Published in Adventure Magazine New Zealand, April/May 2016
by Derek Cheng
Just before the reality of a body-breaking fall seizes you, there is a split-second when you become exceptionally lucid.
In that brief moment, Anna Smith, unraveling at the top of a chimney on a 170m-tall wall of granite in the Canadian Bugaboos, thought to herself: Should I drop straight down and ricochet through the chimney to the ledge, or take my chances and push out?
She had been battling up the chimney, a feature so wide that she could not protect it well against a fall. When she reached the top, she took a moment to celebrate and relax, forgetting the body tension that was keeping her wedged in the chimney.
Suddenly, everything came unstuck. She was about to take a massive fall. A potentially lethal one.
The rock quality on Crescent Spire is perhaps the best and most bullet-hard in the Bugaboos, one of the grandest alpine playgrounds in the world. The crag is less than an hour’s hike from Applebee campsite, making the climbs among the most accessible and popular in the area.
It was Summer 2013, and Anna, a diminutive blond with a penchant for the adventurous and the improbable, had been climbing harder and stronger than ever. She and a friend, Sara*, had their sights on Paddle Flake, an aesthetic 5.10 climb that follows a crack system to the top of Crescent Spire.
They climbed the first two pitches to a ledge below a chimney – the left side of the giant paddle-shaped feature that gives the climb its name.
“I was feeling great,” recalls Anna. “Before committing to the squeeze chimney, I confidently glanced back at my belayer. ‘I can’t protect this’, I said, looking at the chimney above me, ‘but I’m okay, if you’re okay.’ She responded affirmatively, and I set off.”
Climbing squeeze chimneys is one of the least gratifying and most undignified forms of what is usually a graceful, powerful sport. You cram your body into the chimney, and proceed to worm your way up. Progress demands painful sacrifice, as your body parts scrape against the rocky insides of the chimney.
Reward is disproportionate to the amount of exertion; you fight for all you’re worth for several minutes, only to find that you have gained a mere millimetre in height. Any loss of body tension can see you slip and fall out of the chimney. It’s physically exhausting, mentally taxing, and has an unconventional, masochistic appeal.
Anna placed her largest cam – special climbing equipment designed to catch a fall – just above the belaying ledge, pushed herself into the chimney, and proceeded to scum her body upwards.
“I had no more cam placements for the remainder of the pitch. It seemed to take hours and require all the tenacity I had to move up. Move an inch, hyperventilate for 5 minutes, move another inch.”
Distance between herself and her sole cam grew. Four metres. Eight. Twelve.
“Eventually, I reached the top of the pitch and, containing my inner celebration, I placed both hands on the rounded upper edge of the chimney. My relief was palpable, and maybe too great as I relaxed in the final moments, thinking it was over.
“With that momentary relaxation, my body tension released from the rock and I realised, with horror, what was happening.”
As gravity seized her, she had a split-second to react. She pushed out from the wall. A visceral howl of dread burst from her lungs and exploded into the air – heard from Applebee campsite – shattering the serenity of the wilderness.
She fell 15m, smashing the left side of her torso into the ledge, before bouncing and falling a further 10 metres below the belay ledge. She says she can recall most of the incident with perfect clarity, except the moment she impacted the ledge.
“There’s a small 10 second blank in my memory – maybe it’s my subconscious telling me that I can’t handle it.”
Sara immediately went into shock, so when Anna finally regained control of her senses, she realised she was bleeding from head to toe, while an immense, unutterable pain stabbed at her from her shattered hip and pelvis.
“I can’t tell you what it felt like because I don’t have anything to compare it to. Constant, overwhelming, exacerbated by movement, with hard bursts of sharp pain.”
She was suffering too greatly to lower herself, so she built a safety point to anchor in to, removing her weight from the rope so Sara could rejig the belay and then lower her to an abseil station. Once there, she anchored herself in and waited for Sara to abseil down to her. They then repeated the process to lower Anna to the ground.
“There is nothing more painful that sitting in a harness on a vertical wall with a broken pelvis. Unless it’s being lowered in the same situation.”
