“Bones heal, chicks dig scars, and the United States of America has the best doctor to daredevil ratio in the world”—Capt. Lance Murdoch, The Simpsons
In December I laid on a bed in a $4 a night hotel room in sweltering Burma, a rotating fan periodically sending a gust of cool air in my direction. Before long, I dreamed of ice, of swing two axes above my head into a frozen waterfall, while kicking crampon front points in below: one-two, one-two, steady upward progress. I dreamed of the reassuring rhythmic sound of hard steel penetrating fat ice: plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk. I climbed higher. I slept well.
On a beautiful February Sunday three months later I stood on a ledge forty feet up Chouinard Falls in Lee Vining Canyon, outside the eastern boundary of Yosemite National Park, with one ice screw between me and the ground. I stared up at a slightly overhanging bulge of ice.
“I think it’s a good time to put in another screw,” Dirk yelled up at me from the bottom of the climb, where he was feeding me rope.
The next several feet looked like hard going but I figured I could muscle my way up and twist in another screw from the stance above. I swung my picks into the ice and kicked away with my crampons.
Plunk, plunk. Pop.
I slid down the steep slope facing the ice and wasn’t sure I was going to stop before I hit the ground. A few feet above the belay the slack ran out, my weight came onto the screw and Dirk held my fall.
“Thanks for the catch,” I said.
I’m a better ice climber in my dreams than I am in real life. Actually, it had been almost half a year since I’d done any ice climbing. So far, my warm-up for the year wasn’t going so great. It would get worse.
Dirk and I had driven out to Lee Vining, near Mono Lake, on a glorious Saturday. It was the first time we had climbed together. On the drive past Lake Tahoe we talked about our experience. Dirk noted that most of my climbing stories involved the phase, “We were racing dark.” I noted that most of his involved, “We got a late start,” usually followed eventually by the term “forced bivy.”
At least in the less than two years I’ve been climbing--most of it on the sharp end of the rope up to 5.10 trad—I could say I’ve never taken a leader fall.
“It’s probably just a matter of time,” Dirk said cheerfully. “It sounds like you’ve been pushing it pretty hard.”
We drove into Lee Vining well after dark with a full moon painting the snowy hills in luminescent silver. In the summer Lee Vining is a busy tourist stop on Highway 395. In winter it’s all but deserted, with a single restaurant (loosely speaking) open three days a week. Yet the town’s major motel was sold out on Saturday. It was easy to see why the next morning before breakfast in the parking lot where Gore-Tex clad men (and the occasional woman) loaded ropes and ice tools into trucks. It looked like every ice climber in the state was headed for Lee Vining Canyon that day.
We got a late start. Piling into a truck with some friends, we headed up a dirt road to its terminus at the DWP plant at the mouth of the canyon, which cuts through land owned by the city of Los Angeles.
“It’s the prettiest part of LA I’ve ever seen,” Dirk said.
The parking area was so choked with vehicles that it was hard to find a spot. For some reason Dirk had dressed in street clothes, so while the others headed off, he changed into his climbing gear. Eager to get going, I shouldered my pack and stomped up the snow-packed trail.
After about half an hour I entered the canyon, a wide sloping valley where the steep southern wall is shellacked in a thick coat of frozen water for as long as the eye can see. As you move up the canyon the wall gets shorter and the climbing easier. Most of the wall was already filled with climbers picking their way up; others were setting up at the bottom.
I went up to the narrow ledge at the base of the taller side of Chouinard Falls. Every route was taken. I talked to one team who was almost done with their climb. I got in line.
Dirk eventually showed up and we got ready. All around us climbers were knocking ice off the walls. I put on my helmet just in time for a big chunk to bounce off. I fastened the strap and tried to push myself up against the wall, out of the range of fire.
Constant shouts of “ice” echoed across the canyon. Then some one yelled “tool” and I looked over at a class to my left and saw several people running for cover as a climber’s ice ax flew down from high on a route.
Dirk took the first climb, heading up a route rated WI3+. He climbed methodically, moving right, then left to avoid steeper, bulging sections, frequently placing ice screws. Near the top of the climb he spent a long time on a ledge looking up a sketchy bit of terrain. Finally, he yelled down at me asking about how it looked to the right.
I was freezing and bored, ducking my head every time a fusillade of ice exploded above me. I hated being in so crowded an area and wanted nothing more than to race up the climb and go someplace else.
Dirk traversed to the right and finished the climb at a bolted anchor. He rapped down the route and it was my turn.
