My first climb, my first epic

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Trip Report: “My first climb! My first epic!”
Western Cwm, Eardley Escarpment
Gatineau Hills, Quebec – 7th April 2001

  • Upper Slabs: Pascal’s Hole, 5.6 (S, 5B) * – top-rope, lead
  • Corruption Buttress: Morning Crack, 5.6 – top-rope

Scott and myself have gym climbed for a little more than a year – sometimes as much as three times a week, but mostly the on-again off-again climbing that fits into our schedules so well. He’s a solid 10b on toprope, pushing 10d. I’m 10a, pushing 10b. We both lead 10s indoors.

It’s good to climb with Scott because he whines a lot when I take rests, usually belays from a chair, is inattentive when women are around, and generally pays as little attention to my scrabbling as possible. He’s a good 60lbs lighter than I am (do I qualify as a sumo-climer at 225?), and probably stronger. I can’t figure out how we can have problems with some of the same climbs.

Reinout is a European grad student who’s been in my residence at University for the last couple of months. We accidentally discovered each other climbs when I was returning from a flail-fest, thoroughly beaten down by the walls at Coyote’s, bleeding and whimpering. He’s tall and thin, and I figured he’d be pretty good – he is. He has a sport rack with him from Europe, but no rope.

I have a rope, but no belay device (except my ‘biners). Scott has a gri-gri. We were a team without a second thought.

Reinout bought a guidebook for the Eardley Escarpment (in the Gatineau Hills of Quebec, just across the border from Ottawa). We watched the weather (overcast, high of 8C, heavy showers in the evening). I blew $150 at MEC. Scott booked the day off work (it was Saturday). We planned our attack.

Reinout has lead outdoors before, Scott has toproped outdoors, and I’m just finishing a grad degree in Electrical Engineering, so the out of doors is completely foreign to me. Our team was invincible.

So I figured we’d drive up there, hike a few minutes to the bottom of the cliffs, whip up a quick .8 toprope, and then try leading a couple of .9s. Riiight.

We got lost driving through Hull while on a ‘shortcut’ I endorsed on a whim. Why the Quebec gov’mnt doesn’t like spending money on road signs, I’ll never know. I can’t believe they still consider dirt roads to be a viable transportation medium.

We arrive there at 2:30-ish, it’s overcast and cold – about 5C. We’re pumped. We walk down the shit-covered trails (there’s an equestrian farm that allows climbers to walk through their property) heading for the big bad climbs of the Western Cwm. We’re gym climbers, but we’re invincible. Well, the hike in started putting dents into our armour.

Six inches of semi-melting snow, covered with horse shit, over either a sheet of ice or a quagmire of mud. Well, at least it wasn’t dark and windy, and at least we weren’t injured. I think they call that foreshadowing in the literary business.

We followed the ‘trail’ through the brush, cheered by the reduced wind that made it feel almost warm, and eventually found the trail markings that lead up a rock pile to the base of the climbs. The trail markings are bits of bright red tape placed every four feet. We all joked and laughed about how blind men would be able to find the climbs. (f-o-r-e-s-h-…)

A good half hour later, thoroughly lost and confused, we happened across another couple of climbers who were able to tell us where we were. They also told us that the slabs we were heading for were probably covered with water. Feh! We’re invincible gym climbers! We don’t fear water!

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We scrambled onwards. Did I mention the ice and snow? We scrabbled up this ice/snow chute that we probably should have been roped in for and snickered about safety. Eventually, a long time after we left the car, we found the climb. I have no idea of the time, because no one brought a watch. Or a flashlight.

Scott and Reinout climbed around the side of the climb while I scoped out the bottom belay area. It was perched on a slopey ledge with a good drop off the back (with some trees in-between the ledge and the drop). I worried about the height and wondered if now was a good time to bring up my fear of said heights. Nah!

Scott and Reinout find the toprope anchors (finally) and start fussing around. Neither of them have read the putzl webpages, so I’m getting a little nervous that they don’t know how to set anchors. Oh well, Reinout was going to abseil down the slab anyway, so it wasn’t my problem.

I idly wondered if I got cellphone reception (I did), and if the Quebec gov’mnt has rescue choppers that would pick up anglo climbers. They probably don’t.

