She'll be right.... maybe

Adventure - - Contents - By Derek Cheng

There was an au­di­ble gasp, like a vi­o­lent burst of air that had been im­pris­oned for an age. My feet were shack­led, buried knee-deep in snow, but my body was floating downs­lope as if my an­kles were chained to an es­ca­la­tor to as­sured obliv­ion. I didn’t flinch. The snow slab had bro­ken away at a pedes­trian rate and I ca­su­ally called out “avalanche” to my climb­ing part­ner Kenny, sev­eral metres be­low. My feet. I wres­tled them, yanked at them force­fully, but they were en­tombed. Only then did the hor­ror sud­denly grip me. The avalanche swiftly gained mo­men­tum, it whirled me around to face down­hill and then shoved me sav­agely. “AVALANCHE!” I yelled, ur­gently, fran­ti­cally. What be­gan in slow mo­tion now be­came a blur. I was sud­denly on my belly, my knee scrap­ing against a rough, rocky sur­face, as I threw out my hands for some­thing, any­thing. Where was Kenny? I couldn’t see him. I could only see a fog of shaky white. And then to my left some­thing dark. A rib of rock. I started swim­ming, drag­ging my­self to­wards it as the avalanche pulled me down. With a cou­ple of almighty heaves, I man­aged to grab some­thing steady and haul my­self up. I sat on my knees, watch­ing in a trance as the snow rum­bled 200m down the slope. Kenny was above, cling­ing to a soli­tary is­land of rock at the top of the rib. Large, head­stone-size slabs of snow sur­rounded us. Kenny joined me and picked up one of the slab rem­nants and wrote “RIP” on it. “Too soon,” I replied with a laugh.



A large crack had ripped across the en­tire width of the snow gully, about five metres above where I had been. It had swept me down about 30m be­fore I wrig­gled free. We were in the wrong drainage. We had wanted to climb the clas­sic 180m-high Murchi­son Falls, a glo­ri­ous flow of ice in the Ice­fields Park­way, Jasper Na­tional Park, in the Canadian Rock­ies. To beat the crowds we were road­side be­fore the dawn’s first light. So dark, in fact, that we started up the wrong wash. After an hour of steep hik­ing through for­est, with no sign of a boot track, it was ob­vi­ous we were lost. But we could see a cou­ple of beau­ti­ful frozen wa­ter­falls above us, so de­cided to keep mov­ing. As we came out of the tree line, the snow base was clearly avalanche-prone, even to novices like us. We con­tin­ued up, how­ever, de­luded by op­ti­mism bias (“she’ll be right!”), and moved higher by jump­ing from rock rib to rock rib. The falls were only 50m ahead of us as I left the last rock rib and ven­tured gin­gerly into white ter­rain. One cau­tious step. An­other. And then, “PUH!” With a sharp ex­hale, the slope came to life slid­ing down­hill and trawl­ing me down with it. After it sub­sided, we took more than a few mo­ments to re­set. Even­tu­ally, not want­ing to waste the day, we scur­ried over to a more be­nign falls, climbed it, and then rushed back to the road. On the de­scent, we stuck to the drainage rather than the trees and on more than one slope, a cau­tious step un­leashed that un­mis­take­able gasp of a snow slab about to un­leash. Each time I froze, the slab didn't slide and I gin­gerly re­traced my steps. We even­tu­ally tra­versed back into the trees. By the time we reached the road and pulled out the guide­book, we were men­tally fried. Cos­mic Mes­sen­ger, WI5 (grade wa­ter ice 5), the guide­book revealed, is what had drawn us up. Bet­ter as an early sea­son climb, the book’s de­scrip­tion con­tin­ued, due prone ap­proach. — Win­ter in the Canadian Rock­ies can be a sub­lime play­ground for ice climbers, back­coun­try skiers and ad­ven­tur­ers of all sorts. This past win­ter was my sec­ond in the Rock­ies and it be­gan at -25C. Bit­terly cold, soul-numb­ing tem­per­a­tures. And the ice showed it. Weeks of a deep chill causes the ice to freeze in lay­ers that can din­ner-plate and peel off in large, bonecrush­ing chunks when dis­turbed by a sharp ice tool. It's a pre­car­i­ous po­si­tion to be in, to launch your tool at the ice and have it re­ply with a hol­low thunk, along with a large crack in the sur­face. You could weight your tool and hope for the best but again this is mis­guided op­ti­mism. You could swing else­where, if you can. But if you can’t, you may as well dis­lodge the loose block, and then start your search for a solid place­ment all over again. Ex­cept that your body is di­rectly under the block. So you draw back your tool again, and swing, cry out ‘ice!’ to warn your be­layer, and brace for im­pact. The mega-tonne ice block might miss you com­pletely. It might brush your shoul­der, punch you in the kid­neys, or ca­reen into your thigh in an at­tempt to dis­turb your bal­ance. If it bruises you, you prob­a­bly won’t feel it un­til to­mor­row, such is the level of adrenalin pump­ing through your be­ing. Within a week, I had bruises on my shoul­ders, back and legs, im­pacted by large ice chunks, and pools of red on my face and neck where the blood from icy blow­back had dried. On The Real Big Drip (M8, WI6+), an over­hang­ing four-pitch rock and ice line in the Ghost River Wilder­ness Area, my part­ner Quentin tun­nelled through a sec­tion of rot­ting ice to a stance be­hind a mas­sive ice cur­tain. Know­ing I had to tra­verse into the cur­tain to start the next pitch, he hacked away the rot­ten ice to make it safer. As I took cover, gi­ant chan­de­liers of ice - the size of wash­ing ma­chines - came hurtling down onto the del­i­cate plat­form I was cow­er­ing on, oblit­er­at­ing on im­pact into count­less shards, and quak­ing the earth’s core as if some mon­strous crea­ture was stir­ring just be­neath its sur­face. Ear­lier that day, on the climb’s first pitch, Quentin had been under a hang­ing pil­lar of ice when the bot­tom fell off, land­ing squarely on his head and carv­ing off a sou­venir from his hel­met in the process. It was not Quentin's first close shave of the sea­son. The pre­vi­ous week, he had been a unique wit­ness to a mas­sive avalanche that launched over the top tiers of the Rock­ies’ most fa­mous climb, Po­lar Cir­cus (WI5). He was half­way up a ver­ti­cal ice cur­tain when a deafening sound erupted from above him. He buried his tools into the ice, gritted his teeth and stead­ied him­self. Fif­teen sec­onds later, a wild storm of snow gal­loped down the ice cur­tain. The heart of it was to his left, but the pe­riph­ery caught him and filled his bones with terror. “The snow first filled my hood and pulled my col­lar back, then it filled my jacket and went into my pants. It got pro­gres­sively heav­ier and harder and was pulling me back off the ice. I held on and held on and held on, ter­ri­fied that a chunk too heavy for me to brace for would hit. It never did, and even­tu­ally the snow stopped.”




