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Mountain Climbing at Middle Age: Climbing Mount Cooper

I go off into the heart of the wilderness, at age forty-five, to climb a ten-thousand foot peak only climbed a half-dozen times before. No climbing equipment, not in good shape, deciding to go on the spur of the moment the night before--

Because of my coming on board at the last minute, it was my responsibility to arrange a place for my daughter to spend three days, with possibly an extra night at the end. That was the hard part of setting this plan into motion, on such short notice. Finally it clicked into place, around 8:30. So I packed the basics for an overnight hike, but with extra food, and was off early the next morning with Chris and Sarah.

Chris, fifteen years my junior, is a compulsive athlete in perfect shape. Sarah, my partner, is Chris's age; runs a market garden full-time and squeezes time around that to play soccer, do gymnastics, and go on hikes and rock-climbing and skiing expeditions--even in summer. I was outmatched, but they were agreeable to having me along. I'm still limber and reasonably strong, and this trip seemed my kind of quest: to go as far as I could past civilization by foot, within a three-day limit. I was not as fixated on the peak as they were: Sarah having attained Cooper's lesser east peak the year before while Chris declined the last stretch up the steep glazed ramp to the summit--to his continual gnawing regret ever since.

Still, when I think of Cooper, it's the summit that comes to mind. Sure, the journey, the process, yeah yeah: but the Summit! As it happened, I didn't bring a camera on the final ascent; but the picture is imprinted in my memory, the feeling implanted in my heart.

What did it look like up there? That part I'll give you now: massive sweeps of the purest white snow in nearly vertical sheets falling away from the knife-like ridge at the top, into the vast green valleys far below; the view beyond into the pale brown and gray masses of the northern Selkirk range, from a vantage so high above them I was giddy…

As for the feeling…well, for that you had to be part of the journey to get there.

The journey was a succession of points of doubt. Interspersed, of course, with visions of glory (mostly the wilderness itself, but with a dot or three of human ego skittering across the bottom of the canvas). The hike into the backcountry was relatively easy: thanks to a long drive up a logging road leading to a two-hour walk through five-to-six-thousand-foot open alpine terrain, over a marked trail. The first obstacle came where Sarah and Chris had predicted from their scouting trip the week before: at the steep headwall of the first pass, leading down into a huge verdant valley beckoning like the Lost World.

Slick rock and glazed old snow, dizzying steepness. We figured there must be a way. We roped to get down the snow, and picked our way ever so gingerly down the rockface to the bottom of the six-hundred foot headwall. Then came a decision: the valley floor or the sidehill?

On the assumption that the flatland by the creek would be choked with alder, we took the sidehill. It, too, proved thick with brush, with rough, rocky footing, so we figured the bottom couldn't be worse, and changed our course. Bears had paved the way through the head-high vegetation, and it was easier going. But we had a long day's journey ahead of us with another fifteen hundred feet of elevation to gain back at the end of it.

We cast our eyes speculatively over our shoulders at a ridge shortcut Chris had spotted just past the headwall. The map indicated a glacier descent on the other side of it, of unknown difficulty, so we'd opted to stick with the original plan, the sure but grueling trek down the valley.

By mid-afternoon it was time to climb again, to angle up the sidehill, cutting the corner to go up the creek which ran in from the right. Here the alder and cedar became almost impossibly thick. Burdened with our bulky frame packs, we wedged our way forward inch by inch, climbing and crawling, laughing and nearly crying at the ridiculous mess we'd got ourselves in. Daylight was proceeding and we had hours yet to climb to reach our projected campsite. With sheer determination we made it before dark to what proved a perfect camping spot by a little lake below the next pass.

Next day was a long, grueling marathon. To fit the summit within our three-day schedule would take a full, thirteen or fourteen hour day, a round trip back to the campsite for a full day's return hike back up the valley the following day. Already my feet were sore and my legs tired. But the terrain was pleasant again, and the weather was good, so it seemed a reachable goal if all went well.

We began at six; but four hours later we still hadn't reached the foot of Cooper. Our route had gained us a couple of hundred feet of elevation and we were faced with a tough decision. Ahead we could see the profile of one possible ascent of the peak, which on the White Grizzly map was marked as the "historic route" to the top. From our present vantage point it would take a long detour back down and then ahead, with a tough climb on the mountain itself to reach the elevation we'd already achieved on our approach. Or, we could keep climbing the more reasonable slope of this adjoining ridge, hoping to skirt around the top of the intervening glacier. The glacier, by the way, was a surprise. We'd followed this route which Chris and Sarah had agreed upon earlier (before I was interested in the trip). I remembered how they had pored over the topographic maps on the kitchen table, debating the pros and cons of the various options and clearly favoring our present route. Now however, this glacier appeared which was too small or too new or too hidden to have appeared on the maps. Yet it had to be reckoned with--if we continued to commit ourselves to this route. Now it was clear that we'd come to a delicate point in terms of group process, leadership, expectations and attachments.

