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Mountain guide Barry Blanchard's "First Ascent": Ice climbing as therapy

With the submission period for the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize in its last days, we wanted to showcase some of the great nonfiction coming out of the Banff Centre, where this year's winner will be enjoying a two-week residency. 

In the new book Rock, Paper, Fire, a compendium of some standout writing from the Centre's Mountain and Wilderness Writing program, writer and elite mountain guide Barry Blanchard writes of his attempts to "heal" his troubled younger brother on the steep slopes of the Rockies.

First Ascent
By Barry Blanchard

My mother had five half-breed kids by three different men in seven years. None of the white fathers made it; all of them left, and it was as if the fabric of our family had changed from a white wedding dress to a faded and patched pair of jeans by the time Stephen came around. At seventeen, Stephen was flunking out of school and already in trouble with the law. He’d been drinking at a party when he got talked into a robbery attempt by an older man who had previously done time.

Just fifteen months earlier, I’d moved to the mountains to take the first steps up the career path of mountain guiding. One of the good men I’d taught to rock climb was a gifted criminal lawyer.

“It will make a strong impression on the judge if as many of your family as possible can be in court to support Stephen,” he said.

When the judge asked if there were any family members in court, my mother, brother, sister, and I all stood up. The judge gave Stephen a term of probation conditional on his staying in school.

It was late by the time I finally said goodbye to David and opened the door of my mother’s house. Stephen was still out.

“I don’t know what to do with him,” my mother said. Her forehead sank into her fingers and her elbows trembled against the hard sheen of her kitchen table. A deep sob shook her shoulders. I put my arm around her. I’d seen my mother cry before, but that was usually over Stephen’s dad. She’d always been a pillar for us, a tigress.

“Maybe he can come and stay with me,” I said. The only way I knew how to help was to take him climbing.

Two days later I found a cheap blue house to rent. It was a single-level, built in the 1950s, and it had seen some hard use with no recent maintenance. It sat on the westmost corner of “Teepee Town”—a collection of valley-bottom flats in old Canmore where Stoney Indians used to camp: perfect. The next week I moved away from my two housemates and into the empty blue house. My mother drove Stephen up on the last day of October and he enrolled in the local high school. We sat on borrowed chairs at a borrowed table and ate a lot of pasta with red sauce. My girlfriend took to calling our house “Sparta.”

It felt good to see my little brother go out the door, walk to school, and start to make some friends. I knew he was trying to step up, to be good enough, and I had hope. And although that hope would waver over the next twenty-two years, I realize now that I never really lost it, no matter what my brother did.

Mid-December, blue ice was laminated in strips onto the grey walls above our valley. Stephen and I had been living together for six weeks and we were doing okay, but I wanted to help him more.

“We should go ice climbing, bro. I think you’d like it.” His huge brown eyes widened; interest and imagination glinted.

The Canmore Junkyards are so named because early in the town’s history, people started dumping junk there, including several cars, all for the redneck shits and giggles of it. Since I didn’t have a car, Stephen and I walked for two hours instead of driving for ten minutes and hiking for five. We were doing the best that we could.

My brother stood six feet—three inches taller than me—and at 200 pounds, he had thirty on me. He took pride in his physique. We’d been hitting the gym together, and while I trained to be a better climber, getting leaner and harder, Stephen just got bigger. He looked more native than I did and I’d joke with him, call him an “FBI” (Fucking Big Indian).

He did fine with the ice climbing, and I hoped it would capture him as it had captured me. “How do you like it, bro?”

“It’s pretty cool, Bear,” he said. “But it’s scary.”

“Fear can be your friend,” I said. “It can make you stronger.”

“I don’t know, man.”

The muffled crackling of water emanated through the blue ice and from higher up, above where Stephen stood secure on his crampons, came the roar of open water; mist birthing from spray and slowly rising against the stark, black wall of Ha Ling Peak, high above.

In February, four months after he moved in, Stephen said, “Canmore isn’t working for me, brother.” We’d been living in our hollow house cooking meals, going to the gym together, getting by. I made sure he went to school. I even tried to get him to run up the road above the Junkyards with me. “Running isn’t my thing, Bear,” he said. “It’s too hard.”

Stephen told me that Calgary just had more going on, and he’d decided to move back to my mother’s house. We walked to the bus station together. An Arctic airmass had cracked Alberta with a deep frost. Rigid snow squeaked under our boots, like the sound of a ship’s timbers flexing.

“Thanks for all your help, Bear,” he said.

“It’s okay, bro. I hope Calgary is better for you now.”

Our hug was a little clumsy, as always: it felt awkward for me to wrap my arms around my brother’s floundering. But then I got him close, and I felt my love for him, and I said, “Be good, bro.” A glassy sheen of tears shimmered over my eyes.

“I will, Bear,” he said. His voice quavered. “I will.”

We’d tried. I walked back to Sparta, wishing I could help him more, but not knowing how.

Excerpt from “First Ascent” by Barry Blanchard which appears in Rock, Paper, Fire: The Best of Mountain and Wilderness Writing, edited by Marni Jackson and Tony Whittome.
Banff Centre Press, 2013.

Barry Blanchard is a 
Canadian mountain guide and alpinist. Follow him on Twitter @Barry_Blanchard.


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