Tag Archives: rocky mountains

Winter Walk – Canmore, Alberta

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When the temperature shoots up to a balmy -16C it’s time to bundle up and head outside! It’s strange how the body remembers things from childhood…

  1. How snow squeaks underfoot when the temperatures dip
  2. How hard it is to get the scarf just right – too high, your glasses fog up, too low, your nose and cheeks freeze.
  3. How you feel like the Michelin Man with all those layers on.
  4. How cold your fingers get when you take off your gloves.
  5. How your lungs cringe when you sprint for the traffic light.
  6. The perpetually runny nose.
  7. Stepping inside and instantly being bathed in sweat under all those layers.
  8. The speed with which your glasses fog up when you come inside.
  9. The brilliant burn of sun on snow.
  10. Those mountains, in their fine white cloaks.
  11. The sheer delight of being out there when it’s really too cold to be out there.

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Ordinary Day at the Office

There are days when I just love my job. Writing the novel Deadpoint (which is a hi-interest, low-vocabulary novel for reluctant teen readers) has been fun from Day One. Day One was spent sitting at the bottom of a crag near Mount Yamnuska observing a class of climbers new to climbing outside. Fabio was one of the teachers and I took pages and pages of notes of what was going on. I was pretty new to the whole outdoor climbing world myself and it was a great chance to pay close attention to the kinds of challenges faced by people making the transition from gym climbing to real rock.

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When making observations on the spot you really never know what might wind up being useful. I love, love, love just scribbling away, recording every impression I possibly can – trying to use all my senses with a minimal amount of reflection. Eventually, a surprising number of these weird details, snippets of dialogue, etc. wind up making their way into the story. 

As I was sitting in the sun, scribbling away in my notebook, the three main characters started to emerge from wherever characters come from. Ayla is a keen gym climber who competes in climbing competitions, but struggles with a fear of falling (ok, that weird quirk – the fear of falling – was directly drawn from my own psyche). Lissy, her best friend, is a hard core outdoors enthusiast who was ‘conceived in a tent, born in a gully, and raised in a backpack.’ Lissy and her family can’t imagine a better place to hang out than somewhere deep in the wilderness. And then, there’s the boy – Carlos, a city kid who likes to free solo buildings for fun. Carlos is new in town and catches Lissy’s eye, which sets up the friendship tension in the story.

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Carlos was born at the base of a cliff on that very first day of note-taking. 

Long story short (you need to read the book if you want to see how it all turns out), the three teenagers find themselves in trouble on a multi-pitch climb in the mountains when the adult leader of the group is injured and incapacitated. I was pretty happy with the way things were going (more or less smoothly!) through the writing and editing process. It’s great when that happens – some stories come together a bit easier than others – this one was generally straightforward and involved lots of fun conversations and discussions with my in-house consultant, Fabio, about technical details of the climbing, the accident, the rescue, etc… In fact, we wound up working out plot problems while we were on our long climbing road trip down in the USA earlier this year. I wrote away while Fabio drove…

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This surprised me a bit, just how much climbers think and talk about falling. 

And then, after a couple of rounds of edits with two different editors at Orca, I was sent a cover mock-up. I don’t think I can post the photo that was originally suggested because of copyright issues, but basically it showed a teenager top-roping what is clearly a sport climb – she has been cleaning the route and has draws clipped to her harness. It’s almost a perfect image – the sense of being way up high is pretty good, the climbing isn’t terribly difficult, the model is age appropriate… But, if one is seconding on a trad route, a multi pitch, what she would have dangling from her gear loops would be cams and nuts and maybe a sling around her torso and, yes, some draws…

An interesting debate with the editor, publisher, and book designer followed about how important it was (or wasn’t) to get the technical details right in the cover image. The thought at the publishing house (where nobody climbs) was that the image they found made it look plenty scary and showed a climber way up high. When Fabio and I looked at the image we knew that a) it wasn’t accurate and b) really didn’t reflect what was going on in the story – which has a lot to do with the strange and very specific details of trad climbing. True, someone who knows nothing about climbing would not spot the differences, but anyone who read the book and was interested in climbing, or wanted to learn more, or who might actually have done some climbing would definitely be confused.

