If we’re lucky, there are maybe a handful of times in our lives where we truly reveal our character. Sure, every day is an opportunity to learn about yourself, but most folks probably aren’t confidently proclaiming things like “I am a bad ass!” or “I perform well under extreme stress!” on any old Tuesday. Unless you’re me. Maybe it’s because I find the story in every situation, but I tend to live my life in a perpetual state of “How does this sh*t always happen to me?!?!” Whether it’s trying to “save” a matador from a bull and failing spectacularly at it, freaking out that we were about to become part of a real-life horror movie in a Macedonian forest, or hiking past a nearby grizzly because I was too annoyed at the false summits to even notice it was there, I’ve learned so much about myself in the past ten years that I could write a book. Or a blog. My most recent Court epiphany came in the Yukon, where I learned that I can keep calm even when stuck on the side of a mountain…or at least I can keep calm if I’m armed with beef jerky.
As chronicled in my last post, El and I recently did a 22km backcountry hiking trip to Canada Creek campsite in Kluane National Park. One of the reasons why we chose this particular hike was because it gave us the opportunity to then hike to the Observation Mountain summit and view the spectacular Kaskawulsh Glacier below. It’s like a river of ice flowing through the valley, and if you search for it on Google Images you’ll immediately see why it was a draw for us. El in particular was really excited to see this glacier, sending me pics of it on Instagram and frequently talking about it.
After our first night at the campsite, we set out nice and early for the 8km roundtrip hike to and up Observation Mountain. We couldn’t have asked for better weather that day, and the hike to the trailhead was filled with sunshine, one creek crossing without incident, and spectacular views of the valley and surrounding mountains. It took us about 2.5 hours to get to the summit trail, which was essentially one steeply inclined narrow path that I instantly pictured myself accidentally somersaulting down. Since that route looked dangerous, and the hikers we’d met the day before recommended just going up to the plateau, we checked our GPS and decided to walk the additional kilometer to the start of the plateau trail. Why make our day harder than it had to be? Famous last words.
We got to the base of the plateau route and saw that it was basically a hike up a mountain slope. No big deal; we came prepared with our hiking poles. We pulled them out to the farthest length, and El went ahead of me on the route. The consistency of the ground, however, was like wet sand, and I found my feet sliding down with every step I took. It was a literal “two steps forward, two steps back” type of moment; and not in a fun “Paula Abdul/MC Skat Kat” type of way. It didn’t seem to bother El though, and he was nimbly making advances up the slope. Fortunately for me there was a rock slide route ten feet away that ran directly parallel to him. I let him know that I was going up that way, and we both started making the climb up the steep mountainside.
For the first half of the climb, I was hardly expelling any energy because of how easy the hiking poles made navigating the big boulders. As I got higher though, the rocks started to get smaller and smaller, and the hiking poles started losing their effectiveness. Even though our trails were parallel, I could hear El climbing but had lost sight of him. When I was almost at the top, I heard him yell down, “I’m up. Just keep going the way you’re going!”. When I say I was almost at the top, I’m talking like fifty more feet of climbing, and I’d be on the ridge with him. So I pressed on…but I didn’t go far.
The big boulders had become rocks no larger than the size of my fist, and at this point my “trail” was identical to the one El had taken: dirt that had the consistency of wet sand with some rocks loosely embedded in it. Every step I took caused my boot to slide down, and if I tried to anchor my pole on a rock, the rock would just be pried loose from the ground. My hiking poles were still at their full length though, so I stopped for a second and shortened them. This whole trip I had to rely on El to do that for me because I needed the arm strength of Thor to get those things loosened; how I was able to do it myself in that moment still amazes me. Armed with shortened hiking poles, I started climbing again, only to have the same thing happen. One step forward, one step back, and the mountain and I did not go together cuz opposites most definitely didn’t attract in that moment. I was still in problem solving mode though and figured I needed a better center of gravity. So I tucked my hiking poles into the top of my backpack and started to use my hands to climb up. I actually started making some progress up the slope when suddenly my foot slipped.
Remembering Elliot’s advice to “fall towards the mountain” if that ever happened, I instinctively flung my whole body flat against the rocks. By that point though, gravity had taken over and I started sliding down. FAST. I finally stopped after about twenty feet, but when I did I hit my knee so hard on a rock that I felt like I was going to black out. A few years ago, El and I went ice skating, and I got a little too big for my britches and took a corner too fast. I landed hard on my knee and had to lie down in the penalty box because I thought I was going to puke/faint. This was exactly the same feeling I had while on the side of that mountain, only there was no penalty box to save me and no Tom Wilson to join me there.
