Survival Mode

22/02/16, No permission is given for any of this content to be used or copied for any other source without the writer’s (Greg Boswell) consent!

This blog post was written two weeks after the event. It is now nearly 3 months since the encounter happened and I’ve decided to stick it online. Enjoy!

It was nice to have a relaxed start to a climbing day. We knew it wasn’t go to be a long or particularly hard day, so we had a leisurely breakfast then Nick and I jumped in our hire Jeep and headed for the Ice-feilds Parkway. Our objective was to sus-out an approach to the amazing looking line of Dirty Love that was first climbed by Jon Walsh and Raphael Slawinski back in 2008. Neither of us had climbed on Mt Wilson before but we new the rough layout of the area we needed to gain for Dirt Love, and we also new it wasn’t the easiest route to approach.

We parked up about 9am and the car was still reading -20C outside. The beaming sun that was pulsing down on the Jeep lured us outside and we swiftly put on our snow shoes and stomped off up the drainage gully for 1.5 hours to reach the bottom of our intended route to cross the first rock band. Unfortunately, the Icefall wasn’t properly formed so we ended up having to do some very time consuming and scrappy loose mixed climbing to gain the first upper terrace. This snowy terrace barred access to the second rock band that we would need to cross before we could walk the 2.5 hours up to the base of the Dirty Love corner.

As the long first bold and scary mixed pitches had taken so long to climb safely, it was approaching dusk by the time we found the proper place to climb the second rock band. The only thing that was spooking me was the fact that we had followed some rather large animal tracks up to the base of the rock band, but then they had petered off in the opposite direction, but they looked frozen, hard packed and very old, so probably nothing to worry about. I knew I was probably nervous for no reason, and by the time we had climbed the next 40meters of steep rock to the second terrace, we would probably be well away and out of reach of whatever had made the tracks below. It is Canada after all, there are animals everywhere, big and small.

It was dark by the time we were both on the upper terrace. We were both pretty relaxed now though, as we new the climbing sections were over and all we had to do was plod up the steep snowy gully for the next couple of hours to put a good trail in for a quicker approach next time we came up to do the route. We left the ropes and harnesses at the top of the wall, ready for our decent later that night.

After walking for about 15mins through the woods with our crampons and axes still to hand, we opted to leave these beside our newly trodden trail in the waist deep power snow. We stripped off most of our excess gear and just continued with our snow shoes, walking poles and some food and water essentials in our packs. We pounded through the woods and found some very easy walking conditions once we were out of the trees and into the main gully itself. After walking the majority of the way up the gully, we decided that continuing would be pointless, as the snow was hard packed and easy to move quickly on, so it would be fine when we returned later in the week with heavier packs and ready to climb.

A swift retreat down the gully found us about to gain the softer snow again. I stopped to fill up my water bottle from a melting ice-fall and as I screwed the lid back on, I saw Nick trotting off into the distance. I hurried after him and just as I had caught up and said “slow down you old git”, something made me turn around…

What I then saw will stay with me for the rest of my life. My stomach immediately felt like it was full of lead and I felt my heart-rate shoot up into the stars. There, bounding full pace through the deep powder snow about 5 meters from me was a Grizzly bear! I’d never been so scared in all my life! I shouted to Nick, “IT’S A BEAR” and immediately tried to put some distance between me and this charging shadow from the dark. What I didn’t think about in my haste, was that we had put the trail in on the way up with snow shoes on, and now had taken them off, so when I stepped off our trail to flee, I immediately went up to my waist in powder snow.

I felt sick. I frantically scrabbled through the snow on my back trying to keep moving, but what was coming was inevitable! I screamed for Nick as I saw the bear was closing in on me. I knew what was coming but I was too unbelievably scared to realise it. It made one last leap through the air and before it could land straight on me, I lifted my right leg and booted it in the face. It then just grabbed my boot in its mouth and spat it aside like an unwelcome pip from an apple. In an instant it had my lower leg in its mouth and was riving and pulling. I felt it lift me up so that just my shoulders were touching the fluffy white snow. I can’t describe how scared I was. A million things were going through my head, but it’s amazing no matter what’s going on in your head, the strongest thought is that you really don’t want to die yet.

