(Yes, the date is correct. It's been collecting digital dust for almost a year, but the info is still golden... to me at least :)
“Oh shit”. This is what I thought to myself when I heard Essey shout out from the face of the frozen waterfall. On belay, I braced, braked, and could only watch as he dropped and tumbled 25’ down the ice face and hit the slope with full force. Oh shit, indeed.
I am never one to turn down an alpine climbing adventure, especially in the company of trusted and experienced partners. With them, I’ve had the privilege to participate in backcountry hiking, mountaineering, and climbing, and to take part in skills practice for creating MAs (mechanical advantages with rope & pulleys), crevasse rescue, avalanche rescue, self-arrest (nooo, not with handcuffs… this is with a straight-shaft alpine axe to stop a fall on a steep snow-covered slope) and general area knowledge. I’ve learned a lot, and have gained much respect for the wilderness that makes British Columbia so beautiful. The people I go with are all Army personnel, and as the only civilian who has NOT had the same kind of training, I don’t take it lightly that I will be holding my own. 40-60lb+ packs are the norm, and weather conditions are not always ideal. Where we go, there is no phone reception, toilets, restaurants at the top or conveniently lit runs when darkness falls. Usually the only indication of other human presence will be flagging tape marking a designated route. Maybe.
People buy miniature "serenity falls/fountains/pools/gardens" replicas to add zen to their home. This is the real thing.
Some people ask why I go through the trouble and hardship of such grueling physical tasks, when “fun” things, like ice skating (??), are a safer and more favourable option. But to whom? The quickest and most honest response is “If you have to ask, you won’t understand”. Like when you go into a really expensive store, and there are no price tags… If you have to ask how much the item costs, well, you probably can’t afford it. But I’ll try.
In the middle of crossing a talus slope near the Coquihalla
There are just some people that eschew the status quo. Some in the form of fashion, maybe taste in music, others through political or religious beliefs. For myself, and most of my peers and colleagues, it will be in the form of career choice and/ or physical fitness. I’ve been called crazy too many times to actually ever take offence. Now I just smile and nod. I tend to seek out the challenging, calculated-risk taking, bold and physically demanding activities. Why? It’s who, it’s what I am. I’ve stopped tryin
g to psycho-analyze my motives for always straying off the beaten path. I stopped listening to those who try to beat me down, the haters, and perhaps those envious of my decision to live life, not merely exist. I’ve been criticized for my career choices (which have often put me in a financially unstable position in life); my choice in relationship partners (Another broken heart? I’d rather have loved and lost, than never have loved at all); I’ve been criticized for my mannerisms (too tomboyish); my body type (I’ve been called too small, too fat, and more). I’ve been hurt, insulted, offended, and… inspired. Inspired to do my thing, the way I have been, to be accountable to myself, and if I make a mistake, it’s my fault, no one else’s. So if I want to climb a frozen waterfall, and if you think it’s too dangerous, keep your opinions to yourself. Hey look! There’s an episode of Jersey Shore you may be missing!
I think I went on a bit of a rant there. But the reality of why we go to such extremes for an activity, take such risks, is the reward. If you have never seen – no, experienced – the majestically, breath-takingly beautiful 360º vista of a glacial lake with alpine meadows, snow-covered peaks and blue-ice glaciers surrounding you, you wouldn’t understand. Pictures and videos are one thing, but to have earned it after hours of hard work, you become grateful for so many things – your health, your friends who have accompanied you… Mother Nature, for doing such
great work. You discover your own spirituality when there are no remote controls or traffic lights. You tune into your senses, which have been dulled by overstimulation of big city life – you marvel at a small bright alpine wildflower amidst a neutral landscape, something that would have gone unnoticed on a city sidewalk. You smell strange things… like unpolluted air, not tainted by exhaust fumes, greasy fast food aromas, or expensive perfume. You hear the sound of silence… and it’s heavenly. To touch that glacier that has been there for hundreds of years, but may disappear before the en
d of this century is humbling… and to taste the clean, cold water from that same glacier is simply amazing. To me, those are some of the reasons why “I go”. Like the saying goes – everyone dies, but not everyone lives. THIS, to me, is what living is about. Can you say the same?
