A day at the Circus with Dorothy and Toto
Polar Circus. Photo by Dow Williams
The Day at the Circus, a Recreational Therapy Excursion
by Brutus of Wyde
Old Climbers Home,
As the Boeing 737 stretch house slammed to a stop in the Munchkinland of Calgary, (inadvertently crushing a Customs agent) Nurse Dorothy and Toto blinked at a world of endless color and strange people.
It was late winter, 1998, and Nurse Dorothy was taking Toto for a walk. Toto was in search of a brain, a heart, and courage. Not to mention improved ice technique and good 6.2% Canadian brewski. Dorothy just wanted to tick some great routes and get back to Kansas in one piece.
The helpful Calgarians pointed the pair in the direction of Polar Circus with the useful advice "Follow the yellow-pit road, eh?"
[Polar Circus is a popular and classic ice climb located in the Canadian Rockies off the Icefields Parkway. Climbers from throughout the world come to Canada to test their skills (and empty their bladders, sometimes unintentionally) on this incredible, 700 meter tiered frozen waterfall. Originally rated Grade VI, the first ascent of this route required eight days, fixed ropes, and substantial aid on the steepest sections.
In what was to become a typical situation on this beautiful wall, the climb was crowded even during the first ascent, with two parties competing for the prize. The second ascent party, narrowly missing being the first to bag this great line, eliminated all but five meters of aid from the route.
With the evolution of modern tools and techniques, "Circus" has since been downgraded to Grade V, W5, and is typically climbed by competent teams in a long day from the Icefields
So it was that, with a party of British climbers bivied above, and a party of Slovenian climbers in hot pursuit, Dorothy and Toto started up the approach to Polar Circus in the predawn of March 9, 1998.
Scrambling and teetering up the ice-crusted approach slopes to where they had cached one of their packs (The Tienneman Squarecrow) and one of their ropes the day before, Dorothy glanced down nervously at the Slovenian Roller Derby headlamps gaining rapidly on their heels.
"Be careful Toto, but hurry..." By the time Dorothy clipped in the leash and Toto started up the first pitch, dawn was breaking and the steely eyes of the Slovenians were greedily scanning the ice below Toto's heels.
As Toto barked "Off Belay," both Dorothy and the Slovenian team started up the pitch, the Slovenian male-witch leader climbing over Dorothy's top-rope. It became apparent that there were too many climbers in too small an area of the climb.
The Slovenians exchanged unintelligible comments while the leader warlock glanced at Dorothy and Toto. "Sie sint Toad, meinek Liebscheg, unt deiner kleinek Hund Buick auk!!!" Likely the Slovenian equivalent of "I'll get you, my pretty. And your little dog, too!"
As Dorothy arrived at the belay, a volley of curses was heard from the Slovenian second below. Seemed that one of his tools somehow broke a pick.
"Ve're done." said the Slovenian leader craftily. "Ve vill hust go up and look at the rest of the klimb." With those words, the pair of aerobic monsters hopped on their broomsticks and flew up the easy snow slope above, leaving Dorothy and Toto to follow close behind.
At the next ice wall, the heavy-footed Slovenian spikes were already gouging their way up when Toto and Dorothy arrived.The pair hunkered down and cooled their heels to the side of the gully, out of range of the flying monkey-sized blocks of ice raining down from above. When the fusilade finished, Dorothy quickly skipped up the pitch, with Toto scampering obediently behind.
After another slow-motion sprint up easy snow slopes, Toto bypassed shattered remains of the ice formation known as the Pencil without bothering to stop and place protection. His playful barking echoed off the towering walls of the canyon. Soon the pair were simul-climbing a waist-deep trench through the long, avalanche-prone traverse to the base of the upper head wall.
Far above, the British team could be heard whooping and hollering news that the top of the climb was theirs.
More waiting: The first two pitches of the wall at the head of Polar Circus could be linked as a 70-meter simul-climb, with relatively easy territory at the beginning and the end. But with another flock of flying ice-monkeys sent by the Slovenians gouging huge craters in the slope, Dorothy and Toto found a sheltered location and sat down for an hour-long picnic lunch, the better to watch the huge chunks of mountain falling from the circus above.
Momentum slowed. Toto's eyelids drooped. Sleep stalked the pair. Suddenly, snow sent by the Good Witch of the North began drifting down from the sky, accompanied by small spindrift avalanches, jerking them back to frightened alertness. It was time to move. Caching one of their two packs, "The Goose" at the base of the head wall, they started up.
Still risking bombardment, Toto led the long pitch as quickly as possible, sniffing out the trail of yellow snow and ice, nearly nipping at the heels of the Slovenians in spite of the delay.
Dorothy followed, and eyed the next pitch. Still shaking off the soporific effects of the lunch, she wisely declined the lead, arranged Toto's leash, and sent him ahead. Two pitches of easy ice landed them at the large platform below the final, crux section.
More waiting. The British Lion team rappelled past, commenting on the cavalcade of ice being jack-hammered out of the climb by the Slovenians. "Looks like they're cleaning off the crux section for you anyway, mates.
More gutteral curses plummeted from above, accompanied by chunks travelling at interplanetary velocities. A Slovenian had just broken another of their picks while negotiating the curtain of ice off the penultimate belay.
"PAY NO ATTENTION TO THAT MAN BEHIND THE CURTAINCurtainurtain!!!"
More waiting: Ever so slowly, the last Slovenian pulled over the top. Time to move.
Within the few minutes it took the Slovs to rappel the top pitch, Toto had led up to the ice-curtained alcove, hooking his entire lead, placing only cursory protection. As the Slovenians clipped the anchors in the alcove, they exchanged a few words, mostly amiable, then the Slovenians vanished into the mist below.
Dorothy arrived for a quick changeover. Growling, Toto hooked around the curtain and up through the steepest section, carefully protecting the 15-meter, shattered vertical crux out of respect for his dwindling energy. Wicked Slovenians dispatched, they now had the climb all to themselves. As the ice eased off, Toto's tail wagged furiously. He could smell the top, and was eager to mark the topmost anchors as his own.
Toto scampered up the finish and gazed into the vast upper bowl and distant craggy towers of Mt. Cirrus playing hide-and-seek in the clouds. The climb was below. The yipping of the little black dog echoed off the vast walls. Nurse Dorothy left "Squarecrow" at the last belay, and quickly joined Toto.
With the day drawing to a close, the two spent a scant few minutes at the top before beginning the rappels. Dereka, the Good Witch of the North, floated up in a bubble, and congratulated them.
"But how do we get down?" asked Dorothy.
"Why, you've always had the ability to go home" the Good Witch replied. "Just close your eyes, tap the snow off your Switchblades three times, thread the ropes through the Ablakovs, and begin the rappels, saying "There's no place like Rampart, there's no place like Rampart..."
"Toto too?" Asked Dorothy
"Toto too!" she nodded.
As the pair sWitched on headlamps and descended into the darkening gully, heading toward Rampart Creek Hostel, the steaming sauna, soft pillows and down comforters, the Good Witch smiled beatifically, waved her wand, and vanished into the spindrift.