“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (WI7+, M12 traditional), Epilogue

Typical frozen shells and parkas from the constant spray. This shot, taken from the first belay, after aiding the third pitch (M10) on Ben's and my third day on the route (02/29/16).

Typical frozen shell and parka from the constant spray. This shot was taken from the first belay, after aiding the third pitch (M10) on Ben’s and my third day on the route (02/29/16).

The iced up stuck rappel ropes stacked at the fifth belay after dropping them and rappelling on my tag line.

The iced up stuck rappel ropes, stacked at the fifth belay, after dropping them and rappelling on my tag line. This photo shows the amount of ice that formed during my fight to ascend these ropes to free them from the seventh pitch. The ropes were dry, hanging out of the waterfall, clipped through a directional, beforehand.

“Is it about the size of a pea?” the nurse asked.

“I’m sorry. Excuse me?” I replied.

“The mass in your scrotum, is it about the size of a pea?” the nurse responded. She stood above me at the end of the emergency room bed. “Just to give the doctor an idea of what to look for.”

“No, it’s bigger than that.” I said.

“A walnut?” she asked.

“What?” I was confused.

“Is it about the size of a walnut?” She asked, holding her up her fingers, curled like an “okay” gesture.

“Oh, no. It’s not that big.” I said, shaking my head.

The nurse stood with her left arm folded across her stomach, her fist supporting the elbow of her right arm which angled up toward her face. Her outstretched index finger tapping her her chin lightly, as she glanced toward the ceiling in thought.

“I’m trying to think of another food item,” she said with her faint eastern European accent.

I furrowed my brow, cocked my head to the side, and my gaze joined hers upon the ceiling. I played along, but I wasn’t puzzling over like-sized food items. I didn’t have much of an appetite.

“A grape!” She exclaimed triumphantly. Swooping her index finger toward me with a smile.

I looked at her with a faint smile and nodded slowly. “Yeah. Yep. It’s about the size of a grape. That’s about right.”

“Okay, I’ll let the doctor know and he’ll be in shortly to examine you.” She turned and walked out of the cubicle, and gently slid the curtain closed behind her.

I had pain in my private parts after a long bike ride the day before. I had examined myself later that night and found a mass between my testicles. I felt horrified and nauseated. Was I ruptured? Was it cancer? I went to the emergency room first thing the next morning. My mind raced with worst-case scenarios. I thought of losing my fertility due to testicular cancer. I tried to think positively, as I often do. I thought maybe it was God’s, or Zoroaster’s, or Odin’s, or Zeus’s (or whomever or whatever it is that decides these types of things) way of cutting me a break. I imagined some almighty power standing arms crossed in admonishment, looking down at me, stating sternly, “Dude. You’re an idiot. That was your ninth life, sonny boy. But, in spite of myself, I kind of like you. Or, maybe I just really feel sorry for you. But, regardless, your world does not need any more of your hay-wired genes, for obvious reasons. I let you live last week, but I’m going to have to sterilize you. Consider yourself lucky.”

It seemed fair to me.

————————–

One week before I stood alone on the shattered snow-ice pedestal of the fifth belay. Ben had left twelve days before. Chelsea had left before dawn that morning. I had planned to aid the sixth pitch while simultaneously jumaring the stuck rappel ropes. I was concerned about the anchor, a single v-thread which had been baking in the sun all morning. It was well below freezing, but the sun was intense. I knew the thread had been bomber two days before, but I am extremely conservative with respect to anchors, and so the thought was prominent in my mind. Also, I was concerned about ascending two ropes, threaded through an anchor (through two opposite-and-opposed carabiners that I had left—not directly through the v-thread cord). I could have fixed one end at the anchor of the fifth belay and jugged the opposite single strand. But, the ropes were iced in where they crossed the lip of the roof to such a degree that I couldn’t pull either side. I was afraid if I started jugging a single strand in this way, the ropes might suddenly slip through the ice encasement, shock-loading the system, the suspect anchor, and perhaps shredding the sheath of the skinny-dynamic rope, which are not well-suited for this application.

I figured, perhaps wrongly, that the best way to ascend the ropes would be to put both strands through the jumars. This method works, but can cause the ropes to bind a bit. Jumars are designed to ascend single strands of rope. The problem with my plan to aid and jug simultaneously lay in the fact that the sixth pitch begins with a wide leftward traverse out ledges with no protection. This would have been essentially a quasi-solo, because the stuck ropes I would have been attached to from above hung from the right side of the ice roof. Though unlikely, if I had botched the traverse, I would have swung far out beyond the pedestal in a giant pendulum, which would have left me hanging in space, likely necessitating simply ascending the stuck ropes without the protection of aiding the pitch anyway. Also, the rope management logistics of dealing with aiding on the tag-line while keeping the long coils of the unused portions of the stuck ropes untangled would have been time consuming and exhausting. Furthermore, aiding the sixth pitch was difficult even with a belay. It had taken me and Chelsea two days of effort to get it done.

I was exhausted. The preceding three weeks had taken its toll. The efforts me and Ben and Chelsea had put into this route had tapped my reserves, frazzled my nerves and left me with a case of the thousand yard stare. I didn’t want to deal with the ropes. I was over it, I needed a break from this wall. The Cholesterol Wall is one of my favorite places on the planet, but I had already had my fill for now. However, I could not accept the idea of leaving ropes hanging from this wall, which had become sacred to me. I knew that if I left these ropes, they would likely hang from the directional, after the v-thread melted out, all year. We would have left a giant dangling mass of trash hanging from one of the most beautiful and pristine wilderness areas I have ever beheld. I just couldn’t deal with the idea of being responsible for such a violation of this beloved place.

I was scared. Being alone up there amidst all of the overhead hazard, dealing with an ad hoc mission to sort out this seemingly unique SNAFU in my physical and psychological state was daunting. There was no instruction manual. I was improvising, and I was anything but certain of what to do.

I stood there in the direct sun, with the waterfall coming off the lip of the roof beside where the stuck rappel lines hung encased in freshly formed ice. Below the lip of the ice roof, the ropes draped inward, clipped through the directional rock gear cluster, out of the line of the falling water. I felt like the clock was ticking. The sun was too bright, the prospects of the ridiculous seat-of-the-pants aid-jumaring seemed like it would take too much time, and too much effort, and perhaps itself cause another hazardous stuck rope situation from the lines below. I left the unused portions of the stuck ropes coiled and short-fixed at the fifth belay, and started jumaring the double strands. I tried to ascend smoothly to minimize the inherent bounce of dynamic ropes, and thus, in my mind at least, the strain on the v-thread anchor. I held my breath at first, praying that the anchor was solid.

I reached the directional, clipped in directly to it with a runner, and moved my jumars, one at a time, above the draw clipped through the ropes and above the knot connecting the two ropes, which I had pulled down to this point two days before when I had realized my mistake in clipping both ropes, joined at the anchor with a knot, through the directional, thus making it impossible to pull the ropes. I looked over to my left at the torrential waterfall that poured down through the air.

“Ugh.” I thought. “This is going to suck.”

Ben, Chelsea and I had dealt with lots of spray over the preceding three weeks. This rig was a high-water-volume formation. We had grown accustomed to being doused with freezing water, our soft-shell jackets becoming encased in ice, rigid, like shells of armor. I figured I would just deal with it, get up the ropes quickly, chop them out of their encasements of ice, and be up to the anchor in no time. After all of the peril we had contended with, I felt a certain cavalier invulnerability. I thought dismissively: How bad could it possibly be?

But, just seconds later, as I pulled myself toward the anchor to take the tension off the runner clipped between it and my harness, unclipped the carabiner attaching it to the anchor, and was about to let go of my hold on the slings of the directional anchor, and swing away from the wall directly into the center of the waterfall of freezing water, I had a sudden sinking feeling that I was making a grave mistake. I paused for a few moments, looking over my left shoulder at the waterfall, and thought, “Fuck it. I’ll deal.”

The water poured over me and I immediately started jugging the ropes as fast as I could. Within seconds I started panting as the ice water soaked through my clothes, taking my breath away. Shockingly, the ropes started to ice up within seconds. My jumars started to ice up. I have long had a sense, as an ice climber, that there were certain conditions under which water would make ice more readily, but I never really understood it, and I still don’t. It’s as if it were some strange Mpemba effect, the phenomenon whereby hot water freezes faster than cold. It was as if the sun had heated the ropes and my metal jumars to such a degree that the water instantly accreted layers of ice before my eyes, like a deadly rendering of Aristotle’s antiperistasis: “the supposed increase in the intensity of a quality as a result of being surrounded by its contrary quality.”

The freezing water poured off the lip of the ice roof fifteen feet above my head and pounded upon the hood of my soft-shell jacket which covered my helmeted head. The ropes were icing up, my jumars were icing up, my insulated gloves were like saturated sponges. Each time I grasped a jumar, I wrung gushes of water from my gloves which increased its frigid flow down the undersides of my arms. The numbing water streamed across my armpits, down my chest, stomach, through my groin, and puddled in the seat of my pants when my stirrups were high. The water sloshed down the inside of my pant legs and into my boots when I stood up in the slings, trying ferociously to push the upper of the two seized jumars up the pair of ropes which were icing up like dipping candles in wax. I gasped for air with every breath, shivering uncontrollably now.

The frozen jumars were bound up on the frozen double ropes. In horror, I stood up in my aiders and screamed and roared and pushed upward on the upper jug with all of my might, feeling the strength in my arms waning, the dexterity draining out with the cold water running down them. I became light-headed from the effort. I bounced down into my harness, wrapped the icy ropes below my lower jumar around my left wrist and clasping them with my left hand. I grabbed the lower jumar with my right hand and pushed upward on the frozen jug while pulling down on the slick ropes with my left, screaming, guttural roaring, to recruit all of my power. My neck muscles quivered violently as I pushed and pulled in opposition, trying to force the frozen jug up the ropes.

This was a shit fight. I lost most of my capacities for fine motor movements. I knew I lacked the dexterity to stuff the frozen ropes into my rappel device, unweight the frozen jumars and remove them from the ropes, let alone pass the knot. I hung twenty feet from the wall. I was trapped. The only way out was up. With absolute rage I thrashed, screaming, standing up in my aiders, pulling down hard on my left jumar, I pushed upward on the upper right jumar with my right arm belting out power screams like I had learned breaking boards in Tae Kwon Do training in Korea. I fought with everything I had. As with close combat, gross motor skills are the only reliable tool. Close combat, a type of melee combat abandoned ostensibly by the US Army decades ago due to its excessive brutality, is utterly basic and lethal. My Great Uncle taught me about it, and I trained this way later in life. Drive forward, use basic movements, know how to strike and where to strike, do not hesitate, attack relentlessly, ruthlessly. DRIVE FORWARD. Smash the adversary backward and into the ground.

I dropped down hard into my harness, attached by a sling to the upper jumar. Jumping up and down in my aiders, I slammed myself down into my harness as hard as I could, trying to jar the ice from the ropes and free the frozen clog of my upper jumar. My body was convulsing uncontrollably in violent shivers from the cold. My energy was ebbing and flowing, every minute or so I would start to feel like I was drifting toward unconsciousness. But, then I would surge again, violently screaming and thrashing my way up the frozen ropes inch by inch. I was screaming crazy utterances, recruiting all of my rage, all of my power. I was going to chin-jab this motherfucker into oblivion, or I was going to die trying.

