March 16, 1997:
0600 am. Hilda Hostel, Icefields Parkway,
The whole experience of water ice climbing is
something relatively new to me.
It snowed six inches last night. Not that six
inches of snow is impressive, but the new
deposits in the basins draining into Polar
Circus mean that Elaine "Em" Holland and I
[thankfully] have an excuse to stay off
this terrifying climb.
In no way do we feel ready to climb the Circus. The
fact that at least two of the hard-core Rec.Icers
were avalanched on this route in years past
grants us a reprieve.
What to do?
Down the road is a vertical sheet of ice called
Weeping Wall. Almost 200m high, the wall stands
at the side of the road, a short-approach
gauntlet-in-the-face to all hard-core-wannabes
We decide. Weeping Wall it is.
Seduced by the thought of a moderate day, we
enjoy a luxurious breakfast of
omelet with salsa, then pack all our gear,
and trudge the trail from the Hostel to the car.
In spite of good intentions, it is past mid-morning
by the time we reach the base of the wall.
Our chosen line, the Left Wall, is already
well-occupied with two teams. Impact craters and
falling projectiles announce that the easiest
route on the Right Wall is under siege as well.
The only lines available are some incredibly
steep headwalls of ice near the center of the wall.
A mule with blinders, I ignore the guidebook
and start up the least-scary-looking of the two
60 meters later I quiver over a final bulge
onto a sloping, semihanging belay and slap in a
few screws. [Well, tediously grind the screws
into place is more accurate]. I'm soaked
in sweat, then as I belay Em, begin to
shiver as the terror and exertion of the pitch
fade along with the sunshine.
Soon clouds of spindrift swirl down across the
vertical ice (confirming the intelligence of
our decision to stay off of Polar Circus.)
Pitch two: Few crappy screws in the rotting
ice below remind me that "here" is not an
optimum place to be.
The frozen wall in front of my nose seems to
consist of baubles and grooves. The grooves
look solid until the point of the axe
caresses them, then explode to reveal a
lattice of chandelier ice under a thin veneer.
The baubles resemble a wall of clear glass
Christmas ornaments both in appearance and in
how they react to the point of an ice tool.
After hooking fifteen feet of this, I reconsider.
A rightward traverse around a pillar will
put me within reach of a fixed sling.
The Black Prophet taps into yet another
cluster of ornaments.
[Hunker blind beneath my helmet, eyes closed tight,
listening for the shards to fall away. If they do,
it must mean that I am still glued to the wall.]
The fixed sling is closer. Looking back at my last
screw, rattling around several light years away
across the putrefying ice, I realize that if I
clip the fixed sling, it will expose Elaine to a
nasty pendulum as she seconds the section.
What I SHOULD do is climb another 20 feet to better
ice, then place another screw. [Scrunch my eyes
shut yet again. Whimper. Re-set my right mono-point,
which has ripped out in apparent impatience
to be moving.]
It would be a real shame to bypass this sling,
climb another ten feet, then fall. Moments of
desperate, adrenalized indecision fade. I will
be selfish: three thwacks and some scrabbling
across hollow-sounding ice [BOOM chicka
find me at the sling.
I clip. What about Elaine? We'll jump off that
bridge when we come to it.
Above, the groove steepens into another over-vertical
section, splintered fragments spinning lazily away,
sparkling in the returning sunlight. Solid screws,
finally. Many solid screws. A veritable forest.
I empty the rack into the ice, and guns finally spent,
belay just below an easier section, using the final
steepness above to channel icefall safely over our
heads, out into space.
After an extended, unintelligible discussion, Em
ties into both the lead rope and haul line. I will
both haul and belay on these to give Em a good
toprope through the traverse section.
Soon she joins me at the belay, as
the day spins away. Realizing this will be
our only climb for the day, we enjoy a
leisurely late lunch. Below,
a river meanders through snowy flats, while to all
sides are immense, ice-encrusted walls. I am
reminded of my early climbs in Yosemite Valley,
many years ago: The feeling of not only adventure,
but of complete newness to the sport, is strong;
A feeling of magical enchantment --
enchantment with the improbable.
A low angle section, a deteriorated slab resembling
a 30-foot-thick stratum of hoarfrost, then a final,
vertical headwall see us to the top. In the waning
light, Elaine leads us up a final pitch to a place
where we can safely unrope, smile, congratulate
each other, finish the water, and dig out headlamps.
As the last climbers leave the parking lot far
below, [their isolated headlights snaking away
on the Trans-Canadian Highway] we prepare for yet
another "night fight": repetitive rapelling down
overhanging cliffs and unfamiliar snowy 5th
class terrain; following directions from a
dyslexic guidebook author; recalling the repeated
calls of earlier teams who miscalculated the
length of the rappels and had to downclimb
the final sections; thrash-versing and
searching the dark echoing vertical spaces
for traces of those who have gone before us;
fighting our way to freedom down the rocky walls
of Snivelling Gully.
Ironically, I finally start to feel like I am
on familiar ground.
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