Fear of Drowning

Warm temperatures are usually good thing when one sets out to do some rock climbing. That's not the case when the objective is climbing ice...

Warm temperatures are usually good thing when one sets out to do some rock climbing. That’s not the case when the objective is climbing ice…

I never expected drowning could be a climbing-related hazard. Falling, yes. Being hit on the head by a chunk of rock, ok. Getting caught in a blizzard and being forced to dig a hole in a snowbank to make an ice cave – fair enough. But drowning?

I’m back in the Rockies and hanging out with people who are obsessed with waterfalls – though, not in their free-flowing gushing, exuberant moving state. This crowd of ice climbers can’t wait until it gets really cold and waterfalls become icefalls. And, these folks are eager beavers, so at the first sign of ice, off we went on an expedition to Grotto Falls near Canmore.

Grotto Falls near Canmore

Grotto Falls near Canmore

Needless to say, ice climbing requires some special tools. First off, lots of layers – it can be chilly standing around waiting for your turn to climb, so puffy jackets and thick gloves are the order of the day. Once moving, though, layers come off and, just like with any kind of climbing, one quickly heats up. Thinner gloves are in order once you get going (you still need to be able to feel what you are doing, even while trying to keep your digits from freezing).

Ice tools ready and waiting for... ice...

Ice tools ready and waiting for… ice… (note that bulky gloves get in the way of photos… yet another skill to master if one wishes to indulge in winter sports AND take photos)

Unlike climbing rock, you don’t generally grab onto the ice to help haul yourself up to the top. Instead, ice tools become extensions to your upper limbs and, instead of rock shoes, you wear heavy mountaineering boots designed to be worn with crampons. Crampons are the most awkward devices ever invented, bristling with spikes they are just as happy as to shred your trouser legs as bite into the ice.

Crampons - ready to strap them on the bottom of my boots...

Crampons – ready to be strapped onto the bottom of my boots…

Fortunately, for those of us who have no experience with crampons, ice tools, or climbing with a gazillion layers, there is a shoulder season sport known as dry-tooling. Those who simply cannot wait until the ice is ready (or, those who want to get those tool-hefting muscles into shape) head for certain crags where tool use is encouraged. There, crampon tips nudge gently into teeny weeny divots (you call that a toe-hold??) and ice tools balance on precarious lips of rock or wedge behind flakes and act like handles used to balance and pull up while one finds new, better, toe-holes for the blades strapped to your feet.

Dry-tooling at The Playground near Exshaw, Alberta

Dry-tooling at The Playground near Exshaw, Alberta

Occasionally, a tool gets so firmly wedged in a crack that it takes some effort (in this case on the part of both climber and dancing belayer) to extricate the serrated edge without snapping something.

A supportive belayer is worth his weight in gold...

An enthusiastic and supportive belayer is worth his weight in gold…

We went dry-tooling a couple of times at a place called the Playground (near Exshaw) so at least when we tackled Grotto Falls I had held ice tools before and had some idea of the theory behind ice climbing. I must confess I was a tad surprised when we got to Grotto Falls and found that they were still falling – gushing, actually. Yes, there was ice forming on either side and more ice higher up in the chute between the two rock faces where the water had cut its channel, but there was still plenty of water tumbling over the rocks. It was beautiful, no doubt, and probably the kind of thing sensible people might stop to photograph. We, however, decided to try our hand at climbing what turned out to be a bit of a vertical Slushie.

Early season ice climbing at Grotto Falls, Alberta

Early season ice climbing at Grotto Falls, Alberta

The ice was soft in places and not very thick, so I was told to softly place my tools more like I had been doing while dry-tooling (rather than taking a good hard swing as one would do when the ice is nice and thick). Nerve-wracking? Yes. It felt a bit like climbing up over a frosty mound of delicate eggs as I picked my way up the ice. Every time I jabbed at the ice with my crampons or placed my ice tools I was a bit worried the ice would dislodge and fall off the rock face. I have never climbed so gently! Often, water was visible beneath the ice, still roaring its way down toward the bottom. Where the rock chute narrowed and the water volume increased, there was a lot of spray and in a couple of places, no other option but to keep climbing what ice there was while being spritzed in the face with a decidedly chilly shower!

