never know when being a top notch climber will come in handy ;)
LAKE LOUISE — One of North America’s top mountaineers was stalked by a grizzly bear for about 300 metres and chased up a tree as he guided a client in the Lake Louise area of Banff National Park.
In what he described as one of the scariest moments of his life, Canmore’s Barry Blanchard said the grizzly bear climbed about 18 metres up the tree, where he and his client were clinging to nimble branches 25 metres up for well over an hour.
“A bear coming at you is way more scary than an avalanche, thunderstorms, crevasses,” said Blanchard, who is a top alpinist noted for pushing the standards of highly technical, high-risk alpine climbing in the Canadian Rockies and the Himalayas.
“When he was coming up the tree, it was terrifying. That’s a huge amount of adrenalin for one day.”
As the grizzly bear, a six-year-old male bear fitted with a radio collar, got higher up the tree, Blanchard screamed for help and his client blew his whistle in the hope of scaring it away.
“I could see the bear’s eyes. He was five to eight metres away. He’d stopped and was panting really hard and I screamed at the bear to get out of the tree,” he said.“I think it was too hard work for him, so he went down out of the tree, but he had gone up 18 metres trying to get us.”
The drama began to unfold Monday morning when Blanchard was taking a client from Japan to climb the north glacier of Mount Aberdeen. They encountered the grizzly on the slopes below the Mount Fairview trail on the way to Saddleback Pass.
Blanchard said the bear stood up, prompting him and his client to begin slowly backing down the trail, and despite talking firmly but calmly to the bear at this point, the grizzly began to follow them, all the while closing the gap.
“He followed us for about 300 metres, for about 10 or 15 minutes, and then he sat down and we thought maybe he wasn’t interested, but then he stood up and started following us again,” said the international mountain guide.
“He started to close the distance — he wasn’t running, just walking — but then he got to within 10 metres away from us.”
It was at this point that Blanchard realized there was no appropriate escape route to stop the bear from following, other than to climb up a tree to try to get himself and his client to safety.
Blanchard said the bear didn’t charge them, but began to accelerate his pace, forcing them to drop their backpacks to try to divert the bear’s attention. He had his cellphone in the pack.
“We started up the tree and we could hear the bear ripping apart our packs,” he said.
“After about half an hour of sitting in the tree, the tree started to vibrate and I realized the bear was coming up the tree. We had to go higher.”
At this point, Blanchard said he feared strong wind gusts would topple the top of the tree, which was holding about 135 kilograms in the combined weight of the two men.
“When the wind gusts would come, I would lean into the wind, and the whole time the bear was snapping off branches, coming up the tree. It was terrifying,” he said.
“He went back to the packs and started ripping the packs apart, and he started coming to the tree again. I screamed at him to go away, threw a headlamp at him, and he started off down the trail. We waited another half-hour in the tree.
“We thought after half an hour, maybe he’d be gone. We screamed for help some more, but he came back up the trail. All I can assume is he was waiting for us to come out of the tree.”
The bear eventually took off, and about five minutes later, a hiker came across Blanchard and his client, and then another hiker came by and one of them was able to raise the alarm for help.
A Parks Canada employee, armed with a shotgun, escorted Blanchard, his client and the two hikers down the trail to safety.
Despite his ordeal, Blanchard said he holds no ill will toward the grizzly bear.
“I hope it doesn’t turn out bad for the bear. I hope the bear is left to be a bear,” he said.
“I am happy we didn’t have physical contact with him . . . but I can’t hold him at fault for being a bear.”
Blanchard said he was not carrying bear spray, but said he believes he did everything else right to avoid a more serious encounter.
“I’m going to have bear spray all the time now,” he said. “It would have given me another option. Maybe it would have helped, but the other side is, maybe it just would have pised him off.”
Parks Canada officials say the bear, which has been involved in other encounters this summer, has since moved on.
They say there are no closures or warnings in place because the radio-collared bear is being closely monitored.
“This is undesirable behaviour. We’re glad the people didn’t get hurt,” said Hal Morrison, a human-wildlife conflict specialist for Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay.
“Visitor safety is important, grizzly bears are important and we’re evaluating what’s going on and making sure we have all the information and complete picture.”
Morrison said Parks Canada recommends hikers carry bear spray and know how to use it.
He said grizzly bears are more adept at climbing trees than people realize, especially trees with limbs.
“Climbing a tree is an option — it’s not the No. 1 option by any means, but in this particular incident, it appeared to be OK,” he said.
Canmore’s Isabelle Dube, who chose to climb a tree in an attempt to escape a bear attack, was killed by a 90-kilogram grizzly bear in June 2005 near the SilverTip Golf Course in Canmore.
Parks Canada urges people to stay alert on the trails, make noise, watch for fresh bear signs, travel in groups, keep dogs on a leash, and carry bear spray and know how to use it.
If people see a bear, Parks Canada asks them to call the 24-hour park dispatch at 403-762-1470. They have more information on their website at http://www.pc.gc.ca/docs/v-g/oursgest-bearmanag/banff.aspx
Cathy Ellis is a reporter for the Rocky Mountain Outlook