Choose Your Own Adventure – By Jacob Smith
“I realized the moment I fell into the fissure, that the book would not be destroyed as I had planned. It continued falling into that starry expanse, of which I had only a fleeting glimpse.”
A couple winters ago Ryan and I went on these Canadian ice climbing trips in which it would be pitch black and somewhere around six degrees Fahrenheit outside from about five-o-clock at night until seven in the morning and since we didn’t have the extra cash to blow on the Canmore bar scene, we spent a lot of time holed up in our hotel room. For me this meant getting some reading done and watching Game of Thrones. For Ryan it meant sitting at the awkwardly small hotel table, hunched over his laptop, compulsively watching climbing videos and researching beta. This was when he found the photo. I’m not going to say what peak it was because he hopes to return someday and doesn’t want anyone scooping his line. Looking at those untouched ribbons of white running through thousands of feet of frosted rock, he got pretty giddy pretty fast. This was the winter of 2013 to 2014 and that was a late snow year, so Ryan thought we would still just barely be able to drive to the trailhead. I don’t recall when he picked me up but I don’t think I was inclined to refer to the hour as being in the morning. Snow began to cover the road just before our turn-off and it rapidly deepened as Ryan’s 4runner climbed up the logging road. Chains were mentioned and then silently disregarded as we individually recalled spending the better part of an hour affixing them in Ouray the year before. The higher up we got the better of an idea chains started to seem, until we finally slowed to a halt, tires spinning. Ryan put us into reverse and the 4runner quickly became unstuck, quickly enough that it didn’t really want to stop again, until we careened off an embankment, tumbled a few hundred feet, and exploded in a conspicuously mushroom-shaped ball of flames.
Weaving slightly and firmly in the lowest gear the vehicle possessed, the 4runner reached the trailhead, where it was cold enough that I couldn’t stand still as Ryan finished packing. He always took longer to pack than I did. I’ve never really been able to figure out why. About fifty yards up the trail my trekking pole, the good one, snapped in half, leaving me glad I had decided to bring the shitty one too. The forecasted high that day was fifteen degrees. This was about the time my toes went numb. Ryan’s promise of an “easy trail to the base” turned out rather predictably: deep snow drifts obscuring everything. We found our way well enough but it took twice as long as we had anticipated. Finally out of the forest, I broke trail up a frozen creek bed into a basin, and then traversed across open slopes until the line appeared. Just as I was getting my first real view of the objective, my uncramponed boots hit an icy patch and I went for a ride. Unable to stop myself with my single, decrepit, trekking pole, I raced down the hillside in a crazy, uncontrolled, glissade that ended with a collision between myself and a sizable boulder. My skull was probably crushed on impact.
My snowshoes squeaked all the way across the wind packed slopes, their teeth biting in and torqueing my ankles sideways. After stashing them and our trekking poles in a rocky outcropping Ryan and I headed up towards the face. It was impossible to tell how things were going to go but almost at the last minute a WI2ish gully cut up to our left and gave us easy access through the first rock band; Ryan, some ways ahead, started to solo up it as the ice gradually steepened. The climbing was easy enough and the ice was good, but the calf-burn from the low angle front-pointing quickly became powerful. Then the ice steepened to around seventy degrees and we had to traverse around an overhang. The higher we climbed the more brittle the ice became, from sun exposure most likely, until my pick ripped and when I tried to reset it a sheet the size of a placemat dinner-plated off, taking my second pick with it. The free fall was short and the slide was long but I blacked out after my crampon point caught on something and I started cartwheeling.
The ice was fracturing in the cold but past the traverse Ryan had made a belay of sorts below a dicey looking pitch: a short ice step and then some thin lower-angle stuff. I think he got one stubby screw in, and then maybe some rock gear above. The second pitch looked even worse: I had two options, a thin, excessively delaminated WI4 runnel leading to god knows what, or a snow ramp to a detached ice smear, with maybe 30 feet of drytooling between them. It being my lead, I chose the one farther away, on the grounds that I knew there was no way I was leading that runnel and there was a remote chance that the drytooling would be protectable. So I floundered across the ramp and thrashed up a short snow-filled chimney and there got a good look at my pitch. The rock was compact and the ice looked rotten, there was nowhere for as a much as a knifeblade. I looked back down and across the slope at Ryan and shouted that there was no pro. I don’t recall what he said but my own monologue went something like, “fuck it, this is what climbing is all about, sticking it out there, risking the unknown, accepting uncertainty.” My little pep talk done, I launched on up and just barely reached the ice when the pebble my right crampon point was resting on broke and the swing dislodged my picks. On the way down my foot tapped a ledge and flipped me upside down, dropping me head first onto the snow slope.
