on the head and continue down past her owners with a sheepish look on my face. I begin to meet more and more people on the way down and by the time I'm on level ground there are people everywhere and I'm already getting sick of them.
I slowly walk back to the Beast, pack up my gear and drive out of town. Another day, another peak, another great experience in my big backyard.
[A view of the Lady from my parking spot along the creek.]
[Not for the faint of heart!]
[Looking back along the su]
[Vern on the summit of Lady MacDonald.]