Short version: Iconic Mount Sir Donald loomed in my imagination for nearly a decade before I finally climbed it on August 17, 2015. It lived up to my expectations: big, exposed, scenic, and long. I went into it exhausted, which gave me the opportunity to test my resolve and stamina.
Longer version: The final notes of Perpetual Motion sounded. I said “good job” to my last student, wiped the rosin from my strings, loosened my bow hair, and put my violin in the case. Sighing, I shut the lid with a sense of finality. A long and fruitful music season was done, and it was time to re-connect with the outdoors, Jon, and myself. That week, Jon walked out of the office for good, ending his two-month stint in the corporate world — consulting is just not his cup of tea, it turns out. He had recently won a three-year NASA grant, which helped him realize he really could make it in the competitive world of academia. So, he signed back on at the UW as a research associate and arranged to have a month of time off before starting.
The first agenda item of our month off was a ten-day road trip to climb Mount Sir Donald and attend our friend Olin’s wedding in Kalispell, MT. Vacation started out slowly, with a short drive to Leavenworth on the first day. We visited my cousin Jenny, ate at the farm-to-table restaurant where she works, and hiked the Icicle Gorge.
|I appreciated the simple beauty of a river more than ever that day.|
The next day we kept the A/C on and drove through apocalyptic wildfire smoke until it finally cleared in the Okanagan Valley of Canada. We camped a few hours south of Rogers Pass, noticing the large proportion of expensive pickup trucks on the road.
|Smoke that looks like a storm. Not as bad as smoke that looks like a fog.|
The next morning, after more driving, we finally saw the mighty Sir Donald from the highway. Epic!
|There it is on the far right!|
We pulled over at the Rogers’s Pass visitor’s center to get our bearings. The plan was to take a pretty warmup hike that day and spend a restful night at the campground before climbing the following two days.
But, sometimes, even the best-laid plans go haywire.
“I’m sorry, but due to problem grizzly bears, you can’t climb Mt. Sir Donald, or hike any of the trails on that side of the park, unless you are in a group of four,” the climbing ranger informed us. What?!?
[Insert about 5 hours of chaos]
|"Welcome to Parks Canada!"|
Five hours after glimpsing Sir Donald for the first time, I found myself at a trail head, standing in front of a grizzly bear sign with a full pack, smiling for a picture. Beside me stood Sheena and Meg, two Canadian climbers who were in the same dilemma as us. They turned out to be perfect partners for this trip! My stomach churned a bit, and not just from nerves and the stress of the past weeks and hours...I was also suffering from some womanly woes. All I will say is, they don’t call it the curse for nothing! Nevertheless, I knew I had climbed many mountains and was capable of doing another, even if I didn't feel 100%. Spirits were high as we set off at a steady pace, discussing our climbing plans: an early start, soloing as much of the mountain as possible, roping up if or when we felt it was necessary, and the fact that the descent would probably take longer than the climb.
The hike in was steep, beautiful—and bear free. Sir Donald loomed overhead.
|Trust me, it is FAR bigger than it looks.|
At the lower bivy, we found a small tarn, bear lockers, and a pit toilet. My appetite was pretty low from the combination of stress, hormones, and altitude. Eating dinner was a bit of a struggle, but I managed a few bites. It got dark soon after our arrival.
|Wish we'd had more time to enjoy this place.|
4:30 AM: the alarm punctuated the pre-dawn silence. I woke instantly. We moved about camp quickly, and soon turned off our headlamps as the sky grew light. No other parties climbed that day, despite the perfect weather and this route's classic reputation. Perhaps the bear rule worked to our advantage in that way! The hike to the Uto-Sir Donald col took a little longer than expected, but we were rewarded by classy mountain bathrooms.
|if we ever manage to get a house with a master bathroom, we'll hang a collection of mountain toilet pictures!|
There it was! The huge Northeast Arête, looming above us! Wow, it looked big. Should we rope up? Or trust the beta and solo it? We donned our rock shoes, put hoods on over our helmets to protect us from the frigid wind, and walked up to base of the ridge. “It looks good to me,” Meg said, as she made the first move. We followed, and agreed. Solo climbing felt good, so we continued, keeping our heads clear and egos in check.
|Starting to make some headway on the ridge|
The route lived up to its reputation: blocky, easy moves with spectacular exposure and scenery. Every move of the climb up was fun and engaging. I kept a few pieces of gear on my harness, and put in a cam to briefly protect one move that felt a little exposed. Other than that, we made rapid progress, climbing close together.
I didn’t feel hungry, but knew to keep taking bites of food every 15-20 minutes. I did keep up with eating, but skipping dinner the previous day left me feeling a bit weak. We had been warned that the mountain would keep going and going, but that didn’t quite sink in until we got to the upper ridge. From there, it the summit looked close, but the climbing really started to drag on. We roped up near the top and did some fast simulclimbing. By then, I felt cold, less courageous, a bit fatigued from the constant exposure. I felt distinctly small as I searched below for our tiny tent.
|higher, and higher, and higher...|
At last, the summit! It was absolutely beautiful. We were also only halfway done.
|Some swirling clouds parted just at the right time.|
|So many new mountains, ice fields, and glaciers...|
We elected to go down the summit bypass route, which featured a well-cairned scree tail. It was a little exposed, but after many years of mountaineering I felt comfortable on it. There was some good scree plunge-stepping.
|This was Sheena's first big alpine climb and she handled it like a pro!|
We did quite a bit of down climbing once we reached the ridge, but before long we all agreed it was time to rope up. I think exposure has a time limit for me (and probably others). After a certain number of hours, my brain just couldn’t handle fifth class you-fall-you-die solo climbing anymore.
|Jon down climbing the exposed ridge, a few minutes before we roped up.|
We made an endless number of rappels. The tent was still tiny. We passed the “death” rappel, where a woman tragically rapped off the end of her 50 meter rope and fell to her death in 2006. Jon made the same mistake she did - tossing the rope down the wrong side of the buttress - but since we had a longer rope we were in no danger. Still, that rattled me a bit. The tent slowly grew more visible. Hours ticked by. Food and water ran out. At last, we were done rappelling. We stumbled to the bivy, ate the last of our food, and began the long hike down.
|various reactions to being done rappelling|
By the time we got to the car at 9 PM, we had been on the go for about 16 hours. We slept in car in the parking lot, filthy and exhausted. After, I was incredibly sore, and more than content to play tourist in Yoho National Park, Banff, and Jasper for the next few days. Mount Sir Donald still looms large in my imagination, as a memory of good company, challenge, and finding deeper levels of endurance.