Oh, rivers of water were flowing down the lichen-covered slab. I heard Scott going on and on about the “awesome little holds” and those “killer pockets”. I wondered if the elevation was blurring his vision or degrading his reasoning. I thought about HAPE and chortled a little at the thought of Scott coughing up LungBlood.

So they finish mucking with the anchors and Reinout abseils down. He uses a Huit (a square figure-8, I take it) and a Prussik backup. No problems. We pull the rope back up to Scott and we belay him down from a ‘biner (he has the gri-gri). No problems – we could scale mountains with our shoelaces.

I was a little concerned at first that Reinout, a European climber, was going to want to do some funky belay stuff with biners and prussiks. He had never used a gri-gri before, but he warmed up to it after Scott and I gave him a brief introduction. Remember the “brief” word for later.

The slab is exactly 25 meters, and the 50m rope I have is perfect. We all huddle around and notice that it’s even bolted! If at this point in the story you’re getting the feeling that we’re ill prepared and unobservant, you’re bang on. We enthuse about leading and guess at the rating. I’m thinking .9; Scott reminds me that we must take the water into account. I think .11-. Ya, we check the book, it’s rated 5.6.

I’m on toprope first (I was getting cold) and I head up, dropping ‘draws on the hangers to make leading a little easier. First clip: no problems. Man, slabs are fun. Second clip: a little harder. Man, slabs are fun. Third clip: sure, a little tough. Man, slabs are fun.

The fourth and fifth clip got together and fucked with my mind. Slabs suck! There were no friggin holds, my hands, arms, legs and shoes were drenched, and the clips were miles apart! I somehow managed – being on toprope sure helped.

I got to the top and fixed their anchor – it was dragging my precious rope over some rocks – and was belayed down. Fun! Scott and Reinout flew up, barely even getting wet. Both double-checked my new anchor placement and hummed and hawed about it. Feh, amateurs. I’ll send them the putzl website address. They later agreed that it was better after being fixed.

So we’re all done toproping and clowning around at the bottom. We realize that at least one of us needs to climb the slab again (to get the draws and rescue our anchor equipment), so I volunteer to lead it before we go find something a little more challenging.

Those first three draws I hung while on toprope? The ones I found easy to place? They terrified me. I second-guessed each ‘hold'; I worried about my wet shoes. I over-gripped and was pretty much scared shitless. Reinout took some pics of me clipping some draws; I can’t wait to see how scared I look.

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The last two draws were difficult. I had a hard time trusting my hand and foot placements with a possible 8+ meter fall on rock that seemed to be glassy when trying to find purchase, yet cheese-gratery when considering a fall. I slipped a few inches at a pivotal point, but I didn’t fall and returned to the belay station thoroughly shaken.

Reinout went next and had a better time. He looked much more cautious than his first toprope climb, but he was fluid and sure of himself. Scott went last and got a little freaked out. He got the first three clips uneventfully, but started overthinking the fourth. He got it without falling, of course, but he was squeaking when he clipped. He was belayed down; Reinout scrambled up around the side and removed the anchor.

Reinout then abseiled down the double rope, wrapped around a tree, and then we hauled it down. We were heroes! Leaders! Of course the .6 wasn’t an accurate rating, y’know, given the ice and snow and water and stuff. Think, like, 5.11-.

So we packed up and decided to head to a crack climb Scott remembered from when he was toproping out here on a course. Before I continue, I must explain that Scott has the worst sense of direction/memory in the entire world. He requires me to co-pilot while navigating to the same gym we’ve been going to for more than a year. I have no idea how he finds his way into work each morning.

It’s much later now, probably about 5PM, and still light – but we don’t notice/care. We start heading back down that ice chute I was telling you about. You know, the one where we snickered about ‘safety’? Well, going down it was really tough. Scott went first, I followed, and Reinout pulled up the rear.

Reinout slipped and slid into me. I heard the brush breaking, saw the ice flying by me, and was able to grab a rock and a tree and catch him. He apologized, I mentally chided him for being careless, and then I slipped and fell off a ledge. Actually, I fell over a couple of ledges, had a good “oh fuck I’m gonna die” experience, and was getting ready to yell “Scott, tell my thesis supervisor I love him” when I caught myself.

