The Three Fingered Jack - Pt. 1

“I really miss Tyler”, he confessed to me. I paused, unsure of how to respond. 

We were sitting in our shared two-man tent, sipping a cheap bottle of gas station wine and gazing at the stars through the thin mesh. A few long, empty minutes had passed since we had exchanged words – we had the kind of friendship where words sometimes weren’t necessary, and, in this case, we were both in deep contemplation.

“I know man” I paused, inhaling in the thin tension between us. “Me too.” I sipped my wine. I didn’t know what else to say. Of course we, along with the many others missed Tyler. I never once doubted that Corey had experienced a moment where he didn’t think of him or miss him in a way that only a gaping hole left in your heart from a lost friend can.

The silence resumed, each of us sipping on the cheap gas station wine out of styrofoam coffee cups, each of us looking up at the soft glow of the moon cast upon our sleeping bags through the tent. 

“It’s kind of weird getting into a campsite at night and not knowing where you are” I remarked after a few more heavy moments of silence. Corey didn’t respond. He didn’t have to, and the silence resumed. 


It had been just over a year since our friend, Tyler Heilman had passed away in a climbing accident. Corey and I had travelled to Bend, Oregon to climb the mountain that his accident had taken place on. I had no experience with this mountain; no association or knowledge other than what Corey had told me from that fateful day a year ago.

Corey had been with Tyler on the day of the accident. I couldn’t fathom how much courage Corey had to come back to the place where our life, and especially his life began to unravel a year ago into a chaotic cacophony of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, doubt, uncertainty, and grief.

It was a few months prior that he had asked me to join him on the climb to commemorate the anniversary of Tyler’s passing. He brought the idea up tentatively at first, as if he wasn’t quite sure of it yet himself.

“Only if you want to” He said. “Only if you feel ready, and if you feel like you would get something out of it… I know it’s a lot to ask” He laughed, brushing off the immensity of the question. Corey had a way of bringing up heavy matters by laughing. It was his tell-tale sign that it meant a lot to him, as if he was saying ‘this is super mssed up so I’m going to laugh because I don’t know how else to show my emotions’. 

Of course I would join him. I didn’t once doubt my decision to climb with Corey and to support him on this climb, and to receive some sort of closure for myself, whatever that meant and whatever form that took. So here we were, laying in our tent, sipping gas station wine out of styrofoam coffee cups and reminiscing, and grieving, about our beloved friend.

I couldn’t remember falling asleep, but I did remember waking up to the splattering of rain coming through our tent mesh. Hastily, I stumbled out of my sleeping bag, threw on the fly of the tent – decided it was good enough to keep us mostly dry for the remainder of the night, and crawled back into our now wet cocoon.


The crisp air of fall greeted us the next morning, and the iridescent red glow of the rising sun began to illuminate the sky as we shuffled about the tent getting ready. Our surroundings became more and more visible – we had pitched camp surrounded by the fire-scarred skeletons of trees. In the distance, the matterhorn-like shape of Mt. Washington was illuminated in the sun. We spent the morning as most climbers do – organizing gear, drinking copious amounts of coffee at ungodly hours, and nervously watching the weather. 

Thankfully, we were joined by two of our friends parents: Craig and Randy. They were both very experienced climbers in their own right, having taught climbing and embarking on expeditions around the world when they were younger. More importantly, there was no doubt that they experienced a similar experience of loss in the mountains. If you spend enough time in them, your bound to have a tragic story or two of your own. They were our kind of karmic guru’s, guiding us through the day and climb gracefully and with a lightness that middle-age, hindsight, and a great deal of life experience bring.

“I was mislead into doing this climb!” Randy bantered over coffee. “It’s a 6 mile hike, to climb 4 pitches! That’s not a climb, that’s a hike!” he joked. We all laughed. It was true, it wasn’t a very technically or physically demanding climb. To counter Randy’s jubilant and crude humour, Craig, our other climbing companion and long-time friend of Randy’s stoked his fire in a way that only long-time friends know how to do.

“Have you heard my story about the time I was climbing Half-Dome during an earthquake?” Randy posed as we began hiking, trying to get a rise out of Craig. He had probably heard this story dozens of times before, but he entertained Randy and led him on. “Oh no, I never have, please tell me”, enunciating each word with a fake monotone of excitement. It was this sarcastic humour that made the pair a great duo, and Corey and I were glad for their lighthearted company. 

We began the hike, and made our way to the base of the climb in a similar fashion. Much of the day was accompanied the exchange of stories by Randy and Craig, describing their own near-misses in the mountains and tall tales from their youth. Corey and I listened and laughed intently, always reflecting, mostly in quiet contemplation as we walked towards the base of the climb.


