Saturday, 12 December 2015

Caution: Fresh Coconut Juice, Tropical Temperatures, and Tigers can be Hazardous to Your Mental Health

For years, the object of my desire.

I truly believe that if you haven't seen this view, you are wasting your time in the Canadian Rockies.

My wife was sleeping with another man. It was not a situation I could liberally turn a blind eye to. She told me she was falling in love with him, her married-with-kids boss at the fancy heli-ski lodge where he'd wanted her as more than an employee. She told me not to come back. How it had come to this I had no idea. I'd left the mountains two weeks earlier to head to the coast on my seasonal migration for work. I was faced with months of straight labour and my reality was shattered. Something had to be done to change my mental state. As before, I turned to the mountains for peace and solace.

At work on the remote west coast of B.C. my mind raced looking for a solution. I would wake with a heart rate of 120. Like an animal caught in a trap, I manically searched for something new to give my life meaning. Always attracted to alpine climbing for the deep spiritual experience it offers, my mind took me back to the next most intense experience I could recall, to the North Face of Twins Tower in the Canadian Rockies

The most impressive spot in the range.
I had met my wife in the days following my first attempt to climb the Twin. I returned to my climbing partner's rental home with a hand the size of a softball and a new respect for rockfall. It had made an impression on my psyche, bailing down that face with a broken arm. My jalopy van was parked at my buddy's. The owner of the rental future wife. I guess there are some benefits of being an addicted alpinist. That was 5 years or so earlier.

Early on any Twin adventure you realize you are entering a special zone.
By the end of the summer I finished a purgatorial 110 days of coastal tree-planting. My new reality as a divorced man was about to begin. My coping mechanism was simple; head straight to the spiritual well, the Black Hole of Mounts Alberta, Stutfield, and the Twins. After moving my stuff out of her house I would avoid contact with anything that would remind me of my ex and head into the mountains to meditate. Trip after trip had me hiking the short 3 hours to the MacKay hut, and then further in to the Black Hole to stare at the North Face of the Twins. Could I find renewed meaning on that dangerous limestone canvas?

It gets more real as the sun rises.
She had told me she was attracted to me because I was pursuing my passion. We dated, went to the climbing gym, went ski touring, did all the middle of the road activities most couples can do together. None of which were as exciting as attempting the North Face of the Twins. But really, I hear Kevin Thaw dragged his girlfriend up The Wild Thing for its third ascent, but that wouldn't have worked in our case. I grew to accept and began to revel in the idea that I was beyond taking absurd risk, that I had matured and grown into my true self.
The rockfall relents once you exit the gully.
Slowly, as before, the mountains of the Rockies began to bring me peace in my heart. Little by little I began to relearn that there is joy in the mountains. They serve more than to be a place to challenge one's existence. One day I saw massive spontaneous rockfall explode from one of the vertical walls mid way up the Twin. Anyone anywhere on the lower half of the Blanchard route would have been instantly killed. I abandoned any idea of climbing the wall. With a renewed lust for life I realized there was a more moderate option, the North West Ridge, the unrepeated Abrons route. It was a perfect compromise for my older, wiser, mature self. It fit the person I knew I had become, rather than the impossible caricature my ex had taken me to be.
 Not many established routes take you to this vista.
She had told me she had jumped ship for her older, established ACMG boyfriend because she felt secure with him. I scared her because I took too many risks. What? I was the guy who'd broken my arm on the most notorious North Face in North America, and she was surprised I took too many risks? Well, forget about that, I had a new life to live.
Some absolutely abysmal Rockies choss. Takes a  special person.
Returning to town after my mountain seclusion I rediscovered the warmth and magic of making climbing plans with new climbing partners. By the second attempt with the second new partner we got it right. On the rope was the editor of this magazine. I'd always made fun of Brandon for being so boisterous about his climbing, so psyched and loud and jazzed about it. He made lighthearted company up a serious route. Laughing at the rock quality was the only thing to do. As the rockfall floated by some of my stress and worries of the summer fell off my shoulders too. Years earlier on the North Face I had not understood what Steve House meant when he wrote of the “mind of the observer”. Now I accepted the rockfall for what it was. I accepted Brandon for who he is. I accepted my ex for whatever it is that makes her tick. And I accepted myself for whatever risk I choose to take and whatever mountain I want to climb.
The famous Black Hole.
That night saw the most amazing meteor shower I have witnessed. Many wishes were made.
We crossed the Columbia Glacier having made the 5th ascent of the Twins from the Black Hole. Getting lost and sleeping on the glacier in the early morning, we returned to the highway to make a two day trip highway to highway. It wasn't the most rad climb ever, it wasn't the North Face, it wasn't “world class”, but it sure was fun and adventurous. It brought peace to my mind and new friends to my life. And as a younger wise friend put it to me after, “That's what it's about anyway”.
If climbing doesn't make you smile why do it?
6 months ealier:
 Caution; Fresh coconut juice, tropical temperatures, and tigers can be hazardous to your mental health.

