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TR: How I Learned My Limitations in Mountaineering: G2 at Slalok Mountain and Matier Glacier

Posted on August 28, 2014 by Cora Skaien, from the Varsity Outdoor Club website.

Objective: Practice mountaineering skills by crossing Stonecrop Glacier to summit Slalok Mountain, then descend to cross the Matier Glacier. If time, explore a route on Matier Mountain.

Disclaimer: distances, angles and sizes of things are in relation to how I perceive them (in a terrified state), and may have been perceived differently by others.

The story: I have always had a passion for exploring the mountains and have had a burning desire to acquire more skills to explore mountainous areas more thoroughly. I have had a few set-backs, the first being three partially torn tendons in my right shoulder in February 2012, accompanied with a loose segment of vertebrae, chronic issues with a broken navicular bone (broken ~ year 2000) in my right foot which often flares up, and re-taring of two ligaments in my right ankle about once every 2 years. This last year, I was also diagnosed with a connective tissue disorder, Ehlers Danlos, which provides me with the lovely opportunity to experience super stretchy connective tissue (ligaments and tendons) which are prone to tear, not heal properly, and re-tare repeatedly, as well as a tendency to bleed continuously when cut, have super tight muscles which try to hold my bones in place since my connective tissue has a hard time, and immune deficiencies often leading to infections. Despite all of these set-backs, I have been determined to overcome them and build my strength with physio exercises and mental motivation.

In May 2013, I took ‘Intro to Mountaineering’, organized by Omid and was excited to finally get exposed to the skills I would need to explore as I wished. Self-arresting without a pack on came naturally and I found the activity quite fun. Rope teams and the logistics of keeping the rope relatively tight both in front of me and behind me also seemed quite obvious. At this time, setting up pulley systems for the first time did not come naturally and required a lot of time and practice, and my t-slot anchor was even worse! Four months later, I participated in Glacier School 1 and discovered that what I had learned in Intro to Mountaineering had stuck as my pulley systems and anchors, although not perfect, were substantially more effective and efficient. At this time, I also self-arrested with a pack on which aggravated my loose segment of vertebrae, and I was in self arrest for about 45 minutes while my rope partner tried to build an anchor to release me from my self-arrest, while a ‘hurt’ Julien simulated an unconscious crevasse patient. Unfortunately, these 45 minutes of tugging threw my back out and I was out for a few weeks to recover. Since this time, I have been doing planks and other core exercise nightly to increase my strength and abilities, and despite a recent flare-up in my foot from the accessory navicular bone, I felt ready for G2.

Many people were not able to make the pre-trip meeting and others dropped out in the days that followed, leaving us as seven people: Art Petrenko, Cameron Bathgate, Manfred Keller, Frank Zimmerman, myself, and our two wonderful instructors Neil Mackenzie and Nick Matwyuk. At the pre-trip meeting, it was a common theme that many of us feared we may not be experienced enough to attend the trip, but Neil assured us that we could make the trip as we liked and therefore could gauge the skill level and accommodate that. One member had never done G1 or Intro to Mountaineering before, while the rest of us had at least done G1. It was deemed that this was okay. We discussed gear, I asked if my hiking boots would be adequate for this trip or if I needed proper mountaineering boots (to which I was informed my sturdy hiking boots should be fine), and we were one our way!

Cam, Manfred, Neil and I were to form one rope team (Rope Team #1) and we headed up Friday evening to sleep in the parking lot and hike up early, while Art, Frank and Nick (Rope Team #2) drive up Saturday morning and met us at Joffre Lakes. When the first rope team got to the lakes, we spent 2 hours practicing anchors while we waited for the other group to arrive. Around 10:45 AM, we began to scramble up towards the base of Stonecrop Glacier, which involved a lot of steep scrambling and being well acquainted with our hands on rocks. Cam lead us most of the way up, making great navigation decisions along the way.

Photo Credit: Cam Bathgate. Scrambling up towards Stonecrop Glacier.

Photo Credit: Cam Bathgate. Scrambling up towards Stonecrop Glacier.

