Kicking Horse Pass is located nearly two hours from where I live, out in the Rocky Mountains west of here. I've been through the pass hundreds of times, but I've never really enjoyed the drive. I'm made nervous by heights and Kicking Horse has plenty. All it would take to die would be one bad moment at the wheel brought on by a lone, inconvenient animal like an elk, a big horn sheep or a moose . . . and there are plenty of those around the pass. In fact, since the pass is in a National Park, those animals are protected.
It is just my imagination giving me nightmares. I know that.
Back in 1883, however, there were no roads, no permanent inhabitants - it wasn't even certain that the pass would sustain a railroad. So in that spring, the valley on both sides was inundated by surveyors.
Here's an account of Charles Shaw and his partner James Hogg in that year [see below]:
"They set off down the difficult incline of the Kicking Horse on the zigzag pathway, which the survey crews had already christened 'The Golden Stairs' because it was the most terrifying single stretch of trail on the entire route of the [Canadian Pacific] railway. Actually, it was little more than a narrow ledge, less than two feet wide, cut into the cliffs several hundred feet above the foaming river. It was so frightening that some men used to hang on to the tails of their packhorses and keep their eyes tightly shut until they had passed the most dangerous places. Shaw had one horrible moment when his horse ran into a nest of hornets and another when he met two men with a packhorse coming from the opposite direction. Since it was impossible for anyone to turn around, they simply cut the lashings off one of the horses and pushed the wretched animal over the cliff."
Here is more describing the same trip taken by Sandford Fleming and George Grant. The reader can blame time zones on Fleming - he had crossed the continent in 1872 in the employ of the Canadian Government and now he was back, by invitation, to confirm the existence of Roger's Pass, one mountain range further to the west.
"Fleming and Grant were far more concerned about the terrible descent down the Golden Stairs of the Kicking Horse. It was almost a dozen years since these two companions had set out, in the prime of life, to breast the continent. Now the years were beginning to tell. Fleming, though a superb physical specimen, was fifty-six. For the past three years he had been leading an intriguing but sedentary life in England with side visits to various European capitals . . . engaging in such mile adventures as a gondola ride in Venice and a trip in a hot-air balloon. Grant, who was forty-seven and inclined to a paunch, had quit his ministry in Halifax for the principal's chair at Queen's. Now these middle-aged explorers were forced to negotiate a trail that terrified the most experienced mountaineers.
"Fleming dared not to look down. To do so 'gives one an uncontrollable dizziness, to make the head swim and the view unsteady, even with men of tried nerve. I do not think I can ever forget that terrible walk; it was the greatest trial I ever experienced.
"At that point the members of the party found themselves teetering on a ledge about ten to fifteen inches wide, eight hundred feet above the river. There was nothing to hold on to - not a branch or even a twig. Grant, who had lost his right hand in childhood, was especially vulnerable: 'It seemed as if a false step would have hurled us to the base, to certain death.' The sun, emerging from behind a cloud, beat down upon them until they were soaked with a perspiration that was accentuated by their own state of tension. 'I, myself, felt as if I had been dragged through a brook, for I was without a dry shred on me,' Fleming admitted. It was an exhausted party that finally arrived that evening at Roger's camp on the Columbia [river]."
Both excerpts are from Pierre Berton's The Last Spike, a set of tails about the Canadian continental railway written in 1971.
I copy them here for inspiration. I also wish to highlight the differences between the fantastical and the real. In the fantastical, the hero fairly skips along the ten-inch pathway. In the fantastical, the hero is not possessed of a beating heart, pumping blood, sweat glands or a love of life so strong that there is a recognized tension in potentially losing it. In the fantastical, the hero is made of straw.
Or perhaps it would be better to say that the hero is made of paper . . . namely, one flimsy sheet with scratchings on it that are utterly without animus.
As a DM, I do not wish to run heroes. Heroes are boring. That is why the best portrayals of heroes are in their failings, their hubris, their guilt and of things that seem to legitimately threaten their lives.
The player that shrugs upon dying, that crumples up their character sheet in the same moment that they reach for more dice to roll another character . . . that player is ruining your campaign.
Get rid of them.
Kick those horses off the ledge. They're going the wrong way.
Your game will be better off. You want people, not paper shapes.