Saturday, 2 February 2013

Mixed Feelings

"Some changes look negative on the surface but you will soon realize that space is being created in your life for something new to emerge" - Eckhart Tolle

Silence. The kind you get when nobody's awake and the pale of dawn isn't ready to turn on the lights yet.

Two bodies lay side by side, cocooned by pudgy, soft down sleeping bags, like a pair of juicy grubs. One prone, the other in a fetal position. That's me. We are sleeping in the back of a Toyota 91' Previa with a back seat unscrewed and piled on the other to make space. Sitting up, i take in the surroundings. Forecast said it was -15 last night. A nice layer of frozen condensation encases all the windows inside the van we've dubbed the 'ice house'. I scrub a whole through the back window to my left. No cars have left the parking lot yet for work. David is still dead to the world. I lie back down again. Watching my steaming breath rise and spill over the roof, i can't help but think; "This time last month i was in Mexico clipping bolts in the sun"...Narf

Ice, Ice, Baby!
 The small car, filled with the three of us was bursting at the seams. Ropes, racks, clothes and food filled every remaining cubic inch. Slowly but surely the burdened vehicle makes it's way through the town of Hidalgo, lurching over yet another speed bump with a Clang!, briefly muting the thumping bass line that's been cranked up to maintain our psyche. After 5 months of traditional climbing we were actually quite excited by the thought of clipping some bolts for a few weeks! Rounding the corner of the main square, we start up the hill towards El Potrero Chico. Jib and Van let out a "Woo Hoo!". The cliffs of the canyon must be coming into view. I would be more psyched by the spectacle but at that moment all i could see was the back of Jibs head. When the tired motor finally comes to a halt, all three of us step out for a look. Wow!

The entrance to the canyon

The euphoric moment of  'finally getting here'
  The day before, we had been driving in a straight line across Texas. As night fell we stopped for a sleep in some field near the highway. We grab our sleeping pads and land in the soil like felled timber and into instant slumber. A few hours later we are woken by two massive pick up trucks both with their headlight beams aimed right at us. I rub the sleep from my eyes and put out an arm to shield my eyes from the blinding light to see three silhouetted men standing in front. All have their hands cocked near their holsters. I crane my head to look around the guy in the center. The side of the truck reads "US Boarder Patrol". Great.

With Vans disarming smile and explanation that "we actually want to leave the usa", i am allowed to totter out in my boxer shorts to the car to show them my visa. He smiles at the bumbling Englishman and tells us to move on at dawn.  An hour later it happens again and we explain again that we want to go to Mexico. "You guys are crazy" the officer retorts, in perfect southern drawl.

What's crazier, is the steepness of Outrage Wall!
Canmore, Alberta. Situated in the Canadian Rockies, this world class arena would be the perfect place to learn to climb vertical ice and to enter the new realm of mixed climbing. (Rock and ice in the same route). My new home. For the winter at least. Initial excitement fills us with the hilarity of 'winter dirt bagging'.  On our first day out we get suited and booted for winter climbing and go about sinking our tools into the soft blue ice at a practice area just outside of town known as the 'Junkyard'. After a few laps i stand on top of the small cascade and look down into the Bow Valley and study the summits and faces around us, plastered in snow and ice. Magical..beautiful...deadly. A wonderful winter playground but a place where you can't screw it up. Not for a second. I am nervous but excited to step out of my comfort zone and see where it takes me. Starting to get cold now. The water on the falls that had soaked my jacket was now turning crunchy. Better go down.