I'm standing on a glacier! Wedgemount Lake, Garibaldi Provincial Park, BC
Essey’s fall off that wall of ice, and the events that followed, were the culmination of calculated risk, preparation, skill, practice, judgment, and a bit of luck thrown in. We didn’t just wake up thinking hey, let’s go climb a waterfall. Essey gave me a heads up the week before that there could be some ice climbing in the following week, if the conditions were favourable. I tentatively cleared my schedule for that day, and waited for word on weather, location, and other climbers in our group. Two days before, we confirmed a climbing party of three (myself, Essey, and JP) and tentative location. We would travel to Lytton to assess climbing conditions, and travel further to the Rambles if necessary. The road to Lytton was detoured due to landslides, thus we decided to go directly to the Rambles via the Sea to Sky Hwy.
Rambles Left is a Grade 3 ice climb located along Duffy Lake Road, about 27 kms SW of Lillooet, BC. The drive took about 5 hours due to heavy snow from Whistler onwards. From the road where we parked the truck, we could see the waterfall ice, and we started our approach at approximately 1330.The snow was deep, and the terrain was fairly steep – at times we were on all fours scrambling up the slope. We got to the base of the waterfall probably around 1500h, and started setting up.
Essey started up the slope, and articulated his actions along the way. His regard for safety and details is exceptional, and I felt 100% confident in his abilities. As he climbed, we knew we would not reach the top of the waterfall, because we were short on time as it took us longer than expected to get to the fall’s base. But we didn’t mind, it was about the journey, and just getting on the ice would be fun. We could go to the top on another climb. Essey had two pieces already in and was approximately 12’ above the last screw, preparing to put in a third and start setting up an anchor for top-rope. He didn’t trust his tool placements, and when he went to replace them, they did not hold and he lost his balance and fell. And in that moment, time stood still.
Because the rope was dynamic life safety rope, it has a degree of stretch to it to absorb the weight of the body on a fall. You don’t want to be tied into a static (non-stretchy) rope as a fall could do more damage to the body than ground impact. But because Essey was so far above the last screw, there was a lot of rope that would allow him to free-fall before he would be “caught” by that screw. Too much rope. Even though there was minimal slack in the line from his initial fall, the stretch from that section of rope would make his fall even greater; so much that he didn’t impact until the 30º slope below him, near the first screw.
When he finally stopped tumbling, we shouted out to him and asked if he was ok. Initially he said yes, but when he tried to move, he screamed in pain. I have known Essey for years, and know he has endured an incredible amount of physical suffering in the past. He is definitely no wuss. So to see him in that much pain, and to not be able to rush over to assist, was terrible. It turned out he landed on his knee in a hyperflexed position, and the pain level was 10/10. The only thing I could do was lower him painstakingly down the slope until he got to our base location. We already knew he had some limited range of motion, but the extent of his injury was unknown at the time. As both Essey and I have Occupational First Aid Level 3 certs, plus he with Wilderness First Aid, we were confident we could deal with his injuries locally until we got back to the truck. And that’s when the real test began.
By the time we got Essey stabilized, darkness was falling. We would be descending the rest of the way by moonlight and headlamps. My initial thought was to scramble down while there was still light, jump into the truck and drive to Lillooet where there would be cell reception and I could call for help. Essey did not want to split the group, and felt that because he was mobile, we shouldn’t commit the resources of a SAR team when we would be able to do it ourselves. I was not completely convinced of this, but we stayed together.
The fastest way down for Essey would be to rappel, while keeping his leg straight. On the first pitch, we doubled the rope around a tree and body rappelled down. The idea was to simply pull the rope back to us once we were down, but it was stuck from the melted snow and friction and wouldn’t budge. So I had to scramble back up the slope, manually detach it and bring it down. I was thankful for having trained so many hours practicing the firefighter “hose pull from the tower” drill, because it was the exact same hand motions, except instead of leaning over a ledge pulling up a 40lb roll of hose, I was pulling my own 130lb bodyweight (+ 40lb pack) up the hill. But this wasn’t a drill, it was a real rescue, and there were 2 people waiting for me, so I clumsily hustled it back down with the grace of Godzilla on crampons so we could set up the next pitch.
