Into the Blue

Doomed enterprises divide lives forever into the then and the now. Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing

How long, wondered The Logging Road Cyclist, as he lay prone on the massage table with his face puckering through the face-hole, did it take for the indiscretions of youth to ramify into one’s elder life? He was being worked on by the physical therapist he had stumbled on a few years previously. TLRC was not one to buy into woo-woo theories of healing powers, shamanism, crystals &c, but he had to admit this woman made him tend to give some credence to stories about women who could simply lay hands upon one and effect a cure. She seemed to be engaged in exactly this.

TLRC had long been plagued by recurring bouts of back spasms, and had been diagnosed with a Grade I L5-S1spondylothesis that might be the culprit. The latest round of distress was by far the worst he’d had, forcing him to put hands on knees just to get out of a chair and really bringing him to the ultima thule of decrepitude. This had gone on for more than a month. He moved and acted like an old man.

PT poked around a bit, had TLRC move this way and that, and pronounced a deficit in the action of the multifidus muscles, which she relieved by a bit more poking, and a silly, small excercise for TLRC to do. One visit cut the misery in half, a few days set TLRC well on the road to recovery.

On visit two, TLRC asked PT why the multifidi weren’t behaving. She mulled it over and     said that trauma to the area could well be the cause…

At the end of his last summer in British Columbia, TLRC was a confirmed Squamish crag rat. He and his main partner JB were looking to move out and do something different, namely some peaks rather than the usual rock. The obvious objective for TLRC was Slesse Peak, a granite tower on the border southeast of Vancouver. He had done the easy west face with a moron from the University mountaineering club a number of years before and recalled looking down the magnificant NE Buttress and the intimidating east face. It didn’t take much work to talk JB into doing the long, classic NE Buttress Route.

Slesse Peak. The NE Buttress (center) divides light from shadow.

They figured it would be easiest to traverse the peak and descend down the west side. Since the road up that side was about six miles from the road up to the east of the Peak, they needed some sort of shuttle, in this case an old and very funky bike of JB’s. The plan was to drop the bike off at the end of the west road, drive up to the east road, traverse the Peak, have one of them ride back to the car, &c, &c.

They got to the end of the east road and saddled up. TLRC took the keys and went to a large cut bank at the edge of the road that had one large tree root exposed. He took the keys and hid them at the right end of this root and showed JB exactly where they were so that either of them could do the shuttle, and neither of them would have to worry about the keys on the climb.

They hiked in. On the way, turning a corner, a sudden view of the Peak emerged. It stood out against the sky like a huge dark flame. TLRC had done a bit of Grade IV and V in Yosemite, and some real alpine rock in the Tetons and Sierra. Squamish Chief isn’t little. Even so, this first view of the route was spectacular and intimidating.

They bivouacked with stupidly inadequate gear and got started at first light, mostly because of the cold. The first part of the climb was class 4ish and went pretty fast. A steeper section reared up on JB’s lead and he took off up what looked to TLRC like an unreasonable choice of route, as in a whole hell of a lot harder than what was pretty obviously a whole lot easer just off to the right. But it was JB’s lead…

Eventually, JB flamed out in an increasingly overhanging crack splitting a narrowing rib, the whole affair looking a lot more 5.11-like than anything they were supposed to encounter. TLRC started to try to talk JB out of his folly. JB persisted, until TLRC felt the alarms going off at the base of his skull as he pictured getting JB out if something really went wrong and he, TLRC, finally just made so much of a fuss, telling JB just to goddamn put in a friend (back then a new camming invention, and very expensive), and one of TLRC’s friends if it came to that and get down and back on route. So JB did this, and they got on their way…

JB redeemed himself a little further on as they hit the crux of their climb. At about half-height, the climbing is on mangy, dirty, low angle rock, not too hard, but not easy to protect, given a lack of cracks. Just about the time the route kept all of this but the low-angle part, a violent thunderstorm erupted over the Peak. JB was well out on his pitch with nothing in to stop a fall as the water ran an inch deep, turning the dirt into mud. Rockfall commenced and TLRC huddled in his cagoule. Eventually JB found a belay about a rope-length out and TLRC came up. Water ran over his hands and his EB’s slipped in the mud. Holds were rounded and the pitch was likely 5.7 or 5.8 even when dry. JB had pulled it off with aplomb, the sun came out, and TLRC swung into the lead.