Then it starts. Back at the 'Hostel of Doom' ( we paid $5 bucks to use the kitchen each day) i remember leaving my ice tools at the bottom of the ice crag. Damn. Driving back up i run over to the falls as it starts snowing. At the spot, i get on my knees and scrape frantically for the lost tools and start to get demented when at last they appear. The next day the van won't wake up. Battery dead? We hook up the cables to another car but sparks fly out. That can't be good. Now the lights on the dash won't come on. We search for a mobile mechanic but they don't exist so we dash across the road to vehicle repair shop but we have to bring the vehicle to them. Hmm. Pushing won't work so we eventually concede and call the tow truck. 2 minutes and $130 later its getting fixed (Blown fuses). A few days later the battery is dead again. Phew, it gets jumped without a hitch. We then go to the Alpine club hostel out of town as the HOD is too awful. A nice night there leaves us refreshed for the next day. The morning of, we set off down the hill to climb. Alas, on the tight bend we sail flawlessly over a sheet of ice into a ditch and nearly roll into a telegraph pole. Our little ship had been severely rocked that week and i was starting to doubt my place here. No job to cover costs and no place to live was starting to eat me from the inside. Jumping ship was turning into a good idea.

The site of our 'little mishap'
La Pasada. The new campsite for a fortnight. More like a resort, it sits at the mouth of the canyon and hosts a garden, swimming pool, kitchen and bar. Being the same price as sleeping in camp 4, it feels like luxury. Revelling in the warm breeze, i waft over to the pool to see my Czech friend Petr and his mate we met in Yosemite. Catching up and trading stories, a Mitsubishi van the size of a tin can pulls up. I know that van! Out gets Alex and Nick from BC. Haven't seen you guys since Squamish! Sharing a beer and lounging on the deck chairs, i enter catch up mode again. They drove from the Red River Gorge in Kentucky and talk about their new friend they met there that should be arriving soon. My ears prick up and i know who it is already. I know that voice! The friend from the red is none other than our dear friend Ina from Squamish, how wonderful!
Hanging with Nick and Ina at La Pasada

Negro, the campground doggie
 After a night of celebration and a bottle of Tequila we swiftly head up into the canyon. Our first route is a really fun, athletic route of about 1000ft called 'Space Boyz' Mostly 5.10, the position is fantastic. With the lightest rack ever, consisting of 18 draws (ahh simple sport) we link pitches and go go go! Crimps, pockets, bolts. It would be this way pretty much everyday for 2 weeks. When Kyla catches up with us (from the creek) we had a tribe back together again. To say this was a good turn of events was an understatement. 

Looking up 'Space Boyz'
Intention. Positive intention. Your actions, your attitude, your resources. You can make it happen. Of course, i didn't really want to leave this place. You're right here. World class ice formations formed all over the Rockies and would be the perfect place to learn. Fortunately, we met some Danish climbers who were here on a mission and were able to tag along and hero the ice falls (on top rope...) One of them tells me that the living legend Will Gadd said "you should top rope 100 times before you lead". This makes me feel less pitiful and i go about making my way to 100 with a little more dignity.

That following week was a great breath of fresh air and the doubt was suppressed more and more but waking up in the van with my thoughts brings back this feeling anew. David leaves for Cuba. Climbing is the only stable thing in my life.

Damien Cote belaying Simon Jensen in Johnston Canyon

The world famous Stanley Headwall. Climbing this in inconceivable to me right now.
Looking up the start of Professor Falls. WI4 300m

Looking out to Cascade mountain from the top. Magic.
  Sport climbing is fun. With hardly any gear it means you can afford to pack some unnecessary gear that you would never be caught with in the an i pod and speakers for example. On this day we want to climb lots of pitches in a day, apart from the next little bit which has a brief 5.11b sequence, the rest is low 5.10. Jib is making his way up to the belay pretty quick. I know this because I'm reeling in the rope and the faint boom boom boom of the bass line is getting closer until i hear 'can't get no sleep'. Classic, Faithless. I quickly grab some draws and start up the 'Pit Bull' variation on 'Estrellita'. Crimp, high step, rock over, mantle onto shelf, finger lock. A little rest allows room for a quick shake out and a look at the lip. Ooh getting a bit pumped already. A few more moves up a shallow corner and im just shy of reaching the lip. The music sounds like a whisper as its taken by the wind. Come on, get you feet up. Nope. Fingers begin uncurling. i make a cave man eske slap for the lip but it tickles my tips and i go limp as i peel off the wall into space. Back at the bolt i see the crucial foothold i failed to see in my lactic state. i try again and reach the lip. Jib soon follows and we're off again. After linking 20 pitches in 10 rope lengths (we also went up 'Super Nova') and 13 rappels we had had a good day out!

