PANIC ON THE MOUNTAIN
On a snowy Canadian mountain, two British men faced a bear – and their own fear
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.”