Things started off great when we immediately got off trail (we wouldn’t know this till days later). We attempted to follow some GPS tracks I plucked from the internet. This involved scaling a wet, lushly vegetated and slippery mountainside. This became increasingly tiresome and ludicrous, with steep precipice falls a constant reminder of our mortality. After several kilometres and hours, we came to a bouldered talus slope and scrambled down. Near the bottom, we picked a relatively flat boulder and stopped for lunch. We had yet to reach the U.S. border, at 2.7 kilometres. Things were going much slower than we had expected. Once back on the valley floor, we had to navigate huge west-coast blowdown, devil’s club, unbelievably dense alder patches, hornet attacks (the total came to four separate hornet attacks, by the end) and more.
I’m not sure how to even begin describing how difficult it is to bushwack (with a heavy pack on) any of these obstacles. It seemed as though any branch or log we wanted to break was indestructible; meanwhile, anything we hoped would hold our weight would give way once we had put our faith in it. The alder patches were so thick, I felt like a marionette being held up above the ground by the insanely unbreakable branches.
One of the aforementioned hornet attacks actually occured while trying to navigate one of these patches, where it took minutes to move a couple of inches in retreat. And don’t get me started on devil’s club. I can’t believe how much of the stuff there was—and how many thorns it can grow on a stalk—not to mention I think my skin had a slight allergic reaction to it. For anyone interested, Pierre Burton describes some of the horrors the first gold miners experienced with the plant, when navigating the Yukon bush, in his excellent book, Klondike. Another issue was that we experienced intermittent rain, all day (and for the next two days as well), which made navigating the huge fallen logs precarious, and also dampened our hopes of even climbing, as the rock was likely to be too wet.
After 9.5 kilometres of hiking along the valley bottom, we arrived at Bear Creek, which is where the real work supposedly began. I was pretty mentally broken by this point, but Dan was determined to keep going and I wasn’t about to let him down. From here, the hiking was up, up, and up a steep timber mountain ridge. We often had to grab on to whatever was around—stumps, trees, rocks—and dig our shoes into the dirt, in order to gain enough purchase to move upwards.
By this time, it was obvious that darkness was about to descend, and we weren’t going to reach the saddle we were aiming for. I found the only relatively flat area on the ridge and convinced Dan to stop. We set up our tarp, boiled water for our dehydrated dinner, and ate. Despite creating a spreadsheet and meticulously weighing every item we were bringing, in order to shed every unnecessary gram, I packed myself and Dan two tall boy beers. There is nothing quite like an absurd surprise and a good drink between friends in order to bring you back from times of complete devastation. After cleaning up, we crawled into our sleeping bags. It was so nice to shed our wet clothes and climb into dry ones for the night.
The next morning we awoke and broke camp. We knew, by this point, we weren’t going to climb our route. But dammit if we weren’t at least going to make it up to the saddle, our destination for the previous day. Within a short period after continuing our previous night’s hike upwards, we left the treeline and began ascending a section of dense huckleberry bushes. I can’t recall where I read it now, but someone once described this as crawling through porcupine quills, pointy end first. After thrashing and slipping and sliding through the huckleberry, we finally reached easy ground—a flatter and meadowy section of the ridge that also included blueberries and a bear skull someone had left on top of a rock. This would be the happiest moment of the trip. A little more upward scrambling and a traverse finally found us looking over a steep cliff (we had gone too high and would need to descend in order to make it to the saddle). By this point, it was getting later in the afternoon. It had been raining on and off for the last two days, making climbing a non-reality. With heavy hearts we turned back and began to reverse our tracks.
I’d like to say we simply retraced our steps back, and that was it, no more awfulness. Instead, we proceeded to get lost on the ridge down, get lost in the bushwack at the valley bottom, attempted to fjord the river filled with dying salmon who had lost their orange luster, almost got hypothermia, screamed nonsensically into the forest and the dying light (at least I did. Dan stayed stoically calm), literally got turned around at one point (How long were we walking the wrong way?) and finally set up camp on a sandbar when it got too dark to keep going. I slept soundly that night, as I was completely exhausted, but was actually sort of terrified from what had just happened and wondered, Why is this proving so difficult? Why is this forest the literal manifestation of evil?
We had just experienced two days of frustration, pain, rage, and failure … and we still weren’t done yet.
The next day proved gruelling, but not as bad as the last two. The last few kilometres back to the car were filled with promises never to return.
A week later, we formulated plans for how we could do better next summer. If it weren’t for this type of amnesia, I’m sure most adventurers would quit after their first bad experience.