By Peter Austen
Vibrations. I had just come down from the summit of a mountain in BC
close to Jasper National Park after a solo mountaineering ascent and
was at around 7500 feet. I was walking on almost level subalpine meadows
when some fresh bear scats made me feel uneasy. This was a favorite
hunting ground for grizzly and they dig for marmots in these high areas.
I found some freshly dug burrows and my adrenalin started to gush. I
remembered that awful book "Night of the Grizzles"- the sensationalistic
account of some grizzlies in Glacier National Park in the U.S.A. They
had fed on garbage too long and became too accustomed to people. They
supposedly went berserk and ate 2 hikers in sleeping bags- like human
rationality prevailed and I thought of what I knew about grizzlies and
what I should do if surprised by one: climb a tree or roll up in the
fetal position. The actual chance of being attacked is very slim unless
they have cubs or are surprised by you in the bush.
I entered fairly dense pine stands and the light was considerably reduced.
There were bears and bear vibrations everywhere. Every tree had a bear
behind it waiting to rush out and bite my bum. I knew something was
going to happen. I could feel it. And it did. A rustling from ahead
made me tense up and stop. My ice axe was poised to strike. A squirrel.
Big deal. But then a bear cub wandered out from behind a rotten log
and then another. I knew the mother must be nearby and I willed myself
into a mushroom. However, when I looked back and saw Mama bear peering
in my direction and sniffing I knew my magical abilities were very poor.
I saw the hump on her back and the face scooped like a dish. My mouth
dried up. It's funny how potent fear makes you dehydrated. I stopped
thinking and just remembered all the dreams I had as a child such as
when a bear or dinosaur comes for you and your feet are encased in concrete
overshoes. The wind was blowing strongly up the valley, bringing the
bear strong whiffs of my sweat. I had been moving very fast up and down
this mountain.The bear was getting agitated. Grizzlies can't see too
well and I thought I had a chance if I kept my cool. Perhaps if I imitated
a bear cub she wouldn't bother. But then I might be stuck with the family
for a year or two and living in a cave or tree base didn't appeal.
up for a better sniff, sat down on her haunches, then dropped to all
fours and came like the latest 250 mph German rail way. My overshoes
fell away and I went straight for the nearest tree, throwing off my
pack as I went. I did 20 feet in about five seconds and the next ten
feet in two when I heard the bear hit the tree. I looked down and saw
the snarling, gaping and foaming mouth pointing up at me. Drool dripped
from her teeth. I gulped, ran out of adrenalin and tried to regain my
composure as I didn't want my shaking hands to slip from the branches
I was wrapped around. Make no mistake, 600 pounds of angry bear trying
to get at you does not endear you to the species generally. But fair
enough-you are in their territory. This was a new experience. I had
had many close to the edge climbing adventures but nothing had prepared
me for this.
was only six inches thick where I was and as I climbed higher it started
to bend over ominously. I swear I saw that bear smile. I managed to
grab another tree close by and straddled the two. The bear shook the
tree and almost addled my brains. I hung on for grim death. Bears are
down I saw the bear rip open my pack sack and scatter the contents.
Over the next 2 hours I hung in there with my head spinning and my legs
cramping up. Every 2 minutes the bear would try to climb the tree and
send a chill up my spine. The sun was filtering softly through the trees
and the afternoon was wearing on. I got drowsy, slid off and broke a
branch with my foot. The bear immediately snarled and pawed the air.
Good grief, I thought I had better be more careful. The mother bear
was distracted by the cubs and called them when they got too far away
in the forest. She went out of sight several times and I had the fleeting
thought of climbing down and running for it. I would never outrun a
bear on gently sloping ground, even in the forest. Bears can reach thirty
miles per hour in the right kind of mood with the wind behind them.
She was quiet now, rolling around by the tree, occasionally digging
for squirrels in the forest floor, and casting hungry glances in my
direction. Ingratiating smiles from me had no effect. She was still
loaded for human. She wandered off into the forest. After another hour
of no action, I was reaching the second stage of Zen Buddhism. Well,
hang in there, I thought, it has to end sometime, doesn't it? It became
quiet and the light was fading. I knew the trail head was an hour away
if I moved fast. There was no sign of the bear and after waiting half
an hour I was certain she had taken her leave. I climbed down, tentatively
peering through the branches every few feet. It was joy to be moving
again and feeling my limbs lose their stiffness. I reached the ground
and tiptoed gingerly through the forest, half expecting the furry express
at any second. A rustle gave me a sudden adrenalin rush, of which substance
I had precious little left; it was a family of spruce grouse. I pictured
a giant mama grouse with six inch claws on the end of her wings, and
gaping beak, chasing me all the way to Jasper. "Hallucinations eh? Get
a grip on your mind," I thought. "You've been out in the woods too long.
Snap out of it." I hightailed it and breathlessly reached my wife waiting
at our truck.
"That must have been quite an adventure to do that high peak on your
own," she said. "Yes, but the mountain played a very small part." .