Metal teeth of crampon tips strapped to his hiking boot soles bit into the crystal twenty-foot long ice bridge. There was no way I was coming this far and not cross that bridge! My harness secured to a rock, I belayed Mike with a line carbineer’d to his harness that I could stop his fall by arresting a line across my hip. He crossed with pick readied in hand. The arching bridge didn’t break! I was belayed from that side. With skepticism, I cautiously stepped on crampon tips over a two-foot-wide blue-ice bridge that was thirty feet above fluffy white snow. What if he weakened it? If I can cross that, I can do anything. Exhilarating and terrifying. Once across, there was no way I could go back. The traverse under the rise was a wonderland of ice bridges and drifted snow canyons. Knee-deep in fluffy snow, we arrived at the base of Athabasca’s face. Of the five of us who set out before dawn, only Mike and I crossed the bridge. Thank God they gave us their food and water.
The sheer cliff rose to the left of the active and moving Columbia Icefield. Athabasca rose over Columbia Ice field in Jasper Park, Alberta, Canada. We traversed from the Midwest in a Beetle named Athabasca, with a starter that burned out in the Dakotas. After push-starting Athabasca across the country, five of us camped at the snow line.
Mike and I packed food and water for a one day climb and descend. Headed for a light day of alpine climbing, Voytek Kurtik style. Voytek and his friends could climb Polish mountains like no one else! Obsessive, meticulous, precision made him the best. Time to channel Voytek.
Two, eight, twenty rope lengths, we repeatedly belayed one climber belaying rope from above, while the other ascended by tenacious ice pick holds pulling us up the sheer face. My crampon tips kicked into slick, white ice, like ladder climbing, as I chopped the pick tip above and into ice to pull myself up. I reached Mike’s belay spot, then climbed a rope’s length above him. I set a belay by tapping a beveled chock into a rock crevice and attaching my harness. The line between us is held behind my hip in both hands allowing me to arrest his fall. He climbed the length up to, then beyond me. Often a chock was wedged too firmly in the crack and left behind. The deceptive mountain face had a sloping, rounded, vertical wall. Each of our rope lengths looked like the last belay one to the summit. Methodically, Mike and I ascended, but how would we get down? This climb is too sheer to reverse. “Should we keep going or head back?” We discussed at each passing of the belay line. “I’m not going down that sheer face! How much further?” Mike said. “It should only be a few more rope lengths to the top?” I said. “Let’s go!” My energy increased with the adrenaline, the beauty. I recognized myself on this sheer rock face. I’m supposed to be here. The thick white snow was far below us as we ascended the icy, bowed sheer rock face. At first it didn’t seem very far to the top. I was fooled over and over again by the bowed perspective. At the far end of the valley, we pointed and waved as tour buses stopped for viewers to add a quarter to the binoculars and watch our ascent. They could see how far we had to go. Every twenty rope lengths, I nibbled on a power bar though my energy was sustained from the magnificent snowy peak under a summer sun. Beauty connected us to a higher world. Voytek invented a word for it, CREA. The views were mental oxygen. A friendship with nature. We rationed water and food. Eight, ten rope-lengths higher. The summit lured us, teased us. No other climbers were on this face. We had a guide book and our will. It was like a bad dream when you can’t reach where you are going. Fear-fueled adrenaline kept us going. Hours of endurance wore us out. Why was I here?
At sunset, we reached the razor-edged crest with wind whisking up from a several-mile-deep back side. I was made to climb mountains—who knew? A cairn of rocks, piled to recognize the peak of Athabasca, was buried in drifted snow and red reflections of a waning sun. We dared not take a break. We couldn’t keep the icy wind from whipping I added snow to replenish my water bottle. Ahead, the Columbia Icefield was a slow river of frozen ice. The expanse of miles of fresh white snow stretched to the horizons with a setting golden sun and rose dusk. CREA; I climb for the connection to nature and the beauty.
“We’re not going to find Tom Crean here!” Mike joked in a shout. “Wouldn’t a herd of long horn antelope look nice along that expanse of ice.” Tom Crean was an Kerryman who joined Captain Scott to be one of the first to reach the South Pole.
