“Some changes look negative on the surface but you will soon realize that space is being created in your life for something new to emerge” – Eckhart Tolle
As the new year of 2013 dawned, I found myself returning to the Canadian freeze to continue my conquest of becoming a ‘well rounded, respectable climber’. At the time of this writing, I was typing away in my cozy fox hole that was composed of a mattress and a wardrobe in a tiny rented room in a trailer park.
Settling into Canmore wasn’t easy to say the least and I couldn’t help myself thinking back to the good times in the hot sun of Mexico. I had a lot of fears about returning to the realm of vertical ice too because the year before I had a terrifying close call, leaving me psychologically shaken and with a month-long limp. Breaking free of the past proved to be a mental challenge in both cases.
I don’t know if I ever got over this terror but what I do know is the unforgettable stillness of the mountains. In the morning’s, I would wake up to a golden sunrise, spilling over the majestic Canadian Rockies that stood silently above, like sleeping titans laying dormant, covered in blankets of snow and dripping ice. A really magical and sacred time in the wilderness.
*Regular text – January freeze in Alberta, Canada 2013
*Bold text – November Sun in Mexico 2012
Prologue – February 2012
(Sometime after I wrote ‘Proclamation for Freedom‘)
15m atop of the ice pillar, I was hot and damp having placed the last mediocre ice screw below my feet. (Yes, you wind a giant, hollow, metal screw into the ice for protection). The crux of this formation is awkward. You need to traverse away from the solid pillar of thick ice, under a roof of rock to a ledge with a fixed anchor. unfortunately, the ice forms next to a cave and the section you must side step, walks over the atrium of the cave as well. So unless you’re willing to step down to the layer of ice over the entrance of the cave with confidence that it will hold, then you’re in trouble, because your too high and cramped into the roof. Which is what I was doing. I looked down and thought about making the step. The section appeared to be absent of solid ice, the evidence of broken chunks and shattered ice lay scattered on the ground below. Thin sidewalk, barely enough for body weight. This fearful and probably irrational analysis made me reluctant to go on, since “ice climbers don’t fall”. I was in trouble. Thing is, this rule is around for a reason since you’re wielding two ice tools (mini pick axes), crampons (spikes of metal attached to your boots) and an arsenal of giant ice screws. Enough metal to cut and stab you or your friend if you fall.
All this information is whirling in my manic mind as my arms begin to fatigue. I’m still crunched up too high into the roof of rock, like a scared cat in a tree. Too frightened to step down, I hammer my tool into the highest piece of ice available but it’s far too brittle for decent purchase. I keep on hammering with hope in the cramped space but I’m getting tired so quickly. I can literally see seconds left in my minds eye. With a small hole now chiseled I figure it’s got to hold something. I pull down onto the tool and begin to move left. Crack. The brittle ice fractures in all directions and I know in a split second of dread what is about to happen.
The tool explodes out of the ice, sending frozen shrapnel into my face. The metal spine of the tool back fires into my cheekbone and I’m off the pillar into thin air. Letting out a death scream, my tools clatter onto the frozen ground as I fall past my last ice screw and swing into the pillar. The spikes of my right boot snag on some ice, twisting my knee and smashing it into the pillar, absorbing the momentum of my body weight and gravity, my razor footed spikes sailing over my friends head. My friend steadfastly holds the rope, saving me from splatting on the ground. I finally stop swaying in the air and sit up on the rope. The screw held. Woah. I look up and see it’s come halfway out of the ice. If it came out, I probably wouldn’t be walking right now. My friend lowers me to the ground with a stunned expression on his face. I wipe a spot of blood from my face and limp over into the snow.
That was close.
Silence. The kind you get when nobody’s awake and the pale of dawn isn’t ready to turn on the lights yet.
Two bodies lay side by side, cocooned in pudgy, soft down sleeping bags, like a pair of juicy grubs. One prone, the other in a fetal position. That’s me. We are sleeping in the back of a Toyota 91′ Previa with a back seat unscrewed and piled on the other to make space. Sitting up, I take in the surroundings. Forecast said it was -15’C last night. A nice layer of frozen condensation encased all the windows inside the van we’ve dubbed the ‘ice house’. I scrub a whole through the back window. No cars have left the parking lot yet for work. David is still dead to the world. I lie back down again. Watching my steaming breath rise and spill over the roof, I can’t help but think; This time last month i was in Mexico climbing in the hot sun…Narf
The small car, filled with the three of us was bursting at the seams. Ropes, climbing gear, clothes and food filled every remaining cubic inch. Slowly but surely the burdened vehicle makes its way through the town of Hidalgo, lurching over yet another speed bump with a Clang! briefly muting the thumping bass line that’s been cranked up to maintain our psyche. Rounding the corner of the main square, we start up the hill towards El Potrero Chico canyon. Jib and Van let out a “Woo Hoo!”. The cliffs of the canyon must be coming into view but all I could see was the back of Jibs head. When the tired motor finally comes to a grinding halt, the three of us step out for a look. Wow, we’re finally here!
The day before, we had been driving in a straight line across Texas. Night fell and we stopped for a sleep in some field near the highway. We grabbed our sleeping pads and landed in the soil like felled timber and into instant slumber. A few hours later we were woken by two massive pick up trucks both with their headlight beams aimed right at us. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and put out an arm to shield my eyes from the blinding light to see three silhouetted men standing in front. All have their hands cocked near their holsters. I crane my head to look around the guy in the center. The side of the truck reads “US Boarder Patrol”. Great.
With Vans disarming smile and explanation that “we actually want to leave the usa”, I am allowed to totter out in my boxer shorts to the car to show them my visa. He smiles at the bumbling Englishman and tells us to move on at dawn. An hour later it happened again and we explain again that we want to go to Mexico. “You guys are crazy” the officer retorts, in perfect southern drawl.
