So winter packed up and went on vacation to the other hemisphere which means it’s time to kill time by climbing things until it comes back.
A route that’s been near the top of my tick list for ages (or since it went up two years ago) is Soft Moth (11 pitches of mixed sport/trad to 5.9+) on Ha Ling; so when Katherine, Susan and I started looking for inspiration as to what to climb Saturday, I convinced the others to give it a go (if you have two strong climbers willing to drag you up something, you capitalize).
Wanting to be first on the route, we met up on Saturday at 5:30am and drove out.
You know you’re in trouble when you start your day at the base of a route trying to figure out if the route goes above or below various snow patches. After hemming and hawing for a bit we decided that given that the route traverses quite a bit and there’s no easy escape that wouldn’t cost a fortune in abandoned gear, maybe we should wait until we couldn’t see water running down the route to make an attempt.
Alrighty, we needed a new route. Susan had seen an article in Gripped about a newer Klassen route called Hoka Hey (9 pitches of mixed to 5.8+) that sounded right up our alley and might be drier, so we drove to Mt Cory (avoiding some elk on the road) and seeing no snow on the route, started the hour-plus approach.
The trail is straight forward and easy to follow. Climbing up through steep meadows, we crossed paths with a family of deer who seemed pretty unconcerned with us. A little farther up, we came across a male grouse rocking badass orange eyebrows and in full mating mode.
Just like the deer it didn’t seem to worried about us and we enjoyed the opportunity to see a bird none of us were familiar with up close.
And then everything went to hell.
I’ve always sort of figured, during long, solo trail runs, that if I run into a black bear, or a cougar or something, that being reasonably tough, reasonably fit and having survived a lot of years of being an idiot, I could fight it off or something. Now I know that if anything bigger than a chipmunk attacks me, I’m toast.
See, first the grouse walked over and we thought it was cute. I took a photo of it, Susan took her phone out to record a video. And then it started charging us. We tried to fend it off with our poles – it didn’t get the message. I tried to sweep it away from us – at which point Susan yelled at me “Don’t hit it, it’s nature!!” and it kept coming. Shortly thereafter, I heard Susan wondering if birds can get rabies.
All of a sudden our cute encounter with nature had devolved into a running battle. The last words uttered by Susan in the video she captured were, and I kid you not “Run Katherine, save yourself!!”. I yelled at the others to run while I fended the stupid bird off as it charged me over and over again. Susan then watched my back as I sprinted down the trail – but the stupid bird kept coming.
For more than a kilometre, we would run down the trail a bit, look over our shoulder and see this idiotic bird coming after us. It was like someone had transplanted the soul of a polar bear into a 1kg bird – it was hunting us, and it would not rest until we were dead. Once cannot adequately convey the bizarre, confused terror of running down the trail and having a bird relentlessly stalking you. It didn’t run, it just kept coming – like some sort of terminator bent of ridding the world of us.
Eventually we got to the base of the climb and the stupid bird was still coming. We threw rocks near the bird to try and scare it away – it kept coming. The rocks got bigger but did nothing to dissuade the bird as it chased us around the belay stance. Three of us, each 50 times the size of the bird and we were losing the battle.
We had started off trying to be very careful to not hurt the bird in any way. Eventually that became trying to not kill the bird but appreciating that keeping it from pecking us to death might require the sort of encouragement to leave that could have us inadvertently injure the bird. My entire life I’ve been taught to respect nature and not harm even a tree if I can possibly avoid it – and here I was attempting to keep this stupid bird from pecking me, while desperately trying to not hurt the thing. Eventually, as it simply did not get the message after I repeatedly deflected it’s attacks with my ski pole, I found myself wondering if I was going to have to kill this stupid bird and what the implications of that action might be. Does Parks Canada consider it acceptable to kill a bird that has been attacking you for nearly an hour as you flee over a kilometre down the trail? Can you consider injuring something that can’t actually hurt you in any meaningful way self defence? Would they send me to prison for very long if I strangled the thing? Would they at least let me eat the stupid thing after I killed it?
For some reason, I don’t know that I will ever know for sure, the bird all of a sudden took off (could have been it finally got tired of getting shooed, could have been that it saw Susan teeing up with her pole to take it’s head off like a tee-ball) and calmly soared away – apparently completely uninjured and simply bored of attempted murder. All of a sudden the battle was over and the bird was gone – and yet for hours afterwords we would flinch at every movement – terrified the psychotic bird was back.
Later research has turned up grouse attacks all over the place and with similar results. Turns out male grouse get really grumpy and are incredibly hard to drive off. I feel like this is a major failing on the part of evolution since I’m guessing that doing the same thing to grizzly bear would go poorly for the grouse – it just got lucky to run into three mountaineers who between them couldn’t fight off a three pound bird.
