Two years ago, I dreamt of being here, now the whirr of the chopper blades woke me from my dream and turned it to reality.
Pickup was a straightforward affair at the Mt Shark helipad. After parking the vehicle we lugged our gear to the side of the landing zone clearing where we lined up in front of an electronic scale manned by two clipboards flipping baggage attendants. We were obviously the only climbers in the group, between the middle aged couple and their children and the pair of American hikers lugging around a stainless steel bar-bq.
Perhaps less than a dozen in all, two trips would be required for the six passenger chopper. Wright in came at 37.0 pounds for me, whoohoo! Rope and all. My partner Brian was a few pounds over 40, but the attendant let it slide. The bar-bq boys were 80lbs over and were told to call camp to get a tongue lashing with their extra bill.
Flight was a speedy 7-8 minutes from the helipad to the Assiniboine lodge. We waited for the next flight to get the rest of our gear. On the way back James Blench bumped into us, same as I remember seeing him four years ago. "Hey Brian, how's it going?", Brian had spent over two months an the Yam semester course, and was by now on a first name basis with most of the staff. "Pretty good, how are things looking up there?" "Good conditions, not too much snow ... good." With that we were soon on our way, our gear packed up from the second trip we waved goodbye to the other Assiniboine yam group flying out. As the throttle roared to full power Grant Meekins turned his head towards me in recognition from the Abbot pass hut last Wednesday and smiled as he waved goodbye. The first sign we saw walking towards the hind hut was a recent warning of a grizzly sow and cub sighting in the area. Oh well, Brian was carrying all the food...
Grey clouds were still partially obscuring our view of the objective, after a few minutes walk the haze receded and we got our first, hard, look. Assiniboine emerged from the clouds like a monstrous leviathan rising from the sea; huge, ancient ... and unwelcoming. A wet blanket of fear started seeping into my resolve, this had never happened before.
The north face was lightly peppered with snow from top to bottom. Most of the rock was still exposed, including the infamous red and grey bands. No sign of the kind of snow pack that signals retreat. Onwards we went.
The path to the Hind hut was where we expected it to be, line-of-sight from the lodge to the right side of the col. Occasional warning about the unsuitability of the trail for hikers solidified our confidence with our path. The ruts were deep and unmistakable up to the base of the headwall and were still easily identifiable up the scree to the first bit of scrambling. It was obviously used recently and often. Cairns were present at critical bits, usually at the tops of sections that had to be climbed, I was surprised at the sustained class 4 sections climbing to and from the ledges that are traversed to reach the col, careful route finding was essential to avoid borderline class 5 options for much easier terrain. We had to look up and down as well as left and right to follow the frequent, although hardly massive, cairns that were peppered along the trail. Non climbers would definitely need a belay for a few sections.
We reached the hut in about three hours after lapping another yam group that had landed earlier from the Canmore heliport. We took the best bunk spots in the empty hut and started getting civilized. The yam group made it about a half hour later. A 65 year old dude from KPMG named Roger with his son. Their guide, Steve, I recognized from my first Ice course in 2001. Brian, of course, was on a first name basis, familiar and breeding fast. We would be joined later that night by a young couple of locals wanting to squeeze a quick summit before going back to work in the area.
After some discussion, we agreed to have both groups leave at 4am. Steve didn't feel there was a significant rock fall hazard from us considering conditions. So off we went.
Things went wrong immediately that morning, my gurgling stomach wasn't in its finest form and I choose to respect my appetite for breakfast. The two bowls of cereal and two mugs of tea would soon demand a heavy price. Brian was hard and sharp from months in the mountains with his "dirtbag climber" lifestyle and I had no problems with him taking the lead and I the rope. We went at a brisk pace across the snow in front of the hut, putting new tracks on old ones before and cutting to the left across the scree towards the line of the north ridge. We started climbing the slope more that halfway to the ridge when I started sucking air. No prob I thought, I?ll just push through like last time. Brian was chopping steps across hard ice to traverse to the ridge and I noticed the tunnel for my vision was starting to get more and more narrow.
"Hey Brian, slow down a bit ..." I half gasped. "Sure, no prob", was the cheery reply. The sustained and unrelenting class 4 started throwing in a few class 5's every once in a while. I sounded like a broken accordion. It was still before dawn and I had to remind myself to take regular sips from my camelback bottle to suck down the forming ice crystals and leave warmer water in the exposed drinking tube. The wet blanket started to wrap around me, I could be in trouble. Scrambling up, every fourth move seemed to be matching my foot to my palming hand, little or nothing to stop on that allowed a no hands rest that required zero body tension.