Halfway up, a pool that becomes a sturdy belay station in the depths of winter was, beneath a tempting ice crust, still very much a pool. A rather cold pool, which I discovered is about waist deep when one falls into it. My plunge into the icy water happened on my way down when I was being lowered and I slithered off the steep, slick walls of the bowl holding said pool. I must say it is a bit of a shock to find oneself paddling in bubbling water, ice blocks bumping into you, boots rapidly filling with water. Flailing about with my ice tools, trying to hook them on something solid enough to haul myself back out of the pool, I found myself pondering the likelihood of drowning while climbing.  At the same time I had to marvel at how effectively my waterproof over-pants were keeping me sort of dryish. Fortunately, I managed to scramble over the bottom lip of the pool and continue my descent unscathed, if a bit soggy.

Was it fun? (Which, really, is the only thing that matters…) I have to say it was actually most excellent, in a bizarre kind of way. It certainly whets my appetite for more ice climbing! For the first time in my life I find I am actually crossing my fingers for some colder temperatures to arrive!

Climb On

Turtle Island, Lake Louise

Turtle Island, Lake Louise

I don’t even know where to start with the past month or so of climbing adventures. Started on Vancouver Island with some local cragging (Fleming Beach and Mount Wells with various friends) before heading east… Squamish was stop number one – managed to squeeze in a bit of fun at the Smoke Bluffs and then tackled Deirdre, a multi-pitch on the apron of The Chief. Who knew there would be a queue at the start of this popular climb? Turns out it’s not only quite common to pick a number and wait your turn for popular climbs, it’s also very common to start chatting, swap contact info, and later send fellow climbers photos of each other. The climbing fraternity is a friendly one – small enough that everyone pretty well knows someone who knows someone – and large enough that on any given day one is likely to run into total strangers from halfway around the world and neighbours from back home.

Eli - met in Lake Louise and the next day climbed Gooseberry (the back side of Tunnel Mountain in Banff)

Eli – met in Lake Louise and the next day climbed Gooseberry (the back side of Tunnel Mountain in Banff) with him and Fabio – glorious afternoon – spectacular views, fun climbing – who could ask for more?

After Squamish it was off to Canmore (climbed Ha’Ling), the crags at Heart Creek and Cougar Creek, Banff (Black Band Crags and then the multi-pitch Gooseberry).

Freezing our backsides off at the top of Ha'Ling in Canmore

Freezing our backsides off at the top of Ha’Ling in Canmore

While up in the Rockies it was impossible not to also visit Lake Louise. Though winter kept threatening, the day we climbed was nothing short of glorious.

In Banff, met up with a friend from Australia and spent an afternoon playing about - can you beat that backdrop? (Black Band, Tunnel Mountain)

In Banff, met up with a friend from Australia and spent an afternoon playing about – can you beat that backdrop? (Black Band, Tunnel Mountain)

After three weeks of climbing nearly every day (the last couple of climbs in Cougar Creek near Canmore were finger-chillingly cold) it was time to pack up the tent and head west again – to Skaha, climbing mecca in the Okanagan Valley. Pulling into town it was a balmy 24 degrees and the next five days were just lovely. We climbed a mix of stuff – harder, steeper stuff with teeny ledges and crimpy finger holds that tested one’s nerves and balance, some cracks (including Assholes of August, which we climbed twice – the first time in the near dark, the second on a sunny afternoon). What was most exciting (at least for me) was starting to lead – both sport climbs and gear routes (where there are no pre-existing bolts in the rock).

Getting lowered after a slab climb at Heart Creek - a bizarre feeling to basically be holding on with friction when climbing some of these slabs.

Getting lowered after a slab climb at Heart Creek – a bizarre feeling to basically be holding on with friction when climbing some of these slabs.