Losing those close to you is never easy. Losing friends in the mountains is a totally new way to experience loss. Of course, there is the tragedy of the situation – the inevitability of grieving the loss of someone close to you. But equally important is the questions that arise about yourself and your own life that you have chosen to live in the mountains. You begin to wonder if your own pursuit of exploring these high, dangerous, and desolate places is worth it. If you’ve taken risks that could have otherwise been avoided, or if it was selfish of you to put yourself in harms way for the pure enjoyment and satisfaction that comes from traveling through the mountains.

After Tyler’s death I began to put myself in the shoes of my family and friends, wondering what the effect an injury or accident might have on them. I felt selfish to be enjoying these risky pursuits, but I couldn't just stop pursuing them. They kept me sane in same way.


“I could get used to this” I said to Corey, laughing about our unhurried, lazy plod through the forest that slowly brought us closer and closer to the climb. 

“Isn’t it awesome?” Corey said. “Randy and Craig pace” he laughed.  We were used to racing through the mountains… The eagerness of youth not lost upon us to fit in as much as possible in a given time. Tyler especially was never able to contain himself - running everywhere he went with boyish enthusiasm and excitement, but with the strength of a person who had been living his life that way all along. We always had desire to go faster, further, harder, higher. It was refreshing to go so slowly, and especially on that day allowed us more space to reflect and absorb the stillness of the forest. 

I was thankful that for the majority of the hike we were in the forest – especially because I had feared a view of the climb – and the unforgiving West face which Tyler had fell towards his death down would be looming over us constantly. I was especially thankful that Corey didn’t have that visual in his mind. Instead, our methodical, calculated steps slowly carried us towards the base of the climb. Out of view for now, and mostly out of mind.

I fell in step behind Corey - watching him from afar, letting him guide the way and guide the pace of the day. After a few hours of hiking, he stopped ahead of me. I joined him by his side - quietly filling the space. His gaze held, overlooking the treetops at a peak in the distance, surrounded by a torrent of clouds. Even from a distance, you could tell the clouds were moving quickly, and on an otherwise bluebird day, it was an ominous sign. 

"There it is" Corey sighed. He didn't need to say anything more - I felt my own emotions well up in my chest. I stifled the before Randy and Craig arrived - only to make light of the situation. "Looks like some fine alpine weather boys!" Randy joked. I feigned a smile. I wasn't normally one for superstitions, but it felt deeply affecting to see Tyler's mountain in such a state, the tumultuous weather and wind, an isolated storm matching our already somber moods.


We decided to continue on. If we couldn't climb the mountain, we could at least hike to the base and get a better view. Soon enough, we came upon the base of the climb. We were sweating in the hot Oregon sun, yet looming above us the mountain was still shrouded by a heavy layer of cloud and fog. I still felt uneasy. I couldn't tell if it was because of my emotions, or because of the weather, or both.

Before I had a moment to ask Corey if he wanted to continue, or pay our respects at the base of the climb, Randy and Craig began scrambling up the loose volcanic scree without pause. I glanced at Corey to read his expression. Our eyes met, and he shrugged, put his head down and followed step up towards the col where we would start the climb.

As I hiked up the scree, my mind kept reeling with thoughts of what the day was like one year prior when Tyler and Corey climbed it. I laughed, thinking and knowing that Tyler would've raced up this scree field, probably yelling something like "C'mon man! It's SO cool". He'd run up and up, out of breath but his excitement carrying him higher and higher. It was always hard to keep up with him in the mountains.

Midway up I glanced at Corey who was similarly having a hard time climbing the scree. One step forward, two steps back. It was like climbing a sand dune, but with large, sharp, volcanic stones turning over your feet cutting your ankles.

"Tyler was so excited to come back down this" Corey said as he caught up to me. I laughed, knowing full well that would be true. Tyler always like racing down dangerous things, whether on his feet, skis, or a bike. Things that would make others, like myself, think twice about where we were placing our feet or making our next turn.

 I looked out across the slope - 500 feet of volcanic scree. I imagined Tyler and his boyish laugh, sliding down the slope dangerously fast, toeing the edge of tragedy or triumph as he might balance precariously on his feet. He always seemed to triumphed though, and I felt a tear well up in my eye that he never had the chance to once again prove his prowess in the mountains.


While hiking up the scree, the peak remained hidden behind a thick torrent of clouds and winds. The summit was never visible to us, and the clouds enveloped the peak in such a way that it looked foreboding, like the peak could stretch into the sky endlessly.