When we reached the base of Stonecrop Glacier, we needed to get over the first bit of ice and snow to reach the better access point to the glacier where Nick already was. We all got our crampons on and Neil made a route over to Nick, placing ice screws along the way. We were to follow once Neil was secure, with 3 meters of rope in between each of us and me in the back to remove the screws as we went. On this first portion, many of us learned for the first time that our crampons were FAR too loose and I had about 2 inches between my toes and the front of the crampons when placed on steep ice, making these first 5 minutes quite difficult and a little frightening.

Stepping onto Stonecrop Glacier

Once we reached the place where we wanted to access the glacier in our rope teams, we divided into our two rope teams. Rope team # 2 set out first and we waited a few dozen meters before Rope Team # 1 set out on the glacier, with Cam in front, me in second, Manfred in third and Neil in the back. Once Cam and I were both on the Glacier, and Manfred was taking his first few steps, we hear from Rope Team #2 “RRROOOCCCKKK!!!!”. We look to see a medium-black-bear-sized rock pummelling down towards us from about 70 meters up. The rock came down faster and faster while bouncing, and to me (and I am sure everyone else), it looked like it was coming straight at me, and subsequently Manfred and Neil behind me. The ice was steeper than I would have liked, thus relying solely on my (now adjusted) crampons to hold me in place, and I was trying to figure out which way to jump and when, when I realized “This is how I die”. I sat there and waited for the football bouncing to become predictable and the boulder was about 15-20 meters away and about to jump over the last crevasse that stood in the way of it and us. By this stage, Rope Team # 2 was out of harms way and I was sure Rock Team # 1 was about to die. Then, the boulder hit the ledge, and bounced backwards and down into the crevasse. Phew. Crisis averted.

We continued on our way, with Cam leading us expertly around crevasses up the slope on our team, and Art leading his rope team up a different, but also excellent path. Stonecrop Glacier was aptly named, as it was littered with rocks. We made it to the base of the summit of Slolak, and were faced with two options. Option 1: go up the ever increasing steep ice slope, or scramble up the steep rock. Rope Team # 1 decided that since we were on Glacier School, we should probably take the ice slope as opposed to the scrambling route. Rope Team # 2 continued the snack break we were all having on the rocks beneath the scrambling route. When choosing our route up, we noticed a very distinct brown smear that descended to us from the top of the mountain where rocks regularly slid down. We decided to stay well to the left of this smear to protect ourselves from rock fall.

Travelling up Stonecrop Glacier

Slalok Mountain, with ice slope route on left, rock smear in middle, and scramble to right.

Cam lead the way up, armed with two pickets and 2 ice screws to place as we went. Cam was about 40-50 meters up, with ~12 meters of rope in between each of us. The slope was getting steeper, and we were at the point where we were using the front points of our crampons and our ice axe as an ice tool to make our way up the slope. Suddenly, we heard a deep rumbling noise. We looked up to see rock coming off of the mountain, and instead of it following along the brown smear, it came straight at us. Cam yelled “ROCK!” and I tucked my face in for protection when suddenly a felt impact first on my thigh by a medium rock and then on my shoulder by a small rock (my right shoulder, right on top of one of my previously torn tendons). I sat there clinging to the ice while pain shot up and down my leg and we assessed the damage. Cam has been hit on the foot, but was luckily wearing thicker mountaineering boots. Neither Manfred nor Neil were maimed (i.e. hit by rocks).

We sat there debating what to do, when chunks of ice began to fall and hit each of my hands. We decided that the best course of action was to get off of the face as quickly as possible as the sun was heating up the slope, causing it to release rocks and ice. At this stage, Rope Team # 2 decided not to follow up on our route and to scramble up the rocks. We continued going up the slope, and a few steps later, Cam slipped and began coming down towards me. I looked up to see an arm length metal object with a leash fall from him and slide passed me and all I could think is “Oh shit, he has dropped his ice axe. It is all up to me now”. I dove down into self arrest position and began kicking my feet in to get a stable position. I pushed up into the plank position to get my ice axe embedded further when I had searing pain shooting through my back around my loose segment of vertebrae- although I had been doing nightly planks without pain for months, I had not been doing them with a ~35 lb pack on and the weight was too much. At this point, I realized again, “This is how we all die, because I cannot stop the fall”.

