Spring Link, 2002
My climbing dreams are usually fuelled by conversations, most of which originate in bars. Someone will say, “You know, it would be fun to link a bunch of hard but classic ice routes together in a day…” After a few more beers the list of possible routes is as long as the bar tab and worth as much as the beer already consumed. Even really good visions often slide away down a slippery slope of excuses until they drop into the void forever, remembered only as faint calls amidst the chatter of daily life. Then perhaps you get lucky with the right partner, choose the right day and all of a sudden a dream snaps into ice-cold reality. Yesterday was like that for me, here's what happened.
Scott Semple asks if I'd like to try to link Polar Circus, Weeping Pillar (upper and lower Weeping Wall) and Curtain Call in a day. We had talked about this before, probably in bar, but this was a rare event—an idea remembered. “Yes,” I say, but I have to pause and think about it. Scott’s motivation is clear; mine is murkier. I'm epicing with my ex-girlfriend, I haven't climbed a lot of ice this year due to competing in the ice world cup, and I've had some harsh disappointments lately --I don't know if I can take another failure and this mission looks exceedingly prone to failure. But the real reason for doubt is that I'm just not sure if I'm strong enough to do something this massive. I've dreamed about this linkup for years, even speculated on how long it would take, now Scott wants to do it. I hesitate to answer his question, letting the little ball rattle through the matrix of my mind, fears and motivations racking up points until the score is positive enough to commit. I'm in, but I’ve done enough of these links to know that you always fail on the first go--so I tell a couple of friends that we will surely fail…. Head games are fun when it’s your own head.
I spend the day dealing with my personal relationship purgatory, but Scott gets substantially more done by making a dozen sandwiches, organizing water, and scheming about how to make it all work. He has the day scripted, down to which blocks of pitches we'll both lead and expected times. Organization is not my strong point; Scott fills the void. The water bottles are lined up like soldiers in the living room flanked by the gear we'll bring: 10 screws, one 70M 9.4 lead line, one 70M eight mil rap line, ten quickdraws, ultralight packs, Cobras, a windbreaker each. In the evening we talk about the next day, and suddenly we're leaving at 10:00 p.m. for the drive with the theory that we'll probably sleep more if we rack beside the car for a couple of hours than if we try to sleep at the too-early hour of 10 at night. As we drive I'm besieged by doubts; the first time I did Polar Circus, in 1984, it took Ken Wallator and I at least 14 hours. Kim Csizmazia and I have done it faster in recent years, but always early in the season--our fastest time is something like eight hours... I have done Curtain Call a few times, but generally regarded it as a day well spent with no change left at the end. I've failed on the upper Weeping Wall at least twice and never actually reached the top. The idea of doing all three in a day seems possible if everything goes perfectly, but so does winning the lottery.
Before every big and possibly dangerous project I wrestle with the validity of it; there's no real fucking point so why? The answers must be different for everyone, but there is something powerful about dreaming and doing, even if it results in failure. Scott looks like a combination of a skinny Buddha and a hockey player as we drive; if doubts plague him then he's not sharing. I'm jealous, but also psyched to have a partner who is IN, not waffling. We talk about our strategy; we want to do these climbs fast, but we also want to do them with reasonable safety. The rules are simple; we’ll lead anything harder than grade 4, and place enough gear to keep the leader off the deck if he falls. Belays will be bomber, so the second can go all-out. Scott’s on the same page as me, it’s a good feeling to know your partner isn’t on a speed at all costs mission.
I quell my doubts and listen to the beat as my truck autopilots the parkway one more time. I’ve driven up the Parkway literally hundreds of times over the last 30 years (I actually lived at the isolated Hilda Creek Hostel for a year with my parents when I was 12), each time it’s an adventure, and I never tire of it. The half moon strokes the mountains with a frozen light, each peak our personal black and white Ansel Adams print for the time we see it. I feel astronomically lucky to have the freedom to see this sight; some people feel God in church, I feel reality in the mountains--but I suspect the feelings are similar, and they are good in a way that resists words.