I was running out of gas. My mind was barely keeping the climbing efficient and steady, simultaneous route finding was now too much of stretch, I was focused on following Brian hand for foot exactly. We moved over some slabby sections and as I waited for Brian to top out of a steep bit, I heard a slight grunt but failed to have it fully register and moved upwards. A few moves unto some unusually smooth slab with a few incut holds posed no problem until I was fully committed halfway up. I had my full weight on crimped hands when the automatic scrambling up of the feet failed to provide any traction... my mind went completely blank. I numbly realized that I had to move quickly while my gloved hands could hold the crimp but I had mysteriously forgotten how to climb... A surge of panic and adrenaline snapped me awake, I rallied myself and thought *I am NOT going to die here!* then mantled into darkness. My right hand reached up and blessedly locked unto a good flake, the top out was effortless. A "How ya doin'?" half came from above, "... just fine" I deadpanned.
The first light of dawn started reaching us as we attained the north ridge and exposed us to the full force of the wind. I was bonking badly. My calorie starved body was not keeping up with the sudden heat loss and I felt my internal systems trying harder and harder with increasing less. Within minutes my gloves, wet from climbing on alpine snow, turned into ice covered claws. I dimly remembered to suck on my drinking tube but the hopelessly frozen pope could no longer even reach my mouth. Oh, and my left fingers were throbbing with that stinging pain I knew from experience was the last step before the calming numbness of frostbite. "I like this because..." was sufficiently puzzling question to keep my mind occupied on other things. Brian was still going strong and periodically stopping to let me catch up. He remained silent but was checking out my status with increasing frequency, puzzling over the increasingly musical tonalities my wheezing was producing.
"I'm gonna need to rest for a minute..." which was god's honest truth. We sat on a generously large platform in the shelter of the wind and I matter-of-factly explained the status of my hydration system. We shared some of his water in a packed nalgene and I slumped on a rock and wolfed down every energy bar in my pockets. I knew by the look of concern that I was very close to getting "the speech". The dry heaves didn't help his confidence much. "Dude, I think I bonked ... I'll need a bit". We waited a few minutes more and went onwards. Brian was silent.Climbing was straightforward from that point on, the morning light giving critical warmth to my gloves and body. After a few minutes, I felt markedly better, relieved that my physical failure was not beyond reprieve. After a half hour, I was even chipper again. We kept pushing up the mountain through the obvious line of weakness, passing numerous exposed rap station and the occasional traverse across hard ice. We picked up speed, the downward spiral visibly broken, the summit palpably in reach.
We moved right on some exposed ledges to avoid an unpleasantly steep section on the ridge. I started tiptoeing over three inch ledges across a jagged face of horizontal limestone striations. Squeezing and pinching marginal handholds as I shuffled my feet with Brian a few paces behind, easy snow was not far a head. The rock gave way. The entire left part or the face came peeling out from a slight outward pull and a section the size of a suitcase blew my left side right off the mountain. "ROCK ! ROCK !! ROCK !!!!" We both yelled immediately. Both my feet back on the ledges thanks to one hand on very dubious rock. "Dude, I almost bought it." I said as we listened to the thunder of the section smashing itself to bits down the fifty degree mountain side. "Yup", was all that answered. We immediately pushed onwards, mind refocused on what needed to be done and nothing else.
The slope angle receded quickly and we both saw the summit for the first time. An easy snow slope traverse unto a wind swept dome, with a few cornices thrown in for good measure. "Crampons on?" Brain asked and I obliged. After an embarrassingly long time to fiddle with my BD strap-ons, we were good to go and started walking across the snow ridge a healthy distance away from the top. James had mentioned that he had seen footprints on the summit that had postholed through the cornice. Some yellow snow surely would not be far away. Not us baby. We passed the couple coming down from the summit on our way us and exchanged pleasantries. "Would you like to take our picture?? I obliged and snapped away on their oddly silent camera. "Can we stop kissing now?" they asked? "Err, I'm not sure I got you, I didn't hear a thing!", "It's like that". I took another for good measure and they returned the favor.