We finally made it to the saddle, where we could begin roping up for the climb. Once there, we had entered the torrent of clouds, wind, and moisture. Speaking was impossible as the wind whipped around our faces, buffeting our jackets and bodies. I was intimidated. It wasn't overly dangerous, but with each wind gust I felt as if I could be blown off the side of the mountain. So much so, that I stifled myself at all times with a hand on a solid handhold, should the wind decide to carry me off into the oblivion.

Again I looked at Corey to see if he felt a similar level of apprehension as I did. Our eyes met again, as they had throughout the day, and we both shared a look of "This is kind of fucked up, but I guess we're doing this". He looked at me, his eyes heavy as if to say:

“Hey man, you don't need to do this if you don't want to, just speak up. I kind of feel the same way". I probably communicated a similar message through my concerned expression, but neither of us spoke up. The wind howled around us, and we could barely communicate. We kind of nodded at one another, and began to put on our harness and get the climbing gear ready.

The Floe Lake Porcupine

“FUCK! I think it took my boots!” – I bolted upright, sending a spray of condensation that had settled on the inside of our tent cascading onto us. My brother, Michael grumbled in bed. He didn’t care much.

“No, you’re kidding right?”

“No man I think it took my boots!” – cautiously I prodded the thin nylon, seeing if I could feel some semblance of my hiking boots through the fabric, all without endangering myself of being quilled by the porcupine or angering it more. Little did we know we were about to engage in a full blown war with this porcupine.


 

Just a few days earlier we were having dinner with our friend, Kevin at his home in Invermere, a short drive away from the trailhead of the Rockwall trail. A local to the Kootenays, and just a short drive away from the most celebrated national parks in Canada, Kevin and his family frequented the trails that we had hoped to hike on and explore. We picked their brain, especially his Dad’s, who was a senior biologist with Parks Canada about what to expect on the trail, any sights that we had to see, which direction to go, and other such information. Most of their answers were standard fare.

“Go North-South, it’s more scenic and you’ll like hiking DOWN from Numa pass far more than hiking UP”.

Or, “Leave Floe Lake till the end, that’s by far the best part. The hike out from Painted Pots is such an underwhelming way to end such an amazing trail.”

Kevin’s dad piped in. Soft spoken and introverted, his comment caught us off guard.

“Be careful of the porcupine at Floe Lake. He’s a real nuisance.” He said. We didn’t know whether or not this was his attempt at a joke, or him being serious.

“OH YEA!” Kevin responded, excitedly. “The porcupine at Floe Lake is a legend. He’ll steal your boots. Something about the salt in them. Here, I got a photo of him the last time I was there”. Kevin pulled out his phone, proudly showcasing his blurry, pixelated photo of this legendary Floe Lake porcupine.

My brother and I laughed, dismissing this as any serious threat or danger. We were more concerned about the frequent grizzly bears sightings and afternoon thunderstorms that roll through the high mountain passes than a measly, oversized rodent with sharp quills on it that we-may-or-may-not see and that may-or-may-not-steal our boots. The rest of the evening continued in a blur of vegetarian chili, Kevin’s dog constantly nudging his head into your crotch searching for pets, and more stories exchange form trips deep in the Canadian Rockies. 

 


A few nights later, we lay in our tent at Floe Lake, about to engage in a full on war of attrition with this Floe Lake porcupine. 

“Well… there’s not a ton we can do right now unless you want to chase it in the dark” Michael said, rolling over in his sleeping bag and going back to sleep.

I considered my options. “Yea, good call” - I said. I resigned myself to going back to sleep. He was right, chasing a porcupine around the woods in the middle of the night sounded futile. Chances were, I’d find my half eaten hiking boot in the morning easily enough. I turned my headlamp off, re-adjusted my fleece which I had folded into a pillow and dozed back to sleep. It’s always hard to leave the warm cocoon of a sleeping bag for calls to nature, let alone a wild goose chase looking for a porcupine with many pointy bits that could injure me. 

I had barely had a chance to settle back into my sleeping bag and let my heart rate return to normal before something, or someone – likely, the porcupine brushed up against the tent again.

“It’s back!” I whisper-yelled, careful not to disturb the other tents that were staked around us and could no doubt hear what was also going on. This time my brother took notice. We both sat upright, our headlamps dimmed in clenched fists. Holding our breath, we waited for another sign of it’s presence. I sat with my back to one side of the tent, and my brother sat across from me.

‘Pshhhhhhh’ ‘pshhhh’. It brushed against our tents nylon again. 

“Shit, maybe it’s taking my boots too!” Michael said. 

“What should we do?” I posed. Things seem much more intense in the moment than they do in hindsight. Our blood was pumping. There was a mutant-killer-derange porcupine out there that had it out for us. We had to do something.