This experience was a unique one. It was not like having an avalanche sweep over one, or cutting a cornice with one’s axe when unroped, leaving a precipitous edge dropping thousands of feet merely inches from one’s crampons, or many other experiences in my life that I perceived immediately to have been “near-death.” In all of my previous close-calls, there has been this immediate self-conscious reflection. As if I said immediately to myself, “Holy shit, that was fucking close!” This experience was the process, it was on-going. I was experiencing the process of my body shutting down. I was experiencing dying. I was drifting from the most entirely, completely conscious fight mode I have ever known into vague grey vision and awareness. My arms would surge with adrenalin-laced ferocity and then fade into impotent, flaccid appendages.

Finally, miraculously, the bottom of the ice roof was within reach. I unclipped my axe from my caritool on my hip, breaking the encasement of ice over the tool’s head. I grasped the icy handle, squeezing as hard as I could with my numb arms, I knew my grip was faint. I swung at the ice overhead, barely within reach. I swung like a novice, mainly with my shoulder. After many desperate erratic swings, my tool found purchase. I knew it was a bad stick, but I pulled on it anyway, feeling a glimmer of hope as the waterfall pounded only on my left side as I pulled myself to the right. I hooked the biner from the runner that still hung from my belay loop to the lower pommel of the axe. I tried to unclip a draw from the gear slings on my harness but the carabiner was too iced up. I reached behind me and struggled to remove my third tool from its holster. I wrestled it free and smacked the biners on my harness, knocking off the accumulations of ice. I smacked my third tool’s head into the gate of a lower biner of a draw and let it hang. With both hands I squeezed the upper biner of another draw with numb, nearly impotent hands, finally snapping it open, freeing its bounds of ice. I clipped it to my belay loop and grabbed the placed axe again, hooking my right elbow around the upper pommel, I pulled my body toward it as hard as I could, trying to get close enough to hook the biner of the draw onto the lower pommel. The tool ripped out and I swung back into the center of the waterfall of frozen water, screaming and gasping for air, still violently shuddering uncontrollably.

Again, I swung the axe ineffectively with my shoulder, into the bottom of the ice roof, this time I felt the tool sink properly, the head making the distinctive quiver of solid purchase. I repeated the process of hooking the runner, then fighting to hook the draw. After digging as deep as I ever had, with brief pauses as my consciousness greyed, I pulled, screaming at my numb weakened arms. Kill! Kill! Kill! Or be killed! I hooked the pommel with the draw and found myself out of the waterfall, dripping, numb, shivering and shuddering so hard the axe bounced and flexed slightly along to the erratic rhythm of my quaking body.

I was out of the waterfall, but now in the shade of the underbelly of the ice roof. A slight wisp of a breeze wafted over me and my shuddering became incapacitating. I hung there unable to move, in a state of complete convulsion, seizure, every muscle in my body involuntarily tense. After a few moments, I broke myself free of this paralysis and managed to unclip a screw from the caritool where my axe had been. It was encased in an inch of ice, covering the head and the shaft, threads and teeth. My screws are always razor-sharp, and I have never been so grateful for my obsessive compulsiveness. Utilizing the last vestiges of my dexterity I managed, after several desperate failures, to get the screw started. I spun it in slowly, taking breaks to regain my last remaining strength. I freed another frozen draw from my harness, clipped it to the screw. I freed another draw and clipped it to my belay loop. I pulled hard, repeatedly, trying to hoist myself up to clip the two draws together. I failed. I grabbed the lower jumar and lifted it, heavy with the weight of the ice covered ropes, hooking the rope below it with my left elbow. I clamped my chattering teeth over the ice covered screw gate of the locking carabiner that housed my aiders. The ice thawed and eventually I was able to open the gate, which was thankfully unlocked, and remove my aiders from their attachment to the jumar. I clipped my aiders to the draw on the screw, pulled hard on the draw, stood up on my front points hooked on the slings, and managed to clip the draw on my harness to the screw.

I repeated this process three times, placing four screws in total, each about two feet above the last. I was completely out of the spray of the waterfall, but entirely in the shade, and my convulsions remained as violent, periodically rendering me unable to move, leaving me hanging from the screw quivering like an epileptic. As I got higher into the right-facing corner of ice, the same ground Chelsea and I had covered three days before on the send, I started to reach out left with my axe and chop wildly at the ice encasement of the ropes. I swung with reckless abandon, hitting the ropes themselves squarely with my pick on several occasions.  I whacked the rope with the side of the head of my axe, freeing it from ice. I fought the jumars up the ropes, inch by inch. Finally, I abandoned trying to get the jugs higher, I placed my tool in the ice out left, above the lip, and eventually managed to free my second axe from the caritool on my left hip. My swings into the supple, crumbly fresh ice were pathetic chopping motions. My sticks were shallow, out of square, and I didn’t care. I pulled on their handles, swinging myself to the left. I hooked a draw to the pommel of the left tool and placed the right tool again, higher above the lip. I hooked my aiders to the lower pommel of this tool and stood up on my front points hooked to the slings. I managed to disconnect the two draws attaching my harness to the top screw and climbed up the aiders, placing my left tool higher, knowing that if I fell I would slam down onto the jumars that were now below my feet.

I hooked myself to the upper tool with a draw to its pommel and placed my last screw. I clipped directly to the screw and hung from it, slumped over forward in the sun, shuddering in a taut ball, feeling like the tendons in my neck were going to snap. Eventually, I returned to violent consciousness, and chopped out the remainder of the ropes, pulled the rope up from below till all of the slack that the short-fixed bottoms of the ropes at the fifth belay below allowed, and frantically smacked the frozen jugs and ropes with the side of the head of my axe and worked the jumars up the ropes. From shortly above the lip to the v-thread, the ropes were off the surface of the ice, and were dry and supple. I slid the jumars up the ropes and slumped on the sloping snowy ice ledge exactly where I had stood extended below the anchor, belaying Chelsea three days before.

Over the next period of time I slowly recovered, the convulsions still came in waves, but to my utter relief and joy I started to slowly regain my composure. Eventually, I shook off my backpack, the straps frozen to the fabric of my soft-shell. I sucked on its zipper to free its encasement in ice. Finally, I removed my soggy insulated gloves and was able to unzip it and don my parka. I found my dry dry-tooling gloves, each roasting with a hand warmer inside, tucked inside my shell in my armpit, where I always keep them when wearing my belay gloves. Eventually, when I was pretty sure I would survive, I removed my phone from the inside pocket of my parka and filmed myself, trying to speak to my daughters, just in case I did perish up there. I faded in and out and couldn’t speak. I stopped filming and returned to the erratic shivering and hyperventilating. Over time, I freed the stuck ropes and dropped them, hauled up my tag line and set up a rappel after tying double fisherman’s stopper knots to each end. I made it down the wall, slowly, cautiously, regaining control of my body gradually as I went. I made it down, and ran, staggering and tumbling down the talus water sloshing in my boots. I reached the snowmobile, grabbed my extra warm clothes from under the seat, removed my boots to put on my puff pants, poured out the water and put them back on, put my second smaller parka over my big belay parka, and fired up the sled. I rode full-throttle back to my rental car parked along the highway four clicks from town. I threw my pack in the trunk and drove back to the cabin at about 150 km/hour. I rushed into the cabin, stripped, and emptied the hot water tank with one long shower.

——————————–

The doctor swept open the curtain and walked into the emergency room cubicle smiling, followed by two young women bearing stern expressions, one holding a clipboard. He introduced himself, shook my hand, and explained that his accompaniment was his PA and a medical student. I was mortified. They examined me while I wrapped my head in my arms to bear the embarrassment and the pain.

“See!” said the doctor to the young women, grasping the mass in my scrotum, “It’s free from the testicles! It’s not attached to anything.”

He asked me if I had had any recent accidents or injuries. Uncoiling my arms from around my head, I briefly explained my experiences nearly dying from hypothermia a week before, explaining the violent, repeated bouncing in my harness.

“Um-hum,” he said. “I think it’s just epididymitis or hydroseal. Not a big deal.”

“Okay,” I replied, without a clue what he was talking about.

The doctor and his entourage left after explaining that I would have an ultrasound.

Shortly, an old man wheeled the ultrasound machine in, and set to work. He told me all about his twelve grandchildren while I stared at the ceiling.

He wrapped up his exam and confided smiling, “Don’t worry, we’re not going to take your testicles. But, I have to show these images to radiology and the doctor will be in soon with an official diagnosis.”

I thanked him and wished him luck with his grandkids.

Soon, the doctor returned with one of the young women entering behind him.

“You’ve got a scrotal hematoma.” he said.

“Is that bad?” I asked.

“No, not a big deal. It’s just a mass of blood, sort of like a huge blood blister. Your body will likely just reabsorb it. It was likely caused by your harness from your, ah, sport.” he said grinning. “You’re free to go! No restrictions! Just come back if it starts hurting more or you get a fever.”

He shook my hand, and walked out of the cubicle. His PA followed him, her face bore a glowing smile as her gaze became fixed on mine. I felt like dying for a moment from embarrassment. I dressed quickly, put the hood of my sweatshirt over my head, pulling it down over my eyes, and darted out of the cubicle, thanking the nurse as I passed, and b-lined it for the door.

I walked briskly to my truck, fired it up, sped out of the parking lot, rolling through the stop sign, thinking how wondrous and strange my ninth life had been. I said a quick thanks to God, Zoroaster, Odin and Zeus as I felt the surge of the supercharger launching me at full throttle down the road and into the rest of my tenth life.

—————————

Back at the cabin in Rocky Harbour, Newfoundland, after the world’s longest hot shower, I recovered with massive quantities of hot Skratch Labs Apples and Cinnamon and several pots of coffee. I returned that evening to the Cholesterol Wall, hiked up the talus to retrieve the coiled ropes from the base of the wall that I had pitched off the fifth belay and again at the fourth belay on my way down earlier. The next morning, I returned to finish cleaning the remainder of the fixed lines from the lower portions of the wall, and caught a flight home from Deer Lake at five o’clock that afternoon.

It has been somewhat difficult to write this story, but I have been compelled to share it nonetheless. It is embarrassing. It was intensely personal. But, it’s a part of the tale of this year’s Newfoundand traditional mixed adventure. I don’t really have much desire to enter into a forensic analysis of what when wrong when and how it could have been avoided, but others are more than welcome to Monday-morning-quarterback these events. And, though certainly possible, it’s somewhat hard to imagine someone finding themselves in a similar situation. But, generally, I suppose, there may be some instructive value in the mistakes I made.

“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (WI7+, M12 traditional), Chapter Four

Profile view of the crux sixth pitch of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" showing the double-Dutch-door flake as viewed from "Apocalypse Now" from a photo taken last year.

Profile view of the crux sixth pitch of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” showing the partly obscured orange arch crux, the corner-perch rest, the double-Dutch-door flake and the ice roof as viewed from “Apocalypse Now” from a photo taken last year (the column in the lower right of this photo did not form this year).

I slotted my entire pick upward into the horizontal crack, the blue-alien-sized gap beneath the overhanging base of the giant flake and the clean grey granite wall. The flake jutted out to the right from the corner-perch rest halfway up the crux sixth pitch of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” I was sending, the technical crux, a grossly overhanging arch of stone split with a pick-tip crack was below me. Leaving the security of the rest, I leaned outward, feeling the flex of the precious Charlet steel pick, toed-down with my right front point on the final decent foothold before committing to the featureless overhanging black water-streaked granite wall that rose behind the flake. I released the pressure of my left tool torqued in the vertical crack of the corner, inserted my left tool into my mouth horizontally and bit down on it pirate-style. I matched my left hand above my right hand on the horizontally torqued tool, grabbed the lower pommel of the tool in my mouth with my right hand and leaned far to the right to hook a shallow edge in a horizontal seam. I extended my left arm slowly, lowering my body out to the right beneath my right tool. Releasing the torqued pressure, I extracted my left tool from the horizontal crack beneath the overhang, suspending myself from my right tool hooked on the small edge, I again inserted the shaft of my left tool horizontally into my mouth and chomped its wrapping of rubber splicing tape with my teeth, matched hands on my right tool, and held my breath momentarily, imagining the tip of my honed three millimeter pick deforming, as it had the day before, from the full weight of my body. I raked my crampons at waist height, pressing all points against the featureless wall, and clipped the equalized pair of pitons pre-placed in the horizontal crack to my right with my second lead rope.