I felt reluctant and unprepared to exercise a full vote in the proceedings, having come aboard so late. Chris and Sarah were clearly frustrated by the gigantic flaw in their plan for conquest. If only we'd taken the historic route before climbing this high. If only we'd taken that ridge top shortcut from the headwall....But here we were. The outcome of our attempt on the summit depended on making the right decision. And there were still so many unknowns. Was there really going to be a way over the top of that glacier in front of us, once we got up there? Which route up Cooper itself would prove more difficult? Distances were deceptive: how long would it really take to go down and around and up the long side of the mountain, and was the terrain worse than it looked from where we sat? Meanwhile the sun was riding high on its course, having no patience for the likes of us.

An hour's tough climbing gave us the top of the ridge. From there we could see a jagged knife-edge between us and Cooper proper. It was impossible to tell if the route was good enough except by trying it. A knife-edge it was, in some respects: sharp and narrow rock slabs to shinny along or hang from. On the right was a dropoff fifty feet down to the glacier; on the left, a thousand. Sharp it was, but not regular. Huge columns of rock blocked the way in several places and we had to scout our way around the base or sides of these.

Where I had lagged behind on the scaling of vertical pitches, I found a role on the narrow ridge in searching out side-routes, using tiny ledges and handholds to advantage with my long limbs. Chris followed dubiously. When we arrived at a particularly intimidating tower blocking the ridge halfway across, I was ready to call it quits. Here Sarah found a way around a slippery block of slate, and we cautiously advanced. A final section was so sharp we had to straddle it, supporting weight with hands, inching forward.

It had taken two stressful, exhausting hours to do the ridge and knife-edge. Noon already; our turn-around time from the peak, if we could reach it, was one-o'clock: or two, at the very latest. It was best to err on the early side so as not to risk being caught in the dark without sleeping gear or bearings to reach camp.

Sarah, of course, was gung ho; Chris was unsure of the prospects of continuing. He scanned the route ahead up the slope to the peak, trying once more to gauge the difficulty and the time it would take. I had to question seriously my motives for continuing, considering my already depleted energy.

What did it mean to get to the top of a piece of rock? How much sacrifice was worth it? How much risk? How much pride and self-esteem depended on it, and what was all that worth? Was this an exercise on my part to demonstrate my fading youth and manhood? Practically speaking, I felt I'd be doing well to get back to camp from here in the remainder of the day. The hike would still be a success, in terms of...what? Why was I here, why had I come this far? I kept telling myself and my companions that I wasn't attached to results--except getting back home in one piece. I couldn't help thinking of the way back out of this remote wilderness--the torturous knife-edge, the laborious ridge, the long trek back to camp by nightfall. That would make a thirteen or fourteen hour day; and the following day, with full packs and worn-out legs and feet, we'd have to battle the evil sidehill again with its alder slides and rough footing, and then tackle the final ascent up the valley headwall with its slippery rock and snow.

Why make it harder? Why risk everything on an arbitrary and meaningless accomplishment? Anyway, I'd brought a book along for just such an eventuality. I didn't want or need to hold Chris and Sarah back from their ambitions: I could happily settle down on a large rock on the ridge and bask in the sun with my book until these more intrepid adventurers returned from bagging, or more likely failing to bag, their peak.

Sarah was sure there was a reasonable chance to make it to the top in the time we had. The approach looked not so difficult as long. I nearly sent them on their way without me, but at the last minute I had to reconsider. After coming all that way, making all that effort so far, getting so close to the top of the 10,000-footer, could I really rest content with Go Tell it on the Mountain? If Chris and Sarah did make it to the top, I'd never forgive myself. Or maybe I would, but like Chris on the last attempt at the front peak with Sarah and Stan, I'd be haunted forevermore by the nagging knowledge that I could have made it, too.

So I pushed on--at least a little while more, to see how hard the ascent actually was. Again on the very first pitch, it looked ridiculous. It took Sarah ten minutes to go up twenty feet. I followed, straight up the rock wall (without ropes), but so tentatively that Chris warned me from behind, "Are you sure we're going to be able to come back down this thing?" By now I'd committed myself to this mountain. I paid no more attention to worries about the way down. The way down would take care of itself.

