My 15 year old daughter Talia shivered uncontrollably as she climbed the first pitch of the Aftonroe route on Guide’s Rock near Banff townsite in Western Alberta, Canada. The wind buffeted us, funneling over the large prow of rock through which the climb ran. We were exposed, a wart on a big rock nose. She climbed slowly, her hands clumsy on the rock. Puzzled, I realized she was uncertain, even afraid. In the mountains cold and fear are two sides of the same coin.
She reached the anchor where our mountain guide Erica tied her in so she couldn’t fall off the narrow ledge on the side of the cliff, and then belayed me up. I arrived to two pinched faces.
“It’s too cold. Talia and I think we should just go down.”
Disappointed, I suggested we try one more pitch and then decide.
“This feels like an alpine climb,” Erica shivered, and told a story of semi-frozen climbs she and her climbing partner MB had finished through sheer willpower, and because female guide aspirants need to be tough.
Talia tried to grin. Her face was white.
But while Erica climbed the next pitch the wind beat us. My hands got stiff and I too started to shiver. As Talia ascended I thought about her, already chilled, bare hands on frigid rock because she was too scared to climb in gloves. Climbing because I had asked.
Was this what I wanted to do to my daughter?
Nice girls didn’t do sports when I grew up. During a university year in London I joined the Outing Club and did my first climb. The tactile rock, weirdly intimate, seduced me. In graduate school I climbed with a friend who did finger pull-ups each evening. Yamnuska Mountain School’s Introduction to Mountaineering with its glacier travel, crevasse rescue and hard earned summits claimed the urbanite.
My husband Dave and I have traversed Canada’s western mountains on boots, skis, crampons and climbing shoes. Leading mountaineer Dwayne Congdon taught our daughters to climb by placing Smarties on the holds and climbing unroped up the face next to them. During summers Talia climbed among the boulders at Rundle Rock in Banff, and built fairy houses with flowers and mica and shiny white stones at 7400 feet in the Selkirk mountains.
Last year, finally big enough to swing an ice axe, she completed her own Introduction to Mountaineering. They had a close call with lightening that struck so near they were temporarily blinded. It was a young guide’s judgment error that could have proved fatal. But I set that aside–I knew the drenched slogs, unending vistas, frigid nights and moments of glory that awaited. To some, a daughter’s coming of age means Christmas cookies or sewing circles. To me it means big mountains.
When I called Yamnuska to reserve a guide for seven days of climbing last summer, Talia was excited about having graduated to real mountains. I dreamed about mother-daughter hang time in high places.
Our first guide was Brit Erica Roles. A girl guide! In twenty-five years climbing with guides I have only ever had three female guides. Although a corporate executive and supporter of female power, secretly I worry that smaller stature means strength insufficient to catch my fall. But strong and whippet-thin, Erica disarmed me with her intensity and sense of humor. Subconsciously I placed our safety in her callused hands and relaxed into the intangibles of female strength and female ways.
We headed to Zygote crags near Mt. Yamnuska overlooking the plains west of Calgary. After a day climbing sport routes under a blue sky while being buzzed by the Casino’s flight seeing helicopters, Erica declared we were ready for a full day climb. Aftonroe, here we come!
Day One arrived with heavy clouds and fallen temperatures. We started up the climbers track that followed an animal trail. It was a steep one. I took an adrenaline laced slip crossing a slab thickly carpeted with red, dead pine needles. Half a panting hour later we reached exposed scrambly rock where a fall would do damage, but we were moving well and proceeded unroped.
We helmeted up and deposited our poles and boots at the base of the cliff. Staying warm was already a challenge.
Talia climbed the second pitch with clothing and long pony tail flapping in the biting wind. When I reached the second anchor with numb fingers it was unanimous. We were going down.
The descent was by rappel, a technique in which a climber lowers herself by manipulating both ends of the rope, one of which has been fed through a support such as a metal ring screwed into the mountain. It is tricky for beginners because it requires walking backwards off the edge of a cliff with a brief moment of falling, and then relaxing back into the harness into an “L” position with legs outstretched towards the cliff. However rappelling enables a quick descent. And making like a super hero fast-roping down a cliff is serious fun.
