Dirtbag Dispatches – Grizzly Bites

Published in New Zealand Adventure Magazine, April/May 2017

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A ferocious grizzly bear is barreling towards you. It’s the middle of the night, in the dark, cold depths of winter, and you’re halfway up a mountain, hours from civilisation. The terrain is waist-deep snow, disrupting your escape as if you had a gang of grotesque goblins clinging to your legs. And your sharply-bladed ice tools, which might be helpful – if only slightly – are somewhere lower on the mountain, waiting to be collected on the way down.

Such was the nightmare scenario that confronted British climbers Greg Boswell and Nick Bullock in the Canadian Rockies just over a year ago, in December 2015. They had spent the day setting themselves up to try and repeat a hard winter climb on the remote Mt Wilson, in the wondrously scenic Icefields Parkway, Jasper National Park. 

They had climbed up two steep rock bands, and smashed a boot-track through deep snow to the base of a massive corner – the intended route. Now they intended to return in easier conditions in a few days’ time, and climb it in the daylight.

Darkness fell as they retreated to the cliff top where they had left some of their heavier gear earlier in the day, when the unthinkable happened. The bear was only five metres from him when Greg saw it, launching from behind the dark curtain of night like a stealth missile, and charging towards him with unstoppable, all-consuming force. He screamed a warning, making Nick turn to look.

“The bear bounded, pulling and pushing the snow with powerful legs,” Nick wrote later on his blog. “The snow lapped its belly and didn’t appear to slow it. Greg ran out of sight and the carnivorous freight train passed me, snorting and growling and bounding, dusting me with spindrift.

“It looked at me for a second, and for a second I thought, ‘this is it, this is really fucking it’, but in that second the bear had spotted Greg had fallen.”

Nick’s self-preservation instinct exploded into overdrive. He turned to flee as the bear, with all its weight and mass and fierce teeth and claws, launched itself on Greg, who was on his back and fighting to free himself from the prison of deep powder snow. As the bear pounced, Greg managed to draw back his boot and kick it in the face.

The grizzly crushed the boot and spat it out as if it were some inconvenient watermelon seeds, and – to Greg’s utter horror – sunk its sharp teeth into his right shin. It reared up and, like a heavyweight fighter toying with a small child, lifted Greg out of the snow with its powerful jaw, which was firmly clenched around Greg’s leg. Pain and panic rushed from Greg’s body in a stream of screaming. His leg was raised so high that his shoulders were barely brushing the snow.

Frantic and frenzied, Greg slapped and punched and smashed the bear’s head with his hands. The grizzly dropped him to the ground and stood on his left leg, as if preparing to rip him limb from limb.

“Nick, Nick, help, it’s got me!” Still shrieking, Greg dove his hands into the bear’s mouth to try and free himself from its fangs. 

Nick stopped running. “But I’ll tell the truth, the thought of running back to face the bear armed with only a ski pole slowed me. In fact, armed with a bazooka would have still slowed me, but Greg was shouting my name. How could I just stand?”

Greg must have jabbed the inside of the bear’s mouth in a sensitive spot with part of his hand, because the bear released its vice grip on his leg. It reared up again and leaned over Greg, whose face was now close enough to rub noses. 

But the 10cm gap between their eyes turned out to be his salvation. Greg’s high-powered head-torch beamed directly into the grizzly’s eyes. It became confused and disoriented amid Greg’s wailing, and stumbled straight over his body before scurrying off towards nearby trees.

Meanwhile, Nick had started moving towards his friend, ski pole at the ready. “Out of the dark, a shape ran at me. I screamed. The skin at the back of my throat tore. But the shape was Greg, screaming and running and shouting. I looked into his ashen face and saw something I had never seen. We both screamed and ran into the woods.”

Though the attack was utterly harrowing, it seemed more sufferable than the fear of the shadows coming alive and rushing at them as they crawled over the mountainside in search of their gear.

“All of the time we waited for the dark to ambush,” Nick said.

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After what felt like an age, they found the spot where they had earlier left their crampons and ice axes. Now they were armed. Nick decreed that there would be no more fleeing. “If it comes, no running, we stand together and hit the bastard.” The ropes, which they needed to abseil down the steep rock band, were now only five minutes away.

Greg was able to move on his bitten leg, but was leaving a trail of bloodied drips all over the white snow. They kept following what they thought was their tracks from earlier in the day, banging their ice tools together and making a racket to ward off anything lurking in the dark. But the tracks they were following suddenly turned into bear tracks.

Were they walking right into another bear? The very thought made them sick with fear, and had them constantly scanning the surroundings for green-lit eyes.

Further down, they hit the edge of the steep cliff. They were lost, frustrated, terrified. Greg tried in vain to force a path down, but the rock was too steep and featureless. They needed their ropes. They had no choice but to head back up. Back to the dark woods. Back towards the bear.

“We were never going to find the ropes. We were stuck up there, stuck up there with the bear,” Nick wrote.

They trudged for what felt like an age, retracing their steps, encountering more fresh bear tracks, and howling with as much lung-power as they could muster. At one point Greg, pale with fright and feeling weaker with every step, actually suggested climbing a tree and waiting until morning, but Nick insisted they keep moving. For over an hour. Finally, mercifully, they found the spot where they had left their ropes.

“Greg abseiled first,” Nick said. “I sat on the cliff shining my torch, looking into the dark and the trees, holding both axes … In the distance wolves howled. Following Greg’s bloody footprints, I wondered at what distance bears can smell blood.”

The pair negotiated three more abseils before they reached their rental car. It was almost 1am, five hours since the attack. The nearest hospital in Banff was still two hours away. 

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Something about giant gashes in a bloodied leg makes for swift service in an emergency room. Greg was quickly shown in and given a bed. He could have burst into tears, so overwhelming was the relief.

Nick was offered a drink as he waited. “But there was no wine on offer so I had ginger beer. Greg couldn’t drink anything as the five huge holes in his shin, which now resembled a thigh, might need surgery.”

Greg was x-rayed, stitched, injected and cleaned up, and discharged at noon the following day. A few days later, he flew home to Scotland. Two weeks after the incident, he was able to let go of his crutches, have his stitches out, and start physiotherapy. Before winter was over, Greg managed to climb again, putting up a new route in Scotland – though his leg and his mental game were far from 100 per cent.

In the immediate aftermath Greg and Nick, while being praised by most for escaping with their lives, copped some criticism for not carrying bear spray and running, rather than standing their ground. Running only antagonises a grizzly. Nick responded that it was a very unusual time of year for a bear encounter, and that the attack was so sudden that bear spray would have been useless, unless they were walking with it in their hands and at the ready. He also said their reaction could hardly be described as ‘running’, as they had barely taken any steps before the bear was on them.

In the end, National Parks staff decided not to kill the bear – much to the relief of the climbers, who acknowledged that they had stumbled into its territory. Instead the area was closed for the winter. Parks staff said the climbers likely surprised the grizzly in its den – the terrible luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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About Derek Cheng

Derek Cheng is a journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in publications in several countries, including the US, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the UK. Since he discovered climbing about ten years ago, he has worked as little as possible so he can travel widely, chasing rock faces in all corners of the world - from stalactite-blessed limestone in China, to the alpine granite of the Bugaboos and the Sierra Nevada, to quartzite giants in Morocco. His work can be viewed at dirtbagdispatches.com
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