Having driven the Banff Springs golf course road I steer my Jetta, through
the dense heavy spring snow, into a small pullout for the hiking trail to
Canmore. This path has taken me to visit an old friend on many an
occasion. A professor with whom I have had many lessons, Professor Falls,
the classic and timeless ice climb.
I step out of the car at the edge of the Bow River some distance below Bow
Falls. Air fills my lungs. Different air. Along with the usual bits that
constitute mountain air today there is greater humidity and scents born on it,
like the distinctive smell of Balsam Poplar, that communicate something
novel. Spring. I let it fill my lungs to their bottom and my blood caries the
products around my body and I feel a part of life here as the smells are taken
into my being. Rockies Olfactoryscape.
The path follows along the river. My walk is full of birdsong. Robins,
Varied Thrushes, Winter Wrens, Nut Hatches, Pine Siskins. The Varied
Thrushes are my favorite. The single note trill that changes in pitch with
each successive call is a welcome sound after a long winter. It harkens
spring. The change in pitch mentally draws my awareness into the forest. It
gives the forest more depth. Several species of thrush exist here in the
Rockies and they all live at different altitudes. I can roughly tell my
elevation based on the species I am hearing. Here the Varied Thrush seems
to be accompanying me along the path as I amble in to the climb. I am just
learning to decipher the calls of the different bird species and also to know
the different calls of a single species . . . like the Chickadee. Along with
their usual “Chick-a dee-dee” call, they also have a spring mating call that
sounds like “Cheeseburger”. I used to be terribly crass and I would tell my
Outward Bound Students about this particular call before they went on a
three-day fasting solo. The cruel humour using birdsong.
As I walk along the Bow River I notice that the water is all-open with some ice on the banks. Dippers and a few female mallard ducks are having their way with the
river’s current. The sound of the river creates the backdrop for the birdsong.
The knowledge of birdsong, which I listened to digital versions of as I
brushed my teeth in order to build my repertoire, has enriched my mountain experience immeasurably. Engaging my senses in the audioscape is rewarding. The ever-present sound of the
mountains becomes part of my consciousness through discernment. Birds
not only communicate amongst themselves the communicate to me. What
they communicate is up to me to explore . . . for myself. Today I feel
welcomed by their presence. As if they are guiding me in the search for
inner peace and tranquility as I travel through this space.
There is 15cm of new snow on the ground. It is close to being like mashed
potatoes in consistency. Changing the feel of the path underfoot. I have
never felt this trail like this before. Today’s walk is different than any other
walk I have had to Professors, yet I have been hiking this route in for over
25 seasons. Sometimes it is hard -packed squeaky cold snow, sometimes
dirt and I can ride my bike, sometimes it is ice and I need to put my
crampons on to walk it and sometimes it is muddy. Yet it is always a
beautiful trip through this Engelmann forest. Beauty because of the novelty.
Most of us are aware that each snowflake that falls in unique. We find this
amazing. But uniqueness is around us all of the time. Each person. Each
day. Each experience. Our minds tell us that they are similar or worse, the
same. However, on more intricate inspection we clearly see that there is
novelty. The mountains and their conditions are a new companion each and
every day that I am in them. They never fail to present a fresh perspective.
This is why I love them. I am the same in the dynamics of my internal
landscape. If I am learning I change. I come to know myself anew each
time I walk this path. The time for reflection and introspection underlines
that I am a different man because I let things that happen to me change me
by owning my part in them. Walking this path today reminds me of this.
This journey has always been a kind of checkup on where I am at as a
human being and as a man. Today I am in tears. Tears of joy for the person
I feel myself becoming. For the first time I accept myself just the way I am.
Because of this I find myself more open to things on this journey that I have
never seen before. I find myself looking outward more because I am not
busy constructing, or worse protecting, my internal landscape. This is
something new for me. We are the natural world. Though sometimes we
choose to think about the “world of man” too much. The world of man is a
form of reality but it is too isolated and static to be able to feed our soul and
explore our uniqueness.
I arrive at the base of the climb. I find myself still present with the elements
around me. The preparations I need to make to become ready to climb are
so nearly automatic that my attention can still be placed on what is going on
around me. I notice the wind as it is flowing through the forest. The sound
is like being on the ocean shore yet more arhythmical in tempo and
direction. I need to sense this more fully today. Since I feel this connection I
decided to go as light as possible. Fewer “things” to clutter or insulate me
from the experience. I wear a light polypro and “tissue paper” thin gloves. I
tag a rope up for the descent and have only one ice screw, no pack, just me
relying oh so completely on me and my ability to communicate with the
medium and negotiate a path. The ice is forgiving and soft so climbing
without a rope for protection is a natural choice. Just movement and
concentration. I even let my hair blow in the wind as I climb . . .something I
have never done before on an ice climb. A tactile gift which heightens the
beautiful random quality that is the essence of life in the natural world.
Random winds swirling my hair around. I even revel in the chaotic element
of it landing in my eyes from time to time. Loving the unbridled quality that
is an expression of freedom.
