Renowned Alpinist Barry Blanchard’s Epic: Attacked By a Grizzly
A routine climb in the Canadian Rockies turns nightmarish when a grizzly bear has two climbers scrambling for their lives.
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Read: Legendary Alpinist Barry Blanchard Suffers Head Injury in Fall on Stairs
For 16 years, I’ve guided Dr. Takeneo “Také” Mihara up mountains, rock routes, and ice climbs. As a senior Japanese ENT surgeon, he only gets two weeks of vacation a year; as a mountain guide and friend, I always want his one climbing week to be a success. Také’s English is stilted and slow, my Japanese nonexistent. Still, we’ve been able to communicate, often shouting from either end of 200 feet of rope through a call-and-reply system of “OK!” “OK!” and “OK!”
In September 2011, we set out to climb Mount Aberdeen (10,358 feet) via the Aberdeen Glacier. Our approach—gaining about 1,800 feet via the switchbacks leading to Saddle Pass, and then contouring on a primitive trail into Surprise Valley and, a little over a mile and 700 feet higher, reaching the glacier—led through grizzly territory. I’d reasoned that Také and I would only be in bear country for a couple of hours, and given that our day would likely clock in at twelve to fourteen hours, I was more concerned with the threats the mountain presented. I’d been up and down the Saddle Pass trail in the dark and daylight and had never seen a bear.
Early that summer, I had carried bear spray for an ascent of the Kain Route on Mount Louis. Within the first half hour out, I’d accidentally blasted myself on my right side when the safety clip caught on my pack. It felt like someone had ignited napalm on my hip. I bellowed, hurling my pack to the ground.
“What’s wrong, Barry?” my client, Jim, asked nervously, his headlamp sweeping onto me.
“I just sprayed myself with the bloody bear spray.”
We were both hacking, spitting, and wiping our eyes for the next half hour. My hip smoldered for the next eighteen and a half hours and was still burning when I got home and called poison control. They recommended putting yogurt on it, which helped a bit, but not a whole hell of a lot. The next time I donned the same shirt, I got burned again. I had to wash it three times to get that crap out. On Také’s and my day on Mount Aberdeen, I left the spray behind.
Také and I crunched up the trail, our headlamp beams bouncing like luminous bingo balls amid the plump clouds of our expelled breath. Within fifteen minutes, my torso and face were weeping sweat. We stopped and stripped down to our base-layer shirts, keeping on liner gloves and lightweight toques. Every 150 to 300 feet, I yodeled loudly to warn off any animals.
We entered sparse stands of larch as dawn lifted their needles from grey to gold. My yodels echoed off Saddle Mountain and filled the valley. At about 7,400 feet, we were approaching a switchback when, thirty feet ahead, a bear stepped onto the trail. He stood square to us, his head broad and held high, a yellow tag visible on one ear and a green tag on the other, his shoulders braced and bulging and his guard hairs picketed out in an aura of spikes.
“Oh, fuck, it’s a grizzly!” I blurted, stopping in my tracks. The bear’s ears were round, not pointy like those of the more common black bears, and he had about three inches more claw protruding from his massive paws.
“It’s OK, Mr. Bear,” I said gently. I lowered my trekking poles and said back to Také, “Don’t scream, Také, don’t run.”
“It’s OK, Mr. Bear. We are just going to walk away. This is your place. We’re leaving.”
I slowly backed up.
“Just start walking, Také,” I said. “Don’t run.” The bear held his stance, his gaze locked onto us.
After reversing about a dozen steps, I said, “We are just going to turn and walk away, Mr. Bear. This is your place. We are leaving.” Slowly I pivoted.
Také turned with me, shooting a look over his left shoulder, his eyes wide with fright. I kept talking.
“It’s OK, Mr. Bear. We are walking away,” I said. With that, I thought it was over.
* * *
Také and I had gone about twenty feet when the bear started following us. I feared a charge, yet he seemed to be allowing some pact of distance. We three all walked on, and I desperately hoped he’d abandon us. I tried to think of what we could do to get away.
He trailed us for ten minutes, and I considered stepping down off the path and seeing if he would just go past, as a black bear had once done with two friends and me approaching Half Dome in Yosemite.
“It’s OK, Mr. Bear, it’s OK.”
He closed the gap to forty feet, then thirty.
The next time I looked over my shoulder, he turned sideways and abruptly sat on the edge of the trail, and I thought, Oh, man, thank God this is over. Také again glanced over his shoulder, irises encompassed in white, his brow crumpled with concern and confusion. The bear popped up again, and my heart sank.
Over the next five minutes, the bear moved even closer. His broad shoulders rolled, and I glimpsed the prominent hump of muscle between their blades. He was some 400 pounds. A bear like that could hurl hundred-pound boulders as he dug after marmots. The random fact jumped into my mind that grizzlies have a hinged jaw and a bite that often gets stuck on a human skull. A lot of the damage to humans occurs when the bear shakes us violently side to side, trying to free his teeth.