‘Pshhhhh’ ‘pshhhh’ 

“WHAT TH–” I whispered-yelled again, jumping across the tent. The porcupine had brushed against the thin walls of the tent right behind me and against my back. “I swear, I felt it’s quills through the tent” I breathed.

“Dude, calm down” Michael responded. "Nothings gonna happen”.

You know in the horror movies, when the main character is being chased by some deranged monster? They shine their flashlight against a wall, and a shadow of this big, horrible beast is cast? Well, that basically happened, but with this porcupine. I like to remember shining my headlamp against the wall of the tent, seeing the shadows of it’s quills standing like some jagged teeth of doom against the black night sky. I’d like to think that that actually happened. In reality, it didn’t.

Instead, I decided I’d arm myself so I could at least keep the porcupine at a distance rather than have to fight it in hand to hand combat and risk getting quilled in my hands and arms. Were we ever in any real danger? Probably not. But some quills stuck in my hand and arm would’ve ruined a perfectly good backpacking trip for me.

“Here” I said, grabbing my camera tripod and extending the collapsible legs. “At least I can poke it from a distance if it comes close again”. My brother just laughed.

We continued waiting for it to strike again in silence. Our breathing was rapid and shallow in the night as we sat in silence, our eyes shining with laughter at being so annoyed by such a little creature. The night was quiet apart from our whispered antics. Occasionally we would hear a sound, or brush against the tent and psych ourselves out, but for the most part the porcupine had decided to leave us alone. It had taken our boots and was probably mauling them somewhere in the woods and was totally content to do that. Or so we thought. 

 


All of a sudden we heard some stirring across our small encampment. My brother and I looked at one another in the dim light, smiling, at someone else being drawn into out plight. We didn’t have to say anything to know – the porcupine of Floe Lake had struck again. We could only hear mumbles and the familiar sound of movement and stretching tent nylon. The ‘Zzzzzzzzzppppp’ of a tent zipper, and the panicked whisperings of someone who has been startled in the middle of the night. I can only imagine what they were saying to one another, their conversation likely playing out like my brother and mine.

“Bob, wake up! Something's out there!”

“Linda, nothings out there… go back to sleep honey”.

“No really! Something hit our tent!”. Linda was probably getting annoyed at Bob’s dismissal of her anxiety.

“It’s just your imagination, or a little mouse or squirrel or bird or something… go back to sleep” Bob would probably mumble.

“No, its huge! Wake up” Linda by now would have turned her headlamp on, directly into the eyes of her partner, waking him too.

"Jesus Linda, turn that thing off!" Bob would say. And on and on it would go.

My brother and I relaxed. At least the porcupine had decided it wouldn’t have targeted attacks. We lay back down, dimmed our headlamps, and went back to sleep. Throughout the next few hours, tent zippers and headlamps and boots of distraught backpackers would go through a similar experience to we did. The Floe Lake Porcupine left no one unharmed that night.

 


Over breakfast the next morning we struck up a conversation with our tent-neighbors. We all sat around the picnic tables, boiling water for cowboy coffee and oatmeal, our eyes heavy with the lack of sleep but glowing from the antics during the night.

"That was quite the night" we laughed, skipping the small talk.

"I'll say. Who knew a rodent could be so frightening." The gentleman chuckled as he sipped his coffee with his wife. "Never had a night like that before! I guess that's the kind of thing you remember for a long time".

We began to pack up our tent, eager to make it to the trailhead before the heat of the day bore down on us. We walked past the picnic tables where everyone sat, trading tales from their night excitedly.

"We thought it was a bear!" the swiss man grumbled. "We don't get bears in the alps. I kinda wish it was one".

"At least you'd have a scarier story to tell your friends"

"Did it take your boots or just smell them? We found ours wedged into this little gopher-hole this morning"

"Nope just sniffed them, I think my feet smell too bad. That porcupine knows better than to eat my boots!". The laughter of their conversation echoed across the lake.

I smiled, wishing them an uneventful and safe rest of their hike as a I walked by. This was why we ventured outdoors. To meet others, and share experiences with those around us held by this common thread of a love of the outdoors, a love for visiting these beautiful places, and for our newfound love of this adorable little nuisance of a porcupine who paid us all a visit. 


On a hike as popular, well-traveled and classic as the Rockwall trail, it's easy to feel as if you're walking through a fabricated landscape, with perfectly manicured trails, well-marked sign posts, detailed itineraries of the trail, designated campgrounds with outhouses and cooking shelters and bear caches and any other number of luxuries. It's true – these are all things which make the outdoors more accessible, predictable, and easy.

But don't be fooled - it's still wild, and the most normal of outings can still be an adventure. Our little porcupine friend taught us that. So, if you're traveling to Floe Lake. Now you know, beware of the porcupine, or – say hello to him for me.