Published in New Zealand Adventure Magazine, June/July 2017
Words and photos by Derek Cheng, above photo by Alex Ratson
There was an audible gasp, like a violent burst of air that had been imprisoned for an age. My feet were shackled, buried knee-deep in snow, but my body was floating downslope, as if my ankles were chained to an escalator to assured oblivion.
I didn’t flinch. The snow slab had broken away at a pedestrian rate, and I casually called out “avalanche” to my climbing partner Kenny, several metres below.
My feet. I wrestled them, yanked at them forcefully, but they were entombed. Only then did the horror suddenly grip me. The avalanche swiftly gained momentum, and it whirled me around to face downhill, and then shoved me savagely.
“AVALANCHE!” I yelled, urgently, frantically.
What began in slow motion now became a blur. I was suddenly on my belly, my knee scrapping against a rough, rocky surface, as I threw out my hands for something, anything. Where was Kenny? I couldn’t see him. I could only see a fog of shaky white.
And then, to my left, something dark. A rib of rock. I started swimming, dragging myself towards it as the avalanche pulled me down. With a couple of almighty heaves, I managed to grab something steady and haul myself up.
I sat on my knees, watching in a trance as the snow rumbled 200m down the slope. Kenny was above, clinging to a solitary island of rock at the top of the rib. Large, headstone-size slabs of snow surrounded us. Kenny joined me and picked up one of the slab remnants and wrote “RIP” on it. “Too soon,” I replied with a laugh.
A large crack had ripped across the entire width of the snow gully, about five metres above where I had been. It had swept me down about 30m before I wriggled free.
We were in the wrong drainage. We had wanted to climb the classic 180m-high Murchison Falls, a glorious flow of ice in the Icefields Parkway, Jasper National Park, in the Canadian Rockies. To beat the crowds, we were roadside before the dawn’s first light. So dark, in fact, that we started up the wrong wash.
After an hour of steep hiking through forest, with no sign of a boot track, it was obvious we were lost. But we could see a couple of beautiful, frozen waterfalls above us, so decided to keep moving. As we came out of the tree line, the snow base was clearly avalanche-prone, even to novices like us. We continued up, however, deluded by optimism bias (“she’ll be right!”), and moved higher by jumping from rock rib to rock rib.
The falls were only 50m ahead of us as I left the last rock rib, and ventured gingerly into white terrain. One cautious step. Another. And then, “PUH!” With a sharp exhale, the slope came to life, sliding downhill and trawling me down with it.
After it subsided, we took more than a few moments to reset. Eventually, not wanting to waste the day, we scurried over to a more benign falls, climbed it, and then rushed back to the road.
On the descent, we stuck to the drainage rather than the trees, and on more than one slope, a cautious step triggered that unmistakeable gasp of a snow slab about to unleash. Each time I froze, the slab didn’t slide, and I gingerly retraced my steps.
We eventually traversed back into the trees. By the time we reached the road and pulled out the guidebook, we were mentally fried. Cosmic Messenger, WI5 (grade water ice 5), the guidebook revealed, is what had drawn us up. Better as an early season climb, the book’s description continued, due to the avalanche-prone approach.
Winter in the Canadian Rockies can be a sublime playground for ice climbers, backcountry skiers, and adventurers of all sorts. This past winter was my second in the Rockies, and it began at -25C. Bitterly cold, soul-numbing temperatures.
And the ice showed it. Weeks of a deep chill causes the ice to freeze in layers that can dinner-plate and peel off in large, bone-crushing chunks when disturbed by a sharp ice tool. It’s a precarious position to be in, to launch your tool at the ice and have it reply with a hollow thunk, along with a large crack in the surface. You could weight your tool and hope for the best but, again, this is misguided optimism. You could swing elsewhere, if you can. But if you can’t, you may as well dislodge the loose block, and then start your search for a solid placement all over again.
Except that your body is directly under the block. So you draw back your tool, again, and swing, cry out ‘ice!’ to warn your belayer, and brace for impact. The mega-tonne ice block might miss you completely. It might brush your shoulder, punch you in the kidneys, or careen into your thigh in an attempt to disturb your balance. If it bruises you, you probably won’t feel it until tomorrow, such is the level of adrenalin pumping through your being.
Within a week, I had bruises on my shoulders, back and legs, impacted by large ice chunks, and pools of red on my face and neck where the blood from icy blowback had dried.
