Allure Of The Elusive Mountain Man

| April 22, 2015 | 2 Comments
Credit.DarrenUmbsaar

Photo by Darren Umbsaar

By Kate Siber

In the middle of Banff National Park, miles from any road or vestige of civilization, a glacier steamrolls down a valley. On a weekday in April, its white-grey hue perfectly matches the fog-bleached sky and the muted snow of the peaks, creating a monochrome of white.

I’m on skis and connected by rope to a friend ahead of me and a friend behind me, because under the snow lurk great gashes in the ice known as crevasses. Above, the landscape’s only darkness—a granite band of cliffs—threatens with icefalls, and a series of seracs loom to the left. Our guides directed us not to stop skinning for some 1,800 vertical feet of climbing, so I slide one ski after the other methodically, watching the rope inch ahead to the rhythm of my friend’s footsteps.

The night before, our guide Steve told me a harrowing story. One blue-sky day when he was climbing in the mountains, a house-sized serac like one of these loosened above and fell directly toward him and his climbing partner. “This is it,” he thought. He dug into the ice with his axes, his feet dangling, his head down. Inexplicably, the serac broke into two great pieces and only its meteoric debris hit the pair. They escaped with just broken ribs and a shattered ankle between them. On the glacier that day, I understood what Steve meant when he talked about the strange peace that comes when faced with such beautiful, terrifying risk.

This was my first backcountry ski trip, and I didn’t notice Steve at first, not in the Canmore, Alberta, outfitters’ office, where he and the other guides checked our group for the proper array of mittens, layers, skis, beacons, and shovels. Not in the first granite gorge that we skinned up, which glowed with a fresh coat of snow. Not even at our first hut where we ate soup and gathered around wooden tables to watch the alpenglow ebb from the peaks.

I did notice Steve when he unfurled his sleeping bag right next to mine in an empty corner of a bunk designed to pack in skiers like sticks of gum. “Hey,” he said. “Nice sleeping bag.” He smiled. We stayed up ’til 2 a.m. whispering.

Over the next few days, Steve made excuses to sit next to me, to skin up icefields beside me, and to lay his sleeping bag next to mine every night. It seemed an unlikely attraction. I am a pale, risk-averse bookworm. He was a strapping mountain-man cliché straight out of a Patagonia catalog. A ski and rock-climbing guide, he was 6’4” with tanned skin, a square jaw, and a Crest-white smile.

It was easy to fall for Steve in such a gorgeous, dangerous place so far from the strictures of everyday life. We climbed up peaks together and arced turns through buttery slopes. Late at night, we snuck outside in our long underwear to marvel at the stars that cluttered the sky. In the morning, I watched him rinse dishes, his athletic frame backlit by the hut’s window and ensconced in steam. Everyone else seemed to disappear.

The night we descended from the park, the group met at a brewery in Canmore. After, outside on the sidewalk, Steve invited us all for a nightcap. Like everyone else, I was exhausted and turned to leave, but then something made me stop and turn around. Blind curiosity, perhaps.

In the dim, wood-paneled bar, we ordered whiskey and retreated to a corner. Last call seemed to come in minutes, and we stumbled out into the cold, where a fresh storm silenced the streets. My flight left early the next morning, and I intended to walk back to my hotel room. But the silent, dreamy landscape seemed to magnify my late-night stupor, and I found myself instead walking with Steve toward his home. He didn’t ask if I wanted to come in. He just held the door, and I stepped inside.

At first, I thought of Steve as nothing more than a mystery soon to become a lovely, distant memory. I knew anything more would be a joke. He was a risk-seeking mountain guide. I’m a tea-drinking overthinker. He lived in Alberta. I live in Colorado. We’d need visas just to live in the same town. I’m practical to a bore, so it irritated me that I couldn’t help but daydream about running off together to live in a mountain cabin with only candles and a woodstove and stream water. But perhaps the impossibility of it was part of the appeal.

I have always fallen for men who are more able-brained than able-bodied, and Steve did not fit my preconceived image of a partner. The daughter of a staunch feminist, I fancied myself too evolved to fall for a hunky mountain man with outsize biceps. But it’s hard to deny the biological appeal of men who work outside, whose hands are rough and scarred, whose faces are chapped by the sun.

In meeting Steve, I realized that the allure actually went deeper than appearances. Like cowboys—that other great cliché of North American masculinity—mountain men seem to exhibit a free-roaming spirit that is so hard to find in their city-dwelling counterparts. Mountain men seem so capable, so aloof to the trivialities of modern life, and so unconcerned with vanity. The stereotype connotes masculine qualities that seem to be in such short supply these days—loyalty, decisiveness, strength, self-reliance. I never realized I’d wanted those things.

Steve was obviously more than a stereotype. He wasn’t exactly a grizzled longbeard in buckskins and a bear claw necklace. He drank cappuccino and read poetry, but he was also undeniably a man of the high hills. He grew up in a rough mill town in northern Canada and when his dad died early, he sought solace in the mountains. There was still something a bit wild and unfinished about him.

