I cling to a rusty chain sling in the heat of mid-July at 2,500 metres above sea level. Below me is a gully where, just a few minutes before, the cracking and rumbling of falling rock echoed off the cliff walls. The prairies of Alberta are on the other side of the ridge, the Rockies are behind me.
This is the only approach to the summit of Crowsnest Mountain.
I ignore my nerves, though they manifest in the form of an uncontrollable leg shake. Arm over arm, leg over leg, I climb the vertical rock with the chain as leverage on otherwise impassable route. Once at the top, a sigh of relief escapes me.
Good hikes are rarely easy. Great hikes scare you. The best hikes combine sore legs, crippling fear, along with moments of despair and capability, and leave you feeling infinite.
For years I haze driven past the stand-alone mountain that is Crowsnest. From the window of a car on the highway, it would appear nearly impossible to climb – steep scree slopes of shale and limestone blend with 90-degree cliffs, followed by more scree, and more cliffs, like a three-tiered wedding cake at the centre of a plainly decorated table.
The mountain, known as a klippe, is the result of an ancient thrust fault. It is 2,785 metres tall with a 925-metre prominence and, in contrast to the otherwise grassy prairies, seems out of place. I have always wanted to hike it, but it has always scared me.
My friend Helena and I meet others along Alison Creek Rd. mid-morning. A good group of hikers, all eager for their first-ascents of Crowsnest, we begin the 8km round trip on the trail that sits at the backside of the mountain.
We walk along an old logging road, deeply wooded and lush despite the scorching summer sun, and before long find ourselves in a rock fall zone, the first cliff-band hovering above. I can't visualize our route, though an online explanation hints at first trending right, and then once on the cliff-band, walking left through to a gully.
A sign, faded from years of high-alpine neglect, reads “difficult” with an arrow pointing up.
“Let's take the easy way,” I say to Helena. “Oh wait, there isn't one.”
We meander scree slope. Each step involves great stability, and mild frustration. Larch trees fall way to large boulders, the sound of the bubbling creek replaced with the high-pitched chirps of pikas.
Once atop the first cliff-band, we hike left beside a hidden waterfall that splashes into rock in the shade. When gusts of wind pass by, the water mists us gently.
We clamber up the narrowing gully, its walls growing higher with each step. A climbing helmet would have been wise, though I shrugged off the suggestion a few days earlier. Each crack of a rock has me on edge, and I constantly look up for signs of instability.
Our group takes the gully in stride until we reach the chain sling where – following some knee problems and old injuries – half of our group turns around. It is a difficult call to make, especially when the summit is close by, but recognizing limits when mountaineering is a life-saving ability.
Agreeing to continue on together, our half of the group navigates the chain and, one by one, beats the crux. Above the chain is a narrow chute, and then it is a gradual scree-filled climb to the top.
Helena and I arrive at the summit together. My nervous leg-shake has been replaced with summit fever – that “oh-so-good” feeling you get when you can see the end of a hike in sight – a burst of energy, a fluttering of the heart.
At the top it is a 360-degree view of B.C. and Alberta, smooth grassland colliding with saw-toothed pinnacles, evidence of plate tectonic collision more plain than day. We sign our names in the summit book tucked in a ziplock bag hidden beneath rocks, the only evidence of our moment on Crowsnest.
Helena and I fight with the relentless wind, and take a picture overlooking the Rockies. We are but two small blips of yellow and blue coats amongst layers and layers of mountains, friends who have just shared in our own first-ascents.
And then I feel it, that moment of infiniteness.
To reach the trailhead of Crowsnest Mountain, drive 11 km north off Hwy. 3 on Alison Creek Rd., keeping right at the fork. The trail begins along an old dirt road. Wear proper gear (a helmet is recommended) and prepare for fast-changing weather.