I wrote "The Month of Living Dangerously" in 1988 without knowing how to write. There are too many words, too many adjectives, too many things that are "like" other things instead being described as they are, and not enough verbs. Back then my life was guided by an attitude of certain pessimism, glass-empty, bottle-empty, willing to die for new routes and hard climbs, no future, make a point, prove myself, prove them wrong ... all meaning I was young and volatile. Reading this today makes me a smile, knowing I could write it better now, but what would be the point? The routes Randy Rackcliff and I climbed that month were good and the experience forged a bond a that changed both of us forever.
After the seracs above the new route we were attempting avalanched the second time; narrowly missing me, Randy and I agreed that the climb might actually be too sick to justify. I lowered off the and we turned it over as we cowered in a cave behind the sixth pitch - a free-standing pillar totally detached from the wall. Were we cowards? Would we get chopped if we continued? Was it even safe to expose ourselves during the rappels? After five single-anchor raps and a three mile ski out we found a note on the van, "I thought you guys were dead..." Geoff Creighton had seen the avalanches from the valley floor. We immediately drove to his place in Banff for a "beat the reaper" celebration and a bit of introspection; what have I done to deserve this?
Back in December our biological clocks had gone off unchecked. Winter had arrived and every time we discussed our plans buckets full of adrenalin emptied into our stomachs. I laid there like an insomniac through the clear memories of threshold-solos and my rabid imaginings of spindrift, thin ice over crackless limestone and shrieking Himalayan microbursts. I was going climbing again.
The horroshow began with the La Pomme d'Or (550m VI) in Quebec. The 22 mile approach on skis cost us most of our drive and two sets of cheap Walkman batteries. Smart people snowmobile the road inot the climb but not only was the snow machine broken down, we could not get any information on whether the route was "in" or not. I nearly cried when I saw the discontinuous smears of mucous where the East's most beautiful ice climb should have been. Oh, it's around the next corner? The real thing is much cooler looking than the photographs let on. It is as seductive and threatening as the strobelight flash on a girl's steel-tipped boot in some smoke filled, downtown thrash club. We soloed the first four pitches. Randy tied the ropes on but ran out the fifth completely. I followed with tension to speed things up and we swung two more leads to the base of the crux pillar. I buried a Snarg in the solid apron at its base so I wouldn't hit the belay then pulled through the twenty meter vertical pillar of eggshell and broken glass without finding any pro. I was shaken. Randy lead the next two Grade V pitches to the top. Eight rappels off trees, bollards and threaded runners put us back at the bottom after eight hours. Much too slow (!) I thought to myself. We cranked off the ski out in five hours as penance for having been slow.
Five days later we waded into Calgary. Beer replaced coffee as the drink of choice, if only to relax Randy's muscles so I could peel his white knuckled death grip off the steering wheel. We were both wound up tightly after our five day winter journey across the Trans-Canada highway in a Ford AeroStar van. We didn't have chains; they're illegal on the highway in any case, and even with our 400 pounds of climbing gear stacked over the rear axle the van drove like a something meant for Christmas vacation in Florida. At one point an eighteen wheeler passed us on the right as I fought for control with rear wheel drive, teetering on the brink of Lake Superior's icy northern shore. By the time we rolled in to Calgary I was very, very tense.
I saw a t-shirt that read, "If you can't rock-n-roll - don't fucking come"! There weren't many rockers around Calgary in January. They'd come later, to see real sports and spend real money. We couldn't bring ourselves to rock-n-roll much either; climbing conditions were depressing and so were our musical tastes. We listened to the "suicide" music I'd bought while living in a damp and dark Seattle basement. Every Joy Division song reminded me of a thrashed tape deck and naked lightbulbs, the mildew on the walls and my nominal view across the rain-blackened surface of Lake Washington. We listened to Click Click, The Wipers, Dead Can Dance, The Smiths, And Also The Trees, and Trisomie 21. Heavy music makes for heavy thinking and several times on the drive out we just pulled over and closed our eyes with the stereo off and tried to block it all out.
The avalanche hazard was ludicrous and most of the waterfalls were thin and rotten. A three-day storm trapped us in Jasper Townsite where arctic cold paralyzed the engine of our van and Randy locked the keys inside. Once we got back in an inch of hoar frost condensed on the walls while we slept. When the heater finally decided to function again meltwater soaked our gear and the little mobile home smelled like a swamp. Every single potato had frozen and exploded just like the eggs did. The stress was giving me an ulcer.