On The Real Big Drip (M8, WI6+), an overhanging four-pitch rock and ice line in the Ghost River Wilderness Area, my partner Quentin tunnelled through a section of rotting ice to a stance behind a massive ice curtain. Knowing I had to traverse into the curtain to start the next pitch, he hacked away the rotten ice to make it safer. As I took cover, giant chandeliers of ice – the size of washing machines – came hurtling down onto the delicate platform I was cowering on, obliterating on impact into countless shards, and quaking the earth’s core as if some monstrous creature was stirring just beneath its surface.
Earlier that day, on the climb’s first pitch, Quentin had been under a hanging pillar of ice when the bottom fell off, landing squarely on his head and carving off a souvenir from his helmet in the process. It was not Quentin’s first close shave of the season. The previous week, he had been a unique witness to a massive avalanche that launched over the top tiers of the Rockies’ most famous climb, Polar Circus (WI5).
He was halfway up a vertical ice curtain when a deafening sound erupted from above him. He buried his tools into the ice, gritted his teeth, and steadied himself. Fifteen seconds later, a wild storm of snow galloped down the ice curtain. The heart of it was to his left, but the periphery caught him, and filled his bones with terror.
“The snow first filled my hood and pulled my collar back, then it filled my jacket and went into my pants. It got progressively heavier and harder, and was pulling me back off the ice. I held on and held on and held on, terrified that a chunk too heavy for me to brace for would hit. It never did, and eventually the snow stopped.”
He was four metres above his last ice screw. When it subsided, he twisted in another screw, and then bailed as fast as he and his partner could, enduring a second, smaller avalanche as they did so.
The avalanche danger in the Rockies can sink many plans, but even when conditions are good, there is no hiding from the constant threat of human error. One rare, sunny day, a friend and I ventured off to Borgeau Left (WI5), an aesthetic four-pitch ice line. I was leading the final pitch, ignoring the well-trodden path and instead directly tackling a steep pillar. It seemed to me a prettier line, and more blue than grey, meaning it may offer less-brittle ice.
But halfway up the pillar, with my tools buried in what can only be described as layers of eggshell, I let my guard down. Instead of digging around for better tool placements, I simply pulled up. I could almost hear a voice in my head say, “She’ll be right.”
As I pulled one tool from the ice to swing again, my other tool promptly blew out of its placement. No tools in the ice. It’s very hard to stay on a near-vertical pillar with only crampons attached. I flew eight metres into the abyss. The rope eventually came tight, and stretched, lowering me like a delicate petal. The route was so steep that I didn’t hit anything on my way down. I laughed. My belayer laughed. We roared into the blue sky, invincible and free.
Afterwards I posted about my fall on a Facebook Rockies ice climbing page, and a flood of comments echoed what experience had yet to teach me. I was lucky. Bloody lucky. It’s pretty common for a fall on ice to end badly. More than half of the falls in the Rockies this winter resulted in broken bones. With a giant crampon with spikes on your feet, catching anything on the way down usually ends in injury.
I didn’t have the heart to add that, a year earlier, I had taken a deliberate whipper on ice, just to see what all the fuss was about. It seems that my experiment could have been a grand contender for a Darwin Award, and the only reason why I didn’t end up hobbling out of the canyon – or worse – was blind luck.
So why subject ourselves to avalanche slopes and ice fall and temperatures that blacken the skin under your toe nails? Several studies have shown correlation between risk and sensation – the higher the risk, the greater the sensation. Climbing is inherently risky, and climbers know this. Risk doesn’t always deter. Sometimes, it enhances.
In other words, there is a line close to the edge of acceptable risk, and climbers judge how close they come to it each time they venture into the high and the wild. With ice climbing, objective hazards are often more prevalent, making that edge even more appealing for some, but downright terrifying for others.
There was one place in the Rockies where I had yet to tread. The Stanley Headwall, home of the area’s hardest ice and mixed routes. The frosty grip of winter was loosening, and time was short. I made plans to attempt French Reality, a classic four-pitch climb that starts on steep rock and finishes up a gorgeous prow of ice.
But there was substantial snowfall the night before, and above the headwall lurks that beastly spectre of avalanche danger. In a more audacious mood, I might have shrugged and given in to optimism bias. But relying on luck, in such harsh, unforgiving environments, is like swimming with sharks with a rack of lamb around your neck; sooner or later, you’re going to die a foolish, preventable death.
I hung up my tools and packed away my ice screws. The headwall will still be there next winter.