The summer before Lacy and Marcus Brathmore were married, they met on the northernmost stretch of the Appalachian Trail while Marcus was thru-hiking. They kept bumping into each other at trail huts and eventually started walking together, as they hiked at roughly the same pace and enjoyed each other’s company. Lacy would never have attempted these sections of the Trail without the support of her hiking club, and perhaps it was for this reason she found Marc’s adventurous spirit so alluring. For Lacy, a city girl from birth, nature was a spectacle of beauty to be observed with caution, and it was a refuge from the bustle of city life, albeit a dangerous one. For Marc, a Denver weekend adventurer, the mountains were that constant wall on his suburban Colorado horizon, always looming and waiting to be tamed. Marc’s projection of confidence had given Lacy the courage she needed to separate from her hiking group and walk all the way from the Berkshires to Katahdin with her future husband.
On their honeymoon, Lacy and Marc had taken a ten-day, guided, glacial climb culminating at Mont Blanc. Lacy spent most of the climb pestering the guides with nervous questions about crevasses and avalanches, but was ecstatic about the reaction she got to the adventurous-looking honeymoon pictures she posted on social media. Marcus spent much of the climb talking with Gilbert, one of their mountaineering guides, about the Frenchman’s expeditions to remote Andean peaks seldom conquered by man. That was where Marc had gotten the idea to plan a trek of their own to Chile. In February, Marc and Lacy followed the Alpine trip with another guided climb, this time to the summit of Kilimanjaro, to help them prepare for an altitude climb. This late-August trip to the East Kessuck Range was their third big expedition since the wedding, and the Kessucks were supposed to help them prepare for the long stretches of isolated wilderness they’d encounter in the Andes that fall—their final big expedition before settling down to raise a family.
This Canadian trek was their first venture into the wilderness without some form of professional support, and for this reason, Lacy was nervous. The Kessucks only reached above nine thousand feet at a few summits, but in terms of isolation, this rugged area of British Columbia was every bit as untamed as the wildest parts of the Northwest Territories, the Yukon, or the remotest stretches of glacial Alaska. Some of the Kessucks’ desolate gray peaks were named for the Pantheon of Greek gods—a Hermes, a Hestia, a Demeter. When the cartographers ran out of Greek gods, they simply gave the mountains numbers on a grid.
Marc and Lacy’s main destination, Persephone, lay seventy miles south of their access point at mile 398 of the Alaska Highway. The remoteness of this territory wasn’t the only reason for Lacy’s building concern. As they researched the area, Lacy had pointed out to Marc that the Alaska Highway ran parallel to British Columbia’s famed Highway of Tears. As many as forty murders in that area of the Province still remained unsolved. Upon reading about the murders, Marc was quick to point out that most of the victims were female hitchhikers traveling alone on the highway. They would be in the woods together where no one could possibly bother them. Lacy was reluctant, but again, it was Marc’s projection of absolute confidence that allowed her to set aside her misgivings and follow him into the wilderness once more.
Marc and Lacy began day two of their trek skirting the base of peak M5-58. This was where the full reality of their isolation began to set in for Lacy. Between the two of them there was a can of bear spray, and Marc had a hunting knife velcroed to his right pantleg. Lacy realized just how meager those defenses were when they startled a group of seven bison grazing in a high meadow about thirty yards beneath the scree field they were traversing. The dull, echoing timbre of the bison’s alarm-call served notice to the whole valley that people were here, in their place. This was not Colorado—not the foothills, not the Front Range—and from that moment on, Lacy was more hesitant with each next step, each rocky mile, each unspoken word, moving them farther into the Canadian wilderness.
“I told you we should’ve brought the gun,” Lacy said.
They were the first words either of them had uttered in a half hour, and the sound of her voice seemed so unnatural against the silence between their steady footfalls.
“We’re fine, Lacy,” Marc answered. “How many times have we had this conversation before a hike?”
“That was in Fort Collins.”
“Don’t worry,” he said, turning to reassure her with a confident look.
That look lasted barely long enough for Marc to see that Lacy was still behind him; it certainly wasn’t long enough to regard the ever-building fear that had rooted itself in her consciousness.
Hours later, at the peak of a 7,500-foot crag the map labeled The Camber, Marc decided they could make their descent across a lower ridge. On the map it seemed passable, and after a quick look through the binoculars, Lacy agreed, as much because it promised to cut off two miles from their descent to an abandoned hunting camp, where they planned to pass the night.
Lacy stood beside Marc as he sat on a rock, leafing through the guidebook for the Kessucks and Muskwas, and after a few moments of scanning, Marcus began to read:
“The Camber’s southern ridge drops down in two progressive arcs that give the larger peak its name. The wider top section, known as Bear Ridge, drops off at pitches over forty degrees to the eastern and western sides; whereas the lower, Little Bear Ridge, forms a knife edge, with the western side dropping off fifty degrees against a nearly-vertical eastern cliff-face. Both are passable in light weather and offer stunning panoramas of the Pantheon to the south, but are not for the faint of heart.”
As Marc lifted his eyes from the page, he said, “I’d say we can hack it. What do you say, Lacy?”
She shrugged and looked out at the long ridge shaking her head. Marc stood, tucking the book and the map into the top pouch of his pack.
