“Yamnuska: Climbing the Severed Mountain”
John’s disembodied voice drifts down from the cliff above, and he cautions me that this next section of the climb is “delicate.” With his English accent, it sounds like he’s commenting on scones during teatime, but his use of the term engenders a sense of dread. I know that it shouldn’t—delicate is normally reserved for such things as the aroma of a fine wine or the caress of a lover. As I cling to the vertical face on the southern side of Yamnuska Mountain, however, “delicate” stirs apprehension.
I lean back from the rock and glance down between my toes. Below, a few hundred feet of empty air end abruptly at the base of the cliff. How long does it take to fall such a distance? Do you have time to think, or is it just a sudden rush and splat? Maybe a crunch? Does your life flash before your eyes? Probably not, by the time your brain registers the disaster, you have already reached terminal velocity. In this case, terminal velocity is when you stop moving altogether.
Of course, I’m not going to fall. My feet, compressed into climbing boots so tight they would make a Lilliputian grimace, are firmly balanced on outcroppings of stone, and my fingers clutch generous handholds. From the harness girdling my waist, a stretch of rope winds across the rock then twists upward and connects me to the invisible John, who has me on belay at the top of the cliff. The rope passes through an anchor that is hammered into the mountain. It’s bombproof. I’ll need it if I fall, but I’m not going to fall.
Then again, the next section of the route is “delicate,” so perhaps I should not feel quite so secure.
Earlier, John described a different stretch of the climb as “interesting.” Naively, I had thought this was good: after all, I appreciate interesting things. Well, that minor crucible had my fingers trembling, forearms aching, calves cramping, and eyes stinging with sweat. Now, forty minutes later, John’s seemingly innocuous pronouncement fills me with dread. My mother was English, so I am familiar with British understatement, and it’s obvious that John is a practitioner of this rhetorical art. I imagine him emerging from a WWII bomb shelter, brushing the dust from his clothing and observing that the night had been “interesting.” I can’t imagine how bad “delicate” might be.
I lift my eyes from the void and focus on the cliff just inches from my nose. It’s good rock—solid, dry, lots of places for feet and hands, really quite gentle for a novice climber like myself. The south side of Yamnuska is a vertical face of rock, but Gollum’s Grooves—the route I am climbing, is much easier than it looks.
To be truthful, however, at the moment, I’m not climbing Gollum’s Grooves; I’m stalling Gollum’s Grooves.
I glance right and left, seeing the two arms of the Bow Valley reach from sunrise to sunset. I can scarcely imagine a panorama of more striking contrast. Westward, the Rockies thrust ruggedly up past the horizon. Even in midsummer, some peaks are crusted with snow. To the East, the land drops away to open prairie that distance smudges into a haze. I cannot see it, but I know that Calgary lies in that direction—Calgary where people are sitting in pubs, drinking pints of Traditional Ale, appreciating the “delicate” bouquet of the beer and having “interesting” conversations. I want to be there
But first, I have to get up Gollum’s Grooves.
It was not supposed to be like this. My reason for coming to Calgary was to visit my friends Peter and Shannon and imbibe in just such a pub. I had no intention of trying my hand (or I should say, hands . . . and feet) at rock climbing, but I think Peter had other plans. He told me, innocently enough, that we had been invited to join some friends on a scramble up the back side of Mount Yamnuska (locals refer to it as Yam), which has a moderate slope and a breathtaking view.
Yamnuska is iconic. It sits just north of the Trans-Canada Highway on the eastern edge of the Rockies and intrigues passersby with an unbroken, nearly five hundred foot face of bright stone. If a giant had taken axe to rock and cleft a mountain, then taken one half away, the result would be Yam—a severed mountain. How cool to hike up to that summit.
Yamnuska also boasts one of the longest scree runs in the Canadian Rockies. Scree is the loose rock that often lies heaped at the base of cliffs. When you hike up a mountain, it’s terrible, and you lose six inches of every foot you gain. Coming down, however, it’s glorious. With deep scree, it is possible to run down a mountainside in long, leaping strides where the rock gives way like soft snow. An hour-long ascent becomes a ten minute descent, and at the base of Yam there is an almost unparalleled run of perfect scree.
I could not resist such an invitation, and the next morning a small group of us drove out for the hike. When the sunlit face of Yam rose into view, Peter’s friend, John, suggested that we climb the front instead of hiking the back slope. I observed regretfully that I did not have my climbing shoes with me. (I didn’t even own a pair.) Nor did I possess sufficient courage or a death-wish. I thought I had slipped the noose, but after we pulled off the highway, John reached into the back of his van and drew out a weathered bag dusted white with climbing chalk. He unzipped it to reveal a half dozen climbing shoes that he kept as extras. Peter smiled innocently.
The summer sun is baking my back, and my energy is beginning to flag. Above, the cliff cuts sheer through the air; below, the face falls clear away. Ahead of me is the horizontal section that John has deemed “delicate.” This is a traverse, and instead of climbing up, I must now move across. Where I need to go, the rock forms an oddly rounded shelf that protrudes like the brow-plate of a Neanderthal, and when I study it, I quickly realize that there is nowhere to put my feet. It’s just a short span of rock, perhaps two metres, but the shelf thrusts into open air, and there is nowhere to put my feet.
