|n Eugene O’Neill’s classic play, The Iceman Cometh, several characters sit around in a bar and wait. They talk about a future that will never happen and wait for dreams to come true. They wait for things to change. They wait and they wait but they never really do anything.
Ice climbing in the Pacific Northwest often feels this way. We wait for routes to come into condition for years. We talk about what a route might be like if it ever froze. We talk about what O’Neill was exploring in his play. We talk about our pipe dreams.
Ice climbing has never been a sport for enlightened people. It’s a cold sport. Your hands and feet get cold. You get wet. You wait around for a climb to freeze and when it does you drive for hours so you can suffer on it. Yet countless people - myself included - love the sport.
When I was just starting out as an ice climber I was obsessed with Squamish in British Columbia. I rock climbed there as much as possible. But every time I went up there, I dreamed about what ice climbing there would be like. About ten years ago I found out.
When the temperatures dip below freezing for weeks on end in Squamish, the wet streaks - the same wet streaks we do everything we can to avoid in summer – change. They change from less-than-desirable rock climbs into less-than-desirable ice climbs. Most of the drips that freeze up become nothing more than half-inch thick nightmares with little protection beyond a climber’s belief that he or she will make it to the top.
Sometimes, during the coldest of cold years, the monstrous falls to the right of the Chief will freeze up. Shannon Falls comes into shape once every five years or so. It came into shape this year and a few lucky souls climbed the gem. It came into shape in 1996 as well. That was the year I climbed the falls. It was also the year I almost died beneath them. And it was the year I became an ice climber.
Eric was the epitome of an arrogant climber. Although he was famous for backing off 5.7s, and the only volcano he’d ever scaled was Mount Baker, he was very good at pretending he was stronger and more experienced than he was. If you asked him about a route, invariably he would tell you he had climbed it. Most of the time he’d provide move-by-move beta for it as well. It was difficult to tell when he was making things up. Looking back, it seems he was always making things up.
For a time, Eric was president of Western Washington University’s climbing club. In that position, people often reported to him route conditions and beta so that he might pass it on to other climbers. That’s how he learned Shannon Falls was coming into shape.
Soon thereafter, Eric, Josh, Geno and I drove from Bellingham to Squamish on a clear and cold Saturday morning. When we arrived in the parking lot below the falls, the conditions, from a distance, looked great. The entire wall appeared covered with a curtain of beautiful blue ice.
This day was to be one of my first experiences with waterfall ice. Before Shannon Falls, I had climbed a bit of ice with a guide and had a fair amount of serac climbing experience. But on multi-pitch water ice, I was as novice as they come. I believed that Eric and Geno would guide me through the process. I believed that Eric was a very experienced waterfall ice climber. I simply believed Eric.
Mistake number one.
Geno had a bit of experience. He’d been to Banff. So I figured he knew what he was doing.
Josh was a sport climber. He’d been to Smith Rock. So I figured he didn’t know what he was doing. At the time, he knew next to nothing about climbing ice. Both of us were putting our lives into the hands of others.
“I don’t know about this,” Geno said, gazing up at the ice-coated rock. I could see that Geno was uneasy about the route, but I decided to ignore it.
Eric responded with his usual bravado. “It’s gonna be fine,” he said. Geno reluctantly agreed to give it a shot, so the four of us sat down beneath the climb and began to gear up.
Mistake number two.
As we sat beneath the falls a sharp cracking sound split the air like a gunshot. A Volkswagen-sized block of ice sheered away from the main falls and began spiraling down the wall directly towards us.
“RUN!” Eric screamed.
We agreed Eric had one of his better ideas.
Josh and Geno ran uphill toward the base of the falls. Uphill was good, because the falling ice would explode on impact and spray the area below with frozen shrapnel.
While making his panicked uphill dash, Geno managed to insert the razor-sharp tip of his crampon into Josh’s calf. Though painful, this wasn’t a big deal. The two had the brains to run uphill.