He was four metres above his last ice screw. When it sub­sided, he twisted in an­other screw and then bailed as fast as he and his part­ner could, en­dur­ing a sec­ond, smaller avalanche as they did so. One rare, sunny day, a friend and I ven­tured off to Borgeau Left (WI5), an aes­thetic four-pitch ice line. I was lead­ing the final pitch, ig­nor­ing the well-trod­den path and in­stead di­rectly tack­ling a steep pil­lar. It seemed to me a pret­tier line and more blue than grey, mean­ing it may of­fer less-brit­tle ice. But half­way up the pil­lar, with my tools buried in what can only be de­scribed as lay­ers of eggshell, I let my guard down. In­stead of dig­ging around for bet­ter tool place­ments, I sim­ply pulled up. I could al­most hear a voice in my head say, "She'll be right." As I pulled one tool from the ice to swing again, my other tool promptly blew out of its place­ment. No tools in the ice. It’s very hard to stay on a near-ver­ti­cal pil­lar with only cram­pons at­tached. I flew eight metres into the abyss. The rope even­tu­ally came tight and stretched, low­er­ing me like a del­i­cate pe­tal. The route was so steep that I didn’t hit any­thing on my way down. I laughed. My be­layer laughed. We roared into the blue sky, invincible and free. Af­ter­wards I posted about my fall on a Face­book Rock­ies ice climb­ing page, and a flood of com­ments echoed what ex­pe­ri­ence had yet to teach me. I was lucky. Bloody lucky. It’s pretty com­mon for a fall on ice to end badly. More than half of the falls in the Rock­ies this win­ter re­sulted in bro­ken bones. With a gi­ant cram­pon with spikes on your feet, catch­ing any­thing on the way down usu­ally ends in in­jury. I didn’t have the heart to add that, a year ear­lier, I had taken a de­lib­er­ate whip­per on ice, just to see what all the fuss was about. It seems that my ex­per­i­ment could have been a grand con­tender for a Dar­win Award, and the only rea­son why I didn’t end up hob­bling out of the canyon - or worse - was blind luck. So why sub­ject our­selves to avalanche slopes and ice fall and tem­per­a­tures that blacken the skin under your toe nails? Sev­eral stud­ies have shown cor­re­la­tion be­tween risk and sen­sa­tion - the higher the risk, the greater the sen­sa­tion. Climb­ing is in­her­ently risky, and climbers know this. Risk doesn't al­ways de­ter. Some­times, it en­hances. In other words, there is a line close to the edge of ac­cept­able risk and climbers judge how close they come to it each time they ven­ture into the high and the wild. With ice climb­ing, ob­jec­tive hazards are of­ten more preva­lent, mak­ing that edge even more ap­peal­ing for some, but down­right ter­ri­fy­ing for oth­ers. There was one place in the Rock­ies where I had yet to tread. The Stanley Head­wall, home of the area’s hard­est ice and mixed routes. The frosty grip of win­ter was loos­en­ing and time was short. I made plans to at­tempt French Re­al­ity, a clas­sic four-pitch climb that starts on steep rock and fin­ishes up a gor­geous prow of ice. But there was sub­stan­tial snow­fall the night be­fore, and above the head­wall lurks that beastly spec­tre of avalanche dan­ger. In a more au­da­cious mood, I might have shrugged and given in to op­ti­mism bias. But re­ly­ing on luck, in such harsh, un­for­giv­ing en­vi­ron­ments, is like swim­ming with sharks with a rack of lamb around your neck; sooner or later, you’re go­ing to die a fool­ish, pre­ventable death. I hung up my tools and packed away my ice screws. The head­wall will still be there next win­ter.


ABOVE: Kenny Pil­lipow weathers some arc­tic conditions and icy blow­back as he climbs higher on WI5 Wicked Wanda in the Ghost River Wilder­ness Area, Canada. RIGHT: A trio of clim­bers make their way up the multi-pitch WI5 Right Side of the Weep­ing Wall,...


Brian Wong pulls onto the steep­en­ing fi­nal pitch of WI4 The Pro­fes­sor Falls, Banff Na­tional Park, Canada. Photo credit: Derek Cheng

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