When faced with these types of ‘holy sh*t’ situations, I tend to react in one of two ways: I either freeze completely or I panic. I blame OCD for the latter because my brain will immediately go into asshole mode and be like, “NOW’S THE PERFECT TIME TO THINK ABOUT EVERY DISASTROUS SCENARIO IMAGINABLE.” Not helpful. So when I found myself starting to pass out from the pain of hitting my knee, I was surprised to do neither of those things. It was like subconscious Courtney realized that “Bitch, you cannot pass out on the side of a mountain”. Subconscious Courtney is one smart cookie because if I fainted, I risked rolling down and seriously injuring myself. So even though I was pouring sweat and woozy, I somehow remembered in that moment that you should look at the horizon if you’re seasick. I didn’t know if that would apply with mountains, but I didn’t care and turned my body so I was facing outward and zeroed in on a mountain peak to focus my attention. I then thought, “Okay, you need to drink some water”. We had recently purified the creek water I had with me though, and I wasn’t sure if it was okay to drink, so I yelled up to Elliot to check. No answer. I yell up again. Still, no answer.
I could feel the panic start to rise, and my Catholic-raised brain frantically tried to think of a saint to invoke. My thought process in the span of 2 seconds: “St. Christopher. Kind of works because he’s the patron saint of travel. Who’s a mountain saint? A Canadian saint? What about a nature saint? St. Kateri! Will that even work??? Ahhhh!” Instead of freaking out though, I took a deep breath, thought, “Gramps, you gotta help me out here” and focused on the business of not passing out on the mountain. Not wanting to take the chance of getting a river parasite, I decided not to drink the water but remembered that I had beef jerky in my backpack. So I leaned against the mountain, ate beef jerky that tasted better in that moment than a filet mignon, and focused my attention on the horizon until the wooziness passed. When it did, I resolved to keep climbing up the slope. Because I’m 100% that bitch, and I didn’t need a DNA test to tell me that.
I knew that I couldn’t keep going up the path I was on, so I slowly but surely inched my way over to the route El took, sliding down a few feet in the process. Once there, I gripped the ground and tried to inch my way towards the top, which was agonizingly only a few feet away. No dice. The ground was too loose for me to make any progress. I saw the three hikers from our campsite making their way across a distance ridge and yelled for their attention, but they were too far to hear me. Once again, I called out for Elliot and didn’t get a response. As if on cue, my brain pictured him injured on top of the plateau. I felt the panic start to rise, but again to my surprise I actually said, “Now is not the time to panic” aloud and stayed calm. I knew then that Gramps was definitely with me. I also realized that no matter what path I tried to take, I wasn’t making it to the top of that mountain. I’d risk seriously injuring myself if I kept trying, and given that we needed to hike 4km back to our campsite and then 22km back to our car the next day, a serious injury could be something as minor as a sprained ankle. I knew my limits. I also reasoned that Elliot would eventually find me, so I wedged my foot between two rocks, lengthened my hiking poles, stuck them both into the ground, and sat against the mountain like it was my throne. I may not have had a view of the glacier, but I had the mountains to keep me company.
Not too long after I had crowned myself Queen of Kluane, I heard a distant “Courtney!” Sure enough, like some kind of mountain Jesus, Elliot came into view. After my initial relief that he wasn’t hurt, my next thought was, “Wait. Why is he so far?” I didn’t know it at the time, but when he got to the top Elliot was disoriented and had spent that whole time going from slope to slope looking for me. Through call and response, El slowly crossed the slope and made his way over to me. I immediately felt a sense of relief followed by a sense of guilt when I learned he hadn’t seen the glacier. It was because of me that he wouldn’t get to see the glacier he’d been looking forward to the past few months. El quickly put a stop to that feeling and assured me that me being safe was the only thing that mattered. Because he’s an awesomely great guy like that. We slowly made our way down the mountain, together. That’s not to say it was completely without incident. My legs and butt slid across rocks more than once, and my hiking pole mutinied against me and fell out of my bag, knocking me on the head like I was a human whack-a-mole.
When our feet were finally on solid ground, El and I took inventory of our injuries. He had a smushed finger that formed a blood blister under the nail, some cuts on his legs, and a good deal of bruises on his arms and elbows. My entire left leg, from ankle to hip, was bruised and my shin was full of scrapes. Even though we had literally slid down a mountainside, none of our clothes were torn, and I vowed to only buy Patagonia hiking pants from that day forward.
On our hike back to the campsite, we walked a little closer to to glacier, and even though it wasn’t the spectacular view we had planned on, we still got to see something beautiful. While we hiked back, I replayed the whole mountainside scene over in my head and allowed myself to accept that it was a scary situation that could have ended disastrously if I hadn’t stayed calm.
When I blog about our travels, I usually write about what I saw and how I felt. This experience allowed me to write about what I learned:
- Goals can evolve. We may not have seen the glacier from the mountaintop like we’d planned, but we still got to see the glacier. Instead of giving up, we adjusted the goal and still got to experience something amazing.
- No matter how many different ways I try to solve a problem, there are some situations that are out of my control. Instead of continuing to the top of the mountain and risking serious injury to myself, I accepted my limits. And that’s okay. There’s strength in realizing your weaknesses.
- Never ever lose sight of your hiking buddy, not even for a second.
- Panicking or freezing aren’t the only ways I’ll react in a ‘holy sh*t’ situation. I can also be calm, rationale, and quick thinking. I can be like Gramps.
My time on the side of the mountain gave me more than a great story; it gave me some lessons that I’ll carry with me the rest of my life. It also gave Elliot a great idea for a stocking stuffer: walkie talkies…
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