I live away from him, in Canmore, Alberta, a small town at the base of the towering Canadian Rockies and along the shores of the Bow River. My job is to take tourists on vacation in national parks like Banff and Jasper. I cater to the whims of the wealthy. We bike along the Icefields Parkway and hike to Swiss tea huts. In between, in Canmore, I eat bagels and the bruised fruit leftover from trips. I drink coffee, and I read about ecology. Some days I bike until I see a bear and some days I do yoga from a big room that looks directly out at the Three Sisters, my favorite peaks in the range.

Last night he called me. I couldn’t find an empty room to talk to him in the tiny house I share with eight roommates. Privacy is a myth, just like anything outside of the ridgeline that surrounds me. He gets angry when I tell him it’s too late, the house is too quiet, I can’t talk. He tells me he can’t do this anymore, this distance. I hang up on him and on the world of bills and obligations, relationships and sedentary jobs.

The next morning, I wake up early to climb Ha Ling. By 6:30 am I’m at the trailhead tightening my backpack. The sun is golden. I start up a slope of wooden stairs meant to barricade the soil. I scratch the bark of Douglas Firs and Ponderosa Pines to smell butterscotch. I crush juniper berries beneath my thumb and forefinger. I rub them on my neck, the crease of my wrist. Tall mountains rise before me like sentinels, and I quickly enter the subalpine zone. I peel off my layers and save them for the top. I sing. My rabbit’s foot is John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery.” Grizzlies haven’t come near it. I pass couples, families, children scampering after their parents. The trees thin and empty. The path splits between rocky patches like a spiderweb.

Scrambling up a mountain peak never fails to crack me open. I become scared of slick stones and the vast space between the matter up here and the matter down there. Wind makes the whiskers around my temples stand on end. My knuckles are clouds when I peer over the edge into the Bow River Valley. I hunker beneath the windbreak of boulders, cradling my bowstring of a body while I chew on peanut butter and jelly, on freezer-burned chocolate, on how cold it is to sit up top alone.


I call him back after I’ve descended the mountain and returned home. I sit on top of a picnic table that clutters my front porch. I sip coffee and tell him about the rocks and fears strewn about my hike. He listens. We both pretend last night was a dream. I remind him of the climb we did the previous summer in the provincial park next door. We scrambled to a nineteenth-century hut at the base of Mount Victoria, a peak famous for its easy access to beginning mountaineers, only 11,365 feet.

On our way to the base camp, a section of snow had melted away into a slick slide that could shoot a hiker back down a few hundred feet of chunky gravel. It was a two-foot jump across the icy gap. He went first, turned, and held an arm out to me. I stepped back, slipped on a loose stone and leapt a foot short. He caught me, dug his crampons into ice and stopped our fall. We held each other, each shaking through thick layers of wool and wicking. It’s the closest I’ve felt to my mortality.

The night before he was angry because I didn’t want to come home from Canmore. I wanted to keep guiding into the fall. When I hung up on his frustration, just past 10:30 pm, the sun was starting to blush across the moon. I watched the pink move like a long shadow.

This morning, I watched the same light bloom behind the peaks of the Three Sisters, a saddle away from Ha Ling.

Now I apologize. I’ll come home. We are too high up for these risks.

Austyn Gaffney is a graduate of the University of Kentucky MFA in Creative Nonfiction. She is the recipient of the Emerging Artist Award from the Kentucky Arts Council, the Creative Nonfiction Award from the University of Kentucky, and the Katharine Bakeless Nason Scholarship from the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers Conference. Her work is published or forthcoming in The Offing, Misadventures, onEarth, Prairie Schooner, RANGE, Scalawag and more.

Photo by Therese Brown