Eric and I - in our combined brilliance - ran downhill. This, as I suggested earlier, was bad because anything downhill of the ice impact would be pulverized.
Mistake number three.
Downhill also had nowhere to run. A small cliff stood in our way. A moment after committing to downhill, we found ourselves stuck and unable to change. We couldn’t reverse and go up. We were utterly committed to our route of escape.
Mistake number four.
At this point we found ourselves facing two choices. Both were simple: choice A, we could choose to get crushed by a giant block of ice or B, we could jump off of the cliff below us. We had no idea how high the cliff was or what the landing might be like. But Choice B was marginally better than the alternative of becoming Gore-tex clad pancakes. A split-second after deciding, I leapt from the cliff’s edge.
Eight feet below I became intimately familiar with a snow-covered ledge. Landing hard on my knee, pain exploded through my body. It wasn’t over yet. Above us the Volkswagen-sized block of ice slammed and shattered into basketball-size chunks. One of these smaller pieces whistled down and smashed into the side of my head, slamming my face into the rock. I actually felt the sides of my helmet touch my scalp before the ice block skipped off my skull. Had I not been wearing a helmet, I would have never felt anything again.
Suddenly a crampon-clad foot whizzed past me. At the time, I prayed that the foot was still attached to a body. But deep down my instincts were telling me that Eric didn’t make it. In that moment I was sure he was dead.
Suddenly a voice full of panic welled up from below, “Martin, help! Help!”
My mind was working in slow motion. Eric was dead. Why was he yelling at me?
I stood up on my bad knee, tasted blood in my mouth, and began to stumble down through the boulders in an attempt to find my partner. As I worked around the corner my heart jumped into my throat.
Two legs stuck up like a “V” from the snow. My first thought was that he had somehow been cut in half.
That he’d been cut in half and was still yelling at me seemed wierd. The dude would just never shut up.
As I approached, I saw that he had not been cut in half, but instead had fallen between two boulders upside down. After I carefully extracted him he began to complain about how cold his hands were. I looked down and realized that he didn’t have any gloves on.
Josh and Geno were peering down from above the cliff about twenty feet above us. When I yelled up for gloves, they had a similar reaction to the one I’d had with Eric. They were sure we were dead, and unable to immediately grasp the fact that we were still alive.
“Hey,” I yelled. “We’re okay, but can you throw us down some gloves!”
Both were so caught up in their own thoughts that they began to throw down every pair of gloves they could find. Six pairs found their way down to us. Gloves were raining on us. It was as if they thought gloves were first aid.
I put a glove on Eric’s right hand. Then, while helping him put a glove on his left, I realized that his thumb was sticking out the wrong way. With as much calm as I could muster, I said, “I don’t think we’ll put a glove on that hand.”
He looked at me through eyes clouded with shock and said, “Why?”
“Uh, no reason.”
He raised his left hand and looked at it closely. That’s when he responded matter-of-factly, “Oh, it won’t fit.”
As we hiked out that day, I tallied our injuries. My face was cut and I had a badly bruised knee. Eric had a bruised rib and a broken thumb. Josh had a hole in his calf, and Geno really, really needed to change his pants.
The climbing community at the university in Bellingham was a close-knit group. Everyone knew everyone or at least knew of everyone. So our story spread through the community like wildfire.
In a game that children play in school they whisper something into their neighbor’s ear and then that child whispers it into the next child’s ear and so on. Ultimately the secret comes back to the first child wildly distorted from how it started. Our story was like that, getting bigger and more outrageous with each retelling. By the time the story got back to us it was completely different.
“Dude’s hand gets totally mangled, then another dude’s trying to put a glove on it!”
“Guy’s face gets nailed by icefall and his entire cheek is hanging off!”
“So this dude falls down in the snow trying to get away and his buddy runs right across his back with crampons on! Right across his back!”
