Back in August 2011 I reached the summit of a little peak that sits only a handful of kilometers away from where I live.
In a lot of ways this peak, outside of the scrambling and mountaineering community in and around the Southern Coast Mountains of BC, is largely unknown by most individuals.
It was unknown to me also until one day I was flicking through the pages of my recently bought copy of Matt Gunns “Scrambles in Southwest British Columbia” in mid 2010. The name “Sky Pilot” instantly stood out. It’s a great name for a Mountain in my opinion and instantly gave the peak a mystique that drew me to want to climb it some day.
In many ways climbing Mountains for me is an endeavour to get further away from the comfort and ennui of postmodernity at sea level. The closer I get to the sky above me, the less the trappings of modern life apply, the greater the viscerality of experience. To stand atop this Sky Pilot became a singular focus for me.
At the time of discovering this Mountain I could barely hike for 3 sustained hours at sea level. I’d never carried an overnight pack on my back and the word “scrambling” was a manner in which I’d prepare eggs on a Saturday morning, not the homonym for a method to progress over rocky terrain. I knew I had a long way to go before I could hope to safely and enjoyably climb this mountain.
An entire year went by. I hiked often and began scrambling to the tops of many peaks in the Ranges close to where I live. But, when I’d stand atop those summits, I’d always scan for the familiar shape of Sky Pilot on the horizon and imagine I was there instead.
It is an odd compulsion to be consumed with thoughts about a jutting protrusion of rock and ice. I have spent many an hour trying to understand why some mountains can capture my attention so entirely while others, of no lesser height, difficulty or prowess go unnoticed.
Certain mountains get imbued with a personality. I think most people that climb mountains regularly anthropomorphise them a little. They sit like foreboding giants with their shoulders curled away from us. We spend time to get to know their moods, when it seems these Ogres might allow us to reach their summit, and then, as we ascend, gain an intimate understanding about the mountain. Some are not ready to let their guard down and we must retreat, while others welcome us to their top freely.
I wanted to get to know Sky Pilot. I wanted to solve the puzzle of following the route to its summit and I needed to know that I could do it. That not only had I gained the strength and ability to do it, but also the mettle.
To most seasoned Mountaineers the scramble to the top would be inconsequential, but for me, at that time, it would be the scariest and hardest ascent I had ever attempted.
The moment of truth arrived on the morning of the 7th of August, 2011. We’d packed the night before and were ready early. There was a delay in the morning as we were waiting to car pool with two friends, Cody and Paul, who were coming from Vancouver City. In the back of my mind I was glad that the trip might get cancelled due to this. I didn’t know yet if this mountain was something I was capable of surmounting.
Everything worked out however. We all met up and jumped into Pauls truck and barrelled down the Stawamus-Indian FSR to the trailhead. From there we would have to bike a few kilometers and then start pushing our way up an overgrown portion of the trail.
Biking up the road proved to be a pain in places as we had to get off and push our bikes uphill through rocky and loose sections of the old, deteriorating Forestry Road. I knew however that this pain would pay off at the end of the day when we could let gravity do the work for us on the egress.
After we stashed our bikes and started hiking the Alders closed in. Alders, for the uninitiated, are a hikers worst nightmare. They whip your skin as you try to push through them, they can tangle up around you like a boa constrictor, forcing you to crawl on your belly to progress. It’s at times like those that the question “why am I doing this?” enters your mind most frequently.
Thankfully, we could just about make our way through, but unfortunately, this particular swath of Alders was infested with greenfly. Clouds of them. They didn’t bite but they’d get in our ears and nose and eyes. We coughed from inhaling them as we tried to breath. As I inadvertently swallowed many of them I’d just tell myself “it’s all protein”
We burst out of this tangled mess and finally had a good view of our objective. Sky Pilot towered above us. No less ominous now than it had seemed from every other vantage point I’d viewed it from over the preceding year. The terrain looked complex, with recent avalanches from the past winter changing the layout in places.
We worked our way upwards. Picking the line of least resistance and roughly following some photocopied pages from my Scrambles book that detailed the route. We started up a snowfield that turned into a pocket glacier, where we put on our crampons to ascend a steeper section of hard neve.
Before transitioning from this neve to the rock we had to bridge a randkluft. After a short bit of route finding we found a tenuous snow bridge and I stepped on to the mass of Sky Pilot for the first time. Stepping across that cleft of snow and rock felt like crossing the Rubicon, there was no turning back in my mind.
Shortly after this point, as you pick your way upwards, you encounter the crux of this route, A pink and yellow slab of Class 4 rock. It’s steep, and you are never on a hold that fits your entire shoe or hand. The exposure swings from having the consequence of maybe a broken leg to certain death in places.
Cody led up first. Then Paul. Then myself followed by Spring. We tried to stay out of each others fall line. It was a little nerve racking in places but I was surprised when I reached its top how good I felt. It was less a feeling of “phew, I’m glad that’s over!” and more “that was fun, I want to do more like that!”. Thankfully in this area, Sky Pilot doesn’t disappoint. The rest of the route to the summit has it’s fair share of exposed traverses on ledges, stiff scrambling up some rock chimneys and a few spicy steps that get your heart pumping harder for a moment.
By the time I reached the summit I felt great. The weather had been perfect. Warm, with little wind, and some altostratus clouds to dull the sunlight so you don’t feel its full intensity all day.
I lay down on some rock, put my feet up and drank in the views. This was my zenith, both figurative and literal. Sky Pilot had been a monkey on my back for so long that even though I had a deep sense of well being that I had been capable of surmounting it, I, at the same time, missed its sudden absence.
I’ve written about feeling adrift after reaching a personal goal before (see this post). I had been working towards the summit of Sky Pilot for so long that I had no concept of what I would do after it.
I thought long and hard about this as we descended the mountain as the late summer light faded across the Tantalus Range and Garibaldi Park in front of me.
As we pushed our way back through the Alder and rode our bikes jarringly down to where we had started our day I realized the destination, ultimately, had meant nothing. Lionel Terray famously referred to himself and other mountain climbers as “Conquistadors of the Useless”, and when I try to explain to others why I suffer through green flies lodged into my eye ducts, red welts on my skin from being whipped by alders, to tweaked shoulders from slipping on snow, to burning muscles from the exertion and scorched skin from UV damage all to stand on a high point of rock it does sound like I am trying to conquer something utterly useless. To stand in the open expanse of nothing atop that pile of rocks and ice.
Something that takes time to understand however is another quote by a famous Mountaineer:
“You learn that what’s important is how you got there, not what you’ve accomplished.“ – Yvon Chouinard
The journey really is all that matters. Sky Pilot had not left me with those words, as I had heard them as a trite maxim many times before, but it had imbued me with an intimate understanding of their worth.
This is why I climb. I tell others that it’s to reach a distant summit and to add my name to a long list of others that have done likewise, as if that matters. But it’s really because of something quite different. People never conquer a mountain, a phrase that is falling out of popularity due to its absurdity.
In reality we are only visitors to these high places. The only thing that is taken is what mountains will always freely give us, a deeper understanding about ourselves.