I yell for him to keep going past me to the boulder lower down the slope. He shakes his head, as if surprised at hearing my voice. . .a quick glance towards me, and a strange pause in the flow of the riding. I wave him on, and then he is gone again, rushing down the slope. I smile to myself as I snap photos, knowing the feeling. For one glorious moment there was no separation between rider and mountain. Brandon was gone, there was just the landscape.
Maybe that isn’t what everyone else who rode Smuts experienced. To the best of my knowledge, three separate parties rode the crown jewel of Kananaskis this last weekend. The rarely-ridden face which stretches for 1000 vertical meters from valley to peak drew us all like moths to a flame.
The allure of the sustained steep committing fall line has to be weighed against the consequences of the approach which, in this case, goes straight up the face itself. There isn’t really any other option when it comes to Smuts. You leave the valley bottom and before long, skinning becomes a foolish task and you are forced to commit to thousands of steps up into the immensity of the face.
This is part of the trial that makes this such a prize to ride: the boot-pack which pushes ever upwards under the absolute consequence of the landscape. Cornices and rock faces hang to the sides and above a face, which ranges from 45-55 degrees over the course of the fall line. I can’t speak of what draws others to spaces like this. For myself though, it is the chance to be a part of that landscape for one brief instance.
About half of you will likely dismiss my writings as the result of too much time spent out in the sun. On the other end of the spectrum, there will be a whole host who will clamour that they have felt the exact same experience every time they race down FlatGayPow.
For the sake of authenticity, if not consistency, I will admit that I:
a) have no idea what other people experience
b) if simple pleasures in secure environments can plunge people into the present moment so easily, then I am beyond any definition of envy
c) really don’t care how crazy I sound at this point.
It begins on the way up.
I can feel myself getting tugged into that present moment where there are no thoughts once the boot-pack has started. At first it is always just the work of kicking in steps and making little cognitive calculations. Yet at some point on any face, or on any boot-pack, I will pause and rest my face on the snow. Feet kicked into the face, axes punched into the snow in front of me, I will lean forward and all that I will hear is the sound of my own breath. An eternity of silence punctuated by the sound of breathing.
There is no raging noise of thoughts about what I am doing, no task list, no subconscious tick to check for new text messages. Down past my feet exists the valley bottom, a partner pausing in his own journey behind me. Then it continues like that, a movement upwards where I flit about the edges of flow, pulled out by momentary exhaustion, dehydration, and the occasional realization that I am kicking into harder snow on a steepening slope, roughly 800 metres above the point that I would stop rolling if I were to misstep.
A continuity is created through the toil of working up a face or a couloir, as if the work slowly strips away any emotions. It is hard to be angry on a boot-pack. Breaking trail is too exhausting, sooner or later whatever annoyance that your mind has been mulling over is lost to the rhythm of the steps. On Smuts this is how it was for most of the boot-pack, with only the occasional hunk of snow plunging past us to push worry back into my head for a brief moment.
Then we got to the top.
For us, this was one of those perfect summit moments. Dark blue skies salted with the occasional clouds that just made the sky seem all that much more immense. A view that contained more mountains than seemed possible. We were waiting for the face to soften up, so we had a couple hours in the sun to enjoy it.
This was made all the better because:
a) there was no wind
b) we had both coffee and beer.
So we sat at the top, letting the snow get softer, and letting the immensity of the view just soak into our bones. We ate aged cheese, drank coffee, enjoyed some pepperoni. The proper things to have when seated on top of the world.
Yet as the snow softened, the itch of anticipation started. We finished our beer, packed our bags, and prepared ourselves. The Redbull was cracked open, a superstitious libation poured out, and we finished up quickly, anxious now to move. The last few items were packed into our bags as the restlessness came to a head.
Then it happened…it reached a point of strange calm where that antsy unsettled state of waiting too long came to an end. Brandon hiked over to get into position to take photos. I put in my headphones and stared down at the valley bottom.
Then it was time to go down.
This is why I am up here. All of this time in the space has drawn me to the edge. I give Brandon a thumbs up, leaning into the slope and pushing past him. I traverse, initiate a turn, stop. Check the snow. I look at him. It could be a hair softer, but it will be by the time he drops. I traverse out and over the face, away from the seeming safety of the edges. Music, clamouring thoughts, fear, anticipation… all of it rages inside me for one last desperate moment.
That is where the “I” stops. That look on Brandon’s face that I mentioned at the beginning. I get it. I get it, because I live for it. Then, with the kind of clarity I can only assume comes from committing to the worst kind of ideas, I initiate the first turn.
As strange and mystical and nutty as it sounds, with that first turn down that 3000 foot fall line, “I” vanished. For the next while there wasn’t any thinking, there was no deciding, there was just Smuts. For a perfect moment on a perfect day Ian Holmes vanished into the immensity of that landscape. It didn’t last forever, somewhere lower down, the self that demands to be noticed reasserted itself and I pulled a hard line back onto the natural low point of the face.
Somewhat protected and out of the fall line of any sluff or movement that Brandon might cause, I radioed up. He got ready, cleaned snow off his board, had whatever internal monologue that he had at the top. And then the radio crackled with those familiar words: “3, 2, 1… dropping.”
I took photos and watched. I radioed a couple pieces of advice, but there was no pausing to respond. He reported later that he didn’t hear them anyways. Uninterrupted he dropped down that face. From the summit of Smuts, to the valley below. Just part of the landscape.
I took photos of the mountain and then packed my bags and pushed off into the afternoon.