So, I suggested we could probably stage something that was equally interesting visually (appropriately aged female, seconding on a trad route, cams dangling from her gear loops, good exposure drop-off-wise, and – bonus – a lake in the distance, which is mentioned in the story as the place where the group sets up camp).

Both the editor and designer were skeptical that I could tick all the boxes and come up with something appropriate that was going to work better than the stock image. I suggested politely they let me try and sent a couple of generic shots I happened to have on hand from some climbs at Barrier Mountain.

All of this is quite unusual – in most cases, I am presented with a cover for a new book and we all know it’s basically a fait accompli. Writers don’t get to design covers, which is how it should be. I am not a designer. I tell stories. I am usually more than happy to let the experts deal with their areas of specialty.

So I was a bit surprised and rather delighted when I got the word back from the publisher that we could go ahead and see if we could come up with something.

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Our hard-working belayers up top, managing ropes and keeping us safe. Thanks, guys! (Fabio on the left, Greg on the right – we couldn’t have done it without you!)

Of course, this immediately threw me into a bit of a logistical tizzy. I needed someone who could climb, who could pass for 16/17, and who would be willing to be climb up and down and pose in different positions so we could get the right shot. We needed to have me in position parallel with her, and we needed her to be belayed from above. We needed a pair of patient and competent belayers who could lead the routes we had in mind. And, we needed some reasonable weather – the rain and clouds and thunderstorms of the first part of summer this year have not exactly made for perfect climbing weather. We needed some appropriate gear to dangle from the climber’s harness… And we needed that perfect location that would make sense within the story.

Which is how Anne and I wound up climbing side by side routes on the upper bit of Barrier Wall. Barrier Lake is off in the background and by shooting from The Flake (11a) towards In Us, Under Us (11b) we could get a sense of the exposure we were looking for. The climber needed to fill out the frame, so I didn’t want to be too far away.

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Anne on In Us, Under Us. Not a bad spot, hey? And, note that technically accurate assortment of gear hanging from her harness. There’s even a sling around her body and, if you look very closely, a nut tool. 

Fabio led In Us, Under Us and Greg McKee led The Flake and then the two very patient belayers set up belays above us. They stopped and started belaying as Anne and I climbed up side by side. We took dozens of photos along the way, with me clipping to bolts so I could push my feet against the wall and get both Anne and the backdrop framed reasonably well… Poor Anne had to climb and re-climb sections so I could climb a bit above her and then beside her to try to get something useable. And some of what she had to re-climb was not easy!

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Anne approaching the start of the climb, which begins on the ledge you see just above her. Getting started required climbing up the lower routes so we would appear to be high enough that a multi-pitch scenario would be plausible. 

We tried having her look up, look down, look away and pretend to be stressed, concentrating, scared, and neutral. We had her traverse off the route to try to get her to stand out better against the sky. We took some action shots, some pensive shots, and some just for fun of Anne looking happy. We lucked out with the weather (it was a glorious evening when we shot the series) and, in the end, one of the shots turned out well enough that – yes – it will be on the cover of the book!

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Anne was great about going up and moving back down and letting me get repositioned to try this angle and that…

 

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This shot was taken by Greg from above as we were working (note me being very bossy and pointing out where Anne should put her hand…). What’s weird about it is that it was taken right at the top of the climb but it doesn’t look like we are that far up. We were actually about 10 storeys up and right at the limit of what our ropes would allow us do in a single push from the ground… But right below us is a bit of a bulge in the rock so you can’t actually see the vast expanse of rock we’ve climbed up to get to where we are. The next photo below gives a better idea of the scale of the particular cliff we were working on. (Photo Credit: Greg McKee)

A couple of times as I was dangling and angling for a good shot I found myself marvelling at how absolutely cool it was to be climbing with such great people in such a stunning spot on a glorious day all in the name of work! Really, a day at the office simply does not get much better than this!

