Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Death was on the mind a lot

I just wrote a piece for an instructional ice manual on epic-ing less and climbing more.  It took me back to this early lesson I was taught.

ian welsted
Sunset over Mount Alberta
I thought I was dead. Not in some metaphorical, hypothetical sense, but literally. Or rather, I felt dead. Before my mind could process a thought, I realized that I was seeing stars against a black backdrop — that the mid-morning light had been extinguished, as had any desire or care as to my destiny. Standingin a chossy limestone coffin, I reckoned that being hit by rockfall a second time was to be my last memory. It took a few seconds for my mind to refocus, at which point I understood that I was indeed alive, but that my toes were tingling. I’ve been paralyzed, was the next thing that came to me. Like a hypothermic animal caught in a leghold trap, my subconscious decided to accept its fate and simply not care. To give up like this two thirds of the way up one of the biggest faces in the Rockies is not a good survival strategy. Or is it? Maybe not caring was the key to my fortunate outcome.

In reality, though, my continued existence as a living human is due to the effort of my best climbing buddy, Chris Brazeau. Like a knight in shining armour, here he came from above, rapping our single fifty metre line to arrive at my presumed death stance with less than his usual smile. How was it that Chris could chuckle about what had just happened to him while fixing that rap? “I thought I was going for the big one,” was his comment as he described the ten foot fall he had taken while jugging to free our stuck rope. A calm mind, that was the differentiating factor. It was not the first time I realized that there was a difference between Chris and me: he enjoyed the thrill of danger while I all too often did not. But let me leave the lessons learned till later and describe how we had gotten into our predicament and how Chris got us out of it. As Dave Cheesemond wrote, “It would be an impressive and expensive descent ….” (Pushing the Limitsp. 209).

Looking out after the first day
Really, it all centers around a keen climbing and personal friendship. Chris and I began climbing at around the same time. When a couple of years later Chris moved to Squamish to slum it at “the River”, it sounded like such a riot that I couldn’t resist. But while I kept working and maintaining some kind of material quality of life, Chris would do such things as work 17 days in a year so that he could climb as much as possible. Over subsequent summers, I got rope-gunned up the three hardest “multi-pitch routes of quality” in Kevin McLane’s guidebook, always feeling sheepish when leaving the ground with either the unspoken or even the explicit understanding that the crux pitches would not be mine. After all, I only lead 5.10. On our first trip to the Rockies, we figured we would train for the hardest route in the book “’cause it’s only 5.10.” Luckily, we were kept from our intended goal by a snowstorm. So, in the summer of 2004, when we decided to slay dragons and attempt the unrepeated Blanchard-Cheesemond route [North Pillar] on North Twin, I was not in the least surprised when Chris offered to lead what he figured from the route description was the crux of the route. That we didn’t flounder in the first rock band” was not of my doing. 

Our preparation was complete after seeing North Twin on the way to doing Alberta’s Northeast Ridge. Perhaps we didn’t have a full “training diet of big limestone rock routes”, as Dougherty suggests, but Chris had on-sighted Astro Yam without the aid of the #4 Camalot (I’d forgotten it in the car) at the beginning of the season. With my impatient, now-or-never attitude and Chris’s skills, how could we fail? That we didn’t wonder after avoiding the North Face of Alberta due to its reputation for rockfall in the summer is a bit of a mystery, but obsessions are obsessions. 

We’d been e-mailing about strategy, getting psyched. The fact that the Eiger had been climbed in four hours, combined with my recognition that I couldn’t lead .10d with a pack, somehow made me agree to the suggestion that we go for it in a day. Light is right,” they say these days, so we took a tarp, two puffies, one rope and a five-millimetre shoelace pull line cause we’re not going to use it, anyway.” Never mind that we’d tried the Salathé in a day the previous fall and it had taken us two and a half; hitch yourself to a madman and see what happens, I figured. So it was that we headed over Woolley Shoulder — and promptly headed away from our objective and to the shelter of the Lloyd McKay hut. Chris had spent the day before humping loads for pay in to the Elizabeth Parker hut, where his girlfriend, Kitt Redhead, was cooking. Similarly, I’d jogged into Berg Lake to retrieve a pair of sandals from the base of the Emperor Ridge as an excuse to visit my girlfriend, who was finishing the Great Divide trail that day. Being slightly shagged both, we figured the one-day push would require all of our energy, so we might as well start well rested. The extra day gave us the chance to enjoy the beautiful meadows below the north face of Stutfield, eye up a 3000-foot waterfall for future winter reference, and be psyched for the 3 a.m. start.