Climbing 'Sketch Pad' 5.11a/b, El Fin de Semana
Enoying one of many routes on Mota Wall

Chugging out tunes with Jib on 'Estrellita'
That's the great thing about rock climbing, especially on bolts. You can push it and take the whip. Taking it to the limit is fun. Most of the time. There are exceptions...

The opposite can be said for ice climbing. At least when you're learning. This is all im thinking about when its time to lead the first pitch of Weeping Wall, left hand (160m WI4). My friend Damien, a very experienced climber from Quebec who possesses great humility and unwavering optimism, has agreed to lead the harder pitches above. Got to contribute at least one lead. Setting off, the ice is nice and soft. Thrust the tool in and test it. With straight arms, bring your feet up into a squat like position and stand up, arching your back. Strike again. That's the basic sequence. 4 close screws later my calfs are burning but otherwise im alright, just need to stop stressing.

The massive Weeping Wall.
Our line went left of the exposed rock in the middle.
 A couple of weeks before, my first lead up a tiny steep pillar was a disaster that left me knackered, shaking and whimpering a fearful "watch me" only to finish crouched under a roof at the top with no fixed anchor. Just a set of bolts 2 meters to the left on another climb. The best idea i can think of is to drive a tool in with the hammer of the other as hard as possible, sink the other tool next to it and lower off them. Not the best ascent ever, that's for sure.
I hope this can be somewhat understandable though as the last WI4 i tried to lead last year, called 'Hers' in Grotto canyon (near Canmore) resulted in the most terrifying fall of my climbing life so far.
The ice had formed nicely and i started up the cone at the base. A few holes from previous ascents made 'hooking' my tools quite easy. At the top of the pillar i was nice and warm having placed the last ok screw now at my feet. The crux of this formation is that you need to traverse a couple of meters, under a roof and over an icy step in which the icicles underneath had sheared off. This made me fearful of the integrity of the step and as a result i was crunched up too far in the roof above. About halfway between moving away from the pillar and reaching the chains (it's for a direct mixed route as well) i hammer my tool into the highest piece of ice available that's far to brittle for decent purchase. I keep on hammering with my bent left arm in the cramped space as much as possible but am getting tired so quickly i can literally see seconds left in my minds eye. With a small hole now i figure it's got to hold something. i match my right hand on the tool as well. Upon stretching out for the chains with my left hand the tool explodes, sending shrapnel of ice into my face. The tool butts into my cheek and im off. Letting out a death scream, my tools clatter onto the frozen ground and i swing into the pillar. My right knee smashing into the ice and absorbs the force before i swing back left. My razor crampons sailing over my belayers head. I finally stop and sit up on the rope. The screw held. Woah. I look up and see it's come out halfway. I lower down and limp over into the snow. That was close.

Back down in the canyon, we all sit round the blazing fire, listening to music, chatting about the day, shooting the shit. For most of us, we will be parting ways again. A regular event with such a nomadic group of people. Some will continue south, some will stay, some like me go back north. What a season. Looking forward to seeing you all again someday. It was a pleasure. Let's have another drink! The next day i was to step out of the airport in -25.

Vans usual antics

Our last fire together
Back on Weeping Wall these memories flash by but i ignore it, breathe and finish the pitch. Damien flows up in two seconds and we continue up for the rest of the day. A couple hours later, we are halfway up this massive wall of ice. No matter how long you climb, when you look down on something like's awesome. "Lets get out of here" he remarks as i reach the belay. He is right, its sunny and above zero. We put snow over the anchor to help the ice from melting. A couple hours later we are onto of the ledge and begin the rappels. That's only halfway, there's upper Weeping Wall too which looks wild!

Damien leading the second pitch

Arriving at the 3rd belay. Psyched.
Rapping back down

A long drive later im dropped off at my new home in the trailer park. Things are looking up, eh! Let's keep it coming. Maybe i can lead my first mixed route and make some more cash..... Positive Intention.

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