Me stepping out of the cave! The Ghost, Canadian Rockies
I step out of the cave & onto the steep pillar connecting the face. I look down to my feet but my focus wanders & eyes shift to the 200m of dizzy space below them. The smooth steely blue ice just drops away out of sight as if the whole routes overhanging. Canadian Spruce Pines crowd out the valley below. The exposures wild, scary even, just the void absorbing all my thoughts. I look at the 10 useless crampon points all hanging in space & only the 10mm of toughened orange steel that are actually penetrating the hard steep ice. My mind wanders – why bother with 10 points, why not have a two point crampons? It’s all going on in a second or two. My eyes shift to the huge limestone amphitheatre that wraps around me & it’s like someone’s thinly iced this central wall with a pallet knife as if they were icing a cake. I look up above & the whole route looks super steep almost overhanging.
One step at a time I say to myself. I re focus, straight arms pulling down I look down for my next foot placement & kick in with a bent leg, my other foot comes up & steps out giving me a wide platform. I pull down with both arms & drive up with my legs, heels down, hips well forward, legs locked out I look up. I lock off my left arm, lift out my right tool from its secure position in the ice, reach up & replace it in the ice above. Not too high, don’t want to over stretch & come up on my heels…..swing from the elbow, let the weight of the axe do all the work & then a flick of the wrist & the pick splinters a little ice as it sticks the slim hollow groove above. No crack, not too deep, no blade movement or wobble, it feels great. I hear a voice in my head ‘never move up on a bad axe placement!’ yeh, yeh I think that’s easy to say on easier ground but here? But it’s a mantra I try & stick to, like the ice I’m feeling my way up. I’m happy with it though, so forget it & move on, concentrate on the next foot placement. The sequence is almost robotic although it flows & feels fantastic over this steep featured ice, more like climbing on rock than it’s ever felt where balance, body positioning & timing is everything.
Climbing in Field, Rocky Mountains, Canada
I reach out & take hold of my left ice tool, lift it out from the ice & replace it higher, pull down on both with straight arms, look at my feet & the cycle continues……….
Another 8m & another screw, I’m enjoying the climbing.
Dean climbing in Field, Canadian Rockies
This is the dry range east of the Bow Valley and over Devils Gap. It may have very difficult access but generally has low avalanche risk. The access is made difficult from the drifting snow and icy river crossing which only those in a 4X4 would bother attempting in winter. It’s a wild place & up here bloody exciting!
Hydrophobia,The Ghost, Canadian Rockies
Then wham! I get the worst pump of my life & it’s come from seemingly nowhere. I’m solid above my waist & my arms stop working. I feel myself loosing grip of the tools, my hands & fingers are totally pumped & solid. I’m losing grip of the tools, my hands are opening up & I can’t do anything about it. I look down at the ropes & their just hanging there limp & lifeless, arcing away out of sight, I can’t see the last screw. I look at the void below & prepare for the worst. My heart is pumping so fast, sweat is pouring down my face & in my eyes. I’m losing grip. I try constantly to get the weight back on my feet but I can’t for some reason, I feel like I can’t climb anymore, why can’t I get my weight back on my feet, it all feels undercut & overhanging. All my weight is hanging off my hands which I have no control over & I can feel are unclenching their grip on the handle of the ice tool. I let go with one hand & try to shake it out, hoping that I’ll at least start to get some relief. But as soon as I let go with one hand the other feels like it’s giving out & I grab the tool again. I try again, again & again, hoping that the slightest relief would start to loosen up the lactic acid that’s gone solid in my hands & arms. I’ve never had this before, my whole upper body above my waist is solid & I don’t know where it’s come from. I look down again & the void starts to engulf me, the exposure starts to scare me & I feel myself falling & this is going to hurt big time. It’s serious here, 5 pitches up, 2 hours walking in through thick pine forest & 1 hour of serious off road driving to the road head. I look at my hands unclenching. I focus on my hands & then my leather gloves. The gloves are short, with a short cuff which I could see clearly as my jacket sleeve had ridden up. As a final throw of the dice, I hooked the cuff of my glove over the heel spur on the very end of the ice tool. Instantly I started to be able to wiggle my fingers a little & get some relief, the gloves & stitching where now taking my weight! I then grabbed the tool again & did the same with the other hand, amazingly I was getting something back, just a tiny amount but it was definitely something. I repeat the process 40 maybe 50 times which seemed to take eternity. I wondered what the others would be thinking with the rope not moving for so long? I’ve now got enough back to try & place a screw. I reach down with my left hand, but my right starts to give out again, so I quickly grab the tool again with my left & shake the right out. I go through a long cycle again shaking both hands out until I feel that I have enough power to get a screw. I reach down with my right, grab a screw, It doesn’t unclip cleanly, I fumble & as I finally unclip it my left hand starts to give out. I put the screw in my mouth & quickly grab my tool with my right & shake the left hand out. I do the shake out cycle again.