Leading adds a whole other level of terror to the whole climbing experience. Unlike top-roping, the lead climber heads up first, clipping draws into secure bolts (and then the rope) along the way. After clipping, there is always a stretch of time (the distance between bolts varies and depends on the particular climb) and it’s during this bit of time after you have climbed beyond your last clipped in protection (increasing the possible distance you will fall if you come off the wall and before the rope catches you) that the mind starts playing tricks. And, once the mind panics, it’s a terrible feeling to be stranded above the safety of the clipped draw, frozen against the face of the rock, convinced upward movement is impossible, horrified at the thought of climbing back down again… That is exactly what happened on my first lead – complete mental meltdown. Incapacitating. I wound up coming back down, Fabio led the route, I top-roped it (and realized I could in fact climb past the tricky spot without much trouble) and then re-led it. Switched gears and climbed some other stuff and a couple of days later led a couple of climbs of the same wall without difficulty.

Not a super difficult climb, but my first successful sport lead so I was feeling pretty exhilarated at the top!

Not a super difficult climb, but my first successful sport lead so I was feeling pretty exhilarated at the top!

If clipping into bolts can get exciting, placing gear (nuts, cams, and other bits and pieces of climbing gear used when there are no bolts), then trad climbing is even better – or, worse, depending on whether you are inspired or horrified by adrenalin surges. I had my first couple of experiences leading on gear routes – easy enough climbing, but a whole different ballgame when you add in the strategy of where to stand (in a relatively balanced, comfortable spot) while choosing from the assorted gadgets dangling from one’s climbing harness, fiddling to wiggle nuts or cams or whatever into any available crack or corner, then clipping a draw to the protection and, finally, the rope into the draw. Though hugely stressful at times (I wound up bailing off a route as dusk was closing in and I completely lost my nerve – poor, patient Fabio had to climb up and rescue what gear I had managed to place), I think the trad climbing is the most interesting and compelling of what I have tried so far.

Location of my first gear climb - a modest crack when compared to something like Assholes of August - a climb located a little farther along and higher up the same crag

Location of my first gear climb – a modest crack when compared to something like Assholes of August – a climb located a little farther along and higher up the same crag

The additional mental puzzle of figuring out what’s available (both in terms of the rock and the gear) and then keeping a cool head while matching the two up makes the whole experience of getting up the wall all the more challenging. Starting to learn these new skills has also had the side benefit of taking some of the pressure off challenging myself to climb harder routes – the elbow brace is holding up remarkably well, but the injured arm is still injured, so I have to be careful not to overdo it, especially when climbing day after day. The easier grades mean the physical climbing is not so bad, but the leading those routes or starting to try my hand at gear placement keeps things… entertaining.

Assholes of August - we climbed this one twice - once as darkness was falling, the second time in daylight - lots of fun. Maybe next time I'm in Skaha I might be able to lead this one... It never hurts to have goals!

Assholes of August – we climbed this one twice – once as darkness was falling, the second time in daylight – lots of fun. Maybe next time I’m in Skaha I might be able to lead this one… It never hurts to have goals!

P9181184 Assholes of August 01

From a bit farther back – Assholes of August is the crack on the right…

All of this, of course, has taken me outside almost every day, hiking into some of the most beautiful places in the world and climbing some of the most spectacular rock anywhere. I wonder if one ever gets tired of the vistas one encounters as one  hauls oneself up and over the top of a cliff face. I hope not.

I do like these crack climbs...

I do like these crack climbs…

Lake Louise

Lake Louise

IMG_5859-PANO lake louise

View from up on a ledge somewhere on Outhouse Wall, Lake Louise

What’s That I See?

Dark Creek Farm:

Hey – anybody out there have any idea how I could confirm who did the painting in the background of this photo of Elizabeth May and friends? (Taken in the House of Commons in Ottawa, 1987)

Originally posted on Nikki Tate :

Could this be one of Dad's paintings? Could this be one of Dad’s paintings?

One of the new projects I’m working on is a collaboration with Sylvia Olsen and Jean Jordan. We are researching and writing a biography for children about Elizabeth May, Canada’s first Green Party MP in Ottawa. Elizabeth has a long history of activism and we’ve been reading and discussing which pieces of her story make sense to include in a book for children. As part of that research, I have been re-reading her book Who We Are: Reflections on My Life and Canada. In the section in the middle with photos I came across this one that shows Elizabeth along with a number of others in Speaker’s Chambers in the House of Commons in Ottawa. The photo was taken in 1987 and it’s quite conceivable (there were a number of collectors back east who bought his work, including various on Parliament Hill) that…

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That Was Historical Fiction?

