Volume 18, Number 106, December 2015/January 2016 Mountains by Harry Kuhn
Every muscle ached. Two nights of sleeping on the rough, rock outcrop on the mountainside added stiffness to my already tired and strained body. My plastic rain poncho had shielded me from the cold night breezes and gusts of wind but did not provide any warmth. The chill of the long night on the rock clung to me despite a bright warm sun in a cloudless blue sky.
I began my third day stranded on a bare, rocky ledge mid-way up a small mountain my co-workers had called Shewey. It felt inappropriate to call it a mountain when I gazed about me at the tops of a seemingly endless range of snow capped peaks just as ‘knife’ alone felt inadequate to describe both the pen and hunting varieties. Despite my quandary, the Rocky Mountains were a breathtaking sight. It was precisely because, by comparison, Shewey did not look as formidable as a ‘real’ mountain that I came to be shivering in the morning air and unable to leave my perch on the mountainside. I had wanted to prove myself but not to set the bar too high. Too late I realized that even small mountains needed to be respected. No longer restless like a caged animal, I sat quietly and waited for my fate to be revealed.
Twenty-nine years old, I had fled the emotional turmoil of a life plan that had shattered suddenly with the death of my friend and mentor. With his encouragement and support I attended the University of Western Ontario while holding a steady job and was exploring the possibility of a religious life. His death left me feeling alone and unsure of my future and as I grieved his loss, I doubted myself. Putting my plans on hold, I came west for the summer hoping that a change of place and new experiences would renew me. My self-absorption, though, had made me careless. I took a job at a resort near Jasper, Alberta, and thought that the physical challenge of climbing this small mountain would be a confidence booster. Impulsively I had made my plan for the one day climb and acted on it without telling anyone where I was going or when I would be back. The area of forest and mountain trails surrounding the resort was so vast that a search party would not know where to begin to look for me.
As the morning wore on the thought that I might not get out of there, and the sobering realization that I could die there, drained me emotionally. Having tried and failed to extract myself from the ledge I was trapped on, I knew my fate was in the hands of strangers. Helplessly I sat and waited in the bright mid-day sun.
Sunlight glinting off a helicopter that was circling the top of the mountain caught my attention, and I became instantly alert. Frantically I tried to find a more visible spot as I waved my hands over my head and shouted. Slowly it disappeared behind the peak and out of sight. I tried to reassure myself with the thought that at least I knew they were looking for me. It was necessary to stay where I was and let them come to me, though. I knew it could still be a long wait as there were many directions and a huge area they might search before coming to my side of the mountain. Physically worn out, I tried not to think that it was still possible they might not find me at all.
As I caught sight of the helicopter coming along the side of the mountain my heart began to race. It was below me in height but moving slowly in my direction. I began to wave my arms again and stood up. The helicopter reached a point opposite me and turned so that I could see the two uniformed men through the transparent bubble on its front. One of the men used a loudspeaker to ask me if my name was Harry. I waved my arms enthusiastically and nodded my head. He asked me to raise one arm if I was uninjured. I did and he told me to stay where I was and they would return. Patient now, I watched the helicopter retreat the way it had come and vanish. The depression and fear of dying faded quickly as I now knew I would be okay but still had no idea how they intended to get me out of my predicament. What I did know was that I wanted out.
The chopper reappeared, moving up the valley out over the steep rocky gorge at the bottom. Suspended below it on the end of a cable was the figure of a man. It became more surreal as the pilot brought the cable in to my position and set his partner on the rock beside me. Unhooking himself the man rapidly took his backpack off and pulled a harness out of it and quickly helped me to put it on. Fearfully I asked if we were going out on the cable and he said yes. I uttered a curse and began to pull the harness straps on. He grabbed my poncho and the little I had with me and stuffed them into his backpack before putting it back on. Signaling the helicopter pilot to bring the cable in to a point where it could easily be grasped, the officer took both the metal rings of our harnesses and slipped them onto the safety hook on the end of the cable. With the helicopter’s engine drowning out all natural noise and the wind beating against us from the rotating blades atop it, we lifted smoothly up into mid-air.
Looking down I saw my feet, dangling high above the forested side of the mountain, move out over the huge boulders and steep gorge at the mountain’s bottom. Nearly overcome with a feeling of vertigo I was mesmerized for some minutes before I looked up, as if to reassure myself, at the belly of the helicopter and the whirling blades above it at the other end of the cable.
The pilot set us down gently in a field near the resort restaurant. A small group of staff and tourists stood at the edge of the clearing and watched with interest, sharing their observations with each other. Unhooking us from the cable, my rescuer had me take off the harness and wait for him inside the restaurant. My co-workers welcomed me back with enthusiasm as we settled in the employee lunch room. I felt overwhelmed by the experience, physically and emotionally exhausted, but tried to answer their questions.
It grew quiet when the parks officer entered. After returning my few things, he proceeded to instruct me on how fortunate I was to have been found so quickly in such a huge area. He highlighted my mistakes, from a lack of preparation and equipment to not informing anyone where I intended to go. Ordinarily I do not accept being lectured in public but I knew he was right. I had acted foolishly in a dangerous environment and was lucky and I shook his hand, and thanked him when he finished.
I grew determined that I would not let my disaster on the mountain be the final word on the experience. I enlisted a co-worker who knew the mountain and had climbed it several times. With him as a guide, and with appropriate clothing and anything else I thought I might need, I reclimbed the mountain. With this second, successful climb I felt I had proven myself and would leave the mountains alone for the rest of the summer.