Suddenly Cam stopped immediately beside me, ice axe in hand and embedded in the ice at the same height as mine. It has not been his ice axe that fell thankfully, but rather a picket. After his ~12 meter slide, and my realization of my limitations (which at least distracted me from the pain in my thigh), Cam and I seemed quite shaken while Manfred and Neil were below us calling up “Is everything okay up there?”. I felt like everything was most certainly NOT okay as now I was on edge and on the verge of a panic attack, wondering whether I could really do this. I said “I don’t want to be here”, but had no choice and we continued on.

Cam lead the way again once getting his picket back, and the ice gradually became steeper and steeper. Neil said it could not have been more than 45 degrees, but it sure felt significantly steeper. Cam placed a picket immediately before crossing a crevasse, and then eventually his first ice screw. While he was placing his second ice screw, I was now on the most vertical portion of the ice. Because I did not have proper mountaineering boots, my toes bent in and in order to keep the front spikes of my crampons in the ice, I had to lean my knees against the ice, otherwise the angle changed and the crampons slid out downhill. My calves were burning as Cam placed the third ice screw, and we continued on, everyone else seeming unphased. As we got further, Neil recommended that Cam place his last picket and he spent a few solid minutes trying to get it off of his pack, losing his glove in the process, to confirm that he could in fact not get the picket out of his bag. At this stage, we were ~1/3 up the steep slope, and this meant that once Neil passed the last ice screw, there was no more protection for the rest of the whole way.

At some point between the second and third ice screw, one or two of my three points of contact (2 crampons plus an ice axe held in my right arm) would slip at a given time, and when this happened after 4 times, I had a major panic attack, complete with hyperventilation, excessive crying and embarrassing sobbing. It took me a solid 5-10 minutes to control my breathing as I continued up the slope, convinced that I was going to slide off the mountain and kill everyone. Once we passed our last piece of protection, my certainty that I would kill us all tripled and I was crying the whole rest of the way up, slipping every second step up to 10 cm at a time down the slope, cursing my hiking boots and experiencing searing pain in my right shoulder, convinced I had re-torn my tendons. About three quarters of the way up, I decided that I had to try and trust my left hand with the ice axe as I could not physically lift my right arm anymore through the intense shoulder pain. I wish I had done it sooner because my left hand was more than capable, and my crying and whining reduced marginally. Everyone shouted support at me, very considerately, as I moved 5-10 cm with each step, very slowly, up the ice slope. Neil kept yelling “Only 10 more meters!” to which I looked up and thought “F$&!! you, you lier!” with several dozen meters left to go. Finally, when I was ten meters from the top and Cam had moved onto a flatter region, he slipped and fell. My illogical brain said “I can’t worry about this right now, he has 20 meters to stop himself before it is my concern” and I just kept moving as fast as I could up the slope. Luckily, Cam self-arrested successfully instantly, and then we all made it to the base of the final scramble to the summit. Manfred came up completely relaxed and casual, followed by Neil, while I dried up my tears and removed globs of salt off my eye lashes.

Slope we ascended to Slalok on Day 1, showing steepness

We removed our crampons and scrambled to the top of the summit of Slalok Mountain, where we took celebratory photos. We then went back to the ledge beneath the summit where we had left our bags to snack and wait for the others. At this time, I rolled up my pants to discover that my painless and frozen knees were completely and hopelessly ravaged. Writing this 5 days later, I still have not re-gained full feeling in my knees and they are utterly infected.

