Every weekday morning I drive my 5 & 7 year-old children to school. The drive from our home to their school takes about ten minutes and to pass the time they like me to tell them what my daughter calls “live” stories”?stories of events that I have experienced in my life. It doesn’t take much of a story to entertain them but I’ve found it a challenge to come up with different stories every day. The exercise has actually begun to retrieve obscure memories from the recesses of my mind. Last Friday morning I was trying to think of a good tale when I recalled a hunting experience wherein I learned several hard lessons all on one day.
Back in the early 1990s I was in great condition and over-confident in my physical abilities. One year I was lucky enough to qualify for a limited-entry hunting license to hunt mountain goat in a range spanning the BC-Alberta border. I’d never hunted mountain goat before and was excited at the prospect of a new experience. I looked over my recreational atlas and picked three mountains in the designated area that I though would give me the best chance of seeing goat”?they were the three highest peaks. I loaded up my truck and camper and, with my father, headed out for adventure. As soon as we arrived in the area we saw goats far above us on the mountains. Barely visible to the naked eye, they were vivid when viewed through my spotting scope. We set up camp and for three days the goats played tag with me as I spent hours trying to approach them from below. The most that I would see up close (if 400 yards is close) was the flash of white fur retreating through the brush.
On the evening of the third night we moved camp to the base of the third mountain, Mt. Bess, half of which lay in BC and the other in Alberta. In hind-sight I now know that it is a towering behemoth of a mountain, but to one used to hiking it didn’t look overly daunting. I planned to start out early in the morning an hour or two before light and hike to the top of the mountain so that I could approach the goat from above. I was sure that I could get to the top, bag a goat, and return to camp all in the one day. At that time my father was already in his sixties and couldn’t make a hike like that so he remained at the camp and I insisted on going up alone (my first mistake).
Two hours before light I was awake, fed, and out the door. I had packed very light in anticipation of carrying a goat back down the mountain. I estimated that I could make the top in about four hours. Four hours later I’d barely made it one third of the way up and the hiking was becoming more like rock-scaling (which I have never done). The terrain became steeper and steeper until I suddenly realized that I could climb no further. But to my horror, when I turned around to go back down it was too steep! I was stuck halfway up a rock cliff, a fall from which would have certainly killed me. Rarely since my youth have I felt fear intense enough to elicit tears; but I’m not ashamed to say that I cried on the side of the mountain that day.
The season was late fall and I was without protection from the wind. I knew that I couldn’t stay where I was or I’d surely succumb to hypothermia in the night. My Hobsons Choice was clear: stay where I was and almost certainly die; or, try to go on and have a chance to survive. I surveyed my position once again and panic approached as I reaffirmed there was no way to go either up or down; but I saw a possibility born of desperation in a narrow ledge slightly lower and beside mine. The problem was that there was an approximate four-foot gap of nothingness between the two. Without much hesitation I threw my Trapper Nelson backpack across, and then my rifle. With a deep breath and a huge leap of faith I made it across and lay on the ledge for some time until shouldering my pack and scrambling across the rock face to a less-steep, albeit more circuitous route.
I thought briefly about turning back but excitement and confidence in my abilities drove me on (my second mistake). I climbed further and further up the side of the mountain and at about 10 am I found that I was leaving the peaks of surrounding mountains below me. Vast glacial fields stretched on for miles and the view was more than breathtaking. At about noon I broke past the tree-line and onto an alpine shoulder that arched to the base of a 500-foot sheer cliff that I knew I couldn’t climb. No matter though, as I could hear tumbling rocks being dislodged by what I hoped was goat feet. But there was no way to tell what was making the noise and I had seen much grizzly sign on my way up. I crept slowly, and as quietly as one can on loose rocks, toward the noise. It was a nanny goat with kids and what a majestic sight. They were lying atop the edge of a thousand-foot cliff, the wind tousled their fur, and they were silhouetted by glaciers on the mountains below. I sat for a long time watching them, not disappointed at all that they were not open on my draw, for I never would have taken one from a family unit at any rate.
It was well after noon when I started back down the mountain. I decided to take a longer, less steep route down, but I hadn’t gone far when I realized I was in trouble. I had overworked my legs on the way up and after my goat-watching rest they began to seize up. I started suffering painful cramps in my hamstrings and before long I was walking stiff-legged. Before I was half way down the mountain I was sliding and crawling more than I was walking. I was always on the verge of making camp and lighting a fire but I had packed no overnight gear in order to keep my pack light (my third mistake) and the terrain was still steep enough that I would have had to sleep practically standing-up and tied off to a tree so as to keep from tumbling down the mountain in my sleep.
I pushed on into the dusk of evening and past that into the dark of night. Making my way by the light of a small flashlight, I fell and scrambled but my sense of direction didn’t fail me even as my body did. When I finally arrived at the camper, it was several hours past dark and my father was just about to drive into McBride to procure the search and rescue team, having left a blazing bonfire in case I should return. But just before setting off, he decided to take one last look toward where I had gone and he found me stumbling toward camp with my canvas coveralls missing both an arm and leg. Both had been snagged on trees and torn clean off as I’d fallen down the mountainside in the dark.
I could have slept for days and it took my body weeks to recover. I made mistakes on that trip that I learned hard lessons from and never repeated (well maybe a couple of times). But experiences like that make for incredible memories; and pretty good “live” stories too.
Wayne E. Benedict has a varied career history and strong links to the Canadian labour movement. He is working part-time toward his Bachelor of Human Resources and Labour Relations at Athabasca University. He is a fulltime first-year student of the University of Saskatchewan College of Law. For a more detailed writer bio, see The Voice writers’ feature page under ‘About The Voice’. If you would like to send article-feedback to Wayne, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org