Yup, he’s a madman, I was thinking. We’d just trundled some rock at our first belay, promptly chopping our rope to fifty metres. And here he was, run out maybe eighty, maybe a hundred feet, already a good way up the face, since we’d soloed the easy choss. I couldn’t watch, only looking up to take a photo, because here we were on the pitch that had drawn my attention after seeing the photo from the first ascent in the American Alpine Journal. It had looked so stellar that I promptly sent a copy c/o Poste Restante, Chamonix, trying to lure  Brazeau back to Canada. Our belay had  taken a #2 and a #3 Camalot, so all Chris had left for the wide crack was one #2 from the anchor. It didn’t want to swallow the #4, which only got put in at the overhang at the top of the pitch. So on that pitch there were two pieces a long way apart. Later, friends and those “in the know” (e.g. Don Serl) suggested that the epic to follow was due to our being on the face when it was too hot. Well, wet limestone a hundred feet run out is one thing; maybe sopping wet it’s another. From my vantage no real problems were encountered for a while, although Chris was twice hit by rockfall. Interesting how, until it happens to you, such objective hazards can be dismissed. My inexperience showed when, crossing the “sinister gully”, I stopped to build an anchor and Chris called up to just hip belay, after the second missile from above hit him on the lip. Pitched-out climbing on the left side of the gully led through some enjoyably solid cracks to an overhanging wide crack (.10d) mentioned in the route description. My conscience got the better of me at this point and prevented me from pulling my usual gambit in such situations. Many times before, I have simply stopped my lead blocks before such cruxes, handing over the sharp end to my rope-gun friend. Somehow I talked myself out of it. As I climbed up to the overhang, I had to manoeuvre around a loose block my own size perilously hanging out from the wall.

Solid cracks with loose blocks

Later I would read Steve House’s description of a loose killer block on their ascent, and of his climbing past it with equanimity. I, on the other hand, was terrified. What the hell am I doing up here; if I fall we’ll both die, was my overwhelming thought. Never mind that I’d read the Buddhist text No Death, No Fear in preparation. In hindsight, I realize that it is the “mind of the observer” that separates those who send these biggest of routes from those, like me, who are haunted by their failures months or years later. Wanting to build an anchor just above the block, I called down my intention to Chris. An encouraging response came from below, and I resorted to aid. At that point our upward progress slowed considerably, like a climax before the foregone conclusion. Finally, the rope-stretcher pitch ended and I was rewarded with the opportunity to try a classic Rockies technique that I had only read about before: for want of a solid anchor, Chris jugged the line off my harness.

Being two working-class non-locals with little Rockies experience, we figured that 8 p.m. was a good quitting time for the day. When the next party gets to this point, they will be amazed that two thinking people could choose a bivy away from the face, unprotected from falling rock, for the night. Perhaps as amazed as we were when we found a Knifeblade in the left-hand wall at the base of the final headwall — the only sign of human passage in the 3000 feet of the route which we completed. Later, I came to believe that the pin was put in only as an anchor for a bivy up against the rock, safe from rockfall, unlike our sandy ledge fifty feet out. Luckily, the mountain gods didn’t hurl anything down on us in the night, although they did treat us to some amazing scenery.

The next morning, entertaining me in one of our usual debates over route finding, Chris obliged my fancy for a first pitch straight up from the pin. You see, I always claim that I complement Chris equally in our partnership with a greater “mountain sense” even though I’ve spent much less time in the mountains. "Oh, the number of times he would have started up the wrong crack if I hadn’t put him right,” is my line of reasoning. I now know in my heart that we would have been safer on the steeper ground to the right which Chris favored. Rereading the route description has made me realize my conceited error. Mostly, however, it is the continued reality of recovering from breaking my arm while seconding only three pitches after “winning” our debate that makes me aware of my mistake. 
Jiugging with a broken arm

Thus it was that we began our epic 30 hours after leaving the ground. Reinhold Messner wrote in Big Walls that hebelieves that climbers at the  peak of their game avoid such eventualities, while others — let me say “imposters” — fall victim to the same forces. Does the “mind of the imposter” act as an attractor, a black hole that draws in negative energy? I think it does, for I will never forget looking up and seeing those missiles curving in towards me from perhaps six or eight pitches up. “I can only think how different the outcome would have been if the rock had been a foot the other way,” I wrote in the hut book on the way out. But which way? Left, and we would have continued with the climb and, hopefully, completed the second ascent. Right, and the rock would have hit my helmet. And what if we had gotten an earlier start that morning and finished one more pitch by the time the sun was hitting the upper slopes of the mountain? For we were within one pitch of the overhanging portion of the upper headwall, where we would have been protected from above. All rather conjectural when one is an El Cap height off the ground with a broken arm. An unenviable choice stared us coldly in the face. Our first decision was to make an effort upward, for the easier terrain above was definitely much closer than the ground. As I jugged the next pitch, I could not balance properly and raked the rope across a loose block while swinging after removing a piece. Like a sitting duck, I hung on as the block floated past me. After two hours, I reached Chris and we reassessed our decision. A list of factors: two hours to jug one pitch; Chris would have to lead every pitch; if he got hurt, I wouldn’t be able to help; overhanging jugging to come; pain… Down we went.