Scott was a little freaked out; I guess some of the ice/snow I kicked loose was flying right at him. Reinout was a little freaked out; I guess he saw the 60+ft drop-off I was sliding towards. I wasn’t freaked out at all – I just couldn’t tell if I was hurt or not. I wasn’t much, but it took a while to tell. Well, we went slower after that.

So we get down this chute safely and start looking for Scott’s crack climb. He swears he would recognize it without a problem, and I must still have been shaken up from my fall because I believed him. We walk along a cliff face, trying to avoid the brush and muddy leaves, looking for the climb. We walk past a crack and I make a joke about climbing it. Everyone laughs, it looks really tough, and we continue on.

We can’t find it. We come to the end of the cliffs and it’s not there. Scott has the map (mistake! mistake!), but I still must have been too shaken to notice. I decide to scramble down a little lower to see if it’s there, while Scott and Reinout keep looking.

I have a small adventure when climbing down. I get separated from the others and I really don’t want to climb back up the slopes I slid down. My butt is wet, I have no rope, and I have no idea where I’m going. I think to myself “self, climb down this little section, go over to the right and follow the path back up to the other two goons”. No problems.

I make a mistake: I slide down a slippery rock without examining the area I was sliding down. My landing area was all good, no danger or anything, but the slope I slid down was really wet, and I wasn’t sure I could get back up. Well, no problem, I’ll just keep going down. Well, fuck, where did that ravine come from?

The ledge I’m on is flat where I’m sitting, then slopes into a 20-25 foot drop. There’s no way off the ledge except back up the slippery rock I slid down. I can’t go up, I can’t go down. I’m covered in wet muddy leaves, considering how shitty it would be to need a rescue.

I do the right thing, I holler for help. Scott will save me. *shout* Scott doesn’t hear me. I holler for a while, then give up. I’m fucked.

I spot a tree growing out of the ravine, near the edge of the slopey ledge I’m on. I attach the slings I have with me together and anchor them to a big rock on the ledge. I inch towards the edge of the ledge, fully protected, and ensure that yes, it really does drop a long way towards the ground. The tree, however, is right there – just out of reach.

I get back to safety and holler a bit more. Fine, I’ll just die by myself then. I slide to the tree, bearhug it, and slowly slither down. If that doesn’t sound dangerous and stupid, I’m not writing with enough lucidity. I find the super-marked trail after a good half hour of bushwhacking (‘tread lightly’ doesn’t seem as important when you’re lost, thirsty, weak and emotionally scarred).

I holler and Scott shouts right back. They’ve found the crack, Reinout has climbed up somewhere near the ice chute and is setting up the toprope. I glance at the sky wearily and scramble up to where he’s located. Of course, it’s the crack I joked about when we walked past it an hour ago.

I get a drink and watch Reinout abseil down the climb. Man it looks tough. Reinout offers the climb and I foolishly agree to shoot Scott for it. I win. Damn! I change into my shoes as they setup the belay anchor. There’s so much rope drag that both of them need to belay. Reinout pulls the slack through and Scott works the gri-gri.

I’m messed up. I can hardly climb, I’m stressed about the slack and I prompt them each time the rope isn’t taut against my harness – which is all the time. I’m shaking, but not physically tired. I take a lot of breaks. I get sewing machine leg, but my legs aren’t tired. I wonder if I could ever lead something this hard. The rock has hundreds of little features, but I can’t trust any of them. I do what should be simple moves in a succession of much harder stupid moves. I layback plain jane ‘reach and step’ moves.

They laugh and joke about my slack-prompting. They snicker about how they want to put me off-belay while they adjust the belay anchor. They chat and are inattentive to my many and complex needs. I love those guys.

I rest near the top and wonder what the fuck I’m doing. I mention that I’m almost done, and those chumps get ready to lower me. Grabbing at the rock so I don’t lose precious ground, I yell down that I mean mentally. They shrug and go back to joking and laughing. I grind my teeth, and climb on.

I wriggle up the crux with pumped arms, twitching legs, and technique that can best be described as epileptic flailing. I jammed my arms, actually used my forehead to push against cold wet rock, and finished the route with, uh, no style at all. I can’t remember if I fell or not, I think I might have.

