2008 was a memorable year for me; unfortunately, not always in a good way. The beginning of the year started off great, with some really good ice climbing trips; culminating in an ascent of Polar Circus
– a long time goal of mine and Greg’s. Even spring started off good, with some fun local rock climbing. However, it all went horribly wrong in April with just one awkward move on a relatively easy rock climb I’d done many times before. Something very bad had happened to my left shoulder.
Greg, starting into the business on the first pitch of the grade 4 ice climb located in Sunwapta Left Drainage (Jasper National Park, Alberta Canada). It's actually as steep as it looks.
To be fair, I’d been having problems with my shoulders for a while. Previous MRIs had shown both shoulders were suffering from partially torn rotator cuffs, but the pain had always been more or less manageable, and I’d been able to continue climbing at a fairly high standard (you know, for a 46 year old with a full time job and two small children).
I tried to continue climbing for another month, but it was just getting a bit ridiculous (pain wise), so something had to be done. Cue the orthopaedic surgeon – the big day – October 3rd. Three hours of surgery later, he’d cut and sewn back together my rotator cuff muscles as well as my labrum. The recovery period – 6 to 8 months.
After a month in a large immobilizing sling and sleeping half sitting-up each night in a Lazy-Boy, I finally got to start into some physiotherapy. By working very diligently on my prescribed exercises, I managed to get myself back into some light indoor climbing by four months, and by 4.5 months had been out ice climbing twice on some easy grade 3s.
The First Climb - Sunwapta Left Hand
Last Sunday (March 1, 2009) was my first climbing outing with Greg
, my long time climbing partner, since last May and would be the toughest test on the new shoulder to date. Also joining us was Sean, fittingly enough, my physiotherapist for the last five months. The plan for the day was to climb both the Sunwapta Falls drainages (left
) – this involves four pitches of climbing, including one steep, tricky grade 4 pitch and a couple of other sustained grade 3 pitches. Added on top of that is hundreds of metres of rolling ice with short steps demanding your attention, as well as some truly ugly slogging through deep snow to get from one drainage to the other.
Greg getting into a little better ice, on the first steep pitch (grade 4) of Sunwapta Left Hand
The day started off, as most ice climbing in the Rocky’s does, with an invigorating hike to the bottom on the first pitch on Sunwapta Left. The first pitch of this climb is the crux (solid grade 4) – it’s a dead vertical free-hanging pillar about 20 metres in height and seems to always have crappy chandeliered ice. After pondering the two or three different options he might take (all lousy), Greg decided on going straight up the middle, as the ice looked the best (which was still pretty bad).
Leading hard ice as the first pitch of the day always pretty much sucks. You end up with a flash pump, which is hard to get rid of. Greg did his normal excellent job, but you could tell he was struggling a little. He was having difficulty getting good sticks with his tools, and the ice screws he placed were not confidence inspiring. Eventually, he pulled through onto to some better ice, relaxed a little, and blasted through to the top.
I got to second this pitch, which I found quite enjoyable. At Greg’s second ice screw, I was almost able to pull it out of the ice by hand. Hmmmmm… crazy sport. The shoulder performed admirably, albeit with a little less range of motion. Sean came up third, totally enjoying the fact he didn’t have to remove any ice screws.
This is the second pitch of Sunwapta Left Hand - a beautiful moderate 25 metre pitch of ice. It was in beautiful shape this day.
After about three hundred metres of rolling ice, including one steeper section over which we belayed Sean up (he’s just getting into this ice climbing business), we arrived at the top pitch. We were quite pleased to see it formed up bigger and longer than we’d ever seen it before. I led a proud line right up the middle of the ice; around 25 metres in length. Unlike the first pitch, the ice here was perfect plastic one-stick ice – one of those rare ice climbing pitches that is actually really fun. After bringing the boys up, we climbed out of the drainage and headed back down to our packs on skiers right.
Interlude - The Bush Whack
The bush slog through deep snow to get from Sunwapta Left Hand to Sunwapta Right Hand. The blown-down trees just add extra fun to the ordeal.
Once back at the packs, we all knew what was coming next - the dreaded bush-whack over to the next drainage. In distance, it’s probably about 600 metres; however, with three feet of snow, through a spruce forest covered in blown-down trees, it’s seems like miles. Here’s where Greg’s 6’4” frame really comes in handy – the man is a machine when it comes to breaking trail. Sean and I could barely keep up with him. Half an hour of giggles later, we arrived at the Sunwapta Right drainage.
The Second Climb - Sunwapta Right Hand
Soon we were racked up and ploughing up (still deep snow, no trail) to the first pitch. This pitch is usually short, but long enough that we lead it. This year, the pitch formed differently and only amounted to about five metres of steep ice, and then 20 metres of low angle grade two. Both Greg and I soloed this section and then brought Sean up on the rope.
From here there was another horrendous slog up steep deep snow to the bottom of pitch two – the “crux” of the Sunwapta Right drainage. It consists of 10-15 metres of steep, wet ice; Greg led this section quickly and then brought Sean up. I got to go last, and much to my surprise, ended up climbing in a full-on waterfall. Sean and Greg had both punctured the ice near the top, allowing water to burst out and rain down. I was thoroughly soaked by the time I got to the top.
This is Greg leading the second pitch of Sunwapta Right Hand - a short little pitch of grade 3
There is one other short section of ice above this pitch, but we decided it wasn’t worth the effort, and headed back down. The hike back to the car is all downhill, but given the fact we were breaking trail, it still seemed quite exhausting. We arrived at the car around 4 p.m.; tired and wet, but happy – with seven hours of hard fun behind us.
On a personal note, my shoulder performed fairly well – it was sore at the end of the day, but not as bad as I would have thought – definitely manageable. This more than anything made me happy, as I am finally seeing some light at the end of this injury tunnel. I’ve been climbing since I was 20, and this has been the longest time I had ever gone without roping up – it’s good to be back.
This is the view from the top of Sunwapta Right Hand, looking back toward the highway (and our car).