I decided to take a direct line to the top. In Alpinism speed is safety, which means climbing fast and efficiently so you spend less time on dangerous terrain. In my case, speed proved to be idiocy.
At the bottom of the first bulge Dirk suggested I place another screw. I ignored his advice and fell off.
I started climbing again, feeling a little sore on my side where I had whacked into the wall but otherwise fine.
Near the top of the route I found myself in the same place where Dirk had paused so long. Now I could see why. The ice became overhanging, below which it was pocked with hallows and dripping icicles, a terrible place to get any foot placements. Above the ice was hard and brittle and placements where again difficult. A few strong swings and I was pulling myself onto the bulge. My feet were going nowhere. A big rock jutted out of the ice to my right. I grabbed it with hand, letting my tool dangle from its leash. A weird ice-covered flake of rock stuck out by my right foot. I planted a crampon against it and pushed off to surmount the overhang.
I fell. This time I wound up hanging upside down from the rope. Luckily I had placed a screw not too far below so the fall was fairly short. I got right side up and started climbing again.
Frontpointing back to the ledge, I felt OK. But as soon as I reached the rest stance and put my body weight on my right foot searing pain shot through my bones. At best, I thought, it’s probably a bad sprain. I didn’t want to think about the worst case.
I briefly considered my options. I could give up and have Dirk lower me off an ice screw, which would mean he would have to either climb up to retrieve the screw or clean it while on rappel.
Since swinging my foot didn’t hurt too much, I decided to finish the climb. I got slightly above my previous high point on the bulge and realized that the hard mantle of ice in front of me wasn’t going to be very easy to climb. I started to down climb back to the ledge.
Then my pick got stuck. I was only about half a foot above the ledge but for the life of me I couldn’t get my tool out of the ice. I tried wiggling it up and down. Nothing. I hung from the tool and rested. I tried again and again—all to no avail. Growing desperate and fatigued I even wiggled the pick side to side, a good way to break it. I didn’t care. Finally, the tool came free.
I was completely exhausted. My knuckles were battered, my ankle ached, my throat was parched. I just wanted to go home.
Dirk suggested I try his sideways detour. The ice was steep but solid. Terrified of falling again, I put in another screw to protect the traverse, even through I knew it would cause bad rope drag.
The traverse went well, although as I started climbing up again the rope barely moved, threatening to pull me off. I yelled for slack. Dirk said he was giving me as much as he could. A few more firm swings and I was at the anchor. I was never happier to end a climb in my life.
Back on the ground, I had a snack and felt better. I belayed Dirk on a top rope climb and then decided to try it myself. The climb went fine but even with a rope above me I was extremely nervous about taking a fall, yelling for Dirk to take up the slack several times.
By then I was beat. It took me about an hour to limp down the canyon. I really wished I had brought ski poles. Instead, I inched my way downward as delicately as I could. Moving with my good ankle up hill, I could walk without too much discomfort but when I had to reverse position sharp pain burned through my foot.
In the parking area, Dirk and I discovered that our ride had left without us. I threw my pack to the ground and sat on a low wall. There were still a few cars parked, so we figured that sooner or later we could hitch a ride back to Lee Vining with someone else.
Before long a truck drove up. Dirk talked to the driver, who turned out to be a climber named Doug. He offered us a ride back to town. And then he gave us beer.
I’ve been there, too, he said.
On the drive back, Doug told us about a fall he took on Chouinard Falls several years earlier. He flipped upside down with the rope wrapped tightly around his leg. It took him half an hour just to untangle himself and get upright again. The fall broke his hip and several ribs. He was carried out on a litter.
I felt lucky. Stupid, but lucky. I realized my byline was probably going to appear in the last publication I ever wanted to write for: Accidents in North American Mountaineering.
In the dry argot of incident reports the cause of the accident was clear: exceeding abilities. Although I think hubris is a better explanation. I’ve always prided myself on not being afraid to back off a climb. But for some reason—haste, pride, recklessness—on that day in Lee Vining I refused to yield to prudence and paid the price, although a far less severe toll than I might have.
The next day I drove back to the bay area, dropped Dirk off and went to the emergency room. Waiting to see a doctor, I called my mother.
Where are you? she asked. I told her I was back in San Francisco.
Well, I guess you survived ice climbing, she said.
Since she was leaving for a trip that night and I didn’t want her to worry, I decided not to mention the accident.
After two sets of x-rays and a consult with an orthopedic specialist, I found out that I had broken the talus bone in my ankle.
As a nurse was putting my leg in a cast she said she had never heard of ice climbing before.
“Isn’t that dangerous?” she asked.
“Apparently,” I said.