Note on Typography
Both mountaineers and yogis transcend the ordinary. Other than indicating some of the sights along the way, nothing can truly be said about the Beyond of the mountaineer; even less may be said about the yogi's Beyond.
I spent the summer of 1973 in the Canadian Rockies. Since I had difficulty finding partners, I mostly climbed alone. In mid August, I set out to explore the headwaters of the Athabasca River. My map showed some steep faces there, including the expansive north wall of Mount Columbia, but the Climbers Guide listed no ascents of any of the peaks in the neighborhood from the headwaters. The headwaters were a long way in from the road, but it seemed like a fertile region for exploration.
I left Jasper, hitched south to where the road departs eastward from the River and cached my extra gear. Because of my expectations of finding partners for technical climbing, I had brought a rope and the related safety equipment with me to the Canadian Rockies. All this I deposited and took with me only an ice axe, crampons, a minimal amount of camping gear and a week's supply of food. A trail runs along the River for the first few miles, but then crosses it and cuts away to the west. I walked the trail to the crossing, but stayed on the east side of the River. A fisherman's boot track led me a little further; I camped for the night where it gave out. The next day I bushwhacked up the River. Some of the side streams I had to cross were swift and a good rain could have made a retreat dangerous, but this didn't bother me, for I was going on, into the Beyond.
By mid-afternoon, I was directly under Mount Alberta (11,874 feet). For this peak, the Climbers Guide listed only one route, ascending from the opposite side, and that it rated as IV,F8. Mountaineers have developed a precise rating system for the difficulty of climbs. It begins with a Roman numeral from I to VI which tells the overall difficulty of the route. What follows the Roman numeral tells the type of difficulties found on the route. "F" stands for free rock climbing, that is climbing using ropes and anchors for safety only and not for support; at that time, the F-scale went from F1 to F10. Other letters are used to denote other sorts of difficulties, like the I-scale for ice climbs. Climbers rarely disagree by more than a grade about the difficulty of a route, and when they do, it usually turns out that either they deviated significantly from each other's paths or else a key hold had broken in the interim between their ascents. Although much egotism is associated with the rating system, and some hot shots even refuse to climb a route rated below what they consider to be their class, the rating gives a climber more information about a route than most anything else a guidebook has to say. If a route has a moderate rating but you find yourself barely able to hang on, you know to look around the corner for an easier variant. It's rare to find a mountain in the USA or in Southern Canada whose easiest route is rated as difficult as IV,F8 so this mountain intrigued me. Judging by the contours on my map, I could get much higher on this side before encountering steep rock than would be possible on the other side. It seemed that if I swung to the north and then followed up the northwest shoulder, the steep section of rock that I would have to climb would be short. Thus, the next morning, I set out to climb Mount Alberta with the hope of discovering the easiest route to the summit.
I started straight back from my camp and found my way out of the brush, onto a firm boulder slope, more quickly than expected. I angled up towards the north and went further in that direction than necessary in order to get a look at the sheer north face of the mountain, an impressive wall of rock and ice. Then I ascended toward the northwest shoulder. The going was smooth but to my surprise, I encountered a piton. It was a soft-iron piton of a type no longer in use. A sling was threaded through its eye as if it had been used for rappelling, the mountaineer's way of descending by rope. The climbing so far had been easy, no more than F3 on the scale of difficulty, so the piton was unexpected. Either the party had been caught by a sudden storm which glazed the rock or else they were novices. I climbed another rope length and spotted another piton, one of the old, ring-angle type. This piton was truly improperly placed. I picked up a stone and gave it a blow, whereupon it popped right out. The party had been lucky that it hadn't come loose while they were using it for descent. Furthermore, less than ten feet away was a projection of rock that would have made a truly secure anchor for a rappel; an experienced party would have used it instead of a piton.
I continued upward, surmounted the northwest shoulder and moved along it towards the flat-topped summit. Then I was blocked by a short steep face. I found a series of holds which lead part way up but which ended with a move of F8 difficulty. It was more than I was willing to attempt without the protection of a rope, especially since I would be obligated to descend by the same route. This wasn't the day to probe the Beyond. With disappointed mind, I retreated onto the shoulder. Above the step, the slope diminished. It would have been no problem to complete the route, which, because its difficult section was so short, would have been rated only II. Not every ascent finds its way into a guidebook, but in this case, I felt sure that the party which left the pitons wasn't competent enough to have surmounted the step. After retreating a way down the shoulder I moved to where I could get a view of the west face of the mountain, but couldn't spot a line of ascent. Since the day was still young, I walked south along the bottom of the face in the hope of finding some hidden crack or chimney that would make for an easy ascent, but I reached the southwest corner without finding a manageable route. After noting some possibilities for future roped ascents, I returned to my camp.
