The ridge channels us, vertical grey cliffs one side, near vertical, dense dark forest the other. Scrambling along the iced, rocky battlements of the ridge, wading through patches of snow we explore. Following to a point of the ridge, the only way down is an abseil. Rope around a tree, leaning back, double checking it’s solid we descend onto the forest floor below. A narrow stream valley channels us steeply down. The snow knee deep, exposed rocks slippery and coated in leaf litter. We follow the stream around a bend and are faced with a narrow gorge not on the map, the limestone cliffs either side rising to lofty heights. Down is the only option.
We freeze. A cave, no more than 10 meters away catches our attention, animal sign litters the entrance. My senses immediately become heightened, my whole body responds. This is a feeling where there is no place for fear, an almost out of body experience, the very essence of my being ready to fight or run, to defend my right to be a survivor. With no option we group together and push on down the gorge, moving as quickly and as silently as we can over icy scree and fallen branches. More caves line the sides of the gorge, some large, some small.
Fresh Bear spoor and sign litters the ground around us. We move, conscious of the other, watching the front, watching the rear. Knowing that if we round the corner and confront a Bear, it’s only way out is either in our direction of travel or through us. Desperate not to disturb any mother bear birthing in her cave and unable to put much distance between us and the entrances, we push on, constantly scanning, listening, trapped within the gorge walls. My mind naturally latches to defensive strategies, rocks on the ground, the knife I wear round my neck. Running through where these are in my mind ensures quick reaction should I need it. Reminding myself of the pre set rendezvous places we planned should we become separated gives me a focus.
Reaching the bottom of the gorge, a 5 meter slide down over slabby loose rock channels us out into the forest. The claustrophobic feeling dissipates and we grin at each other. In Bear country there is no room for ego, we are toppled from the top of the food chain and are weak and vulnerable. It is a humbling and powerful experience and incredibly real. There is no room for bravado or rash decisions. Cold logical analysis of the situation is the only answer and being prepared to fight dirty should it come to that.