This story first appeared in Gripped Magazine. See

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Now You See it, Now You Don't.

Notice the blue rope tied around the snowy pillar.
“Do you think we should untie the anchor from the pillar?”

“Hey Alik, the pillar's unsupported at the bottom”

A few taps and Alik manages to reduce the foot wide pillar to a dagger. Chris and I are sandwiched into a tiny alcove behind the most solid ice we have seen yet on the route. I glance around and take in two tied off knifeblades, a small C3 cam with one of its three lobes fully expanded, and the ropes tied around the now freehanging dagger. I try not to portray my concern, but I'm looking around for gear. The simplest way to escape the consequences of the dagger peeling off and loading the anchor is to untie. It's only the second time I can remember doing so when unhappy with how we are all anchored to the mountain. We're 5 pitches up the unrepeated mixed route Zeitgeist, and I figure my chances are better just huddling in this little alcove while Chris and Alik figure out what they're going to do next.

WI4 usually implies some ice.  Are we in the right place? It's storming, why are we here?

We'd started the first pitch in the dark. The route description says it's WI4, but Alik only finds slick waterworn quartzite, which makes for slow movement.We're not sure if we are in the right place as we skied in to Taylor Lake at 4:30 a.m., but when we all regroup we are at two fixed nuts.

150 meters of bottomless snow excavating makes me insanely sweaty. Have you ever been in a gully where it is easier to drytool the sides and campus your legs out of the snow that to try to break trail up the slope? Above Chris gets an easy looking ice lead, which turns out to be unconsolidated, narrow, and tricky.

Why does ice always look so easy while belaying?
“I wanted more gear, it just wasn't there”.

The Scottish snice gully.
The same is no doubt true of the anchor.

Tap tap at the pillar/dagger.
I never know how to react in these situations. Am I just overly worried? Untying the loop around the dagger is definitely a good start though. How much does a foot round tube of ice 5 feet high weigh? Would two tied off pins and a tipped out micro cam hold that impact? Why is it Alik is so calm about the situation?

Alik spots a cam in a crack just above the anchor, and asks if we've investigated. We had discounted it as it's got ice and munge in it, which is typical of limestone cracks on alpine routes. I can only speak for myself, but once one of the lead lines is running through it everything seems a bit more reasonable.

Spot the difference.
A light swing at the top of the dagger, a body height above the belay ledge. And it's gone down the gully. About the size of a falling climber's body, but seems more dense.  Good thing we untied that loop of rope that was around it. Alik is not at all flustered. Something about soloing A4 in Yosemite when you are 15, calms the nerves. He does a great job of stemming the steep moves out of the cave. I try to talk myself down after the dagger debacle. I tie back in to my end of the rope.
Route description says, "Drytool around pillar". Not an issue now.
By my lead on the next pitch I've begun to clue in to the fact that the ice is not as fat as when Rob and Steve put the route up. Alik tries to talk me into going up a thin veneer which follows the path of first ascent. After unconsciously considering his risk tolerance and mine, I decide to go for a steeper chimney system which promises protection. It's 3 pm, we've already mentioned that we are not going to make it up the route today, so I don't even care if it takes me off route. I jam myself hard into the corner, determined to make myself feel secure on the pitch.

The route description says to go up the "ice" in the corner in the left of the photo.  I had had enough of trying our luck.

View of the same pitch on the first ascent.

From the comfort of my living room I reconsider the day. On Rob's old blog I see a photo of the ice on the crux pitch, described as WI5. It is, no surprise, fatter than when we were below it. His blog also reminds me that he is a strong and bold climber. I'm glad I decided to give it a pass. We turned around just below the photographer's viewpoint. We didn't make it up the route, but I feel some “good learning” took place.

Maybe I was making myself overly secure in the chimney.