When my fingers slipped from the crack in the rock, I flew through the air for ten stomach-lifting metres until the impossibly strong, and comfortably stretchy climbing rope caught my fall. At the other end of the rope Gery Unterasinger, the Assistant Area Manager of the CMH Bobbie Burns Lodge, looked up at me quietly.
Gery has climbed Cerro Torre, one of the most difficult mountains in the world, can lead guide heli-skiers or snowboarders for 17,000-metre day after 17,000-metre day, and is the kind of guy you want holding your rope when you’re dangling on a rock face, high above a drooling crevasse, after a long fall.
Photos, from left: Gery approaching Snowpatch Spire, Topher practicing geometry, Gery at play, and Gery at work.
We were trying to climb a route called Sendero Norte the East Face of Snowpatch Spire, a dark granite tower that looks like a 700-metre high gemstone stuck in the ice of Bugaboo Glacier. Our strategy for the day was made of one part the demands of fatherhood, one part ambition, and one part experience tempered with laziness. To climb in the Bugaboo Spires, most climbers carry heavy packs into the Kain Hut or Applebee Campground and sleep before climbing. With limited time, and with too many heavy packs in our muscle memories, Gery and I opted to avoid camping entirely and go car to car with light packs.
After my fall, we made steady progress up thin, vertical cracks to a corner so geometrically perfect it seems to defy the chaos of erosion. High on the face, we followed the wrong crack and had to rappel to get back onto the right line. Then we couldn’t find an important anchor. Happy with our day, we opted to turn around and rappel to the glacier, 400 meters below us.
Later on, over a cold beer, we talked about what makes success and failure in the mountains. We didn’t make the summit and I took a big fall, but we both felt that the day was a success. If you compare it to heli-skiing, is success in the mountains about skiing from the very top to the very bottom and climbing to the highest bit of rock? Is success in the mountains about numbers, like climbing difficulty grades or metres skied?
Or is success in the mountains about safely getting into the best snow available for as many great turns as possible? On Snowpatch, we got eight hours of the rock climber’s equivalent of over the head powder. On Snowpatch, it really didn’t seem so different from the days I’ve spent with Gery, just a few kilometres away from Snowpatch Spire, skiing powder at the Bobbie Burns. There was no do-or-die attitude, no stress, a large margin for safety, just the right amount of suffering, great turns, lots of face shots, and a little bit of crud to keep us honest.
The funny thing is that in the few weeks since the climb, we’re already talking about going back next year – such is the addiction of the mountain holiday.