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At the very end of the day our reward was to climb the classic Beautiful Rainbow (11a). Look closely… I’m in there somewhere up toward the top. Remind me not to wear brown pants if I hope to be spotted on the rock! (Photo credit: Anne Rozek)

And, in the end, this is what the cover will look like!

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Something to ponder… keen observers who know the area will note that one, but not both, roads were removed from the image (ah, the joys of Photoshop!)… Stay tuned for a longer discussion in a future blog post about why, or why not, a designer might choose to modify an image… 

Kudos to Rachel at Orca Book Publishers for coming up with this cool-looking cover… Fingers crossed that the cover will catch the eye of some teen readers in search of a bit of vicarious adventure! Deadpoint is scheduled for release in January, 2017. If you happen to be a book blogger or a climbing blogger and you’d like to receive a review copy, get in touch and we may be able to send a one your way! Then you, too, can pick apart the cover and see whether or not we got it right!

 

 

 

M is for Munter (how to tie one), Mountains, Lady Mac, and Mixed Climbing

M is for mixed climbing, Munter and … and maybe mountains… and what about multi-pitches… Keep scrolling down if you want to get to the good part (the Munter video!)

On the first day of this challenge I was pretty sure I could dredge up something to say about climbing for each day of the alphabet… on about day five (E is for whatever E was for… M might also be about memory, or lack thereof…) I was feeling pretty panicky. I mean, you can only say so much about going up and not falling off, right? Well today I’m sitting here looking at my shortlist of M-words and I’m thinking that if I’m not careful this could develop into a long blog post!

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Me trying something waaaaaay too hard in the mixed climbing department. Sometimes you have to go past your limit to find the line in the sand… rock… ice… wherever. In this case, the line was about as high as you see here – just low enough, in fact that each time I fell off (many times) the rope stretch allowed me to gently hit the ground. With my backside.  

I’ll start with mixed climbing, a sub-genre of the climbing activity about which I had no idea before this past winter. In the vertical world in the dead of winter two solid forms (ice and rock) come together in the mountains. Climbing when you wind up transitioning from one to the other (and sometimes back again) is known as mixed climbing. The tools used are similar to ice climbing, but look closely and small difference begin to emerge.

Crampon points, for example. On a straight ice climb two front points give you a wider, more secure base upon which to perch (though, there are those who climb ice quite handily with mono-points). If there’s going to be a lot of rock on the route, though, it’s actually easier to climb with a mono-point, a single front prong. This is because the plane of the rock is very rarely exactly perpendicular to your foot placement. Unlike in ice where you can kick your foot in to create a more or less even distribution of weight over both points, on the rock, more likely you are going to carefully place your single point into an indent, small hole, or on a modest lip of rock. The chances of said placement point being exactly wide/deep/level/spaced to accommodate two fixed points on the front of your boot is slim.

Likewise, the blades of your ice tools can be swapped out with sturdier, less razor sharp options being better for rock than for ice. Fabio has a tool kit in the car especially for the purpose of swapping out pointy bits to best suit conditions.

Though both sections (rock and ice) of a mixed climb can be hard, sometimes the transitions between one and the other provides a particularly tricky challenge.

