Most of us have people in our lives that we deeply love and respect, but sometimes, we lose touch with some of these important people as the years slip by, sometimes lapsing into decades. For me, Peter Aitchison was one such deeply loved friend. He will be missed by many who were touched by this wonderful adventurer.
Peter, beyond all else, was a generous guy. He shared his love and expertise in climbing and backcountry travel with friends and new adventurers. In the city, he was intimately involved with making his neighbourhood and his community a better place. He helped keep Pollock Hardware going as a North End co-op. He loved cycling and shared that passion with friends and strangers alike.
I last saw Peter 20 years ago, as I headed west on my motorcycle to search for a life closer to the mountains. He was my friend and mentor; I wish I had seen him at least one more time.
On Aug. 7, Peter fell to his death while climbing Mount Victoria, a picturesque backdrop to Lake Louise. By climbing standards it was a relatively easy section of a popular mountaineering route to the south summit, he was not roped up with his partner when he fell.
As tributes pour in, I notice some posters on the Free Press website wondering why anyone would take such risks. And comments such as: "what was a 71-year-old doing in the mountains, unroped, not following 'proper' mountain safety protocols?" Or "he died doing what he loved."
First of all, no one wants to die doing what they love. It's only a tragic consequence of having the fortitude to pursue activities that for some unknown reason fulfil you and make you a better, happier person.
As for the safety aspect, yes, Peter died unroped as a result of a tragic slip, misstep or broken hand hold. Only he knows what happened. Mountaineering is not without risk. Nor, for that matter, is driving your car in bad weather.
On sheer cliff faces staying roped up is easy and highly recommended -- every inch of such terrain lends itself to roped travel. However, on mixed terrain (climbing and hiking), such as the route that claimed my friend's life, unroping and re-roping up is often required. Doing this comes at the expense of time, which on long mountain routes has proven to have been the demise of many as they descend in the dark, succumb to hypothermia, or simply wander off route.
Typically the decision to rope or not to rope is made by the group: "Who wants to rope up...?" If even one hand goes up, the party will rope up. If all agree not to rope, the party will accept the risk and continue. Travelling without a rope can be safer in some circumstances, especially amid risks associated with a night-time descent.
Roping up is a complex process and in mixed terrain is not always an option. You must uncoil your rope (usually one centimetre thick and 50 to 60 metres long), find a suitable anchor point and then construct solid anchors (not always possible).
Once you and your partner tie into the rope, your partner then moves off through the difficult section, seeking and setting anchors along the way. If anchor points are not available, which is typical in the Rockies, your partner's potential fall distance increases as they move further away from you. This increases the danger that both of you will fall to your deaths, in the event of a complete anchor failure. Once your partner reaches a "safe" location they need to search for and construct a suitable anchor on their end. The remaining rope is pulled through until it tugs on your harness. Then you follow "safely" to meet with your partner. Gear must then be stowed and the hike continues.
The process is very time-consuming, which in itself can lead to other dangers in the mountains. Furthermore, travelling roped together without intermediate solid anchors on mixed terrain can actually bring about the death of whoever is on the rope, along with the person who falls. Not being roped up in certain types of terrain is in fact the safest form of movement for the party as a whole.
Peter had a great depth of experience to draw from and safely returned from many far more difficult climbs. I can remember one such climb we retreated from, 500 feet up a 1,500-foot wall, in a heavy storm. On the way down, his new rope got stuck far above us. It was state-of-the-art at the time and a bunch of us had pitched in $300 to buy it for his 50th birthday. We debated who was going to climb up to free it. I was younger, he volunteered me. I considered it, smiled and then pulled out my knife and cut the rope. I can remember us giggling as we continued the descent to the relative safety of the glacier.
We have all had very close calls, on Mount Victoria his was just too close.
We all take risks in everyday life. Such risks range from your choice of diet and/or lack of exercise, to drinking, smoking, driving, job stress, etc.
As a climber, I can attest to the fact that several of my near misses have been in the vehicle that was transporting us to the "dangerous" climbs, yes, some of these with Peter by my side.
My dear friend Peter and his climbing partner that day are the only ones who truly understand the situation and the circumstances that claimed my friend's life. In all fairness, the only judgment we can pass is that they have the courage and strength to follow their passions.
Peter, we miss you dearly.
Former Winnipegger Ralph Wright now lives with his family in Edmonton, where he still occasionally heads to the mountains.