They got to the base of the final third of the route where the Buttress rears back and reaches for the heavens.

Upper part of NE Buttress (left skyline)

The Buttress here is fearsomely exposed and looks out over the spooky East Face into which a prop airliner slammed back in 1956, killing all 62 souls on board (the worst airline disaster in the world at the time; TLRC had found a few shards of aluminum at the base of the route and felt a Presence). The climbing was superb and well within range for TLRC and JB. They were loving it.

They summited as the sun was going down, and pondered for a while descending back to the east, but they were tired and did not like the idea of crossing snowfields and rough terrain in running shoes in the dark, so they stuck with the traverse.

They got to the steep trail off the west side just before dark and headed down towards the road. In the dark with their one headlamp it seemed to take forever. They were both exhausted and by the time the got on the road TLRC (who had heard of this happening to marching soldiers, or Marines anyway), fell asleep while walking. Finally he could take no more and told JB he was going to lay down in the road and sleep. JB, made of sterner stuff said he’d keep going and get the car. After some time, TLRC stirred himself and stumbled down to the main road to sleep some more until JB got back in the car.

Curled up in the dirt, TLRC was awakened by the rhythmic squeak of JB’s poorly maintained bike (even then, TLRC was fastidious about bicycle maintenance). “JB, WTF”, spluttered TLRC, “ou se trouve la voiture?”, TLRC having learned un petit francaise while having lived in Canada. JB looked frantic, apologetic, crestfallen, embarrassed. He had been unable to find the keys to the car. Groaning, TLRC got on the miserable bike and ground his way the six miles to the car. There he found the cutbank pockmarked as if a gopher had been at it, evidence of poor JB’s futile search. TLRC directly laid hands on the keys, collected the snoozing JB and, well satisifed with themselves they set off for home.

“That went well”, said TLRC and JB a little while later, “let’s do some ice climbing!” Since neither had done any more than a bit of snow, but both (like many rockclimbers TLRC knew) owned crampons and tools, they had the wherewithal, if not the ability. Being cautious and sensible, they picked what they were assured was a reasonable objective: the Coleman Glacier on nearby Mt Baker, in the States, as we said back then.

Mt Baker, Coleman Face

TLRC remembers only the salient events of the day. They got to where they needed to be, worked their way up to steepness and crevasses and roped up. An historical note is appropriate here. While climbing harnesses were available at the time, no one in TLRC’s circle used them. Rather, they used swami belts, 2″ webbing wrapped three or four times around the waist and fastened with a water knot. One tied in by knotting the bight of climbing rope through the belt. TLRC preferred a double fisherman’s bend for this, a tidy, compact and secure-looking knot. For some reason the folks that TLRC hung around with didn’t like the idea of depending on stitching for the last line of defence. On the other hand, in the event of  fall, one took the enitire force on the waist, small of back and ribs.

All that TLRC remembers of the climb is being roped, traversing around some crevasses and taking a little jump over a little crack. When he landed, he tripped and fell flat on his face, not being used to the total stopping power of his unfamiliar crampons. He immediately began to slide, feet first, down the suddenly very steep slope.

In theory, this shouldn’t have been a problem. One of the few things TLRC actually DID know about real mountaineering, and had actually become proficient at, was  self-arresting with his ice-axe, which he was indeed holding at the ready when he jumped, because he was preparing himself for a similar eventuality. The problem is it didn’t work, or to state the matter with more precision, TLRC failed to self-arrest.