Next came a day of continuous drizzle during which I stayed put, but the following day was clear. I continued south along the River to where it forks beneath the massif of Mount Columbia (12,294 feet) on the east and Mount King Edward (11,400 feet) on the west. Both mountains are trivial if approached from the south but have steep faces on the north, which I surveyed as I approached the fork. Mount Columbia's north wall was as formidable as the contour lines on the map had indicated, a 4,000 foot rise of rock and ice. The north face of Mount King Edward was shorter, but vertical. However, it had a serrated ridge, of moderate inclination, leading down towards the northwest and the northeast face looked as if it might be climbable. At the forks, the river's current diminished. I forded it and made camp there, at an altitude of about 5,000 feet, with the intention of trying Mount King Edward the next day. The camp was a spot of beauty and isolation, but an old fire site showed that man had trespassed before.
At the first glow of light, I started up along the cascade that descends from the glacier under the north wall. Above the cascade, I could see the northwest ridge. Although it was jagged, its angle was low. In its middle was a conspicuous notch down from which a talus slope reached to the glacier. If no route presented itself on the northeast side, it would make an easy ascent. Anyhow, I kept it in mind as a possible route of descent. When I neared the glacier, I shifted course and walked up the moraine to the east. The sun had risen and I got a good view of the structure of the northeast face which the previous afternoon had been obscured by shadow. The corner between it and the north face looked climbable but difficult. In the middle of the face was a system of cracks and chimneys which looked more tractable. Still, I went to take a close look at the corner before retreating to the fissures in the middle of the wall.
I started up a chimney. Although it was easy, it did have loose rock; part way up, it began to have ice at its rear. Soon I left it and started climbing the face at its right. The rock was firm and the holds were adequate. The difficulty was F5, a level at which I could still, without trepidation, climb unroped. The sun was warm and the climbing, a pleasure. When I looked out, I got beautiful oblique views of the north wall of Mount Columbia. I also looked for a different route out, an alternative to slogging my way back down the Athabasca River. The summit of Mount Columbia and its south and east approaches are covered by gently sloping glaciers whose descent is easy. However, an uninviting icefall separated the high glaciers from the glacier beneath the north wall of Mount Columbia. Nevertheless, it looked as if I could climb about a third of the way up the icefall before it really got steep, and then step on to the rock at the left. Once on the rock, I could traverse further to the left to where the rock had less inclination and ascend from there by a choice of routes. All this was to be for the following day; the focus of my attention remained the rock face in front of me. Everything I needed was there. If the rock before me was too smooth, I could move to one side or the other and find some holds. I was climbing in control but my harmony with the face was interrupted when I found myself at its top. Although the climbing had never been especially difficult, it was prolonged; I rated the climb III,F5.
The summit slopes of Mount King Edward are gentle and, except for some protruding spines of rock, are covered with snow. I began by following the rock along the top of the northeast face to a little peak which capped the corner with the north face. Then I had to cross some snow, already softened by the sun, to reach another outcropping that lead to the east summit. This summit was a pretty little point overlooking the vertical north wall, but what I saw from it of the route further was disappointing. The true summit of Mount King Edward was little higher than the east summit. It was but one of a number of little teeth on a spine of rock leading away from the north face and it was a distance back from the face. Furthermore, to reach the spine of rock, I had to descend to a wide snow field and cross it. The snow was terribly soft and the early afternoon sun was burning; I took it slow, slogged through knee-deep slushy snow, reached the rock and found the summit. There, I took off my boots, dried them and my socks for an hour in the sun and let myself doze as a reward for having completed a fine ascent.
Climbing a mountain is only half of the problem. The other half is getting off of it. From Mount King Edward, descent itself is no problem. The snow slopes to the west are gentle and lead to a stream which curves around the mountain until it joins the Athabasca River. Although this would present no climbing difficulty, it would be a long way to return to camp. I could have climbed down my route of ascent, but it's more aesthetic to descend via a different route. Thus I decided to attempt to descend the northwest ridge which I had studied at dawn and to follow the crest of the summit spine northward to meet it. The spine was studded with teeth and the going was up and down. Nothing was difficult, but every so often I would find ice in one of the notches between the teeth, which forced me to either chop a few steps or else to don my crampons, and which slowed me down in either case. The climbing was enjoyable, but I wasn't making good enough time. Finally, at a notch where I would have had to strap on my crampons for the fourth time, I looked at the sun and realized that I had better find a quicker way down. I was at the top of a snowfield leading west so I glissaded down a thousand feet. Then, through a morass of boulders, little cliffs and patches of snow, I picked my way around to the north. Eventually, a ridge with a deep notch in it came into view. I made my way to the notch and found myself standing exactly where I had hoped I would be, at the top of the talus slope leading down to the glacier beneath the north face of Mount King Edward. Behind me, the sun had already dipped beneath the horizon.