I stare hard at the ledge, hoping some unobservable feature will manifest itself, yet my scrutiny produces no magical transformation of stone. What I see is all that Yam is going to give me. My hesitation is holding up the rest of the group, and I can stall no longer. I have to accept that there is nothing for it but to forge ahead and get past his ridiculously tiny part of the mountain.
I concentrate on my breathing and attempt to gather my tattered thoughts. Inhale deeply, exhale slowly, smooth out the shakes. Focus. Go forward. Go forward.
Bracing myself, I surrender my right handhold and extend a trembling limb out onto the curved ledge. This surrender takes some convincing: I am loath to give up the security, yet except for the sweat streaming down my forearms, the ledge is dry and purchase is good. The surface is rough enough that I will not slip. I point my fingers down toward the base of the cliff, and my weight rests almost entirely on my palm.
Time to commit. I shift my weigh forward a little, then loosen my grip on the mountainside and lower my other hand to splay upon the ledge. Terror constricts my breath and tightens my movements. Both hands are now planted. I take as steady and deep a breath as I am able, then I shift my upper torso above my arms and let my legs swing free. My climbing shoes hang above nothing but empty space.
All in all, it’s a delicate situation.
Now that I am on the ledge, my only desire is to get across it. Up until this moment, when I have released one hand to reach higher up the mountain, my other hand and two feet have felt secure on the face—I have never had less than three points of contact on stone. Now, I have only two. My most powerful limbs hang uselessly, and I have no real handholds. My weight presses me onto the ledge, and it is gravity that holds me in place. Ironically, the force of nature I have been fighting all day is now my ally.
I quickly conclude the only way to proceed is to adopt a kind of stiff-armed shuffle across the traverse. I lean slightly to my left, and as my shoulders teeter off centre, I jerk my right hand an inch forward. It’s not much, but it is progress, and I really don’t have far to go. At least, I don’t have far to go horizontally. I refuse to let myself consider any other direction. I am fervently thankful for the rope and the piton hammered into rock at the top of the cliff above.
What develops next is a sequence of ungainly lurches. I sway, jerk, balance, sway, jerk, balance, breathe raggedly, and then begin anew. I move forward awkwardly, one hand at a time, progressing at a snail’s pace.
In such moments of concentration, time and space compress into the now and the here, and the world beyond my reach is without consequence. The magnificent panorama of Bow Valley, my now erstwhile friend Peter, the day that has been, and the day that is to come—all are banished from thought. My world has narrowed to the minute details of my existence on the ledge: the cool texture of the rock, the weight on my palms, the pain in my elbows, my breath, and the need to move forward. There is nothing else.
Sway, jerk, balance, sway, jerk, balance, catch a ragged breath.
Delicate my ass.
And then, abruptly, I’ve reached the other side. I’m across.
My right foot finds purchase on a tiny ridge. Just before me there is an obvious handhold. Slowly, carefully, so carefully with my shifting centre of gravity, I reach for it . . . .
The moment ends. The world expands once again.
Within seconds, I am back on the face—four points of contact glue me to Yamnuska. Relief comes in deep, satisfying gulps of pure mountain air, and the adrenalin quickly flushes from my cells. The realization that I am past the traverse has me shaking my head and grinning. When I look up to study the next segment of the climb, the grin cracks into a smile. Immediately above, the cliff begins to slope, and what was once a wall of stone, is now curtained by blue sky. I cannot see John, but I know he is only a short distance away. It’s almost over.
As I ascend the last easy stretch, the rock bends back down toward the horizon and a small chimney offers welcome refuge. When I finally see John, I’m stunned. The bombproof belay that had bulwarked my fragile confidence does not exist. John stands braced against the chimney wall with legs spread and knees bent; he grips the rope on each side and slowly feeds it across his lower back. The rope that I thought was clipped to a piton is pressed between his back and the mountain. That’s it. I outweigh John by eighty pounds. I would have pulled him off Yam like a grizzly swatting a marmot from a boulder.
Within seconds, however, it no longer matters. I scramble out of Gollum’s Groves, and I’m off the face. The complex emotions that assaulted me on the climb quickly dissipate in the open air and stunning view. I stretch my cramped muscles and shake out the vestiges of anxiety.
In measured intervals, the remaining members of our group scramble up to join us. I see no remnants of soul-shattering terror in their eyes. Experienced climbers all, they have appreciated the exercise and thoroughly enjoyed what for them was an easy route. Gollum’s Groves tops out only partway up the shoulder of Yamnuska, and the summit is still nearly a hundred feet above. We won’t be going up there today; it’s enough just to lean over the edge of the cliff and gaze straight down to the earth below.
Our trail off the mountain does not take us past the fabled scree run, and the day has grown too long to allow such a detour. Yet I am not done with Yam: I intend to return and after another ascent, I’ll take those wild strides down that scree. I also know that I will never again drive past the severed mountain without studying its face and seeking out Gollum’s Groves—my first and most memorable introduction to the dichotomy of rock and sky.
Kenneth D. Reimer