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Me transitioning between rock and ice at Haffner Creek earlier this season…

 

The Mighty Munter Hitch (Or, Italian Belay Knot)

A Munter hitch is named after Werner Munter, a Swiss mountain guide born in 1941 (though, the Italians were using it before Herr Munter, which is why it’s also known as an Italian hitch or Italian Belay). The knot is a bit like a clove hitch and can be used to belay a climber if you have a handy carabiner. What’s coolest about the knot is the way it’s sort of reversible – flipped in one direction it can be used like a brake (say when your buddy has fallen into a crevasse, you’ve stopped the fall by walloping your ice axe into the glacier and then throwing your body weight on top of the ax, and then you need to stop your friend from slithering deeper into said crevasse… After quickly building an anchor – and the thought of having to do this with gloves on and while sitting on my ice axe is nothing short of horrifying – you would then use a Munter to secure the rope leading to your fallen friend… well, not exactly – first you have to take the weight off the rope by transferring the weight of the climber to the newly built anchor… gads. That was meant to be a simple aside. Turns out it might need to be a whole other blog post.) Flip the same knot upside down and you can use it to belay your friend, letting out slack to lower her to a handy shelf or taking in slack as she climbs up and out of the crevasse.

Here’s my handy dandy how-to guide (and specially produced video!! Thanks to Fabio for being a Munter model…)

How to Tie a Munter Hitch

Step 1: Make a loop in the bit of rope that leads to the fallen climber. The end leading to the climber goes underneath.

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Step 2: Make another loop in the end of the rope that leads to your excess pile of rope (the end away from the climber). The excess end goes over the top.

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Step 3: Fold the rope in the middle to bring two loops together.

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Step 4: Insert a carabiner (preferably a nice big pear-shaped carabiner) through both loops.munter 4.jpg

Depending how the knot is oriented (which was much easier to show in the video), you can either belay (play out rope) or stop the rope from running. Now you have to watch the video, to see what I mean about flipping the knot’s orientation… Trust me. This will be the sexiest 90 seconds of knot tying you have ever had the pleasure of watching… there’s even music.

 

Mountains: I’m just going to throw the word in here because the entire world of rock climbing would disappear without them…

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Here’s one of my favourites, the iconic Mount Rundle in the Rockies. The first mountain I ever lived on was the more diminutive Tunnel Mountain, which reminded me of a round-backed hedgehog-like animal sleeping in a bucolic valley surrounded by unfriendly giants. As a kid I hiked up the Banff side of Tunnel on various occasions and, because our house was on the lower flank of this modest lump, spent many hours building forts, exploring, and playing hide and seek in the forest behind our house. It wasn’t until last summer, though, that I had the chance to climb up the steep backside of Tunnel and quickly realized that, in fact, even though it’s dwarfed by much bigger neighbours, Tunnel is still worthy of its mountain moniker.

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Mount Lady MacDonald is a popular hiking destination near Canmore. Here, she peeks over the trees at Grassi Lakes, where we were climbing yesterday afternoon. How handy that her name begins with the letter M.

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As for multi-pitches… well, another blog post, I guess! I am out of time… making that video was exhausting.

I is for Ice and Infamy

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Ice and rock – strange and beautiful sculptural bedfellows – This photo taken in an icy cave near the top of This House of Sky in the Ghost Wilderness Area

Today’s post for the A to Z Blogging Challenge will be mostly photos – of ice. Which is definitely a bit strange given I am sitting beside a swimming pool in Hawaii as I write this… But ice has been a bit of a theme back at home this year. I knew there were people who climbed frozen waterfalls, but to be honest, I didn’t really think I’d ever be one of them. And then, I met Fabio, who is obsessed with ice climbing.

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Fabio (right) leading the last pitch of Cascade Falls (Banff National Park) – the wind creates the most amazing twirling fingers of ice

I can’t say that I’ve become obsessed with ice climbing in the same way climbing rock has seized me, but I have lost track of how many times I’ve had my breath taken away while in the presence of some icy feature.

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Johnson Canyon in the Rockies – a popular place for ice climbers and tourists alike

At various points during this winter’s explorations I’ve found myself hanging out in ice caves – either to get out of the wind, wait my turn to climb, belay safely without getting bonked on the head by falling ice or, once, when I decided I wasn’t up to the final, steep pitch and was happier waiting for the others to climb while I snapped a few photos.