"Hey guys, we lugged two beers with us to the summit but only had one, would you like to share the other?"... "Score!" We said. It would be a dark day in hell to pass up a beer after all that. We said goodbye and moved up the last 50 meters to the top(ish) of the smooth dome. Cracked the beer, cracked some pictures and took it in. 9:50 AM Success is rarely unconditionally satisfying. My first thoughts were the unavoidable "what-if's" that go though your head, some disappointment that I couldn't get a rock from the summit as a gift I planned for a friend. Disappointment in myself for coming so close to messing it up... the thought of the people I wouldn't have seen anymore had things gone sour. "Was it worth it?" was a question that I could not answer. Of course there was always the hard part of getting down ... little did we know :)
"Ok, let's get off this rock", and we put our brain back in gear to the task at hand. We had kept our crampons off as long as possible to speed up our ascent. We were both to used rock shoes and the feel of boots on stone was much more confidence inspiring that the wobbly feel of steel on rock. I took my crampons off after reaching the ridge and we pulled out the rope for the first time at the first rap station. "Fat guy goes first!" I said, so that we could put the anchors to maximum stress with an unweighted backup to let the second come down with reasonable assurance after cleaning the gear. And thus our second ordeal started. The raps were very short and I was conservative in switching stations at the first opportunity in the fear the next station might be beyond the range of our 50 meter half rope. In retrospect this was not the best decision. The entire north ridge was a rat's nest peppered with stations slung up from every freaked out tom, dick and harry. Anchors went from the overbuilt, multipoint piton and feature cordfest to the highly dubious stacked patio blocks with a single 3/4 inch sling around it. We backed up every station that was marginal or worse. Every single rappel drained precious time and several coilings and tossings were required to circumvent the mess of sharp protrusions that snared our lines and we followed the same line we went up. I lowered through my device and Brian used a munter to save weight, I was soon dealing with a Gordian knot of twisted lines between each station. Much profanity was used by all.
It was becoming very obvious that down climbing would be much, much faster that all this hokum, so we went for that option as soon as I felt the terrain was amenable. After some futzing on the hard snow crust it was clear that I was kicking three steps for each one Brian was using. My decision to remove my crampons was costing me time. I shoved my ice tool's shaft as far into the crust as if would go and fumbled my crampons on after clipping myself to it. We started making good time zooming down the snow gullied, toes-in. We kept following the snow lines all the way down, despite the fact that we were being pulled away from the ridge. The snow was now in full sunlight and we could feel our crampons starting to ball. We were well over halfway ... past 2 pm... hmmm. Down we went, by hook or by crook with the freak self-arrest pulled out to recover from a balled crampon. (hey, the shit works!) We could still Steve's party below us on the rocks; clearly they'd turned back from the summit.
"Could you guy give us a minute?" Came a call from below. Steve's group got out of the rock fall hazard zone and we kept on going down via path of least resistance... which led us into an obvious rock gully with a not so obvious exit. We were on scree, and the base of the col was a tantalizing thirty meters below us. "What now?? Brian was looking around. The gully had a STEEP drop. "Let's rap down" I said. "That's not funny". Brian didn't see the rap slings near the lip of the gully and was poking around the left and right edges to find something other than hopelessly steep down climbing, then he started looking back up, not good.? I?m serious, there's a station here", he seemed surprised not to have seen it. "Between you and me, I hate rapping". But we didn?t anyway over some seriously overhanging rock. No way in hell we were down climbing that.
I never though I would have been happy to hit the scree, but I was. The rest would be a cakewalk. We got to hut 13 hours later, to a lot of grinning climbers. I had my snappy comeback all set "Geez, how many mountains did you climb today?", "One more than you!" but it went unsaid. A lot of tired climbers and very little ribbing. "We got back about an hour before you did, Steve made the call that summiting would have made for too long a day". Indeed.
The evening was uneventful, all slept well and we spoke of our plans to hike out and the yam team took the chopper back. Steve was grinning ear to ear. "Dude, you guys are going to fly out, you'll have a beer at the lodge and you'll say f@#% it!? It's only 17 miles back to the helipad, I thought. Steve did the whole thing in under four hours on his bike I heard earlier. Nah, I thought. I'm not injured and Brian stuck by me on the mountain. I'll do the hike if he wants to do it. "That hike is *heinous* man, especially the old fire road", Steve repeated, with some emphasis. Bah, we went back down to the lodge at a leisurely pace and had a beer. The chopper was leaving in fifteen minutes and we both had planned to leave the option open, in case. I felt good, Brian felt good so we hiked back to the mt Shark trailhead... in under six and a half hours too, with our packs.
But Steve was right.
Special credit goes to my partner, Brian Robar, who was key to success and the members of the Ottawa section Alpine club.
And whoever was watching over me on that day, thanks.