I descended the talus slope in the twilight. It was a day or two before full moon; by the time I reached the glacier, the moon had become my source of light. I had been moving rapidly to get as far as possible while daylight lasted, but once I shifted my reliance to the moon the rush was over; I reduced my pace. Like all the lower altitude glaciers in the Canadian Rockies, the one under the north face of Mount King Edward was dehydrating rapidly. Its surface was strewn with rocks. Although it lacked crevasses of note, its surface was pitted with steep-walled little pocks, the products of uneven melting. I took my time on the glacier. By moonlight, it's much more difficult to discern variations in slope and surface than by sunlight. Hence it's unlikely that I was travelling across it by an efficient route but gradually I progressed to its lower end. Since the moon was rising, visibility was, if anything, improving; I had no qualms about my frequent stops for rest.
I reached the top of the cascade that exited from the glacier, and started down beside it towards my camp. The going was smooth until halfway down where I reached an impasse. I found myself on top of a little wall which I knew I had climbed that morning without thinking twice of it, yet by moonlight, I couldn't figure out a way to get down it. Thus I left the cascade to scout for an alternative. I was on a wide shelf which I followed a distance until it ended. I didn't find a route of descent, but along the way I passed a little corner, capped by an overhang, with a dead tree nearby. It was nearing midnight; since I had been moving for nineteen hours, I decided to bivouac.
No matter how hot it may feel on a glacier under the midday sun, ice rapidly cools the air at its surface to near freezing at night. This chilled air then slides off the glacier in drafts that sink below. I gathered a supply of dry wood and lit a fire a few feet out from the corner which would protect me from the cool breezes. Then, in the corner, I put on all my clothing, stuck my feet in my pack, wrapped myself in my poncho and dozed off. Two hours later, I awoke feeling cold. The fire was down to embers. I built it up with the remaining wood and dozed once more. When I awoke again I wasn't cold but it was getting light. I returned along the shelf to the cascade and, even in this early glow, the way down was obvious. Fifteen minutes later I was back at camp whereupon I dived into my sleeping bag and konked out.
By the time I awoke, the sun was already hot. Recuperation from the long strenuous day before was in order. I jumped into the river for a quick cold bath, cooked myself a meal and stretched out once more. By mid-afternoon, my vigor was returning. Since only a day's worth of food was left, I began to think of how to get out. The route beside the icefall that I had noticed the day before was intriguing. It would be a much shorter way to return to the road than retreating down the river. Along it, I would get an excellent view of the north wall of Mount Columbia. Thus I decided to assemble my pack and in the remaining daylight, to start in that direction.
After fording the River, I walked beneath the north wall of Mount Columbia. It was an impressive face of steep rock and ice, but as I studied it I noticed several lines of attack. Mount Columbia is a level-topped snow-capped peak; from below it's impossible to tell where the summit really is. A slight rib on the wall that reached the top near where the high point of Mount Columbia ought to be, seemed to be the route to tackle. It would be a long climb of mixed rock and ice, and bivouac gear would have to be taken. This, plus some shorter routes to its left, I catalogued in my mind for future ascents with an able partner. As I moved closer, I also kept an eye on the left side of the icefall. The route which I had distinguished from afar still looked feasible. One of those drying up, lower altitude glaciers lies beneath the north wall of Mount Columbia and leads up to the icefall. I spent the night in the shelter of a boulder along its side, just before it gained in slope.
At the first sign of light, I strapped on my crampons and began moving up the glacier toward the icefall. The going was fast, but when I reached the fall I changed my pace. In the cool of dawn, the ice was relatively quiet, yet every once in a while it would issue a crack or a crump as a reminder of its ever creeping motion. Ice is inherently more dangerous to climb than rock. On a face of good rock, a climber can be reasonably sure of the strength of his holds, but ice is subject to unexpected fractures. Thus I moved into the icefall with caution. With twelve-point crampons, a climber has a choice of two grips. He may either plant his foot flat on the ice and rest on the ten points that face downward, or he may kick his foot into the ice and support himself on the two front forward-projecting ones. I took my time and chose my route so I was able to use the more secure ten point grip. Before long, I reached a diagonal ramp that I had noticed from Mount King Edward. It led me up to the left-hand edge of the fall where one of those little surprises of the mountains, which only a powerful pair of binoculars could have revealed from afar, lay in wait.
The icefall had undercut the rock on its left side; I was confronted with a ten-foot overhanging wall, devoid of significant holds. Above it, the climbing would have been easy. I looked up a bit and down a bit, but couldn't discern a way to reach the easier rock. I glanced down towards the forks of the Athabasca River, but realized that after coming this far, there was no turning back. So far, the icefall hadn't been too bad, but I was only about a third of the way up and its steepest section lay ahead. It would be a race with the orb of fire, for once the sun would hit the fall, it would become active and dangerous. I tried to think, but there was nothing more to think about. My thinking stopped and I took off up the icefall, on into the Beyond.
The fall was a jumble of ice, of protruding blocks and little shelves, of bulging walls and slopes and cracks. I moved this way and that, tackling each obstacle as it presented itself. I abandoned my reliance on ten-point support and clawed up steep walls on the two front points. If I had come off and had been unable to catch a shelf within a few feet, I would have tumbled to the bottom. Yet this did not disturb me for I was climbing ahead. A loosened block of ice could have done me in; indeed, Death was everywhere about, but I was ascending in stride with Death Who was no longer other than myself.
