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Once on the ridge, we regrouped. After pausing to gaze down on the dramatic formations of Blodgett Canyon to the north, we turned to face the last and most difficult portion of the climb. At this point, about 250 feet below the summit, the ridge narrowed and rose drastically. The climbing was never extremely technical, but the exposure made us happy to periodically place cams and chocks, clipping the rope to them and allowing our system to give us the confidence needed to balance and smear through the final moves.
We reached the summit one by one and exchanged high-fives and handshakes on a small area of flat, crystal-infused granite that glittered and reflected the intense rays of a sun that now caused us to shield our eyes. A breathtaking panorama of the Bitterroots stretched out before us. I was aware of a feeling that I had not felt in many months. This was where I needed to be.
The hardest part of savoring a moment like this one is remembering that you still have to get down. And it’s easy to forget that in a harsh, unforgiving environment like Canyon Peak, the way down can be more treacherous than the way up.
Once the four of us finished admiring the view and snapping photos, we rappelled and traversed our way down the east face with slings wrapped around trees and rock horns for anchors. We avoided the difficulties of the ridge we had just ascended, until noticing that what had looked like a low-angle and relatively broken face was actually dangerously steep and as smooth as a newborn’s behind. Robin hung 60 meters below with no apparent tree or protrusion to set up a rappel anchor. The rest of us looked on from a ledge above and realized this route wasn’t going to work. We were stuck. Even worse, we’d been separated from Robin.
Thanks to those early years of weekend adventures in the mountains, Robin and I have plenty of experience solving problems. With Robin hanging below, he and I shouted ideas back and forth and eventually devised a plan. I tied two 60-meter ropes together to create one 120-meter line, which we thought would be just long enough to get Robin past an overhanging rock to safe, low-angle terrain below.
I took my time lowering him, holding his full weight, until he reached the easier footing. Once there, Robin carefully climbed and slid his way toward the talus field below, but the move meant our extended rope was left dangling above the passable but treacherous terrain.
The whole process of lowering him past the knot had been exhausting and complicated, and the less experienced climbers of our group didn’t exactly feel comfortable about following Robin’s path. We needed an alternate route—and, as the day was moving to evening, we needed it fast. We still had a long hike waiting for us.
For the past hour I had been scanning the face for weaknesses. Although much of the terrain surrounding us looked moderate, I knew that looks can be deceiving; one short, blank section can render a feature-filled route impassible, and loose rocks can lead to a slip and disaster. We didn’t have Robin to help guide us since he was already safe below, so I had to trust my instincts and get the rest of us down. I pointed toward a possible escape route and we headed that direction. In that moment, challenged by the elements and humbled by the surroundings, I couldn’t have been further from my recent routine. My senses were no longer dulled.
“What took you so long?” Robin asked.
“I had a nice, mid-afternoon nap in the shade.”
We couldn’t help but laugh, thankful to be standing on solid ground and be done with Canyon Peak’s daunting east face. Looking back across the tiny ledge system we had followed, I felt the strain of hours of concentration ease. I enjoy the focus necessary to navigating alpine terrain, but I also enjoy a deep exhale after successfully conquering it.
I hardly remember the leg-numbing stumble back down the scree. We packed camp and had enough time to take a refreshing swim in the lake before hiking back down the trail to our vehicles.
We had just completed one of the most invigorating weekend trips I had ever experienced. In the car on the way back to Missoula I felt exhausted and starved, and my mind drifted to thoughts of food and cold beer. But I was also aware of an overall feeling of satisfaction. This trip marked the true beginning of my new future and affirmed the decision my wife and I made to move. We were where we belonged. We were ready for our next adventure.