PANIC ON THE MOUN­TAIN

On a snowy Cana­dian moun­tain, two Bri­tish men faced a bear – and their own fear

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - GREG BOSWELL

Two climbers fear for their lives when they come face-to-face with a bear.

On Novem­ber 30, 2015, Greg Boswell, 24, from Fife, Scot­land and Nick Bul­lock, 49, from Llan­beris, Wales, had planned a day hike to ‘suss out’ the trail for their as­cent of the 3260-me­tre Mount Wil­son later that week. They wanted to make the as­cent by us­ing a route called Dirty Love. Nei­ther had climbed the Cana­dian Rock­ies’ moun­tain be­fore, but both men were ex­pe­ri­enced climbers.

“The way up was un­event­ful for us al­though there had been some tech­ni­cal climb­ing over two rock walls that had re­quired the use of ropes and har­nesses. All that was left to do was for us to plod up the steep snowy gully for the next cou­ple of hours and put a good trail in for a quicker ap­proach when we came back later in the week to at­tempt climb­ing Dirty Love. We had al­ready left the ropes and har­nesses at the top of the rock wall, ready for our de­scent later that night.

Af­ter walk­ing for about 15 min­utes 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 pow­der snow. We de­cided to strip off most of our ex­cess gear and con­tinue with our snow­shoes, walk­ing poles, food, wa­ter and other es­sen­tials in our packs.

Af ter walk­ing the ma­jor­ity of the way up the gully, we re­alised con­tin­u­ing would be point­less as the snow had be­come hard packed and easy to walk on. It would be fine when we re­turned later in the week. We de­cided to head back down to the road where we’d left our rental Jeep.

It was close to 7.45pm and dark as we started down the trail. On the way up, we had fol­lowed some rather large an­i­mal tracks, and that had spooked me a lit­tle. But they had looked hard packed and very old, so prob­a­bly noth­ing to worry about. It is Canada af­ter all, I thought, there are an­i­mals ev­ery­where, big and small.

We re­moved our snow­shoes and made a swift re­treat back down the gully that found us in soft snow once again. I stopped to fill up my wa­ter bot­tle from a melt­ing ice­fall and as I hur­ried af­ter Nick some­thing made me turn around.

What I saw then will stay with me for the rest of my life. There, bound­ing full pace through the deep pow­der snow about five me­tres 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 my­self and this charg­ing shadow from the dark.

Without my snow­shoes on I im­me­di­ately went up to my waist in 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 clos­ing in. 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 tear­ing and pulling. I felt it lift me up so that just my shoul­ders were touch­ing the f luffy white snow. I can’t de­scribe how scared I was.

The bear let my body back down onto the snow, still with my right leg firmly in its mouth, stand­ing on my left leg and all the while tug­ging. By this time I was slap­ping at its face and muz­zle with my left hand and scream­ing to Nick for help. My thumb ac­ci­den­tally went into its mouth while it held my leg. I must have jabbed the roof of its mouth be­cause it grunted and let go.

THE BEAR GRABBED MY BOOT AND SPAT IT ASIDE LIKE A PIP FROM AN AP­PLE

Still scream­ing, I watched the bear turn and stand over me, its face not ten cen­time­tres from mine. But I could see that the full force of my head-torch was beam­ing straight into its eyes. It al­most looked con­fused, as if it couldn’t see where the scream­ing was

I WAS SICK WITH FEAR THAT I WOULD SEE THE BEAR’S GREEN LIT-UP EYES AGAIN

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 to­wards Nick. I couldn’t be­lieve my leg was work­ing! I could see ut­ter ter­ror in his face. “It got me, it got my f-ing leg. What do we do, what do we do?”

All I wanted to do was run in the op­po­site direction, away from the bear. But there was no way down that way. We had to get back to the climb­ing ropes that we’d left for our re­turn. We had no choice but to go back into 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 at­tack it­self. The at­tack had lasted only a cou­ple of min­utes, but the next five hours get­ting back to the car would come to feel like ut­ter tor­ture.

We swif t ly paced through the woods with me tak­ing the lead – as I was wor­ried my wounded leg might leave me trail­ing too far be­hind. Ev­ery time I squeezed through the dense pine branches, I was al­most sick with fear that I would see those green lit-up eyes again on the other side. What had seemed like a short trek through the woods on the way in felt like eter­nity on the way back. But it had only been 20 min­utes.

I felt eu­phoric when we 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 made the first new tracks through the deep snow in the woods ear­lier that day, we just con­tin­ued to fol­low the deep well­trod­den trail on­wards.

Whether it was through ut­ter fear, adrenaline or just the will to live, we had to­tally for­got­ten how long it had taken us to get to this point from where we’d left our climb­ing ropes. There were a few times I said to Nick that I didn’t think it was our trail. But it had to be as there had been no other hu­man tracks there ear­lier that day.

