Among the photographs taken up on the Wapta Ice Fields in the Canadian Rockies in April, 2002, was a close-up of a raven, in profile. The photographer, my son, Neil Falkner. I looked at the other pictures, images of the jagged treeless peaks, blurred by blowing snow, the friends roped together traversing the tilted landscape, pitting themselves against the bleak wilderness of the B.C./Alberta border. Another snapshot was a self-portrait of a smiling Neil, the camera reflected in the right lens of his ski goggles. I saw the photographs…but I never saw Neil again, not really.
Six days after seeing these photographs, I saw the body he had lived and played in. It was in a box in Calgary, a fixed expression on his face, cold and unyielding under my touch. I read to him a card I’d written, a last bedtime story, and laid it in the box with the leftover trail mix for this last journey. A framed enlargement of the raven looked down on him from the wall of the funeral room.
He had traveled across the Wapta Ice fields with his Whistler friends, Greg McDonnell and Dave Smith, a 40 pound pack and two ravens – a six-day backcountry trek. Heavy, overcast skies and low visibility plagued the expedition, but they were skilled, experienced and well-equipped mountaineers, adventurers, skiers. With Neil taking the lead through most of the trek, they knew where they were, had their bearings and found their shelters on target at the end of each day.
The fifth morning, Friday, April 12th in a whiteout, they left the Balfour Hut below Balfour Peak. Two friends, Sean Fraser of Prince George and Eric de Nys of Calgary, had found their way to the Balfour Hut the night before and the five decided to set out on the next leg of their journey together. Before leaving the hut that morning Greg wrote in the hut log book “We’re headed for the Scott Duncan Hut in a whiteout. Wish us luck…”.
Roped together they crossed the saddle up the steep eastern side of Mount Balfour, finding the prominent rock ridge halfway up and keeping to the right along this landmark until it rejoined the snowy expanse of upward slope. They continued the climb to the anticipated plateau, undid their ropes, removed the skins from their skis and agreed to move as a unit, almost touching, because of the limited visibility. The white of the snow and the white of the air were indistinguishable in the available late morning light.
They were approaching an expected gradual descent and the terrain seemed to be complying. Their map, compass and GPS receiver confirmed they were on target but I now understand that a GPS reading only guarantees you to be within a hundred metres of a point. Here, if they were too much to the left they’d drop off cliffs onto the Balfour Glacier. Too much to the right, and they’d run the risk of being hit by avalanche debris coming off the mountain. They were, as it turned out, many metres to the left of route.
Just to Neil’s right, Greg noticed him move to the left again, 3 pole plants, and then disappear, silently, from his peripheral vision. There was no answer to their frantic calls of his name. An anchor was quickly built into the snow and both Greg, then Sean, belayed over the edge of the cliff to try and sight Neil. They now realized they were on the edge of a cornice on the north side of the Balfour High Col. About 40 feet down, a rocky outcropping took shape followed by about 700 feet of very steep slope. Neil was not visible and there continued to be no answer to their shouts.
It was clear that getting safely to Neil in the extreme whiteout conditions meant following the ridge northeast down to an area where one of them could ski across to where Neil would have toppled. With very little visibility, they decided to work their way down the ridge. About 600 feet down they reached the point where one of them would need to cross the col and locate Neil. Sean had the most medical training. He would be the one to attempt the treacherous distance between crevasses and through unstable avalanche conditions to see if Neil was hurt and what could be done to stabilize him, if necessary, before heading on to the Scott Duncan Hut and their final day in the mountains. If Neil had to be left up there they would need to be satisfied that he could survive the day and a half it would take them to reach Lake Louise to report the accident and get help to him.
When Sean got to Neil, 2 hours after his fall, he was face down in the snow. He had no pulse. My beautiful, strong, vibrant son was dead. It was early afternoon. It would be another 35 hours before I learned that my child had died.
It was Tuesday afternoon, April 16, when I looked at the photo of the raven. Greg and Dave had come to my home to help me and my other 2 adult children, Scott and Lucy, write a fitting obituary to Neil. They were sharing pictures of the fated trip. Upon viewing the photo of the raven my instant response was that I was looking at Neil. “Who took this picture”? My question must have betrayed a sense of shock. “Neil did” was Greg’s response.
“He’s taken a picture of himself”. I was thinking out loud. The raven was in profile, looking off into the distance as though nothing else existed. I’d seen Neil in that place, in the mountains, lost in the moment, captivated by his surroundings. This was Neil. There was a second picture of the same raven, in flight.