Now Sarah was calling from above, "It's much better once you get up here!" When Chris found an easier way around the pitch I'd just climbed, we were on our way. We first dropped off our day packs, with their load of heavy clothing, raingear, binoculars, camera and food, by a patch of colorful and recognizable rocks. We made this impulsive decision for the sake of speed and, I suppose, the reward of freedom to meet this mountain face-to-face, without props or baggage. Another hour of brisk climbing and we were there.

Breathless, we stood over a vast creamy snowfield draped below us on the north slope, gaping at an ocean of peaks all around. The sheer exhaustion and gratitude and wonder and awe of it all brought me to the verge of tears. We'd done it. And I'd done it.

Chris and I still carried watches on our wrists: it was 2:00, the "latest" turnaround time. But still we had to stay awhile, to savor the experience of being there, and the achievement of getting there. To capture that scene in frames would have been an exercise in futility. We didn't need any extra clothing either, it was so warm in the sun.

Sarah found a cairn and opened it. Six climbing parties had recorded their presence on this spot before us over the years, beginning in 1964. Several other attempts we knew about had failed. To have come where so few others had was exhilarating: not so much to compare oneself with the mass of humanity, but to realize the immensity of doing, in the extreme, what the will and the body conspire to accomplish.

Half an hour later, on the way back down the mountain, I had another moment of doubt. I sensed that I really might fail, now, to find the energy to continue, much longer. It was realistic to suppose now that I could be abandoned here, helpless, while the others went to get help. I could die here, for the sake of this great accomplishment.

Forty-five was evidently too old to be doing this sort of thing. But certainly it was old enough to die.

My feet hurt, and were starting to get blisters. Food and water were running low. I had another six hours of tricky downward climbing and sheer dogged hiking to look forward to before camp; and then tomorrow, after a couple nights of negligible sleep, I'd have to repeat the grind of the day before. It was not looking good.

Somehow I kept going. I had to: there was no choice about it. I turned to thoughts of the spiritual mottoes I'd been carrying with me on the trip. The day before, it was "awareness of energy channel"--fine as far as it went, going with the flow of active energy and just doing it. Today it was more about effort: "spirit-form union"--to be clear, calm, and centered at all times." Remembering these elemental sources of power gave me strength at these moments of doubt and indecision; a feeling that it would all be okay if I trusted in the grounding of my instincts; a renewed faith in my ability to do with my body what my spirit still felt was possible.

It was; we made it back to camp at seven, in time for an hour's daylight for foot soaking, cooking the most marvelous meal of black bean and mushroom soup (followed by couscous cooked in such volume that I had to discard the extra in a plastic bag down an old marmot hole, being too lazy to hike back across the lake to hang the leftovers in the food bag from the little cliff).

The next day's motto was "to be open to universal direction." I needed something to keep me going: ten minutes after setting out with heavy packs, I had to stop for a first-aid break. Blisters, so raw and wide on each side of each heel that I had hardly slept during the night, gave pain at every step, so I applied bandaids over moleskin and took 1000 mg of Tylenol. Something worked; I floated through the rest of the trip.

We decided to go for the valley bottom route as soon as the dreaded sidehill became uncomfortable for all of us. That move paid off handsomely, with the discovery of a clear bear trail the whole way to the headwall at the valley end. To ward off any unsuspecting bears, we made sure to be loud and obnoxious singing "The Bear Went over the Mountain," and shouting "Coming through!" or, borrowing the call of the logging truck drivers, "Three loaded up the Keen!" Chris went for a memorable swim in the green and frigid lake near the valley end as we celebrated an easier-than-expected day's hike. Even the final climb up the headwall, though intimidating at a glance (six hundred feet up slick, wet rock) proved straightforward, approached step by step.

That final day out was a confirmation of the impulse that had guided us to undertake the trip in the first place--especially my last minute decision to go. It was all about intuition, inspiration and instinct, following what seemed possible. Sometimes going with the flow is the easy way but in a context that is not easy at all. The body can rightly balk at what the spirit determines. But if the body can be brought to have faith in the spirit's decision, great rewards can be enjoyed: deliverance into a stunning and vast wilderness of beauty, and joined with it, a sense of respectful satisfaction in the accomplishment itself. This human animal can be brought live and wonderful to its highest vantage point, and return to tell the tale.

© Nowick Gray, 1995

"Climbing Mount Cooper" appears in the 2014 collection, My Country: Essays and Stories from the Edge of Wilderness.

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