Having finally dealt with the bird, we could scramble up a bit of fourth class to get to the base of the actual climb. Mark Klassen installed a bolt in a protected spot from which to belay. I probably would have normally geared up somewhere were I had a good view of the route, but given the steep stance and the fact that there was a bolt just sitting there, we wandered over and harnessed up and out of habbit as opposed to feeling terribly expose, I clipped the belay bolt.
Just as we finished gearing up, we heard a huge crashing noise. Katherine and Susan, standing right nearby, dove at me and we all huddled in the shelter of the rock the belay bolt was attached to as a bunch of basketball sized rocks came thundering down around us.
When the dust settled we took stock – if we’d been on the route when that stuff had come down, there’s a good chance someone would have been seriously injured if not killed – we almost certainly would have been calling for a heli to come get us.
That stupid grouse that harassed us on the trail, might very well have saved our lives – if we’d gotten to the belay stance for the first pitch 20 minutes earlier or later, we would have been dealing with a catastrophe…
So do we continue or not? It was tough – we’d already bailed form one route, but that shouldn’t stop us from bailing form another. Just like the long approach is no reason to not turn around. Was more rock likely to come down or was it an isolated thing? After debating back and forth about what to do, we decided that if we hadn’t concluded we were good to go after 20 minutes of deliberation – that was our answer, time to retreat.
It’s still early season, the route followed a corner that would funnel rock fall for the first four pitches – we’d gotten exceedingly lucky and we decided to capitalize on that luck and get out of there. It’s so tough in these situations – are you strategically retreating, or are you running away? Does one rock fall mean others are likely to follow? Ultimately, we just had too many alarm bells going off to continue.
Okay, so we’re a ways up Cory and looking for something to climb. We decided to try and traverse around Cory to Aftonroe – it’s more of a face/arete climb than anything so we figured it would be less susceptible to flying murder-boulders and hopefully we were done with our wildlife encounters for the day – but honestly at that point I would have rather seen a bear than another grouse.
We started working our way around the mountain using a pretty spectacular network of animal and climber trials and we made slow, but steady progress – enough that we could keep convincing ourselves that our traverse attempt was viable.
Steep ridges kept forcing us lower and lower and all of a sudden I realized that we were just a few hundred meters from the highway. I suggested that we just drop to the highway, continue up the to the Aftonroe trailhead and then go from there. Except when we got to the highway, we realized it was now 1pm and unless everything went absolutely perfectly, we’d be climbing and then rapping off well after dark.
everything nothing had gone smoothly at that point, we decided that maybe we should just go meet some friends cragging at Sunshine. Luckily our traverse had brought us several kilometres from the car, so while Susan and Katherine de-ticked our gear, I went for a nice, pleasant jog down the highway to go get the car.
Back in the cars, deloused of 8 ticks between us, we started driving to Sunshine and almost immediately ran into some Big Horned Sheep on the road – one of which Susan seemed sure was going to charge us (she could read it in his evil sheep-eyes apparently). We got past the sheep and drove the short distance down to Sunshine.
It’s pretty fricking rare that your day goes so well you reach Plan D – but here we were. At a little after 2pm we finally rolled into the Sunshine Slabs parking lot and geared up. At 2:30pm, 9 hours after we first departed in the morning – we were legitimately climbing something.
We bailed from Soft Moth because it was wet and afforded no retreat.
We avoided elk on the drive to Hoka Hey.
We avoided deer on the hike up.
We were chased and harassed by a grouse for an hour.
We narrowly missed being seriously injured by rock fall thanks to nothing but luck.
We thrashed and bushwhacked half way around Cory.
We avoided sheep on the drive to Sunshine.
We laughed ourselves silly, walked away through a combination of luck, good decisions and meagre grouse defence skills and we still got to climb some great routes at a great crag with some great people. It might have been a day of abject failure, but as failure goes, this was pretty good.
A Discussion on Grouse Defence:
Some reading on the internet indicates that grouse are often grumpy, unpleasant animals that appear to be employing ‘suicide by hiker that has no idea what else to do’. I don’t understand the evolutionary benefit of ‘I’m going to harass this thing that’s way bigger than me and keeps poking me with sticks’ but then I’m not a biologist. The conclusions we came to after our reading are this:
If a grouse (or forest chicken) gets grumpy with you, try to just back away – they can’t really do much damage if you’re wearing pants. When that fails, try running. The grouse may chase you over some incredible distances – you might have to employ a stick to discourage them. Being the respectful wilderness user you are – you may find yourself almost physically incapable of actually hitting a grouse – no matter how much it deserves it. Don’t worry though, the bird will harass you long enough that you will soon have very little difficulty giving it a firm prod or two. Unfortunately this will do nothing. Eventually, you’ll have to give it a good whack – hard enough to let it know that there are consequences for being the douchiest of mountain creatures.
I’m actually going to call Parks Canada to ask them what the officially sanctioned response to a grumpy grouse is – because I feel like they might have something more useful to say – I’ll report back with my findings.