Bear Mountain – A redux

Detailed route of Alexander and Dan’s second ascent of Bear Mountain

If you’ve read about our first attempt to climb (or even glimpse) Bear Mountain, you may be wondering how or why we ever returned. I wish I knew myself, with any sort of confidence. Was it the resentment of failure? Was it the undeterrable enthusiasm we had for this climb? Was it because of a sense of embarrassment and a need to redeem ourselves? I don’t know. All I know is, the next spring, Dan and I (but mostly Dan) went back to that approach trail several times to flag a trail that could be followed by any pair of witless adventure seekers. On one occasion, we went in with a machete and hacked a path all the way to Bear Camp. I left the forest that day covered in the blood (chlorophyll?) of countless defeated devil’s club. I slashed through alder with an unhealthy amount of glee. This time we would be ready. This time we would prevail.

We left on the Friday of the August long weekend and camped at the end of Chilliwack Lake, the beginning of the proper trailhead. The weather forecasted was the same as all of the previous days that summer: no rain. Actually, B.C. (and much of the western U.S.) was going through a dry spell and some pretty severe forest fires were raging in the interior. Health advisories were posted some days, warning about the effects of exercising outside due to the severe smoke that loomed in the air.

The next day we woke early and broke camp. We set out into the forest, a forest we now were beginning to find familiar—an old foe. Using the trail tape we tied around branches and trees, and the path we cut with the machete, we dispatched with the first bit of forest on the way to Bear Camp in excellent time. Next, we ascended the steep ridge up to Ruth Lake, where Dan took a rest and I volunteered to hike down and collect much-needed water. I stopped at the edge of the lake to sit and fill, both the water bottles and my soul. This trip was going much better than last year, and I felt a confidence and joy in being somewhere that felt so stupidly hard before. Plus, it was a really pretty lake. After our break, we ascended diagonally up through a scree slope. Last year we had gone too high and ended up at the edge of a cliff. This time we wisely stayed low and found a way over to the col (the lowest point of a ridge or saddle between two peaks) where we would set up camp. That night, Dan surprised me with hidden beers he lugged up; not two, but four wonderful frothy ales. We dispatched two of these beauties that night and stored the other two in the snow—these would be our celebration beers after our summit the next day. As the sun descended and we prepared to go to sleep, the thick air caused by the burned forest created a spooky sunset of crimson and purple—stunning, really.

The morning of our ascent, we woke up around 6 a.m. Although we had hundreds of vertical metres to cover that day, Dan and I felt confident that we could dispatch with the difficulties with little trouble. Looking back, I’m not sure where this confidence came from. We elected to climb with a small backpack each, which we would fill with food, water, shoes, ice axe and crampons for the day. The question of how much water to bring is always tricky, as more deters dehydration, but also increases gravity’s pull. Dan went with only a single litre of water, whereas I decided on a litre and a half.

The first order of business, after eating and grabbing our gear, was to descend into the northern basin. This involved a lot of rock hopping, scree crossing, and some snow/ice crossing. Donning our crampons, after several hundred metres of this, we approached the foot of the north buttress of Bear Mountain, on nice hard snow. The first pitch of our climb is described as a short rock chimney (a wide crack large enough to fit your entire body into), which I climbed first. After this, we swapped leads, each dispatching several tens of metres before we reached natural belay spots, such as ledges, or we ran out of rope (which is generally 60–70 metres long). The first six or so pitches went smoothly, when it became my turn to climb a supposedly easy traverse (climbing where you head horizontally across the face instead of vertically) towards low 5th-class scrambling, which would have lead us to about the halfway point. Unfortunately, the route description we had was vague and almost indecipherable.

Instead of heading right and into easy ground, I ended up taking us straight up hard and exposed terrain. With each pitch, we began to doubt ourselves more and more, as we weren’t sure how hard these climbs would be or if they would deposit us back onto the line we planned on climbing. We were constantly debating whether we should continue up and test our luck, or create an anchor and rappel down and try to find where I had gone wrong earlier. In the end, however, we kept forging upwards and were surprised and delighted with the quality and difficulty of the climbing we discovered.

After the third pitch, I found myself on somewhat-recognizable terrain and shouted to Dan that I thought we might be back on track. After Dan climbed up to my position, he headed out right on easier ground and found the halfway ledge we could recognize in our route photo. At this point, Dan was running out of water, having miscalculated the difficulties of route finding and the smoky air. Luckily, there was some snow on this ledge and I managed to collect several-hundred millilitres of water from the drippings of a slow snow melt, which we would have to make do with.

It was my turn to lead the next pitch, and after arguing with Dan with what I thought looked like a seriously difficult climb (and, therefore, in my mind, the wrong one), I headed up and managed to get up 60 metres of rope-stretching terrain, before collapsing on the ledge above. Due to the completely confounding route description we were working with, we once again got off route from here. Instead of heading left, around a corner, to what is supposed to be a beautiful fist crack (a parallel crack in which you need to squeeze your hand into a fist to climb), Dan went up an unprotected arête, which (from below) looked easy, but ended up being hard and scary. From here, we figured out our mistake and continued on easier ground that seemed to match the route description.

Our next pitch was a difficult off-width, which means the crack was larger than a fist but smaller than a chimney, which Dan made short work of. Finally, we felt like we were on the right track. We managed to make short work of the final seven or so pitches, one of which was on the face of the buttress and provided beautiful exposure of the hundreds of metres below. These are the moments, when you aren’t scared out of your mind, that you feel complete exhilaration and sublime joy in being in the mountains, being a part of the landscape, in some mystical way.

It ended up being my lead that spit us out on the top of the buttress. I felt complete joy and pride with what we had accomplished, made all the more meaningful due to our complete horror-show disaster the year before. I managed to snap a shot of Dan as he crested the top and met me at the top, a picture that doesn’t look all that impressive due to the thick smoke—but, nonetheless, means a lot to me.

From here, we found a simple descent route down the south side of the mountain and replenished our dehydrated bodies with a slurp from a snow-melt stream. Next, we were quickly back in camp and consumed a delicious rehydrated rice-and-beans dinner and two glorious, libatious, nectar-of-the-gods beers. I’m not sure if there is much on Earth better than a brew after a summit … I’m pretty sure a whole doctoral thesis needs to be dedicated to this subject.

A much-deserved dip in Chilliwack Lake before heading home

Having finished our climb, we could look back at all the confusing and scary bits, from being lost, to climbing technically demanding and sometimes-insecure or hard-to-protect rock, and see them from a vantage of hindsight: these were now challenges we overcame and could appreciate and be proud of, even though in the moment we felt frustration and sometimes slight terror. In the rock-climbing community, we call this Type 2 fun. Type 1 fun is something that is fun in the moment and fun upon reflection. Type 2 is where it is not fun in the moment but seems fun in hindsight (there is debate about logically extending this to a Type 3 fun … but that wouldn’t be fun in either case, so it seems to be a misnomer).

We slept that night with bellies full of food and beer, and our souls full of adventure and accomplishment. The next day, we made it back to Chilliwack Lake in high spirits and took a much deserved dip in the water.
In the end, I’m almost thankful for how difficult Bear Mountain ended up being, the first time we tried it. There is something oddly satisfying that humans find in a challenge, and if you don’t fail at something, how can you know you’re pushing yourself to greater goals? It’s not something that’s easy to remember in the moment, but a little failure can go a long way in creating deeper meaning and experiences in our lives.

Bear Mountain – A loving tribute to a living nightmare

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