Ice Climbing on Mount Cascade

“Avalanche”, came the words from my mouth. I had yelled them-I think I had, but it was tough to be sure that the words cam from my mouth. I don’t know how I knew. I had never experienced an avalanche before, never taken a course in avalanches, I hadn’t even seen the movie-there must be several. I wasn’t prepared and I didn’t know the proper procedures. None of that mattered as I gazed at the gathering cloud of snow in the distance above Ian. There was a certain beauty about that momentary view. Ian appeared to be centre stage in a billowing framework. The cloud was somehow perfect, as in a cartoon strip, with its rounded, comfy, edges. It should have been pure white, but it was gray…very gray-it was noticeably dirty!

“Why is it dirty?” I thought. On reflection, it makes no sense that a tiny, seemingly insignificant detail should have preoccupied my mind in this time of great urgency. Perhaps it is a sensory distortion-a part of the “slow motion” effect popularized in tales of survival. There seemed to be all sorts of time to contemplate the finer details of the avalanche rushing dangerously towards me. The details and distractions didn’t betray the almost immediate recognition of the catastrophic danger.

“Who care’s if it is dirty or not! Get on with it.” Within milliseconds I had instinctively recognized the danger for what it was and had begun some kind of crude defensive…or should I say my mouth had begun some kind of crude defensive. The same kind of defensive that takes over when a barking dog startles you out from a daydream. It began as a withdrawal fear response and quickly changed into a warning scream: “Aaaaaahhhhh…valanche!”

I had first met Ian on an earlier trip to the Rockies-he was “a friend of a friend”. Six of us had met to climb “Professor’s”, a spectacular icefall within hiking distance of the Banff Springs Hotel. On that weekend I was second (followed another’s lead up the climbing pitch) to Chuck and I believe Ian had entrusted Nina to be his second. A trust that should by all rights not be taken lightly for if you fall you rely on your partner’s skill to arrest your fall and support your ongoing existence. It is not uncommon in climbing, however, to hand over the other end of your rope (your lifeline) to a complete stranger. A person who’s sole qualification is that they are “a friend of a friend”. On that weekend Chuck took a reasonably significant lead fall of approximately 10 meters.

A lead fall is particularly more dangerous than a second fall. When you are climbing second there is never much more than a half-meter of rope slack depending on how conscientious your partner is. So, if you do slip and fall you will fall that amount of rope slack plus whatever inherent elasticity the rope affords in added slack. In most circumstances your lead will have reached a spot above you where (s)he feels comfortable setting up a base: an area that allows a stable anchor to be constructed. So there is little likelihood of you pulling free from your protection (“pro”). A lead fall is an entirely different situation. A leader falls from the highest point reached, down to the last piece of “pro” that was placed–if only that were the end of it. (S)he then falls until all the accumulated rope has come to tension on the down side of the last piece of pro. The higher you climb beyond protection, the farther you fall below protection. A necessary addition to this is that the longer the fall the greater the amount of stretch on the rope and therefore the greater the fall due to the elastic deformation of the rope. I have never taken a lead fall, but I am certain that it involves a considerable terror.

Certainly a lot of falls occur as a result of an error in judgment: a placement that was not as stable as had been anticipated, or a hastily applied ice axe, for example. But the worst failure of judgment, a precursor to the most terrifying fall, is an error of setting one’s limit: an over-extension of one’s own ability. Falling unexpectedly is like being called upon to stand up in front of a crowd and say a few words about a subject you are knowledgeable in. It’s scary, but soon you are in the throes of the situation and there is no time left to continue agonizing. I was the MC at a local showing of the “Best of Banff Film Festival” a couple of years back. For weeks in advance I would have momentary flashes-a few seconds at most-of anxiety as I imagined myself in front of the crowd on center stage. On the Friday of the show I was having difficulty with more frequent and increasingly longer flashes of anxiety. In the minutes leading up to my presentation I was in a considerable state of disarray: sweaty palms, armpits, and back; an ongoing urge to defecate; dry mouth; pacing; and a strong need to be by myself. The feelings are welling up in me again just thinking about it. The evening went well and I doubt whether anyone would have guessed at the nervous pre-amble, but I believe, that is the kind of slow, agonizing, self-torture that goes on before the anticipated fall-the “fear-fall. You know that your time is imminent; you know that you are drawing ever closer to the climax and for the most part you must follow through and yet you have doubts as to your capacity to succeed. The fear-fall however, goes beyond stepping up onto a stage…, it involves a whole another level and degree of anxiety.

Prior to the fear fall there must be an impasse, a breakdown of options. Of the options you have available to you none appear to be working and as you tire fewer and fewer options present themselves. In tiring you begin to realise that you may be in trouble. When you can least afford the leisure, you begin to consider the safety of your protection. “How good was that last placement? Will it withstand the forces of a fall of this magnitude? Is the rope positioned to maximal benefit? Why didn’t I place another piece of pro at that last buttress when I had a chance?” And then it comes to you-“I need to get another piece of pro in quick!” You have reduced yourself to one option, and most times it’s not the best option.

