"There is perhaps none of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive. Even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.” ~ H. L. Mencken (1880 - 1956) editor, satirist
A man can learn a lot about himself on a mountain. From the spiritual insights gathered by North America's First Peoples on their vision quests, to the humbling insignificance gleaned by storm-lashed alpine climbers, mountaintops are a perfect environment for — no pun intended — higher learning.
As it turns out, you don’t even have to be on some desolate, windswept crag to learn the truth. You can be riding a chairlift down a mountain (yes, I said down a mountain), with a stranger, on a balmy summers day.
Case in point; a few summers ago, I was hired to take some wedding photos on the top of the ski hill at the Kimberly Alpine Resort. When the shoot was over, guests were to be whisked back to the base of the mountain via the chairlift. I was just preparing to ride down on my own when one of the groomsmen — I remembered that his name was Connie — took pity on my lonely self and clambered on beside me.
We had barely gotten underway when Connie began to scan the magnificent vista now afforded us. During the course of the wedding, I had learned that he and some of the other groomsmen fancied themselves climbers. Probably weekend rock jocks I thought, guys that played around on the bluffs where they lived, trying to out-macho each other and impress the girls. So with that in mind, it didn’t really surprise me when Connie asked, “Which mountain is the one they call Fisher?”
I lifted my hand and pointed to the pyramid-shaped monolith that dominated the skyline to the north.
“See that baby right there,” I said to my newfound climber friend. “That is Fisher Peak.”
Then, unable to resist this opportunity for shameless self-promotion, I added, “And I have climbed it seven times.”
Connie shifted his gaze from the mountain and asked, “Really, seven times?
I could tell he was wondering why any one would choose to summit the same mountain that many times so I explained, “After my first ascent, when I was just a kid, there always seemed to be someone, a friend, a relative, a co-worker, that wanted me to guide them to the top.”
My newly acquainted brother in Vibram looked back to the mountain, confused. “They needed a guide? I was under the assumption that Fisher was pretty much a walk-up; no real technical pitches, basically just a scramble.”
I was of course, immediately taken aback by this wanna-be climber’s lack of respect for the peak and more to the point, my accomplishment on it. With indignation starting to colour both my ears and my tone, I began my lecture.
“Yes it is true, I said, that to climb Fisher Peak you do not need ropes and pitons. However, there is a fair bit of route-finding required. Many climbers have gotten themselves in trouble, getting confused by the plethora of cairns that mark the way, and have found themselves in a dangerous situations.”
Pointing again to the mountain I continued, “See that basin there just bellow the saddle, it is filled with scree, loose rock that moves beneath a climber's feet, and on many occasions, people above have kicked down showers of rock on to their unsuspecting comrades below.”
Really ramping up my tirade now, I launched into one of my favourite topics, the need for caution in the high country. Or as I like to call it, the “what-if” factor.
“Some people will tell you there is nothing to be afraid of when you are walking along some ridge with a hundred-metre drop on both sides. They say, ‘Hey, it’s as wide as a sidewalk up here — nothing to worry about.' Well, what if a gust of wind knocks you off balance? What if you stumble over a crack and step off into the abyss that serves as a curb for this high altitude sidewalk? Mountains, regardless of their degree of climbing difficulty, should be respected.”
Then, in what was perhaps an overly dramatic conclusion to my lecture on Fisher — my sermon on the mount if you will — I turned to Connie and said, “People have been badly injured on that 'walk-up' my friend; people have died climbing Fisher Peak.”
Connie did not seem offended by my rant. Finally given the opportunity to speak, he very congenially asked about other mountains and my exploits in them. With the ride down nearly complete, I thought it would be rude if I didn’t find out a little about my chairlift companion, so I asked Connie, “What do you do for a living?
With the same knowing smile that he had worn for nearly the entire descent, he continued to stare out at the mountain range in the distance and said, “I climb.”
For some reason, in that instant, my eyes were drawn to the man's hands and for the first time I noticed that he had fingers like talons. There were calluses on the palms and scars on the backs of those hands. My heart sank with the realization that I had just spent the last 10 minutes of my life bragging to a professional mountaineer about how I, Dan Mills, alpinist extraordinaire, had climbed Fisher Peak seven times.
I sat in humbled silence as Connie told me how he travels the world, thanks to the sponsorship of companies like The North Face and others, climbing peaks and big walls. How he had recently returned from Patagonia where he and a partner had scampered up a new 17-pitch route on the east face of Cerro Mascara.
The only thing more amazing than what this man had accomplished in the mountains was the offhanded, awe shucks, way in which he described them to me. Connie knew better than to brag to a stranger on a chairlift about his accomplishments.
Moments later we disembarked from the lift and went our separate ways, Connie with a wave, me with a sheepish grin. I watched him head into the parking lot where most of the wedding party was milling about, then I too headed to my car. I opened the door and was just about to climb in when I heard, “Hey photographer dude!”
I looked across the lot to find Connie smiling back at me and wagging his finger.
“You drive home safe now," he said. "Remember, highways should always be treated with respect.”
When I got home, I immediately went to my volume of Pushing the Limits – The Story of Canadian Mountaineering. I found a photo of Connie on page 418, mentioned in the same breath as the other young guns of our country's climbing elite. My photo however — despite seven successful summits of Fisher Peak — is sadly absent. An oversight I’m sure.