The upper section of the giant flake reared up above me. The right edge of the flake rose from the tapered end of the horizontal overhang which comprised the flake’s base. The vertical crack formed between the flake and the wall was wider, increasing in width from orange FCU size through tipped-out .5 Camalot size to a horizontal fracture in the flake. The second portion of the flake, above the horizontal fracture, was offset slightly from the first overhanging slab. The offset of the upper flake made the crack between itself and the wall wider still, it widened as it rose upward from #1 Camalot size to #2 Camalot size.  The entire feature resembled a giant split double-Dutch-door from my Grandfather’s barn that I recollected from my childhood, with the top portion slightly ajar, tipped outward.

—————-

The double-Dutch flake was the door of our wardrobe, the passageway to the seeming other-world, the portal to the most surreal ice roof I could imagine, and it was terrifying. The lower section was hollow sounding. When I first struck it with the hammer of my third tool, to test its mettle, when I had aided this portion of this pitch four days before, a deep kettle drum sound resounded. I had paused at length here on aid the first day working out the pitch. It had taken most of the day to aid the first fifty feet of the pitch, including the overhanging arch, which demanded committing aid on #2 and #3 Pecker pitons as well as much other iron mongering, use of small wires and micro cams. After pondering the unpleasant reality of the flake for what might have been an hour, I equalized the two pitons I placed in the horizontal seam right of the base of the huge suspect flake, clipped in, and lowered off. Psychologically shattered, Chelsea lowered me to her perch on the pedestal of the fifth belay as the light started to glow late-afternoon orange. We started our descent, rappelling into the dusk and stumbling down the icy talus to return to the snowmobile by headlamp well after dark. The route seemed too dangerous. We were silent over dinner after discussing the situation completely over hot chocolate back at the cabin.

But, the next morning we resolved to try again. After the arduous re-ascent of the lower wall, I jugged up the rope we had left through the gear to our high point after fixing the bottom end of the rope at the belay. I made careful calculations in my mind regarding the trajectory of the several ton flake should it collapse, using my tag line as an ersatz plumb bob. It would fall well clear of Chelsea, who was anchored from the front and from the back, tucked securely into the safe haven of the nook of the fifth belay inside the fall line of all overhead hazards, including this one. If it ripped and cut my lines, and I bought the farm, Chelsea would be fine. We had another rope for her to get down on her own. Believing that there has never been a recorded incident of both double ropes being cut in a climbing accident, I asked Chelsea to put me on belay with the tag line, a 7.7mm twin cord, not OSHA approved, but I figured it was better than merely a single lead line. Chelsea put me on belay and I resolved to test the flake or find a way around it. I aided the flake with cams tentatively above the two equalized pins in the horizontal crack. My second rope was clipped to this protection, which would have kept this rope free of the would-be fall line of the flake.

I aided the flake on cams tentatively, and it seemed solid enough to climb. But, the upper portion of the double-Dutch flake was more hollow. When I had struck it repeatedly with the hammer of my third tool with my dominant my left arm, I had pressed my right hand on the face of it, and the repercussions of my blows reverberated really strongly through the gloved palm of my hand. This section of the door hung solely from its hinges. I again paused for a long time. I questioned continuing. I questioned my motivations. I questioned my judgment. I questioned my sanity. It is difficult in such moments to know how to proceed. We had put so much into this route, accepted so much risk already. Was it really as dangerous as I thought it might be? Was I just paranoid from too many days in the maelstrom that was the Cholesterol Wall, too many days of these types of battles, too many days of this self-inflicted war without an adversary. Was this fun? I wondered.

After what may have been another hour of doubt and searching my mind and the wall for alternatives, I managed to place a tight #1 knifeblade piton in a horizontal seam two-thirds of the way in, just barely within arm’s and hammer’s reach from the top step of my aiders, far to the left in the extension of the break in the door, the crack of its offset division. It was the same fissure but was in solid rock. I tentatively committed my body weight to the shallow flexing piton easing myself to swing way out to the left. Above the piton, I found a #5 Rock placement in the crack of the hinge of the door, where the rock also seemed solid. This nut placement felt like a miracle.

The top of the flake was the second rest on the pitch. The remainder of the overhanging corner consisted on straightforward nailing in a good crack which led to the ice. The ice was wild, upside-down, three-dimensional stuff which was featured enough for inverted heal hooks and good tool placements inside ice huecos. To my delight, at the right side of the underbelly of the ice roof, there was a foot ledge beside a truncated vertical column of ice which took solid screws for the sixth belay. I lowered off in triumph, tramming in to re-join a shivering Chelsea at the fifth belay.

“Jesus, Chelsea, I am so sorry! That took forever. Thank you so much. You are so patient and generous.”

“Geez, don’t apologize. Good job. You don’t have to thank me . . . I didn’t know there was any other way to be.” she replied.

———————–

Still holding my breath, I locked the handle of my tool down hard, pulling it into my right armpit. My face inches from the pick which bore into the tiny hook in the horizontal seam beside the two equalized pitons. I grasped the tool clenched in my teeth with my left hand upside down, and reached upward, handle up, to insert the pick facing upward into the inch and a half wide crack. There wasn’t enough clearance for a straight-forward stein-pull, so the pick went in at an eleven o’clock orientation but the handle was flared to the right, at about one o’clock. I pulled down and walked my rakes higher, as high as I could. My feet skated, both together, I tightened my core and caught myself by jerking my arms taut.

“Good Will. I’m with you. Deep breaths.” Chelsea’s calm voice rose from below.

Thus, the moves were repeated, a sequence of insecure, flexing stein-torque maneuvers. Higher up, in constrictions in the wider area of the crack, the placements switched to the more reliable head-shaft prying varieties, till I could hook the horizontal seam that comprised the division of the double-Dutch door. Above this point, the crack became wide enough for strange flared hand jams.

————————-

The day before, at this same point on the upper section of the double-Dutch-door flake, I had holstered my right tool and taken a flared thumbs-down gloved hand jam, lie-backed off my left tool in the horizontal break inside the flake in conjunction with the strange torqued jam. I had walked my rakes up high on the smooth wall on the right and quickly had released my left tool and thrust up hard to hook the top of the flake, which made a sickening hollow knocking sound. But my right hand inexplicably had become stuck in the jam. I had thrust above to hook my tool so aggressively, that I somehow had locked myself into a strange half-nelson type of grappling maneuver. My right arm was twisted so hard that my hand had become stuck completely. I was pumped out of my mind, but I couldn’t shake out either arm because there were no foot placements whatsoever on the overhanging sheer wall, and I knew the strange lie-back jam was useless for a downward pull, yet to my horror my hand had become stuck with my body thrust so high, suspended from my tool hooked at my body’s full extension from the top of the flake. After minutes of wrestling with myself and my grip strength on my left tool waning and my right arm losing strength in the twisted trap of a jam, I had tried in vain to abandon the hooked tool and down-climb into a second, lower jam with my left hand, my right tool was out of reach clipped to my right holster. My arms were so pumped I had little dexterity left. Panic stricken, to my horror, I had peeled off.

“I’m off!” I had yelled.

I had fallen through the air about thirty feet. The one cam I had placed in the base of the flake had ripped out of the crack with little resistance when the rope came tight on it and came spinning down the rope into my lap after the rope caught me from the carabiner at the end of the runner that was clipped to the equalized double runner clipped to the two pitons in the horizontal seam right of the base of the flake. I had looked down at Chelsea, suspended in the air from the rear anchor.

“Are you okay?” I had asked.

“Yeah! I’m fine. Are you okay?” She’d replied.

“Yeah. Holy fuck! Nice catch!” I’d replied.

—————————–

But today I was sending. I reached the lie-back hook of the horizontal break in the double-Dutch flake and took it with my right tool with my right hand on the upper pommel. I holstered my left tool and walked my rakes high, really high. My upper body rocked upward and downward, in rowing motions I flexed and extended my legs horizontally, gaining momentum to thrust upward to grab my tool which still hung from the top of the flake from the day before. After several false starts, broken with brief shakes, matching hands on the lie-backed tool, I made a determined dead-point thrust upward and latched my awaiting tool without shifting it, committed my body weight to it, and immediately, steadily swung my left leg up onto the ledge atop the flake and saddled up, hooking the crack above. I recovered my breath and rested for an extended period of time, allowing my heart rate to return to near resting pace. I knew I was going to take this beast down.

I climbed up the arcing crack in the corner, literally swinging my tools into the pick crack to ensure solid placements. I kept telling myself to go slowly, do not make a mistake. I swung into the ice and found my hooks from three days before, swinging around the fins of ice inverted, hooking the heals of my boots inside the ice huecos, and clipped the anchor without hesitation.

“TAKE!” I screamed.

“WOOHOO!” Chelsea screamed.

We shouted unintelligible victory utterances for a period and then I asked, after a moment to collect myself, “So, what do you want to do?”

“Well, if you want to take it to the top, that’d be cool!” She said. “I want to work on this pitch, but this route is your dream! I can work on this pitch on Sunday.”

“Okay!” I said. “So, you can either belay me from there and I can just rappel back to here and lower off, or you can come up here and climb the next pitch too.” I said.

After a pause, Chelsea said, “Well . . . ah . . . I’m going to the top!” in a tone of voice that made it sound like I had just said the most ridiculously stupid thing of all time, which was entirely possibly the case.

Chelsea made some good links, and aided the rest of the sixth pitch. She joined me under the surreal awning of the giant ice roof. She hyperventilated a bit from the overwhelming power of our location, but remained resolute. I stacked both lead lines carefully, an absurd amount of rope, some 147 meters total. But, the wind and my shivering body made me want to just keep moving without trying to sort out what now had become an overkill of double ropes. I stepped out right along the foot ledge and swung up into the underside of the roof. After a few severely overhanging moves, I copped a wide stem back to the ice awning, a stem so wide it burned my hip flexors. The ice roof was a surreal situation, and unbelievable culmination of this epic line, yet it was surprisingly easy compared with the ice of the fifth pitch, not to mention the hard dry tooling of the sixth and third pitches. It was a strange, yet somehow fitting denouement.

