While Greg McInnes, (AKA Boswell) and I were at the Banff Centre November 2017 we were asked if we could give an interview about the bear attack, that would be edited and made into a short film including animated sequences. Below is the result. I’ve also included a section of chapter 35 from Tides, Dawn to Dusk to Dawn, that is an account of the attack.
Chapter 35: Dawn to Dusk to Dawn.
October, 2015. Canmore, Canada.
Two years after the successful trip with Greg, I visited Canada for an eighth time. It was half-past midnight when I arrived in Banff, the last person on the white shuttle bus that had carried five passengers from Calgary Airport. I sat in the back of the bus in the dark. A freight train bullied its way through the center of town. Red lights flashed and an X between barriers marked the spot. The deep bass of the train horn blew. A grey cat with white stripes skittered across the tracks. It was almost twelve years to the day that I had walked from the door of Leicester Prison for the final time and fifteen years since my first visit to Canada.
I spent a month at The Banff Centre writing this book before moving to the Alpine Club of Canada’s clubhouse, where, sat now, age forty-seven I wait for my climbing partner Greg Boswell. Greg is from Scotland and half my age, but unlike some of my other, older Scottish friends, he doesn’t appear to have that aggressive Scottish nationalism. I don’t mean to belittle this fierce nationalistic pride, but Greg appears to place all of his fierceness into his climbing and when he is not climbing he is generally relaxed and good fun to be around.
The temperatures dropped and a meter of snow fell with Greg’s arrival. Winter was again with us. Our first climb had been one of those long-lusted-for climbs, The Real Big Drip set in the heart of The Ghost. After this climb, we made a return to the Stanley Headwall climbing Dawn of the Dead and Nightmare on Wolf Street, two big mixed classics. We thought we would try going even bigger after these routes and attempt the second ascent of a climb called Dirty Love.
Dirty Love is a 500-metre, twelve-pitch alpine climb, high on Mount Wilson, which is situated off the Icefields Parkway, the road that runs from Lake Louise to Jasper. No coffee shops, no people, just wilderness, emptiness, deserted, alone … almost …
Jon Walsh and Raphael Slawinski had climbed the first ascent of Dirty Love in April 2008, grading the climbing M7. The climb had taken them twenty-three hours from the car to the summit of Wilson and another eight hours to descend. The trouble is, there is a very technical approach, which includes several mixed pitches and approximately four hours of slog through trees and alpine terrain before the bottom of the huge gash, something like Cenotaph Corner on steroids, is reached.
Greg and I aimed to put a track to the base of the climb to become knowledgeable about the approach, before retracing our steps back down to the valley and returning in two days’ time to attempt the second ascent. Everything was going well, although the three loose and difficult mixed pitches after half an hour’s walk didn’t really match Jon’s description, and took us longer than we had hoped. We assumed there should have been ice on the approach, but after the days of snow and the subsequent days of minus twenty, it had been warm and we guessed that the sun had melted any exposed ice.
At the top of these initial pitches, we slogged snow for an hour before climbing an M5 mixed pitch in the dark. Engulfed now by the last of the forest on the highest level of Mount Wilson, Jon’s description said, ‘two hours forty-five of snow slope to reach the climb’. We had come this far, so felt it would be pointless not to now put in a track, even though we were in the dark and the wilderness.
We left ropes and some gear at the top of the mixed pitch and after five minutes we also dumped axes and anything heavy before attaching snowshoes and bushwhacking through thick forest. Eventually we escaped the trees and found the snow gully that led to the foot of the climb and at seven thirty, really high and near the foot of the climb, we decided we had done enough to establish a track so we could return in two days and follow it without too much bother. Retracing our steps without snowshoes to consolidate the track, I walked in front with Greg behind, until the edge of the forest was reached.
The moon had yet to rise and darkness enveloped the both of us. We followed a glittering track in the light of our headlamps. I kicked as the snow clung to my knees. Small spruce lined the edge of the forest and all I thought about was how, in two days’ time we would return, fresh from rest, to attempt the stunning-looking line we had taken photographs of earlier. Having the time to search out the unusual made my roving and sometimes lonely existence bright and fulfilling.
Greg was behind, and then I heard something that took over my reflexes …
I spun. My headlamp caught blue as Greg flailed past, all arms and legs. Snow splattered everywhere. Just behind Greg, but moving quicker than him and with much bigger arms and legs, was a grizzly bear.
Ink-black, bottomless, unfathomable eyes turned and focused on my prone form. Erect ears, a broad industrial snout and an open mouth full of brown teeth was attached to a beautiful head etched with pale flecks. His bounding body was muscular, seemingly propelled by pistons. The snow lapped at the bruin’s belly, which didn’t appear to slow it. Frozen, terrified, my torch lit the snorting, carnivorous freight train that was now rattling by inches away from me, and dusting me with spindrift.
I just stood. I was frozen. Terrified. Incapacitated. For a second, the bear looked right at me, for just one second, and for that one second I thought this is it, this is really it. Or, more like, I would have thought that if I could have formed thoughts, but I couldn’t; my mind was white noise, it was a TV screen in the times before twenty-four-hour programmes, when the screen became horizontal bars and the sound was a constant ‘beeeeeeeeeeeee’.
All in that exact same second, the bear had seen Greg fall and it flew past me close enough to run a hand along its fur. Immediately I ran away. I ran as fast as I could, I ran uphill, in the opposite direction, as fast as the deep snow would allow. And my now functioning mind had capacity to scream, and alongside that scream was another scream. Greg had fallen on his back and Could only watch as the bear bounded towards him. Screaming and shouting, Greg kicked at Ursus arctos horribilis, and it bit straight though his boot as if it were just a sock. It pounced again and crunched into his shin, while placing a paw around his other leg before lifting him clean off the ground.
‘Nick! Nick! Help it’s got me ARGHHHHH, HELP NICK, NICK HELP … ’
I stopped running then and hearing my friend and his high-pitched pleading, my mind insisted: the bear has got Greg, let it eat him, run, run as fast as you can, save yourself.
But on hearing the chilling, terrified scream, my survival instinct subsided. I stopped and turned. But I’ll tell the truth, the thought of running back to face the bear armed with only a ski pole, slowed me. My limbs and mind were unraveling but Greg was shouting my name, I couldn’t just stand there. I couldn’t just stand and listen to my friend as he was torn apart. I began walking towards the bear and Greg, thinking this was it: I was about to die. After fifty years I was about to return to the stomach of another living creature.
Suddenly, out of the dark, a shape came hurtling toward me. I screamed so loud the skin at the back of my throat tore. But the shape coming at me was Greg. My torch shone into his ashen face, and in that face I saw something I had never seen before…