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The Moth

This story first appeared in The Climbing Life section of Alpinist 59, which is now available on newsstands and at our online store here.

[Photo] Derek Franz

[Photo] Derek Franz

I WOKE WITH A START; the dream world promptly replaced by real darkness in my small one-room apartment. My alarm wasn’t ringing. It was set for four in the morning, so it must be very early. I checked the clock on my bedside table. The time read barely past two.

I tried to force myself back to sleep. Such an early start was surely unnecessary today. Two extra hours of rest would be more beneficial, but sleep felt impossible. Sometimes the body simply knows better than an alarm.

Perhaps there was some reason that I’d awoken then? After all, in the mountains timing can be everything.

I climbed out of bed and began preparing for my day.

The author on the summit of Mt. Robson after soloing the Emperor Face in 2016. [Photo] Marc-Andre Leclerc

The author on the summit of Mt. Robson after soloing the Emperor Face in 2016. [Photo] Marc-Andre Leclerc

THE HEADLIGHTS FLICKERED as I steered my vehicle along the winding corners of the empty back road. Vague shapes of steep, forested mountains pressed in on both sides of the narrow gravel track. I shifted into four-wheel drive.

My skis, lying loose over the empty passenger seat, bounced and chattered as I crawled the vehicle over the bumpy washouts. The rough dirt had recently emerged from the melting winter snow.

The dawn did not arrive sharply, as on a clear morning, but with the creeping, barely detectable manner in which the sun rises behind a thick layer of stagnant fog. The engine came to a stop, and my car nestled into its parking spot at the familiar trailhead. I strapped my skis to the outside of my creased, mostly empty pack, and I began snaking between old-growth cedars by the light of my headlamp. As I wound my way upstream along the edge of a fast-moving, pooling river of clear, fresh mountain water, I noticed faint evidence of old ski tracks in the dying snow–some remnant of an adventure past.

AFTER WADING through heavy, wet drifts, I clipped my skis to my boots with a decisive snap. I continued upward, aided by the soft natural light. Between dark evergreens, swirling fog rose and fell: the classic image of the British Columbia rainforest. Thick mists veiled the rugged peaks that I knew exist someplace beyond.

Shapes and ripples, carved by sun and wind, seemed to blend together as the flat light played tricks against a homogenous backdrop of deep snow. The clouds were so thick, the slope so white, that I sometimes traced lines in the surface with the tips of my poles to reaffirm that I wasn’t about to step off into some invisible void.

I stopped above tree line on a small knoll, and sat on my pack to eat a second breakfast. At times, the mist parted just enough to reveal precipitous rock walls, blackish in color, draped with more snow. I’d been here before; I knew the topography like the streets of my hometown and I wasn’t afraid of becoming lost. I glided over to the base of a long gully that sliced the upper mountain and provided access to the summit ridge.

Clouds floated in and out as I strapped the skis to my pack. I began to wade through hip-deep drifts, excavating a narrow, trench-like passageway. Above the bergschrund the walls closed in; the slope steepened. Something ahead seemed out of place. But what was it? I drew nearer. A moth. Lying dead, gently frozen in the snow.

I remembered a climb in the Smoke Bluffs named The Moth. When I asked the first ascensionist, Andrew Boyd, about it, he told me that he’d been about to place his foot on an edge when he saw a moth camouflaged against the grey stone. He used a different hold and spared the moth its fragile life. He named the route in honor of that small winged creature.

Now here, in this cold and volatile place, this moth had not been spared. Perhaps it flew up on a warmer day, only to be surprised at its inability to survive the changing elements. I lifted it between my fingers and studied the fine details of its lifeless form. The miniscule hairs on its body didn’t seem to flutter in the wind; if they did, it was imperceptible to the human eye. The wings were beautifully patterned like a psychedelic mural, only in flat, non-vivid colors.

I set the moth back down in his final resting place, trying to leave it just as I’d found it. But after I moved a few feet beyond, I turned and looked behind: the moth was gone, likely trampled in the depths of the trench I’d created. Had I done something wrong? I reset my gaze on the way ahead and continued.

I was now near the top of the gully; the angle increased, but it wasn’t as imposing as the new landscape that emerged: snow mushrooms perhaps fifteen feet thick clung to the wall on both sides, formed by endless spring snowfalls. I saw a route that might outflank the overhanging cornices, and I began breaking trail slowly upward and left, my mind focused on one step at a time.