——————————-

A week and a half later, I sit here writing this story. I am struck with a certain sense of well-being, but also a numb disconnection, I don’t answer my phone, I don’t spend time in public, I spend a lot of time thinking about what happened this year in Newfoundland. I’m pretty sure we just climbed, all told, one of the most difficult and committing traditional mixed routes in the world. But, I don’t think that really means a whole lot. It’s a new route; we climbed it; that’s all. But, writing about it has helped me make sense of it somehow. It seems somewhat disturbing to some of my family and friends that we would voluntarily pit ourselves against such a treacherous and difficult objective, especially considering my near fatal battle with hypothermia when cleaning the route alone three days after Chelsea and I sent it (the story of which I will complete soon in a brief epilogue). My father, my brother, my employees, my friends say things like: “Why don’t you take up golf?” “Sport climbing in the sun must sound good right now!”, etc. And, I don’t know how to respond. I can’t really explain it to them. And, I don’t even try. But, for me, routes like “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” are a metaphor for the essence of life. All of our days are numbered, we are all terminally ill. We may die tomorrow, what are we going to do today? This does not mean I live my life like a kamikaze. This does not mean I have a death wish. I want to live a long and full life. I love my family and friends as much as my own life. And, after Ben’s and Chelsea’s and my experiences alone, remote, isolated on this magnificent other-worldly wall of ice and stone, I feel so completely satisfied, I feel so completely purified of the toxicities, the natural waste products, of day-to-day life, all of the static negativity that we humans seem to accrete upon ourselves and each other over time despite our best intentions. Perhaps it’s a dysfunction to need to go to such great lengths to find this catharsis, perhaps it’s enviable to be able to achieve satisfaction and a feeling of complete well-being from a good round of golf, or from watching one’s favorite team win a sports game, or from watching the weekly re-run of one’s favorite reality television show, I don’t know. But, for some reason, I am driven to climb routes such as “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” I don’t know why, but experiences such as these are how I make sense of my life and my place in the cosmos. I just feel like it was what I was meant to do. I know it’s selfish, it doesn’t benefit anyone but myself and my partners, and those benefits are purely subjective fleeting experiential wisps of being in time. No one but us will ever completely understand what it was like, just like I will never completely understand others’ experiences; we are all islands unto ourselves in the end, and that’s okay with me. I don’t expect other people to truly understand me, just as I don’t expect to truly understand others. But, I endeavor to try, and I am grateful that others do the same of me. But, I will say, for me, after these weeks in Newfoundland, I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that I have lived my life fully, in my own mind, forever. And that feels good.

“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (WI7+, M12 traditional), Chapter Three

Screen Grab of the Cholesterol Wall from a different angle early on Monday, March 14, after the faun's leg collapsed.

Screen Grab of the Cholesterol Wall from a different angle early on Monday, March 14, after the faun’s leg collapsed. Note the diminished size of the giant artichoke in the center of the wall.

Before and after. Left: approximately 11 am on Sunday, March 13. Right: 8:42 am on Monday, March 14.

Before and after. Left: approximately 11 am on Sunday, March 13. Right: 8:42 am on Monday, March 14.

The Faun's leg icicle hanging from the right side of the ice roof on Sunday, March 13.

The Faun’s leg icicle hanging from the right side of the ice roof on Sunday, March 13.

Preparing to clean the stuck rappel ropes, I stood there alone in the sun on the maimed pedestal of the fifth belay, the outer icicles, the leaves of the artichoke, had been cleaved, the top shell of snow-ice had been shattered, pulverized from the giant icicle that had collapsed over the night. I thought of the previous day, Sunday, March 13, when Chelsea Rude and I parked the sled on the edge of Ten Mile Pond, at the base of the talus slope that led up to our route: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I parked it precisely on the spot where I had parked it exactly eleven times before, over the preceding two and a half weeks. I killed the ignition. We turned and stared up at the Cholesterol Wall without dismounting the snowmobile. My eye twitched as I looked up at a giant free-hanging icicle that had formed at the right edge of the ice roof, exactly where the stuck rappel lines hung. The enormous dagger loomed down nearly halfway from the ice roof to the pedestal of the fifth belay atop the giant artichoke of ice that adorned the center of the wall. It must have been fifty feet long.

“Look at it! It looks like a faun’s leg! Hey, it’s Mr. Tumnus from Narnia!” Chelsea exclaimed from the back seat.

Indeed it did, crooked like a mythical unguligrade leg, with a triangular hoof at the end, a kink of a heel half way down, and where it hung from the massive ice roof it resembled the fleshy knee and upper leg. When we had sent the route merely two days before, on Friday, March 11, we had surmounted the ice roof at the very spot where the giant faun’s leg now hung. There had been a small hanging icicle there of freshly forming succulent single-throw-placement type of ice. But, now it had become an entirely different and hazardous suspended time bomb.

It had been a slow morning. Even after an entire day of rest, neither of us could get out of bed. I could hear Chelsea’s alarm sound, only to be silenced, from her room on the other side of the cabin, and I’m sure she could hear mine. Both of us were completely fried, physically and psychologically, from our efforts on the wall. Over the preceding eight days, Chelsea and I had spent five on the wall; and over the preceding fourteen days, I had spent ten of them on the route.

Since Ben Collett had left, each of the final four of Chelsea and my days working the upper wall began with jumaring the first three pitches, then climbing the fourth, then jumaring the fifth before we set to work on the crux sixth pitch. Such efforts would be relatively tiresome even in a normal climbing environment, but doing so amidst the ravages of the capricious Newfoundland weather, dealing with the daily ritual of shedding the ropes of ice as we ascended them, and compounded by the constant stress of managing the ever-changing overhead hazards of the route made our days grueling on our bodies and minds, grinding down our capacities in both resources.

Finally, I got out of bed and peered into Chelsea’s room through her open door. She was fast asleep. I went outside and filmed the surf again, though I had too much footage of this already. The steady gentle rumble and splash of the rising tide, and the hypnotizing visual rising, rolling, and falling of the waves was soothing. I went back inside and made a noisy breakfast. We lived large at breakfast. This morning it was a giant cast iron skillet filled with massive quantities of sautéed red onions, mushrooms, chorizo, tomatoes and spinach with cheddar cheese and six eggs. Chelsea woke up and we chowed down and packed our bags as fast as we could, which took some time. Eventually, we were out the door and at the sled. We rode in to the wall like automatons, I knew every twist and every turn of the track exactly by now, I automatically dodged every bump and every stump along the way.

We looked up at the giant faun’s leg icicle late on Sunday morning. The air was still and relatively warm, the temperature was just below freezing. The forecast called for a cold front to blow in later in the day bringing high winds and temperatures in the teens Fahrenheit by dark. I had learned over the preceding weeks, from observing the caprices of the icicles that routinely formed and collapsed from the ice roof at the top of the wall, they always seemed to fall during cold snaps. This is generally common knowledge among ice climbers: the cold renders ice brittle and it contracts, this seems to cause free-hanging icicles to collapse at what we call “the fracture line,” typically at about the elevation of the point where the mass of the root of the icicle attaches to the rock wall. Of course, icicles may collapse—root and all—if there is mass freezing of water running behind the root of the icicle (water is a strange compound in that it expands when it freezes, but ice itself contracts as it gets colder, which is typical of solids being cooled). Also, of course, an icicle can collapse if the temperature rises above freezing simply from thawing. And, yet, ice is massively heavy, and remains somewhat unpredictable in general.

In the case of the ice roof of our route, the temperatures were below freezing, there was no water running behind the massive root of the ice roof, and so, the continual cause of the collapses of the icicles clearly was the former: cold snap with high winds. As such, we avoided the wall when cold fronts arrived. On at least three occasions over the course of my three weeks watching the wall, I would return to the wall the day following a cold front and the icicle that had formed (always on the left side of the roof, except this final time when the waterfall that streamed off the roof had moved to the right side, forming the faun’s leg that we now witnessed) would lie in thousands of football sized pieces strewn about and below a crater in the snow about the size of a trampoline downslope and right of the base of the route. Pieces of ice would often be found halfway down the talus slope.

We were late. Chelsea was driven to send the crux pitch cleanly on top rope. But, she was exhausted and so was I. And, more importantly, I explained that I didn’t like the new position of the icicle, nor it’s massive scale. I figured it hung directly above the rabbit hole, the secret passageway through the top right side of the giant artichoke of ice, the hole through which we passed each time we re-climbed the lower wall to reach the crux pitch. I remembered Friday how the waterfall rained down upon the outer edge of the massive top of the artichoke, casting spray back toward the sheltered belay close to the wall. Previously, when the water poured off the thicker left side of the ice roof, it fell outside of the pedestal, thus completely ensuring our safety. But, the water poured off the shallower right side on Friday, and so I worried that the faun’s leg may have been an unacceptable hazard as we popped out from the rabbit hole directly beneath it, directly beneath about six tons of suspended frozen water.

Chelsea Rude is driven. Her girlish demeanor belies a warrior’s spirit. She has been a standout competition climber since she was a young girl, she has climbed 5.14 and she has bouldered V11. Yet, she was born in the mountains of Colorado, climbed the Grand Teton at age twelve and climbed the Nose on El Capitan when she was fifteen. She is a gifted athlete, has a VO2 Max of 98. She is also extremely intelligent, has a 4.0 GPA, and is preparing to return to school to become a physician’s assistant. She understood the hazards of this route clearly, despite her inexperience with this type of climbing. After all, it’s not rocket science, but contending with it requires a certain disposition. Chelsea dealt with the overhead hazards and the dangers of large hollow flakes with a calculated head that would shame many seasoned alpinists. We met the hazards with logistical solutions that always fell this side of the line of acceptable risk. This woman is not a dilettante, she means business and is one of the best winter partners with whom I have ever had the pleasure to climb.

It was late, the cold front would have arrived by the time we would be descending making the ridiculously precarious icicle even more unstable. We were exhausted, and the faun’s leg was looming large. I voted to bail on climbing that day. Chelsea agreed when I explained the potential hazard, but she made me promise to return next year so she could send the sixth pitch, on lead, and to red-point the lower pitches that she’d missed as well. I laughed at her indefatigable spirit and agreed, “I promise!”

We hung around lazily along the frozen shore of Ten Mile Pond, still feeling the victorious disbelief that we had taken this monster down. Chelsea made snow angels and did cartwheels, we threw snowballs, and Chelsea sampled some of the granite boulders along the frozen shore in mountain boots while I took photos. Then, we lay on our backs in the snow and stared at length at the faun’s leg in the relative warmth of midday. Silently, I imagined how I would contend with it alone on the following day, Chelsea’s flight home to Colorado was before dawn the next morning.

 

 

“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (WI7+, M12), Chapter 2

Route map of the first three pitches of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" - M8, M8, M10.

Route map of the first three pitches of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” – M8, M8, M10.

Route map of the first four pitches of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" M8, M8, M10, WI4

Route map of the first four pitches of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” M8, M8, M10, WI4

Leading the second pitch (M8).

Leading the second pitch (M8).

Leading the third pitch (M10) of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe"

Leading the third pitch (M10) of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”

I had stood alone on the broad pedestal of the fifth belay atop the giant artichoke of ice that perches precariously in the center of the Cholesterol Wall on the day I was cleaning the route. I looked up at the two lead lines which I had stuck two days before in an embarrassing mental lapse. I vividly recalled the moment Chelsea Rude, my second partner for this route, came into view around the lip of the roof, struggling to surmount the final hard move of our giant new route. I recalled the joy I felt, the victorious disbelief that washed over me, sending warm tingles down my spine. This route was certainly my magnum opus, this was the route of my career. This line is the hardest and most dangerous traditional mixed climb I had ever attempted, let alone sent. After a brief celebration, I built a v-thread, tied the two lead lines together carefully, perfectly, with a left-handed figure-8 follow-through, the knot that both Chelsea and I happen to tie in with, though she is right-handed. I rappelled first, asking her to remove the backup screw before she came down. I explained that I would clip the rappel lines through the directional, the cluster of solid rock gear that I had left from last year’s reconnaissance when the ice roof had hung down lower, which turned out to be below and right of the line we had just climbed. Yet, this gear happened to be positioned perfectly to keep our rappel away from the hazard of the large, free-hanging icicle that was directly beneath us (and thus, without a directional, would be directly above us as we rappelled) growing by the instant, pouring with a waterfall of icy water.

Chelsea and I had rappelled dozens of times over the preceding ten days. Often, on this route, directionals were necessary to keep our rappels on track due to the occasional traverses of the line, or to keep our path clear of looming overhead hazard. Dozens of rappels had been made, unclipping dozens of directionals and then clipping them back in above the device once passed. We did it by rote. I didn’t explain it anymore, except by saying that there would be a directional. It’s just what we did. We had rappelled this way dozens of times, and each and every single time we did so, it was with only one rope, either down the static lines, if they were not too iced up, or with one of the 9.2mm lead lines or the 7.7mm tag line with two locking carabiners through the device for extra resistance (sometimes also wrapping the brake side of the rope around my leg when it had become icy). Of the countless rappels we had made, there was never once a rappel made with two ropes joined with a knot.