Také and I passed a branch in the trail, staying on the shortcut we’d taken on the way up. The bear stopped and glanced down the other branch, and I prayed, Please. Please let him just want to get around us. He swung his head back around, resumed walking, and picked up his pace, closing to twenty feet. Fear surged in me. We needed to climb a tree. Yet we were in the avalanche path below the Dog Leg Couloir on Mount Fairview, and the slide-tortured evergreens were all under five feet tall. Fuck. Then I saw my tree, just past the trim line of the avalanche path, tall and deep green with branches low to the ground.
“Také, undo your pack,” I said, unbuckling my backpack to get ready. The bear might go for the packs, and give us some time. Také looked back, breath jerking inward. The bear could easily kill us both.
We strode into the mature timber, the bear lumbering just fifteen feet behind. He popped up on his hind legs, and then thumped his forepaws down, Whump-whump! He fixed his glare, and leaned his shoulders toward us.
“Drop your pack, Také. Follow me,” I said. My pack smacked to the ground and I vaulted toward the tree, Také on my heels. We charged through forty feet of low growth, and then my hands were on the first branches. I bounded upward, breaking limbs to fit through, gasping like a sprinter.
* * *
The snow stakes lashed to my pack clanged, and I heard nylon ripping. The bear wasn’t chasing us! We had some time! Také and I grappled thirty feet up and stopped on a couple of branches round as wine bottles.
“What should we do?” Také stammered.
“I have to be able to see him,” I answered.
I began breaking branches to gain a window of visibility.
The bear was like a shadow on the trail, fifty diagonal feet away. I could only make him out when he moved. When he went into the lee of the low growth, only the sounds of gonging and ripping allowed me to approximate where he was.
My cell phone and VHF radio were both in my pack. Také’s phone was in his pack as well. The bear was tearing both to pieces. A rope and jacket lay flung on the trail.
“We need to shout for help,” I said to Také, and began wailing, “Help! Help! Help!”
Také’s shouts were mild, nowhere as loud as mine. He had a climbing sling around his neck holding an emergency whistle and small folding knife. Také blew into the whistle, and all it did was sputter, a pathetic, soggy tremolo.
The bear tore away at our packs. Occasionally he sauntered into my window, and then he’d pivot and disappear behind the low bushes and trees.
After a half hour, my throat was raw from yelling. We sat sideways on our respective branches, clinging to the trunk. Several times in the next forty-five minutes, I thought the bear had gone—then I’d see a wisp of movement, or hear a noise.
Wind blowing up the valley bit through our shirts, and Také and I both shivered. I began to hate the long slices of cloud anchored to Castle Mountain, Eisenhower Tower, and the Sawback Range, blocking the morning sun. The sun felt so good when it lifted above a cloud, but then it would disappear behind a higher one.
A mountain-rescue helicopter took off from the wardens’ compound in Lake Louise, two and a half miles away, and I could see it plainly, make out the forms of people inside, probably some of my buddies and fellow guides and Banff National Park Public Safety members. I had no way of getting their attention. The ship thumped off down valley, diminished, and disappeared.
Také and I clung to the tree. Our shivering became more intense, jaws chattering.
At about the 90-minute mark, I saw the bear rise from the trail and start toward our tree. I thrashed to my feet and began screaming for help again; the bear marched inexorably on.
In a panic I took off my headlamp, threw it at him, and missed. He did a double take when it crunched into the forest floor. An aggression that I had not experienced on the ground filled me, and I started shouting.
“Fuck off, you fucking bear! Get the fuck away from us, right fucking now!”
The bear turned and waddled back toward the trail, where I lost sight of him. We didn’t hear or see him for over half an hour, and it began to feel like he’d moved on.
Také, shaking from the cold, asked, “Can we go out of tree?”
“No, we have to make some more noise first.”
I again bellowed for help, and at the base of the tree a cloud of smoke swept across the forest floor. The bear looked like a ghost down there. He’s been waiting for us. I felt hunted. I hurled Také’s headlamp, but the bear was so perfectly camouflaged against the forest floor I didn’t know if it hit him. I howled profanities, and the bear again sauntered out of view. Thirty minutes passed as Také and I shivered on our branches.
* * *
I felt a vibration in the tree trunk and asked, “Také! Did you just move?”
Even as I said it, I knew it wasn’t Také. The bear was climbing into the tree! Abject horror and adrenaline coursed through my body in pulsations of fire. I could feel and hear the branches snapping. The bear’s every move transmitted up the trunk.
“C’mon, Také. We have to climb higher!”
We struggled farther up, then ran out of tree, with me clinging to two final, vertical branches. One branch was the width of my wrist, the other as round as my bicep. Wind swayed the top of the tree, and I leaned my back into it, trying to hold the branches upright and keep them from breaking. My right foot lay in the crotch between them, level with Také’s chest. We could feel and see the bear, climbing.
