Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Falling Ice

1st of April, 2012. Most ice climbers have hung up their tools by this stage, and perhaps Sylvain Riopel and I should have done the same. I had only climbed with Sylvain once before, the weekend prior. We went and climbed Whiteman Falls & Redman Soars, a classic WI6 Ice route followed by a technical 5.9/WI4 mixed line situated immediately to the right. These were the hardest lines I had ever climbed and was stoked to finish my first season of waterfall ice with such challenging classics. We had a great day of climbing steep ice, sharing stimulating conversation and enjoying cold beers back in Syl's van. Such a good day was had that we decided to head out again the following Saturday.

Whiteman Falls

*Sylvain Riopel coming up pitch two of Whiteman Falls.
*Climbing through a ice tunnel on pitch 1 of Whiteman Falls

We had agreed to climb Pilsner Pillar, another mega classic WI6 route situated on the northwest flank of Mt Dennis, behind a small town west of Banff called Field. Sylvain was driving from Calgary and was due to pick me up at 8AM. We pulled over on the road next to the trail, sculled what was left of our coffee, pulled on the boots and started slogging up to our climb. Despite being the 1st of April, winter, as it does well in north America, was lingering and the temperatures justified being there. It was -5c when we left the car and with overcast skies and low avalanche hazard we justified attempting this route so late in the season. While approaching the climb I looked up and noticed a party of three other climbers climbing the mixed lines through the middle of the ice, it happened to be Jon Walsh, Andrew Querner & Rafal Andronowski. They were filming Jon climbing like the bad ass that he is for a Arc'teryx advert. It was super inspiring watching Jon climb with incredible ease and efficiency through steep mixed ground and overhanging ice.

*Sylvain approaching Pilsner Pillar.

*Pilsner Pillar

Pilsner Pillar is probably not the most apt name for the climb in the conditions we were attempting to climb it in, the centre pillar fell down a few weeks earlier and the only way to reach the ice was to battle our way through steep mixed ground, the easiest path going at M5. We decided on tackling the right hand side, on a route which I think goes by the name of Traditional Ale, M7. Sylvain, psyched for the lead, started racking up. To gain access to the ice above you first had to climb 10 metres of steep rock, with a small traverse. The first bolt was a few metres off the ground, though luckily there was a big heart shaped feature below the first bolt which would offer a comfortable place to clip from. Once Sylvain was in reach of the first bolt he matched his hands on the rock feature, rest his tools over his shoulder and went for a quick draw. As soon as he took one hand off the rock the entire  feature that he was lay backing off tore off the wall. He acted quickly and landed about as gracefully as humanly possible. He managed to turn 180° mid fall and land in knee deep snow and avoid being crushed by the size-able chunk of rock, sadly this was not a soft enough fall and he tweaked his knee which was to end his day of climbing and see him limping for weeks to come.

*Sylvain looking happy not to have been crushed.

With Sylvain now injured and unable to climb he offered the lead to me. I insisted we call it and day and get ice on his knee asap but he swore he was fine to belay and would love for me to give the route a shot. Feeling a little overwhelmed I nervously took the draws & ice screws from Sylvain and started racking up. As soon as I started up the climb I was over gripping my tools and getting pumped fast, having not done much mixed climbing before I was soon hang dogging my way through the bolts. After clipping the final bolt I felt scared but ready. I placed a .75 Camalot in a crack & clipped a rusty old piton before stemming across to the ice, knowing the first few metres would offer nothing but psychological protection.  The ice was nice and sticky, though I knew I had to treat the dagger features I was stemming on to with caution and tread lightly. Placing my front points rather than kicking and gently flicking my wrists to gain purchase with my ice tools.

Once I gained the halfway ledge I clipped a V-thread with a extendable draw and traversed left to the main curtain of ice. Behind the curtain I found bomber Ice screws that helped instill me with the confidence I needed to finish up the last steep section. The ice was very hospitable, what ice climbers generally refer to as "Hero Ice" where you can swing your tool once and gain a solid stick. This styrofoam type texture is generally attributed to the ice baking in the sun, which at this stage had burnt off the weak cloud cover above and was weighing on my mind.

*Pilsner Pillar, photo by Andrew Querner.

I finished up the ice, feeling super stoked to have gotten to the top but was more than ready to get away from this giant ice curtain and its refrigerator sized daggers as quickly as possible, especially now that the sun was out. Jon & Andrew had just made a V-thread and rappelled a few minutes before I arrived at the top. Without giving it much thought, I secured myself, pulled the ropes and rigged them for rappel. If I had stopped to think I would have realised that where I was rappelling from was about 10 metres left from where I originally started the climb, and where my quick-draws, that I had to retrieve, were still hanging.
At first, things went fine. I rappelled down, cleaning my ice screws as I went. When I got to the ledge, I walked right and clipped my ropes through a maillon (oval shaped metal) as a redirect and continued to rappel. The redirect was helpful to get more in line with the remaining gear I had to clean but did not get me as close as I would have liked to my last remaining quick-draw. To help me reach I asked Sylvain to pull on my ropes in a attempt to get me closer. What we did not realise is that directly above me, my ropes were passing over a refrigerator sized free hanging pillar of ice. The tension caused by the ropes being pulled was enough to cause the pillar to break off. When the Ice fell I was beneath it but miraculously it only managed to graze the left side of my body. Considering it probably weighed close to 300kg's I feel very grateful it did not hit me directly. I was in shock, knowing what had happened but not really grasping why exactly. I immediately felt pain in the left side of my body and looking at the debris below me I knew what had just hit me had been large enough to kill me. I hung limp from the rope, unable to speak at first, more because of shock than physical pain. Everyone was silent, no one spoke. After a few seconds, what felt like minutes, Sylvain and Rafal asked if I was ok. I replied, "Yes, I think so" with a lot of hesitation in my voice. I lowered myself to the ground and fell on my ass, my legs had turned to jelly and I felt shooting pains through my left thigh and arm. After a minute or so I realised I was not totally broken and could in fact bear weight on both legs.

* What was left of the pillar that fell on me.

Rafal, Jon & Andrew kindly offered to assist us back to the road & carry our packs to the car but we felt we would manage. We exchanged emails and waved goodbye. Sylvain and I gathered our gear, happily left the last quick-draw hanging above the chunk of rock that started the chain of unfortunate events and hobbled  down the snow slopes back to the car. We sat in the van, utterly humbled and in awe of how lucky we had been that day. Many lessons were learnt that day, from being conservative with late season objectives, to fully respecting the power of the sun and the immediate effect it has on rhe stability of ice features. Balancing perceived risk, objective hazard and ambition to climb a particular route can be a hard and often unforgiving act. I feel very lucky to have gotten away with only superficial injuries...

*Sitting in the Hospital that evening awaiting X-rays.

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