The Sorcerer, The Ghost, Canadian Rockies
I can hardly breathe with the screw stuffed in my mouth. I shoved the screw in with not time to think, the sharp teeth on the end of the screw just imbedded into the side wall of my mouth & it was complete agony, but I had to hang in there. I get enough back to retrieve the screw from my mouth & stop the pain, blood stains the teeth of the screw. I make a quick half turn of the screw into the ice, let it go & grab the tool again for some relief hoping of all hopes that the screw would stick in & not fall out. Although I could see it starting to slowly drop out so with the other hand made another quick half turn to secure the screw into the ice. I do this a couple more times until I’m sure it won’t drop out, lift the hanger & start to drill it in. The pump come back & I grab the shaft of the ice screw which is drilled in half way. The change of hand grip gives me more relief & I change the cycle from tool to screw until I can feel my body start to loosen up. I finish the screw off up to the hilt, clip the hanger & then clip the rope. The rope clipped easily as if they didn’t even have me on belay. Christ, that would have been some serious airtime! I shake out more relaxed now the storms over & everything’s quiet. I place one axe higher, step up & slowly continue to where the ground eases off, place another screw & then continue to the belay.
Wicked Wanda. The Ghost, Canadian Rockies
I’m totally wet with sweat, physically knackered & mentally spent, I rig the belay, clip on, sit back & just totally relax & enjoy that moment for a few minutes. I then pick up both ropes, pull in the slack, clip Dean into the belay plate & start belaying.
I look down at the void below & feel physically sick, so I look up & see the easier ground & flat top summit, I fix my eyes on this until I hear the sound of axes hitting ice below me & a white helmet starts to come into view.
I take in the rope still trying to understand & work out what happened, what went wrong. The steepness, exposure or technical nature of the ice wasn’t anything I’m not used to or haven’t comfortably climbed before. Only 2 days ago I led the pitch of my life, far harder, steeper & more technical & I enjoyed every minute of it, savouring every axe placement . I hadn’t climber better, ever!
This felt like I was a novice again, trying to pull up all my weight up on my arms, arse sagging, not using my feet, not getting any weight off your arms, not getting my hips in……..I couldn’t understand it.
Dean followed up, unclipping the rope & pulling the screws. It looked great, steep & Dean seemed to be really enjoying the pitch. He got to the belay all smiles but was also pretty much pumped from the climbing. He said he felt tired after the 2 week trip & it was the last day, maybe tiredness had just crept up on me? But I couldn’t get my weight off my arms & onto my feet – school boy stuff.
The Ghost, Canadian Rockies
It was dusk as we made our way back through the dense pine trees, following our snow trail which we’d plugged on the way in. Two hours later & head lamps on we reach our 4X4, stashed the kit in the back & made our way back in darkness along the 4x4 track of frozen river crossings, boulders, windblown snow & ice. Back up the Big Hill, through & along the forestry track & then finally back to the main road. We both sigh a relief, the mental strain of the day subsiding & let loose, re living the whole day again from start to finish.
Winter climbing in the Ghost is serious full stop. It’s a wild & adventurous journey into some committing valleys & climbs. It’s a remote wilderness back there, of snowed up summits, limestone rock towers, hanging valley’s, dense pine forests, few trails & an array of wild animals like bears & Cougars which treat the area as their home. You only feel free from the place when you’re back on hard tarmac & the road back to the highway, Many people struggle just to get vehicles in & out in winter let alone finding the climbs & climbing a route! You leave home in the dark & arrive back in the dark, that’s the Ghost.
The Ghost, Canadian Rockies
The chat in the car reliving the day is at fever pitch & the excitement lasted on into Canmore, the bar & through the huge burger & fries they served – what an exciting, adventurous, serious, scary & wild day that was.
They say ‘you should try & learn something new every day’ – well I certainly found something out about myself that day in the Ghost!
Driving in a very dry Ghost Valley
I've never talked it through with Dean until recently. I’d run it over in my mind a thousand times but never told anyone. This April we were both sat on a ledge in the Grose Valley, in the Blue Mountains, Australia. We’d just done a fantastic 5 pitch rock route, sandstone, serious, exposed, scary, committing, adventurous on a huge wall rearing out of the valley & Eucalyptus forest below. It’s an amazing place, if you’ve never been there before. We both sat there having had a great climb, enjoying the views & precious time spent climbing together. It all came out, as I recalled that day in the Ghost, he had no idea. I was surprised how emotional I was just talking it through, re living that 15m of steep overhanging ice.
It's good to talk!
The Grose valley, Blue mountains, Australia