Bugaboo (bŭgə-bū) - (noun). An object of obsessive, usually exaggerated fear or anxiety.
“You’re fucking crazy,” she screamed. It was shrill enough to be heard over the crack of thunder. A moment later the rope went slack and she belly-flopped on to the slick ledge strafed by a machine gun fire of hail that ricocheted off her helmet with a thwack, thwack, thwack... When she looked up and saw me tucked under an overhang smiling she let loose with a torrent of obscenities about my lack of judgment. She swore she would never climb with me again. Yet she saw the clouds and willingly raced against the weather with me swapping leads. We had been in storms before. I knew it came from more than the stress of being on a big route in a storm. As much of the outburst was pent up frustration from the whole relationship conversation we had the previous night. The outcome inconclusive, the frustration was neither of us knew where we stood. We had always had a committed partnership of the rope and an uncommitted relationship of convenience. We would go climbing and then after the trip put each other away like toys in a toy box. Despite our nights spent together naked in our zipped together sleeping bags we parted from that trip barely speaking with an awkward half-hearted hug. Three months later I got a text message from her wanting to know if I was interested in going to the Bugaboos.
“Sure,” I fired off my maybe too ambivalent reply. That was our history. After the last trip our respective affections had once again relocated to non-climbers who would never understand or tolerate that yet again we were going on a trip together. Maybe we always found ourselves back together because of the camaraderie that climbers share, the bond of shared danger only understood by other climbers and those in foxholes. Our on again off again relationship was perpetually stuck in a long fall skidding down a slab out of control scraping away our emotions like layers of skin but never quite killing us. I think that we were both always wary to go all-in. Afraid the other may be bluffing. Maybe another climbing trip together could finally arrest the fall, or end us for good. After all, at this point we probably both wondered if we loved climbing more than each other. And even if it didn’t salvage our relationship we both had the Bugaboos forever on our memories’ tick list. How bad could it be? I think that for both of us the bugaboo was spending a week together after our last epic.
We sat in silence on the plane ride to Calgary. It was a comfortable silence. We knew each other intimately for ten years and were over feeling like we needed to chat. The last trip was never brought up, both of us probably afraid to ruin this trip before it started. She was talking to the drugstore cowboy seated next to us wearing an obnoxious Stetson and heading to the Calgary Stampede. His name was Hank or Hal and he stole glances at Chloe’s tanned bare legs tucked in a lotus while I studied a Bugaboos guidebook. To men Chloe was like holding a tennis ball in front of a Labrador Retriever.
The first night in the Alpine Club of Canada hostel in Canmore was a shared bunk room so there was no question, no awkward moment, as to where we sleep. She stripped down to her bra and thong in front of me. Then turned her back and unclasped her bra pulling a tee shirt on before climbing into her bunk. That was just Chloe. It wouldn’t have mattered if there were others present in the room.
The next morning the rising sun chased us west on the Trans-Can highway winding through the limestone choss of the Rockies with snow snakes still slithering up the peaks. Crossing over the border to British Columbia gave way to the cast iron granite of the Purcell range of the Columbia Mountains. After turning off the highway and on to 28 miles of bucking bronco lumber roads we were at the trail head. From the parking area we could see the rock blades of the Bugaboos sticking out of the glacier and piercing the cloudless blue sky, a rarity in an area notorious for its mean weather. We looked at each other and smiled with anticipation. A short steep hike through alpine meadows dotted by violet lupines brought us to the Kain hut. I laid down our sleeping bags claiming a spot next to each other on the mats in the common sleeping area upstairs. Again there was no intimacy to be determined.
Our goal here was to do the Becky-Chouinard route on the South Howser Tower. It is a classic climb on every alpinist’s tick list. It would involve a bivy at the base of the route and another somewhere along the route or coming down depending on how fast we moved. We got an alpine start negotiating our way up the col and across the Vowell glacier to the east side of the tower. It was easy going on a well trodden sun softened path. When we got to the bivy site at the East Creek Basin there were three parties already camping there. We’ll come back for it Chloe told me and we pitched our tent. With the hut and campground full we both knew the chances that we could get on it were slim. While it was a disappointment we were in the mountains climbing in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Rock nunataks, as the Native Americans call them, thrust out of the rumpled linen sheets of stark white glaciers. The nunataks various shapes from knife blades to bread loafs all a Siren’s song to climbers.
We decided to hike back up to the Pigeon Spire and run up the West Ridge an easy but spectacular 5.4 ridge. We moved effortlessly absorbing the beauty not talking except for climbing commands. We usually swap leads but we could either solo or simul-climb the route placing protection only periodically. When we got to the top we high-fived and hugged, a ceremonial ritual of ours. Sitting there looking at Chloe she smiled knowingly. I played our relationship over in my mind. Maybe I need to readjust my concept of commitment. Is that what she wanted? I had no idea of what she expected and I’m not sure she did. Reconciling the two great loves of my life would be easy if I just committed to Chloe. Climbing is for some a self-indulgent self-destructive addiction. Would it be easier sharing my life with a fellow addict? I decided that if she wanted all-in I would ask her to move in with me or even marry me if that is what she wanted.
We sat there for a long time silently watching two parties of climbers like ants strung together by a hair crawling silently across the glacier below casting long blue shadows in the late afternoon sun. They were heading toward the East Basin bivy, more competition for the route. When we got back to our tent we discussed our plans and we both agreed that there were too many parties to attempt the Becky-Chouinard route. We didn’t like climbing below other parties especially on alpine routes and with that many climbers a 15 pitch 5.10 route would probably be a cluster–fuck. We decided to go climb something on Snowpatch or Bugaboo Spire instead. We went over possibilities in the guidebook. When the conversation about climbing objectives lulled an awkward silence ensued. “We’ve got to have this conversation again,” she started. “What are we, platonic climbing buddies, friends with benefits, a series of poor decisions, more? I feel like this relationship can at most be a red-point and maybe we’ll never get the send and I’m not sure we both want this project enough to work out the moves.”
I wondered if she had rehearsed the line. Her analogy made me grin. She glared at me hurt. She was ready to cry.
“But, I love you, you know,” she volunteered.
“Yeah, I know. I love you too. Will you…” I started, but she cut me off.
“We can probably never co-exist in real life,” she said.
“I don’t want to lose you,” she whispered.
“I don’t want to lose you either.”
“Want to go to Spain this winter,” she asked.
“Sure,” I replied.
The sun fell behind the mountains and the glacier exhaled an icy breath. She zipped our sleeping bags together. We both stripped off articles of clothing like a game of strip poker on speed dial. We didn’t finish until we both lost.