"Man! I sure hope so!" Sonny's emphatic comment was in response to my heartening words as we struggled up Narao's lower tree-clad slopes. "Sonny", I said, "look on the bright side. This may be your last scramble of the year."
How funny is that? Here we are. Five of us pushing our heart rates into the stratosphere on a snowy, windy day on yet another slope in the Canadian Rockies. We've all done this before. Many times. And we're all asking ourselves the same question, yet again. "What the heck am I doing?!"
It all started very early on Saturday morning, October 11 2003. I was determined not to be late for this experience so by 4:55am I was firing up the old chevy for a trip across town to the meeting place we had all agreed on. By 5:05 the truck had stalled 30 times and I was parked at an angle on our driveway having only just managed to lurch around the block. By 5:15 I was in the back of a taxi screaming through the streets of a sleeping city. If I wasn't awake before the taxi ride, I certainly was after it! At 5:45 I was greeting Dave, Sonny, Frank and Peter and we quickly piled our gear into the van and headed off towards the hills on a gloomy grey morning. (Actually it was kind of black, but you get the picture.)
After a casual walk with lots of chatter we turned left onto the Ross Lake trail. The foliage was wet with the morning frost / snow. After about 5 minutes of walking we decided that we'd had enough flat walking and immediately headed up a 'clear' gully. This 'clear' gully was choked with 2-3 foot bushes but we charged through them like bull moose. About 2 minutes later we stopped to let everyone shed 2 layers of clothing! (Truth be told - I actually needed a break already!)
Half an hour later and now Peter's in the lead. The pace hasn't slowed any but we're all keeping up just fine. Talk is limited to, "I thought Bennett said he was out of the trees in 25 minutes?!". Finally when it seemed as if the trees would never end (this happens on most scrambles for me) we popped above tree line and plunked down our packs to take a quick snack-break. We chatted a bit about our websites and different scrambles we've done and I asked lots of questions regarding mountaineering. Just as we were about to leave I challenged the others for guesses on how long yet till the peak. Dave was quick to take up the challenge. "2:50", he declared emphatically. Now it was up to me to either call him optimistic or pessimistic. I knew better but decided to challenge his pessimism anyway and called it at 2 hours and 40 minutes.
An hour later and we were finally done the crappy rubble slope that led to the ridge. Trust me. This slope was not the most fun I've ever had on a mountain. Good company makes up for a lot, but this was pushing it! My method of attack is a little different than most. I find that a lot of people like to go slow and steady up a steep slope. That's probably the smart way to do it. I do short bursts of energy till my heart rate is so high I can't hear anything. Then I stop and pant for 5 seconds and then do it all over again. If Dave's theory that everyone only has a set limit of heartbeats per lifetime is correct I should probably take up the sport of laying on a couch pretty soon...
Now the fun started! The moment every scrambler waits for. Cliff bands and narrow cracks running up through pinnacles of rock and snow. The wind was blowing pretty good up on the ridge and we couldn't even seen down the steep drop-off to our left because of the thick clouds. Snow was now falling steadily and my thumbs were going numb. We quickly moved on - not one of us ever considered turning around. We couldn't let Bennett have this one all to himself! ;-) Now I heard a rumor that someone wrote something about me cracking on the way up these ledges. Since I wasn't behind myself I can neither support nor defuse this claim. I can however say that I have a line of frostbite across by lower back. Hmmmmm.
Eventually we came to the crux of the climb. A steep snow slope that is probably normally a ledge, led to a steep snow chute through a cliff band. I think if I was on my own I would have hesitated here. We all made it across - one at a time - and the chute proved to be pretty easy. A slip here would have been nasty, that's all I can say!