The bear let my body back down onto the snow, still with my leg firmly in its mouth, it stood on my left leg all the while tugging and pulling. By this time I was slapping at its face and muzzle with my left hand and screaming to Nick that it had me and for help. All my might was pleading for it to stop. I kept slapping and punching with my left hand and my thumb accidentally went into its mouth whilst it held my leg, I must have jabbed it in the roof of its mouth with my thumb, as it grunted and let go. Still screaming for help, I can only imagine how terrifying it must have sounded for Nick, I watched the bear turn and stand over me, its face now no more than 10cm from mine. But I could see that the full force of my head-torch was beaming it straight in the eyes. It’s hard to describe but it almost looked confused, as if it couldn’t see where the screaming was coming from. After what was probably only a second, even though it felt like an hour, the bear walked straight over my head and hurried off into the trees.

I got up immediately and ran up hill to Nick. I couldn’t believe my leg was working! As I saw him I could see there was nothing but utter terror in his face. “it got me, it got my fucking leg. What do we do, what do we do”, I remember being so frantically scared that all I wanted to do was run in the opposite direction. But there was no way down that way, our ropes that we needed to descend the rock bands were through the woods.

“We just keep going” Nick replied “we have to keep going”. So I followed him into the dense forest, looking over my shoulder the whole time.

What was to come was probably scarier for me than the actual incident itself. The attack was unbelievable terrifying, but it only lasted a couple of minutes, the next 5 hours of getting back to the car felt like utter torture.

We swiftly paced through the woods with me now taking the lead as I was worried my wounded leg might leave me trailing too far behind, and I was so scared we would be split up. Every time I squeezed through the dense pine tree branches, I was almost sick with fear that I would see those green lit up eyes again on the other side. We pushed on and it was almost euphoria that I felt when I saw we had reached our crampons and ice axes, at least we would now be able to semi-defend ourselves, or so we naively thought!

As we had been the ones to make the first new tracks though the deep snow in the woods earlier that day, we just continued to follow the deep well trodden trail onwards.

Whether it was through utter fear, adrenaline or just the will to live, but we had totally forgotten how long it had taken us earlier to get to our crampon and axe stash from where we had left our ropes at the abseil point. We kept pushing on and there were a few times I said to Nick that I didn’t think it was our trail. But we both also new that it had to be as there were no other human tracks up there earlier that day. So we kept going.

Then after what felt like only minutes from leaving our axe and crampon stash we came into a clearing out of the woods and the snow firmed up underfoot. The tracks then went from deep snow sink holes that looked like human footprints, to perfect huge paw prints in the hard crusty slope that lead into the darkness.

“were following a fucking bear”! I shouted to Nick. “look at the tracks”.

This is when the fear I didn’t think could get any worse took a diving plunge and I almost fainted. I panicked and looked downhill. I thought I could see the ridge line that we had climbed before leaving our ropes, so without a second thought, I turned and sprinted down. This was a stupid idea, as the snow was just a layer on top of steep slabs of rock, and I started to slide uncontrollably over the rocks to the edge of the looming cliff below. Thankfully I stopped just shy of the edge and managed to traverse left to the ridge. As I was now out on a pinnacle, I could see the cliff went off into the distance on both sides. We weren’t in the right place at all! I had no idea where we were.

“Shhhhh” I hushed at Nick, “listen” I can hear it walking above the cliff. I was petrified, I was certain I could hear it moving towards us and the trickles of snow as it knocked off sluffs over the edge as it moved in on us. I felt dizzy, probably from loosing a lot of blood from my leg, but mostly from fear. Nick moved into my position and reassured me it was just the waterfall spitting off the cliff below me that I could hear. I realised he was right, but I was still too scared and probably in total shock from my wound to think properly.

We decided that the only way we were going to find our ropes was to retrace our tracks back to the crampon and axe stash and the find our original trail from there. That meant going directly back towards where the attack had happened and this was another point where I felt like being sick.

Again, not thinking I just moved off traversing back the way we had come teetering above the cliff that hung below. This is when all the snow underfoot gave-way and I was left scrabbling to stop myself from plummeting over the edge into the darkness. I knew the shock was messing with my head and decision making, and I think Nick realised this too, as he politely took charge of the situation. He suggested we put our crampons on and scrabble back up the rock slabs to reach where we left the main trail and take it from there.

This is what we did, for over an hour we reversed our steps. Whilst doing so, it was apparent that I had been loosing a lot of blood, as every other footprint we retraced was died deep red. We couldn’t believe we had gone so far off track; it had only felt like minutes when we had been pacing along looking for the ropes on the way out.