I had rappelled first from our victorious perch atop the route two days before. I clipped into the gear as I went past, ensuring a safe rappel for us both. Chelsea followed after I was secure at the fifth belay (we bypassed the sixth belay underneath the awning of the ice roof). She unclipped the directional from below her device as I held a fireman’s belay, as I always do. And, she clipped the directional in above her device, just like we always do. She rappelled safely to the shelter of the fifth belay. I started to pull the ropes, and suddenly I felt nauseated. “We’re fucked.” I said. “What?” Chelsea asked. “The fucking knot.” I said, “I’m a fucking idiot.”

After a moment’s anguish I said, “Well, we’re coming back the day after tomorrow so you can send the crux cleanly. I can deal with it then, or I can jug up there now and get it.” Chelsea slowly shook her head, and I was relieved. We were both completely wasted physically and psychologically. We had almost bailed on the day at every turn, beginning when we struggled to rise from our beds. Yet, we had rallied, we had persevered, and we had sent! We were going down. I rigged the tag line for a rappel, as usual. We rappelled down through the rabbit hole, a secret passage through the top of the giant artichoke of ice, as we always did, clipping a directional along the way. We continued down several more rappels to the base of the route, forgetting about my ridiculous mishap and returning to that incomparable elation of having completed what seemed only recently to be likely impossible.

Nearly two weeks before, Ben Collett and I had returned to the route for our second day of climbing. After jugging the fixed first pitch, I set to work puzzling out a line left of the belay, up into a shattered rock corner, protected with #2 and #3 Pecker pitons and arrows, blades and angles and one large cam. After some struggle, a core shot rope on a sharp edge, and half dozen over-driven pitons, we top-roped the pitch, sending it cleanly. Much to our relief, we could avoid the off-width flare. We pulled the rope and I led it. Boom! Pitch two was in the bag. It is a short pitch, involving a tenuous traverse left into a rock corner, a dance around some hollow flakes among a solid pick-crack, and a crux sequence of long pulls through the overhanging lip of the corner to get into the thin smear of ice which led up to the base of the overhanging arcing roof crack. I fixed the pitch with a static line and we called it a day, both of us frozen, shivering even while climbing. We went back to the cabin to thaw out and sharpen our picks and crampons to do battle with the roof crack on the following day.

The next day, we jugged the first pitch, and I continued to jumar to the ice belay atop the second pitch. Ben belayed me patiently from the first belay while I aided the perplexing roof pitch. The crack was more discontinuous than it appeared from below, and the lower portion of it was comprised of a large hollow flake, so hollow sounding that I was unwilling to use the crack for protection or for tool placements. The aid was full-on A3, it seemed. I was challenged to the degree that I was not even considering how the pitch would be free-climbed, I was just trying to get up it. I managed to cobble together protection that avoided the dangerous block/flake, and found myself at the lip of the roof eventually stuffing in a belay-quality orange FCU in a solid crack yelling in euphoric rage, “This thing is going DOWN!!!!!!!” I hung there for a moment beside myself, wondering, “Who is this madman?” I was so driven, it kind of scared me a bit. I spent the entire day aiding one 20 meter pitch, and I was so utterly ecstatic that it went to the ice; I was so intensely excited because I knew I would be able to free-climb it simply because I had been able to aid it, but, honestly, the level of my intensity was somewhat alarming to me.

This type of climbing in this type of environment is utterly grueling. But, Ben is not the type of person to take rest days, especially not after the weather had deprived him of half of his would-have-been climbing days for the trip. So, on the fourth climbing day, which would be Ben’s last day, we returned to the route and worked out the moves on the third pitch, finding a miraculous single-tooth hook below the hazardous hollow section of the crack which enabled a long pull into the more solid crack to the right, the release demanded a figure-4, a move I had never before used on a traditional mixed climb. This sequence led to the good crack in the lip. The pull over the lip was actually the crux, with full inversions and powerful long pulls between good holds. I reached the belay on the send, hauled up a few ice screws and a small rock rack from Ben, and took the fourth pitch of WI4 up to the ledge that bisects the middle of the wall. There I found a protected alcove with a solid, podded granite crack that ate up three bomber nuts and three bomber angle pitons. For the first time in my life, I threaded the cable of a nut down through a miraculous pod, realizing that literally the entire cliff would have to collapse for this piece to fail. I equalized it all together, and lowered off what was certainly the most solid traditional anchor I have ever built. We were in business. Half of the route had gone down, we had just sent what I assumed would be the crux of the route. I suddenly felt like there just might be a chance to take this beast of a route down.

Ben left the following evening. I was and am so grateful for his patience and companionship. The arduous puzzle of the lower reaches of the wall were time consuming and became a task often more closely resembling manual labor than any type of sport. I regret that he put so much effort into the line but was unable to join in the wild glory of the upper ice and mixed climbing. The next day I went to the wall alone, chopped out the lead line from the ice on the fourth pitch, and fixed it properly with a static line. At midnight, I picked up my second partner for the route, Chelsea Rude, from the airport in Deer Lake, and we returned to Rocky Harbour and prepared to get amongst with the upper Cholesterol Wall the next day.

The video complement to Chapter Two is on www.vimeo.com/willmayoclimber

“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (WI7+, M12 traditional), Chapter 1

The freezing water poured off the lip of the ice roof fifteen feet above my head and pounded upon the hood of my soft-shell jacket which covered my helmeted head. The ropes were icing up, my jumars were icing up, my insulated gloves were like saturated sponges. Each time I grasped a jumar, I wrung gushes of water from my gloves which increased its frigid flow down the undersides of my arms. The numbing water streamed across my armpits, down my chest, stomach, through my groin, and puddled in the seat of my pants when my stirrups were high. The water sloshed down the inside of my pant legs and into my boots when I stood up in the slings, trying ferociously to push the upper of the two seized jumars up the pair of ropes which were icing up like dipping candles in wax. I gasped for air with every breath, shivering uncontrollably. It was 24 degrees fahrenheit, the sunshine was unlimited, and the wind was calm. I dangled in space alone 700′ up the Cholesterol Wall above the remote Ten Mile Pond in the heart of Gros Morne National Park near the coast of northwest Newfoundland, cleaning the stuck lead ropes from the top of Ben Collett’s, Chelsea Rude’s and my new traditional mixed test piece: “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (WI7+, M12), which we had completed two days previously after nearly three weeks of effort. My partners had gone home to Colorado. I realized that I was suddenly in an irreversible and dire situation. The dexterity in my arms was diminishing with each second. I did not have the fine motor skills to put myself on rappel, let alone pass the knot, which I had just jugged above, right before I had lowered myself from the directional anchor plumb into the center of the waterfall of freezing water in which I now dangled, twenty feet from the wall, from rapidly seized jumars to rapidly freezing ropes. Suddenly, unbelievably, purely due to my own stupidity, I found myself instantly fighting for my life.

This year’s Newfoundland traditional mixed adventure had begun twenty days before when I landed in Deer Lake on an airliner along with three checked bags and two carry-on items, which weighed-in, collectively, at 170 lbs., just five pounds more than my body weight. I was armed for bear. Last year, I had run out of pitons, picks, rock gear, draws and slings and didn’t have any static lines. This year, I was equipped for a protracted battle against the monster that I knew awaited, hanging in tiers of three-dimensional icicles connected by overhanging granite walls split with cracks and seams, soaring up the center of the Cholesterol Wall high above the east end of Ten Mile Pond in the center of the natural beauty that encompasses Gros Morne National Park. Last year’s route, “Apocalypse Now” (WI7, M9), which itself is an unrepeated monstrosity of a traditional mixed climb, ascended to the right of the king line, and my forays to reconnoiter the central direct route after completing Apocalypse Now taught me that the central dike was a death trap of overhanging loose blocks of shale, but I also gleaned that the cracks to the left appeared good, and there was solid rock gear just below the awning of the ice roof. Over the course of the past year, obsessively poring over the thousands of photos I had from last year, and continually puzzling out logistical plans a, b and c in my mind, I convinced myself that this route would go, and I was driven to climb it.

Ben Collett, my first partner of the trip, arrived in Deer Lake the next day. We drove together to Rocky Harbour, the village just outside Gros Morne National Park, where we stayed in a cabin along the shore of the Atlantic Ocean. The forecast looked awful, warm temperatures and rain were the outlook for the next three days. We woke the next morning and went in to the wall to have a look. The balmy coastal air had thawed all of the snow overnight, the snowmobile ride was made over an icy track and across ponds of bare ice covered with puddles and pools. It was too warm to climb, but we wanted to see the wall, and carried a couple ropes, a dozen ice screws and sixty pitons to stash at the base of the route, our first load of the mass of gear required to climb such a route, in hopes of speeding up the process once cold temperatures returned. The route looked good enough, the main ice portions of the route were formed and the upper ice roof appeared to have formed in a favorable manner this year. We became optimistic.

The following two days were extremely warm, in the 50s fahrenheit, with periods of heavy rain. We festered in the cabin, stressing about the condition of the route, worried the giant artichoke of ice that perched precariously in the center of the wall would come crashing down, making the route either impossible or massively more arduous, necessitating an additional 40 meters of overhanging dry-tooling. We tried to snowmobile in to Ten Mile Pond, but the rim of the pond had thawed, our guide and friend, Walt Nicolle, the Mayor of Rocky Harbour, advised that it would take a couple days to refreeze once the promised cold front arrived, and that Ten Mile Pond was notorious for unpredictable ice due to its depth and strong currents. We were instructed not to push it, “The water’s cold this time of the year, b’ys.”

The cold front arrived with a furious wind, which is customary in Newfoundland, bearing the typical 80 km/hour gusts. The next day, Uncle Walt took us in, and bushwhacked a sled track up the shore about twenty paces to where the ice would be thicker. He told us to stack some spruce boughs on the slushy rim, and said with a grin that it would be frozen solid in the morning. Ben and I went back to the cabin and tried to sleep, my mind raced as I lay awake in bed, imagining rounding the corner on the sled in the morning to see the Cholesterol Wall bare of ice.

Yet, the next morning, when we rounded the corner toward the eastern edge of Ten Mile Pond and peered up at the Cholesterol Wall, we were relieved to see that the three main sections of ice had remained intact. The ice was anemic, the wall was covered with verglas, and the upper sections were flowing with water. But, the route had held fast. Our spirits rose, and we hurried up the icy talus slope, undeterred by the buffets of the 80 km/hour gusts of wind.

On this, our first climbing day, we sent the first pitch, which is the same as the first pitch of Apocalypse Now, and is one of the most classic traditional mixed pitches I have ever done. It rings in at around M8, is sustained and technical, following corners and perfect pick-cracks for 35 meters. The gear is good where it is available, yet one must climb well above it in places, making for an exciting bit of climbing, especially this year, as the dearth of ice made the crux overhang much more committing, demanding insecure dry-tooling well above solid hand-sized cams in the crack beneath the overlap.

Also on the first day, we began working out the second pitch, which became a bit of a puzzle. Last year, on Apocalypse Now, we diverted rightward from the first belay, climbing a series of M8 seams to reach a ledge below the shield of ice that drapes down the center of the lower section of the wall. This year, I hoped to climb an off-width flare and continue along an arcing roof crack up to the left edge of the shield of ice. The off-width turned out to be extremely challenging with crampons and mountain boots. I aided it and yet was stymied by a friable fissure-less section between the flare and the roof crack. Ben and I were frozen stiff, but I lowered from my high piece a few meters, and ran back and forth along the wall, skating sparks with my crampons. After gaining momentum, I dove left with an outstretched tool, latched a flake, pulled up, high-stepped onto it, and tapped into the thin smear of ice to the left. I climbed the smear with no gear till the ice was thick enough to place a short screw. I built an anchor of four equalized short screws in the mushy, crumbly, freshly-forming ice and lowered back to Ben at the first belay. We left a top rope on the second pitch, and rappelled with the tag line, which we also left as a top rope, and hurried down the icy talus still wearing our parkas.