As the story grew so did our discontent. Outside, every day was freezing. Rumors reached us that people were successfully climbing Shannon Falls. We couldn’t stop thinking about it.
A week later, daybreak in Squamish found the four of us trudging up to the base of a far more stable, frozen waterfall. Unfortunately it still wasn’t ideally frozen. A giant ice hose filled with a torrent of water ran down through the center of the falls. Water splashed out through holes in the ice hose, but it was in far better condition than the week before.
It even looked climbable to me.
This time when we approached the base of the falls we were smart enough to gear up well away from the fall line. Eric took off his hand brace for the climb, but he wouldn’t be able to lead. That was up to me.
Geno led the first pitch with Josh following. As soon as they were clear, I tied into the sharp end of the rope and swallowed what tasted like bile.
The first move of the climb was by far the scariest and most committing. The leader was required to jump over a raging flow of water emerging from the base of the ice hose. After this Vertical Limit move the leader had to place his tools solidly in the wet ice. I imagined missing that first wild set of tool placements, falling into the icy torrent, and being swept off a cliff below. Not the best image to start a climb with.
I took a deep breath and leapt. In my memory this was a leap; in reality it was probably just a stemming move. But memory trumps reality and in my memory the move was terrifying.
Both tools stuck perfectly in the wet blue ice. Suddenly I was totally and completely committed. I couldn’t wuss out if I wanted too. I looked at the violent torrent beneath my feet and tried very hard not to freak out. I swung my tools and kicked my feet, inching up the ice carefully. Only a few moves later the difficulty eased.
After that the climbing itself was not difficult. I moved cautiously up the route. Sometimes after removing a tool, ice water would jet out of the former placement. Spray from gaps in the ice hose coated us. A layer of ice soon covered everything. Our ropes became frozen cables that we were barely able to move through our belay plates.
At one spot, Geno climbed over a six-inch crack that spanned the entire waterfall. When Josh reached it, the crack was a foot wide. When I reached it, the crack was two feet wide. When Eric reached it, the crack was four feet wide. The entire bottom half of the waterfall was sliding off while we were on it.
At some point, a tour bus full of elderly passengers pulled into the parking lot below. Every time we looked down several geriatric hands waved up at us. We waved back and smiled until we realized that they seemed to be waiting for us to fall off.
On the last pitch, the ice hose ran full force just a few feet away from us. Through cracks in the hose, water sprayed out onto our faces and jackets, instantly freezing. The easy climbing suddenly disappeared. The terrifying prospect of climbing the outer shell of the hose itself had only one escape. I moved to the right and led up quarter-inch-thick ice over granite to get away from the torrent. Placing protection on such ground was utterly impossible. Although my gloves were soaked through with ice water, my hands began to sweat. A few delicate moves later, I pulled myself up onto a large shelf.
As we flopped onto the top of the climb, relief spread through each of us like a warm drink. We’d made it! We’d completed the scariest climb we’d ever done!
Since then, I’ve climbed and guided much harder and longer ice routes throughout North and South America. I no longer feel like a novice with just enough luck to escape my own mortality. In a way I miss that. Climbing Shannon Falls that day was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I had accomplished something that felt like perfection.
After sitting atop the falls for a few minutes we headed down to look for some hot chocolate in town. We descended through the woods and back to the parking lot. A moment after we emerged from the trees a group of older tourists mobbed us. Many congratulated us, others said we were crazy, and others told us that if they were fifty years younger, well …
A woman in her twenties with a cell phone approached us. “Hi, I’m Kelly from Mountain Radio. Would you like to comment on your ascent of Shannon Falls? Were you scared?”
Eric took the phone.
Of course, we were all thinking it had been one of the scariest things we’d ever done. But it didn’t matter. Eric was going to respond as only Eric could.
“Were you scared?“ she asked again.
Smiling, Eric put the phone up to his ear and said, “Naw, it was nothing for hard men like us.”
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