I swung from one side to the other as I threaded my way among the obstacles, but each of these sideways deviations brought me higher. The general lay of the icefall forced me towards its right until after one swing in that direction, I ascended a ramp to where the overall slope diminished. As I rounded the lip of the fall, I met the sun.
A region of wide crevasses usually lies at the top of an icefall where the glacier above breaks up before spilling over the fall. Sometimes it presents huge crevasses which span the glacier, but atop this fall the crevasses were shorter. With great sideways sweeps that yielded small forward advances, I weaved my way up among them, until I reached an avenue by which I was able to escape to the left onto an expanse of unbroken snow. Once on it, there were decisions to make and, with the onset of thought, the ordinary returned.
First I looked toward the rock ridges where I would have been had I been able to climb to the left of the fall as I had planned. These were now a long way off, and furthermore, I was behind schedule. Climbing the icefall, with all the sideways movement it had entailed, had taken much more time than a clean rock route would have consumed. I looked to the summit of Mount Columbia. It wasn't too far above me; the standard route to it would probably pass across a col that stood before me. I pulled out my map and confirmed my location. The standard route up Mount Columbia would have to cross the col; it would be the quickest way back to the road. As I approached the col I eyed the summit of Mount Columbia. I was so near that it would be a shame not to bag it. However, the snow had already turned soft and it would mean a slog of a few hours just in order to stand on a plain of snow, not much higher than the col. It would only be the ordinary; as I looked at the high clouds that were feathering the sky, I decided to forego it. My mind wandered back into the icefall. Although I was glad that I had made the climb, I put it in the "never again" category, unless I had a partner and a rope.
As I neared the col, I noticed a bunch of flags planted together upon the snow. These, I presumed, were on the standard route. Ordinarily I would have taken a diagonal and passed these flags a hundred yards to the east, but I decided to walk in their direction to investigate. When I reached them I found the snow in their vicinity strewn with wrappers. A glazed area showed where two tents had been set. All the wrappers were written in Japanese. Some unopened packages were also lying about at the opposite side of the campsite from the flags. Their distance from the flags implied that they had been abandoned, not cached. Since heavy fog often hugs glaciers, mountaineers use flags as markers. However, if you wish to mark a spot and have flags to spare at your command, you don't set them all in one place but construct either a line or a cross of flags, spaced perhaps ten feet apart, so the chances of your missing them in dense fog are minimized. The flags too seemed to have been abandoned.
I went over to the food packages, picked up some Japanese rice and seaweed crackers and started munching. A day's worth of provisions were in my pack but all were foods that had to be cooked; a quick ready snack was welcome. After finishing the package, I investigated the other supplies. First I opened a half-pint round plastic container, duly inscribed in Japanese, and had a good hard laugh. Inside was margerine, perhaps manufactured from soy beans grown in North America, sold in Japan at a higher price, and returned again to the east shore of the Pacific. In my travels, I had grown used to seeing Americans cart American packaged food all over the world with them while ignoring similar local food that is cheaper, fresher and generally more wholesome. The US government and its officials are the worst offenders. Indeed, wherever an official American presence is established a PX goes along. In Japan, after the Second World War, the American occupation forces must have brought their goodies with them in flagrant style. Were the Japanese who left this margerine for me to find, out for revenge? I next looked into an oblong box; within were saltine crackers which again might have been made from North American wheat. Most of the other provisions were dried soups or noodle dishes but I did come across a few more packets of Japanese crackers. I was enough of a connoisseur of States side Japanese grocery stores to know at a glance what the ingredients of the munchies were likely to be, but without those convenient English translations of the labels gummed onto the packages, the dried soups and noodles were beyond me. Since these soup or noodle packets often contain fish or meat stocks, I let them be but stuffed the crackers into my pack for later eating.
Even though I had garnished a bit of tasty nourishment, I was appalled by the mess. Actually, a glacier is an efficient garbage disposal unit. Whatever falls upon it gets buried, crushed and ground. However, it does melt when it reaches its lower altitudes; part way up the icefall, it wouldn't please a future generation of climbers to find shreds of cellophane fluttering from a block of ice. Furthermore, the litter would remain an eyesore until it was covered by a heavy snow. Thus I resolved to complain to the party if I encountered them or perhaps to the rangers if not. I gathered a bunch a wrappers from the immediate vicinity both as cleanup and for "evidence", but didn't go chasing after the papers which had blown far and wide upon the snow. The food and flags I left alone, just in case the party which had abandoned them did return with the expectation of finding them, even though I was confident that before the day was up, the birds would feast upon the unprotected food.