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This House of Sky

By turn brutal and delicate, intimidating and fragile, ice is nothing if not unpredictable. From one day to the next it can change and, depending on its mood, can make for a fabulous climbing partner or an obnoxious opponent determined to thwart one’s best efforts to ascend. Softer, wetter conditions make it much easier to sink your ice tools deep, but too warm and things can literally start falling apart beneath you.

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Fabio – Johnson Canyon

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Whack at a piece of hard, glassy, blue, extremely cold ice and your tool is just as likely to bounce back at you, barely leaving a scratch on the surface. Hit the rock hard surface at a slight angle and you might dislodge a knife-edged slab of ice capable of decapitating you or your belayer.

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Tuck in behind a curtain of ice like this one at Bear Spirit near Banff, Alberta and it can feel like you’ve been transported to a parallel universe… One where ice fairies might emerge from their glassy bedrooms to dust the wintery world outside with a sparkling of frost… 

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I’ve got my brave game face on here, but I was actually terrified. I was about to step out and around a very steep column of ice at Louise Falls  early in the ice climbing season and very early in my ice climbing career. Though I had serious doubts about my ability to get to the top of this one, once my palpitations subsided, in the end all went well. 

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Haffner Creek in BC is a place lots of climbers go to practice their ice climbing skills. Here I’ve been sent on a mission meant to improve my footwork. Note that my ice tools are parked down at the bottom and I’m climbing without them. Instead of relying on hooking the tools into the ice and hauling myself up, I can only use my gloved (and increasingly cold) hands for a bit of balance. All the upward movement came from my feet, which is as it should be.

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As I write this today I could not be farther away from that magical, icy world of the mountains in winter. Here in Hawaii we visited Pearl Harbour this morning and spent some time in quiet thought at the memorial of the sunken battleship, Arizona. In the museum I was intrigued to see the handwritten edits to one of the world’s most famous speeches delivered by F. D. Roosevelt the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

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The word “infamy” was not in the original Pearl Harbor speech. 

I’m busily editing three different manuscripts in progress at the moment and they all look a bit like that typed page, full of additions and deletions and new directions and re-thinkings. Not that any will be as significant as The Infamy Speech, but it is reassuring to see that even the most eloquent of writing likely started out looking quite different to its final, polished form.

Joy – The Final Chapter

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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…

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Joy – Part Two

joy part two title IMG_4809If you look up an established route in a climbing guidebook you’ll get an idea of how many pitches and the length of each, what permanent bolts or other hardware (fixed gear) might already be there, and what kind of gear you will need to haul up the mountain with you.

If you don't own your own ropes, cams, XX, slings, and stuff you don't even know the names of and have no clue how to use any of it, it's handy to hang out with people who a) have stuff and b) know how to use it

If you don’t own your own ropes, cams, nuts, quickdraws, slings, and stuff you don’t even know the names of and have no clue how to use anyway, it’s handy to hang out with people who a) have stuff and b) know how to use it. Note the cheerful smile. A positive attitude and endless patience are fine attributes in someone leading newbies up mountains. And by newbie I am referring to me and not Anne, the third member of our party on Joy Day. Anne, it turns out, is gazelle-like in her navigation of talus (see previous post) and willing and able to belay pitch after pitch when climbing with injured geriatrics… 

Every time I turned around there was some new vista to photograph. Next time, I'm going to haul my better camera up with me, though the iphone did an admirable job. It constantly amazes me how tiny wildflowers, moss, lichen and, yes trees are able to grow in what appears to be a totally inhospitable environment.

Every time I turned around there was some new vista to photograph. Next time, I’m going to haul my better camera up with me, though the iphone did an admirable job. It constantly amazes me how tiny wildflowers, moss, lichen, clumps of grass and, yes trees are able to grow in what appears to be a totally inhospitable environment.

Once all the mysterious gear was organized and strapped to bodies (mostly to the body of our fearless leader), the work of keeping us all more or less safe began. This was my first multi-pitch climb so I was totally intrigued by the various do-hickeys and how they were used (expert rock climbers, forgive anything completely stupid I may say and, yes – I know they are not called do-hickeys).