Dark Creek Farm:

Am I really that old? Apparently…

Originally posted on Nikki Tate :


Sometimes when I visit schools students ask me whether I ever read my own books. The thought horrifies me, actually – by the time a book has gone from idea to draft to draft to draft to draft #72 over the course of months or years,  after it has been hacked apart by members of my writing group, helpful friends and family members, an editor (sometimes more than one) and then picked apart and dissected by a copy editor and a proof reader (each iteration requiring me to re-read and sign off – or, rewrite as the case may be) trust me, the LAST thing I would consider reading for entertainment would be something I had written myself. This aversion to reading my own stuff is so deep I rarely read from my books even when I’m supposed to be at a book event where this sort of activity…

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More Audiobooks On Their Way

Dark Creek Farm:

Originally posted over at my author blog…

Originally posted on Nikki Tate :

Improvise! As long as I remember to unplug the freezers while I’m recording, the sound quality is remarkably good!

I was kind of horrified when I checked this blog/website (I’m much more likely to post over on my other blog, www.darkcreekfarm.com) to see what I still needed to do in terms of completing the transfer of the old content from my original author website to this location. Yikes! I knew there was still some tweaking to be done, but this place is a disaster! I would promise to immediately rectify the situation, but I have a growing stack of cool projects on my desk and the end of the summer to enjoy and a trip to the mountains in a couple of weeks, so I’m not quite sure when I’ll be able to push other things aside to finally, finally sit down and get this renovation done!

Meanwhile, I am…

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Why Fly?

Spotted this seagull at Sombrio Beach today, determined to get to the other side in his own, special way… A seagull walks over a bridge...

Joy – The Final Chapter

Joy - Part 3

Joy – Part 3

When it rains, it pours – as they say! I’ve been working feverishly on multiple book projects and have also finally tackled learning various Adobe Creative Suite programs including Premiere (video editing) and After Effects (more video editing). To go with those, I’m also learning to use Audition (audio editing) and Story (script writing and scheduling) and you can see why my head is spinning! I’ve also been busy behind the scenes organizing a new website for a big storytelling festival here on Vancouver Island (happening summer of 2016)… so I’m learning how to build a Wix website that includes a shop for tickets and links to all the mandatory social media tools – which means setting up new twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Google+ accounts…

dinner with friends

Add to all that work-y stuff several visitors are staying with us at the moment (from Switzerland and Australia) so my calendar has been full, full full for the past couple of weeks. There is also a chance I’ll be heading off with the Ocean Legacy crew on August 3 for ten days or so of remote beach cleanup on the Brooks Peninsula, a very cool wilderness trip I’m super excited about but for which I have been scurrying about gathering necessary items in my spare (!) time – stuff like a decent lightweight backpacking tent and bear spray and some parachute cord.  You can see why this final Joy post has been pushed aside a bit…

I had grand plans for integrating some spiffy video (you know, because of my newfound skills with Premiere), but the learning curve is steep, so that isn’t going to happen in a hurry – for the moment, stills and prose will have to suffice!

So, Joy – I think I left things hanging as we approached the top of the slab some ten or so pitches and about four hours after hiking in from the parking area and then wobbling over the talus approach (see the earlier posts – Joy Part One and Joy Part Two). Which is about where I’ll pick up the story.

joy top nikki anne IMG_20150630_172428

Anne and I were all smiles as we reached the top of the slab.

joy nikki anne last pitch IMG_20150630_135408

When I think about climbing up mountains I think about climbing up, as if getting to the top is going to be the big effort.

joy nikki anne climbing last pitch IMG_20150630_135609

We made it! Now we go home, right? Well... kind of.

We made it! Now we go home, right? Well… kind of.

In the case of Joy, dancing up the slab was actually pretty joyful. The problem is coming back down. Because there are no permanent rappel anchors you’d have to abandon your temporary gear up there if you used ropes to aid your descent. Even though it isn’t super steep or anything, a slip would mean you could bump and slither your way down the slope for quite some distance before friction stopped your descent.

I shudder to think where you might wind up if you tripped or toppled over and started rolling.