The summit! Or is it? Sonny is always the optimistic one, "It can't be. That was to easy!" Sure enough. My time estimate of 2:40 was instantly dashed as we realized that we still had to descend to a small gully and then climb another scree / boulder field to attain the peak. Dave was the only really happy one because his guess of 2:50 now looked very good! Sure enough - he was only 1 minute out as we topped out on Narao Peak. Just as we got to the cairn the sun peaked through the swirling grey clouds and for a moment we were all silent as we took in the atmosphere. Snow, cloud, wind and rock combined to form a mountain panorama that fulfills any scrambler and somehow makes all that pain on the way up worthwhile and brings us back time and again for more. Frank opened the summit register and found that it was full of candy! Sure enough, Bennett had left us a note and some candy! That candy sure tasted good. After some quick pictures we turned around and headed back down Narao's ridge to find shelter and have a bite to eat.
After scarfing down some food (in my case a squished and frozen sub) we continued slipping and stumbling down the rubble like a bunch of drunken sailors. My water bottle was almost frozen solid by this time so without much liquid in me I started to feel a bit light-headed, which was kind of cool. In his plastic boots, Dave was slipping a bit more than the rest of us but it wasn't a problem until he tried pole vaulting with his aluminum trekking poles. This resulted in one normal pole and one really really short pole. I'm sure it wasn't funny for Dave but I found it amusing every time he tried using the short pole. He would start leaning into it and then realize that the bottom wasn't on it anymore. By that time it was too late and he'd fall onto that side. This happened about 10 times and then he got tired of all that fun and stuck his poles on his backpack. He must have sensed my amusement because a short time later on my way down a cliff band a chunk of snow bounced off my shoulder. When I turned around the culprit had a big grin on his face! (Not to worry though - I got him back. Further down the slopes I sent a rock careening just past him. Of course that was unintentional.)
We crossed the steep snow slope again and this time I had a 'freak-out' moment. I was the first one across so no-one else saw me almost lose my footing part way back. We had kicked footholds into the slope but I guess one of them must have been accumulating snow while we were up on the mountain. By the time I put my foot into that hold it was at a weird angle and I wasn't ready for it. I jammed both poles into the slope above me and managed to work my way through it. I probably wasted more heartbeats on that moment than on the whole way up!
Everyone was pretty relaxed after finishing the crux because now all we had to do was go down - no problems. Sonny decided to climb a small pinnacle of rock for a picture and I realized that he is the type of guy that you can have some fun with. "Hey Sonny! Look at that big rock next the cliff over there. You should climb it! Don't slip!" ;-) We continued down the mountain and once we were in trees nothing could go wrong.
Dave was desperately trying to beat Kane's fastest time (in the book) so our charge through the gully back down to Ross Lake trail was like a buffalo stampede. The forest shook with fear at the sight of Dave's pink plastic behemoth boots crashing through it and the rest of us followed up with a kick here and a jab there. Every once in a while the forest fought back with a backhand across the face or a drop kick to the shin. We came out on the Ross Lake trail victorious and happily chatted our way back to the van. Dave was not impressed that Kane had beat him by at least an hour but we reminded him that Kane probably had sunshine and really light boots. I don't think Dave bought that excuse but he rolled with it. Dave had a caffeine headache (something to do with a 2-pot a day habbit?) so we stopped briefly in Lake Louise for a cup of joe before hurtling back down highway 1 in the Frank-mobile.
So what did I learn about Frank, Peter, Dave and Sonny? I learned that scramblers are basically all the same. Dave and I were the chatty ones but often there were long periods of silence on the way up and down Narao. It wasn't an awkward silence but a companionable one. We didn't need to say anything because we were all there in our own moment. (Suffering through our own private hell!) No one complained and no one felt pressured to go for a route just because someone else was doing it. We all chose good lines of ascent and we all made it to the summit within the same minute. I felt that the five of us got along not necessarily because we were all so alike personally but we were all in the same place, mentally. It was a good time and I would go with any of them again.
So was the day worth a $40 cab ride? Was it worth climbing in snow and ice and wind? Was it worth getting out of bed at 4:30 in the morning? Was it worth almost slipping down a slope to certain injury? Was it worth using up another bucket of heartbeats?
You bet. When's the next one?