Time. The importance of it, and the negation of it. I am lost in a sea of time. One where the current is ever flowing and I relax enough and let it flow, I can tell exactly where the current will bring me. Currently I am sitting indoors, hiding from the smoke here in BC, and I am reflecting on the past month, or years, and how it has brought me here.
I suppose if I am to start writing about my beginnings in the alpine, it requires an alpine start, preparation, and of course – a ton of beta. So I am sitting here, at 3am, many weeks after I completed the Alpine Skills Solstice Long Weekend with Jeff Bullock (Alpine Air Adventures), and I am reflecting and ready to write.
I am going to take this back. I am going to write in my half-hazard, hard-to-follow, and deranged style of writing that typically only makes sense to the dedicated reader who sticks it out. I am writing here for my spirituality. The mountains are my church, and unlike Will Gadd has said, ‘Freedom of the Hills’ is not my bible. Don’t get me wrong, the book is the working word on the facts about what we do, I am just a man who has spent enough time alone in the woods to find his inner light. A light that I often have to strive to listen to, for my window of life tends to get dusty and I can get preoccupied with desires to clean it and continue to see clearly.
Why do I climb mountains? I get asked this question more often than I thought I ever would of late. The funny thing is, is that I do not really consider myself a climber, or at least have not until recently. Yet, that is what I truly am. While I do climb to attain summits, or at least attempt to, the reason I venture off into the woods, and eventually the alpine, is for a chance to listen to myself. Climbing is an activity where one can follows one’s desires, and keep the internal window clean. Finding ‘The Zone’ and the oneness within happens when you are low on food, have tired the body, and have been in your head constantly making decisions with your intuition or instincts, that ‘gut’ feeling. Climbing 5th class terrain only increases the strain on the food intake, bodily wear, and the need to be ‘flowy’. For this reason alone I consider any outdoor ascension, of any hiking/scrambling class, to be climbing.
The avid Alberta Rockies scrambler is a mountain climber. They climb, albeit they may be on Class III or lower, but it is technically a ‘freesolo’ ascent. Just one where the risks are not quite the same as Alex Honnold on El Cap. This should not stoke the ego of all the scramblers out there, but instead instill a sense of reality that what they are doing is truly climbing, and there seriousness of their activities are far more serious than they may think.
As a trekker, one who mostly hangs out in the valleys and camps below the alpine, I knew the wildness of the mountains. I grew up going to the mountains with my family to camp. I returned there as an adult in search of powder. And I kept returning to continue to find myself. The mountains hold a special power for me. The are truly where I call home. They are the only place where I can breath easily and relax. They are the place where I am myself, and my window does not acquire the same amount of dust.
I took the mountains seriously, but my actions and words with the community did not reflect my internal seriousness. Maybe I had relaxed? I suppose I must have become too comfortable. Too much ego. I thought that I could do anything I wanted, and that was because I thought I knew my limits and only wanted to stay within them. The mountains always win. Whether it be in the fact that they will not leave your mind, or they will take your life, there is no activity you can do without leaving some of your safety to the Apus.
As I ran into a series of unfortunate events in my life, I turned to the mountains. The things that derail our plans in life are often the blessings that we don’t want to see. I returned from Peru in 2016 with my marriage already over. My wife and I had stopped talking while on our trip, and I was sleeping on the couch back in Canada. I wanted nothing more than for my marriage to work out, and for us to get into counselling, and spent too much time worrying about a wife (and life) that I could not control. I returned from Peru with a renewed vigor for the mountains. Before I treated them as a escape, now they were truly life itself. I had always been active, but also a drinker. I would often be hungover on day hikes, or backcountry shreds, despite being up and ready to go. Always pushing to go further and faster. Things were changing at that time for me. No longer was I the landlord. No longer was I even a husband. I was just a man, sick in the stomach – from Peru more than likely, and alone in his head for the first time in a long time.
