Great Mountain Gratitude

Author: 
Jesse Bell
In: 
Outdoors

The sun has the most glorious glow I have ever seen ­– hues of blood-reds blend with the faded blue of day, and Fisher Peak is far-off, blackened in silhouette. For a moment the wind stops, and everything goes quiet.

“This is the most incredible sunset,” Maddy says to me. We sit on jagged rocks on the summit of Three Sisters, having spent the better part of the afternoon getting here. The heat was relentless, the scree slopes endless, but the end result – a summit sunset with a friend – is worth every struggling, exhausting step.

As the sunlight wavers we cheer aloud, and then begin to notice other red glows; forest fires to the south, the east, and the north, with billowing plumes of smoke escaping high into the atmosphere to meet us at 2,788 metres. It has been the hottest summer I can remember, and I can't recall the last day it rained.

I feel the warmth of the sun disappear from my face, replaced with the chill of an alpine night. We laugh at something insignificant, and then despite the fires, the blistered feet, and the below-average chilli dinner, I feel grateful – this is home.

I haven't hiked much this summer. With 1.3 million hectares burned and/or burning in BC, the heat and smoke have done well to dissuade me from strenuous outdoor adventures.

But Maddy and I, determined to summit even one substantial peak, pack our bags with a tent, sleeping gear, coffee, food, and water, and head for the summit of Three Sisters. If one night in the backcountry is what we get, we'll take it.

We begin early afternoon, hidden by the shade of Mount Bisaro, This is Maddy's first ascent – I can tell by the way she leads on the trail, eager to reach the top, unsure of what it will take to get there. And though I know this trail inside out, I too am excited to hike again. I seem to forget the length, the climb, the exposure, every time.

A meadow comes into view, and I yell at Maddy to stop.

“It's magical,” I say, and take a photo of her. Bugs and pollen fly around her in the sunlight that beams between pine trees like forest fairies. For a moment I forget my tiredness.

We reach a small creek, the last sign of water before our descent tomorrow. Then it's onwards through thinning trees to the less-than-favourable scree of the alpine. I reach Maddy at the col, and she asks which way we go; to the summit of the middle Sister, another 2-kilometre climb on bare escarpment.

“Wait,” she says. “We go up there?

The remaining two-kilometre walk is leg-burning. Halfway up Maddy sits on the trail and waits for me. She asks for her grapes, and tells me she is exhausted. I breathe a sigh of relief – I thought I was the only one who might be dying. There is a mountain goat down the bank, and she mumbles that the goat should carry her the rest of the way.

We climb on, and the next time I see her is at the top.

“You're here! You're here!” she yells, and sends me a high-five. Then I remember why I hike Three Sisters; 360-degree views, a comfy tent, and my soul-sister with a first-ascent grin across her face. We make dinner, eat croissants, and watch as the sun sets behind Fisher Peak. The flames from a fire nearby replace the red-glow of the sun.

When dark comes we both look down on Fernie, and I think how strange it is that our entire lives exist there, along a small grid of lit-up streets. It looks fragile, but it is resilient.

We message our friend Anna, and ask her to look from town for our flashlight glowing on the summit. She spots us, and sends a photo back.

In the morning we wake to sunrise over a smoky sky. A plane flies close overhead. We drink coffee, sign our names on a rock – a small but semi-permanent gesture that we, in fact, were here – and hike down.

Five days later the backcountry closes. I didn't know it at the time, but hiking the Three Sisters with Maddy would become the single-most impactful moment of my summer. And now we watch from town as the smoke engulfs the first, second, and third Sister, time and time again.

But we were up there, and I am grateful.