I walk up to the base of the first pitch. There in no nervousness today even
though I have only climbed on one other occasion this season. I am not
concerned about anything. Even though a fall would, at very least, lead to a
broken leg, and at most could be fatal. I move upward and the concentration
of climbing is so automatic. I am fully engaged in what I am doing and yet
there is more. I continue to sense the world around me with a deeper
richness. The Varied Thrushes are still with me as I find my balance to
swing each tool. Music with the dance. I smell the air and how it changes as
each features of the climb presents itself, open standing water, mist, trickles
over the ice, all changing the air enough for me to sense it. The smells
carried on the wind, the conifers, budding birch or willow. I hear the falls,
not only the interaction of my tools but the sounds they present to me . . .
water over the surface, water just under the surface, water pouring into a
hole. I feel incredibly big and incredibly small all at the same time. Big in
the act of climbing these tall features confidently and the perspective that
each pitch rewards me with visually. . . of the Bow Valley. Cascade,
Inglismaldie, Mt Peechee. Yet I feel small because of the grander of the
setting of Mt Rundle. I am tiny in this massive gully. The thought of past
avalanches here harkens a respect and I intellectualize and tacitly respond
with my answer to continue up and into this powerful place.
I am without any other humans. Amazing. A weekend. Perfect ice.
Perfect temperature. After a long winter. . cold sports lose their appeal. It is
a gift to find this margin. The ebb of what is seasonally in vogue. October
with its thin ice is a madhouse of keen people clambering to have the ice
experience. After a winter of cold hands they have had enough by May. So I
am alone from other humans on this treasure. But I am not alone from
myself or the life that is all around me.
I am a person who climbs. It is what I do. I climb through my life. Always moving upward to a new perspective. I do this because I have learned to meet the challenges
life presents and accept them humbly yet with a passion to come to an
honest resolution. This nurtures growth. Like the forest clematis I am
growing and climbing upward supported by nature. My climb as a man
often requires stillness and physical solitude. Overtly it may feel like I am
alone. But I never am. It is impossible to climb alone, if I choose to climb.
When I do I release my self concept which is precisely what changes when I
grow. I become different. If I protect my self concept from change I become
weak. When I protect it I fail to be acquainted with my true self or to share
my true self with others. This when I feel most lonely. It is when I stay in the
same place, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually that I meet with being
solo. Loneliness is a result of being static in a world that abhors being so.
When I go out of the house that is my self-concept, I meet and experience a
world that is so rich with companions.
I reach a difficult spot in the climb. I slow down to consider the solution to
the problem. There is silence as I concentrate. There is fear so I change it to
respect. I craft an agreeable solution by meeting the requirements of the
icefall itself. It wants me to climb over to the right so that is where I go.
Even though it requires more effort on my part to get there. When I do
move over, all becomes easier again. Peaceful. The rest of the world around
me floods in again. Respect has a way of leading to peace and fullness.
I reach my highpoint for the day on a ledge three pitches up. I do not
question going higher. Climbing is arbitrary anyway. Or at least it should
be. Kairos time . . . which answers the question. . . What is it time for?
There have been many times I have done several laps on Professors in a
single day. The prison of having too. I love the freedom I have today. This
experience is really for me this time, because an external perspective, and its
pressures, never enter my mind. Peace and freedom.
The walk down from my high point requires great care. The snow is perfect
for snowmen. I roll a ball down a slope and it creates a giant pinwheel. The
cookie cutters “crampons” I have on my feet gather mounds of snow in them
making it nearly impossible to grip the slopes I am walking on. The solution
is patience and awareness. I am mindful of each step in this exposed place
and I take the needed time to carefully craft my descent. I clear the snow
from my crampons between each and every step. This might be viewed as
tedious. However, I see it as an opportunity to go slowly and take in my
surroundings more. I use the trees that cling to the mountain on the edges of
the climb, as spotters. I position myself above them as I make my way down
the steeper sections. They will catch me if I make a mistake. They are my
belayers, my companions that are watching over me. And they do this job
well. This gives me confidence.
I arrive at the bottom. I feel no sense of accomplishment. But there is
richness of experience. I have climbed this climb countless times over he
years. Was I bored? No. Did I discover? Yes. I discovered what Professors
was today and what I am today. The first occasion I climbed this route I was
filled with intensity like there was no tomorrow. I had to finish all of the
pitches even though it was -25C. So intense was I that I forgot to be here in
the moment. I forgot to be me. I was thinking about the report to others.
Such is life when we are motivated external to our being. I remember the
pain of the day. (Dave Bartell fainting as his hands warmed up from being
really really cold) But I do not remember anything special. Something that
connected me to the place. We miss the real gems when we greedily
consume experiences. We are also way more alone. I was. Then.
I walk back along the path next to the river. I pause several times along the
banks to take in the views of the Bow Valley. I feel such a presence of more
than I could ever articulate. If you have been “here” you know. And most of
us have if we take the time to engage ourselves. I physically see Cascade
Mountain, the Fairholme Range, Mount Norquay and Mount Rundle. This is
my home. High above me are all places that I have been so fortunate to
travel on and learn lessons from, with great companions. What have I done
to deserve such a life? A life so rich with experiences in this the best of
classrooms. At this moment I realize that my person is not what I have or
what I have done. My person is what I have done, and will do, with. I am
never static or solo. Knowing this brings me great joy.