Upon reaching the pond, we zipped our parkas all the way up, and blasted through the gusty winds, numbing our noses, snowmobiling the 10 km back to town. That night we thawed out, happy to be finally climbing on our project. But, in my mind I was ill-at-ease, the route seemed insurmountable, the soaring wall was just a huge stack of question marks . . . we had so far to go, and the weather had taken so much of our time. It seemed too hard, too big, and we seemed far too small.

Ben Collett following the first pitch (M8) of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe"

Ben Collett following the first pitch (M8) of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”

Video complement to Chapter One on www.vimeo.com/willmayoclimber

Apocalypse Now (WI7 M9 traditional 220 meters), Ten Mile Pond, Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland

Apocalypse Now (WI7, M9, 220 meters), The Cholesterol Wall, Ten Mile Pond, Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland.

Apocalypse Now (WI7, M9 traditional, 220 meters), The Cholesterol Wall, Ten Mile Pond, Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland.

View of the Cholesterol Wall, Ten Mile Pond, Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland. Photo courtesy of John Price Photography

View of the Cholesterol Wall, Ten Mile Pond, Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland. Photo courtesy of John Price Photography

Crux 6th pitch, M9, Photo courtesy of John Price Photography

Crux 6th pitch, M9, Photo courtesy of John Price Photography

Crux 6th pitch, M9, photo courtesy of John Price Photography

Crux 6th pitch, M9, photo courtesy of John Price Photography

Committing to the hanger at the top of the crux 6th pitch, M9. Photo courtesy of John Price Photography

Committing to the hanger at the top of the crux 6th pitch, M9. Photo courtesy of John Price Photography

On March 7, 2015, Anna Pfaff and I sent a giant, long-standing traditional mixed project on the Cholesterol Wall above Ten Mile Pond in Gros Morne National Park outside of Rocky Harbour, Newfoundland. Apocalypse Now (WI7 M9 traditional 220 meters), was one of the few remaining “king lines” of the area that had yet to be climbed. The route stands looming over the East end of the Pond on an imposing south-facing monolith dubbed the Cholesterol Wall. The left side of the wall is the site of Joe Terravecchia, Casey Shaw and Jim Shimberg’s test pieces “Tundering Lard” and “Baby Beaver.” Routes have been done to the right of the wall as well. The prominent lines in the center of the wall, however, had remained unclimbed.

For nearly two decades, New England alpinists Terravecchia, Shaw, Shimberg and Andy Tuthill, have been exploring and developing the vast expanses of Gros Morne. Operating almost completely under the radar, these hard-core traditional activists have climbed nearly every prominent hard ice and traditional mixed line in the Park, ticking off a mind-boggling list of radical, futuristic lines, all done in raw traditional style, completely without protection bolts or bolted belays. Preferring homage to the gifts of nature, these men have been rewarded with the pure satisfaction of sending the first ascents of many of the biggest and hardest traditional mixed climbs in North America. They also have paid a premium for the retention of risk, for the full engagement that is traditional mixed climbing.

Our route, Apocalypse Now, was the site of two nearly fatal accidents involving Joe Terravecchia. On the first occasion, in the early 2000s, Terravecchia, along with Shaw, were climbing the couloir directly below the icicle (later dubbed the Carry-Out Couloir) when the entire hanger spontaneously calved, pummeling the two men, cowering helplessly in the funnel of the gully below, with tons of ice, breaking Joe’s shoulder and giving both full-body battering. On the second occasion, in 2004, Joe reached the crux ice section with Andy Tuthill. Leading the crux near the top, Joe pulled up onto the dagger, just above where he reckoned the would-be fracture line was, when the entire 20-ton structure of ice collapsed, crashing down, pinning the rope between the two climbers as it fell, ripping Joe downward and pulling the rope violently through Andy’s belay device, burning through his gloves and through the skin on the palms of his hands. The old Yankee Tuthill held on, and caught Joe, now hanging unconscious 50′ below the sheltered belay, having fallen 100′ amidst giant hunks of ice. Terravecchia woke to Andy yelling down at him in horror. The two managed to get themselves down, despite Joe’s broken tibia and a body completely covered with bruises. This route meant business.

About a month ago, my planned trip to Norway with a collection of French hard-men was cancelled last-minute due to warm weather in Gudvangen. Frustrated, I pondered how best to spend my already allowed free-time. Anna Pfaff, who I met at the Michigan Ice Fest, was keen to climb and also happened to have the next few weeks off from her work as a nurse. We went to the Canadian Rockies and tested out mettle on the Stanley Headwall for a few days, sending Nemesis and an unformed and extremely challenging version of French Reality. I was impressed by Anna’s abilities and her seemingly indefatigable motivation. We climbed well together, and I asked her if she were keen to go find some adventure in Newfoundland, the North American equivalent of Norway, which was still well within Winter’s firm grasp. Anna agreed without hesitation, so I sent Joe Terravecchia an email.

Having grown up in New England, my formative climbing was steeped in the staunch traditional ethic of that area. Joe was one of my long-time mentors from my early adulthood and I had long heard rumors of the towering ice and mixed routes that Joe and company established silently every winter. In part because of Joe, Newfoundland has assumed an almost mythical quality among ice and traditional mixed climbers, talked about in hushed tones over drams of Scotch, it’s a land awash with mystery and uncertainty, a land of adventure and full value traditional winter climbing. I had always wanted to visit Newfoundland, and, finally, it seemed, I had found the opportunity. I asked Joe if there were any hard mixed lines that remained unclimbed. He sent me a picture of what would become our project, and told me the stories of his accidents, which I had already heard years ago, shortly after they had happened. Joe said it would be a long time before he got back to it, having moved on to objectives farther north in the Park, and we should give it a try.

Anna and I packed up my little Mooney single-engine piston aircraft in Denver, Colorado and flew to Madison, WI on Thursday, February 26. We continued on to Burlington, VT later that day and spent the night filing our flight manifest for the trans-border flight the next day. In the morning, we flew to Sept-Iles, Quebec, cleared customs, fueled up, and then continued on along the vast untracked expanses of the frozen North Coast of the Bay of St. Lawrence, outside radio communication and radio navigation as well as radar coverage. We turned back south at Lourdes-de-Blanc-Sablon, crossed above the partly frozen Strait of Belle Isle, and flew down the West Coast of Newfoundland to our destination: Deer Lake.

My old friend, Damien Cote, noticed a social media post of mine about our travels to Newfoundland, and he sent me an unsolicited message, which I received immediately upon our arrival in Deer Lake. Damien told me to contact Pete Thurlow, a prolific local climber who happened to have a snowmobile. I called Pete, and he was planning to use his sled to climb himself over the next few days, but he put us in touch with the local snowmobile guide guru, Rick Endicott. Rick, Pete, and virtually every other Newfie we have met, are extraordinarily helpful and accommodating, replying to every question and request with the simple utterance: “Not a problem!” When we realized the magnitude of our project, Pete graciously loaned us jumars and ropes while we were waiting for a shipment of 200 meters of static line from the Mountain Equipment Co-op. Without the help of our friends and locals, for whom we are eternally grateful, this route never would have happened for us.

On our fifth day of effort on the Cholesterol Wall, we sent Apocalypse Now to the summit after climbing and fixing the first five pitches over the previous four days. Honestly, it’s the most wild climbing I have ever done in my life. Pitch One (M8, 30 meters) is an instant classic: perfect dry-tooling cracks in a leaning corner with a smattering of welded smears of ice and two overhangs. I on-sighted this pitch on our first day, after two false starts to the left. Pitch Two (M8, 15 meters) is a short but spicy section to reach the ice. The gear was difficult to find and place, requiring me to aid the pitch to get the peckers, tomahawks and knifeblades in place in the discontinuous seams. I red-pointed this pitch on the third day on the route. Pitch Three (WI4, 40 meters) is a nice piece of ice and a welcomed respite from the more demanding climbing below. Pitch Four (WI7, 35 meters) is some of the most unstable and surreal ice climbing I have ever done. Basically, it involves climbing bizarre giant ice-blob formations interspersed with bare, compact granite and patches of parched two-inch-thick plates of ice. Pitch Five (WI5, 20 meters) is a strange traversing pitch of completely unprotectable shell-ice covering a thin layer of hoar-snow over smooth, fissure-less brown granite. There is only one piece of gear on this pitch, half way across, and it is a #1 knifeblade in a seam. Pitch Six (M9, 40 meters) is the money pitch. Words cannot describe the perfection of the traditional mixed climbing involved. Suffice to say, it’s the best pitch of my life and the gear is perfect in the corner. The transition to the ice is terrifying, but not too dangerous. Pitch Seven (WI6, 40 meters) is the icing on the cake.

Anna Pfaff following the first pitch.

Anna Pfaff following the first pitch.

Anna Pfaff on the second pitch.

Anna Pfaff on the second pitch.

Anna Pfaff at the fourth belay.

Anna Pfaff at the fourth belay.

At the fifth belay. Photo courtesy of Anna Pfaff

At the fifth belay. Photo courtesy of Anna Pfaff

Beginning the crux sixth pitch. Photo courtesy of Anna Pfaff

Beginning the crux sixth pitch. Photo courtesy of Anna Pfaff

On-sighting the M9 sixth pitch. Photo courtesy of Anna Pfaff

On-sighting the M9 sixth pitch. Photo courtesy of Anna Pfaff

Beginning the final pitch, the seventh. Photo courtesy of Anna Pfaff

Beginning the final pitch, the seventh. Photo courtesy of Anna Pfaff

Taking it to the top, pitch 7. Photo courtesy of Anna Pfaff

Taking it to the top, pitch 7. Photo courtesy of Anna Pfaff

Newfoundland is famous for its strict traditional ethic. There are NO BOLTS anywhere in Gros Morne National Park. As Joe says, “If people want bolted mixed climbing, they are going to have to go somewhere else. I like to think of Newfoundland as Scotland . . . only a lot bigger with a lot more ice.” Basically, it’s widely accepted that bolts are completely incongruous in Newfoundland and there is essentially a “zero tolerance” for them among the locals. Newfoundland is an exceptionally adventurous and exciting climbing venue, like none other I have ever experienced, in a remote and savagely inhospitable place. And, we would like it to stay that way.

Looking up at the direct line, this week's new project.

Looking up at the direct line, this week’s new project.

The Silhouette Buttress of The Black Wall, Mt. Evans, CO

The view eastward from the parking lot of the Bierstadt Trailhead on the Guanella Pass Rd., South of Georgetown, CO with the approach to the Black Wall demarcated.

This is the view eastward from the parking lot of the Guanella Pass (Bierstadt Mtn.) trailhead 10.7 miles up the Guanella Pass Rd., south of Georgetown, CO, with the approach to the Black Wall demarcated.

The winter approach to The Black Wall of Mt. Evans involves driving to Georgetown on I-70, passing through town following signs indicating the way to Guanella Pass. Drive up the Guanella Pass Rd. 10.7 miles to the Guanella Pass (Bierstadt Mtn.) trailhead parking lot. The view to the east will resemble the above photo, overlooking the largest willow bog in Colorado (sorry Gwen, they’re willows not alders – oops).

Right to left: Silhouette (M9 Trad, WI6+), Shooting Star (M9 Trad, WI7), The Ghost (M10 Trad, WI6).