Steve and I started to email, chat on Skype, and talk on the phone several times a week. He wrote me long, detailed letters, and I returned them. A fling evolved into an ambiguously romantic friendship, and by summer he planned a trip to Colorado. In a way, I dreaded him coming, partly because I was nervous to see him and partly because I didn’t want this reverie to end.

I picked him up at the Denver airport one windy July day, and we roamed south with reckless spontaneity, stopping at a crocodile farm and a UFO-spotting tower in the desert. We hiked into the shifting hills of Great Sand Dunes National Park, where thunderheads rambled across the sky. We dug our bare feet in the sand and let the rain prick our skin. Because I only knew him outside of my daily routine, Steve was more fun and hot and interesting than anyone who could exist in the context of normal life. Soon I’d realize that he suffered from the same delusional thinking—but for someone else.

One moonless night, as I steered to the sound of a low bleating radio over Wolf Creek Pass, Steve told me about a girl he had fallen in love with the previous summer, a woman he had only mentioned briefly before. Elena, too, had been a client of his. He taught her to ski and ice climb while she was on a semester-long break from college. When she went back to school, they split ways to pursue their disparate life paths. But he still pined for her, despite her absence—or perhaps because of it. He described her as a sort of perfect modern-day mountain woman: coolheaded, capable, rugged, athletic, smart. I pretended to sound sympathetic.

Steve went back to Canada and we continued to call and email in between his wilderness expeditions. We became best friends and confidantes, and I was terribly honest about every aspect of my life, except my desire for him. I’d craft emails carefully so they sounded casual. I went out with guys only so I could tell him about it. I couldn’t concentrate at work and checked email like a Pavlovian mutt.

The longer I didn’t see Steve, the more dreamy he became. I frequently googled him to find articles about his climbing adventures that stoked my visions of him as some Greek god walking out of the misty alpine tundra. Slowly he became more of a character in my head than a real person.

The more I secretly obsessed over him, the more he obsessed over Elena, and I became fascinated with the idea of her. I also googled her and found evidence of her own climbing exploits and even a college photograph. It felt ugly and possibly illegal, but I couldn’t keep my fingers off the mouse. It was too easy to fit whatever materials I found into a juicy—if mostly false—story of their lives.
I think of myself as a rational person. I knew I was being ridiculous—more like insane—and that it had to stop. So six months after Steve and I met, I dashed off an email with the truth: I had feelings for him, and if he didn’t feel the same way, we had to stop talking. Before I could regret it, I clicked send. Three agonizing days ticked by before his response pinged into my inbox: He was surprised, and no, he didn’t feel the same way.

The next day was the day before Thanksgiving, and I flew from Colorado to Boston to see my family. Denver International Airport was a blur of passengers, but as I rode the escalator up to the second-floor food court, I noticed someone familiar coming down the other side. It was her, Elena. My curse is that I never forget a face, and hers—the emblem of some unknowable perfection—was indelible from that college photo I had found online. In my vain stupor, I had to know if it was really her. Could we really have crossed paths in an airport crawling with tens of thousands of people on the busiest travel day of the year?

While I would usually read a book on a three-hour layover, I instead ambled the airport, toting my heavy duffel bag. “I’m stretching my legs,” I told myself. Half an hour later, in an empty waiting area, I spotted her. My cheeks flushed. My palms turned clammy. I walked away.
But I had to know, so I turned around and walked purposefully over to her, trying to breathe, trying not to trip on the carpet. The girl had long blonde hair, a petite, athletic build, and full cheeks. She wore jeans and sneakers and carried a tattered technical backpack that clearly had been used for more than just books. She looked healthy and new, like the fresh-faced college student she was.

“This is going to sound crazy,” I said, “but are you Elena?” I sighed shakily and hoped she’d say no.

“Yeeeees.” She hesitated. “Who are you?”

It turned out that Elena knew who I was, even though she and Steve didn’t talk much anymore. Steve was right: She was coolheaded, even while faced with a sweaty, red-faced, slightly deranged woman in an airport. She was surprised that I recognized her from a photograph, but she wasn’t alarmed, even though a baseball-capped teenager nearby looked at me, frowned, and muttered, “Dude, that’s creepy,” before wandering away.

As much as I don’t like to admit that I had become obsessed, meeting Elena was fortuitous. Meeting her made me realize that she wasn’t the goddess Steve helped me imagine. She was a friendly, pretty, promising 21-year-old with a tattered backpack and a ponytail. Cute, but mortal.

Relief wrapped around me like a familiar old coat, and over the next few days, I started to feel like my normal self again. Thoughts of Steve started to loosen and drift away. Perhaps, I thought, meeting the object of his obsession helped cure me of my own. In realizing that Elena was real, he became real, too, not the perfect mountain-man character I had sculpted in my imagination with the help of phone calls, emails, search engines, and the dangerous elixir of distance.