A couple of frantic seconds ensued, after which TLRC flipped over backwards as he cartwheeled over the lip of a huge crevasse. To this day, when recalling it, he can see clearly in his mind’s eye the flash of perfect alpine blue sky as the crevasse swallowed him.

After a number of hard blows, including at least one to his head, TLRC was brought to a hard stop, the full force on his belt. He hung, and looked past the toes of his boots into a spectacular blue space that went down and down and down…

His headband flew into the depths. The left lens of his sunglasses had been knocked out by the blow and fluid was dripping down from his face away to a place he could not see. He assessed his situation while JB, in a much more serious tone than their usual banter, was demanding to know TLRC’s “situation”, which amused TLRC. A bit.

What the “situation” was was something that could have been an order of magnitude or so worse. TLRC had fallen down a narrow, less than vertical gully at the edge of the crevasse, and had stopped, fortuitously, just before it debouched into the true ghastly blue netherworld. TLRC was bleeding from his head, but it seemed to be just the left supraorbital ridge. He hadn’t broken anything, nor (perish the thought) snagged a crampon point and snapped an ankle. JB had in fact been belaying TLRC, but amateurs that they were, they had way, way too much rope out, like a half a length, which is how far TLRC had fallen before he pulled JB off his stance. JB slid helplessy another 20-30 feet before the rope drag on the edge of the crevasse stopped them both from dying.

JB reestablished his stance. TLRC was shockingly OK with the whole situation. Once belayed, he got himself turned around and pulled the ice tool off of his pack. With that and the ice-axe, he climbed himself out, and enjoyed himself, actually thinking that this ice climbing was really pretty fun and that he and JB should do some more of it.

He got over the edge, and JB was all business. He ordered TLRC around! (They usually had a much different dynamic.)  He made TLRC march right over to a designated spot and sit down and be subjected to a thorough examination. At this point, TLRC burst into tears from a combination of adrenaline collapse and the realization that by being an idiot he had nearly killed JB. JB held him like a child until TLRC collected himself.

They made their way off towards the standard route. TLRC had taped up his glasses to avoid going blind and was feeling worse as time passed. By the time they got to the approach trail, he felt like he had a horrible case of flu and could hardly walk. Stumbling slowly down the trail, a voice from behind asked if “We can pass, honey, because we’re going a little faster than you?” Two rotund, middled aged women with curlers in their hair and pails of mushrooms squeezed past him on the trail and clucked in a comforting way about TLRC’s awful face.

Back in Glacier, TLRC went into the store for hydrogen peroxide, gauze, tape and beer. In the pizza parlor, we went to the sink with mirror that served both the men’s and women’s toilets and examined his face. Black left eye, other bruises, bad cut over the left eye. He set himself and began to scrub dried blood out of the gash, which began to leak again. A fastidious patron came out of the men’s room and automatically turned to the washing facility, now awash in TLRC’s blood. Patron took a look, glanced at TLRC and left, silent and unclean.

In Vancouver, TLRC, now solidly anesthetisized by beer, got his unsympathetic quasi-girlfriend to take him to the ER. “You look and smell like a drunk who got in a fight” she archly informed poor TLRC. The ER doc was a young and handsome jive-assed sort of guy who apparently knew something about climbing. He said there’d be 8-10 stitches on the eye and was pretty relaxed about the whole thing until he asked TLRC how far he had fallen. “Fifty, seventy feet maybe.” “Belt or harness?” “Belt.” “Lie back down.”

This knocked the stuffing out of TLRC’s climbing. Maybe it was all this event, or it and other things like grad school-girlfriend-marriage-job, but TLRC just never got it back together. He and JB did a couple of midwinter climbs on the West Lion and Blanchard’s Needle. TLRC moved like a stud on the sandstone walls at Stanford, did some of the Squamish-like face routes on Middle Rock and some other things, but he never got his mojo back. Oddly, this had no effect whatever on his kayaking, for in the year after The Fall, TLRC did by far the hardest boating of his life and was unshaken. Who can fathom the mind, or the multifidi for that matter?

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