Unplanned Bivy #67
"Run Rabbit run
Dig that hole, forget the sun,
And when at last the work is done
Don't sit down it's time to dig another one
For long you live and high you fly
But only if you ride the tide
And balanced on the biggest wave
You race towards an early grave"
Pink Floyd 1973
Mount Assiniboine in the Canadian Rockies is the virtual twin of the
Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps. Although Assiniboine at just under
12,000 feet above sea level stands slightly shorter than the
Matterhorn, what it lacks in altitude is more than equaled by its
location at a far more inhospitable northern latitude. In normal years
it is not uncommon for parties to retreat before ever coming to grips
with the exposed, double-corniced summit ridge.
Ironically, it was injuries and lack of physical conditioning which
brought Em and I to Mt. Assiniboine in August of 2003: Surgery and a
shoulder injury on my part rendered me incapable of rock climbing at a
high technical standard; Em was just recovering from a severe finger
tendon injury and also was seeking a more moderate level than our
usual summer menu. Thus the classic North Ridge route, at 5.5, was one
of many easy, classic goals which made the list of options for our
During repeated climbing trips to Canada over the past half-decade, we
have discovered that a wide list of
climbing objectives allows us to take advantage of the best conditions
and weather patterns, and has often netted us incredible climbs in
"gift" conditions. Thus it was that, as the unusually dry summer of
2003 ravaged the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta with
wildfires and smoke, we found ourselves atop the Telepherique on
Sulphur Mountain in Banff, peering through the haze at the distant
pinnacle of Assiniboine, finding the North Ridge of the mountain
completely bare of snow.
Later, as we soaked at a hot springs and discussed plans, we agreed
that our objective was clear, and we discarded other options in favor
of the long trip into the Assiniboine Provincial Park to attempt this
most beautiful of mountains.
Several telephone calls later, we had determined that the helicopter
into Assiniboine Lodge only flew on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays,
had made reservations for one night's stay at the Naiset Cabins near
Assiniboine Lodge, and reserved three nights' lodging at the RC Hind
Hut, at 9,000 feet an excellent high camp for our attempt. Since we
would be heading in on Monday, we resigned ourselves to making the
17-mile approach to Assiniboine Lodge on foot. (Although the
Dougherty guide calls this approach 20km, signs at the Naiset Cabins
confirmed the distance was considerably longer.)
Monday evening, blistered, footsore and exhausted, we stumbled into
the Assiniboine Lodge. Although it was well after teatime, the
incredible staff at the lodge catered to us, offering lemonade, beer
and wine, and even complimentary slices of fresh baked chocolate cake
with caramel sauce!
Tuesday, after a crack-of-noon start, we threaded our way up "Gmoser's
Highway," a complex series of 3rd and 4th class ledges gaining 2,000
feet up to the Hind Hut.
As the evening alpenglow caressed the summit pyramid with golden
light, we met our fellow hut-mates: several Aussies, and some
French-Canadians who had summitted that day, and a pair of fellow
Californians who looked vaguely familiar. Soon we realized that we
knew this pair, aerobic monsters who had done the entire approach to
the Hind Hut from the car in one day!
Shortly after dinner, Em and I retired to the upper bunks of the hut,
using our earplugs (required equipment for hut living!) to assure a
comfortable and quiet night's sleep.
Summit Day –
Em and I climb carefully up dry rock in warm sunshine. The rack and
rope stay in the packs. Careful route finding brings us to the top
just before noon. So seldom do we encounter such perfect conditions on
Canadian peaks that we revel in the paradise of a hot noonday lunch,
lingering long and even napping, before beginning the descent.
Little did we realize that the most difficult part of the climb was
yet to come. Easing down the rubble-covered ledges of the peak
required painstaking care. As the afternoon wore on, Em began feeling
the effects of dehydration and the high altitude. We opted to rappel
numerous times rather than downclimb the steeper sections. A
route-finding error on my part near the bottom of the ridge cost us
two more rappels down overhanging cliffs before we could unrope. But
finally the interminable talus slog back to the Hind Hut was finished,
and at long last we collapsed into the plush comfort of sleeping bags,
after a hearty dinner.
We descended from the Hind Hut two days later, to catch the Friday
morning helicopter flight out from Assiniboine Lodge. Upon reaching
the trailhead, we found that the entire backcountry was now closed due
to the wildfires. Other, more far-reaching news, was that the eastern
seaboard of the United States had experienced their worst power
blackout in history.
A day later, as a result of the far-reaching impacts of the New York
blackout, we were stranded with hundreds of other travelers at the
Vancouver Airport when a delayed Air Canada flight caused us to miss
our connecting flight. The ensuing bivy, atop mounds of gear, was
lumpy and uncomfortable, but warmer than any other unplanned bivouac
we had ever experienced.
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