Yes, Steve was interesting and adventurous and had the body of an underwear model. But, looking back on our conversations, I began to realize that if I had spent more time around him, his moodiness, self-absorption, and goofy jokes would have grated on me. In time, he would have become a real person, with real virtues and real faults, just like me and just like Elena.

Three months later, I happened to be in Banff, Alberta, for work, and Steve drove 30 minutes from his home to meet me at a bar. My heart didn’t race. My palms didn’t sweat. The dim light of the wood-paneled bar seemed, oddly, like the perfect light in which to see him as I hadn’t before. Here was a tall, athletic, slightly balding ski guide in dirty bibs with a toothy grin and an endearingly dorky sense of humor. I felt a warm fondness for him but nothing more. We exchanged our goodbyes and he drove off in his purple minivan, a vehicle that was so unmanly I couldn’t help but laugh.

Meanwhile, I started to date guys without the sole intention of telling Steve about them. But there was one thing I was grateful to Steve for teaching me: I like my men both able-brained and able-bodied, if possible. In Durango, Colorado, where I live, it turns out that there are more than enough young, bearded, mountain-loving types to go around. Some might say too many—the ratio of men to women is notoriously skewed in these small mountain towns. However, it seemed exceedingly difficult to find one with the same allure as Steve. Partly this was because the men here are real people. Their foibles are immediately apparent, from the inability to form a cogent sentence without the word “bro” to unusual personal-hygiene policies—or lack thereof. But the real problem was not them. It was me.

I had moved from fantasizing about Steve to projecting my unrealistic desires and expectations onto other people, such as one tall, tanned man with a big nose and corkscrew brown hair who frequented my hot yoga class. As we performed sun salutations in unison in the steamy, windowless room, I imagined him as a strapping woodsman with a cabin in the hills outside of town. It was plainly ridiculous, but I happily spun a false yarn about him anyway.

One night after class, I said hi to hot yoga boy. And when he said hi back, my daydreams went poof. His voice didn’t sound at all like I had imagined. Suddenly, he was not the character I had created but a blank slate—a mystery. After three more classes, a few conversations, and several hints, Andrew asked me out on a backcountry-ski date in the mountains north of our home. That day a storm dusted the slopes with fresh snow and dropped a dreamy haze over the mountains. In this quiet hinterland, it was easy to start falling for a strong, scruffy-faced dude who looked so light and effortless on his skis.

Back at home, I couldn’t resist the temptation to google him, but luckily his name appeared only seven times on the Internet: a few hockey and bike-race rosters and a college dean’s list from years ago. No photographs. No dirt. He didn’t even have a Facebook page.

I soon found out that Andrew doesn’t really email and is about as talkative as a sea turtle on the phone. When I met him, he didn’t even know how to text message. Often, he would simply stop by my house while walking the dog to say hello and see if I was cooking something good for dinner. I would need to get to know him the old-fashioned way: in person.

So we hiked up mountains and skied down them in the winter. We went to yoga classes and learned to paddleboard on the river. Along the way, I opened up to discovering him for who he is rather than seeing him within the limitations of a story I had already written.

Strangely, Andrew wound up being a classic man of the mountains in many ways. He owns no buckskins or coonskin cap (thank God), but he does have a wolf dog, an ability to fix or build pretty much anything, and a talent for chopping wood for—you guessed it—his house in the mountains. He loves to roam and he’s strong and capable and adventurous. He is often bearded and just a little bit dirty. He’s strong and loyal and uncomplicated by the neuroses so typical of my overly urbanized ex-boyfriends.

Best of all, Andrew is a real person, not a dusty stereotype. He has fears and feelings, dirty socks, and bad habits. Five years after we met, Andrew proposed to me on top of a blustery ski hill, and I said yes. Our story, of course, doesn’t end here. Marriage is how our story continues, but we decided to celebrate our wedding with a cheeky nod to our favorite place.

According to a quirky, old wedding tradition in the mountains near our home, the groom must cart his bride around town in a wheelbarrow. I have no idea why, and, at first, I wasn’t so keen on this idea. But Andrew outfitted a wheelbarrow with sheets, pillows, and ribbons and convinced me to give it a try. It wasn’t so bad. So after we married in a sunlit meadow surrounded by our friends and family, I let Andrew pick me up in my long white dress, place me gently in the wheelbarrow, and cart me away.

This feature article was originally published in Women’s Adventure magazine’s Summer 2014 issue.

Category: Articles, Health, Mind

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Written by the dedicated, hard-working Women's Adventure staff and their very generous team of volunteer writers. Want to lend a hand at making this splendid magazine even more splendid? Contact us at digital.diva@womensadventuremagazine.com and let us know!

Comments (2)

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  1. Jody says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article. I too, developed a relationship with a guy that I met on a short backpacking trip with girlfriends, which developed into a deeper relationship when I joined him on a long distance backpacking trip. It fizzled out after months of email communications and many years later I met the mountain man who is now my husband. I am so glad you met your mountain man! Thank you for sharing.

  2. Jennifer G says:

    Great article and fun read – thanks!

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