I turned to my climbing partner, Mike, and jokingly said, “I wish I had my mom right now.” He laughed, but I was actually scared. We were wet, cold, surrounded by the thundering sound of repeatedly occurring rock slides and feeling very exposed 75 metres high on a rock tower. Looking down, we were standing on a small ledge and below that was nothing but vertical rock. Looking up, the sight of the summit gave us motivation to continue our ascent, and Mike set off to climb the last pitch.
Just half an hour ago, Mike and I had been looking directly up at where we were at that point, three quarters of the way up on our objective. That objective was the Grand Sentinel — to summit the 100+ metre obelisk quartzite rock tower via the southeast arête, referred to as “Cardiac Arête.”
The pillar was located on the back side (north) of Pinnacle Mountain in Banff National Park, also known as the Rocky Mountains — a location famous for chossy rock and unpredictable weather. True to its reputation, we had started our two-hour approach in sun, saw a period of light rain an hour in, waited out small rock slides while traversing sections of steep scree slope and marched through fast and frigid winds in open sections of terrain. We knew our window of opportunity to climb could close momentarily, and wasted little time at the base before beginning our assault.
After putting on our gear, we played rock paper scissors to determine who would lead first. He chose scissors and I chose paper. With a sigh, I grabbed the first hold and pulled. I placed my foot on a good edge and pushed. I did the same with my other hand and foot. I looked up to find where the rock was weak and followed the assumed path of least resistance, repeating the pull-push sequence with my hands and feet.
As I climbed, large rock slides began to frequent in the surrounding valley as the rain started falling once more, booming all around including down the path we had taken to reach the base of the pillar. The thudding sounds of a few hundred pounds of rock trundling down steep slope was a small sample of the power the usually idle valley mountains held. They reminded me of war drums an army might use to intimidate their foe.
After climbing the first 30 metres, my body warmed but the rock continued to steal all the warmth it could from my hands with the assistance of the rain, which continued to slowly fall more. The climbing became thinner and the simple push-pull sequence I commenced with my hands and feet became a technical tip toe dance with the rock.
With my breathing heavy and forearms pumped, I continued to link the second pitch to save time in fear of being rained out. I reached the second belay station and could stand on a ledge, but the exposure remained evident and tolling due to the vastness of the valley and the steepness of the route. After top belaying Mike up, I continued to lead the third pitch because I was cold and he was pumped.
At the top of the third pitch, we shared the small ledge, which is where I had joked about wanting the comfort of my mother. My fleece felt damp on my skin — the vast amount of air behind my back and below my feet felt perilous, while heavy rocks routinely roared down steep slopes. It all served as morale degradation, but Mike tuned it all out and led the last pitch on saturated rock in modest rainfall.
I followed, joining the summit with Mike and saying to him, “We did it!” in a manner that suggested I had thought we were not going to. The top of the pillar was small, with just enough space for the two of us to comfortably stand and celebrate with hollers boasting our successful summit to the vast valley.
Looking around, the clouds dispensing rain had descended to shroud us in thick mist giving the valley a dauntingly desirable atmosphere. We had memory of our surroundings but remained sightless as to what lay past the nothingness. That same nothingness, the exposure that had previously taken its toll on me, instead gave me a resonating thrill at the summit.
The scree slopes were at that moment unmoving, but we knew they were only temporarily still and had an animate essence. The valley was our host with whom we spent little time with due to his inhospitable nature. I did not begrudge the valley because I knew he did not choose who he accepted and who he did not, for he was too noble.
Within a minute of our summit celebration, we quickly abseiled off the Grand Sentinel to return home faster than we had arrived.