From this campsite, I followed a set of fresh tracks east towards the road. Flags had been placed on the snow to mark the way across the glaciers. Every so often I encountered some crevasses but the tracks I was following swung amply wide of them. On such sections of glacier, with crevasses partially bridged by snow, it's preferable to have partners and be roped, just in case you happen to break through. Alone, I stayed in the tracks and hoped that what their makers had tread upon wouldn't collapse under my weight. Gradually, I consumed the Japanese crackers and washed them down with handfuls of the wet surface snow. Although they were less than a hearty meal they did provide enough sustenance so I was able to forego cooking for the day.
The route continued with gentle ups and downs until it started its final long downgrade to the road. Part way down this slope, I spotted some tents. As I approached I saw that the men about them were Japanese. As ammunition for my intended verbal assault, I pulled the cracker wrappers out of my pocket and, thus armed, walked over to them. Their leader came forward and greeted me. I returned the greetings, presented him with the wrappers and asked if his party had left them.
He took them and his face lit up. "So you were at Camp II", he said and began to tell of their mountaineering expedition. He started by showing me his business card and telling me which club they belonged to in Japan. As his story of Camp I, Camp II and their ascent to the summit went on, a cup of fine Japanese tea came into my hand. It soon became clear that the group had been playing Mount Everest on this, the easiest route up poor little 12,000 foot Mount Columbia. Truly, enough equipment lay about their tents to tackle most any peak. After a time, he gave me a map to show me their route and asked where I had gone. I fingered my route on the map but words like "icefall" didn't seem to make any impression upon him. The fall I had climbed isn't visible from the standard route. Again I mentioned the refuse I found but elicited no response. The very idea of carrying litter out was foreign to him. Thus there was nothing to do but, with a friendly smile, to sit back and listen to the story of their expedition and to consume cup after cup of the fine Japanese tea. I had been going hard for hours and, in spite of the handfuls of snow I had eaten, I must have been rather dehydrated.
These Japanese aren't the only ones who have gone to the mountains with the wool over their eyes. Deception is at the heart of the mountain guide's trade which thrives on making clients feel as if they've done something difficult, significant and risky, while in fact, what they've done was easy, trivial and secure. Guides specialize in routes where the drop-offs are spectacular but the climbing is simple and carry along the fanciest of equipment as props to impress their clients with the seriousness of the ascent.
When I began rock climbing, in America there were no climbing schools to speak of. If you wanted to learn to climb, you learned through a club or from friends. Novices were told to show up with old sneakers or hiking boots and old clothes. If, after climbing a few times you liked it and were gaining in skill, you then would consider buying a pair of technical climbing shoes and perhaps your own rope. Many of the numerous climbing schools that have since come to be, are adjuncts of equipment stores. A day of introductory group instruction may be offered for as little as ten dollars, but if a beginner also walks into the shop and buys a pair of rock climbing shoes, now costing nearly a hundred dollars, perhaps a rope at a similar price and some of the fancy outdoor clothing that these shops also stock, the profit from sales will far outweigh the profit from lessons. Beginners don't need much encouragement to make them purchase fancy equipment. After all, it's easier for them to dress like a guide than to climb like one.
Among the Sherpas of Nepal, joining a Himalayan expedition and reaching a high camp, if not the summit, of a major peak, brings much prestige as well as good pay. The young, especially those from the less prosperous families, aspire to climb with the best. However, on a serious expedition, the orders come from above and the work is certainly strenuous and sometimes dangerous as well. The easy profits are to be made by guiding tourists, who follow where they're led, rather than by carrying loads for ambitious mountaineers. So, when a Sherpa begins to think in terms of making a living and raising a family, he often makes the switch from the expedition to the tourist trade. The Sherpa guides make use of a number of peaks between 16,000 and 20,000 feet high which are easy to reach and nothing to climb, but which offer incredible views. Since altitude sickness usually takes a full day to strike in force, even without proper acclimatization, a person in reasonable physical shape can usually make a one day foray from a camp several thousand feet lower to a summit of these heights without any serious altitude problems, especially since the Sherpas arrange to have everything carried for him. But afterwards he'll be so beat that he'll gladly lie in camp for a few days with the Sherpas in pay, rather than have them escort him up to the heights once more.
These Japanese had pulled it all on themselves, but even in this, they weren't alone. Only a mile or two in on the most travelled of American hiking trails, you often see people with monstrous packs pouring over maps with compass in hand, as if they were exploring a virgin land. One day in Nepal, I came across a pair of Americans who, although they had been through a climbing school, had had no real mountaineering experience, but who nevertheless, in the true American "do it yourself" spirit, had set out to conquer the Himalayas without Sherpa assistance and without even porters to help carry their loads to the base of the mountain. They had already turned back and were stopped on the fields between two villages, a few days walk from Kathmandu. With their weighty packs beside them, they were cooking some freeze dried food, intended for higher altitudes. At either of the villages, for the equivalent of about a dime, they could have purchased more fresh vegetables than they could possibly have eaten and which would have livened up their meal, but they were unaware of this. It seemed that they had flamed out at about 15,000 feet. Excuse after excuse flowed from their tongues. They were sturdier looking fellows than most of the Sherpas' clientele and probably would have done well if they had accepted Sherpa assistance, or if they had gone by themselves with reasonable-sized loads. As it was, all they had to show for their efforts was a few weeks of slow and painful carrying of excessive weight.