Anyway, without ropes to stop you from cartwheeling into oblivion in case of a fall, the only option is to exit through the back door. Except the back door on that part of Mount Indefatigable doesn’t lead to a handy escalator or a paved road or even much of a goat track. The top edge of the slab sort of crumbles away into this narrow ledge and lump, which is where Anne and I waited while Fabio took the other ends of the ropes and picked his way along the most ridiculous of non paths I have ever encountered. The rock was terrible – crumbly and fragile. At some point he put a foot down, shifted his weight and the lump of rock he had been about to stand on gave way and ricocheted off into … I have no idea where it went. Over the edge and down, down, down. I couldn’t see where it wound up, but judging by the ever diminishing sounds of its endless descent over the back side of the mountain, it must have fallen fifty miles or so. If one of us went over…

I had plenty of time to think about the perils of missteps and loose rock as I was to be the last one to traverse the tricky you-call-that-a-ledge? ledge. That meant I had to sit and wait on the exposed lump at the end of the mountain until Fabio had found a decent place to anchor the ropes for me and Anne and then for Anne to pick her way along the edge and around the corner to safety. The good news was I got to enjoy the spectacular view over the slab and into the valley for the longest of all of us.

The bad news was that the wind had picked up and I could feel the mountainside vibrating below me.

joy 008 IMG_4909 01

The rock to the right was pretty good – you know, slab. The rock to the left was not so good – you know, gravel pile.

I thought mountains were big, solid things until I sat on one that was quivering. Not long ago a chunk of El Capitan peeled off Half Dome, a thousand foot tall slab of granite that keeps an eye on visitors to Yosemite. The chunk wasn’t something insignificant like something the size of a fridge or a couch or even a bus. The monster piece of granite that ‘flaked’ off is estimated to be about 100 X 200 feet!! (If you want more details, there is no shortage of articles about the incident online. Here’s a link to one from ABC News.) It was probably quivering before it let go!

So anyway, I was sitting up there thinking about glaciers calving and mountains cleaving and rock slides like the Frank slide that carry enough debris along with them as the mountain exhales and sheds a few billion tons of excess weight and wondering how long I would stay conscious in the event that the mountain did fall apart under the weight of my backside.

Was I going to be the straw that broke the back of Mount Indefatigable?

Fabio picking his way around the corner on the back side of Joy...

Fabio picking his way around the corner on the back side of Joy…

I decided that I would probably black out in sheer terror if my perch dropped out from beneath me and that at most I would have maybe a minute to feel exuberantly, gloriously alive before the falling rocks buried me.

I could only hope that something big clunked me on the head early in the going so it would be over as quickly as possible.

With thoughts like these wheeling slowly through my mind, I watched Fabio first place temporary gear in tenuous, crumbly rock and then think better of his plan. He climb up to a point above us and out of sight but where, he shouted back down to us, he found a much better place to set up an anchor. Secured from above by a rope, Anne made her way along the precipice and around the corner, Fabio flipping the rope over the sharp rocks from his vantage point above.

Brave Anne - I don't think she broke a sweat during our descent...

Brave Anne – I don’t think she broke a sweat during our descent…

Once Anne was safe, it was up to me to disassemble the anchor we had used to ascend the final pitch and then follow along. Having a task was great – I took apart the slings, snapped carabiners to my gear loops and pretended like I was getting comfortable up there ‘just doing my job.’ And then I set off.

What is amazing to me is how sure-footed a person can be when a gaping space yaws beneath one’s backside, when there are no holds to speak of (I grabbed a rock at some point and it came away in my hand. I tossed it over my shoulder and tried not to count the seconds before the noises it made while falling finally ceased), and when one looks down (mistake!) and realizes the ‘path’ in places  is only wide enough for one’s toes and the ball of the foot and arches and heels are being nicely cooled from the draft below.

What choice does one have in a situation like this but to keep going?