For all subsequent pitches we rapped down on a single rope (instead of doubled back). We would anchor the rope to a tree, and I would wait for them to clear the pitch so I could unhook the anchor and meet them for the next. The fastest way for me to get down to them was to slide on my butt, instead of picking my way through on foot with crampons. This whole process proved to be effective, but not really efficient, as each pitch took about 45 minutes for the boys to clear. JP would walk ahead of Essey on the rope, clear the path, navigate, search for anchors, and help Essey up the few times he fell. Meanwhile, I waited at the anchor point, trying to stay warm while conserving energy as the temperature dropped, waiting for the signal that they had reached the end of the rope so we could do it all again. I was thankful it wasn’t raining or snowing.
It took us a total of six pitches to get to flat ground. While waiting, I had a lot of time to think about options. Like whether I should have made an executive decision, overridden Essey’s initial determination to stay together, and scramble down for help. About the fourth pitch down, I could see the road from my viewpoint. I could see our truck – so close, yet so far! I could also see passing vehicles. By now we were well past our “return” time, and I wondered if my emergency contact would be trying to contact me.
Then I saw a vehicle stop. And wait. It looked as if the driver was trying to determine what was up with the lone truck (ours) on the side of the road. The driver exited the vehicle and walked a bit towards us; I think he saw our headlamps flashing in the darkness and came to investigate. I faintly heard him ask if we were ok…. Then Essey shouted back “Yes, we’re good, thanks for stopping, just had a little fall but we’re good”. Then the guy got back into his vehicle and drove away. Ok, if I could go back to that moment in time, and if that guy could have heard me, I would have said something vastly different… at the very least, ask him to go on ahead and call our contacts and let them know we were still alive, or maybe alert the RCMP that a group of climbers were self-rescuing down The Rambles… I don’t know, anything except that we were ok. When I reached the boys I articulated my concerns, and Essey conceded that his ego and stubbornness got in the way of letting someone assist us the rest of the way down.
When we finally finished that last pitch, and saw that Essey and JP were in good spirits but as physically exhausted as I was cold, I said that I would run to the road for help. I did, and (here comes the good luck part) within a few minutes, a vehicle stopped and a fellow came to assist getting Essey back to the truck for the last few hundred meters. Turns out the guy was a local Heli-ski guide, knew the area well, AND was equipped to help us. We piled back into the truck and started the long ride home... everybody in one piece and thankful for a happy ending.
Since then, and more than a year later, we have paused to reflect on that day. Regarding my concerned about calling SAR, I asked a friend who is a SAR tech what we could have done differently. He said that as we were equipped and knowledgeable but had an accident, it was the type of call SAR is most useful for. There has been much debate about the misuse of the resources of a SAR team for thoughtless individuals skiing out-of-bounds, or hiking ill-prepared for terrain or weather. But in our case, at the very least, we could have notified them, like a “heads-up” there’s a party of three with one injured heading down; they MAY need help. He said unfortunately, often people that wait too long to be rescued end up having to be recovered. For those of you who don’t know the difference, “Rescue” implies going after people who are still alive. “Recovery” is fetching the dead body. Regardless, he said, in the end, we did the right thing – because everybody got ok alive and ok, and we have learned from the experience. Essey has fully recovered from his injury, and we still train for rope rescue when our schedules allow. He will still be my first pick for climbing partner, and I look forward to many more years of alpine adventures with him and JP!
** NOTE ** I tried to add photos from the Rambles trip, but after I switched to my new MacBookPro, there's been some weird stuff going on and I can't find some photos or albums for the life of me. Trying to get this resolved but it's taken me all night to format this post so I'm publishing it now and will add pics later. Ugh!