What was unusual about the party on Mount Columbia was the grandeur of their self-deception. They had clearly made great preparations for their expedition. They must have read and studied widely. To someone who doesn't know how to interpret angles of inclination from contour lines, the extensive glaciation about Mount Columbia makes it seem like a monumental peak. They had invested heavily in equipment, food and transportation. The lightweight wands to which their flags were tied aren't cheap; at least a hundred dollars worth of them alone had been abandoned on the route. Yet, for all their time, effort and expense, they still hadn't realized what a mountain was. If they had only spoken with one of Japan's many excellent mountaineers, they might have either chosen an objective worthy of their preparations, or else reduced their preparations.
Their leader's English wasn't easy to follow and I wasn't interested enough to ask for repetition of what I didn't understand. Yet, it did sound as if they had a much easier time than they had anticipated. Everything he spoke of was "no problem". I gathered they had even planned on a "Camp III" and seemed proud to have made it with only two camps. Mount Columbia is far enough from the road so to climb it and return in one day would be a long hard grind, but maybe some day this party will realize that if they hadn't been lugging so much gear and hadn't been placing flags every inch of the way, they could have climbed Mount Columbia with a single camp, like everybody else.
The shadows were growing longer. I had a last gulp of tea, excused myself and continued down to the road. After the rest and refreshment, the remaining distance went quickly. When I reached the road a glow of sun still illuminated the higher ridges. Into a trash can went the Japanese-labelled wrappers for I no longer felt the calling to complain to the rangers. As soon as my thumb was on the road, I got a ride with a car going to Jasper. It would have taken only a minute or two for me to have picked up the gear I had stashed and to have gotten back into the car, but the driver wasn't the type of person that could be asked to wait. Thus I just hopped out of the car where the road and the Athabasca River came together. Then, in the twilight, although twelve hours earlier I was moving through the icefall, hand in hand with Death, I sat picking in a patch of wild strawberries by the side of the road.
The next morning, the sky was overcast. The two-day storm that soon began left a heavy blanket of snow upon the peaks which ended summer climbing conditions for the year. I left the Canadian Rockies and never did return with a partner to attempt the north wall of Mount Columbia or any of the other routes which I had surveyed, for my life was undergoing profound changes which parted me from the world of technical climbing and guided me towards the yogi's Beyond.
The first signs of chaos are often the flashes, booms, twitches, jerks and gasps of breath which begin to occur as meditation intensifies, and which are so greatly cherished in many yoga groups. The usual result of nurturing such mild chaotic phenomena is that these phenomena become incorporated into the conceptual order and expansion of the chaos is inhibited. You must have neither attachment to order nor aversion to chaos if you're to proceed past the initial outbreaks of chaos to unmitigated bedlam.
The consequence of the disintegration of order is insanity. Some of this insanity has identifiable cause. Writing is a spur to madness as exemplified by my detailed account of the circumambulation of the cave. Yet, compared to prose, the derangement inherent in poetry is greater. In this manuscript, I've included the line,
"Death is the black radiance of the night."After writing it down, I got to thinking about it and reached the conclusion that, although the final word on Death has not been spoken, between Blake, Goethe and everybody else, nothing original can possibly be left to say about the night. Hence the phrase "black radiance of the night" must have previously appeared in some poem or another; I wound up spending an evening shouting lines like,
"Tiger, tiger, burning bright, Through the black radiance of the night."out into the void, desperately trying to dredge up an association that would reveal the source of "black radiance". Even the little computer I use for writing engenders its own form of lunacy, for it's endowed with graphics capability. The resolution of its dot display is coarse, only 240 x 64, and this limitation keeps it from sending me completely off my rocker. Even so, I've managed to devise evolving patterns to display on its little screen like a transcendental flower, especially designed for somebody confined too long to a snow cave. Besides its graphics, the computer has a speaker which can emit tones of programmable pitch and duration. The first year that I had it here, I exercised great restraint and refrained from playing with its speaker. The second year, while the shrew was rampaging within my tent, I began writing speaker programs in a vain attempt to discover some computer generated noise that would scare him away. None of the cacophony which I produced kept him out for more than a minute; shaking the almonds or letting out a deep bear growl were more effective. Indeed, the sound programs I wrote were nothing but a symptom of a mind gone haywire.
