Romance and the Stone: A Kootenay climb

by Raymond Parker on June 16, 2010

in Adventure, Autobiography, Climbing

Since posting a couple of Squamish climbing accounts from the 80s, I’ve been thinking I should produce a more chronological series of stories about my brief mountaineering career. Here then, is the tale of my first “real” mountaineering trip.

In my teens, I was an avid hiker in the Coast Mountains near Vancouver, but it wasn’t until I moved to the Kootenays in southeastern British Columbia, just after my 22nd birthday, that I attained my first real summit.

As surrounding mountains shrugged off the winter snows of 1973/’74, I was living in a remote log cabin on the banks of Lavington Creek, a tributary of the Findlay. How I arrived at this place, laying at 1,200 metres on the east side of the Purcell Range, is another story altogether (a subtext to this essay).

I joined three fellow Findlay Creek habitues, our sights set on the prominent saddleback mountain, above the Meadow. A more motley climbing team would be hard to find.

Jim Donley was a Californian. One had the sense that he was trying to avoid more than just the draft. Occasionally, the strains of the Eagles’ “Desperado” would carry across the meadow from his cabin. This was a sign that a batch of home-made beer had reached maturity and our outlaw friend had fired up his battery-powered tape deck. The mysterious mountain man might be glimpsed, hunched at his rough plank table, bearded profile lit by kerosene lantern, listening forlornly to lyrics written just for him.

Donley had been deported on several occasions, once after an elaborate sting operation by the RCMP, only to walk out of LA Airport and immediately begin hitchhiking north again.

Charles “Scotty” Scott was another refugee from the American Military Industrial Complex. Scotty however was not dodging the draft; he’d done his time. At seventeen, a wandering refugee from Ozark poverty, he’d been lured by recruiters with promises of a trade to the killing fields of Vietnam, where he sacrificed half a leg and the sight of one eye.

As Scotty told the story, at the moment his leg and the front of the truck he was driving disappeared in a ball of orange flame, he awoke to a new consciousness. On his release from veterans hospital, fitted with a prosthesis and still picking shards of metal from his scarred torso, he fled to Canada.

Robert Toohey, an Albertan of Irish stock, had already at eighteen a well-developed sense of independence and overt pride in his recent stint as oil rig roughneck.

Burdened by trunks full of books and a poet complex, I was a misfit of a different sort. Certainly I was the source of some merriment due to competing romantic interests at our alpine hideaway, consisting of four cabins arrayed in a circle.

Toohey, Donley and I crossed the creek and hiked 600 metres upwards to Scotty’s spartan hut. On the trail, my expedition mates pantomimed my amorous predicament by prancing up the trail, elbows flapping, cluck-clucking loudly among the pines.

Another steep bushwhack brought us to the Old Smokey Mine, where we chipped out enough galena to satisfy the Department of Mines that the old claim was still in operation and our occupation of the Meadow was legitimate.

When they weren’t ribbing me about my complicated love life, my partners referred to me as Colin Fletcher, author of the popular hikers’ bible, The Complete Walker.

My neatly organized backpack contained a tiny naphtha stove, nesting pots and packaged trail food. Like Klondike miners, their upended packs spilled pounds of coffee, bags of flour, tins of baking powder, lard, and blackened frying pans. While I fiddled with a folding saw, they swung sharp axes to trim dead tree limbs. As I primed my stove, they lit crackling fires to cook sizzling bannock bread and boil coffee in a giant enamel urn.

We slept soundly through the nocturnal porcupine invasion, awaking to find our leather goods nibbled into novel shapes.

In the highest reaches of the alpine forest we entered a magical place of thick mosses, threaded by glassy streams. Heady scents, carried on cool mountain breezes, cleared my mind. I wanted to stay forever in that place of vigour and beauty.

We arrived at the legendary Swede Mine — a collapsed cabin on the edge of a small, half-frozen lake. The eerie whistles of pika echoed around the enclosing cirque, as we ascended a gigantic boulder field to gain the wide ridge leading to our objective. It was not hard to understand how an avalanche once took the life of a Swedish prospector here.

On the 2500-metre summit, we gazed back down the valley, over to the Rockies. The unmistakeable pyramid of Mount Assiniboine broke the northeast horizon to catch the evening light. Closer, down in the valley below, we could clearly see the circular patch of lighter green marking the Meadow. We proposed an amalgamation of our surnames — Scott, Parker,Toohey, Donley — to designate the unnamed (though not unclimbed) mountain. Local ranchers and trappers were amused by our hubris and for some years afterward the peak was known by the name Scartooley.

We descended eastward to the saddle, where gnarled larch survived, and lit a fire in a circle of stones.

As darkness fell over the valley, we saw an answering flame arise in the Meadow. Through binoculars, we could make out shadowy figures dancing around the fire.

The next morning, we descended the east ridge into a treacherous tangle of bush as a fierce storm swept over. Scotty made not a murmur, though his stump squelched audibly in his prosthesis, causing terrible ulcers.

Drenched and exhausted, we reached the shelter of a rude trapper’s cabin on Copper Lake, just 6½ kilometres south of The Meadow. Built with small aspen logs and chinked with mud, the hut was barely large enough to accommodate us, our gear … and the 45 gallon oil drum/stove someone had hauled to this remote location. Fired-up, it raised a musty cloud of steam over our heads as we closed our eyes on another unusual day.

Scartooley summit lower left, Copper Lake lower right

(Note that a road has been pushed through the valley between Copper Lake and the Meadow. Logging has occured between Copper Lake and Jeffrey Lakes, to the south, along with some of the lower slopes of Scartooley)

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