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Glacier Circle

From Ride the Breath by Gerry Roach

Chapter One – Empirical Dreams

Southern Selkirks, Canada, 1966

Back in camp we had to choose a peak for our last day of climbing above the Circle. The obvious choice was 10,582-foot Fox Mountain that we had been close to when climbing Selwin and Dawson. After all, we knew the route now, however, spurred by views of more distant peaks, Bob had a different vision. He proposed that we climb onto the Deville Glacier then march south across the Deville Névé for several miles, passing the Bishops Range en route, to reach 11,033-foot Wheeler Peak. The longer that we studied the maps and guidebook, the more we realized that this was an inspired idea. I quickly figured out that if we could climb Wheeler, we would have climbed every peak in the Southern Selkirks over 11,000 feet, and adding Sir Donald, we would have climbed the range’s four highest peaks. While the goal was grand, we would be quite far from our camp on Wheeler’s summit, and an undulating névé is a dangerous place to be in a whiteout. If only the weather would grant us one more day.

After an early, crackling-cold start, we found our way onto the Deville Névé without incident and started our brisk march south, while Wheeler teased us in the distance. The overcast was lowering in the west, and the weather was clearly changing, but it was changing slowly. While this meant that a big storm was approaching, it also meant that we might whisk Wheeler from the storm’s jaws. We were all young, fit, and highly motivated, so we did not break stride for several hours. Puffing and blowing, we arrived at the summit in a rush. My statistical achievement meant little in the moment, and even less later. What mattered was the summit, which was Transcendent. We hung from our hook in the sky in the middle of a vast wilderness. To get here, we had walked across half the park, and were now on the park’s southern boundary. The Battle Range dominated our view to the south, and the Selkirks extended as far north as we could see. We knew that our time here would be brief, so by some cosmic command, time expanded to allow us to capture the essence.

Wheeler’s summit embossed an idea that had been growing for me–that there is more; much more. Surveying the surrounding peaks, I traced a dozen classic climbs that I would like to do, then a dozen more. Sitting for stability and cupping my hands over my eyes to cut the glare, I studied the range as if it was my first mountain view. My mental climbs continued to add up faster than I could count until my list held more lifetimes of adventures then I could count. In those moments, I learned that it’s not the list, it’s the love. Suddenly, time compressed.

“Storm’s coming Roach; let’s go!” Bob was already heading downhill.

Taking a cue from Stu, I was up and moving in eight seconds. “It may not look like it, but I’m really a half-hour ahead of you!”

“Prove it,” was Bob’s reply, as he accelerated down the slope.

Back in camp we felt fulfilled, but there was a problem. While we slept wrapped in our summit dreams, the storm silently descended. We were still in Glacier Circle separated from the trailhead by miles of rolling glacier, and a potentially serious September storm was upon us. We had one day of food left, and no other route to choose from, so the next morning, we began our exit march across the Illecillewaet Névé. Like our other descents, it quickly became a trial.

I again greeted my old friend, the summit of Longs I again greeted my old friend, the summit of Longs

The next sequence of moves were exquisite. Free climbing like water flowing uphill, I moved steadily up the smooth wall, then almost missing it in my euphoria, I didn’t notice the three-inch ledge until my feet were on it. I neatly placed a solid anchor, and Hough soon joined me.
Sir Donald's ridges rise in concert to a fantasy summit Sir Donald’s ridges rise in concert to a fantasy summit

The Northwest Arête separates sun and shadow

The trouble with the Canadian Rockies was that, everywhere I looked, there was another mountain that I had to resolve to climb. After also absorbing the views from Saddle Mountain, Devils Thumb, and the Beehive, I had lined up two lifetimes of climbs. Moving to the next level, I now resolved to quit resolving and just move on to the next climb. So it was that I drove west to the Canadian Glacier National Park and the Southern Selkirks for my next climb. When I saw the peak, I pulled over, sat down, and stared.
Gerry and Stu Krebs at our Sir Donald bivouac camp Gerry and Stu Krebs at our Sir Donald bivouac camp

Photo by Marie Working

Just before dark, the Great Illecillewaet Glacier above us breathed. When the high ice cooled, its cold air sank, sending a wind down valley. This is a common occurrence in the Alps, and I added this glacial breath to my growing list of things that I liked about mountains that are strong enough to hold permanent ice.
Gerry leading on Sir Donald's Northwest Arête Gerry leading on Sir Donald’s Northwest Arête

Transitioning into a zone of complete concentration, I flowed up the rock until it seemed like the rock was moving below me and I was just climbing in place. Like Ramses, I powered on to the beat of the driver, and I too could hold this pace all day. I kept track of my progress by watching the surrounding world fall away, and after it had fallen away, I kept track of my progress by watching it get smaller. When the outside world no longer mattered, my all-consuming climb became more important than the summit, which now seemed assured.
Barb and Stu Krebs on top of Sir Donald Barb and Stu Krebs on top of Sir Donald

Photo by Marie Working

The summit was almost a disappointment, since it meant that the climb was over.
A new universe of peaks to explore A new universe of peaks to explore
Selwin and Dawson rise in the center

Our march across the wide, undulating Illecillewaet Névé took on a temper of its own. With eight miles to cover, I kept my eyes on our objective peaks Selwin and Dawson, which filled the frame ahead of us. Hour-by-hour they grew closer, but step-by-step they just hung there like a photo on a hook in the sky.
Bob Working on top of Wheeler Bob Working on top of Wheeler

I now understood that a prerequisite for peace was joy.

Photos from the Gerry Roach Collection



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