When you are traversing a spiny ridge over 10,000 feet in the air, with an incredibly steep rocky scree slope on one side and cliffs overlooking thin air on the other side, and the wind is blowing fiercely, there is but one golden rule to live by: Don’t Look Down! At least, that became the mantra on our recent ascent of Mount Richardson, near Lake Louise.
This post was originally published in 2007. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.
When mountaineering, “Down Look Down” seems like a bit of a strange idiom; you would think that soaking in the scenery and looking up, down, and all around would be the name of the game. And of course – it is. However in my experience, there are times for looking around, and times for concentrating on the task at hand.
See also: Learning “the ropes” in Hidden Valley
I have begun to boil mountaineering down to the process of identifying a series of problems to solve and overcome in order to reach the summit (and descend too – let’s not forget about that!) safely. You take it step by step, ledge by ledge. You get over the hump that is in front of you (whether it be a cliff face, snow slope, or simply a big tiring hill), and when you reach the end of that small adventure, you rest, soak in the scenery and bask in your recent achievement, then tackle the next obstacle between you and your goal. (Kinda like life, huh)? It’s a great way of training the mind to focus on the task at hand, and not worry about some of the “small stuff” that can occupy valuable space in our minds so often.
The mountains have a wonderful habit of being quite deceiving on the eye. Climbing actually starts with standing at the bottom and surveying the mountain. You think you see a clear path, and man – it even looks easy. You don’t actually SAY it’s easy out loud though, because the “mountain gods” might hear you and decide to show you otherwise.
So instead, you humbly survey your path, and take a peek at alternate routes as much as possible. Then, you start your ascent, or even take more time and start with some initial reconnaissance, as we did on this trip.
Our original plan was to summit Mount Richardson, then traverse down and across a giant bowl of rocks and snow underneath two other peaks, and rise up again to summit Ptarmigan Mountain on the other side of this small range of four peaks. However what appeared to be a clear-cut and easy traverse from the ground became a different story once we got a little closer on our scouting mission. What seemed from a distance like gentle snow slopes sometimes morphed into almost vertical drops once we got close. And what we were sure was an easy path across a ledge turned out to have a huge gulley dropping out hundreds of feet in the middle.
It was a good thing that we took an extra day to figure out these finer details, because it could have meant some serious delays (and possible problems) on our summit day.
So after an 8 mile hike into our campground to set up, and a further 6 hours of scouting (even climbing halfway up the mountain) to determine the best routes, we were ready to turn in for a well-deserved night’s sleep.
The next morning had our group of six up early and ready for anything. We ate, dressed, and packed up all the necessities we would need for our long day of climbing: at least 2 litres of water each, lunch, first aid kits, trekking poles, ice axes, helmets, and lots of layers for the cool thin air.
After hiking from our campsite to Hidden Lake (a beautiful and still partially frozen glacial lake at the bottom of the 4 mountains) we started moving up to the first saddleback, where we practiced some self-arrest techniques using our ice axes. The premise of the refresher was to ensure proper use of our ice axes, such that should anybody lose their footing on a snow slope we would know how to stop ourselves effectively – a pretty handy technique if you ask me. Some of the cliffs already looming below didn’t look too nice. Ice axes are also quite useful for balance and extra security when moving through both snow and rocky landscapes.
At this time of year (July), there should have been very little or no snow on these mountains at all, however the winter past saw epic amounts of snowfall in the Rockies, and consequently the standard path up Mount Richardson was impossible to traverse. Such is part of adventuring in the mountains – you don’t ever know what you’re going to see and you need to be prepared for anything and everything.
The next step to our ascent was the long undulating ridge which trended gradually upwards towards the peak of Mount Richardson. Because we were off the beaten path due to the snow, we had to take each obstacle as it arose, treading where people don’t generally go on this mountain. Sometimes the obstacle was getting around a large boulder by scrambling and climbing over it or carefully around it (without looking down at the thin air beneath you of course). Sometimes the ridge rocks were too much to get over, and had to be given a wider berth by moving down a snow slope and around to the next ledge. And on a few welcome occasions, all we had to do was meander along the wide path at the top of the ridge, taking in a luscious untouched green alpine meadow on one side, and Hidden Lake with its ever-changing blues and greens on the other side.
Much of the mountaineering game is a mental one. Some of the obstacles you face would be complete non-issues if you knew there were few if any consequences. Think of it this way: if you had to walk across a narrow beam that was 2 feet off the ground, you wouldn’t give it a second thought; you could practically run across it. But put that same beam up much higher (when the consequence of losing your balance would be considerably more dire), and you might freeze. At the very least you wouldn’t brazenly run across.
In mountaineering, you need to see what is in front of you, and know for yourself that you can get across that proverbial beam, whether it is two feet or two thousand feet off the ground. It requires the mental confidence and focus on the task at hand in order to get past that moment, hence the adage: Don’t Look Down.
Of course, we safely arrived at the glorious peak of Mount Richardson (seven hours after leaving camp that morning), and soaked in the 360 degree view of such splendours as Lake Louise, Mount Assiniboine (the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies), Mount Hector (the top of which looks like Snoopy lying on top of his dog house), and clouds racing mere metres above our heads on this windy oasis.
Descending was much easier and quicker than ascending, and was loads of fun. Instead of carefully carving out snow steps up and across widely exposed areas of the mountain (a challenging hurtle which I mustered the courage to lead myself), we simply plopped down on our butts and slid down, of course arresting ourselves with our trusty ice axes as we neared the bottom of each snow patch. Instead of trudging up the slippery scree on which every three steps up inevitably entailed falling one step back, we would “scree ski” or slide in a controlled manner on our feet with every step we took.
And we were certainly thankful that the descent wasn’t as long and arduous as the ascent; some members of our team were very dehydrated, and Kelly even managed to injure his knee about two thirds of the way down and back to camp. It’s easy to happen: for him it was a matter of one foot falling through a hole in the snow, while the other foot was still planted behind him, twisting his knee.
Thank goodness it didn’t happen further up the mountain, and thank goodness for the supportive team of climbers around us. Kelly managed to get back to camp on his own steam (amazingly), where he sat back and iced it while I took care of the dinner preparation and cleanup. On our hike out to the car the following day, we were so lucky to have generous team members help Kelly carry out his belongings so he didn’t have to worry about any extra weight, and he painfully managed to hike all the way out at a decent pace I might add.
At the beginning of this weekend, we didn’t know any of our team members at all. But after three days of hiking together, cooking and eating together, climbing, problem solving, and overcoming challenges together, we grew, learned about each other and ourselves, and became quite close in a sense. We supported each other through our individual trials and learning experiences. We had lots of time to find out each other’s personal reasons for being in the mountains, and sometimes even discovered our own internal mountains to be climbed.
And as we discovered and celebrated each other’s differences and challenged ourselves along the way, we always kept our heads high and enjoyed the views as much as possible. But when we had to focus on the task at hand, all of us held to one surefire rule: Don’t Look Down.