The Summit Fail of Old Goat Mountain

Emilee Mae Struss
Oct 15, 2018 · 8 min read

That was the thickest PB&J sandwich she had ever seen and, to be honest, she was hoping she could sneak a little bite from her climbing partner at the summit.

However, when they made it to the summit, well after the sun had descended behind the Canadian Rockies, they had much greater problems.

And, Colin forgot the crunchy peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwich, on multi-grain bread, in the car… that was the first mistake.

The second mistake they made was starting the climb up the mountain at noon. I repeat, NOON.

Third mistake they made was putting their mothers down as emergency contacts — mothers that live in the United States and cannot do a single, damn thing about their children being stuck on a mountaintop in Canada.

Fourth mistake was to not share this story, of the Old Goat Mountain summit fail, which happened on August 20, 2016, in writing, until now.

Emilee standing in front of Old Goat Mountain the day prior to the, ahem, failed summit.

Colin and Emilee can be described using three simple adjectives — granola, carefree, and adrenaline-seeking.

The two wilderness wanderers met, well, in the wild desert of Southern Idaho working with rambunctious teens that needed a little reset in their lives. Colin and Emilee were wilderness instructors, and they worked well together.

12 days on and 12 days off was their schedule.

What else are the granolas to do on their days off but find the fiercest, most outrageous mountain, with no trails, in Alberta, Canada and see if they can summit it?

They studied topographical maps at the Alberta Welcome Center, running their fingers over the ridge lines and making comments like, “That part looks pretty tame”, “But that part looks real sketch, ah, I think we can make it though.”

After two days of scanning the mountain, both in life and on maps, they decided to go for it.

Emilee parked her burnt orange Chevy Cobalt on one end of the mountain, and they took Colin’s station-wagon, lovingly named “Cynthia”, to the opposite side of the mountain, where they’d begin their climb.

Before climbing up the mountain, they stopped at a nearby campground.

A sweet old woman with gray hair twisted in a tight bun and a round face greeted them.

“Hello, we are thinking about summiting this mountain right over there,” Colin said, pointing to Old Goat. “Can we leave emergency contact information with you, just in case something goes wrong?”

The woman looked apprehenvise.

“Well, nobody has climbed that mountain, successfully, that I know of,” the woman said.

Colin and Emilee received a jolt of excitement from her confession.

They wrote down their MOTHER’S names and numbers {bad, bad decision} and then they were off into the already descending sunshine up a steep mountainside with fallen trees, sticks, mushrooms, and rock cliffs.

Colin enjoying the flowers on the mountainside.

Their feet moved swiftly, not in the interest of time, but in the interest of the jagged spine that waited to be traversed at the top.

At 3:00 p.m. they reach the first sketchy 5.8 climb.

With heavy packs and bulky hiking boots, they moved mindfully on the corners of their thick rubber outsoles and tips of their fingers up the rocky cliff.

Once they made it to the top, Colin looked at Emilee and said, “Whelp, I guess we’re commiteed to Old Goat now because I’m sure as hell not down-climbing that section.”

She smiled and led the way to the start of a long, jagged spine of a ride line, just as the sun was brimming orange and yellow and shining off of the glacier that sat like a glass knife beneath them.

Her hands cupped the ridge, her legs straddled each side of the chossy mountain and she moved swiftly, happily…

Pieces of rock chipped off the top and rolled thousands of feet down the steep sides of Old Goat.

The spine, in all its chossy-ness, of Old Goat Mountain.

Colin and Emilee switched lead on traversing the spine, taking in moments of awe about how small everything below seemed. And then, the moment they had noticed on the map and projected from the ground, faced them in a large obtrusive way.

The entire ridgeline cliffed off.

“So, this is where people get stuck,” Colin said.

Emilee started to fall into a panic. “Colin, there is no way we can get down that cliff.”

The young, happy, curly-haired and tatooed man took out a climbing rope and said, “We can double repell.”

Emilee and Colin put their rock climbing harnesses on, thankful that they at least had those, and found a sturdy rock jutting out of the ride line’s frame like an upturned widows peak.

They wrapped the rope around the rock, weighted it on either side, and double reppelled down the cliff side.

Laughter and happiness met them at the bottom in safety, which, also did not last long. The rope, their lifeline, the only thing that could save them in a similar event, was sinched between two rocks and not. moving. anywhere.

They rapped and pulled, yanked and shook, but nothing.

The sun that brought warmth and light was now only a small glimmer sinking down into the curvature of the earth.

“We need that rope and don’t have much sunlight,” Colin said. “I’m going to climb up that cliff and get it.”

Emilee stood, in full panic, and watched Colin climb up the sketchy cliff about 15 feet to get the rope unstuck and then down-climb with it wrapped around his neck.

