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I faced my fears on a mountain cliff that was never on my bucket list. Summiting the Houdini Needle, somewhere in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia, was one of the most emotional, exhilarating, frightening experiences I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. In fact, I’ve signed up to go again next year.
But let me back up. I had joined a group of eight hikers, two mountain guides, one cook and 20 boxes of food on a short helicopter flight to a backcountry hut where we would be staying for a week. No internet, no phones, no cell service, no way out until the designated pick-up date one week later. Just 11 of us left to our own devices. The excitement in the air was palpable.
We had our first briefing with the guides just after we arrived at the hut, everyone listening intently.
“Okay, for tomorrow, we will be doing an exploratory review of the area to check things out. The weather is supposed to be sunny, but you never know what to expect in the mountains, so everyone needs to bring an insulating layer, full rain suit, hiking boots, poles if you use them... ”
Yes, yes, got all that, I’m thinking, relaxing and feeling smugly well prepared. Nothing like having the right gear.
“... crampons, harness, ice axe, helmet, carabiners ...”
“Bent gate? Quickdraws?” Someone from the group asked knowledgeably.
“Your choice. But at least three, both locking and unlocking.”
Everyone began moving around the hut, packing equipment into their knapsacks.
“Okay.” I took a deep breath. “I don’t have that kind of gear,” I said, hating to make such a confession so early on in the game.
“What don’t you have?” The guide asked calmly, looking only a little concerned.
“Well, I have rain gear...”
“And hiking shoes ...”
“Shoes? Not boots?”
“Harness?” The guide asked weakly, looking as though she was afraid she already knew the answer.
“I don’t have anything but hiking shoes. And poles. I thought this was a hiking trip.” I knew it would not be a good time to mention that I had waterproofed my hiking shoes myself and was a little afraid they wouldn’t measure up to fording the kind of streams that I was already imagining might lie ahead.
The hut suddenly went quiet, everyone’s eyes on me, as we tried to understand what had gone wrong. “The organizer said it would be hiking as well as mountain climbing,” I said.
“Didn’t you see the gear list?” someone asked helpfully.
“You might have to just do little walks around the hut,” was the last word from the guide.
I admit I was feeling a little foolish. Yes, I had seen the gear list, but I had booked the trip just two weeks earlier, in the middle of a bunch of stresses, and maybe didn’t look at the details as carefully as I could have. And perhaps I should have asked more questions, been more precise about my experience in the mountains. As it turned out, I was the only one who didn’t have the right gear, the city slicker from Toronto who had somehow gotten on the wrong bus. Perhaps my parents would have to be called to come pick me up and get me to the right camp, the one within my capabilities and gear limitations.
But, of course, my ride wouldn’t be returning for a week, and I soon found myself with offers of spare equipment from my fellow hikers, or should I say, mountaineers. Faster than you could say “quickdraw,” I was kitted out with a harness, helmet and carabiners, perched on the side of a cliff. I’d always admired photos of athletic young men and women with little pouches and a variety of metal hanging from their waists, dangling from a rock face with one arm, looking so pro. Well, maybe that wasn’t quite the picture I cut, but here I was, roped between two other people, scaling the Houdini Needle – and facing my fears. I focused on hugging the mountain, carefully picking my way from one rocky ledge to another, searching for foot and hand holds, taking “leaps of faith” across bottomless chasms, not daring to turn my head to glance at the sheer drop behind me. I tried to avoid thinking about exactly how a foot might easily slip, the rest of the bodies following, bouncing from one sharp rock to another on the way down. But I was attached to two mountaineers who were counting on me to keep going. And so I did. And, yes, I cried. Twice. Luckily, they weren’t full-on panic attacks, just the “give me a moment while I collect myself” kind of thing, based on the perfectly reasonable dread of falling from a great height onto the sharp, jagged rocks below.
When we reached the top, and high fives were slapped all around, I realized I had bagged a peak and couldn’t wipe the silly grin off my face. My first short-rope climb. I was three kilometres into the sky, feeling like a mountaineer, and thanking my lucky stars that I hadn’t asked too many questions before I signed up for this trip. But the crowning glory was when my fellow mountaineer, a strapping German geophysicist, gave me a big bear hug and said, “Hey. Not bad for a city slicker.”
Debra Scoffield lives in Toronto.