Tag Archives: kananaskis

E is for Elvis, Ed Viesturs, Everest, and Easy


Me playing around on the cool, textured rock (once a coral reef, I think) at Graceland… that leg on the left might just be a jiggling… 

One of the things I’ve found most entertaining over the past year is the way in which climbing routes are named. Take Graceland at Grassi Lakes. Every route on the wall is somehow Elvis-related. Some of the route names include: You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hang Dog (5.10d), Memphis (5.10d), Elvis Lives (5.10b/c), Heartbreak Hotel (5.10d) and Sunglasses and Sideburns (5.10c). Not that I can see why one piece of rock is more evocative of one song than another, but in the minds of those who put the routes up, there must have been some kind of logic.

Elvis’ name is used in another context at the crags. Having a bad case of Elvis Leg (sometimes known as Sewing Machine Leg) is the rather unnerving leg quiver that develops partway up a climb, the result of fatigue or nerves (or both). Generally, it happens at the worst possible moment, when you are perched high above the ground, one toe wedged onto a thin lip of rock, all the muscles in your leg tense, trying to balance or shift your weight and reach just… over … there… to some teeny weeny bump of a pebble-sized outcrop so you can reach up and over and continue climbing. If the jiggling gets too bad, it can send your whole body into sympathetic convulsions, a state of being not conducive to reaching the top. Elvis Leg often precedes a fall – wise belayers get ready to take action when the shaking begins…

The climb called Naked Teenage Girls at Barrier Mountain is named sort of sensibly, I guess. That particular wall is very smooth – no lumps and bumps to grab onto. Assholes of August at Skaha Bluffs is a nice, long crack climb – maybe the first ascenders were behaving badly in the summertime? [Editorial aside: It’s high time more women started putting up routes – surely we could come up with better names?]

Meathooks at Grassi Lakes is logically named as the steep, overhanging rock means you wind up hanging there a lot. When we were there last week there were bodies suspended everywhere (mine included… because of the overhanging angle I was suspended so far away from the place I fell off I had to be lowered, the rope twirling me like a top so I could start again from the ground)…


Meathooks area – a place climbers go to hang(out)

Someone who probably doesn’t suffer from Elvis Leg too often is Ed Viesturs, a guy who is pretty famous in the climbing world. He’s the first American (maybe the only one?) to have climbed all 14 of the 8000 meter peaks, all without using supplemental oxygen. He’s a writer and motivational speaker and recently Fabio and I have been listening to the audio book version of his book, No Shortcuts to the Top.

cover no shortcuts 3

It’s a fascinating read that talks about his quest to reach the top of all the world’s highest mountains, perfect for our drives back and forth to our own mini expeditions. Ed was part of the IMAX film team that was shooting on Everest during the terrible 1996 season that claimed eight lives. That disaster became the focus of the book Into Thin Air by John Krakauer (another great read). Ed has climbed Everest seven times, which is why he made it onto E-Day.

And, finally, I wanted to say something about days when things go a little better than other days in the life of a geriatric climber. I’m in my fifties and sometimes it’s really discouraging to see all these youngsters in their 20s who are climbing hard and making it look easy, especially when I’m having a particularly off day. My list of creaky bits is getting long – I’ve talked about my recovering elbow more than often enough, but that’s just the first of a number of annoying failing  body parts that vie for my attention. There’s something wrong with my left shoulder (made worse in the fall) and which needs to be properly dealt with at some point. My physio’s theory is a torn rotator cuff, but to be honest, I’ve been leery about getting a scan and then learning I am going to need surgical intervention. Some things are better left unsaid. So, I tape up my shoulder and strap on my brace and take some Tylenol and get on with the day. Nights are for icing and, so far at least, even though I look like my arm is being held together by tape and velcro, it’s functioning well enough.

Long approaches are really hard on my arthritic hip, the one that was injured many moons ago when I fell off a bridge with my horse (long story, and nothing in there starts with the letter E, except maybe EEEEEk!). I use a ski pole and try not to be too hard on myself when I’m slow on uneven terrain, especially when carrying a pack. I really feel my age on days when the big toe joint on the opposite foot starts to act up. That’s pretty much seized up from arthritis and can be incredibly painful on long hikes. I’ve found that cranking my boots (when ice climbing), approach shoes (for hiking) and climbing shoes as tight as humanly possible basically immobilizes the joint, which makes things mostly tolerable. Various joints in my fingers and thumbs are starting to ache – in part because I’m climbing some stuff that requires hard pinching, crimping, and pulling, but in part because old injuries are coming back to haunt me with the onset of arthritis in all those joints, too… (this is the moment when, if you happen to have one, you send me your best suggestions for dealing with arthritis!)

Listing the aches and pains has taken me a bit off course, but the point is, some days it’s easy to get discouraged, to question what on earth I think I’m doing heading for the crags day after day to climb alongside mere children!! And then, there’s a day like yesterday at Barrier where I tackled several things that I have, in past visits, found difficult (or impossible) but which were, yesterday at least, EASY!! First, I LED a route – not a hard route – but still, a lead (the 5.7 everyone uses as a warmup). Nevertheless, I wasn’t stressed (too much) and made it all the way up pretty smoothly. So, progress. After that, I climbed several of the slightly harder routes, all without any trouble at all. Feeling thoroughly warmed up, I decided to challenge myself and climb my hardest-to-date outdoors route (a 5.11b called In Us, Under Us which even Fabio admitted was ‘stiff’) and would likely have climbed it clean except I missed a very obvious hold (just didn’t see it – it was right in front of my face – here, I blame my trifocals because, hey, I was probably the only person climbing yesterday who was wearing trifocals…) andI  popped off when I made an ambitious move (and almost made it!) to the next hold without using the previous (unseen) hold. Keep in mind this was on a steep, pretty blank, balanc-y face where I was trying to transition around to a corner, also without a whole lot of holds to work with… I actually had managed to grab the upper hold but just as I was about to grip and get settled, my foot (which I had managed to get nice and high with a heel hook!) slipped and I didn’t have quite enough grip on the upper hold and fell. I was a bit rattled at that point and it took a couple of tries to repeat the move (and a couple more falls) before Fabio called up, “Why don’t you use that hold right in front of your face?” At which point I saw the hold in front of my face, which was exactly where it needed to be, and I easily (EASILY!) made the next move and finished the rest of the climb without much trouble.

I tell you, that felt GREAT! I’ve been feeling a bit stuck recently, like I wasn’t making a whole lot of forward progress, but getting up to the top of that one was very encouraging. So much so I decided to have another go at the 5.10c crack climb (End Dance) that had given me such trouble on a previous visit. Flailing, I think was the word Fabio used to describe my efforts on my first attempt. Yesterday, float might have been a better word. It was so strange! It certainly helped that I had climbed it before (and done it so badly – I knew exactly what I didn’t want to do). It also helped that friend and roomie Paul was there to give me some advice as I climbed (good beta, Paul!). And, it helped that I had just climbed something I didn’t actually believe I could climb. The last time I tackled End Dance, I thought I could power up the crack by hauling myself up. This time, I used my feet, used my head, stayed relaxed and, yes, E is for Effortless!

This may all sound a bit bragalicious, but I feel quite confident that failure at the crag is just around the corner. Climbing is like that. The next time I attempt that crack climb it’s just as likely I’ll be back in flailing mode. And that’s ok. In the balance, the good moments outweigh the bad and that’s what keeps me coming back.

P9181184 Assholes of August 01

Assholes of August is the crack on the right – there’s a dude on there, if you zoom in… 

Bring on Assholes of August! I’m going to lead that puppy, you mark my words!!

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.