As I was no­tice­ably los­ing a lot of blood, we just kept go­ing. We both

knew we had to push on and get back to the car as swiftly as pos­si­ble.

We came into a clear­ing out of the woods and the snow firmed up un­der­foot. The tracks then went from deep snow sink­holes that looked like hu­man foot­prints to per­fect huge paw prints in the hard crusty slope that led into the dark­ness. “We’re fol­low­ing a f-ing bear!” I shouted to Nick.

This is when the fear I didn’t think could get any worse took a div­ing plunge and I al­most fainted. I looked down­hill. I thought I could see the ridge­line 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. Thank­fully I stopped just shy of the edge. 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!

“Sh­h­hhh.” I hushed at Nick, who had de­scended the slope to join me. “Lis­ten! I can hear it walk­ing above the cliff!” I was pet­ri­fied; I was cer­tain I could hear the bear mov­ing in on us. I felt dizzy, prob­a­bly from los­ing a lot of blood, but mostly from fear. Nick 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 shocked to think prop­erly.

We de­cided that the only way to find our ropes was to re­trace our tracks to the cram­pon and axe stash and then find our orig­i­nal trail. That meant go­ing di­rectly back to­wards where the at­tack had hap­pened. Once more I felt sick.

Again not think­ing, I just moved off the way we had come, tee­ter­ing above the cliff. 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 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.

AS WE RE­VERSED OUR STEPS, EV­ERY OTHER FOOT­PRINT WAS DYED A DEEP BLOOD RED

For over an hour we re­versed our steps. We couldn’t be­lieve we had gone so far off the track. Ev­ery other foot­print I re­traced was dyed deep blood red.

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. There were fresh bear tracks all around, but then we saw our ropes piled be­side the big tree we were go­ing to ab­seil from and we just went straight to them without a sec­ond thought.

All the time we had been shout­ing, scream­ing and howl­ing at the top of our lungs to ward off any other prowl­ing eyes that lurked in the woods. As we reached the ropes, Nick stopped his cur­rent throat­shred­ding howl to help me sort the gear. There was a split sec­ond where there was no sound to be heard in the whole val­ley that stretched for kilo­me­tres to either side of us, then out of the dark we heard the gutwrench­ing howl of a 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 tried to put it out of my head as I rap­pelled down 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 de­scent.

We were ab­sei l ing down the un­frozen ice­fall that we had wanted to climb ear­lier that day, which is a well-trav­elled route when the con­di­tions are right. But it was very

much just run­ning wa­ter that day. I went first but couldn’t find the be­lay bolts in the rock to re-rig our ropes. So I ended up hang­ing from the rock face and clip­ping my climb­ing gear into a crack in the face it­self to hold me safe. This freed the rope, al­low­ing Nick to come down to find the bolts. The ab­seil took longer than it should have, but hang­ing there in the mid­dle of the huge face, at­tached only to two small pieces of climb­ing gear in a tiny crack, I’ve never felt so safe in all my life. Noth­ing could reach me there. I al­most hoped Nick would drop the ropes by ac­ci­dent so that we didn’t have to con­tinue down to where wild an­i­mals might be lurk­ing.

As the adrenaline be­gan wear­ing off, my leg re­ally started to hurt and my fright­ened, rushed strides slowed to a de­ter­mined hob­ble. We even­tu­ally reached the road. As Nick put his bag and gear in the Jeep, I dropped my back­pack in the trunk, got in the back seat and locked the door!

It was 12.45am by the time we started the 140-kilo­me­tre drive back to Banff, and we reached the hospi­tal around 3am. A nurse asked what had hap­pened and I al­most laughed when I told her that I had been at­tacked by a bear. She didn’t look so amused though. As I re­laxed onto the blue, cold, clean bed, I could have burst into tears. I was fi­nally safe. The wound in my leg was the doc­tor’s prob­lem now.

Af­ter X-rays, 40-plus stitches and wound ir­ri­ga­tion, I got out of hospi­tal around noon the fol­low­ing day and made my way back to a friend’s house in nearby Can­more, Al­berta. Af­ter an­other cou­ple of days of leg-up, painkiller-fu­elled blur­ri­ness, I even­tu­ally got to fly home to Scot­land.”

Greg has since climbed routes in Ti­bet and New­found­land and re­cently re­turned from a trip in Al­berta, close to the site of the bear at­tack. “The near-death ex­pe­ri­ence is al­ways there if I’m hon­est,” he says, “but to con­tinue do­ing some­thing I love I have to put my­self in this kind of sit­u­a­tion and work with it.”

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