Dancing on the tips of the earth: A Family Affair

It started with Pyramid Mountain. And a two-dollar child seat on the back of my Rocky Mountain Blizzard.

We’d been in Jasper for two months yet I hadn’t really noticed the mountain before. Then all of a sudden, as though the mountain had dropped from Heaven the previous night, I saw it for the first time.

“Why don’t we have a go at climbing Pyramid?” We had stopped for a snack on top of Old Fort Point, with its commanding view of the Athabasca Valley and Pyramid Mountain on the other side of town. “We could do it tomorrow. Ride the bike to the base of the mountain, then up to the top. We’ll make a day of it. What do you think?”

Liam asked if we could go to Nutters to get stuff for the trip. Hewas already on board. I had never climbed a mountain in my life and neither had my compadre.

But then again he was only four-years-old. If Liam’s mother had been alive she would have said, “You’re taking him where? Are you nuts?”

Absolutely.

I rode my bike up the fire road, cranking away in my granny gear, with Little Lord Fauntleroy comfortably ensconced in his foam-padded bike seat, demanding a story.

These were early days in our quest to be mountain men and we were ill prepared for the weather at the top. Down in town was the Tropic of Cancer, on top of Pyramid was the Arctic Circle. Freezing clouds swathed the mountain, pockets of snow among the rocks, a fierce wind lashed the peak, nebulous hoarfrost covered the cables and tower of the sky-tram. The iron gantry of the microwave tower, which was still in place in July of 1993, gave the place a science-fiction look. But we had made it, and for the first time I felt the opiate tug of climbing mountains. As for Liam, he would come to the moon if that were where I said we were going. He just wanted to be with Dad.

As Liam got bigger, so did the mountains. Just before he started Grade 1 we had a crack at Mount Rainier, the most heavily-glaciated peak in the contiguous United States. We got crampons (Liam wore women’s; they don’t make crampons for little kids), and for practice we tiptoed in them around the lawn outside Jasper’s library. We were ready.

Summit day was boiling hot, snow bridges on the glaciers were collapsing and one member of the team had constipation. When you’re caparisoned like a medieval knight, ropes trussing you up like a Christmas turkey, have you any idea how long it takes to get undressed when you’ve got to go? And all of them false alarms? With all the delays we lost the summit. We came back the next year and got a little higher.

Once the Littlest Hiker and his Dad were done with plain old hiking, our hikes were always with one objective: to climb another mountain. We’d get to the top of one and see another we fancied climbing. That’s the trouble: there is just no end of rocky mountains.

We had a growing list on the bedroom wall of mountains we’d climbed. Many were remote, unnamed peaks which we’d named. We brought along glass jars covered in duct tape for registers which we left under cairns that we built. We didn’t rush, we’d sit at base camp watching hints of yellow then orange then red as the sun woke up and the sky would be pink and salmon then gentle blue like a Monet painting and the pancakes would be ready and we’d pour on the homemade syrup and for the briefest of moments we would see the mountains standing in the limpid air of a brand new day. How lucky we were.

We had the odd disaster, like the time we were playing double solitaire on the summit of Eiffel Peak and the Queen of Diamonds blew away. We had two grizzly cubs put dripping paw prints on the fly of our tent and mama bear punch a big hole in the roof (we were out at the time.)

We had arguments on how to tie the rope knots when we were dangling on steep slab. “Well look in the book, Liam! What does it say?” We had brought along the climbers’ bible, The Freedom Of The Hills, in case we needed on-the-job training.

Then Liam went to university and my climbing partners changed. While Liam was taking the scenic route to an undergraduate degree—riding a bike around Iceland, hauling a toboggan up the King’s Trench on Mount Logan, training for the Boston Marathon in Svalbard, Norway—his old man was plodding up unnamed peaks in wilderness areas and dancing on the tips of the earth with two stuffed rabbits and a pink Himalayan duck.

I’ve never been much for those grading systems of numbers and decimals rating a climb, but I know a good beer when I taste one. I named an unnamed peak that took me 12 days in total to climb after the beer I drank at base camp: Mount 8.6 (you’ll find this delicious beer in DJ Bowen’s impressive cooler).

When Liam comes home (he’s doing his master’s at Carleton University) he always does a trip with his old dad. Just the other week we got up Mount Bryant, a peak that we had tried two years before when an early September snowstorm had turned us back just below the summit.

He’s the one leading the climbs now, the one waiting for this tattered old man. I’m slower these days but I’m still raging against the dying of the light . . .

And when I’m at the Home and nurse is tucking the tartan rug around my legs and wiping away the tapioca pudding dribbling down my chin and saying “He’s gone again,” I’ll be dreaming of all those mountains I climbed with my boy.

 

Jasper’s David Harrap is the author of The Littlest Hiker in the Canadian Rockies. If he’s not wandering in the wilderness, you may be able to find him picking out his next mountain moniker in the local beer cooler.

David Harrap // info@thejasperlocal.com

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