I began screaming in a voice I did not recognize, hysterical: “HELP! HELP! HELP!” The bear kept coming. My four- and six-year-old daughters’ faces came to me, and I felt my obligation as a father. I needed to survive. I thought of jumping to an adjacent tree, but while I figured I might be able to stick it, I couldn’t see Také putting it together. The vibrations in the trunk grew stronger, closer. I clung in remorse and terror, screaming my head off and trying to keep the branches from breaking. The bear kept coming, and when I looked down at Také’s face, some of my mind returned—would I have to climb below him to kick at the bear? We were nearly sixty feet up. The bear had reached thirty-five feet when I looked into his eyes: small, black, and unreadable.
“GET THE FUCK OUT OF THE TREE RIGHT FUCKING NOW, BEAR!” I roared, summoning an enraged baritone I had not known I possessed. “You go away, bear! Go away! Get out of the fucking tree now! Get the fuck away, bear. GO!” The bear held my gaze for a heartbeat … and then began to climb down. When he stepped back into the moss at the base of the tree, the vibrations stopped. Like a ghost, he vanished.
Gusts of wind buffeted the tree, and I windsurfed to keep it from breaking. I asked Také for his sling and knife, and between gusts I cut the sling open and splinted the branches together to fortify them.
Také and I had been in the tree for three hours and hadn’t seen or heard the bear for the last half hour when a distant clop, clop, clop, clop reached us. The sound grew louder, circling around from the south. In dread, I thought it was the bear chomping his jaws and marking a perimeter, but the clops became claps, and I realized someone was making noise down on the trail.
“Hello!” I bellowed.
“Hello,” came a distant yell in a Southern drawl.
“There is an aggressive grizzly! We have been up a tree for three hours. Do you have a cell phone?”
“We need help! Can you descend and call for a rescue?”
“What if I see the bear?”
“You didn’t see him on the way up, so go back that way and make a lot of noise.”
“What if I do see him?”
“Climb a tree!”
“How do I climb a tree?”
“You’ll figure it out!”
“OK.” The Southern Man began walking back down the trail, shouting, “Hello!” every few minutes. His “Hellos” grew fainter and then disappeared. God, I hope the bear didn’t get him, I thought.
Half an hour later, a man in shorts walked into view and stopped to survey the carnage of our packs. He’d made it here unaccosted; the bear must be gone. I shouted, and Také and I picked our way down. The bear had bitten and snapped the branches in a much wider radius than our own. He was bigger than us, and had needed more room.
Our packs lay flayed open, with clothing, climbing gear, and what was left of our lunch bags scattered over ten square yards.
“A bear did this?” asked the man, a middle-aged guy with a German accent.
“Yes. An aggressive grizzly bear,” I said. “What is your name?”
“Christophe. I am visiting from Germany. I would like to get a picture of the bear.”
“Christophe, you are so unclear on the concept, buddy. We need to get out of here.”
I unzipped my pack lid, flipped open my cell phone, and called Banff dispatch.
“We are aware of the situation,” a dispatcher said. “A wildlife specialist is responding on foot. Stay where you are. Can you please stay on your phone?”
“OK,” I said as I screwed the antennae into my VHF radio. Turning it on, I heard the voices of the Park’s staff.
“This is Barry Blanchard,” I said. “My client and I were treed by an aggressive grizzly.”
“Barry, this is Alex Taylor. I’m coming to you as fast as I can”—pant, pant. “This is hard work for a fat boy!”
Alex was a friend, and I felt profound relief to hear his voice. Other humans were coming to help us.
“We’re OK right now, Alex. I’m pretty sure the grizzly’s moved off. Christophe the hiker is here with us, and he didn’t see it.”
“OK. Tell Christophe to stay with you. Are you sure it was a grizzly?”
“Did you see any ear tags?”
“Yes, a yellow ear tag and a green ear tag.”
“Bear Number 8.”
As Christophe avidly snapped pictures of the pack carnage, Také and I put on more layers. The bear had eaten all of our lunches except for two snack bags of cut-up vegetables.
Ten minutes later, Alex arrived, a red bandana around his forehead dripping with sweat. Over his right shoulder sat a shotgun, a beautifully reassuring sight, like the protective wing of an angel.
Looking at our disemboweled packs, Alex noted the veggie bags and said, “Hmmm. He’s not eating his vegetables.”
It felt so very fine to laugh. Death had moved on.
* * *
The next day, Bear Number 8 was trapped in the valley floor along the railway tracks. He’d been relocated a couple of times and was getting closer and closer to people: approaching hikers, a woman in a campground, and a softball team that clambered up onto a stationary train to escape. The decision was made to euthanize him.
I carry bear spray all the time now, but to be honest I don’t think I would have had the courage to stand on the trail that morning and use it. From the moment the bear stepped onto the trail, he was in charge—and I did what he allowed. Eventually, in the tree, maybe I would have used the spray. But would it have made a difference in the final outcome? I don’t know. I know in my heart he was just being a bear, and I wish he was still out there.
Barry Blanchard is a UIAGM/IFMGA guide. His memoir, The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains, won the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature in 2015. He lives in Canmore, Alberta, with his partner, Nicole Toner, and two daughters.