Right to left: Silhouette (M9 Trad, WI6+, Mayo-Collett, 10/29/13), Shooting Star (M9 Trad, WI7, Mayo-Collett, 10/02/14), The Ghost (M10 Trad, WI6, Mayo-Collett, 10/11/14).

Follow the red line of the approach photo, bushwhack a meandering course though the bog as shown (we’ve tried all of the options, this one’s best). After circumambulating the north side of the pond, break left toward a clearing on a small knoll with the small firs closest to the bog and join a trail. Follow the trail around the south side of a slight rib, switchback through a coniferous forest and climb steeply up switchbacks north of the rock outcrops. Avoid the temptation to go south of the outcrops. If the trail is lost, it’s easier to stay north, as a general rule of thumb. Once above the outcrops, slog up the gentle incline of the grassy alpine tundra (or post-hole) staying farther north than one might expect. Avoid the temptation to go south into the gulch. Set an arcing tack staying on the north side of the gulch all the way till the gulch peters out. Then, continue  the same gentle arc toward the horizon, walking on the alpine bog (which is the miraculous alpine water source of the ice for these routes) now just south of the low area of the swale (above the gulch) between Gray Wolf Mountain to the north and Mt. Spalding to the south to arrive precisely at the top of The Black Wall. Creep carefully to the lip and look across the chasm that separates The Black Wall proper from The Silhouette Buttress and admire a view which will closely resemble the photo above. The approach will take between two and three hours.

Getting to the bases of the routes of The Silhouette Buttress may be done by rappelling one of several bolted rappel lines down The Black Wall, which begin directly below the vantage point from which the route topo photo (above) was taken. Or, to avoid the easy approach pitches, or when the lower pitches are unformed, or when The Black Wall is rimmed with a giant cornice, one may rappel down the low-angle ice ramp on the south side of The Silhouette Buttress (the exit pitch of the route Monochrome). There is a large boulder to sling at the top and there is a two piton rappel anchor 40 meters below in the base of the wall. After a second rappel, some shenanigans are required to position oneself for the solid rock anchor and protected belay at the base of Shooting Star. The view from the belay resembles Ben’s photo of me on the first ascent of Shooting Star two images below. Getting established at the belays of the other two routes is more straightforward. In all three cases, the belays are off to the sides of the routes and sheltered.

Looking up the crux pitch of Silhouette.

Looking up the crux pitch of Silhouette.

Silhouette (M9 trad, WI6+):

Ben Collett and I did Silhouette last fall. Here’s the gear beta for the crux pitch:

Gear beta in order for the money second pitch of Silhouette, M9, WI6+R, 100’:

#6 bugaboo knife blade in the horizontal seam left of the initial overhang – ground control
#0.4 BD Camalot in the horizontal crack up and left to protect the initial crux
#1 BD Camalot in the tool torque lie back hand crack
#0.5 BD Camalot as the crack thins to finger size
10 cm ice screw in the first ice smear below the first icicle
#4 Camalot in a fist sized pod on the right end of the horizontal thin crack one must utilize to traverse left toward the arete
#00 Metolius TCU in the thin horizontal crack
13 cm ice screw at the top of the first icicle below the overhanging crux dry tooling crack
#2 Camalot in the base of the crack below the rotten chockstone
#6 Wild Country Rock left of the chockstone in a shallow crack at the base of the leftward rising ramp
#3 BD Camalot in a shattered wide opening in the crack beside the base of the large flake the comprises the right side of upper portion of the crack
#0.75 Camalot in the off fingers crack just above the wide opening for the #3
Punch it from here torque your tools and stay calm to eventually launch out onto the icicle and run it out for about 30’.
13 cm ice screw once safely above the fracture line of the icicle. You’ve just sent the crux of one of the coolest traditional mixed pitches anywhere.
Belay: #2 bugaboo (in situ), one 13 cm ice screw and one 10 cm ice screw

Silhouette is one of the best traditional mixed climbs I’ve ever done. It’s only been repeated once by Stanislav Vrba and Josh Wharton. Go do it!

This is a Ben Collett photo of me exiting the mixed crux on the first ascent of Shooting Star.

Ben Collett photo of me exiting the mixed crux on the first ascent of Shooting Star.

Dan Gambino photo of me exiting the mixed crux of Shooting Star.

Dan Gambino photo of me exiting the mixed crux of Shooting Star.

Shooting Star (M9 trad, WI7):

Shooting Star begins with a bouldery mixed start on crumbly granite, a fist jam, and then secure hooks to get established under the roof. A bomber hand-sized cam can be placed in the roof before committing to the crux, a fall would be big but likely safe. At the end of the crux a bomber finger-sized cam may be placed. Above, on the first ascent, the ice was very thin. The entire chimney was coated in verglas which was far too thin for screws yet rendered the cracks useless for protection. In the upper 20 meters, I placed two downward driven angle pitons behind a verglas covered flake at one point and two stubby screws in partially frozen moss at another. Likely, subsequent ascents will find either better rock protection without the verglas, or better ice protection with more ice. The second pitch involves awkward dry-tooling to exit the chimney to the left and then follows a hand-crack to easier terrain to the top of the cliff.

Fredrik Marmsater photo of me on the crux of The Ghost.

Fredrik Marmsater photo of me on the crux of The Ghost.

The Ghost (M10 trad, WI6):

There is an angle piton in the base of the wall, perhaps about 10 meters below the two piton rappel anchor, which, along with an ice screw, served as our belay for The Ghost. The belay is well uphill from the would-be fall line if the icicle collapses. From the belay, start down the ice ramp a few moves, climb up the thin smear of ice to a bong. Clip the bong with a double runner and step right carefully into a groove below an overhang. There is a suitcase-sized block wedged into a wide horizontal to the right, either sling this or place a hand-sized cam between it and the roof. Awkward moves over the overhang require commitment. A stance is found stemming back blindly to the block. A good finger-sized cam may be placed here. Clip the upward driven knifeblade (not sure how good this is, but the cam is good), tenuously undercling-torque your pick in the horizontal seam and commit to a long reach to a flake. Either place a finger-sized cam here or continue right on hooks in a crack to reach the corner beside the icicle and clip a bomber #3 pecker piton. Stem to the ice and chimney up to beneath the roof. Place a micro-cam in a horizontal and a medium sized cam and/or nuts in a crack behind the icicle. Summon up some courage, and round the icicle reach above the ceiling, clip an angle piton and commit to the off-fingers crack above the roof. There are some hooks in constrictions at the start, but mainly the crack requires torquing the head of the tool in the crack. There are also a couple of thin hooks beside the crack. I locked off on these hooks to get my feet over the lip and continued upward with tenuous rakes with crampons to maintain lateral pressure on the head torques in the crack. Above the crux, the remainder of the pitch is thin ice smears and quartz-riddled horizontal cracks with solid but sparse rock protection (medium-sized units and nuts).

The Ghost may have icicles pouring out of the crack, as it did on my subsequent ascents. This makes the route less technically demanding, but also makes it considerably more runout. Either way, the route is a rare and precious traditional mixed test piece.

If you enjoy this type of climbing, you must go check out The Silhouette Buttress of The Black Wall of Mt. Evans. Silhouette and Shooting Star were done ground-up on-sight. The Ghost was cleaned on rappel (we trundled tons of loose blocks from the top and the lower sections of the route) and the gear was pre-figured. But, the entire buttress has no protections bolts. Please, let’s keep it that way!

The Flying Circus, Kandersteg, Switzerland – M10 Trad On-sight

2014-03-08 08.51.40

The Flying Circus, M10 Trad, Kandersteg, Switzerland. Visible is the second half of the first pitch and the second pitch in its entirety.

Hanging daggers of ice adorned the overhanging crack that arced upward out of the cave. A few pitons with cord hanging from them were visible between some of the icicles on the first pitch, the rock looked protectable on the second pitch, the ice looked surreal, wild, dreamy. I immediately began convincing Ben that we should do this line, The Flying Circus, rather than climb one of the amazing pure ice climbs or the bolted mixed line Mach 3, all of which are stunning lines reminiscent of the Stanley Headwall in British Columbia, Canada. After charging up the 1000 meter vertical gain approach hike in an hour and half, Ben Collett and I had arrived, finally, at the famed ice and mixed climbing locale of my dreams: Kandersteg, Switzerland.

I had wanted to climb in Kandersteg for as long as I had known of it. The giant limestone walls, huge ice columns and curtains, and its traditional mixed test pieces had put Kandersteg high on my list of places to visit ever since I had first heard of Robert Jasper’s mega-classic traditional mixed climb, The Flying Circus. The Flying Circus is the stuff mixed climbers’ dreams are made of: steep cracks, adequate rock gear, and wild difficult committing icicles. This is why I came, this is why I climb.

The view of the route from the base: wild organ pipe icicles with tenuous attachments.

The view of the route from the base: wild organ pipe icicles with tenuous attachments.

Ben agreed, I racked up, and started up the first pitch, a series of candled icicles separated by cracks with fixed pitons before and after the first icicle, and a successive series of icicles that are spawned magically from the overhanging stepped crack system. There was an eerie silence and calm as I clipped a couple of equalized rusty fixed pins below the first icicle, Ben asked nervously, “How does it look?”

“Fucking great!” was my response. I lied. It looked hard and scary; but, a positive frame of mind is critical to success, I find.

I gently tapped my way around the icicle with my tools as high on the ice as possible. This type of ice climbing is scary. One is completely below the potential fracture line of the icicle the entire time one is climbing on them, every tap of the icicle is deliberate with the full cognizance that the next tap could send the icicle and you along with it for the proverbial “ride”. And, each move out the icicle brings one farther away from one’s gear. It is especially scary when the gear is rusty pitons in shattered limestone. The results of a fall are uncertain and a collapsing icicle is anything but improbable.

I found myself on the prow of the icicle looking upward at the next set of rusty knife blade pitons a couple of moves above and looking downward and inward at my gear realizing that if I fell I would swing inward and slam the rock wall at the base of the route if the pins held, I would have decked if they failed. Fortunately, I found a #2 Wild Country Rock placement in a pod that was a horizontal lateral stein pull placement. I tapped the nut in with my pick, tested it gently, and clipped the rope through the quick draw. I paused and convinced myself in my mind that I was safe.

Ben asked with trepidation, “How does it look? We can always go around the corner and do Mach 3.” I knew The Flying Circus was not Ben’s cup of tea, he was generously doing me a favor by agreeing to climb it; yet, he was scared and so was I.

“I don’t have much commentary to add.” I responded.

I generally don’t talk when I am climbing something serious and hard. It is as if rationalizations, judgments, words of any kind seem inappropriate and useless to me. It is a time for climbing, doing, being. Talking seems like a superfluous distraction, an invitation of bad luck. Maybe I am superstitious.

I committed to the dry tooling moves above, hooking two good verglas covered shelves and up two good hooks in a crack to reach the next set of rusty knife blade pitons that were linked and partially equalized with cord. I clipped a draw to the tat and continued upward to tag the next icicle and work out around it, wrapping my legs around the dagger and gently tapping my tools to make tenuous hooks in the delicate ice. The root of this icicle poured from a short corner and seemed adhered well enough to take a short screw. I climbed past this icicle to the next and perched locked off on my right tool and reached back left to place a screw and clip the rope. I finally felt safe. It was a good screw in the healthy root of the ice where it was well-bonded.

Into the good ice on the second icicle of the first pitch. Psyched!

Into the good ice on the second icicle of the first pitch. Psyched!

I rounded the third and final icicle and finished up the vertical corner to a comfortable belay stance in the corner which looks outward at the overhanging crack system of the crux pitch and belayed Ben up. Ben struggled with the technical and strenuous ice and mixed terrain. He clipped in to the second set of pitons upon reaching them to rest and one of the three knife blades simply fell out into his lap.