Putting a piece of protection into ice is not easy. Most commonly you are looking at putting in an ice screw, which is very similar to a normal screw but larger: about the size of a plastic tent peg. There are no pre-bored holes in ice, so one must first chip a small area of ice away for purchase: a depression that allows the screw to bite. If you are lucky the screw does bite and then you are able to begin boring into the ice. No screw drivers, no vises, no warm basement workshops, and no hands because you are still clinging by ice axes to the approximately perpendicular face of waterfall ice. Houdini would have appreciated the act. Placing a screw is difficult. Placing a screw in the throes of worrying about a fear-fall, is next to impossible.

I remember Chuck verbalizing his concerns to the ice. He had begun to agonize. At the time I thought, “he probably talks to his computer also, he’s just like that. Its normal as long as he doesn’t start responding to himself.” He must have been 15-20 meters above me, but clearly audible. I distinctly remember him discussing his impasse; he seemed calm, in control. Unbeknownst to me, he had begun to toil mentally and physically. The best solution would have been to buckle down and go forward for the safety of the top, but he was despairing. He began to doubt his ability to reach the top and decided instead to place a piece of pro. The act of placing a piece of pro at this point confirms that you are in trouble. Chuck must have known for some time before he fell, that he was falling.

One of the biggest fears I have is being trapped under water. In the early years of learning to windsurf I remember on several occasions being flung around by a big gust of wind and landing underneath the sail, still harnessed to it and submerged under both the sail and the water. For the most part such unnatural acts require much less than ten seconds to correct and yet your mind is deceived. In the bathtub I am to hold my breath for up to a minute with great ease, but out here on the lake a few seconds is all it takes before I am bowing to my lungs’ unrelenting demand to blow off accumulated carbon dioxide. As panic strikes you begin to struggle and ten seconds feels like an eternity.

The same eternity strikes at the ice climber’s impasse only there is no heroic struggle to get your head above water. The last seconds are spent inertly agonizing over protection-toiling mentally without a doubt-but there is no Herculean effort for life. At some point Chuck must have come to the worst of all doubts-“who the hell is that guy at the other end of my rope”. It was me-“a friend of a friend.”
“I’m falling”, came the cry. In the end you actually jump, you don’t allow yourself to fall; it’s safer to jump. I had never caught a human’s fall before, only some manner of punching bag that had been rigged indoors at the University of Calgary climbing wall. The mute punching bag had caught me even more unawares than the screaming Chuck had. And, I had for the most part successfully caught the punching bag. In retrospect things were looking good for Chuck.

I believe the punching bag exercise is used to build confidence in the novice’s ability to stop a fall of considerable force. The mechanism of catching a fall is based on a friction device that at first glance appears very flimsy. It can be as crude as wrapping the rope around your back and in fact this is often the case in ice climbing because the rope freezes and jams in the normal friction device. The worst sin possible, when using a friction device (a “plate”) is to let your hand be drawn into the mechanism. If your hand is drawn in, your skin becomes the new friction device (read horrendous “rope burn”). In our class, I was unfortunate enough to be the first saviour of the hapless punching bag and the instructor must have placed enough confidence in my abilities to let the bag go without any warning.

I was initially taken off guard and allowed my hand to be drawn terrifyingly close to the friction device. Fortunately the bag came pendulously to a halt in front of the class in a scene somewhat reminiscent of an old tyme public display of Canadian capital punishment. At the time I didn’t think to enter into a discussion of my error nor did I share my brush with failure with the other classmates. My fellow amateurs were busying themselves within the camaraderie of the situation, who was I to allow reality to interrupt the spreading fuzzy feeling. Each in turn readied for a chance at the punching bag. If it were up to the bag as to who should have been let out into the real world of climbing, I doubt whether I would have been the “friend of a friend” at the end of Chuck’s rope.

I don’t know what prompted me to look up at Cascade. It must have been the sound–a low rumbling–that first alerted me to the danger. I had positioned myself at the bottom of a small pitch, which I was about to climb without ropes (free climb). Ian had already summitted this pitch and was continuing upward on a short flat stretch toward the next pitch. I could still see him if I backed away from the ice face. It was a clear and relatively warm day and I was looking forward to a glorious climb.

All climbers have heard tragic tales from Cascade Falls and I suppose we all treat the stories similarly: “… it couldn’t happen to me, I’m careful; they must have made some obvious error”. The winter prior a fellow from France had met with untimely death as a result of a rockfall! Freak accident, I rationalized. The highway drive to the mountains poses considerably greater risk to life and limb.

It was not long before the rumbling overtook us. Within seconds of alerting Ian I hacked at the iceface with both axes. When you place an ice axe there is a feel and an accompanying sound of a good placement, similar in many respects to an effective wood chop with a woodsman’s axe. My left axe entered the ice with a reassuring “thunk” and felt firm; my right, weak and ineffective. There was no second chance to better my right axe placement. The heavy snow began to forcibly thud on my back so much so that it was an effort to stay standing. I pulled as close to the ice face and my axes as was possible. The deluge of snow worsened and its pressure on my back and head intensified.