A nearby climber responded to the scream and raced off to Kain Hut – over an hour’s hike away – to radio for a helicopter rescue. Another climbing party in the vicinity met Anna at the base of the climb, before helping her hobble to a flat section of the glacier below.
“Once the helicopter arrived, I finally let my survival pass from my responsibility to someone else’s. I was loaded into the chopper, and I lapsed into semi-consciousness.”
Anna was taken to the hospital in the city of Invermere, and eventually transferred to Cranbrook.
“As my stretcher was pulled from the helicopter, a medic leaned over and whispered: ‘The pain control they give you will be based on the pain they think you’re in. Now is a good time to start crying.’
“Like flipping a switch, the last ounce of control disappeared, and I cried. I cried until I reached Cranbrook and was sedated for my first surgery.”
Her left iliac crest suffered multiple fractures, but she was lucky enough not to break the cradle of her pelvis, or the ball joint of her hip. When she awoke in her morphine-induced state, her mother was seated by her bed, arms crossed.
“She made eye contact, leaned in close and whispered, ‘You are my stupidest child’. With my pelvis still in tatters, it hurt to laugh, but I couldn’t contain myself.”
She was in the hospital for eight days, until her mother, also a doctor, decided she was well enough to bring home.
“Four days later, I had yet to take my first shit, and I was getting concerned, not to mention uncomfortable. When that moment finally arrived, I was overjoyed like never before about bowel movements.”
She passed idle time over the three months of rehab with road-cycling and occasional top-rope climbing. “And I drank a lot of cider. I also knit all my Christmas presents and learnt to murder simple songs on my banjo.
“I’d love to say that my return to doing the things I loved was glorious and easy and enjoyable. But it absolutely wasn’t. It took a lot of energy to go through the rehab process well and responsibly.”
Now Anna is back on the North American dirtbag circuit, her unique, rollocking laughter obliterating the peace of campsites from Red Rocks in Nevada, to Camp 4 in Yosemite, to Joshua Tree and beyond. When I met her last year in Yosemite, California, she was as vivacious and ambitious as ever. She immediately suggested climbing Astroman, a notoriously difficult and bold route. In Zion, Utah, we jumped straight on Moonlight Buttress, a sublime climb far beyond our abilities that follows a vertical crack system for several pitches of hard 5.12 climbing.
She has even ventured back to the Bugaboos, her local alpine crag, many times since the fall, and even tried to exercise some demons by following her friend Mike up the very pitch that nearly took her life.
“Being a pretty logical, emotionally-detached person, I thought this wouldn’t be nearly as hard as it was. I stood in that chimney, scumming my feet in the slightly flared feature, hyperventilating from exertion and terror. At several points, feeling the nausea and complete breakdown rising, I would pause and drum my helmet against the wall in front of me, willing away the bile rising in my throat.
“When I arrived at the upper belay, I shook forcibly, from head to toe. Mike looked at me and said, ‘Are you crying?’. ‘Maybe,’ I mumbled.”
Last July, Anna and fellow Canadian Michele Kadatz used a grant from the Alpine Club of Canada to visit the remote wonderland of Baffin Island, a rugged place of big-wall granite spires up to 2000m tall. They successfully topped out the Scott Route (5.11) on Mt Asgard, and climbed the first all-female ascent of the South Buttress (5.10) on Mt Loki – ascents recognised by Canadian climbing magazine Gripped as some of the top Canadian sends of 2015.
Anna has taken a lot of lessons from that bone-crunching day in the Bugaboos. Arrogance and stubbornness lead her to that predicament, and she now climbs with less risk. She is also distinctly aware of her own fierce desire to live, something that kicks in when survival is at stake.
“I was unaware that I had the capacity to so singularly and viciously forge a path. There was no flexibility in my mind, simply an unflinching drive to do everything in my power to survive. There’s nothing I wouldn’t have done, or have had someone else do in order to achieve that.
“I would have bulldozed all of you, simply to achieve a selfish goal – to live. It’s a less than flattering self-discovery, but I guess something pretty primal kicks in in those moments.”
* Not her real name