Then a single beam shone through a tiny opening in the clouds that had hung so heavy in the air. A ray of warm, dangerous light from the mid-April sun. No, not now, please, I pleaded with the clouds, but the elements took no notice. The sun cast its beam directly on the cornices that loomed so ominously overhead and that now threatened to collapse at any moment.

I continued my traverse–my only option to evade the fall line–keeping my gaze on the precarious snow mushrooms, aware of the increasing hazard. The slope remained steep, and it was important that I watch my footing very carefully. I was looking down, forming my next step when I heard a terrible noise: a loud and ominous crack.

That single ray of sun had let loose a mushroom the size of a refrigerator. It crashed well to my right, and for a moment I was certain that it would miss me, that it would continue straight down the center of the gully I had so wisely avoided.

But then. No.

The momentum of the falling cornice carried it across the gully, like an enormous bowling ball down a steeply inclined lane. A bowling ball, and I was the pin. No longer concerned with the accuracy of my footing, I made motions to run farther left, but in the heavy snow, I felt stuck in place, as if trapped in one of those nightmares where any attempt to flee is restricted to slow motion. That terrible pinwheeling refrigerator kept coming closer, and in one last moment of desperate optimism I hoped that it would break into pieces before it reached me. I braced myself as best I could.

It hit me, and at once I knew that the bowling ball was fully intact. First, I was lifted up, and then I began somersaulting as my momentum carried me head over heels, wildly out of control. Falling. Confusion. I could feel the snow all around me moving and sliding in a heavy cohesive mass. The entire gully must be sloughing, and I was caught in the heart of it. Soon I could be joining the moth.

With each somersault, I tried to splay my limbs in all directions to regain some sort of control. I almost gave up, almost allowed myself to go limp. The forces were impossibly strong, and there was almost no use in resisting, but I gave one last effort and heard my voice yell through the confusion. Clawing and kicking with all the strength I could muster, I began to feel myself slowing. I swam on my belly, trying to stay afloat as the mass of snow drifted quietly beneath me.

Everything stopped. I was lying still, near where I had found the moth. The place remained unchanged–aside from the long, singular track left by the collapsed mushroom and the sporadic imprints where my body had impacted the snow. I lay still long enough to realize that I was unhurt.

I looked up: one ski pole stuck out of the snow above me; the other was gone. My skis were still on my pack, though two of the straps had ripped off during the fall.

Then I saw that the sunbeam was back, shining on an even larger cornice. I weighed my options: turn and run on foot, or put on my skis and escape even faster. I quickly pulled my skis off my pack and clipped my left foot in, but the toe piece for my right foot wouldn’t work. Was it broken?

My gaze darted to the cornice, then back to my toe piece. “Come on, you piece of shit!” I yelled. Panic rose in my voice. A minute felt like an hour. I bashed at my binding with the one remaining pole until a piece of ice fell from beneath the toe piece. In a flash, I clipped my right foot in, and I was carving my way down the slope, staring dead ahead, focused on reaching the safety of tree line.

I was moving so fast that instead of gliding back up the knoll, I simply crashed into its side, thrown to my back by the sudden change in angle. I lay in the snow; safe, alive, as the dense clouds enveloped the mountain once again.

My car was only one hour away. Soon I would be back to daily life. In the valley, the farmhands were surely busy hustling black-and-white dairy cows from green pastures to the barn for milking. The shopkeepers were ringing familiar customers through the tills of small-town bakeries and corner stores. I would take a walk through the lush, soothing rainforest surrounding some pristine lakeside. There it would be springtime. The air would be warm, and the tulips would be coming to full bloom; not frozen, still, dead, like the moth. Then, after some rest, I would return to the precarious mountaintops.

–Marc-Andre Leclerc, Agassiz, British Columbia

Marc-Andre Leclerc soloing Pitch 12 of the Corkscrew Route on Cerro Torre in Patagonia, February 2015. [Photo] Marc-Andre Leclerc

The author soloing Pitch 12 of the Corkscrew Route on Cerro Torre in Patagonia, February 2015. [Photo] Marc-Andre Leclerc

This story first appeared in The Climbing Life section of Alpinist 59, which is now available on newsstands and at our online store here.