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An Epic Day

Submitted by rock_rookie on 2005-01-04

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Epic… The dictionary describes it as "…surpassing the usual or ordinary, particularly in scope or size…" Epic. Four harmless letters which, when strung together in the climbing world, conjure up images of hair-raising adventure, bone-jarring havoc, teeth-rattling excitement. People are always discussing the “epic” day that so-and-so had on such-and-such a route, or during such-and-such a rappel, or after such-and-such a close call, and so on, and so on… It’s always about the participants in the actual scenario. What about those of us who are left behind? Those of us who are forced to patiently (or not so patiently!) wait out the “epic” as it unfolds, never sure what is taking them so long, never knowing why they are so late. Worrying. Wondering. Pacing. Sweating. Palpitating. Should I phone someone? Should I go out looking for them? Should I give them 30 more minutes? Should I just down a fifth of vodka and go to sleep for several hours, and hope they are back by the time I lapse out of unconsciousness? Trying oh-so-hard NOT to think about the demise they may very well be at the heart of, yet unable to picture in our freewheeling, out-of-control imaginations anything BUT! I’m certain nobody ever considers that we non-climbing folk experience “epics” of our own, each and every time you alpinist fools promise you’ll see us around suppertime… and then don’t show up!!

It’s 5:30 am, and my feet hurt and I’m cursing myself repeatedly for not garbaging those stupid shoes months ago – the FIRST time they chewed at my ankles. Instead, now I’m suffering. The backs of my feet are sporting nearly the entire package of Band-Aid brand blister-block cushions I bought yesterday, but to no avail. The wounds are too fresh and as I stomp around the parking lot, my heavy mountaineering boots do nothing but aggravate the raw, tender flesh that used to be my heels. The previous Friday I enjoyed a trip to the top of Lady MacDonald, but on the way down paid the price for wearing hikers that just didn’t quite fit, right from the date of purchase. I hobbled and whimpered all the way to the car, where I peeled off bloody socks and tossed the ill-fitting pair of skin-gobbling menaces into the nearest dumpster.

“How long did you say the approach is?” I ask, and cringe when I hear the reply. There is no way I’ll be able to join the group on their ascent of Mount Louie today. I am about ready to amputate both feet after ten minutes on flat ground, so I’m thinking that three hours on a steep trail is not going to happen for me. Dang. Tears well up in my eyes. I haven’t been out much this season, and I was so looking forward to spending a beautiful summer day on the rocks with four of my favorite friends. The sky is perfectly cloudless and there is no chill in the air whatsoever. I swallow hard and keep my head down as I unlace the boots. My partner suggests that I drive into town and find some really comfy mid-weight shoes. “Try on every pair you see,” he says. “Take your time and find some that fit real good.” I reluctantly agree, and I secretly pout as I watch him and the others stuff their packs. “We’ll be back later this afternoon,” he says, as he checks his Timex and smooches my cheek. I watch, still secretly pouting, as the crew marches away to the trailhead. Hmmph. Stupid shoes!

It’s 6:00 am, and I decide to crawl back into the van for a few more ZZZZ’s… Might as well, since the stores don’t open until nine o’clock anyhow. With agonizing slowness, I pull the band-aids off my blisters, inspect the damage, and curse myself once more - the left lesion is bleeding again. I comfort it with a water-soaked paper towel, then gingerly inch feet-first into the sleeping bag and flatten out a hollow in my backpack to rest my head.

A car door slams shut somewhere outside. A dog barks. Mmmm, I love dogs! I miss my yellow lab! I open my eyes and try desperately to get them to focus on my travel alarm clock. It’s 9:15 am – just over three hours after departure, so they must be at the base of the rock face by now, probably harnessing up and sorting through gear. Lucky them! A hungry, growling belly prompts me to get vertical, wipe the sleep from the corners of my eyes, hop behind the wheel and head off to town. I find prime parking just down the street from the sporting goods store, and after a quick trip around the block for a venti café latte, I begin my quest for the perfect hiking shoes.

It’s 11:30 am, and I’ve found them – lightweight, with an excellent, grippy sole, flexible yet sturdy, and best of all: no blister irritation! That’s right! I can hardly believe my luck when I traipse up and down the shop’s incline board a hundred times, and feel absolutely no pain whatsoever. This is about the twenty-third pair I’ve had on my ravaged feet in the last 90 minutes. The poor salesboy! He sure worked hard for his money this morning. I think I really did try on every style they offer! I fork over the cash and he hands over the shoes, and I hurry to the vehicle. I need to get back to the parking lot, as it is almost noon. My cohorts should be summitting soon, if they haven’t already, and preparing to descend. I’m anxious to try out the new purchase – my plan is to make my way up the trail towards the base of the route. I’ll meet up with the gang, and I’ll eagerly listen to four very different versions of each fantastic pitch as we lazily lope downhill through the trees.

It’s 2:00 pm, and I’ve been moving at a reasonable pace for nearly two full hours. I expect to hear the chatter of excited climbers at any moment; but the moments keep passing and the only chatter I hear is that of the forest critters. Every once in a while I clap my hands and make a weird whooping sound that echoes (and makes me laugh out loud!) each time I do it, to warn any cranky grizzlies of my presence. I am by myself and find it somewhat boring.

