Time slows and memories collect and blur together while climbing amongst the Valley’s age-old terrain.
Desperately pinching limestone tufas and underclinging stalactites, I tried hard, like full-body core-strength hard, to keep my feet on tiny features while nearly upside down. Overhanging climbs are the only option on a wet, wintery day. The rain pitter-pattered on the arbutus leaves and trickled down to the tenacious salal undergrowth behind me. I live for these moments when so many other people are at home on the couch wishing for better weather—when I can find a little loophole in the dance of the natural world to experience beauty in hard-to-reach places. I didn’t get to the anchors; a seeping slippery hold sent me flying into space before the rope caught and I swung around to watch a hairy woodpecker search the crevices of the giant roof for spidery treats.
Here in K’omoks, land of plenty, I feel fortunate to have outdoor rock climbing as an option almost all year long (if you know where to go). Within a 45-minute drive from Courtenay there are numerous amazing routes on a variety of different rock types, from boulders to climbs hundreds of metres long. The first residents of this Valley must have felt this good fortune as they harvested the abundant eulachon and salmon while protecting themselves with shelter made of the mythical cedars that once covered the Valley floor. I would love to have seen it all back then.
Another favourite spot is Constitution Hill, a funny little bump rising from the alluvial fields of the Valley. I like to imagine the advancing glacier moving over it like a wave surging around a boulder near the beach. Compared to Mt. Washington, the area behind Con Hill resembles a foreground addition of scenic texture. On the far side, however, near the north end of Wolf Lake, is a cirque-like feature of granite walls emerging from the talus field of carnage. The stepped walls rise 150m or so, providing some of the longest lines around.
The past winter even allowed a few of us to climb a 120m vertical ice route between the upper and lower walls. While swinging ice tools on a beautiful winter day I heard the subtle sound of the air between the primary flight feathers of several eagles as they cruised effortlessly on building thermals, soaring just out of reach behind me. The small pieces of ice from my progress tinkled down the wall.
Only a month later, on an exquisite early-spring day, I sat on a ledge halfway up a 150m vertical stretch of beautiful speckled granite. Bits of mica sparkled around the quartz and feldspar, my favourite combination of minerals. Over eons, fine granite slowly gets exposed from its subterranean birth, fracturing and exfoliating in long, wandering cracks and polished corners. These weaknesses are alluring and aesthetically-pleasing to those of us who have a love affair with something so harsh and inanimate. I was here to stuff my hands into cracks, hoping the friction of my mortal skin could move me through a fragile truce with gravity to the next ledge 30m above. On the ledge, I was in the dichotomous moment in climbing where intense, life-preserving focus gives way to meditative reflection and the awareness of the unlikely places we find ourselves in.
Taking off my effective, essential, but less-than-comfortable shoes, I sat back feeling the cool of an impartial stone through my thin T-shirt. The warm sun filtered through the odd fir clinging to the wall. Mottled light surrounded me. A peregrine falcon searched for prey, gliding over the chaos of our coastal forest below. We watched each other eye to eye, its dark blue back flashing silently above the tree tops.
The walls look out to the southwest over the driftwood-choked end of Wolf Lake to the patchwork forest blanketing the lower slopes of Mt. Washington. The spring snow is rapidly melting away from the dark rock bands on the higher peaks, and summer warmth is winning over the icy winter. The smooth but acrid smell of the fir duff and rock dust hangs in the air. Above me, a flowering dogwood in full bloom graces the mossy grey slab. Nothing but sunshine and perfect climbing. Another stolen moment in the Valley.