He didn’t hesitate when he came to the 50-degree sloping mass of snow and ice just a handful of a hundred feet below the summit of Mount Olive in the Canadian Rockies.
“Want to go off rope?” asked the 65-year-old, glancing back at his three climbing partners roped up behind him.
We paused, not really willing to climb the snowy pitch without the security (however insubstantial) of a rope, but not quite sure if we wanted to admit our hesitance to a man who could have been the patriarch of our entire expedition.
It wasn’t an uncommon scene during a four-day climbing trip in the Canadian Rockies. Dick Quinn, 65, a retired air force mechanic, constantly loped ahead of our group, setting a pace that would have made a person a third of his age proud.
He navigated snow, ice, flooded streams and wet rock fearlessly.
“It’s just kind of my nature,” he said. “It’s just kind of my makeup.”
Quinn has always been athletic and enjoys pushing his limits. Last year he competed in two ultramarathons. He ran track in high school and backpacked regularly with his wife and children. His daughter, Kelly Quinn, remembers a childhood in Alaska spent constantly outside.
“We would just go on family runs,” she said. “Now, as an adult, people are like, ‘That’s not normal.’ ”
Kelly said her dad has always been active. And once he picks up a hobby, he’s all in.
“Its kind of like his MO,” she said. “He’ll pick up a different hobby and just kind of go all in on it.”
She added, “It’s cool. He just picks up all these things.”
Despite living and working in Alaska for decades and being an active outdoorsman, Quinn had no experience with mountain climbing. He knew nothing about crossing glaciers or climbing steep snow. So he signed up for the 2018 Spokane Mountaineers mountain school.
That’s how a firefighter, a cop, a retired air force mechanic and a journalist all ended up in a backcountry hut run by a bunch of friendly Canadian mountain climbers.
No, not the world’s longest joke lead-in.
It was the group I found myself with in late May summiting 10,256-foot Mount Olive, located in the Canadian Rockies.
We stayed in the Bow Hut, a backcountry hut run by the Alpine Club of Canada. It sits on the eastern edge of the Wapta Icefield and features a kitchen with stoves and propane. An enclosed outhouse. Bunk beds. Fire wood. Wood stoves. Books and a cribbage board.
A luxurious base of operations. Although the hut could sleep up to 30 according to promotional materials, our group of four were the only ones there.
We arrived at the trailhead May 28. During the winter, the route can be skied. But due to a relatively low snowpack and a warm spring, much of the snow had melted, leaving us with a five-mile trek, starting first along the edge of the startlingly blue Bow Lake and then slowly winding up a canyon, past a glacial waterfall, across a scree field and finally onto a snow field below the hut itself.
The Alpine Club of Canada runs an impressive system of 36 backcountry huts spread across British Columiba. Modeled after European-style mountaineering huts, they’re communal bunkhouses with everything a climber, skier or hiker would need.
The Bow Hut itself was completed in 1989. Perched high on a rock outcropping, it holds commanding views of the surrounding mountains. We arrived on a nearly cloudless day.
The Bow Hut is one of the most popular huts, said Keith Haberl, the marketing director for the ACC. It provides easy access to the Wapta Icefields and surrounding peaks.
Haberl said in addition to providing accommodation to ACC, members the Bow Hut and others like it help introduce people to the backcountry – a key component of the ACC’s mission.
“We want to make people love the backcountry and love the mountains and want to protect them,” Haberl said. “There are a lot of people who have spent their first night in the backcountry in one of our huts.”
We woke early on the morning of May 29 and headed toward our objective, Mount Olive. Less than a mile from the hut we roped up and stepped on the glacier. From there we climbed about 2,000 feet to the mountain’s summit, ending with a scramble across shattered rock.
As the dark receded, we were treated to a glorious sunrise. Clear skies persisted, showing off 360-degree views of the Canadian Rockies. It was a brief window into the surrounding world. As we started our descent, fog and clouds rolled over us.
We spent the night in the hut, returning to civilization on May 30.
Yet as inspiring and beautiful as the scenery was, and as enjoyable as the accommodations were, my overall lasting impression was not one of scenic beauty.
Rather, it was awe at the man who led us there. Dick Quinn. I and the rest of the climbing team marveled at his speed and strength. His overall attitude. We all agreed if we could be half as fit and happy at that age, we’d be doing well.
“The guy is just phenomenal,” said Walter Loucks, 45, who has climbed three mountains with Quinn. “He’s an endless supply of energy.”
And, he’s a good leader, fellow teammate Joanna Balin, 27, said.
‘His decision-making process is just very calm and clear,” she said. “He’s open to dialogue and discussing things.”
Which brings us back to where we started. On an icy snow slope debating whether to go off rope. Quinn wanted to forge ahead. The rest of us weren’t so confident. Someone spoke up and Quinn adapted seamlessly, agreeing instead to stay roped together.
As for Quinn, he has no grand secret to his longevity and physical strength.
“The only real answer that I can give you is just genes,” Quinn said. “I know I’m very fortunate at my age to be able to do the things that I’m doing at the level that I’m doing them.”