Talia kept saying she was bad at rappelling but descended competently. How do we teach girls not to self-deprecate? Talia was toughing out a cold, miserable rappel, dangling over overhangs and performing brilliantly. She was navigating a task 99% of North Americans would find terrifying. Yet her discomfort sliced inward. Erica gently corrected her. Talia later did a war dance.
I reveled in the elevator ride down. My hands were cold but my blood ran warm from hanging in air.
In the forest out of the wind we warmed quickly. I toyed with going back up but there was no point.
We jumped the parking lot fence and ate lunch overlooking the valley while watching a bald eagle in a tree until he soared away hunting.
Erica insisted we head to nearby Sunshine slabs which she swore were warm. She was right, and we spent the afternoon climbing short routes in a debris-strewn valley washed out by recent floods. Climbing is a mental as well as a physical exercise. You must reconnoiter the rock for hand and foot placements and think a few moves ahead. My favorite climb was a corner route which we climbed with one leg on each of the walls of an 90 degree corner. I had assumed Talia would tear past me. But she had trouble navigating the corner. She lacked my muscle memory of balancing on tiny nubs, had never seen a corner route.
I began to see the climbs through her eyes, remembered my early days, how I’d learned to weight my body and balance on two points. How much my fingers hurt as they warmed after being frostnipped. What it felt like to fall off. Her calm and stoicism belied her inexperience. In my pride of her I became less critical of my own performance. Injuries or not, here I was climbing a mountain—at my age.
Day One’s score was Aftonroe: 1, Climbers: 0.
On Aftonroe Day Two Talia insisted I pack filet mignon and cookies for Association of Canadian Mountain Guides member Matt Peter’s lunch.
“Guides are always hungry,” she said.
Mountain guides endure a long apprenticeship, often a decade or more, and are paid little until they become fully certified. They are regularly out 10 – 16 hours a day in all weather covering many miles and thousands of feet of elevation. Short on time and money, they appreciate good food.
Matt wore his 24 years guiding with humor and a relaxed aura that belied his gimlet eye. Aftonroe loomed unclimbed so we beelined for Banff. The steep track felt easier but surprise—there were trail-marker cairns this time!
We noted a party already high up on the peak.
As we made final preparations, another team arrived, a skinny, bearded man leading a young woman. Matt established our first position, a mantra to minimize rock fall risk from above. A few minutes later a third party of two women appeared. Things were getting crowded.
At the top of the first pitch Matt and I were discussing the party behind us and didn’t realize Talia was struggling with a big move over a block. The second party’s leader came up along side her.
“You’ve got this,” he said pointing, “maybe you could put your foot there.”
Magic. Talia flew up the low-angled slab.
The second anchor was on a wide ledge. As we readied the rope he appeared again and in a twinkling climbed around us up a steep section and downclimbed into the corner where he folded himself up very small. He had skipped the first anchor and come directly up to the second.
“What’s your plan?” Matt asked, covering irritation.
Crazy visions of a high altitude climbing race and rock fall hitting Talia roiled my stomach.
“This ledge is kind of small,” I said meanly.
“Don’t worry,” he replied, “My second can’t climb. The next time you see us will be at your rappel.”
Matt took off up the third pitch while I belayed; Talia would climb last.
Just as she tied in at the next anchor the man arrived. We all just looked at each other.
I was miffed. A relaxed day of climbing, and this guy was tailgating us, showing up as soon as we finished each pitch. What was he doing, trying to ruin our day?
Edgy calls wafted up from the third party who were having trouble getting started.
But Aftonroe’s climbing was warm and wonderful. Smooth white rock ascended in rolling swells. Vertical cracks held our hands and feet while horizontal and ledges made the route easy-schmeezy. It was a highway.
By the fourth anchor Talia and the man were old friends. He climbed near her, gently offering advice on specific holds. He was at pains not to crowd us physically, but Matt and I couldn’t figure out why he dogged our heels.
The man turned to me, “My second said she couldn’t climb. I guess she can.”
“What does she do?” I asked.