The trip was no longer a fun afternoon event, the two were 10,236 feet up on a mountain in Alberta, Canada, with little amounts of water, one dying headlamp, a sorrowfully forgotten PB&J and virtually no winter gear to keep them through the night.

Panic.

Emilee couldn’t speak. She couldn’t focus. And she very quickly became terrified that she would fall off the mountain, the same one she was skipping along the ridge just a couple hours before that.

With the one dying headlamp, the two found a hanging cliff edge with dripping water and decided they’d stop to fill up their nalgenes.

Darkness had fallen and every step they took needed to be certain.

Drip, drip… the water droplets were small and intermittent.

Emilee began to cry, hopeless, and knowing that they were not making if off Old Goat Mountain tonight.

“We are going to make it off this mountain,” Colin said. “Just, maybe, not tonight.”

The two accepted their fate and found the flattest spot they could find along the ridge line, stomped out some rocks and lay down for the night, estimating it to be around 10:00 p.m.

Shivering.

They. could. not. stop. shivering.

Icy wind whipped across the land below, gaining momentum and rolling over the mountainside and rustling through their light, rain layers.

They desperately used the climbing rope as a blanket, Emilee actually wondered if she spent a moment knitting it like a rug, if she could make it warmer. They used their pack’s rain covers for their faces.

After about 30 minutes of constant shaking, Colin said, “Yo, Em, I know you’re dating someone and everything but if we don’t snuggle super hard right now, I’m not sure how long we’ll make it.”

Between jaw-shuddering teeth, she said, “Get over here.”

The two molded together, with sharp rocks beneath them and a draped rope above them.

At 4:00 a.m., they stood up and did jumping jacks and high knees to generate warmth. And that, was the moment of fear breakthrough.

It started with Colin, sputtering a little giggle.

Emilee, thrusting her hands up and down into the air with rapid high knees, realized how hilarious this moment really was, and she started laughing too.

The two continued to jazzercise on top of Old Goat Mountain, laughing, shaking, freezing and laughing some more.

The sunrise, although it took painstakingly long, did rise.

Around 5:00 a.m. they decided to bail off the back of the mountain and ride thousands of feet down in layers of shifting scree rock; dehydrated, hungry, and both sun and wind burned.

As they took their first steps off the steep backside, they noticed movement on the mountaintop: It was Momma Old Goat herself. She was standing on a peak in the distance, watching Colin and Emilee like a reigning queen over her castle of human doom.

They bowed in honor of the rough night, the jagged peaks, the failed final summit, with Momma Old Goat appreciating their recognition.

It was like a precious moment of honoring their own gnarliness. But greater than that, they were bowing to Mother Earth and the vastness of her crevasses. And how they gave it a solid human try, but the mountain’s knife-tooth drop offs ultimately sent them stumbling down the backside, with Momma Old Goat standing like a pillar of existentialism, bidding them farewell.

The journey, from that point, stretched like silly putty over the next 9 hours.

The backside of the mountain was blanketed with fallen trees. Colin and Emilee had to climb over, under, over and under just to make a small amount of progress once they finally made it down the scree rock slip n’ slide.

A loud, whipping of chopper blades soon hovered above them.

It was obvious the woman at the campground had called search and rescue.

“Shit, that’s for us, and they won’t be able to see us in this heavy fallen forest,” Colin said,

They fought for every step, trying their best to make it out. They reached a sudden clearing of trees, a God-sent logging trail. They hiked as fast as their lacking bodies could go, the rest of the 6 miles around the mountain.

Once they made it to a large lake, they were encouraged, but teased. Leary of giardiasis, they refused to give in to their thirsting tongues and drink the water. They kept hiking.

A white truck came driving down the pathway and a woman rolled down the window, “Are you Colin and Emilee?” she asked.

“Yes, we are.”

She spoke into a walkie talkie, calling off the helicopter.

The two stepped into the white truck, unable to process what had just happened, and listened to the woman communicate to all sources that “the two lost Americans had been found”.

Come to find out, the pilot had also tried to summit Old Goat Mountain and was unsuccessful. Exhausted, Colin and Emilee thanked the team, and went back to their adventure vehicles to cheers with two IPAs to an adventure, one that was a little too high on the gnar-gnar scale.

And then, they embarked on their biggest mission yet, to tell their emergency contact mothers they were okay.

Emilee hiking along Old Goat Mountain ridge

This story is written in honor of Colin’s mother, Susan Scarborough, whom passed away at the age of 65 on August 30, 2018. For 30 years she worked defending hurt and angry kids as a public defender. She was a mix of love and determination. She passed away, after a long battle with cancer, holding Colin’s hand. This story is written in honor of Colin’s love for his mother, how he moved back to Wisconsin to help her and spent her last moments on this earth, at her bedside.

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