The Sorcerer, Ghost Valley

The Sorcerer, Ghost Valley

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The mega pump!

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.

The Ghost
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 look down again & see the ropes hanging in a great arc, free of the ice & disappearing around the corner. I look at the ice above & focus on a thick depression which will take a solid screw. I step up again, feet wide apart, hips forward, right axe high & ready myself to place a screw. No need to clean the ice, I place the left axe to one side & let go. Completely still, no sorting the feet now I should be happy with them now that I’ve committed to one axe. I reach down on my left side & unclip a screw. The thick depression is chest high & slightly left. I press the four sharp teeth of the screw hard against the ice & by just leaning against it made a full turn of the screw into the surface. The screw bites & I let go. Very carefully I twist my wrist to put another turn in the screw so that it feels more solid. I lift the express leaver & drill it in. It feels good, solid, no hollows or air pockets, cracking of ice………..the hanger stops flush against the smooth ice surface. With the heel of my hand I knock it even tighter in against the ice so that the hanger hangs down, let go & reach down to my harness again & unclip a quick draw then clip the hanger. I feel down between my legs for the left rope & lift it up clipping it into the bottom snap link of the draw & relax.  Placing gear is about being totally organised & having a quick, clean system without upsetting any balance or over stretching.

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
It’s exhilarating, steep & technical in one of the world’s most beautiful places. Huge steep limestone walls & hanging valley’s once carved out by the Ghost Glacier. Steep bands of rock and turret like rock outcrops almost fortify the flat summits from those that top out on the cliffs far below. Needle like rock towers have also been carved out on steep ridges creating the most amazing scenery.

The Ghost

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.
Abseiling down
Anyway we rigged an Abolokov, threaded some old climbing rope through the ice thread & tied it off. I took an end from each rope, threaded one end through the tied off climbing rope & joined the two ends with an overhand knot, pulled it tight, tied a knot in the ends of both ropes for security & dropped the ropes. The ropes just seemingly hung in space, the anchor felt good but even so we backed it up with another screw, Dean first, on with a prussic & belay plate & he was gone. I did the same, retrieved the backup screw & headed down. Slowly I went back down the way I’d come up. I stopped at the place where I’d so nearly blown it. Looked down again into the void below & took a deep breath, my heart was racing again. I looked across at the wall of ice, smooth & uninterrupted, but it was actually undercut & overhanging for 15m & I hadn’t noticed. The ice had led me into a trap. I hadn’t realised or felt it, I was enjoying the climbing too much. Sure I was getting tired but I’d just kept powering up, not bothering to place a screw, I’m happy on this ground, thinking I’ll place one soon. Face on & looking up it just looked steep, but no it was actually overhanging. That’s why I couldn’t get the weight off my feet & that’s why I couldn’t get my hips in & that’s why my arse felt like it was just sagging & my arms were taking it all. I’d climbed myself into a box. I shake my head. Earlier in the trip I would have just powered through it, or if I’d have been wearing leashes I probably wouldn’t have even noticed. But 8 weeks of icefall climbing in the Alps leash less & then this 2 week trip out to the Canadian Rockies, I was tired but hadn’t realised it. I hadn’t given that any thought at all, I hadn’t been looking after myself. Now this route & this wall on the last day was just one step too many. I carried on abseiling. Dean had the next abseil already rigged, I unclipped my cows tail from the rope we were pulling, clipped the belay & started pulling the ropes down. The knot came to the belay & the loose end whipped on over us & down the next pitch. I threaded the ropes into my belay plate, wound on the prussic & left the belay, abseiling down the next pitch.

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         

Stay strong!



  1. Awesome post. Great writing mate. Stay safe.

  2. Just found this Ade. Great piece. Didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Bought back memories of a similar event on a big unclimbed VI I climbed in Norway. I nearly wept with the inevetibility of the fall I thought I was going to take. Not many people have climbed overhanging ice!