I returned from Peru with a few changes to my psyche. My wife was very keen on doing ayahuasca while we were there, and as much as I was in constant fear of opening my mind to the experience, I had zero idea what that even meant. I wanted to quit drinking, and that was my motivation for wanting to go through the experience. I had no clue of what was to come and just how much my internal frame of thought would change. The doctors that administered the treatment told me that the drink was just the beginning, and that the changes it started would continue. I have found this to be true. 2016 was a hard and trying year for me. I was getting married, and I suffered a concussion at work. I spent the summer in a brain injury clinic, where they geared my recovery back to hiking (At the time I was hiking well over 52 days a year, filmed the trips as my band character ‘persona’ for YouTube, and was starting to put together my trail guiding resume for TRU). The head injury made it easy to drop the one beer a day that I had got myself down to, and I was well on my way to becoming what I thought was ‘fit and healthy’. The time I spent sick and truly alone on the couch when I returned cleared my whole mind.
The two changes that are most evident with my returning from Peru was my drinking, and my fear of heights. As in they were both no longer an issue. The path to reawakening my spirit begun on that trip, and I quickly discovered that I had zero mental addiction to alcohol anymore. My active life and healthy eating had just got a serious boost. The time I had spent at the pub with my wife, was now being spent on the trails. I begun to take training seriously. I begun to care about being the best that I could possibly be, and that meant you could have a beer in front off me, or I could crack one open, and I did not even want the whole thing.
My body is a temple, a machine, and vehicle, and I intended to use it. Once I would drive down Highway 40 and list all the mountains with trails, now with my fear of heights – and all unjustifiable fears – behind me, I planned to climb all the peaks without them. Ever had I dreamed of actually climbing mountains – for I did not consider scrambling climbing at the time. Now I knew I had the ability to actual climb them, just as anyone who has the desire to do so can.
As my relationship with my wife turned into a living hell, and my wife was turning to using her fists to get me out of the house, I gave up. It was the start of a long process, a process I will ever be going though. I packed up my gear, spent Yule outside at my parents, and spent the next stretch of months looking for myself. Not truly lost, but no longer the person I was before. I do not feel that the time was wasted, as the outcome from that time spent alone in the mountains is beyond any experience that I have thought possible. Yet, I did not do much. I climbed a bit. I shredded some power. At night I mostly sat around fires, far from any other human, disconnected.
I never really solved the GI issue. I went back to work. I got sick again. I wanted more mountains and a career there, so I focused on getting ready to apply at TRU for the 2018 year. I wanted to trail guide, and no longer as a part time thing to work towards. I was trying to move to Calgary or Canmore. I wanted to be closer to doctors. I needed to find work that would help me pay for the schooling I wanted, not to mention the amount of debt that I had racked up since my concussion in early 2016. I eventually landed a job at the Canmore McDonald’s. I have a BSc, but worked and ran kitchens throughout university, and the promise of managing a fast paced fast food joint in Canmore with a scholarship program was enough for me to give up on the last shred of stability I had left in life to go all in on my dream. Life of course had different plans for me.
I moved into the staff accommodations in Canmore after climbing Mount Edith before my work orientation meeting on Oct 31st 2017. Life was amazing. I lived in Canmore, winter was fast approaching, and I was on a mountain before or after work pretty much every day. I trained daily. I studied Freedom of the Hills and knots. And I worked my butt off. I was finally making money again and wanting to start paying back all the debt I had built up… and then my roommate was drugged. The police and EMT’s in the ambulance said it appeared to be something called ‘Flakka’. I had to look it up, and sadly the video I watched was exactly the behavior that my roommate had been showing. As scary as the situation was, my life was only going to get worse.
After hours of waiting for the ambulance we called, and attempting to restrain a flakka enraged human with my ice axe, the police finally showed up. Then we gave statements. Then the police came back to wake us up for more statements and the news about our roommate being rushed to a Calgary hospital. He was dying. I had to work early in the morning, and did not get to sleep. I picked up overtime, as the roommate was on life support, and the police came again for more verbal statements in the middle of the night. 3 nights in a row the police came after midnight for statements. I picked up the roommates shifts, asked to be sent to a grief therapist daily for the first few days, and ended up crushing 21 days in a row with pneumonia and a smile – because Canmore.