It’s 2:30 pm, and I’m turning around. I don’t want to overdo it in my spanky new footwear, so I’ll just have to exercise some patience and be enlightened about the cracks and holds and choss and lack of protection when the clan arrives at the parking area. Surely they are done rappelling by now; they’ll only be a couple of hours behind me.

It’s 3:15 pm, and I dig out a lawn chair from the chaotic depths of the van’s storage area. I plunk myself down in the sun, carefully remove my shoes and woollies, and poke my toes into the cool, sandy gravel. I count the cars in the parking lot and notice several with rental license plates. I speculate where all the people might be from – Europe? The U.S.? I feel very lucky that this scenic, tranquil playground is virtually in my own back yard; it takes hardly any time at all to get myself right to the centre of it all. Are any of these tourists climbing? Did another party get in front of my buddies, causing a bit of a delay for them? Hmmm. As I lean my head back and tilt my face in the direction of the sun, I wonder where exactly they are.

By 6:00 pm I’m restless, trying to doze, although my mind is going a million miles per hour. I glare at the path which leads to the trail, willing it with all my might to produce my friends. When nothing of the sort happens, I retrieve a guidebook and look up the data on this particular mountain. The rocky peak is majestic, even in 3x5 black and white format, but it doesn’t look terribly daunting. I study the topo for potential delay-causing… formations? or something, anything, that may help explain their whereabouts. Did someone have trouble removing some gear? Did a rope get stuck perhaps? I flip open the latest issue of Gripped and try to keep my thoughts focused on Sonnie Trotters’ most recent exploits. That kid’s a genetic freak – climbing 5.13 X !!!! Wow.

It’s 8:30 pm, and I’ve read every magazine in the van… twice. Now I’m pacing and my stomach twists in and out of knots. This must be what I put my mother through when I was a teenager and would break curfew. I’d come home much later than I should have, and she’d be sitting in the dark at the kitchen table, red-eyed and weary from worry. For some reason she never got angry; she always just got up and hugged me and then went to bed. That’s all I want to do right now – hug my pals. I’m pretty sure that they should have returned by this time. The calculating begins: three hours to the base… half an hour to get ready to climb… two hours on the rock… say, half an hour at the summit… one hour, or maybe one and a half, to rappel… two hours down the trail… That equals an ETA of… 3:30 pm? Where are they? What on earth are they doing? I fumble for my cell phone and call a buddy in Canmore, who I’m certain has done this climb and who I’m certain will not make fun of my concern. I’m flustered and it takes three tries to get his number punched in correctly. He answers after the first ring – phew – and I skip the usual pleasantries and cut right to the situation. He does agree that it seems odd to be gone 14-1/2 hours, but he assures me that a long day on the route is a possibility. In his voice however I can hear a hint of alarm, and he asks me to give him a call back if they haven’t shown up by dark.

If they haven’t shown up by dark. The words keep bouncing around in my head as the sunlight fades and the trees become an indistinguishable mass of blackness. Throughout the afternoon, the occupants of every other vehicle in the parking lot emerged from the forest unscathed and continued on their way, and now I am completely alone. The sound of the small creek running parallel to the trailhead seems to be magnified by the deep violet of the night sky. And although the stars are twinkling like millions of sequins on a vast velvet party dress, I am unable to appreciate the beauty and serenity of the evening. All that flashes through my mind are scenes of bodies lying in heaps, either mauled by bears or broken by a tragic fall. For the second time today, my eyes well up with tears, and I feel helpless as I climb into the van. I need to calm down, and think rationally. Be sensible. It is 10:35 pm, and I decide to get some rest. At first light, I’ll pack up a rope, binoculars, my gear, lots of water, and I’ll get myself up to the base of the rock face. It’s got to be something simple like they dropped a rope. I’m hoping that they are all safe and sound, albeit likely chilly and uncomfortable on the side of a cliff in the cool mountain night. Oh, please let them be alright! What the heck has happened? I’d give anything if they would just come back! Anxiety nauseates me as I stare at the ceiling and try to think happy thoughts. Maybe we can all go sport climbing tomorrow. Yes, that’s it! What a great day it will be! Maybe I’ll attempt a 10b lead. On second thought, I bet my tight orange MadRocks aren’t going to be foot friendly. Dang. Stupid shoes. I feel nauseated again.

It’s 11:15 pm and sleep is not coming to me. I sit up and glance out the window just in time to catch a few strobe-like flashes – I think it’s a headlamp! I try frantically to untwist myself from the sleeping bag – all of a sudden it seems to have grown tentacles and has them wrapped tightly around my legs. I work myself free before I fall completely off the bed, and I burst out the van door as my partner comes jogging across the gravel. He is sweaty and panting, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” He flops himself down and begs for some orange juice out of the cooler. I hand it to him and kiss him hard, so thankful he is alive. “I ran ahead, the others are about an hour behind me. Colleen hurt her foot.” He knows me well and figured I’d be distraught. He is right. Turns out they did encounter a few hurdles today – inaccurate route finding resulted in upclimbing then downclimbing, which made for an extremely slow ascent; the rappels were time consuming; rope troubles abounded; and of course the sore, swollen ankle hindered the return trek. I can barely hear him as he delivers the details of the day; the relief is causing a rush of blood to my head and the whooshing feeling is drowning out his voice. I think I did catch “It was sort of an epic day, “ to which I smile, shake my head and think, Yes, it sure was… it was epic, alright. Go ahead and make yourself comfortable, and let me tell you all about it…


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