My friends Marianne van der Steen and Dennis Van Hoek from the Netherlands showed up in the cave as Ben was following the pitch. Dennis informed me, when I told him that the first pitch was scary and run out, that there is typically much more ice on this pitch, the icicles usually touch down. In such a case, the first pitch would be an entirely different experience, I think.

Looking back toward the belay on the second pitch of The Flying Circus: mostly good gear interspersed with moments of terror.

Looking back toward the belay on the second pitch of The Flying Circus: mostly good gear interspersed with moments of terror.

The second pitch of The Flying Circus. Most of the gear is good yet some of the fixed gear is suspect. Relatively safe and extremely exciting!

The second pitch of The Flying Circus. Most of the gear is good yet some of the fixed gear is suspect. Relatively safe and extremely exciting!

The second pitch involved generally good hooks in the crack and usable hooks in the small delicate icicles, some chimney work in a bomb bay, a rather large move from an inverted stein pull and an exciting traverse of a large icicle with a small attachment point. The temperature was right at the freezing level. Upon reaching the icicle it was just starting to drip where it spewed from the crack. I gently pressed my back against it upon reaching it, chimney-ing as high as I could dry tooling in case it collapsed from my weight before committing to the icicle and tenderly tapping my tools into it as high as possible. Finally, I stepped out onto it, placing my crampons rather than kicking them in, holding my breath as I could feel the repercussions in my feet of every tap of the icicle that I made with my tools.

The icicle did not collapse, and I traversed to the next icicle with relief after getting a solid cam, placed a screw and mantled up tenuously onto a ledge barely maintaining balance as I stood up against one final rock bulge. I traversed right on rotten rock to the bolted anchor, clipped in, screamed in victory, and thanked my lucky stars to have perfect and fleeting conditions in a far flung part of the world to fulfill a dream: on-sighting the mega-classic traditional mixed climbing route, The Flying Circus.

I placed the following protection on the second pitch: #00, #0, #1, #2 Metolius TCUs, a #.4, #.5, #.75, and #1 Camalots, two stubby screws, and a #4 Wild Country Rock. I would recommend bringing a #2 and a #3 Camalot in addition for comfort, however I managed without.

New Sport Mixed Routes, East Vail, CO

Yellow: Superfortress (M13), Blue: The Lightning (M13+), Red: Stratofortress (M13+),  Red + Blue: The Mustang (M14-)

Yellow: Superfortress (M13), Blue: The Lightning (M13+), Red: Stratofortress (M13+),
Red + Blue: The Mustang (M14-)

A brighter version of the amphitheater without the lines.

A brighter version of the amphitheater without the lines.

On Valentine’s Day, 2014, I finally completed my sport mixed magnum opus in The Fang Amphitheater in East Vail: The Mustang (M14-), which is essentially a combination of Stratofortress (M13+) and the roof section of The Lightning (M13+) to create a 60 meter monster sport mixed pitch including a 30 meter section of horizontal roof which traverses the full span from Reptile to Amphibian.

Basically, I have done four new routes/link-ups this year in East Vail. In November, training for the competition in Bozeman, I climbed Superfortress (M13) which I had started working on last year. This line climbs the first pitch of Amphibian (p1 M8), continues up Red Beard (M12) past a six foot dead point to the lip of the roof and turns left along the lip of the roof crossing The Flying Fortress (M13), Red Bull and Vodka (M11) and King Cobra (M11-) and finishes up The Fang. The crux move involves a powerful full-extension release downward onto a figure-4. Also, there is a large iron cross move between Red Bull and Vodka and King Cobra from a good hold to a single-tooth hook in a crack. The route is 40 meters of climbing. As such, an 80 meter rope is required to lower off unless one pulls the rope through and lowers the 35 meters straight down from the top of The Fang, in which case a 70 meter rope is required.

Red Beard dry tool crux. Photo courtesy Caroline Treadway

Red Beard dry tool crux. Photo courtesy Caroline Treadway

Red Beard dry tool crux. Photo courtesy of Caroline Treadway

Red Beard dry tool crux. Photo courtesy of Caroline Treadway

Red Beard dry tool crux. Photo courtesy of Caroline Treadway

Red Beard dry tool crux. Photo courtesy of Caroline Treadway

Crux of The Flying Fortress looking across the left side of the roof that the new routes traverse.

Crux of The Flying Fortress looking across the left side of the roof that the new routes traverse. Photo courtesy of Caroline Treadway.

Superfortress (M13-) starts up Amphibian (p1 M8), into Red Beard (M12), and traverses left along the roof to The Fang.

Superfortress (M13) starts up Amphibian (p1 M8), into Red Beard (M12), and traverses left along the roof to The Fang. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Fixmer.

Next, after sending all three competition routes in Bozeman and taking third on time at the North American Ice Climbing Championships behind my friends Janez Svoljsak and Will Gadd, I was training for the competition at the Ouray Ice Climbing Festival. I set and climbed Stratofortress (M13) in December, 2013. This line climbs The Seventh Tentacle to the top of the ice at the beginning of the Reptile, starts out the roof on Reptile and continues along the roof on new terrain where Reptile heads upward. Fifteen meters of new terrain are protected by four new bolts and is covered with eight large moves, two of which are substantial reaches between small hooks, to traverse behind The Fang, join King Cobra (M11) and join The Fang to the top. This line is about 45 meters of climbing, 35 meters to lower (i.e., 80 meter rope is required to lower unless one pulls the rope through in which case a 70 meter rope is necessary).

Beginning The Mustang (M14-) departure procedure - here I'm at the end of the traverse of Reptile leading toward the new terrain along the roof behind The Fang. Photo courtesy of SkySightRC

Beginning The Mustang (M14-): departure procedure – at the end of the traverse of Reptile continue right on new terrain along the roof behind The Fang, head up The Fang at King Cobra and it’s Startofortress (M13+), keep heading along the roof to Amphibian and it’s The Mustang (M14-). Photo courtesy of SkySightRC

Under the roof on The Mustang (M14-) on new terrain.

Under the roof on The Mustang (M14-) on new terrain. Photo courtesy of Rob Cotter.

The Mustang (M14-) the first big move between small natural hooks.

The Mustang (M14-) the first big move between small natural hooks. Photo courtesy of Sarah Strattan.

Next, after sending the route and taking third on time in the Ouray Ice Festival Competition in early January, 2014 behind my friends Jeff Mercier and Mauro Dorigatti, I had run out of competitions to train for, but I wanted to finish the king link this season, so I climbed The Lightning (M13+). This line starts up King Cobra (M11-), through its crux and then heads right across Red Bull and Vodka (M11), The Flying Fortress (M13), Red Beard (M12) and continues rightward to Amphibian (M9) and the thin ice smears above to the anchor above The Flying Fortress. This line, though bearing a shorter roof than Stratofortress, has a more powerful crux, the crux of Superfortress in reverse, so rather than a powerful full-extension release downward onto a figure-4, it involves a full-extension swinging dead point from a figure-9 to a single-tooth hook. This line is also 45 meters of climbing, see above for lowering beta.

Sending The Lightning (M13+) which starts up King Cobra (M11-) and turns right at the lip of the roof and traverses to Amphibian.

Sending The Lightning (M13+) which starts up King Cobra (M11-) and turns right at the lip of the roof and traverses to Amphibian. Photo courtesy of David Roetzel.

The Mustang (M14-), as indicated above, is the link-up of the link-ups Stratofortress and The Lightning – start up The Seventh Tentacle, start out Reptile, and keep on trucking all the way across the 30 meter roof to Amphibian, finish up the unprotected smears of ice above and step back left to the anchor atop The Flying Fortress. The pitch is 60 meters in length. Unless one is using a 100 meter rope, one must pull the rope through and then be lowered the 35 meters to the deck.

Sending The Mustang (M14-) on Valentine's Day.

Sending The Mustang (M14-) on Valentine’s Day. Photo courtesy of David Roetzel.

It has been a good season for me. I feel as though we have maximized the training potential in East Vail, making harder routes, making it less likely that we will melt off our tools when the routes are traditional and alpine, and maximize the utility and enjoyability of an area which is ideally suited to the sport mixed training game. Now it is nearly time to apply the fitness garnered clipping bolts in the mountains of the Alps.

Thanks to Kelli Rayburn, David Roetzel, Eric Malmgren, Ben Collett, Ryan Vachon, Hayden Kennedy, Lindsay Fixmer and Rob Cotter for helping me work on these routes! I couldn’t have done it without you!

New Routes in Vail and Ice Climbing Rant

newroutetopo

New Routes in Vail this Season: Yellow: Superfortress (M13), Red: Stratofortress (M13), Blue: The Lightning (M13)

I have completed three new routes/link-ups in Vail this season, shown above, posted here together to help alleviate confusion that some friends have noted. All are tentatively rated M13, awaiting consensus which will hopefully be coming soon.

Ice climbing rant:

I hear people say: “Ice climbing is easy!” often. Ice climbing is not easy. To think otherwise is preposterous. It would be the same as saying: “Rock climbing is easy!” after climbing Standard Route on Whitehorse or Chapel Pond Slab or the First Flatiron and being unchallenged. I have noticed without exception that people that say ice climbing is easy are not good ice climbers. I can’t remember a truly excellent ice climber ever saying ice climbing is easy. As Barry Blanchard once wrote, hard ice climbing is not easy, that is why so few people do it.

As with rock climbing and virtually every other sport, one can make it easy and one can make it hard. Hard ice climbing takes years of dedicated apprenticeship to truly master; and, even the best ice climbers will forever treat ice climbing with the respect it deserves: it’s dangerous, it’s cold, it’s capricious, it’s committing.

I have soloed nearly every hard ice climb in the Northeastern US, I have soloed French Reality and Polar Circus with the Pencil and Nemesis and Hydrophobia and others in the Canadian Rockies. It took me decades of obsessive devotion to the discipline and well more than five hundred days of ice climbing to feel prepared to solo such climbs. Do I think ice climbing is easy? No.

I have noticed a trend in recent years among the sport mixed climbing scene of climbing a sport mixed climb to the last bolt, taking, lowering off, and calling it sent. This is ridiculous. It is called mixed climbing because it is mixed: it involves dry-tooling and ice climbing. Of course, there are plenty of dry routes set explicitly for training dry-tooling; but, a mixed climb is about the ice as well as the rock. Sometimes, the transition from the rock to the ice is the red point crux of the route, as is the case with Red Beard and The Flying Fortress in Vail.

The point is, with this trend to disregard the ice aspect of mixed climbing, the participants are failing to actualize the full capacity of the sport mixed climbing game to serve as a training mechanism for traditional mixed and ultimately alpine climbing. When one is traditional mixed climbing or alpine climbing, generally, the rock is the safest place to be. Typically, when one is traditional mixed climbing one is climbing rock which is featured with cracks which provide opportunities for protection, whereas when one is on ice, particularly during the transitions from rock to ice which often involve thin verglas or free-hanging icicles, there is often a dearth of protection. Thereby, these transitional sections are perhaps the most important areas of sport mixed climbing at which to become proficient if one is to utilize the game as a useful training device for traditional mixed and alpine climbing.

Many sport mixed climbers are participating in the game exclusively as training for competitions. As such, the training values are completely different. But, if one desires to use sport mixed climbing as training for traditional mixed and alpine climbing, it is important not to dismiss the transition to the ice and the sometimes exciting and thin ice culminations of the routes but rather focus on it.

Regardless, sport mixed, traditional mixed, alpine, and all types of climbing are ideally fun. And, it is generally all the more fun the more competently and safely one can participate in it.