I have never experienced my life flashing before my eyes and had prior to this day believed it was a Hollywood stunt only. My wife had, the evening before subjected me to an avalanche pop quiz. At the time I had resented her concern. Against my better intention I became distant from the immediate predicament and began to relive our conversation and visions of her and our daughter. We were sitting comfortably on our bed. I could see the moment as from the outside and above. I couldn’t make out any of the discussion but the words widow and fatherless echoed. I wanted to go back to the present-I needed me. The flash was not comforting. It seemed to herald the end. But this couldn’t be the end. There had been no prolonged struggle, the day had not been climactic; the weather was clear and beautiful. WHERE, was my struggle!?

The snow continued its pounding and my right axe finally failed, my arm was sucked away in the avalanche’s torrent and with it went the axe. They two dangled and danced in the nearby current of falling snow. I had only one arm of support left to me and as much as I wanted to rely heavily upon it, I also wanted to relieve as much stress from it as was possible. It was my last hope-I wanted to cling to it with all that I had and yet I was put in a position of rationing its use. The pounding continued and I began to despair. “You should have never attempted Cascade and certainly not on a warm day in January”, I thought to myself.

The snow was heavy and I began to be weighted down. If I were buried, there would be no chance for movement or self-rescue. The snow would set like concrete around me and I would have to hope that someone would be able to find me quickly. My mind went to Ian. He had reached a flat unprotected area above me. If the avalanche had hit him, there was no doubt that he was now buried somewhere below me. He needed me to find him quickly. We were horribly ill-prepared: neither of us had Pieps, a radio transceiver device that enables rescuers to find buried comrades. We both desperately needed that left axe to hold and yet the snow continued its assault.

With only one axe remaining I was unable to maintain my back parallel to the ice flow. My right shoulder was pulled away from the iceface and in response my body began to turn toward the falling snow placing more stress on the remaining axe. My helmet was becoming noticeably heavy. Snow had been packed into it through the tiny holes on top; so much so that it effectively tripled its weight and the only way to remove the snow was to melt it out later.

It was some time before I realised that the rumbling had ceased. I was suddenly aware of a beautiful day once again. The axe had held. I noticed a sensation of raggedness in my right arm. The right axe now hung silently from my wrist. I was unhurt.

“Phil!” came a voice. My god I had forgotten about Ian.

“Yes”, I yelled back up to him. I couldn’t muster any better response. It seemed as though I should have other things to say and ask, but for now “yes” was all that mattered.

“Are you okay?” came his voice again. There was no hint of suffering in his voice.

“Yes Ian, and you?” Our conversation seemed too formal. We should have been embracing each other and perhaps we would have were it not for the intervening pitch and the staunch British upbringing common to us both. I pulled the axe from the ice with little difficulty and stepped back into a newly formed mound of heavy-set snow. The small spot next to the face of the icefall, the spot that had given me safety from the deluge of snow, did not look particularly safe and I wondered about the next deluge and where I might go next. I looked up at Ian, who was now standing at the top of the pitch I was supposed to climb.

“Whoa, was that close!” said Ian.

“Ian, I flashed: my family, my life. I thought I was through.”

I do not recall the rest of our discussions on that day. We did not go on to climb Cascade and I haven’t attempted it since, though every time I drive by (you can see the icefall from the Trans-Canada Highway) I can’t resist the urge to study the topography of that climb. To try and figure out where we had been and where the avalanche had come from. I can’t resist the urge to run through all of the “what-if” scenarios. It’s a beautiful sight and a dangerous place. I doubt that I will ever return to climb it.

After a couple of hour’s contemplation we did go on to climb another pitch, a much easier icefall. Our conversations recycled the same theme: how lucky we had been. If we had reached any other place in the climb it could have been disastrous. We were fortunate for the not-so-subtle warning.

The short hike up to Cascade was only slightly more difficult on the way out due to the accumulated snow. In some areas the snow was easily 2 meters deep and it was packed hard. It had set as I had expected and I was glad to be on it and not in it.

There are dangers with climbing and especially with ice climbing. Yet, for me there is no other endeavour that is so totally encompassing of my skills. The clarity of “being” is unparalleled and there is a divine simplicity in the precision of movement. There is no room for the everyday chatter of thought. The need for absolute focus and presence is liberating. As much as it may seem like an anxiety provoking maniacal endeavour, it turns out to be a zen-like peaceful meditation…, perhaps not as comfy.

Ice climbing is something I enjoy with my entirety and the challenge allows my spirit to soar. I am able to breathe fully and life seems clearer. There is a threat to life and some would argue that that is the attraction. But the risk of life need not be significant when ice climbing is approached with focus and clarity, and not with falsely earned “peak bagging” bravado. I find a certain sense of joy in that discipline…, in that clarity.