A professional climber’s quest to complete every route in the famous Haffner Cave – in one day – gave him a way back to life. By Gord McArthur. Feature image by Tim Banfield.
At the start of the day, I was climbing nervously. I was feeling emotional and found it hard to focus, although I was in a familiar place. I’m a professional climber, and I’ve spent many days in Kootenay National Park’s iconic Haffner Cave, also known as the Hoar House, building my resumé as a mixed climber. The cave is home to the original try-hard mixed climbs, ranging from M7 to M12. But grief had been causing my mind to spin.
Over the years, I’ve lost many friends, especially in the climbing community. With every loss, I think I know how to deal with grief, yet each death feels like I’m experiencing it for the first time. I was taught to suck it up and keep moving, which seemed to work until last November, when I received the news that my friend took his own life. Less than 30 minutes later, I was on the phone again: my 30-year-old brother had just died in an accident. My soul shook and my heart fractured.Everything felt too heavy, and I couldn’t comprehend the losses. For three months, I barely did anything except get through the days. Then my good friend Sarah Hueniken invited me out for a day of climbing in Haffner Cave. Sarah had been dealing with grief of her own and the notion of being around someone who understood my feeling of drowning was reassuring. I made the effort to go.
View this post on Instagram
After my initial bout of nervousness in the cave, something suddenly shifted in me. Sarah’s enthusiasm snapped me out of my funk, and I just started to move. Oddly, I was happy to try which-ever route she pointed at. It didn’t matter what grade it was. As we climbed, Sarah talked with excitement about her project to climb the cave’s seven routes in one day. Will Gadd had done it several years back, and she wanted to attempt the same goal. I could feel her motivation running through me; it was familiar. Sarah encouraged me to try it too, and her enthusiasm and belief in me struck a chord. Feeding off her energy and without thinking, I responded, “Hell, yes!”
A few days later, Sarah completed the cave’s tick list in a day. Her level of talent in that type of terrain is incredible. I was so excited for her. I, however, instantly lost motivation. My soul-crushing grief was all-encompassing, and I couldn’t give anything else my true attention. As days passed, I resisted attempting the feat. But something was gnawing inside. This is what you do. This is who you are. I realized each of us contains the possibility of something extraordinary, and those opportunities arise when we push ourselves toward the edge of our abilities. I was beginning to believe —and so I tried.
I grew tired and cried, wanting to give up.
Starting at 9a.m. in Haffner Cave, I climbed. I clipped the anchors route after route. After a while, I grew tired and cried, wanting to give up because it was too much pressure and effort. Every part of my being was pushed to the limit, but photographer Tim Banfield and belayer Greg Barrett, as well as a cave full of like-minded enthusiasts, had unwavering confidence in me, reminding me I could do it. Just before we needed to turn our headlamps on at the end of the day, I clipped the last anchor and everyone cheered. I had climbed all seven original routes and the newest addition to the cave, making me the first person to climb the eight routes of Haffner Cave in a day. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
I felt freedom in that moment. Every step, tool placement, and sequence of moves made me confident and brought me joy. In the cave, Sarah reminded me that climbing helps me breathe and will always bring me peace. Grieving is hard, and without my family and friends, it would be unbearable. But what matters most is that we start that process, however it looks, and Sarah will always be the one who inspired me to believe I could take that first step forward.