“She’s a Sochi skier in half pipe.”
No wonder—his second was an Olympian.
Soon we arrived at an anchor station on a ledge through which a white tree grew up the center. Matt smirked and told us the guidebook advised that we make liberal use of the tree. I thought he was joking. But he put his right foot on the wall, grabbed a strategic branch, and hoisted himself up, putting his left foot in the crook of another branch. After a few tree-assisted moves he stepped out right onto the rock and continued up out of sight.
When it was my turn I felt vaguely guilty about using the tree. I looked for an alternate way, but without the tree the rock was bare, steep and convex. The tree was easy and besides, it didn’t leave sap on my hands. Who said I had to make the climbing hard?
We heard yodeling. Prolonged, yippy yodeling more like coyotes than Swiss herders. Small stones rained down 30 feet to our right. I looked up—long gray ponytail, rappelling down like Jason Bourne—of course, famed mountain guide Barry Blanchard. Blanchard and his father and son clients had left Canmore at six am. They were descending away from us for safety.
As we watched, a tree ate Barry’s rope as he threw the next rappel. His flicks and jerks failed to free it so Matt climbed over. By now the whole mountain was watching the spectacle. As the clients descended even Talia realized how strong she was compared to the inexperienced young man. Barry gave a resounding yodel to her as he sailed down the next rappel.
Climbing feels like childhood. It has no redeeming value, no save the world purpose. It’s just barn raising fun. Like yodeling while rappelling down a cliff face.
We were nearing the top of the route, climbing in bluebird sunshine. At each anchor the man from the next party arrived shortly after Talia.
At the next to last anchor he turned to me deadpan, “Seven pitches and she’s climbing better than me.”
Relaxed from a day on rock, I laughed.
We had time to almost finish our lunches on a meadowed ledge before he and his partner appeared. I had packed a feast: filet, chicken, toasted baguette, sliced Fuji apple, fresh cherries, dried mango, Talia’s six year old artisanal Cheddar, and Le Chocolatier bars made in Canmore from fresh Belgian chocolate. They settled in, carefully keeping their distance, and pulled out one granola bar and 2 energy gels. Now magnanimous, I handed over our cherries to delighted thanks.
Matt looked pointedly at the large black cloud forming across the valley, and we hurriedly packed up. We did not want to be on a mountain with metal all over our bodies in a lightening storm. Matt set up our rappel under the looming cloud. Talia paused before stepping out over the edge.
The man told her, “You’re doing really well.”
Over she went. Soon she speeded up and descended faster than I did. Adolescent exuberance prevailed as her hands fed the ropes in perfect form.
The black cloud was billowing towards us and I hoped we could move quickly enough to avoid a soaking. Or worse.
Half way down we descended directly over the leader of the third party. Startled, I kicked out and soared over her, almost stepping on her hand gripping the rock. Her partner was beneath at the anchor, near paralyzed with nerves. It didn’t help that we had tangled her up. She had to untie, pass around our rope and retie in. Matt coached her and she eventually started up, but her hands shook, she looked like she wanted to cry, and her weak calls choked in her throat. I recalled a climb in the Bugaboos high on a tower as a rainstorm came in. Wet, cold and miserable, all I wanted to do was bawl. Poor woman.
The darkness closed in but we got off rappel with no rain. Talia felt compelled to take off her rock shoes and walk barefoot to our gear. Teenage freedom.
We grinned and waved at the man and his Olympian partner. “Hope to see you again!”
The walk down was a party. Aftonroe was ours.
Time stands still when you’re climbing. The sun and the stone and the trees and the open sky override daily cares. Memories laced with pine sap and crushed heather take root. The sun shines a little more brightly. Talia and I had shared the Aftonroe days, would always share them. We share a wild soul.
Close to the bottom in a wildflower-filled meadow, a bald eagle with a gleaming white head materialized 30 feet above us. Catching the mountain’s winds it soared, never using its wings, for enchanted minutes while we stood in quiet awe. One of its wings had a gap where it was missing a big feather or two. Finally its circles took it over Guide’s Rock and it didn’t return. We figured it was the same one Talia and I had watched. Leading us home.