Just a little over a week after the incident I finally had my general manager come say hello to me. He did not ask me what had happened, no one ever did from McDonald’s, but he did hand me a card with a therapists number on it. I was already so sick at that point in time and working so many of my half-dead buddies hours, that I was beginning to loose sight of why I came to Canmore in the first place. The flexible closing and opening shifts I was promised on hire, had turned into a sunup to sundown slog with daily overtime, and zero days off.
I eventually was sent home from work due to my cough, because the managers could not hide how sick I was anymore. My best friend had mono, and the doctor thought I did too. A doctors note saying I had developed pneumonia from having EBV, and going through a round of antibiotics as well, was not enough to not have my job threatened on a regular basis though. I was definitely cooking burgers in Canmore McDonald’s, talking at a whisper at best, coughing non-stop, and being told if I did not put in overtime I would be fired. I was so amped on making money and staying in Canmore, I honestly was glad my supervisor tossed out my doctors note and told me to work instead of sending me home. Such a foolish thing to not look after one’s body. I ended up sick, and unable to move much out of my bed for a few weeks. After I was cleared for work by the doctors and showed up to work, I was sent home and work made me wait 3 more days and had me get another doctors note. I walked Lady MacDonald’s West Ridge at night during that time, my first outing in far too long, and returned to work so stoked to be back. I thought my life was back on track. I was so wrong.
My first day back at work was all smiles, I was so stoked to be back to life in the mountains. It was December 19th, and a good layer of snow had fallen while I was in bed. Ski season was in full swing. There was a note on one of the glass cooler doors saying, “Please do not use”. I saw every other person at work using the door and asked what was with the note, but no one in the kitchen knew why it was put up. I was using the cooler door next to it when a coworker ran up and used the door with the note on it. The door came off it’s hinges, and the next thing I remember clearly is living in Kamloops.
Turn’s out I took a nice bump to the head, was put on the cold and wet tile floor in the backroom for several hours, every winter jacket in the place piled on me, in the hopes that I was going to get up and return to finish my shift. Off-shift coworkers were called to bring me to the hospital, and by the time I was being released from the hospital in Calgary, it was December 28th and I had missed Christmas. I do not actually recall Christmas, and that is probably a good thing as I was in a city with no family around, and my friends I knew that lived there were not even contacted. My family came and picked me up and brought me to Red Deer to enjoy some Christmas family time and I started trying to get a hold of work. My boss finally returned one of my calls, in the morning of January 1st, and right off that bat asked me if I had moved out of the staff accommodations in Canmore yet. Thankfully, since this was not my first major head injury, I had the foresight to get a call recorder and let everyone know I needed to tape my calls to remember what was said in them. Unfortunately, with not much to do while in recovery, I listened to them on repeat.
So that ended my time living in Canmore. Half of it was spent covering my roommates shifts while he chilled on life support, and the other half of it I was in bed with pneumonia. I used the last of my money, and borrowed more, to have my car and my stuff moved out of Canmore. I was unable to drive and waiting to get into a brain injury clinic at the time. And WCB, the Worker’s Compensation Board, delayed the start of my payments by almost 30 days. I ended up homeless, as I had nowhere to move to and no money for rent. McDonald’s was claiming I owed them rent money for while I was off work as well. Before Canmore I at least was able to drive and look after myself if this situation had occurred. Now concussed, confused, and everything I owned back in my car – yet being unable to drive or walk much, I was kinda fucked. I don’t think I had ever been so fucked before in my life, and did not think it could possibly get any worse, but it did.
