A long day
On January 14, 2007, Greg Cutforth and I left the warm comfort of our beds (and our wives) in Hinton (Alberta) at 6 a.m. to climb at the Weeping Wall. It was minus 18 (Celsius) in Hinton, but we were hoping that it would warm up as the day progressed. Two and a half hours later, we arrived at the world famous Weeping Wall. The wall is approximately 600 feet high, with steep, often very wet, ice. Today, it was also brutally cold – luckily (unfortunately?) we didn’t have a thermometer or we would have likely gone home. Conservatively, it was 25 below (Celsius). We hiked to the bottom of the route. The Parkway (this is the pass between Jasper and Banff) had been closed for most of the last two weeks due to heavy snowfall; unfortunately, a lot of this snow was sticking to the ice in places, so we knew it was going to be an “interesting” day. We picked the line we wanted to climb (the central pillar – grade 6) and Greg got the first lead. By the time it was my turn to climb my hands and feet were frozen – a theme that was going to continue for most of the day.
I led the second pitch; the sun was yet to hit the ice and it was brutally cold. Putting in ice screws and clipping carabiners with frozen hands is one of the more unappealing aspects (among many) of climbing ice.
Pitch 2 in the early morning light on the Weeping Wall (climber: A. Jones, photo: G. Cutforth)
Greg led the third pitch – the crux. It was dead vertical on technical ice – to make things a little more interesting, it was also soaking wet. For the first 15 metres, it was like climbing in a shower (and I’m not exaggerating). Until you could move to the left, and avoid some (but not all) of the water, you were soaking wet. Next time it’s 25 below – put on your clothes, take a shower, and then go outside and walk around. You’ll soon notice – everything freezes; instantly. We noticed this too.
To make matters just a little more fun, when I was following the pitch, I had to carry the pack as well as drag another rope behind me (we needed this rope for rappelling). With the combined wait of the rope (which was also wet) on the back of my harness and all of the ice screws I was removing, my harness started to fall down my ass. Now this sounds bad, but add to this the fact that the rope above me kept freezing in the ice, so that Greg couldn’t pull it up as I climbed up, plus the fact that I was soaking wet, was carrying a backpack, and my hands and feet were frozen solid, and you have the makings of a memorable pitch of climbing. Oh yes, I forgot to mention, while climbing Greg also took a piece of ice in the face cutting his lip open, and while belaying I got slammed by a big piece of ice in the stomach (dropped from 60 metres above).
This was by far Greg’s hardest lead (solid grade 6), and was about as far out there (in terms of dangerous) that either of us felt we wanted to be.
The last pitch of the climb was mine; normally, this is a fairly easy pitch (I’ve led it before), but on this day, it was one of the most psychologically demanding pitches I have led. There was unconsolidated sugary snow on top of crappy sun rotted ice. It took me approximately an hour to gain 25 metres. I had to remove all of the snow, in order to get down to some sort of ice. From there, it took me about another half an hour to reach the top – keep in mind, Greg is belaying me, it’s 20 below, and he’s soaking wet. At no time did I feel comfortable on the ice – it was bad ice, steep, and hard to read. None of the ice screws were any good.
Greg leading the crux grade 6 pitch on the Weeping Wall
When I finally got to the top, I set up a belay and brought up Greg, who was thoroughly frozen. We then had to get down. This meant walking about 200 yards to the north, to where you make four long rappels back to the ground. Because it had snowed over a 3 feet in the last two weeks, this meant we had to blaze a path through steep, extremely deep, snow. Greg went first, because he has (by a long ways) the longest legs. It took us about ¾ of an hour to travel 200 yards. I might have still been up there if it wasn’t for Greg’s 6”4” frame and long legs. I don’t think my legs (5’8”) even came close to the ground – I basically swam the whole way..
We then made 4 rappels back to the ground. Rappelling with everything being frozen (hands, gloves, clothes, ropes, harnesses, carabiners, etc) was challenging, to say the least.
We got back to the vehicle at 4:30 p.m. eight hours after we left. We were both whipped. I couldn’t get my harness off, as it was frozen solid. It was so cold, my vehicle almost didn’t start, and we didn’t warm up, until about 2 hours into the drive home.
Greg ended up getting two stitches, and we both had frost bite on our big toes. In the end, we both lost the toenails off of both toes.
So that was a day on the Weeping Wall – it wasn’t very fun, but it was quite the physical and mental workout.