Thank you, Eric, for sharing your mountain climbing expedition story. Success does not always mean attaining a summit but instead stepping outside our comfort zone and confronting our fears.
‘Call me Ahab. Mount Olive has been my personal white whale ever since I failed to summit the modest Wapta peak in 2015. Two years ago while participating in a Yamnuska Intro to Mountaineering course I discovered my aversion to heights was a little more acute than I anticipated (I know: acrophobia and an interest in mountaineering is an odd combination). I reached the col between Olive and St. Nick and balked. I watched as others in my group, even teen cadets, seemingly glided to the summit.
My failure got under my skin. I kept hiking. It wasn’t long before I decided I needed to return and finish what I’d set out to do: summit a glaciated peak. And it needed to be Olive, a summit I felt was just outside my comfort zone. Last fall I booked my summer trip: a three-day itinerary, just me and a guide, with my nemesis Olive as the principle objective.
I met my guide, Erica Roles, Friday (June 23rd) morning in Canmore, after flying in from the Maritimes two days before. A quick review of equipment and we were on the road. Erica has more than a decade of guiding experience and didn’t seem the least bit phased by my circumstances. On the contrary, she was encouraging, and I entered the backcountry at Bow Lake reassured that my chances of success were high and that I had a strong ally in my fight to reach an important personal landmark.
Clear skies and cool temperatures provided ideal conditions for the hike in to Bow Hut. Erica set a slow but steady pace – ideal for me. I’d packed light, having learned my lesson two years prior, and I felt good as we arrived at the hut. I’m forty-six and carry some extra pounds but I’d trained consistently and ramped up my workout volume in the final months before the trip. I have endurance if not speed and felt physically comfortable all the way to the Bow Hut.
The hut was crowded. A large group was completing an intro course. But the vibe at the hut was welcoming and it took no time before guides and clients were making new acquaintances. It felt good to be back! Despite my failure to summit two years prior, the intro course had been a positive experience and hut life was one of the things I had enjoyed.
The conditions on the glacier would be different this time, though. My previous visit to Wapta had been in August. The late summer glacier had been dry and riddled with visible crevasses. Challenging for someone with a dislike of exposure. Wapta in June had snow. My gut said I’d find the blanketing presence of snow reassuring on the glacier and the peak but I’d have to wait until the next day to find out.
Erica and I both liked the idea of an alpine start Saturday morning. Neither of us had anticipated how bright it would be so early, however. We stepped onto the glacier at 6 a.m. – the first climbers of the day – in full daylight. The snow had a good freeze, though, and the sky was a flawless blue. Erica led the way up the glacier, setting a steady pace with the rest step. It was nice being on the glacier with the crevasses concealed beneath a thick strong blanket of snow, even if we needed to remain vigilant about rope control and the possibility of breaking through.
We approached Olive from the ice field behind Nick. I would have enjoyed the spectacular views more if I hadn’t been as focused on the upcoming ascent! A short push up to the col placed us at the base of Olive’s summit cone.
I’d made some very specific requests for our climb – in essence trying to replicate the climb I should have completed two years prior. I wanted to go up the ridgeline in front of us and return by the same route. And I asked to go unroped to the extent safety permitted. It was understood, of course, that final calls on how we climbed were entirely Erica’s to make. In the end, I think she found the perfect balance. Substantial parts of the ridge were ascended unroped, while she had me clip in for the steepest sections. I’d be lying if I said that hour or so it took us to reach the top was fun in the traditional sense. This wasn’t recreation for me, this was powerful medicine. Erica was quietly encouraging and respectful. We paused briefly a few times for me to slow my breathing but there was never any question of stopping or retreating. Erica performed a dual role on the mountain, guiding but also shooting photos for me with a small disposable I’d brought along for the occasion (sorry, the pics are not developed yet!).
Reaching the top of Olive – a mountain many guided beginners ascend easily – felt profoundly rewarding. The truth was I was never entirely convinced I would do it. I’d spent two years fearing the modest heights of Olive, and most of three years getting ready to climb a “real” mountain. In the final months of training I’d even taken to standing close to the edge of sea cliffs to try to moderate the surge of adrenaline I feel when I stand on the brink of a precipice. I knew that not summiting would be a staggering blow to my self-esteem and I knew I was placing myself in a position with only two possible outcomes. But by placing one cramponed foot in front of the other, under the watchful and encouraging eye of an experienced guide, I found myself ascending the slopes of a mountain I feared. Mere minutes from the summit cairn I still couldn’t quite wrap my head around the concept of my imminent success! In the end, though, I did the work that needed to be done, I recruited help from a talented Yamnuska guide, I didn’t let fear overwhelm me, and I reached the top.
I don’t know what the future holds for me and mountains. Exposure doesn’t seem to suit my temperament but I do like the hard work of training for a goal, I like the outdoors and I like ascending. I am confident I’ll stand atop more mountains in the future, even if they’re all walk-ups. And I’ll always be proud of returning to the site of my failure, taking another shot and reaching Olive’s summit. I’d like to extend a big thank you to Yamnuska and Erica for helping me achieve an important personal goal years in the making.’
– Eric Sparling, Nova Scotia