“That raven, actually two ravens, followed us throughout the trip. They came into the mountains with us. Neil really connected with this one. He stood still for half an hour with a piece of chocolate in his hand, waiting for the raven to take it. It’s a huge bird, 2 ½ to 3 times the size of a crow. Can’t imagine how they survived up there. We were way above the tree line. There’s nothing for them to eat”.
As we sat there, talking of him and the raven, Neil was still up in the mountain. The helicopter pilot and rescue crew had tried several times to go up and retrieve his body. First, high winds threatened to blow them up against the rock face. Then it was the continuing whiteout. A blizzard hit the area on the Wednesday. The noise and movement of a helicopter could set off an avalanche. The RCMP in Lake Louise, and the park warden were regular callers to my home in Vancouver for 6 days, updating me on weather and avalanche conditions, reassuring me they would get in as soon as it was safe to do so.
Daily I took time away from my circle of supportive friends and my children to be with Neil, to talk to him, sing to him, remind him of my love and the love and respect of all his friends, to explain what little I knew of what had happened to him, to reassure him I did not think he was careless, to hold him and rock him and tell him what was happening to get his body out of the mountain and what would be happening when they did.
Thursday when I lay on my bed preparing for my time with him I felt a distinct tug on my left foot. I was acutely aware of my whole being; I experienced a strong energy with me and opened all my senses to it. Movement, a light weight along my legs, rippled up my body and then laid heavily across my chest. It was comforting, a wingspan from shoulder to shoulder, full upon my heart. I spoke his name.
The visit was brief and the weight lifted before I was willing to let it go. Neil was with me and I did not want him to leave.
Where had the raven in the picture gone after he fell? Greg and Dave had said “followed us throughout the trip”. All of them? The entire trip?
I rose and phoned Greg in Whistler. “The raven, the ravens, did they follow you out of the mountains? Did you see them after Neil fell? Were they with you when Neil fell”?
“I don’t know. Visibility was poor. They may have been behind us. I don’t really know. But we never saw them again”.
I rang the RCMP in Lake Louise. “Can you get a message to the evacuation crew? Can you ask them to observe if there’s a raven in the area where Neil’s body is?” Joe, though doubtful, assured me he would give them the message.
The next morning, Friday, April 19, around 830 am, the phone rang. It was the RCMP, a woman named Frankie, with the news: “Neil’s body has just been evacuated and he’s on his way to Lake Louise where a car will take him to the Medical Examiner’s Office in Calgary. He was buried under more than a metre of snow. And Ms. Lynne, there was a raven in the area where Neil was found. The helicopter frightened it away coming over the col, but it was there”. She sounded eager to report this news, and somewhat awed.
It was a beautiful memorial for Neil Saturday in Whistler, B.C. where he was a highly regarded skier, patroller, mountain biker and friend. The love and respect in the Millennium Centre was palpable. The raven photo sat perched among other photos and mementos of Neil. I had known of my boy’s death for just one very long week. I would fly to see his body in Calgary in another 2 days, and begin to experience a new reality. I would take with me the raven photo that would look down from its frame on the wall. I would touch him and speak to him in my mother words. I would say goodbye.
Neil left many gifts: The Sunday morning phone call from atop Whistler Mountain in February to tell me how happy he was, how glorious was the day and the place – “the most beautiful place in the world”, how he wanted to share it with me; His journal with his thoughts about the risks he was taking and his awareness of his own mortality, and his writings about love and relationships and “I need to talk to Mum about this”; His values about pushing his boundaries and challenging himself and others; His love of the mountains and the environment and his burgeoning spirituality; His wonderful smile; His favourite quotation displayed on his bedroom wall –
“Our deepest sense of contentment comes in those times when we have forgotten about all the things we want, and are just appreciating the moment. When we stop thinking about ourselves and just feel into the moment, we transcend that sense of separateness, and however briefly, we merge, like that drop in the ocean, with something much bigger. We experience a moment of bliss, heart opening, love, or perhaps even divinity. In that moment, it is all there. There is absolutely nothing outside of ourselves towards which we might strive.” (Gwen Randall-Young)
And I have the raven to remind me to challenge myself as a way of keeping him alive in me. A replica of his photo of the raven, in flight, is tattooed over my heart
Raven photos by Neil Falkner, Wapta Traverse, April 10, 2002