The pressure was on. We were sponsored climbers and grappled with the obligation to perform despite insane objective hazards. To stay in shape for our alpine projects we ticked off the classic Canadian waterfalls. After a few pitches, waterfall climbing can become quite tedious, so we developed a method for keeping the fun meter redlined. We either soloed the routes or lead out with two ice screws - one for pro and one for the belay. Sometimes we broke our tools or simply dropped them. This radical behavior was rewarded one afternoon at the Weeping Wall when we overheard climbers - who'd just backed off a very easy climb - exclaim, "Oh my God, he's fifty feet out with just one screw in! Let's get out of hear before something happens."
"Ordinary people, I fuckin' hate 'em."
Harry Dean Stanton in REPO MAN
Later that week something sobering did happen; Randy broke two tools within five minutes while soloing the left side of the Weeping Wall. He was hanging from a leashless spare two pitches off the deck so I soloed across and offered him one of my extras. I learned my lesson last season and now I always carry four tools when I'm soloing. We broke a total of six tools (of varying brands) during our trip. I don't much like being the guinea pig for someone else's metallurgy experiments, eventually some piece of gear will become too light and someone will get killed because of it.
Just as my knuckles were getting too swollen to hang on to my tools the Chinook winds abruptly blew in along with the Olympics; 100,000 spectators, vacant grocery store shelves, nightly fireworks and wild, party animals on Electric Avenue. The Men's Downhill was cancelled due to high winds. The 90 Meter Jump was postponed as well. In the mountains the airspeed hit 150 kmh - we kept our paragliders packed away. Sitting out the tepid weather in Calgary, we prayed that an equally sudden freeze would prevent the untimely end to our trip.
With one week remaining the barometer shot up and the starting gun exploded with it. The bomb in my stomach went off and Rolaids brought no relief. I was nauseous and shaking, but ready to stick my skinny neck out.
Randy headed off to solo Polar Circus. The ice wasn't great but the snow on the easy sections had shaped up well, so he cruised it. I climbed alongside of him with a video camera, and even with the filming we did it in five hours. It felt like we were getting fit. Warm air kept us indoors at the Rampart Creek Hostel the next day. We read escapist trash and shared the Sisters of Mercy tape. Randy pushed the volume to ten to drown out the bedlam of my nervously grinding teeth; Slipstream was next on the hit list. We paid homage to epics past, two days ascents, accidental bivvies on the ice cap, calving seracs and spindrift avalanches. Even though the first ascent of the route had taken two days and modern rope teams average about twelve hours Craig Reason and Jay Smith had done it in five and a half, so we planned on a modern one-day ascent.
My intestines churned when I saw the seracs that morning; a giant tapeworm was digesting me from the inside out. Randy said, "Just go for it, rage fully," and with a wink, " 'stay to the right to avoid icefall' ". We both laughed at this little gem, the guidebook's warning note. I mean, if the cornice drops off it would crumple you at the bottom like a Flexible Flyer under the drive train of an oncoming truck. "Staying right ain't gonna do shit. Speed and luck man, not prudence..."
We were lightly armed for battle: I carried spare gloves and a four and a half pound paraglider and Randy had a 50m x 9/16 inch piece of webbing to rap on along with some Granola Bars in a fanny pack. At 11:00 a.m. we crossed the bergschrund chanting John Bouchard's mantra, "GO, GO, GO." I pulled through the cornice at 1:04 p.m., Randy at 2:20 p.m. The wind was blowing 70 kmh so flying down was out of the question.
"A brave new world is beckoning so the older world must die."
New Model Army
A day later we skied toward Epaulet Lake and the new route we'd tried earlier on the Northeast Face of the White Pyramid. Warm weather had brought down heavy artillery. The runout zone was littered with the debris of falling seracs, which had devastated the approach gully. We wove between telltale craters in the soulless, battered snow. The ice cliff jeopardizing the waterfall is immense, 50 to 75 meters high all the way across the face. It looked far more dangerous than Slipstream, but not unreasonable. "Today", intuition said, "is a good day to risk everything".