Impressions from deep in the past rise to the plane of consciousness. Some of the most firmly planted imprints of the mind are musical. Compositions from my childhood piano lessons well to the surface. If I find myself listening to a
I was a radio child. My parents kept a radio on the second shelf of their bookcase; I must have learned how to operate it soon after I could walk. The earliest memory which I can date precisely involves the radio. I was playing with the knobs and suddenly both of my parents rushed over. My father put me aside and turned up the volume. President Roosevelt had just died as they explained to me once they saw that their reaction had upset me. The strength of their reaction imprinted this scene upon my mind. Since it was a historic date, shortly before my third birthday, I can accurately place it. A number of other events of the World War II period might have evoked similar reaction from my parents, but this was the event for which their little boy happened to be standing at the controls. Besides this, and a number of later identifiable events, the radio engraved numerous tunes, especially commercials, upon my young memory; with the breakdown of the mind's order, these broadcast themselves once more. My children's records, from "Tubby the Tuba" to "Peter and the Wolf" also left their mark and play again during the mind's disintegration.
The growing anarchy of the mind isn't confined to the waking state. Vivid dreams, brilliantly colored but devoid of identifiable events or discernible logic occur with unnerving frequency. In either state the supermundane beings conceived of by the mind, divine and demoniacal alike, make their visitations for they fear that the loss of a single mind from under their sway will threaten their own existence. The senses too, conjure up their tricks and pranks in their battle to keep the soul under their command. Insatiable appetites disturb any attempt at mental steadiness. Every minor swoosh of sliding snow is magnified to an avalanche; every crystal of ice dropping from the roof of the cave and pinging on a canister is amplified to a mouse.
The reaction to this degeneration is terror. How often have I broken out into uncontrollable chills and shivers and gone burying myself in my sleeping bag to recover. How many times have I burst into sweat and how many days have I passed when even a minute of uninterrupted concentration was a blessing. I've spent nights without sleep followed by days without alertness. In times of heavy storm I've lost all touch with the diurnal cycle. During long periods of confinement, I've often wondered who will crack first, I or the mice banging about in their containers awaiting a day calm enough for me to deport them.
A time of chaos seems to be a universal prelude to the Beyond. References to such disorder appears in the life stories of Buddha and Christ as episodes of temptation. The magnitude of the disorder varies and may depend upon the prior attachment to order. My Guru was never obsessed by order. He was an orphan who never was schooled and who was always content to accept whatever the world offered. As a consequence he was hardly upset by chaos. I, educated as a mathematician and trained to impose a logic upon everything and anything, seem to have been destined to receive a full dose of chaos.
Most people are psychopathophobic; for them, a soul in chaos is unpleasant to watch. This is one reason why the yogi must retreat from society during intensive practice. Furthermore, in a land as replete with looney bins as America, if a yogi is discovered in a disordered state, he's likely to be institutionalized. Yet more confining than the physical restraints society imposes on anyone seeming to be breaking loose is the continual stream of social interactions which reinforces the very patterns of thought that bind its members to its order. Language itself depends on the web of categories which veils the Beyond. Even friendly, sympathetic conversation perpetuates the linguistically-structured illusion of the ordinary. Both for his protection and for his advancement, the yogi must create a situation where he needn't interact with anyone for an extended period of time.
You may accelerate onset of chaos through fasting and other extreme practices, or through hallucinogenic drugs, but this entails the risk of creating total havoc before gaining the strength to overcome it. Passing through the chaos requires a firm conviction that neither it nor the previous order are the final condition. Such conviction distinguishes the yogi from those who run to the psychiatric establishment for sedation at the first sign of instability. However, the chaos is mixed with spells of great calmness and lucidity. Perseverance is required to endure the swings from one to another. After watching the alternation of calmness and chaos an indifference to them arises which is prerequisite for the eradication of both. Death is the nemisis Who unsettles the order as He snatches the very souls who attempt to impose a permanence upon the universe. But, at the same time, He prunes the chaos and lightens the clutter of creation. After carefully studying Death's dispassionate unmaking of both the order and the chaos of the universe, you may imitate His indifference and surpass both the order and the chaos of your mind.
In order to perceive the Beyond, you must be willing to admit the possibility of Its realization at the very moment. Anyone who expects the Beyond at a future time, after an extended program of yoga or after his death, will not reach It. Inevitably, his practice will have included the suppression of the Beyond before the appointed moment; when that moment arrives, his habit of suppression will have become so strong that it cannot be instantaneously overcome. Most likely he will pick upon some failure on his part as the reason why he was unable to reach the Beyond on schedule and set another future date for Its attainment. Intense anticipation of the Beyond will also block Its perception, for anticipation generates thought and any thought blocks Its perception.