Slow and steady breathing on a regular basis, resisting the urge to grab, lunge, or leap – or the opposite – freeze, refuse to move, and curl up in a little ball, crying. Not that there was any room to curl into a ball and crying seemed a bit pointless, but I could see how people could react exactly that way when one’s reptilian brain threatens to take over. The fact is, with that top rope in place, I might have missed a step and fallen a few feet. I might have dangled for a few seconds before regrouping, climbing back up and continuing on. There wasn’t actually any real danger at this point, but the body and its fierce desire to stay alive and out of trouble can trick you into thinking ‘this is it! Say your good-byes!’ and for someone who hasn’t had a lot of experience in such situations on the top of fragile windy peaks, it was all a bit unnerving.

joy 013 IMG_4919

Had serenity and a pleasant stroll back down to the parking lot been the end of this expedition, well, I could have wrapped up this blog post right about now. But the next section was what they call a ‘challenging scramble’ which, translated, means, “You have got to be kidding!” At this point the other two really put me to shame, marching along a narrow goat track, seemingly oblivious to the kilometre (? I’m not exactly sure of the distance, but that’s probably not so far off) drop just to our right. At some point Fabio decided it was best to short rope one section, a technique where the leader basically puts the followers on a short leash so that if he feels one of us losing our balance he can lean against the wobble and help the vertiginous regain equilibrium. To me, this seemed like a good way for a wobbler to pull all three people off the mountain in one fell swoop as he was not actually fastened to the mountain by anything more than experience and the sure-footedness of a mountain goat.

joy 014 IMG_4921

Thankfully, this bit didn’t take too long and after we used ropes to back us up though a rubble-filled chute (probably not necessary – at this point I was feeling confident enough that I would have tackled that without out support) we emerged from the worst of the endless end of the climb.

Getting over that hurdle was still not the end of my troubles, though. Though the terrain lightened up a bit and shifted from loose pile of rock to something rather grassy and alpine meadow-y, we were now in prime mosquito and grizzly territory.

Honestly, I don’t know what was worse – the clouds of mosquitoes that immediately found us and settled on every inch of exposed skin or the shocking numbers of bear diggings we found in amongst the wild strawberry plants.

We could not step more than a few feet in any direction before we saw evidence of bear activity. Fresh digging. Heaps of scat. We all got very noisy, especially Anne and Fabio who sang and whistled and called and shouted so there was no chance that we would accidentally stumble on a bear with its head in a hole rooting around for succulent grubs (or whatever it is they were digging for). The bear population is so dense in this corner of the Rockies that the Mount Indefatigable Trail has been closed since 2005.

Fortunately, the creature coming around the corner was NOT a grizzly...

Fortunately, the creature coming around the corner was NOT a grizzly…

It had rained the night before (which might explain the mosquito frenzy) and the steep slope was slippery making it necessary to proceed carefully, though I would have preferred to jog (sprint?) through to get out of the way of any bears curious about the approaching singers. This bit of bear meadow was followed by a LONG scree gully, down which we had to slither/ski, trying to stay close enough together that lose rock (or falling people) didn’t gain enough momentum to take the others out and far enough apart that falling people didn’t take each other out.

And, by falling people, I mostly mean me.

Between my arthritic hips and wounded arm (I was worried about losing my balance and falling on it, even with the brace) I was a) slow and b) hopeless at this ludicrous sport. Imagine trying to stay upright while timing each step on a still fairly steep slope while everything around you is shifting and sliding. Scree is a dreadful mix of gravel and smallish stones, all of which start moving along with you as you go so your descent is precariously accomplished atop a modest landslide you can only hope doesn’t get too terribly out of control.

Packing up the gear at the top of the scree slope

Packing up the gear at the top of the scree slope

Descending the back side of that ruddy mountain took nearly twice as long as climbing up the front of it and by the time we reached the trail leading back to the car I have to say I heaved a huge sigh of relief! That said, by the time I reached the car maybe half an hour later, I was scheming and plotting where I could go to work on my scree ski skills and how I was going to learn about placing gear and how long it was going to be before I could get back up on another mountain.

Top of the scree slope - we slipped and slithered more or less all the way down to the level of the lake...

Top of the scree slope – we slipped and slithered more or less all the way down to the level of the lake…

My theory is that a similar mechanism to the one that allows women to endure childbirth more than once was at work because these days if anyone asks if I found joy on Joy I don’t hesitate to answer, “YES!”  And really, does life get any better than finding a way to a high point where one can look back on the valley below and consider how far one has come? Even better, do all that with fine company and good conversation and it seems to me that whoever named the route Joy knew exactly what he was doing.