The night is warm, barely below freezing, and we sleep well in the snow beside the car until the unholy hour of 2:30 in the morning. I hate alpine starts, I haven't done one in years; perhaps they get easier with practice, but for me they are like visiting the dentist—knowing what to expect doesn’t necessarily improve your outlook on the experience. There is no pulling the covers over my head when the alarm sounds, a major cause of early morning failure in my home bed, so we roust and wash IGA turnovers and the day’s first turkey sandwich down with Red Bull and water. I know from previous outings that hydration and calories are absolutely essential; you have to eat ahead of the curve. Fat and protein are your friends, they will stay with you for hours, while the gel tubes are only good when you’re actually moving--and even then they remind me more of licking icing off a spoon than actual food. I know people who claim to have eaten nothing but gel for 60 hours straight. I think they are strange.
At 3:00 a.m. we close the lid on the truck and start marching. The Energizer Bunny goes full bore immediately, and I stagger along in his LED headlight wake with a bad case of night head. The snow crust only barely supports our weight, and there is fresh wet-slide debris everywhere on the approach to Polar Circus. The message is clear; the warmth is destabilizing things, we’ll have to move fast to get the route done before the mountains shed some serious snow. The moonlight is almost as bright as our headlights, but we still manage to waste 10 off-route minutes post holing in the near-isothermic snow before finding the climb. This is not a good start. We solo the first easy steps, but rope up at the Ribbon pitch. The clouds and moon make shadows that flit across us as they and we move, and I slowly wake up and revel in being right here right now. A sudden but seemingly important thought pops into my head as I start swinging and the landscape changes from moonlight to shadow and back: in the last year I’ve closed down at least 20 bars at this hour and never once gone climbing this early. Why?
We’re leading in blocks, which works better for ice climbing in general, and my block is Polar Circus. On the sixth pitch I clip a T block onto a bomber Abalakov and keep moving across the big ledge to the next pitch; I haven’t tried the T Block trick before, but it’s rumoured to work well. It does, but it’s the only time we simul climb all day. At about 6:00a.m. we’re on top of Polar Circus as the morning light creeps across the sky and then descends into the valley with us. We’re in a groove, doing all the things that make moving fast possible. Some of them are obvious (don’t fall off, broken legs are slow), but others are more free-form. Holding up the ropes so your partner can get his ATC on easily at each station saves time and energy. We think not about moving fast but about taking care of the small tasks; speed comes from efficiency, efficiency comes from flow and teamwork. There’s no ego, just a common goal. Back at the car/buffet we smile: four hours! Two more sandwiches and a Red Bull go into the energy bin on the short drive to the Weeping Wall. Can anything taste better than mustard and turkey on a cheese bun when eaten after climbing a big route and knowing there’s another on deck?
At 7:30 we start up the Weeping Pillar. The lower is Scott’s block, it’s nice to be able to eat and drink (Gri Gris are good) at the belay stations while Scott sweats it. We take the center line, which is harder but philosophically more satisfying in the long run; the guidebook says it’s part of the Weeping Pillar and it does suggest a cleaner line. I run behind Scott on the rope, which he keeps tight in case I pitch. It’s ok to fall seconding, and we are both using competition speed climbing techniques to follow each pitch in 10 minutes or less. I helped Scott learn to speed climb last fall, a favour he returned by beating me at this year’s Canmore Ice Fest. We’re a good team partly because of this, I enjoy the feeling of being out with someone who is competent to move fast. I arrive gasping at each belay, clip in, Scott fires, we’re on the halfway ledge in short order.
Soon we are slogging up to the upper Weeping Wall, which is my block to lead. We take the steep line again, which is slower but much more aesthetically pleasing, a soaring wall of ice that I want to be stuck in the middle of like a fly. I had hoped for a pegboard, no such luck, I’m swinging at the sun-baked ice and sweating hard in a thin layer of Polypro; it’s so warm that I’m worried about falling icicles, but nothing’s coming down yet. I curse at myself for taking too long on one lead that seemed to go on forever, but I don’t think I can safely move faster; each placement takes many swings. I fire in screws and grind it out, but Scott arrives at the belay and tells me to chill out, it only took 30 minutes and was grade six. We’re on top in just over four hours; we relax for a minute and bask in one of the most perfect spring days I’ve ever had in the mountains, you know the kind. A sly little thought creeps into my head that we might actually pull this off, but I slam it’s self-satisfied head--descending is always more dangerous and we’re getting tired.
