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Contest Runner-Up: How I Learned to Love Alpine Starts


By Conor McCarthy (Canmore, Alberta)

Mountain people have great stories to tell, so we hosted our first-ever writing contest! The challenge? Use just 400 well-crafted words to tell us about your biggest backcountry blunders. Congrats to our winners, who have received a cash prize, publication in Volume 4, and a hefty book pack from Rocky Mountain Books!

Maybe it was the birthday. It had been my roommate’s, and we’d been forced to listen to his sputtering and groaning in the bathroom all night. Maybe it was el chupacabra—something darted across the road in front of us as we drove, something big, long tail, glowing eyes…

It was foggy and cold when we got to the trailhead at 4:30 a.m. We were tired. We decided to take a quick nap in the car.

We woke up to the roar of a truck. We had slept nearly four hours, maybe too long, but we were thoroughly rested. We set off to trudge our way up Mt. Cline. It was hot, a balmy September day. The packs were heavy. Hey, maybe it was what we’d packed – this was our first 11,000er, and we’d packed like morons: full trad rack and a 70-metre rope for one short pitch that took a #1 Camalot™.

Whatever it was, we were moving slowly. 

The summit views were the best I’d seen – that’s probably because it was sunset. It was tough to enjoy the sublimity knowing that we had 20 kilometres of rough terrain back to the car.

We made it past the crux notches before the sun went down, but that was it. As we crossed the glacier, the sky blazed red, then purple, and by the time we reached the tarns it was black. Mind you, these tarns are among the best camping spots of all of the 11,000ers, but we had no tent and it was threatening rain.

And then my partner vomited. THAT was certainly the Vector bars. We’d had six each that day, and nothing else.

It was raining. There we were: her walking maybe twenty feet, puking, sitting down, saying she couldn’t go on; and me bushwhacking the way, lost but not admitting it, bear spray in hand, finger on the trigger, swinging it wildly along with the sweep of headlamp light.

At hour eighteen, my partner sat in the (vague) trail and announced that she was finished. We bargained. I asked for another fifteen minutes of hiking. What we’d do once that time ran out, I didn’t know. It was nearly 3 a.m. She agreed. Fifteen minutes.

Five minutes passed, then fifteen… she wasn’t paying attention… I kept bushwhacking. At twenty-eight minutes we saw the car.

And we now respect alpine starts.

→ This piece was originally published in Volume 4 of the Canadian Rockies Annual.

The team at the Canadian Rockies Annual is devoted to high-quality storytelling, carefully curated content and top-notch photography – all wrapped up in a meticulously and thoughtfully designed publication. Please consider supporting our efforts by subscribing (available worldwide) or picking up a copy at one of our retail locations. 

The views and opinions expressed in the articles on are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the editor, the editorial team or the publishers.

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