I shouted that there was no pro and Ryan replied some sort of acknowledgement. As I retreated down the snow ramp I repeated this to myself: had there been pro I would have gone for it, but there was none so I didn’t. I returned the lead to Ryan and he investigated the runnel, bashing away some of the ice at its base to find a finger crack and a bomber cam placement. Maybe thirty feet above, on a ledge, he wiggled in a tri-cam, which would later take me some time to extract. Following, I climbed the runnel twice because the first time I fell at the top and with rope stretch I wound up almost at our belay. We were moving too slowly and we both knew it. I was in over my head – falling on top rope on ice, it was nothing short of dumb. These sorts of climbs take a partnership, a semi-divine oneness, not a belay slave and a rope gun. Looking ahead we saw two options, a sprawling detached pillar almost directly above us, one mellow snow pitch away, and a more doable looking ice flow far off to our right, its approach uncertain. We deliberated. I knew if we retreated we would regret it and if we summited I would be ecstatic. We would stand like demigods on the fateful mountain and no matter the coming night the sun would warm us, and for weeks we would bask in that sated glow. In the evening light we crossed the final slopes above the rightmost pillar until our steps and the late afternoon heat broke a bond somewhere deep in the snowpack and we were avalanched down the face.
Arriving at the upper belay it took me several minutes to realize that Ryan had decided to retreat. We rappelled off slung horns, full seventy meter rappels, two of them, and then a V-thread down the couloir we had soloed up earlier that day. Ryan went first and some ways down the brittle ice failed and, safely anchored in, I was yanked into the air.
Ryan waited while I went first and bounded down the gentle icy slope, my tools clipped to my harness, until the rope ends came unnoticed and then I fell and slid, bashing against the rock walls of the gully.
We down climbed as we had practiced until we reached the snow beneath our couloir, and a deep spindrift slab tore loose beneath us.
My crampon caught on my gaiter and I tripped, imbedding my ice tool in my leg and slicing my femoral artery.
Our tracks had blown away and we wandered in the forest as night came early, exhausted and dehydrated, feet numb as they had been all day. In the morning we found our tracks and followed them to the trailhead. My toes were grey when I finally removed my boots and eventually I lost eight of them.
Our headlamps died and we stumbled into a river, the current, low as it was in the winter freeze, pulling us into a logjam.
Emerging from the forest we found the 4runner surrounded by three other trucks. We didn’t have the strength to run away and they beat us down with tire irons before rooting through Ryan’s pack for his keys.
Driving back down the highway a pale figure stumbled into the road and Ryan stomped on the brakes, sending us into a messy halt a few feet from what we then saw was a child in a white dress. We had already offered to give her a ride when we noticed that her eyes had no pupils. Soon after we resumed driving, the child nestled between our backpacks, we realized that we no longer recognized the road we were on. Ahead we saw a forest fire and again we slowed to a stop. The child broke a window and crawled out, running into the flames, which we could now see in our rear-view mirror as well.
After this there is no story. With the protagonists gone their enemies do not live out their lives, sow fields, raise children. The mountain comes down with us, each fall a book snapping shut. The words are not a glimpse into an extant world, they are the world itself.
My feet burned like my shoes were filled with boiling water as we chained the tires of the 4runner. I never found the broken tip of my trekking pole. We departed as we had arrived, in the cold and the dark. Driving through a snowy town at night it feels like the whole world is sleeping through your tragedy.
This beautiful story was generously contributed by Jacob Smith. Jacob is a climber and writer from the Pacific Northwest. He has written other pieces for Fringe’s Folly, including Mindfulness: Talking About Risk in Climbing and Valley Downfall: How Valley Uprising Distorts Climbing History. You can follow his work at his blog, The Obligatory Climbing Blog.
Fringe’s Folly is proud to publish nontraditional, unique, unscripted, and dare I even say – artistic – stories such as this, that often get overlooked by the mainstream climbing media. If you have a story that you want to share, send us a copy, a query, or a pitch here!