According to my recorded phone calls, my WCB worker was perfectly fine with McDonald’s kicking me out of my house while concussed from a workplace injury. I tried to stick around Calgary for a bit, but was not getting any money from WCB and could not afford to put down a deposit on a place. Also not thinking clearly, nor having any working memory, really did not help. Thankfully a friend of mine was moving to Kamloops from Canmore, and WCB said that if I went with her, that they would fly me back to Calgary for the brain injury clinic. WCB never set up a single flight for me despite many other phone calls where they clearly say that they will. Fast forward to the last few days of March, and I find myself on the mend, out of the brain injury clinic, and packing up my stuff in Kamloops to move back to Canmore. McDonald’s had been dodging my phone calls and emails for a few weeks, I had been cleared for a back to return plan on March 12th, but WCB moved me out of the program anyways and I was ready to get back home. It was the day before the Easter weekend, and my big move home. New renters would be moving into my place, and I had to be out. I had lost almost everything I owned, including my car, at this point. I was so ready to be back to work and in Alberta.
And then McDonald’s finally returned my phone calls. I was being laid off. WCB was still thousands of dollars behind on their payments with me, I was in collections with zero money in my Albertan bank that I couldn’t even access in BC. I had no car. I had no job. And I had no house. The nearest friend or family member I could try to visit was 800km away. McDonald’s gave me a pretty sweet Christmas present, but I think their Easter gift was even better. Now I was homeless, with everything I owned on my back. I had to leave the little amount of stuff I still had behind, and set out on foot. In a city I did not know. Knowing not a single soul I could call on in the whole province. Going from a suit wearing, new car driving, landlord in Calgary – owning a fully furnished 6 bedroom house, to walking down the streets of Kamloops alone, with everything I owned on my back and not a single memory of how I go there was a blow to my brain worse than either of the concussions.
I did it for the mountains was all I could think. All that mattered was the mountains. I was happy and could relax in the mountains. Apparently my time between January and March was spend training, studying ‘Freedom of the Hills’, and climbing after the doctors cleared me. I honestly do not recall much of it, but what I do recall is mountains, knots, and beta. All I could focus on now was getting back to the rockies. I had a mountaineering course lined up for around the Solstice in June. The doctors at the brain injury clinic had told me that I would not be insurable as a hiking guide anymore, so I had zero direction with a career. It did not matter much anyways, as I was homeless, yet the things I had in my pack on my back were chosen well. I had my mountaineering gear and nothing else.
I ended up in Williams Lake somehow, I really don’t know. I was taken in by an amazing family that did not know me. They fed me. I trail ran. And I prayed daily. I found the Salvation Army and did the paperwork so I could help make soup for the soup kitchen. I found friends with no money or home. I met people who’s hearts were so big that I was sure that their chests would burst one day. I met a quality of people that I never knew existed, and I continued to grow.
The desire to make it to my course in June was the only thing that ever kept me going during this time. No one would hire me. I was at the point where I was going to walk to the Columbia Icefield for the course if needed. I was wearing the same 3 pairs of clothes that I had with me when I left Kamloops, and that was enough. I trained. I climbed. I mediated. The 3 days with a guide in the Icefields was coming.
I made it to the course with the help of my new friends and my mountaineering partner. Without these people in my life, I would be nothing. That is the point of today’s blog. It is not the pity party – because we all live a story like this. It is not about spreading hate. It is not about the journey this time either. Today I write this for hope. I write this in a nice house with AC, on a laptop, with clean socks on my feet, tea in my mug, and a smile on my face. I am writing this with love in my bed, a Taurus Wagon in the driveway, and a closet full of gear. I have been up and down since running a fundraiser from the backcountry, and getting an EP on iTunes and Spotify last year. I made it to my course. I climbed Mount Athabasca. I climbed Skyladder on Andromeda, and had to climb back down it in an ice storm. I have gone off to climb Mount Cline, Mount Willingdon, and others in the few weeks that have past since the solstice. My road has not gotten any easier. If anything it is getting harder. But I am not backing down. I am not stopping. I am going to continue to train. I am going to continue to climb. I never lost sight of who I am. I never lost sight of what I want in life. If anything, my time alone in the woods, in the cities, and meeting some of the kindest souls while finding my own spirtuality, has let me grow the light inside. And if what has happened to me in the last few years was not able to stop me, but only made me stronger, you better believe I will be working even harder to attain my goals. If I learnt anything over the past few months, it is that Hope is stronger than Fear.