Anne Belay ready to play out rope as our fearless leader starts moving up the slab, hauling ropes behind him that will later be used to prevent either of us from sliding backwards off the mountain.

Anne tied in and getting ready to belay (play out rope) as our fearless leader starts moving up the slab, hauling ropes behind him that will later be used to prevent either of us from sliding backwards off the mountain.

Crouching on the slab, Fabio looks for a good spot to jam some of that gear into handy crack so the ropes will be attached to something reasonably solid...

Crouching on the slab, Fabio looks for a good spot to jam some of that gear into a handy crack so the ropes will be attached to something reasonably solid…

All the way up the slope, Fabio bounded ahead, stopping occasionally to set more rope traps (yes, yes – I know that’s not what they are called either…). As he went, dragging the climbing ropes behind him, he clipped them in as he placed draws and kept going until the ropes stretched between him and us were basically used up. Along the way Anne played out the slack so if Fabio fell he would only crash backwards as far as the last piece of protection he had placed.

It was amazing how tightly some of those do-hickeys held on to that crack...

It was amazing how tightly some of those do-hickeys held on to that crack…

Anne paying close attention while belaying...

Anne paying close attention while belaying…

Fabio scampering up the rock face dragging the ropes behind him...

Fabio scampering up the rock face dragging the ropes behind him…

IMG_4786 IMG_4788Me, snapping photos while the other two did all the hard work…

Meanwhile, gear continued to be placed up above us. When Fabio reached the end of the rope then he set up an anchor so he could belay us, taking up the slack as we climbed up to join him. Sometimes belay anchors were located on a luxurious ledge so we could all stand with feet more or less level. Just as often, we had no space to maneuver and sort of perched with screaming calves on the rock, hoping the next section would go quickly so we could move on again. (By the way, if you click on one of those smaller images you can enlarge it and click through the gallery…)

And that was the pattern for several hours – Fabio led the way (while Anne belayed, something my injured elbow really didn’t do well), set gear, and established a belay anchor so we could follow him up. We repeated the process about ten times (I was going to keep a very accurate and precise log detailing each pitch but confess I totally lost track after about four or five…).

Eventually, we reached the top (actually, eventually came pretty quickly – we moved fast and made it up in under four hours). Every time I turned around and looked back as we reached a new resting spot the views did, indeed, got better and better as more and more of the lakes below appeared.

At some point Anne and I failed miserably in our attempts to free a nut from the crack (refer to earlier comment about how hard those little suckers hang on) so Fabio had to climb back down to retrieve it and then climb back up to join us.

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To be continued… I’ll leave the climb at this point and continue in the next post because the worst part of the whole expedition was the bit AFTER we had reached the top and somehow had to get back down again…

In Search of Joy – Part 1

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The timing of my elbow injury couldn’t have been much worse, really. It happened right at the beginning of the climbing season and I was so excited about heading outside and climbing actual rocks and not just inside in the gym (which has been a lot of fun, but I was raring to go feel some wind whistling through my helmet ventilation holes!)

I briefly considered cancelling a planned trip to the Rockies (brief=nanosecond) but it turns out that with a brace and a knowledgeable guide it’s entirely possible to find routes up mountains that are stunning and fun and which require very little of one’s elbows.

Joy is the name of a route on Mount Indefatigable which overlooks the Kananaskis Lakes, a name I assume was given to the route by one of the three first ascentionists in 1995 (Peter Gatzsch, Urs Kallen and Geoff Powter).  …photo from the Gripped.com article about four routes along the Bighorn Highway in Alberta. The white line indicates the route known as Joy.

When I first heard the name I wondered if I would find it joyous to climb. From what I could find online, it seemed like the climbing wouldn’t be too hard and would require little if any pulling with my bad arm. It also seemed like it would take a while (it’s about ten pitches long and though none of the sections are difficult, think about marching uphill on a pretty steep grade for several hours after having recently arrived from sea level and you can see why I imagined there could be a bit of huffing and puffing and calf-burning going on toward the top).