We have to put in Abalakovs on the descent because the old ones are too sun-baked, but we’re back in the parking lot by 12:30. We’re only nine and half hours into this rig with one route left! In the parking lot a familiar truck contains our friends Raphael Slawinski and Guy Lacelle. They left for Slipstream at 9:00 the night before and just arrived at the Weeping Wall, looking tired but psyched and planning on sending the Weeping Pillar in the same 24 hours. I offer Red Bull, which Raph accepts with the comment, “We had wanted to do the first caffeine free link up, but since you have it…” I’m totally psyched that they are out here with us climbing on such a fine day, it adds energy for sure. We wish them luck and punch it north while stuffing our faces with more ham and cheese on the drive to Curtain Call, the shortest but hardest route on the menu. Scott pops a couple of Tylenol in the truck, I can tell his wrist is really hurting him. Of all the things that could go wrong, are we going to get stopped by fucking tendonitis at this point?
On the walk up to Curtain Call we start to drag ass a bit; until now we’ve been sliding along smoothly, but the sun beats down, and we have to drop back a couple of gears. Curtain Call is Scott’s block to lead, and despite his wrist he heads up a total mushroom fest of a first pitch. I lounge in the sun, drink water and almost fall asleep, only jerked back to reality by the constant barrage of decapitated ice mushrooms raining by me. It’s the hardest pitch of the day for sure--I secretly rejoice that it’s Scott’s lead and not mine but worry about his wrist. Soon the rope goes tight and I run for the large ledge at half height, which is one of my favorite spots in the Rockies. The massive pillar of Curtain Call is fully lit in the sun, and icicles sparkle against an almost unnaturally blue sky. It’s a brilliant place to be; Scott and I look at each other and laugh, we know we’re lucky. However, Scott’s face twists each time he moves his wrist, and I ask if he wants to bail; most people would, I can see the bump under the polypro on his arm… He looks at me like I’m nuts and hands over the rack. I lead up. Scott can barely swing his right tool as he pulls over the top, but his grimace of pain splits into a grin at the belay.
On top we luxuriate in the view and knowledge we don’t have to go up anymore. The peaks of the Columbia Icefields blaze in the sun; you can’t take a photograph that really does justice to this place, you have to stand on top of Curtain Call on a fine day in March with a friend and feel it for the full effect. We rig for the raps carefully, knowing that you don’t win until you’re back on flat ground. As we walk across the slushy plain to the car we turn, laugh, share a high five and just groove on the day. We joke about adding Tangle Falls to the day, but know we’ve succeeded and any more would be tempting fate—plus we’re hooped. The experience has left our bodies cooked but metaphysical batteries brimming with a full charge; life just looks brighter. No, life is fucking great. Thanks Scott.
Notes: Yes, you could do it faster. We took 13 and a half hours from the time we started up Polar Circus to the time we opened the last Red Bull for the drive back to Canmore. You could add more routes or more difficult routes, good luck!
We saw Raph and Guy high on the Weeping Pillar and left them some Red Bull and Pringles for a celebration on the drive home, but the bad ice I had at 10:00 in the morning was complete slop by the time they were on it. If they say the ice was bad then it must have been horrific; Raph wrote the following to me the day after their excellent climb:
“First of all, congrats on your link up! Even though it was tainted by heavy Red Bull use, it is still an amazing achievement! As for Guy and myself, unfortunately we never even got up the Pillar. With the afternoon sun beating down on it, the ice was in really rough shape. We got half-way up the right side (to that really cool cave that goes down inside the waterfall), but the ice was so bad neither one of us wanted to lead the next pitch. So we pulled the plug... I am pretty disappointed, I had been psyching myself for this thing for a while. But I am happy that at least we got past just thinking about it and actually