Mountain travel has many adherent risks and we consider many things when preparing for a climb, ski or hiking adventure, but on occasion, we found ourselves staring right into the eye of a risk we didn’t expect. In my case, it was a rather large and angry grizzly bear mama. With the recent grizzly bear sighting in Banff National Park on February 28th, 2020, which is the earliest a grizzly has been recorded out of the den in at least the last decade, I felt this would be a great time to look back on one encounter that won’t soon be forgotten.
In the summer of 2005, I worked building hiking trails for a lodge in the Northern Selkirk Mountains. It was my 2nd summer in the area and I was well aware of the grizzly bear mama and her cubs. I had seen them from a healthy distance during the summer of 2003 when the boys were just yearlings; observing them in their home playing like human children on lingering snowfields below the treeline, the sight was truly amazing.
The work was laborious but meditative and very honest, the location allowed me to climb on a regular basis at the cliffs surrounding the lodge. Work started early in the morning to beat the heat and allow for climbing in the afternoon, as well as hiking in the pre-dawn darkness to the previous day’s dead-end to carry on. The morning I met the mama up close and personal was on a normal morning; up and at er early in the morning were myself and my helper — the young man Dane. As we walked up the sub-alpine trail in low light with our heads down, minds still fuzzy and shut off, I suddenly heard a faint “huff” noise — almost a bark but not quite. I thought to myself ‘ a marmot? No, pika? No way, Ptarmagin? Uh Uh, ok.’ and chalked it up to hearing things and my mind playing tricks on me, until I heard it a second time. At that exact moment, Dane yelled “BEAR!!!!” and began to run diagonally away. Uphill on the trail in the early dawn light, I was able to see the grizzly bear mama up and left from us on her hind legs below a small bluff, while her two babies (now 2-3 yrs), are peering down at us from behind her.
What is the first thing that comes to mind? Stand your ground, stay calm, and get any deterrent device ready (unfortunately, my complacency had caused me to leave it in the lodge that day)… nope not at all. Dane was already 50m ahead of me running as she descended quickly from her perch, I was able to catch Dane by the shirt and yelled ‘Stop!’, but he tore from my grip and kept running, which put me in the middle of the situation. With the very mature grizzly bear mama galloping closer, I also began to run. What next? A quick glance over my shoulder showed me that she was close, keep running. A second glance told me to get ready to be mauled as she was only 5-10m behind me. Wait… throw your backpack! A flash of orange as my Deuter pack was whipped at her with superb accuracy. Somehow, I am not being chewed on. I am going to survive… I hope. She has disappeared over some low angle terraced cliffs below the trail, and I look around for Dane, finding him higher on the trail looking at me in disbelief crouched and hiding behind some trees.
This is an event that we all hope never happens and often believe– like most deadly things– ‘won’t happen to me’. Dane and I decide to take the high trail up to the glacier, over the height of land, and down the glacier trail back to the lodge. It is now around 06:30AM and we find a coworker, Nicolina, in the kitchen when we barge into the lodge. “You look like you just saw a bear.” she says to Dane and me. ‘Yep, we did!’ I say and begin to explain what had happened with the grizzly bear mama and her cubs. After we tell Nicolina of the situation and down a cup of coffee each, we slowly gain enough courage to head back out to work, armed with all deterrent options available.
In over 20+ years of travelling through the mountains, I have had the amazing experience of observing bears in the wild on many occasions. I have left from all but this one with no consequences, often realizing that they are just as scared of us as we are of them. With mountain travel, we prepare for the hazards and analyze the risk, but how do we know for sure we have the skills or equipment to cope? With my near-miss the obvious mistakes made were due to complacency; not carrying our air blast horns as we usually did, having no bear spray, and not letting her know we were encroaching on her territory. Any of this would have most likely scared her off and the situation would have been avoided. Do what you do, love what you do and respect the wild world with caution, and definitely carry your bear spray!