“Why don’t you lead,” he said.
Lacy took a deep breath and pressed onward.
By the time they’d crossed the upper section of the ridge an hour later, the weather was starting to fold in on them. The breeze was constant and had grown in stature from pleasant to forceful. The gray of the clouds had lowered from an overcast high cover and was starting to make itself present in wisps and drifts of fog. Small clouds passed before them and beside them close enough to catch their attention, even transfixed as their eyes were on the rocky ridge where the hikers set their feet.
When they got to the lower section, Little Bear Ridge looked different to Lacy. The higher bowed ridge was broad enough for two bold hikers to pass side by side. But here, it was only wide enough to pass single-file, and with great caution.
Lacy stopped as the ridge narrowed. “I don’t know about this, Marcus.”
She looked around and then down the eastern side—only open air and a thousand-foot drop to the valley below.
“You’ll be fine, Lacy. I’ll be right behind you.”
“But the wind, Marc?”
“Honey, this is no different than Katahdin, and you were a rock star that day.”
“It wasn’t windy.”
“Honey,” he said. “We’ll be fine.”
“I don’t want to do this, Marc.”
“Lacy, the weather’s coming in, honey, and we need to drop altitude. We’re talking seven miles back around, and it’s almost four o’clock.”
“How long did the map say the ridge is?”
“It’s a little less than the upper ridge. Two-tenths at most, honey. You can do it. I’ll be right behind you the whole way.”
Lacy had hiked enough to know that two-tenths of a mile was three hundred fifty yards—about seven hundred steps. In her mind, she broke down the long traverse into sections of fifty steps each, ready to celebrate as she put each section behind her. Lacy turned, paused for a moment to regard the sharp ridge, and took a breath before stepping out. She held her arms slightly away from her body like a tightrope walker and moved forward, one deliberate step before the next.
Lacy was counting her sixth section of fifty steps when it started raining—nothing heavy, but enough moisture to stick to the rock, making every precarious step that much more questionable. Each slow, deliberate movement became a decision, a calculation of just how far in front of her body she could space the next step without risking a fatal slip of a sole.
When the wind picked up three-quarters of the way across the ridge, she knew crossing the knife edge had been a bad call. She was bent, almost bracing, anticipating a sliding boot or a loose piece of shale to fall away and carry her with it.
“You’re doing great, Lacy,” Marc kept saying. “We’re almost there.”
It was near yard two-fifty when a sudden wind gust swept Lacy to the rock face. She sensed the blast of wind right at the crucial second and was able to brace herself, almost overcompensating, so that when she realized what had happened, Lacy knew she’d leaned too heavily away from the eastern cliff, favoring a ragged battering to a pure thousand-foot plummet. She found herself sprawled flat against the wet rock face and slipping, scraping her fingernails against solid shale to try and keep her sliding body from accelerating. She tried to plant her chest, her knees, even her face against the rock to arrest the slide, but she couldn’t stop her downward momentum. Lacy shrieked.
“Find a foothold,” Lacy heard Marcus’s voice above her.
“Help me! Pull me up!”
All she could hear was the wind and the wet kiss of her bootsoles sliding over the rock beneath her, unable to find purchase. As Lacy continued to slide, she managed to grasp a rock projection about the size and shape of a lampshade. She wrapped her left arm around the rock, and somehow, she managed to fight against the strap of her backpack enough to get her right arm around the wet rock as well. There was a pungent smell of damp, earthy dirt out on this ledge. She hugged that tiny piece of mountain with the whole force of her life, but still, Lacy knew she wasn’t strong enough to pull herself up from there. She couldn’t see the ridge above her.
“I’m trying to get to you. Find a foothold and stay calm.”
“I’m going to fall!”
“You’re not going to fall,” he said. “Hold on till I get there.”
“I can’t see you.”
“I’m coming to you, Lacy,” he said.
Over the wind and her frantic breathing, Lacy could just barely hear the sound of Marc’s pants scratching across the surface of the rock as he struggled to slide toward her. She didn’t think he would reach her in time. Then she heard his voice to her left.
“There’s a foothold,” Marc said. “Your left boot. Slide it up the rock, honey, about twelve inches and about two inches to the right.”
Lacy raised her knee toward her chest, feeling out each slippery inch of the rock’s surface with her boot, searching for some sort of purchase.
“Good,” Marc said. “Up a little more.”
It grabbed. Lacy found the foothold, and a handhold took her back within a few yards of the ridge. Marc pulled her to the sharp apex with a final tug on the top of her pack.
They crawled the final hundred yards in rain and howling wind, and in all of it, Lacy was most grateful that her kneecaps waited until the adrenaline had worn off before telling her what they thought of a bare, hundred-yard crawl on shale with fifty pounds of gear strapped to her back.
When they got off the ridge and stood, Marc gave Lacy a strange look she interpreted as part apology, part ‘glad that’s over with’, part shrug, and part smile.
“We better get down,” Marc said, and he was still hiking, still moving on, thinking that this moment would simply get left behind them on that ridge.
In the wind and the rain, exposed on the lower section of The Camber, Lacy couldn’t see the use in a fight. But she decided that when the sun rose the following morning, Marcus Brathmore was walking her out of those mountains, or he was finding himself another wife.
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