The hike in from the parking lot took maybe 45 minutes to the bottom of a truly dreadful rock pile.

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Knowledgeable guide: “We are here. We need to go up there.”

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Experienced companion: Halfway up the rubble pile before I could even get started. (See her way up there?) Knowledgeable guide: The trick is to take small steps, find a level place to put your foot, and get into a rhythm. Me: Rock piles suck. I thought we were here to climb a mountain?

Things I learned about the Rocky Mountains:

1. They are falling apart. The quantity of crumbled rock that has fallen from on high is staggering.

2. A huge expanse of fallen rock lying at the base of one’s objective is known as talus.

3. If the resting angle of the talus slope exceeds 33-37 degrees, things will start to slither. I am glad I did not know this and had no way to measure the angle of the slope we had to traverse because I would likely have enjoyed my wobbly trip even less.

4. Marching across a talus slope is an obnoxious exercise. Every step is uncertain. It’s pretty steep: even though it’s not anything like a cliff, losing your balance would suck big time. I could easily imagine slipping and sliding my way toward the bottom, surrounded by a hail of rocks big enough to snap bones. When this sort of thing happens one engages in some sort of self arrest procedure. This basically means using boots, hands, walking stick, teeth – anything to dig in and grab on and stop sliding. This seems all well and good in theory, but how one would self arrest in a landslide when everything around you is slithering and big enough to cause some serious damage I’m not exactly sure. Variations of this maneuver are also carried out on ice and snow using ski poles and pick axes. At this point I remain unconvinced about how much fun ice climbing and glacier whacking could possibly be. At this point, my winter heart sings sailing songs in southern climes.

5. Fortunately, if you do as you are told by the experienced guide (read the micro-terrain, place each foot in as level a spot as possible, stand up, take small steps, use your pole as your third leg, get into a steady rhythm and let momentum carry you) it is possible to pick your way over a sizeable talus slope without dislodging anything too big or toppling over backwards. The end result? A somewhat sweaty arrival at the base of the slab.

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Rope Management 101: try not to get too many knots in the ropes. Try not to drop your rope over the edge. Make sure you have a knot in the end of the rope so it doesn’t slip through a belay device, which could result in you dropping over the edge of a precipice. Try not to think about stuff like dropping off the edge of a precipice or your climbing experience suddenly becomes a lot less fun.

While the two pros were busy sorting out gear, organizing ropes, and making sure essential supplies like sunflower seeds were handy, I gawked around at the view.

In the foreground to the right the tail end of the rubble heap we scrambled over to get to the start of the climb proper.

In the foreground to the right is the tail end of the rubble heap we scrambled over to get to the start of the climb proper.

I thought the view was pretty great right from the start of the climb, but the others insisted things would just get better the higher we got.

Looking to our right, the slab and, beyond that, Upper Kananaskis Lake.

Looking to our right, the slab and, beyond that, Upper Kananaskis Lake.

As the winds blew clouds over the lake, the patterns of light and water shifted and changed so even when we were standing still (waiting for our fearless leader to set up the next belay anchor, for example) the show was an ever-changing treat. Though I suppose we could have sat and had a picnic and then scrambled back down over the dreaded talus slope, we were all eager to get going.

Looking up the slab - though mostly smooth, every now and then a dramatic crack opened in the rock before us

Looking up the slab – though mostly smooth, every now and then a dramatic crack opened in the rock before us. 

The route up Joy is pretty straightforward – basically follow the little crack at the base of the outcropping on the left and head uphill. The crack, it turns out, is perfect for shoving in all manner of knobbly things known collectively as ‘gear.’  More about gear placement and what the lead climber does (and what we followers had to do) to come in the next post, but this is getting rather long and I’m a bit worried about creating a mega post with a gazillion photos that will take forever to load.