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Author series: Geoff Powter

With punishing conditions that can shut down a ski tour at a moment’s notice, it’s a wonder anyone ventures into the peaks above Peyto Lake. But those who do are richly rewarded…

Author series: Geoff Powter
Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

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From high above Peyto Lake, we could see far into the mountains and trace our route for the day: down to the shoreline, then ski across the lake; follow the curve of the river still running fiercely even in this brutal cold; carry our skis up the spiny crest of a moraine, finally reach the grey toe of the glacier, and then up on the ice, weaving through the crevasses that we could see even from here, miles away. Somewhere up there, the white tongue broadened and turned a corner, and somewhere beyond that was a hut where we’d spend our first night of four on the ice.

What we couldn’t yet see were the angry skies starting to claw down the glacier. But, honestly, seeing the coming storm wouldn’t have made much difference. I can’t remember weather ever turning us back in those days. We were in our 20s. Walking our way to the edge of trouble and then finding the way back seemed half the point of any day in the mountains. You suffer, you learn. We set off down the hill.

Four hours later, suffering was all there was. This storm had the sharpest teeth of any I’d ever seen. We were on our knees, hiding behind our packs from a wind that lashed us with tiny spears of airborne ice. We screamed to be heard with our heads a foot apart. We fumbled with a compass, pointlessly wrestled our map, tried to get any sense of where we might be in the topless, bottomless white of our world. We started moving only because we genuinely feared we might die if we stayed put longer. We guessed a bearing and set off with unspoken doubt.

I love a tropical beach, the narcotic heat and the way it settles my soul like nothing else can. I love the opulence and the comforts of the cities of the west, with their rituals of coffee and wine, and I love the ways that the great cities of the east, with their mad chaos and exotic confusions, scrape at my certainties. But those are memories that live in my head and heart while days in the mountains are etched in the bone. I don’t just remember them: even after all these years, I feel them. And those are the moments I write about.

That day up on the ice, we’d guessed our bearing almost well enough. Shouldering our packs again, we laboured bent over like penitents to avoid the wind. After an hour, I felt a harsh tug on the rope, and I turned to see my adjoined partner pointing back down the glacier. There, the storm had lifted, if only for a moment, and it gave us a blessing. Up on a foggy ridge to our left, there was the hut, floating in the strange, orange light of a setting winter’s sun. We took a bearing, turned, and made our way to safety. The thermometer by the door of the hut read -37˚.

Heading back to the car the next morning made all the sense in the world — it was colder, whiter and even windier — but all the way home, I kept up a dance that I’d become all too familiar with in the coming years: I dearly wanted to have kept on going; I was so glad that we bailed on the attempt; I swore I’d go back; I swore I never would.

But here’s the thing: it’s never just about hardship. The mountains might not give up their gifts easily, but when they do, nothing comes close. I did go back up on the glacier; didn’t even wait a month. And I got slapped right back down again, on a day so cold that a member of another party went through an excruciating hour when his contact lenses froze to his eyeballs in the scathing wind. We all turned around again. I waited a year, went back once more and got one hut further on before retreating again when avalanche conditions just said ‘no’.

And then, Attempt #4. On a New Year’s Day a few years later, four of us set off from the parking lot as the morning fog lifted and a world of magic opened up. In blue skies we hopped from end to end of the glacier in three days. It was so warm we stripped down to T-shirts. It was January. Across 44 spectacular kilometres, we passed endless views of mountains and we laughed, overwhelmed, because right then we knew that we wanted to be out there every moment of the rest of our lives.

Climber, journalist and clinical psychologist, Geoff Powter is the author of Inner Ranges: An Anthology of Mountain Thoughts and Mountain People, published by RMB | Rocky Mountain Books, with a foreword by Chris Bonington, RRP: £12.99.

Published in the Winter Sports guide, distributed with the November 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)