Canmore, Alberta. My new home, for the winter at least. Situated in the Canadian Rockies, this world-class arena would be the perfect place to return to climb vertical ice. All around the valley, summits and enormous faces surround us, plastered in snow and ice. Magical..beautiful…deadly. A wonderful winter playground but a place where you can’t screw it up. Not for a second. I am nervous but excited to step out of my comfort zone and see where it takes me.
Then it starts. Back at the ‘Hostel of Doom’ (a non descript hostel in town), I remember leaving my ice tools at the bottom of the ice falls where we had been climbing earlier that day. Damn. Driving back up, I run over to the falls as it starts snowing. At the spot, I get on my knees and scrape frantically for the lost tools and start to get demented when at last they appear. The next day the car won’t start. Battery dead? We hook up the cables to another car but sparks fly out. That can’t be good. Now the lights on the dash won’t come on. We search for a mobile mechanic but they don’t exist here and pushing won’t work so we eventually concede and call the tow truck. 2 minutes and $130 later it’s getting fixed (Blown fuses). A few days later the battery is dead again. Phew, it gets jumped without a hitch. We then go to stay at the Alpine club hostel out-of-town as the Hostel of Doom is too awful. A nice night there leaves us refreshed for the next day. The morning of, we set off down the hill to go for a climb. Alas, on the way down we turn a tight bend only to sail flawlessly over a sheet of ice into a ditch and nearly roll into a telegraph pole. Our little ship had been severely rocked that week and I was starting to doubt my place here. No job to cover costs and no place to live was starting to eat me from the inside. Jumping ship was turning into a good idea.
La Pasada, Potrero Chico. Our new campsite for the fortnight. It sits at the mouth of the canyon and hosts a garden, swimming pool, kitchen and bar. Being the same price as camping in Yosemite it feels like luxury. Revelling in the warm breeze, I waft over to the pool to see my Czech friend Petr. We catch up and trade stories, as a Mitsubishi van the size of a tin can pulls up. I know that van! Out gets Alex and Nick from BC, Canada. Haven’t seen you guys since Squamish! Sharing a beer and lounging on the deck chairs, I enter catch up mode again. They drove from the Red River Gorge in Kentucky and talk about their new friend they met there that should be arriving soon. My ears prick up and I know who it is already. I know that voice! The friend from Kentucky is none other than our mutal friend Ina from the Squamish crew also, how wonderful!
After a night of celebration and a bottle of Tequila we swiftly head up into the canyon. Our first route is a really fun, athletic route of about 1000ft called ‘Space Boyz’. The position is fantastic and we just go go go! It would be this way pretty much everyday for 2 weeks. Kyla shows up from Indian Creek, Utah too. We had our tribe back together again. Amazing how people can congregate like this out of nowhere. To say this was a good turn of events was an understatement.
Intention. Positive intention. Your actions, your attitude, your resources. You can make it happen. Of course, I didn’t really want to leave this place. You’re right here. World class ice formations formed all over the Rocky mountains. What a perfect place for this. Fortunately, we met some Danish climbers who were here on a mission and I was able to tag along a few times. They’re experts and offer to ‘show me the ropes’. This makes me feel less pitiful but I’m reassured little by little. A few days later David leaves for Cuba. Climbing is the only stable thing in my life.
Back in Mexico, the party doesn’t stop. Jib and I are in tee shirts and shorts with minimum gear and a backpack. Inside the bag there’s just a couple of beers for the top and a boom box, thumping out the best of Faithless. No tools, no cold or avalanche danger, just dry rock and 1000ft foot walls all around. The psyche goes full power all day long as we dance and pump up and across the canyon walls. At days end, we eat tacos and pick at our shredded finger tips, still coasting off the adreneline. “So what tower you wanna climb tomorrow Tobes?” – Love it, may it never end.
3 months later, I’m all set up in my trailer, working random jobs at construction sites with numb hands but at least I’m going ice climbing with my new friend Damien tomorrow…probably with numb hands too. The following day, we’re getting all set up at the bottom of a huge wall of frozen ice called Weeping Wall. I offer to go first as it’s the easiest section and Damien, a very experienced climber from Quebec who possesses great humility and unwavering optimism, agreed to lead the harder pitches above. Despite his massive generosity, all I’m thinking about is my near miss catastrophe the year before, making me nervous before I even leave the ground. Got to contribute at least one lead. Setting off, the ice is nice and soft. Thrust the tool in and test it. With straight arms, bring your feet up into a squat like position and stand up, arching your back. Strike again. That’s the basic sequence. 4 close ice screws later my calfs are burning and I’m soaked but otherwise I’m alright, just need to stop stressing. I hope this can be somewhat understandable though as the last ice fall I tried to climb last year resulted in the most terrifying fall of my life.
Back down in the canyon, we all sit round the blazing fire, listening to music, chatting about the day, shooting the shit. For most of us, we will be parting ways again. A regular event with such a nomadic group of people. Some will continue south, some will stay, some like me go back north. What a season. Looking forward to seeing you all again someday. It was a pleasure. Let’s have another drink! The next day I was to step out of the airport in -25.
Back on Weeping Wall, memories flash by but I ignore it, breathe and finish the pitch. Damien flows up in two seconds and we continue up for the rest of the day. A couple hours later, we are halfway up this massive wall of ice. (Featured image). No matter how long you climb, when you look down on something like this..it’s awesome. “Lets get out of here” he remarks as I reach the belay. He is right, its sunny and above zero. We put snow over the anchor to help our protection from melting out of the ice. As soon as we reach the treed ledge and begin the rappels.
A long drive later I’m dropped off at my home in the trailer park. What a day! Things are looking up, eh! Let’s keep it coming. ….. Positive Intention.