“What?” I replied, even though I was pretty sure I knew what he meant, as he was slapping his harness like a man who has just lost his wallet, slaps his pockets.
“I’m positive I had both my ice tools when I left the last rappel”, Greg said, “I doubled checked”.
Well, up to that point it had been a pretty good day. We had left Hinton at 7:00 a.m. on December 22, 2007 heading for a set of ice climbs just outside the little town of Grande Cache, Alberta. There were two climbs that we could do; one on either side of the road. After scoping out both lines from the highway, we choose to climb “Evergreen Gully”. We’d climbed Evergreen Gully last year at the beginning of January, and it was one of the best climbs of the year for us.
The climbing typically starts 5 minutes off the road with two 20 metre grade 3 ice steps that we normally solo. After these two steps, there is a very steep hike up into a big amphitheatre with amazing ice – the amphitheatre contains three separate two-pitch lines. The left line, which rarely forms, is solid grade 5, while the other two lines look somewhat easier, but we’d never attempted them before. Last year, the first pitch of the left line formed into a spectacular free standing 40 metre pitch of vertical ice, and we got a rare ascent of it. Just how rare, I’m not sure, but there were no rappel slings from any of the trees at the top of the climb (there is now though - ours).
This year, we could see that the first pitch on the left line wasn’t formed, but the right line looked like it might be in (we had binoculars). So we geared up and hiked up to the first step of ice 5 minutes from the truck. Unfortunately when we arrived, there wasn’t any ice on the first step or the second step. This meant we had to walk all the way from the bottom of the mountain up to the amphitheatre, without the bonus of gaining any elevation through climbing.
The walk up to the amphitheatre is just plain ugly. It’s extremely steep and unbelievably unrelenting. It took us 1.5 hours of maximum cardio to get to the bottom of the right hand line in the amphitheatre. We did, however, get the added bonus of watching a large herd of mountain goats (there were probably 10-15 goats) scramble along the bottom and middle tier of the amphitheatre. I got a couple of long range pictures, which I was happy about. These are wild goats (unlike a lot of the goats we see in Jasper National Park, which are used to people), so it was pretty cool to see them.
At the top of this pitch, you end up on this sloping bench, with steep rock and ice above you and below you. There are three separate lines to choose from. The first obvious line was the second pitch of the line we had just climbed – this however was out of the question for weekend warriors like ourselves. I’m sure Will Gadd would have gone crazy for the line though, as it looked like a mixed climbers dream. The top consisted of a large roof with big pillars of ice dripping out of it. Very cool looking, but not for us.
The middle line looked doable, as did the far left line. We had done the left line the year before and it was a pretty reasonable grade 4 pitch, so we walked over to check it out. Even the walk over was interesting, as you can walk behind all of the ice – because the wall is so overhanging, all the ice forms up as free standing columns.
Once we scoped out the left line, we both agreed it looked too ugly to climb – it was absolutely pouring down water and the ice looked very chandeliered. So that left us with the central line. This line also looked very steep and intimidating. The first 10 metres climbed a free standing pillar about three feet wide and two feet thick. Lucky for me it was Greg’s lead.
Greg started up and with every swing of his tool, the column made a nice hollow sound – not particularly reassuring. As always, Greg made the first part look pretty easy, but as he topped out on the initial column, I could tell by his feeble swings that he was mega-pumped. Later, at the top, Greg said he had nothing left in his left arm while topping out – I would have been hanging.
When I followed the pitch it became clear how hard the pitch was – my swings topping out were comical – it was like my left arm belonged to someone else and wouldn’t do what I was telling it to. Grade 4+ at least!
From the bottom of this rap, we carefully walked back to the top of the first pitch for our last rappel back to our packs. It was while preparing this rappel, that Greg first noticed his missing tool.
Now the unfortunate thing here is that we were on the second tier of a very long cliff band. We didn’t know if we could get back to the top to look for Greg’s missing tool, without having to re-climb the pitch – something we were both loath to do. While I set up the next rap, Greg headed off to the north looking for some type of break in the cliff band that he could climb up through. He hadn’t gone too far when he found a little corner with a tree in it that he could use to help him get through the steep rock. Once on top however, he couldn’t get over to the tree we’d rappelled from without doing another rappel (and he didn’t have a rope).
Greg and I almost always carry hand-held radios while ice climbing and find them invaluable for communicating – especially in the Rockies where the wind is often howling. Well they came in handy again, as Greg called me on the radio and had me meet him at the break in the cliff band with our extra rope. I followed his tracks over, scrambled up the cliff, and handed Greg the skinny rope. He headed back up the mountain, and eventually rappelled into the tree that we had rappelled from earlier. There was his ice tool lying on the ground at the base of the tree. It had fallen out of his harness at the start of the rappel. A lesson learned – clip your ice tools into your harness while rappelling. This is the second time Greg has lost an ice tool while rappelling (we’re slow learners)
Soon we were back at our packs and psyching ourselves up for the killer walk down the mountain. Image a 60 to 70 degree slope, with 6 inches of fluffy snow, over frozen ground that goes on forever (or so it seemed) – it wasn’t fun. Eventually, however, we did make it back down to the truck, and by the time we got back to Hinton, we’d forgotten all about the ugly hike up and down and only remembered the thrill of climbing two new lines that we’d never done before. To be an ice climber, you need a very bad short term and long term memory.