Sometimes it feels as though the significant days of my life have started in a flickering pool of head torch light. Anything within the beam, safe, anything outside, unknown and potentially dangerous. Clive and I were using our torches to avoid waking our respective climbing partners as we were rising early, 4am. To make sure we were the first on our chosen route for the day. Not much chance of any danger in Kit’s guest house, the worst I could do would be trip over the tangle of outdoor clothing that was scattered about my bed.
So this was the day we had been waiting for, today we were going to climb “The Ribbon”.
The dictionary definition of Ribbon is a long narrow strip. No mention of anything girlie or possibly pink and it sums up perfectly the route we were intending to climb. An 800 foot ribbon of ice that falls steeply down the cliff face, opposite the Camp Bird Mine, just outside of Ouray Colorado.
The dictionary, not being a climbing guidebook, fails to mention and I quote, “One of the most serious undertakings in North America” Not I might add because the climbing is particularly hard, Water Ice 4/5 all the way (WI 5 is plumb vertical with overhanging sections) But because this route is frequently subject to enormous spindrift and full depth avalanches. Situated, as it is, beneath a huge basin of deep snow. The source of the melt that makes the ice but equally the source of the danger.
I had omitted to tell Clive that I had given up on danger years ago. As a result of this oversight here I was preparing to do this “most serious undertaking in North America”. The words kept surfacing from the abyssal depths of my brain. They were like an awkward rhythm that I couldn’t get out of my head a bit like a Spice Girls song when really what I needed was something more complex. This should have been a King Crimson day, “confusion will be my epitaph as I cross this cracked and broken path, for I fear tomorrow I’ll be dying” That’s what I felt like not some vacuous shite from a bunch of brainless tarts. (Apologies to womankind, proper women that is)
Musical metaphors aside, we had ticked all the correct boxes, the weather had been stable for three days, very little wind, as far as we knew, to redistribute snow on the higher slopes. The avalanche factor was “Substantial Risks” which generally translates to very specific aspects, so we should be OK. It should be a breeze; it was after all a rest day.
We tramped out into a typical pre dawn Ouray, the temperature was about minus 10 degrees. We knew from experience that Camp Bird is generally a few degrees colder so at least nothing would be melting.
Twenty minutes of driving on the icy road brought to the camp bird car park and deep powder snow.
Viewing the route, from where we were parked, it looked like a thin ribbon, of ice hardly noticeable against the huge cliff down which it falls. Of course the scale of the place is deceptive. The thin ribbon is fifty feet wide at its base.
All we had to do was go downhill from where we stood cross a stream at the bottom and climb the avalanche cone opposite to the base of the climb. It would be some time before we were uncoiling the ropes.
Our arrival at the bottom of the route coincided with the arrival of daylight and ten minutes later a local guide and client who on seeing us gearing up did the honourable and as we will see sensible thing went tramping off to look for another route.
I love this, the first placement of a mono point onto a ripple in the ice. That one move is the culmination of thousands of miles of travel, countless dreams and disappointments all distilled down to that first step. This is me this is why I am here. Climbing on steep ice is the triumph of the unlikely over the improbable. It doesn’t make any sense at all and yet for me it is one of the most fulfilling activities that I can think of. And why should it make sense? If we rationalised everything life would be a grey canvas indeed, I tend to lean toward psychedelic.
A sixty foot ramp of seventy degree ice leading up to a steep vertical wall and a pull out over a bulge. Easy to write but a little harder to do. The ramp went OK, beautiful plastic ice, steep enough to enjoy but not scary. I had to remind myself to stop and place a screw. Then I arrived at the wall and my first problem of the day. The beautiful clean patch of blue ice I had spotted from below as a likely place for an ice screw was laced with screw holes like a gorgonzola cheese, thus rendering it useless as it would be considerably weakened. Unfortunately the surrounding ice was chossy and did not inspire confidence so I had no choice but to use an existing hole in the Gorgonzola cheese and then forget about its failings as protection and move upwards.
It’s like love, there comes that moment where a choice of crystal clarity presents itself. Commit or walk away. Unlike love, because of where we were, walking away would have been the more complicated option. Sometimes it’s impossible and in reality although we would like to think there were options we had no choice at all. Of course it carries the risk that the whole edifice of our dreams and aspirations would tumble down and deliver not the joy we sought after but failure and the painful bitter emptiness of loss. The fear we keep at bay might storm through our fragile defences. Unknowns may rush into our comfort zone.
And that is what happened. As I released the pick of my axe from a bulge of ice, I had been trying desperately to avoid, the whole block detached from the underlying rock. I had committed and for a moment of immeasurable intensity it looked as though the price was going to be pain. I turned my head and screamed BELOW! Watching in horror as the two to three hundred pound block of ice hurtled toward Clive. The immutable laws of physics would effectively change its weight, or the effect to several tons, by the time it had travelled the hundred and fifty feet to my companion.
It wasn’t a complete surprise; I had forewarned him as the initial strike of my pick caused the development of an ominous looking crack and the bulge had moved. Hanging off one axe I was powerless to do anything. Hanging off two ice screws Clive’s predicament was not much better. Fortunately he managed to twist a few feet to one side. That small movement probably saved his and my life. The biggest piece of flying ice we had ever witnessed struck the small laboriously cut ledge. The work of twenty minutes was demolished in the blink of an eye and the semi hanging stance was altered to a hanging one in an act of spectacular natural violence.
