This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 243 (July 2017).
Dirty Love is a 1,600-foot alpine climb high on Mount Wilson, off the Icefields Parkway, a breathtaking sliver of mountainous highway running from Lake Louise to Jasper in the Canadian Rockies. The approach to the climb is almost an alpine route in itself—three pitches of hard, loose mixed climbing just to reach hours of slogging through dense trees and across open snowfields.
On November 30, 2015, Greg Boswell and I climbed the three “approach” pitches, waded uphill in deep snow for an hour, climbed an M5 mixed pitch, thrashed through dense forest, and hiked up steep open snow for two more hours before we finally reached the start of the route proper. At 7:30 p.m. we decided we had established a sufficient track. We intended to return and climb Dirty Love in two days, rested and with knowledge and a packed trail that would lead us directly to the base.
I started the descent hike first. The moon had not risen, and a clingy darkness enveloped the two of us. Our meandering, glittering track, lit by the beams of our headlamps, led back downhill toward the forest, where we had left ropes and axes and crampons near a cliff band we would have to rappel. Small spruce lined the edge of the forest.
Greg stopped to fill his water bottle. My head swam with excited thoughts of returning to attempt the climb, but then I heard and felt a rapid movement of air and snow, shocking me from my reverie.
“Bear … aargh!” Greg screamed, his normally deep Scottish voice shrill.
I spun. My headlamp illuminated a blue blur as Greg flailed past three feet from me. On his heels was a grizzly bear: dark, bottomless eyes, erect ears, a broad industrial snout with an open mouth, a flecked head above a powerful bounding body propelled by muscular pistons. The deep snow lapped the bruin’s belly without slowing it. I froze, terrified, my torch lighting the snorting freight train as it blew past within inches, dusting me with spindrift. The bear looked at me, and I thought, This is it, this is really the end. Or I would have, if I could have formed thoughts. In that instant Greg fell, and the bear zoned in on him.
I ran in the opposite direction as fast as the snow would allow. My now slightly functioning mind screamed, and amid that scream was another scream. Greg rolled on his back and watched as the bear closed in. Screaming, shouting, Greg kicked at the bear. It bit through his boot as if it were a carpet slipper. It let go and lunged again, crunching into his shin and lifting him from the ground.
“Nick, help, it’s got me, aaaargh, help, Nick, Nick, help!”
My mind silently screeched, The bear has Greg, let it eat him, run, run as fast as you can. But the chilling scream overruled my survival instinct. I stopped and turned, though the thought of returning armed with only a ski pole to face the bear slowed me.
My limbs and mind were unravelling, but Greg was shouting my name. I couldn’t just stand there, so I began walking toward the bear and Greg, knowing this was it, I was about to die, I was about to be torn to pieces and returned to the stomach of another living creature, when out of the dark a shape ran at me.
The shape was Greg, and my torch lit his ashen face.
We both yelled, attempting to sound big but fully aware of our place in the food chain. Helpless, desperate, we ran into the woods, retracing our tracks. The trees and branches caught and ripped us as we clawed and thrashed. In front, between breaths, Greg yelled, “Watch me, stay with me, don’t leave me.”
Expecting the dark mass to attack, we ran and stumbled along for 15 minutes and found our crampons and axes. The ropes and the tree from which we had to rappel the M5 mixed pitch were five minutes away.
“Keep a lookout,” Greg said while packing the climbing gear we had left behind into his bag. I stood, shining my headlamp into the trees, brandishing axes above my head. “If it comes, no running, we stand together and hit the bastard.”
“Yeah, we’re in this together, hit the bastard, hit it as hard as fucking possible, in the head, in the eye,” I said, but imagined the bear easily shrugging off an axe. I knew if it attacked again we would be ripped apart. Bags packed, we set off once again, sweating and swearing, banging axes together, following our trail.
But it wasn’t our trail, only our mindless escape route, and after an hour we were hopelessly lost. We crawled beneath a massive tree, wide with big, sturdy branches.
Greg said, “Let’s climb the tree and wait for the morning and daylight.”
I looked up and imagined sitting in -3 degrees Fahrenheit with Greg bleeding and hypothermic. “No, we need to find the ropes and get out of here,” I said.
“Let’s head for the cliff top,” Greg said, before maniacally throwing himself over the snowed-up rock shelves above the cliff face. Down, down and down, Greg tomahawked. Snow exploded. I followed, out of control, dropping over the bluffs to keep close to my friend. We were about to fall over the cliff, and a small part of me hoped we did.
“Stop!” I called a halt to the hysteria.
We stood on the edge of the cliff looking down. We had come too far right. We had to retrace our steps, head back into the woods, back toward the site of the bear attack. I knew I had to be forceful because Greg, normally very sure, was losing blood and going into shock. A part of me felt we were never going to find the ropes, we were going to be stuck up here with the bear. Even if we weren’t attacked again, Greg would still die. We have to retrace our steps.
Crawling, bushwhacking, slowing to find our steps, we discovered where we had gone wrong and within minutes found the ropes. Greg abseiled first. Not clipped to anything, I stood on the cliff’s edge looking into the trees. If the bear came, I decided, I would throw myself off. A shout told me Greg was down. I followed, and the two of us waded down the middle shelf between the two sections of the climb called Shooting Star. We shouted to make as much noise as possible, and in the distance, wolves howled in reply. Full of blood, Greg’s boot squirted deep red from the tooth hole. I followed, wondering at what distance bears can smell blood, because on the way up we had spotted large prints on this snowfield and on the rock face.
Reaching the bolted anchor above the first two-pitch section of Shooting Star, Greg rigged the abseil, and again, I gazed into the dark holding up my axes. The abseil was from a twisted single bolt. How ironic it would be to die from an anchor failure. Three abseils later we hit the deck. Reaching the deserted road, getting into the Jeep, I looked at the time: 12:45 a.m., nearly five hours after the attack. At 2:30 a.m., Greg and I walked through the doors of the brightly lit Banff hospital. This story was going to wake them up.
Nick Bullock, with Paul Ramsden, recently won a Piolet d’Or for a new route, in alpine style, on the North Buttress (ED+ 1,600m) of Nyainqentangla South East (7,046m) in Tibet. Bullock is happy to report that Greg Boswell has fully recovered.