Thursday, December 1, 2011

Creeping old fartism?

You know you are getting long in the tooth when you start reminiscing about days gone by. Steve Swenson refers to this unfortunate tendency and other signs of advancing age as "creeping old fartism." I try to guard against this dreaded syndrome, but still catch myself occasionally telling some bored youth about the time my partner and I made the first (or was it the umpteenth?) ascent of the north face of Mt. Forgettable... All the same, every December 1 I cannot help thinking back to that day in 1997, when by all rights I should have gotten the chop. I wrote the following story not long after the event.


"Rumour had it that Dave Thomson had put up an M8 on the Stanley Headwall: Teddy Bear’s Picnic, the direct start to the unformed pillar of Suffer Machine. I had no clue about M-grades, but an eight sounded exciting. I had to have a go at it. And so the morning of December 1 found Dave Campbell and me hiking up to the Headwall. There was little snow, but it was cold, at most –12 C. We geared up and scrambled a few metres up to the belay ledge, from where a friendly line of bolts lead up to the huge hanging dagger.

Suffer Machine on that fateful day in 1997. Photo: Dave Campbell.

Right from the start the drytooling was overhanging, but tool placements were bomber and I was clipping a bolt every second move. Below a small horizontal roof I paused to rest. A piece of tat hung from the last bolt, after which the route went onto the dagger. I clipped the tat, leaned out and felt over the roof. Nothing here, blank rock there, but here was a good edge. I released the lower tool and swung backhanded into the ice hanging in space behind my head.

Getting onto the hanging dagger. Photo: Dave Campbell.

The ice was lacy and aerated, and my frontpoints kept shearing through. Above where the dagger attached to the back wall, I placed a screw. A few metres higher I placed another one to protect the moves onto the front of the curtain. Once around to the front, I looked up to see smooth ice quickly easing in angle. I started placing my tools more forcefully. Then there was a dry crack and my stationary world blurred into free fall.

I fell for a long time, long enough for thought. There was sound and fury of ice breaking up around me, and then all was quiet. I was hanging at the end of the ropes, a few metres below the belay and a couple of metres above the ground. My crampons were dangling from my boots by their straps, one of my tools was some way downhill. The screws I had placed were hanging on the ropes in front of me, with the Screamers still intact. On both ropes the core was exposed twelve metres from the ends, where they had abraded against the edge of the rock roof. With rope stretch, I must have fallen more than twenty five metres. Looking up, I could see that the curtain had fractured across its entire width far above where it had appeared to attach to the rock.

By the time we pulled into Canmore, I was so stiff I could barely climb of out the car and hobble into the hospital. The immediate diagnosis was that nothing was broken. It later turned out that I had damaged nerves in my right arm. It was a few months before I regained sensation and full function. But I always knew I would climb again. Two weeks after the accident I scrambled up Mt. Rundle with my arm in a sling. Another two weeks went by and I tried leading Wicked Wanda. Having almost no control over my right arm made placements difficult, and I realized my mind would have to give my body time to catch up."


I like to think I have gotten smarter with age. It is probably even mostly true. Mostly - but not entirely. In fact, just the other week my partner and I found ourselves cowering under an overhang while... On second thought, not all stories need to be told.

Not all stories need to be told.


  1. The world is a better place WITH you;
    Old Fart! m

  2. That last paragraph is a beauty. It definitely leaves me hanging and wanting to hear the rest of the story.

  3. I'm sorry to be a tease, it's just that I'm still embarrassed about the poor judgment I showed on the day in question. I don't like knowing that the only reason we walked away unscathed is that we happened to be in a protected spot when the slope above the route we'd come to climb avalanched. Maybe one of these days I'll get over my shame and tell the story.

  4. I remember Dave telling me about this. He was belaying you that day. I suspect his belaying saved your life. Funny how there's so little mention of him in your story.