My first experience climbing a mountain wasn’t what anyone would call a study in planning and execution… it was done more in the style of teenage bravado where we simply knew that irregardless of weather or equipment what would get us to the top wasn’t skill or equipment it was sheer desire, sheer audacity and tenacity. We were certainly lacking in equipment, but the skills were there, they were simply raw and untempered. We had been testing ourselves on the low mountains back home for two years and had sated our appetites for adventure there so it was time to test ourselves in a larger theater…
Having spent the entirety of our lives in Central Ontario a larger theatre wasn’t hard to find. We weren’t looking to scale Mt. Logan here (at least yet) just something bigger and more challenging. So this is where a change of venue became the central focus of our adventurous existence… and where leaving for university provided the perfect reason for re-location.
Most of my friends picked school within a few hundred kilometers of home… that for my friend Brett and I simply wasn’t good enough. Vancouver sounded about right. We needed to transplant our lives 4200km to the west where 'there be mountains' to really make the most out of our lives. Much of what went into this decision had little to do with education and more to do with location. Sound planning for an eighteen year old.
So here we were four months after graduating planning a trip to the top of Crown Mountain in Vancouver’s North Shore Mountains. For us this was to be the great trial, the great adventure we had been seeking for several years now.
We left a note in Brett’s room with directions on a map in case we didn’t return… and set out early the next morning transferring to three different buses before at last we were at the base of Grouse Mountain and were on our way up the gondola.
The views from the gondola left no doubt whatsoever in our minds that what we were doing was most assuredly the right thing. At the top we growled our way past all of the wanker tourists… shouldered our gym bags… This is where an experienced and appraising eye would have to seriously question our preparedness.
We each had a Nike gym bag whose handles we’d managed to squeeze onto our shoulders… a pair of running shoes and a $15 spring tent that I’d won seven years earlier when I was a paperboy. We most assuredly didn’t look the part. But those we passed flashed us knowing smiles having seen this many times before and left us to ourselves… as it was abundantly clear our will was unwavering.
For a young punk from Ontario the hike past the rocky outcroppings and the tremendous, deeply cut glacial valley was awe inspiring. Some of the trees bespoke of the legendary giants that were once so prevalent in the area. The air was crisp and cool but full of promise, a rare day for late October in Vancouver.
We engaged in our usual bouts of braggadocio, bantering back in forth in a nonsensical conversation that fit in perfectly with our exuberant mood. We passed few hikers along the way, but that was fine with us as we were eager to leave the city behind and experience the glory of the mountains first hand.
After only an hour we were at the top of Dam mountain (around 1300m) and looking out across Crown Pass through the clouds at the rugged but beautiful Crown Mountain.
It in no way resembled Mt. Assiniboine or Robson, but its pyramidal summit did fit the idealised view we held of what a mountain should look like and its razor thin rocky spine beckoned like nothing I’d ever experienced.
The trip down into Crown Pass saw us quickly lose the trail down... which can be dangerous as the rock is slippery and steep and once you start to slide the only thing that will halt your momentum are the rocks and trees along the way. So we negotiated the steeper sections cautiously having left behind the gaggle of day hikers at the top of Dam and were on our own... resolute in our desire to summit this peak and to spend the night on her rocky shoulder.
Crown Pass was a narrow defile with a sparkling creek burbling through it over water smoothened stones, amidst an assemblage of stony pines… it resembled heaven as far as we were concerned. What woke us from our reverie were the recently left droppings from a black bear and the signs all around that this was an area they frequented. So we hastily made our way to the base of Crown’s eastern slopes and started picking our way up the trail.
The first part of the trail parallels the steep 150m eastern wall of Crown Mountain... there are places where the trail is no more than half a meter from a vertical drop to the valley far below. This was something we’d gone out of our way to experience at home but the opportunities were few and far… so this was IT!
After about 25 minutes the trail began to level off and started skirting through the trees towards the summit on the western side of the peak. It was around this time that we started to realise that the day was waning and we were going to have to look towards setting up camp for the night. Neither of us was eager for one of our infamous night set ups so we began immediately to look for a spot.
From what we could see there were no places nearby on the trail so we came to a decision… we decided to blaze a trail up through the trees towards Crowns distant rocky spine to see if along the way we might find a likely spot to set up camp… again we were relying on sound rationality for our decisions… a strong feeling that there must be something... ‘up that way’.
The way was steep and slippery and many times we had to rely on the branches of the stunted prickly trees to anchor ourselves or to lever ourselves to get higher. After what seemed an eternity (maybe 20 minutes) of slipping and swearing we finally emerged into a little dell just below the spine that was a perfect spot to set up for the night.
Brett put up the tent while I gathered firewood and went on a little reconnaissance trip. I wanted to scout ahead for our path to the summit in the morning and I simply wanted to see how far away the spine was and what kind of views it afforded.
So after gathering 4 or 5 armfuls of wood I took off through the trees… After only three or four minutes I was out of the trees and onto the spine and looking out over Crowns northern slopes and many of its rugged rocky neighbours.
For the first time in my life as far as the eye could see the only thing in my field of vision were mountains. The sense of interconnectedness and ‘rightness’ permeated me from the tips of my toes to the topmost hairs on my head... it was a feeling I will never forget. I yelled down to Brett describing all that I could see and after five minutes or so of absorbing the raw, rugged beauty the reality of the setting sun dawned on me and I headed back to camp.
For supper we had lots of hot chocolate and chicken noodle soup. Afterwards we wrapped ourselves in layer after layer and settled in around the campfire... as always drawn to the vibrancy of the dancing flames…
As the night fell and the clouds lifted the temperature plunged down to -20°C. We were both experiencing numb toes so we removed our running shoes and were holding up our socks to the fire… that seemed to do the trick. To the south over Dam mountain the lights from downtown Vancouver twinkled benignly and belied the chaotic reality of the urban environment.
Around 11:00 or so we decided to call it a night and headed to our tent. Sleep though was not to be had to easily. Snow was falling and the cold was starting to send biting tendrils of frost through any opening... robbing us of our shroud of warmth… we shivered much of the night away and awoke early feeling like we hadn’t slept a wink, laughing at the sheer stupidity of camping in the mountains with our pathetic equipment but buoyed by the certainty that we were going to follow that beautiful spine all the way to the summit.
The climb along the spine was daring and dangerous but to us it was only fun. It reminds me now of some of the challenging segments of the rim traverse on Nevado de Toluca… which is a climb not to be taken too lightly. We were straddling the spine at some points, on others we were forced to walk on the northern slopes with nothing but a thousand foot slide awaiting us if we messed up… but we didn’t. We had been honing these basic skills at Killarney for a few years and now we were employing them the way we knew we could.
The views were fantastic! Crown’s north side is a rock playground… no trees nothing but rock from the base to the tip. The day was dull and dreary, but the clouds were high enough that they weren’t impeding our view so we were content.
After 40 minutes or so we dropped down to the summit trail and were soon scrambling across Crown’s rocky shoulder to the summit trail. To stand on the summit proper wasn’t possible as the summit was a true pyramid so we scrambled up to the top and edged our way out until we were straddling the summit pyramid with nothing but egregious drops on either side of us. We yodeled out across the valley and roared in triumph and waved to the people in the helicopter that were touring the mountains the wanker way… unwilling to really experience the mountains, they’d rather spectate. The views were awesome, Vancouver looked small and insignificant, and the mountains all around us were beckoning, but we knew there would be other days and more adventures to come.
This was what we dreamed of and now we were living it. This was our baptism into the world of mountain climbing and in our own eyes we’d passed with flying colours... Oh to be young foolish again…
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