Summit of Slalok

Knee damage immediately after

About an hour and fifteen minutes after we had summited, we still had seen no signs of Rope Team # 2 and began to get nervous about their well being. It was now 7:30 PM, and the sun was to set around 8:20. We realized that our initial plan of descending Slalok and crossing the Matier Glacier that evening was highly unrealistic and we should consider camping on the ledge system we were currently at. A few minutes later, we briefly saw Frank on top of Slalok, indicating that the other rope team was safe. It was, however, another half an hour before we saw Art and Nick. It seems that their scrambling route proved to be quite difficult, complete with a 5.8 pitch that Nick led without protection (and without his back pack) to then belay people up. The decision was unanimous to sleep where we were given the time and skill-level of the group.

Campsite beneath the summit of Slalok

We cooked our dinner and went to sleep. In the middle of the night, I was woken by a pesky rat trying to get at the food in my bag. After trying to chase him away for 30-45 minutes, Manfred and I brought our bags into our tent to prevent him from getting our food. Unfortunately, he did get into Nick’s food which he had buried under rocks in hopes that it might protect the food. I am not sure the best solution to protect food from rats in this environment, with nowhere to hang anything up.

The next day, we set out with me in the lead to descend to Matier Glacier, and Frank in the lead of Rope Team # 2. We arrived at a crevasse system that created a box without a lid, and thus my rope team went the long way around it to avoid a white snow bridge which I did not want to trust. We learned later, that Frank decided he wanted to cross this same snow bridge that I deemed un-safe, and his foot punched through the snow. Art, following behind him, tired to the same route and has his whole leg plunge through the snow. Nick, seeing where this pattern was going, opted to avoid Frank’s route and took a separate route avoiding the snow bridge safely.

We descended to a pile of rocks, which we had to scramble down after a food break for ~ 150 meters, where we could then enter onto Matier Glacier. There were a number of crevasses and a fairly steep route to get to the flat portion of the Glacier, so Nick belayed Neil while he set protection along a descent route. Nick then belayed the rest of us while we descended, avoiding crevasses along the way, and then cleaned the route on his way while Neil belayed. We then got back into our rope teams, this time with Manfred in the lead of Rope Team # 1, and he lead us confidently across Matier Glacier and through the crevasse field. We passed many beautiful crevasses along the way.

Photo Credit: Cam Bathgate; Descending towards the rocks

Crossing Matier Glacier

We exited the glacier on the other side, had lunch, put our glacier gear away, and began to descend the steep, loose scramble route, complete with down-climbing sections. Although I felt like the day before was merely a dream and did not occur, as soon as steep slopes with loose rock appeared, my panic attack fully returned, informing me “You gonna die!”, despite the safer nature of the current situation. As a result, my descent was very slow, mixed with the pain in my knees and broken foot which has haunted me all summer when going down slope. Manfred, Frank and Cam were hundreds of meters ahead of us, but Neil and Nick stayed behind with Art and I as we navigated our way down slowly. Eventually, we made it to Upper Joffre Lake, and then reached the cars around 8:30 PM to head home.

Nick had said it was very unlikely to have any of the three events to occur (large boulder plummet at you down glacier, small and medium sized rocks rain on you from above to hit you, and have one person slip and fall 12 meters before successfully self-arresting), and we had all three in the span of about two or three hours. The whole way up the ice slope, I kept saying to myself “I don’t want to be here, I don’t want to do this ever again!”, yet I find myself thinking “Maybe if I had proper mountaineering boots, used my left arm more and strengthened my core even more, I could do that again!”. I have learned that I have a limitation of self-arresting with a heavy pack on and this is definitely something I need to strengthen for the safety of the whole rope team I am connected to. I also cannot wait for my consultation with a surgeon regarding the removal of my accessory navicular bone, which causes blood flow issues to my foot and severe pain often. I also realize that I need to harness my fear of heights more before embarking on a ice slope that steep every again, as the fear comes and goes but seems debilitating when it hits. I am super grateful for the amazing support that everyone provided me, and the expert guidance that Nick and Neil provided for us on our journey. Will I go on another trip? I will gauge how steep things get, and with time, I do hope to try something similar in the future, but less steep to work myself into it. It seems that the other people on this trip were more capable, and I expect them to excel in the future with more journeys such as these!

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