We soloed the first five pitches, retrieving our rap anchors on the way. Two pitches of grade 3, two of grade 4 and one of 5 disappeared beneath our feet in just over an hour. We were in overdrive as soon as our crampons touched the ice and did not stop until we reached the safety of the cave below the sixth pitch. It was just 9:30 a.m., plenty of time to freak out over what might come next. Randy lead the 15-meter free standing pillar this time. It was fractured across the base so he was very gentle with it. After clipping the two screws I'd placed almost a month before, he ran out the rope on thin plates and overhanging mushrooms to a hanging belay. It was one of the toughest pitches either of us had ever done. I lead through on brittle grade 5 ice. At the top of the seventh pitch I saw the seracs clearly for the first time. The flat light of early morning, combined with foreshortened sight from the basin had been deceiving. From my imperiled stance I scanned ahead; I saw the serac wall overhanging me by 25 feet or so. I saw the extra ten foot cornice and the fracture lines and exfoliating blocks frozen to the face of it all. It was easily ten times worse than I'd imagined. Faster, faster, kill kill.
Body fought to descend, but head prevailed. "I've nothing to go back to New Hampshire for anyway," I mused. Two weeks earlier I called John Bouchard, whose company, Wild Things was sponsoring us, to tell him conditions were too dangerous and we were coming home. He felt we were biting or spiting the hand that feeds and stated flatly, "if you leave there don't bother coming here because there'll be nothing to come back to." No job, no sponsorship, no place to live (because I was sleeping in the Wild Things sewing rooms at the time). I told him we were out of money too – the $125 per week was barely cutting it – and that he'd promised to send along some more, but there was no more and he pushed the needle in further saying, "you'll figure something out." So I did. And he didn't like it. But we stayed.
I reeled Randy in, and ran out a 180-foot grade 4 pitch, then a 130 foot grade 5 pillar and belayed in the shadow of a big rock. We climbed one more hard column. Although fifty feet of water ice remained, the seracs directly overhead would not go so we abandoned the direct finish in favor of a break to the right. Randy led out on the aging ice. Every time a tool hit the ice the frozen together blocks beneath my feet shuddered. I shuddered. I wanted to be anywhere but anchored beneath this capital sentence. Randy pulled down a dinner setting for twelve without getting a solid placement. He shouted down, "this is really, really sick Mark". "It must have been bad", I thought, "because he usually likes it that way". We retreated half a pitch and traversed under the ice cap. I found a fifty foot 5.7 corner and we both soloed through the spindrift toward the summit. I stood at the top, sweating little glass beads and suppressing vomit, shaking off my fear. We shook hands, gave each other a high five and watched the sun go down.
The descent of the West Face was easy. On the way down we justified and rationalized and hooted with relief. I shouted my thesis, "Today's new climbs are yesterday's death routes". But Randy didn't answer so I just sang to myself...
"Hey, hey I listen to you pray as if some help will come
Hey, hey she will dance on our graves when we are dead and gone
Hey, hey toward the suicide days the blind man blunders on
Hey, hey she will dance on our graves when we are dead and gone
when we are dead and gone..."
New Model Army
We discussed the grade a bit - afraid to be the ugly Americans again; poaching a route and then saying it's harder than anything else. But it is. I mean, we blew off every grade 6 we did in excellent style and this was harder than any of those. Ok, The Terminator may be harder technically but this is at least twice as long, more remote and insanely dangerous. Canadian grades indicate seriousness, so this is a grade 7. We called it The Reality Bath, 2000 feet, 11 pitches.
Later we drank beer with friends and trivialized the risk so that we could deal with it emotionally. Steve Demaio described his impression of modern alpine routes in the Rockies, "you put a bullet in the chamber and spin it. Place the barrel against the roof of your mouth and pull the trigger five times as fast as you can.
I had to agree. On The Reality Bath the hammer fell with five immensely satisfying clicks. Too much, but never enough.
The Reality Bath has not yet been repeated as of this writing in 1993. In the new guidebook, Waterfall Ice, the grading system is divided into two categories addressing technical difficulty and commitment. Although the climb has received a technical grade of 5 (and I believe it should be 6) Albi Sole states that the route is suicidal and gives it a commitment rating of 7. What remains to be seen is the judgment of whoever has the balls to go up and make the second ascent of this remarkable climb.