The sound of a thousand shattered pieces of ice tumbling noisily to the bottom of the mountain echoed back up the climb. My confidence felt equally fractured.
I believe there is no place in climbing for luck. Although we had just been lucky. I see no contradiction, events had overtaken us and we had come through. Generally the more prepared, knowledgeable and experienced you are the more likely you are to survive mishaps. After all experience is the sum total of all of your near misses. We were now undoubtedly very experienced.
Drama over, I took a few moments to gather my wits and then moved up toward an anchor chain hanging from the wall of the gully. Americans have no qualms about leaving substantial anchors on big routes.
Two more straight forward pitches found me tied to an Abalakov thread, so much for Americans and fixed gear, and Clive moving out of sight around a rocky corner a hundred feet above me. I ignored the creaking anchor to which I was attached by applying the utmost attention to paying out the rope. My whole world was reduced to wriggling my cold toes, feeding out the rope and ignoring the creaking anchor.
“Wriggle toes, pay out the rope, shit! Shit, shit, shit, why is the anchor creaking so much?”
Why did I feel so much on the edge was it our recent near miss or was it because it had just started snowing? What was it the guide book had said? “Under no circumstances climb this route during snowfall” we were certainly being dealt a difficult hand today, but there was not much either of us could do about it at the moment. This was the penultimate pitch so I thought we would probably get away with it.
The ropes tightened. I untied from the anchor, leaving the thread for the abseil off, and started to climb. After climbing about fifty feet I looked up to the rocky corner. To this day I don’t know why I looked at that very moment but it is just as well I did. Falling toward me, at speed, was a solid grey wall of airborne powder. Instinctively I made sure I had two good placements and my feet were good I then pressed myself as close to the ice as possible and took a deep breath.
The noun powder does not indicate the power of tons of it pouring over a body. When it hit it was as though a giant hand was trying to push me off the ice, bizarrely my mind turned to Anderl Heckmair and his experience on the White Spider.
I have suffered, you never enjoy them, many spindrift avalanches over the years but this one was of a different order. The snow was building up in every gap between my body and the ice and forcing me back into space. I was powerless to do anything other than hang on to my axes and wait for the avalanche to stop. I comforted myself with the thought they had always been short lived in the past.
I had to exhale and immediately my mouth was filled with snow. With difficulty I continued breathing through my nose but I knew it would only be a matter of time before this would not be possible. Just as I was beginning to think things were getting really serious the avalanche stopped.
Thank God for that (just an expression for me it will always be Nietzche) and thank God that Clive was anchored to chains.
I shook myself free of as much snow as possible and continued to climb. Now I was looking up after every few moves and sure enough here came another one.
If anything it lasted slightly longer and the pushing was more insistent. I took a small degree of solace in the fact that I had stayed on through the first. It’s just as well I am a great believer in taking comfort from wherever it is afforded even if it from an illogical thought. Every little helps.
Eventually it all stopped the noise of rushing snow replaced by heavy breathing. Time to move on, I wanted to reach those anchors before the next one came. I climbed as quickly as I could and on rounding the rocky corner came into sight of Clive. Unsurprisingly he didn’t look a happy bunny.
On arrival at his meagre stance, a minute ledge hacked out of the hard ice; I was horrified to see he was belayed off two ice screw. Nothing wrong with that in normal circumstances but it was plain to us both that today we weren’t doing normal. A hasty conference ensued as he handed spare screws to me. We decided that I would complete the final pitch find a rock anchor, if possible, and abseil off. “Better to die following a plan,” I thought.
The final pitch was ferocious, it only looked like a little steepening in the ice but it is impossible to tell from below. Luckily the ice was brilliant, dense and plastic. I climbed as rapidly as I could whilst stopping to put screws in at reasonable intervals. Pulling over the top I spotted a rag tag assortment of pegs and slings hanging off one side of the gullies rocky wall. I made a beeline for it clipped in and started the knackering task of cutting a step out of the ice. At the back of my mind a little voice kept saying, “It’s still snowing”.
Preparing for a multiple abseil concentrates the mind at the best of times; doing so at altitude in a maelstrom of snow and ice is mentally exhausting. After triple checking everything we cast the ropes into the swirling white stuff, they disappeared from sight immediately as did Clive when descended the ropes.
I couldn’t see the wall of ice though it was just a few feet from me; I couldn’t see Clive beneath me, all I could see was a swirling mass of snow. For the few minutes it took to slide down the rope I was not part of the greater world around me I was trapped in a cold front loading machine of tumbling sensations and thoughts. A bump brought me back to the real world. I had abseiled onto the snow encrusted figure of my friend, his turn next.
I have searched for adjectives to describe the pleasure that climbing brings but I have never found one and in truth don’t really expect to. I have used one in this tale, although in a different context, and it is, ‘immeasurable’. The release from the hours of discipline, a hard contract freely entered into, is of a measure that cannot be measured. I seek something that I believe cannot be understood and even if I could I haven’t got the time. Better to indulge in the climbing than metaphysical musings.