Today, August 12 is the day I have slated for my final assault of the ‘Keyhole’ in British Columbia’s Kokanee Glacier Park. In a few hours I will find out whether months of training and meticulous planning (as well as well as several costly trips to the outdoor equipment store) have paid off. This is to be my third summit attempt in ten years. The first was in 1994 when as a registered city slicker I tried to make my way up in sandals, carrying beer for liquids and a collapsible umbrella for rain gear. I soon realised I didn’t know what the heck I was doing and (very wisely) decided to turn back. More recently, in 2000 I got to within the tantalisingly close distance of half a mile when I again threw in the towel. I recall a sunny afternoon lolling in a patch of wildflowers in the company of a friendly marmot while my two leaner companions proceeded to triumph and distinction high above me.
If the truth be known, as an extreme climbing experience, the ‘Keyhole’ is no big deal. It’s little more than a steep scramble of a few hundred feet to a kind of a gap in a loose, shaly ridge, but it has thwarted me on two previous occasions. This time I do not intend to fail. In preparation for my adventure I have lost twenty pounds. To my family’s bewilderment I have taken to jogging five times a week. I have purchased a high-tech wind jacket, Italian made hiking boots and brightly coloured topo maps – which I’m not sure I can read. All winter long I have been silently obsessing about the Keyhole, though I haven’t been so foolish as to share my secret with anyone. That will reduce the humiliation in case I don’t ….in case….oh the thought is just too painful to consider. As I trot the icy sidewalks of downtown Toronto I size up my fellow joggers and wonder: “would he or she have the stuff to make it up the Keyhole?”
I have awoken this morning feeling listless and not entirely convinced I’m doing the right thing. In response to my inquiries yesterday in Nelson someone remarked ominously: “The Keyhole? I’ve heard that’s not for novices”. Who could they mean? Surely not me ! My plan is to start early and take advantage of the long day. Give myself one hour to get to the trail head, three hours up, two hours down and a margin of nine in which to wander around lost.
It’s a glorious morning and the hot weather looks like its going to hold. To the north the sky is still hazy from fires in the neighbouring valleys. I down a bottle of water for good measure and hit the trail hoping not to miss the point where it forks to the left and switch-backs up the ridge. As I walk that familiar sense of exhilaration comes over me again. The feeling you get in the western mountains, the sweeping views, the fragrant air. Someone once said the hours you spent hiking don’t get deducted from your life span and I can believe it. I’ve never felt so light and springy. Normally, in the summer these meadows would be awash in wildflowers: indian paintbrush and lupine, but a prolonged drought has burnt all the colour from the landscape. Across the valley feathery spruce and balsam fir cover the slopes like moss. As I gain altitude each turn affords superb new vistas. Can it really be this easy ? I reflect that rather than an assault I’m performing a slow seduction. You might say I’m ‘romancing’ the Keyhole. Incredibly, almost before I realise it, I’m on the final pitch, a steep, friable slide slope which gives me the creeps. The sharp, unfriendly wind here seems to suggest I am trespassing. A single misstep and who knows how long it will take them to find me. Is it worth the risk? I pause to consider … Hell yes!!! In another ten minutes I am looking eastward over an undulating meadow of snow. Kokanee Glacier. I have finally done it ! I have ‘bagged’ the Keyhole Yet rather than hollering and thumping my chest, for some reason I’m feeling antsy. I had half expected there would be someone waiting here to give me badge, but my only company is a peregrine falcon which swoops past me in ever narrowing circles. I stand gaping for a few moments at this forbidding icescape which looks like it has come into existence for my benefit alone. If the experience has changed me I’m not aware of it. I feel like exactly the same person I was when I crawled out of my tent this morning. For energy (and not because I’m hungry) I cram a few handfuls of trailmix into my mouth and decide to pull the plug on this junket. The sad fact is that with my self-appointed mission accomplished I can’t think of anything better to do than leave. Two hours of determined slithering and hopping take me safely to the valley bottom where I cross paths with the first human being I’ve seen all day – an awkward young urbanite, her lips pursed in concentration, arms splayed as she struggles to negotiate the main trail. By now the Keyhole is just a tiny crag looming over my right shoulder, and I’m quite surprised to see all the distance I’ve covered. In a kind of delayed reaction, feelings of pride and accomplishment wash over me. Maybe it has changed my life. I feel the sudden urge to open my heart, tell this woman where I’ve just been. I raise my arm limply as if about to point, but her eyes are fixed on the ground in front of her and she passes without noticing me.