Since It only comes with indifference to It, It must take you by surprise. It entails an abrupt stoppage of the ordinary, an encounter with an unforeseen obstacle as was the undercut wall which blocked my escape from the icefall, a contradiction in the very process of thought severe enough to jolt the mind from its habit of conceptualizing experience. It requires the strength to endure the blaze of raw experience without the comforting insulation of the mind's categories, until the fog of thought obscuring It burns away. When finally it dawns, the most surprising thing about It is,
When you return, you cannot expect others to understand where you've been any more than the Japanese businessmen on Mount Columbia could understand my ascent of the icefall. When people ask me about my experiences at
Of the three routes out, my preferred route ascends to the high point of the cirque and then runs for a mile on a narrow ridge above 13,000 feet. It's exposed to the wind and the weather so its best done on a mild day. In the Aprils of both 1984 and 1985, I crossed it under clear skies. After the high traverse, there's a choice of continuations. The quickest way to finish is to drop down to a stream and then follow an unplowed road beside it, but a broad, gradually descending ridge which parallels the stream provides a more aesthetic route. I've always opted for the ridge variation, although in 1984, a windy afternoon storm made me run for the trees to camp before completing it. Since the next morning was sunny I climbed back up and followed it to its end. Before descending to the road, I've always camped in the woods at 10,000 feet for a few days to prepare myself for the more troubled existence within society.
Because of its exposure, this high route entails a minor excursion into the mountaineer's beyond; this was most true in April 1987. After a hot clear day when I did my drying, came a day of high cloud and east wind. It looked as if a stretch of heavy weather was moving in. Nevertheless, in the hope of a good morning before a storm of indefinite duration, I readied myself to go. At dawn, the skies visible from outside the cave were clear. After sunrise, once I had climbed enough for a better view, I saw high cloud drifting over from the east and low cloud in the valleys below me. As I continued my ascent, the low clouds rose and enshrouded the ridges. I kept on climbing with the expectation of the clouds rising further and the sun breaking through, but this never happened. Instead, the mist grew denser; before I reached the high point of the cirque, I was moving through light snow. If there had been any wind, I would have had to turn back, but I proceeded in this eerie calm. Soon every rock was powdered with snow and every hold had to be brushed off before using it, with either a boot or a mitten. Visibility was minimal; the usual, six-foot cornices seemed to project ten feet and the occasional ten-foot ones, twenty. If I hadn't already done the route twice before in winter and many times in summer, I couldn't have continued. Yet I knew the way and knew the escapes. At the first deep notch after the high point, there's a snow gully leading down to the west; after the midpoint I can slide down most any chute to reach the snow fields on the east. If I had had to use these escapes, I would have been faced with a long slog to return to route, but knowledge of them gave me the confidence to continue along the crest. After the high section was over, I navigated the wide sloping ridge by compass until I reached trees. Since I had no idea of how well I had been following course I camped there; the next morning, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself close to where I had reckoned. The great storm I was expecting never materialized. Instead a cold front moved in. If I had waited a day or two, I could have traversed the ridge with visibility, but with a hefty breeze. Since a stiff wind on the high portion can make the going difficult, I was glad to have crossed when I did.
In April 1988, after a warm dry week of heavy winds during which nothing could hang outside, came two moderately windy days which I utilized for drying gear and packing to go. The next morning was windy and overcast. Yet the preceding weather had bared so much of the ridges that I decided to try the traverse before they were coated by the impending storm. As I proceeded, the gusts strengthened. Soon I was moving stop and go. Since the footing was good, I didn't lose much time, but hanging to the mountain in the wind was tiring. By mid-morning, the overhead clouds had blown away, but another front was moving in from the west. By the time it overtook me at 2 P.M., I was past the high portion, on the broad, grassy ridges at 11,000'. Even there, it brought a squall which sent me staggering and made me abandon the crest for the trees. When I reached their shelter although it was barely 2:30, I was so exhausted that I set up camp. During the next day's snow I rested and didn't finish the route until the following afternoon.
The second route out circles around a buttress to reach a pass and then descends to meet the unplowed road. Although it takes longer than the high route, it's safer; only a heavy storm can stop me. I've used this route twice, in April, 1983 and in March, 1986 in very different conditions. In April, 1983, the mild day for trying the high route just wasn't coming. After days of snow, on an overcast morning I started around the buttress. The snow was soft and the snowshoeing, slow. It took me seven hours to reach the last trees below the pass. By then it was snowing hard and blowing fiercely; I chose to camp. The next morning, conditions were no better, but with my body rested, I opted for a foray into the whiteness. Until the pass, the direction was up; on top of it I knew I merely needed to keep my back to the wind. A hundred feet down the leeward side of the pass, the wind and cloud were above me and I could clearly see the gentle snow slopes leading down to the road.
In March, 1986, I wanted to leave as soon as a could after
The third route goes straight down and out the back side of the range. It quickly reaches low forest but then requires a long trudge to reach the road. Even the road it meets is out in the middle of nowhere; I must make a long hitch around the range to return to base. I used this route once, in January 1983, after my first trip here in winter when I came with only two weeks of food.
I've descended to find things much the same. At the store, they take the green slips of paper which have been sitting idly in my wallet in exchange for my first fresh fruit in months. All the grade B science fiction movies which, in times of madness, had played through my head about returning to find the world ruled by the little green men were in vain. I have met changes in my personal world. When I returned in April 1984, I learned that my father had died that February. A pile of mail inevitably awaits me, but before attending to it, I must go for a long hot shower.
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