I came down and announced that I was done. Good thing too, because it was getting late! Reinout went next, which was an error, and ran up the route without too many problems. He had a little bit of a tough time at the crux, but didn’t need to use his forehead, so how hard could he have found it?

Scott went last, and as he was roping in he commented on how dark it was getting. As the only one with any common sense (and that should tell you something), I emerged from my state of shock to realize that we were going to experience an epic. Too tired to protest, I hauled while Reinout belayed.

Scott flew up the climb and was resting at the ledge when we came up with the grand idea of a picture. What a good idea! I grabbed Reinout’s camera and scrambled up the third-class stuff beside the climb. I got to the top of the rock pile, about five meters above the belay, when Shit Happened.

Reinout, not used to the gri-gri, let go of the brake end of the rope and was having a quick drink or something. Scott was hamming for the camera and stepped off the ledge. I felt my insides lurch.

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Scott started falling and screaming, “fuck fuck fuck”. I dropped the camera (it was connected to my belt, and besides, it wasn’t my camera) and did the only thing I could: watch helplessly. Reinout looked panicked and fumbled about the belay.

Scott kept falling, Reinout kept fumbling, and I mentally pictured where Scott would hit the ground, how to build a splint, and how the guys felt about cuddling up for the -7C night temperatures.

The rope wasn’t sliding enough to lock the gri-gri, the damned toprope friction wasn’t enough to slow him, and Scott was falling fast enough to break something. Thankfully, Reinout found the rope, Scott stopped falling, and we all sat still for a good minute or two. He had fallen almost 15 meters.

With Reinout’s crash course on gri-gri operation complete, Scott scrambled back up the climb and topped out without any problems at all. We then realized that it would be faster to have him tear down the anchor than have Reinout, our anchor specialist, head up. We yelled instructions up and hauled a bag up for him to put everything in.

By now it was getting dark, and we yelled up for Scott to head back to the slabs we were climbing first, climb down the chute, and meet us at the bottom. I remembered that Scott is navigation-impaired when he yelled back “which way do I go to get down?”

Reinout and myself tore down the belay anchor and packed everything up, hoping to give Scott enough of a head start so we wouldn’t be waiting long. We then headed back to the crossroads between the chute to the slabs and the base of the climb we had just finished.

Scott started yelling from the cliff top, shouting down that he was lost and couldn’t find the slabs. He had moved perhaps 20m from his previous location and I shouted back that he had a ways to go yet. It was now post-dusk and getting dark fast.

He tried descending a 5.3 in-between the crack climb and the chute, but he couldn’t make it down due to an ice/snow buildup at the base. It was frustrating because we could see each other, but he couldn’t finish safely. Rather than tempting fate even more, Reinout and I encouraged him to climb back up and continue navigating towards the chute.

I ended up climbing the easier part of the chute, navigating towards his voice. He then could make out my dark form on the white snow and was able to head towards me. We had some tense moments where he carefully moved through the slippery stuff, but he got down without any further problems.

We regrouped at the crossroads and discussed a plan of action. It was now dark. We hadn’t brought a flashlight, the bright neon tape marking the trail looked as dark as everything else, and we hadn’t filed an itinerary with anyone. I had enough cellphone juice to call the girlfriend and tell her our predicament, so we knew we weren’t totally fucked.

We started to head down towards the car and immediately got lost. I was pretty sure the path headed to the right, but because the car was to the left Scott and Reinout voted to go straight. Small rocks got bigger, and we found ourselves approaching the edge of each boulder and peering down to see how far the ground was.

Even once we had cleared the boulders we weren’t free. Ontario/Quebec brush is fierce stuff, and we needed to walk with our forearms in front of our faces, sliding on our butts whenever we needed to go downhill. We all joked about breaking our ankles, leaving each other behind, and who would get the injured party’s belongings.

An hour later we found the path and continued on out. Horseshit didn’t seem so bad anymore, and we got back to the car a little before 10PM. Just after wiping ourselves off in a snowbank it started to rain. We jumped into the car and praised our good luck. Yeah right.

All in all, a pretty good outing.

Funny amendement: I got back and promptly told my girlfriend that we were okay and she didn’t need to call the search and rescue people. She said “What?” I repeated myself. She explained she had no idea what I was talking about. I guess she was sleeping when I called and didn’t remember our conversation at all. Ha!

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