Sometimes you have to lie back and take it all in.

The editor of the CAJ said, “I’d like to know how you got down.” What can I say other than that Chris engineered a retreat with all the care and experience that he could muster. The first few raps to our bivy spot went well. Next we had to go off the ledge where the previous day I had found no solid anchor. Using a V-thread and a few slung loose blocks, we made it down to my “death stance”. Let it be known that “light is not right” if you ever have to retreat and use a five-mil accessory cord to pull a knot over a loose edge. At least take Spectra or static or something, which we two dirt bags figured we couldn’t afford. No kind of pulling would get the knot to move. To remedy the situation, up went Chris for his free fall when the knot slipped back against the anchor. And down he came to rescue me from my fatal fear with one 50-metre rap line to rap let’s say 750 metres. Thirty raps sounds about right.

Rapping, I am told, is statistically more dangerous than climbing. That we made it attests to Chris’s great ability and his love for life. Only once did I wonder — no, make that twice. The first was when we seemed to be rushing to make it to the lower ledge system on the face before dark. We had crossed to climber’s right of the sinister gully on a loose ledge system. Some of North Twin’s vertical cracks are impeccable, but the low-angled ledges are definitely choss. Out of these little bits and pieces of shattered rock, Chris had made an anchor of two pins, in part to conserve our dwindling rack. As he rapped off, he said something about direction of pull”, but I missed it; upon weighting the anchor, I found myself leaning back on one very dubious Knifeblade. To my undying shame, I yelled at Chris for his (read my) recklessness as I rapped over the edge. By that time I had become completely dependent on Chris for my rescue. When he asked me for my input on our final rap in the dark that night, I did not understand what he was asking. He had rapped to the ends of our rope and could find no good anchor. As I was coming down second, he asked me to build an anchor, tie off, pull the rope, and then continue down to him. It was such a shock to be asked to take responsibility for myself, and I was enjoying being babied so greatly, that I simply refused. After I rapped to Chris and the ends of the rope, we spent our second night on the face on a non-existent ledge. Throughout the night, we would wake to air-tearing, screeching volleys from above and flatten ourselves as much as humanly possible. Sheltered only by our tarp, I found myself scared by this sound like no other. A breakfast of chocolate-covered coffee beans greeted us in the morning — the last of our food.

The second time I wondered about Chris was when we had reached the safety of the northeast ridge by the middle of the third day. There was finally no mountain looming over us, ready to let loose a barrage of limestone. My idea was to wait it out for the wardens to fly in and rescue us, as friends would phone to report us missing in three or four days. What was Chris thinking? He was worried that Kitt would have to hitchhike back from her work, since he had borrowed her truck to drive to our trailhead. A thousand feet up, with a rinky-dink leftover rack, and he was worried about someone else. It was all I could do to refrain from saying, “F--- Kitt, my arm hurts and we’re still not down.” A better friend you couldn’t ask for.
Luxury away from the face

On the third night, we lounged in luxury on a large ledge system to the north end of the mountain. After we had considered all kinds of traverses off that would have been possible for able-bodied climbers, I finally convinced Chris that I was unable to function at a level that would allow for downclimbing. Some wild hanging belays in a waterfall below a hanging glacier brought back the fear factor, but they also brought us to our ledge. The impending darkness led us to delay our ground-coming until the next day. Chris claims that he was never so jealous as when he heard me snoring that chilly night away after I finally unfolded my emergency silver bivy bag now that we only had one night to go. When we finally reached non-technical ground the next day, I think that Chris was more relieved than me, for he no longer had the responsibility of caring for an invalid. This thought occurred to me as I let out a great “whoop” of unbridled joy when I knew our epic was behind us. Having not shown any outward signs of stress during our descent of two and a half days, Chris suddenly called out, “Ian, how do I get down?” All that remained between Chris and a scree slope was a ten-foot-high chimney that even I had downclimbed. Now that he knew we were down and safe, Chris could finally show some weakness and ask me for help. How he handled the stress, I don’t know. Probably the same way he deals with the soloing and the wet, 100-foot run-outs — with the calm mind of the pure climber. After all, as he put it, “Death was on the mind a lot.”

Thanks to Dr. Mark Heard of Banff, it is fully functional and only aches occasionally.

My many thanks to Chris, Kitt (for not asking for her rack back and for
insisting that I go to the hospital when I was in delusional denial) and
Dr. Mark Heard (for fixing me up).

The Canadian Alpine Journal 2005

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