I was feeling weaker with every step, I even suggested climbing a big tree and waiting until daylight, but Nick pointed out that this wasn’t the best idea and we pushed on. Eventually we found our original tracks, and alarmingly there were fresh bear tracks all around this position, but we then saw our ropes pilled beside the big tree we were going to abseil off and we just went straight to them.

All the time since the attack, we had been shouting, screaming and howling at the top of our lungs to make as much noise as possible, to ward off any other potential prowling eyes that lurked in the woods. As we reached the ropes, Nick stopped his current throat shredding howl to help me sort the gear. As he stopped there was a split second were there was no sound to be heard in the whole valley that stretched for miles to either side of us, then out of the dark we heard the gut wrenching howl of a local wolf pack in the valley below.

Any other time I would have been on cloud nine. I love wolves, and bears for that matter, and my dream is to see a wolf in the wild, but not that night. I couldn’t think of anything worse than to hear those noises come from below where we were about to venture to return to our car. I tried to put it out of my head as I rappelled down the ropes to the snowy slope below. After Nick had come down whooping and yelling, we continued to the top of the next rock band and I set the ropes for our second abseil.

We hadn’t come up this way but we were abseiling down the unfrozen icefall that we had wanted to climb earlier that day. With it being more than one rope length to get down the steep face, I went first but couldn’t find the bolts in the rock to re-rig our ropes so I ended up taking a hanging belay on the face while Nick came down. On his way down he found the bolts a little higher up and pulled up the ropes, leaving me hanging there in the middle of the huge face, attached only to two small camming devices in a tiny crack. I’ve never felt so safe in all my life, nothing could reach me there. I trusted my climbing gear and I almost hoped Nick would drop the ropes by accident so that we didn’t have to continue on downwards towards the ground where animals may be lurking.

I eventually saw Nick coming down again and after not too long I was out of my dream bubble and we were both at the bottom of the face and ready to continue to the car.

My leg was now really hurting, and as the adrenaline started to wear off, my frightened rushed stride slowed to a determined hobble. We eventually reached the road and then the jeep, and as Nick put his bag and gear in the car, I dropped my rucksack in the boot, got in back seat and locked the door!

It was 00:45 by the time we were on our way back towards Banff, and as I sat in the car, I put my bloody foot in a carrier bag to minimise on the possibility of the rental car cleaning bill. I think it’s funny that that is actually what was going through my head when I got in the car. Tight climbers eh?

I eventually asked Nick to pull over, regardless of whether I needed to keep my foot up to minimise on the bleeding, I was freezing and wanted to be in the front with the heated seats.

We reached the hospital around 2:45/3 and I hobbled inside whilst Nick parked the car. I was now feeling completely drained and I’m presuming all the adrenaline had worn off as I nearly passed out as I exited the Jeep and moved towards the bright green emergency sign. I rang the buzzer and the security guard answered the door, he asked if I needed to see a doctor and after a quick glance at the pool of blood on the floor from my leg, he ushered me in and a nurse came out straight away.

She asked what had happened and I almost laughed when I told her I had been attacked by a bear. She didn’t look so amused though and immediately took me through to a bed. I sat down and as I relaxed onto the blue, cold, wipe-clean bed, I could have burst into tears. At that point I knew I was finally safe, even with the wound in my leg, it was now the doctor’s problem.

The rest was a mass of x-rays, wound irrigation, stitches, countless injections and after what felt like an age, eventually some good old fashioned hospital food. This tasted like it had come from a Michelin stared chef though, as I hadn’t eaten since well before the attack and I was starving.

I got out of hospital around 12 the following day, after having had a visit from a couple of Parks Canada wardens who asked me a bunch of questions and took away some of my stuff for DNA testing to try and get some more info on the bear. Once they had gone, I paid my hospital bill (thank god I took out BMC insurance) and made my way back to a friend’s house in Canmore. After another couple of days of a leg up painkiller fuelled blurriness, including a trip back to the hospital for a check up and some rabies injections, some of which went straight into the wounds in my leg, I eventually got to fly home to Scotland.

Whilst I write this, It’s been just over two weeks since the bear incident on Mt Wilson and I’m just off off my crutches and able to hobble again. My stitches came out two days ago and I have my first physio appointment tomorrow, so hopefully it wont be long before I’m back to full fitness and out in the Scottish hills making the most of the winter season (hopefully). But for now, it’s time for more pull ups.


22/02/16, No permission is given for any of this content to be used or copied for any other source without the writer’s (Greg Boswell) consent!