My Journey Across Rock and Snow

Wednesday, November 1, 2017 3:58:11 AM America/Denver

Why do we climb mountains? An ageless question — one that infiltrates the mind of every climber to some degree. Many great alpinists have pondered this, often arriving at diminutive answers that neither dull the selfishness of the act, nor justify its consequences. Especially within the realm of mountaineering where physical labor and suffering persist alongside the sheer joy that fills the senses while climbing, it is hard to extract sensible reason.

Return Journey

Last year I won a grant from the American Alpine Club to climb the Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo Spire. While thwarted from our end goal due to weather, we enjoyed our time on the glacier, shadowed by those enchanting granite spires. It is hard to ignore the physical effort we poured into the expedition, highlighted by hauling 70lb loads up more than 3,000ft in elevation gain within a distance of just over three miles to arrive at Applebee Campground where we spent a week on the glacier, far removed from civilization.

After returning home, I stated I would be back to the Bugaboos and lay myself down at the place that joins earth and sky, the summit beneath me — but this time there was no external reason to drive me, no monetary grant — just desire. It was simply the pursuit of a mountaintop that resulted in my return the very next year, the pursuit of — happiness? Perhaps the sheer happiness of standing on a summit is the answer to why we climb, but the necessary training, physical effort, and undeniable discomfort muddle this simple solution, leaving it naked before the face of some deeper complexity.

Inexplicable Romance

There is magic in remote corners of the world, often masked by a haze of beauty so striking it is difficult to penetrate so instead you stand gawking and awing at its presence. Bugaboo Provincial Park is one of those places of untempered magic, a magnetic world where glaciers sprawl to the base of sun-kissed spires and a rare collection of the most dedicated alpinists gather to climb them, the grunts and exclamations of their efforts echoing off tall granite walls. This area is one of the world’s greatest alpine playgrounds, home to famous heli-skiing, hiking, alpine climbing and some of the finest granite rock climbing. We arrived with a straightforward goal but set out on a life-changing journey that would shape our perception of reality, instill respect for nature, and bring inexplicable joy.

It was 4:30 am and the camp came alive in a cacophony of alpine music — the clanking of gear, the hissing of cook stoves, and soft murmurs muddled by tent walls and shelters. We set out briskly, our headlamps flooding a triangle of light at our feet, illuminating a twisted path marked by silver cairns stacked atop jagged boulders. The thud of our mountaineering boots transitioned to crunching as we left the boulder field for the glacier and made our way through fields of snow-covered ice. Crampons crunched as they bit the surface, keeping our bodies from slipping as we pressed onwards. Crunch. Step. Crunch. The undulating sounds formed a rhythmic pattern that served as a soundtrack for the journey, breaking the quiet stillness of the morning.

The sun peeked its head above the granite peaks behind us, flooding the valley in an alpine glow, its creamy pink tendrils extending to the mountain ahead. Bugaboo Spire rose up like a foreboding statue in the distance, its rounded ridge line cutting a sharp oval into the fading darkness. I kept staring up at the granite beast with romantic longing and equal apprehension.

The Epitome of Pursuit

I hardly remember the climb itself — just moments in time pasted like newspaper clippings to the forefront of my mind. The approach was long and battering, comprised of alternating patches of awkward, chossy scrambling in mountaineering boots and stretches of frozen snow where we changed to ice axes and crampons. The rope-up terrace came as a welcome reprieve and I gave an elated squeal at the elegant granite cracks that rose up before me. The climb seemed to pass by in a blur — fingertips smearing course rock and sticky rubber locking expertly into cracks as we sailed upward across the sea of granite. My partner and I traded leads in a perfect rhythm, flaking rope and trading gear with practiced ease. Everything seemed to move at an accelerated rate but my mind caught momentary snapshots of the wild beauty of this place. It swaddled us so tightly and profoundly that it seeped down into our core, leaving nothing left except sheer elation and appreciation for the place we found ourselves.

As I stood on the summit of Bugaboo Spire surveying the world the before me, I finally had my answer. My bare feet were tingling against the cold granite, chest heaving with exertion, fingers bloodied and raw from pulling on sharp rock, but I felt nothing except belonging. I was merely a speck of stardust on this mountaintop of the world — but I was seeing something that few people ever get to see. And it changed my perception of the world. I suddenly felt connected to everything — every other speck of stardust in the universe; we were breathing together, thinking together, and moving together across an ocean of sound, sight, and feeling.

Why do we love the mountains? Everyone has their reasons. For me, it’s because the wild places the mountains take me provide a deeper sense of connection with the rest of humanity. I will never stop searching for the magical places in the world. Now that winter draws year, I think to my next adventure of conquering a few more snow-covered mountains, but this time skiing down them. Thanks to my friends at UtahSkis, this winter should be as thrilling as ever! Whether you are going up or down, I hope you enjoy your upcoming season of mountain adventures.
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Amanda Ellis