Refreshingly, they don’t do it just because ‘it’s there’
Storming the ice palace
Refreshingly, they don’t do it just because ‘it’s there’
It is 5 a.m. on an iron cold January morning in Calgary. The weak winter sun will not appear for another hours, but four sleepy figures are slowly loading packs into a grimy Ford window-van. The van’s exhaust hangs suspended in an unnaturally perfect billow. Sounds are amplified by the icy air, exaggerating the squeak of leather boots on frost-hardened snow and the harsh slam of a storm door. When the loading is completed the van grinds down the driveway, passes along unsalted back streets and bumps onto the Trans-Canada Highway, heading west away from the coming dawn.
The four passengers ride in total silence, one driving, three curled sleepily into nests of rucksacks and down-filled clothing. All four are climbers, more specifically, a rarefied new breed called ice climbers and their passion is the newest and perhaps the most beautiful of all the high-risk sports. By first light the climbers, Albi Brett, 24, Jim Elzinga, 23, Phil Hein, 20, and Mike Sawyer, 21, intend to be 180 miles up the
Banif-Jasper Highway. Their destination is the “Weeping Wall,” a 600-foot vertical cliff hung with sheets of lacy wedding-cake icicles that is bisected by a road map of firm pale blue ice. They will climb this centre blue ribbon using special crampons attached to their boots like cat’s claws and razor-sharp axes with drooped picks that, if used properly, lodge in the ice like nails driven into oak.
It is a young sport, ice climbing, born in the late Fifties in the ice gullies of northern Scotland and rising in popularity only recently with new, featherlight climbing technology. Each climber this day will carry $750 of gear to facilitate the long climb up the frozen waterfall, but even with the sophisticated equipment dis-
tances that usually take seconds to cover will stretch into hours. For ice climbing is definitely not a spectator sport; nor do its devotees climb because it is beautiful or good fun. They do it because it is difficult—very difficult.
In the van conversation stirs fitfully as a lightening sky reveals the knife-straight highway slipping into the folds and creases of the Rockies. With the inane patter of a disc jockey from a Salt Lake City radio
station in the background, scalding-hot honey-sweetened tea is passed around. And as scraped holes in the frosted windows begin to reveal lolling tongues of waterfall ice dipping toward the road, the Salt Lake announcer unwittingly chooses the ice climber’s theme, a Paul Simon song ending with the chorus: “Slip slidin’ away/ You know the nearer your destination/The more you’re slip slidin’ away.”*
Two hours later and some 200 feet up the Weeping Wall, Jim Elzinga has stopped. Perhaps stopped is not the best word. He is poised, like a cat halfway up a fence post. He has moved diagonally out from a relatively flat ice bulge on the left of the wall to a section of smooth, featureless, blue ice, and now he is still perched only on the four steel teeth that jut from his boots and lodge barely a half inch into the ice. His outstretched arms clutch two axes that he has sunk into the ice. No part of his tensed body contacts the ice except his nose, which sometimes brushes against the damp, smooth surface. His labored breathing crystallizes in the silent morning air. Below him, round-faced Mike Sawyer, firmly anchored to the cliff by a metal piton driven into a crack in the rock, grips the rope attached to Elzinga’s waist and watches, calmly sucking on a frozen orange, knowing that if Elzinga falls it will only be a few feet before the rope connecting them springs tight as it passes through the eye of a heavily threaded screw that Elzinga had turned into the ice a minute before.
The scene over Elzinga’s shoulder, the stark light and shadow on the North Saskatchewan River valley floor, ceased to have meaning an hour before. Only the eight feet of blank ice fall surrounding
*From Slip Slidin*Away ® 1977 Paul Simon, used with .permission
him, like the circular iris in a silent movie, is of any concern. Methodically he begins to work upward. The Austrian Stubai ice hammer swings and sets in the ice with an authoritative “whunk.” The American Forrest axe in his right hand refuses to set. The brittle Rocky Mountain ice shatters— climbers call it “dinner-plates”—under its blows and chips of ice clatter down onto the patient Sawyer. Finally, the axe lodges
firmly and Elzinga moves his cramponed boots—placing, not kicking, using every rugosity the mountain will supply. In this ■way, with the effortless economy of a dancer, he steadily negotiates the desperate vertical section, choking back inescapable waves of panic as a point slips out in a patch of white, aerated ice, but knowing the most difficult part of the climb, the crux, has passed. The ice above slopes to a relatively languorous 75 to 80 degrees. Ledges appear and perhaps now, for the first time in two hours and 120 feet of climbing, he will breath more regularly, brush the ice chips from his beard and squint into the stark colors of a Rocky Mountain afternoon: the hard cobalt blue of the sky, the orange of the rope, the red and black of the three climbers waiting to repeat the route below, all set against the dazzling white of the ice. He permits himself a brief smile before Sawyer’s shivering curses and the lowering winter sun cause him to turn back to the mountain and continue his delicate toe dance to the top.
Much later, long after a whoop of pleasure has signaled the last climber has reached the snowy summit ledges (a 200foot vertical upper section will be left for another day) and after the coiled ropes and ice screws have been sorted, the salt-coated
van is steered towards Phil Hein’s parents’ resort in the Yoho Valley outside Field, BC. Late afternoon alpenglow slices the tops of the mountains and the Weeping Wall climbers, joined by several others (the Hein cabin is something of an ice climbing salon), gather around a Peerless wood stove in a common room decorated by fading alpine posters and books by legendary names in climbing: Hillary, Bonington,
Conversation reveals them to be an odd crew: conservationists of a visceral and personal sort (a proposed expansion of the Lake Louise ski areas causes protracted and angry comment); hustlers (supper chatter revolves around writing ice climbing how-to books, expedition financing and running ice climbing schools); and ice bums (few have steady jobs and those who do work four-day weeks).
Outside is the night rattle of the wind they call the “Yoho Blow”; inside there is only the lulling hiss of a Coleman stove and the sweet smell of drying wool pants. After more desultory climbing talk (on other newly established ice climbing areas: near Ontario’s Dundas and Bancroft,
Shawbridge outside Montreal and the Malbaie area north of Quebec City), conversation, in the presence of an outsider, inevitably turns to a question climbers find both repellant and fascinating: the why of this exotic passion. A recent item on CBC’S the fifth estate suggested climbers scramble up mountains out of some nascent death wish still has the ice men furious. As a result, answers come slowly.
Chic Scott, a veteran mountaineer at 32, suggests ice climbing is good practice for serious climbing at high altitude (he, Hein and Elzinga are planning a 1980 Canadian attempt on Nepal’s stunning Dhaulagiri, the world’s sixth highest peak). Others talk when prodded about the beauty of the ice falls, the lack of risks in the “real” world and living for life, not for death, but clearly it is difficult for them to say what motivates them. Often the words seem made up, other people’s phrases used to fill a quick past need when parents and girl friends asked justification for their terrifying pastime.
But it becomes clear that at the level of these, Canada’s best climbers, it’s difficulty and ego and pride that puts them up a 400-foot tower of glistening ice. Beauty is merely a welcome perk, like a mug of sweet tea in the afternoon sun at the top. “In the end,” says Laurie Skreslet, a bony 28-year-old who is probably the best of the Canadian ice climbers, “the ice is passive. The test is with yourself.”
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