“Good idea to channel Tom Crean now. Voytek got us up the mountain, Crean’s courage will get us down,” I said. “It has got to be easier to crisscross a glacier.” A nearly full moon reflected off the snow with a bright glow. Our humor kept me calm. “Let’s keep descending by moonlight,” Mike said. Mike and I descending a scree-path as darkness set in. The wind calmed. Fatigue ruled. We chocked our harnesses to a crack in the cliff above a leveled scree-ledge to rest until dawn. Because of the cold, we took turns, sleeping and waking the other every twenty minutes to jog in place and warm the extremities. Water from snow was melted inside our coats. Stomp your feet. Wiggle your toes! Thawing my fingers took time. My toes no longer warmed up. While rummaging Mike’s pack for food, I pulled out two fist-grips with alligator jaws. “What are these for?” I said.
“You slip this side of the juniper onto your rope and when you pull down the grip tightens.” Haphazardly, one juniper was put in my pack. Too soon, the expansive warming sun shone over the colossal glacier. Slowly and carefully we wound our way across the glacier of snow and crevasses sometimes backtracking if the cracks were impenetrably webbed. Progress was slow and tedious. I came to a light, fluffy area in the snow along the scree bank. I signaled back that the snow looked airy, then poked at the spot with my pick. I hammered the spot harder. Mike dug in with his pick. I kicked it with two heels. Cautiously, I stomped on the light snow. I signaled back that I was going ahead and Mike nodded. I took another step. Silence.
No sun, no wind. Kaleidoscopic, effervescent rainbows of every shade of purple, red yellow, orange vibrated in midair and unfathomably deep into blueish tones, blurring vapor and reflections in solid ice. I was mesmerized with wonder. Perplexing dancing pigment floated below, above, and around me. The air was vibrating with bright white falling flurries. Deep in the ice colors sparkled, green, gold, then red, dancing in swirls. Alice in Wonderland. This was beyond what I had ever imagined. Vibrancy and prisms, endless depths of dancing color. Overwhelmed by an intense beauty my mind transcended tangible thought. An unrecognizable world swirled around me.
“Margot!” Mike called. Where was he? Above? I looked up through two slick, widening, clear, blue-ice walls. My ice pick dangled several feet above my reach. A broken hole above that and sunlight streamed down spotlighting floating snowflakes. My crampons tips were stuck with a tip-toe hold on either side of a steep vertical chasm that narrowed hundreds of feet below me. Rainbows of bright rose, glistening gold, animated blue and energetic green. I was surrounded by pure beauty, the walls vibrated with hues. Disoriented, I heard “Margot!” being called from above the hole that was up twenty-feet from where I had fallen through. This is a crevasse.
“I’m in a crevasse! A person lives fifteen minutes before hypothermia sets in.” I started to think fast. The juniper! I fished the hand grip out of the top of my back pack. Without losing the toe-hold of my metal points in ice, I slipped it on the taut line and pulled myself up to my ice pick. With two crampon-tip holds, the ice pick and sliding the juniper up the rope, the climb out was possible. As the rope slackened, Mike set up a belay to keep my line taut. A sloping shelf gave me a place to dig crampons into a surface. I started to climb across an ice bulge into a bright spot in the snow and broke through the snow above with my pick. I climbed out a freshly opened hole and sheepishly said. “I know, I’m not supposed to exit another hole, but I’m out.” “Not to worry, grab onto a rock.” Mike was even more composed. I was concerned. I clipped my carabiner to a chock in a wall crevice, dropped my line through the hole. Mike coiled the line and tossed it to me above the openings. When I was clipped on belay I began to move from the rock.
I wondered if he’d gotten hurt while stopping my fall?
“Thanks for slowing my fall so I could gracefully land a toe hold,” I said.
“I got scraped up while being dragged.” Mike said, “But, I’m good to go.”
There was a stretch just below the passageway where one of us couldn’t be chocked on for the second belay. We had only one more chock and needed it on top and below this gap. I would descend on belay through the gap, brace against a rock and belay him to where he can tie to a rock
“If we make this, I’m going to nominate you for an American Alpine Climbing Award?”
“After we make this I’m going to give my crampons to…?” I said. Humor helped us to swallow the fear, kept our muscles from twitching.
Tensions escalated. I needed to make each step a careful one as I crossed the chute of deep snow. Total concentration mattered. This was the real deal. “I found a chock another climber left!” I locked my carabiner on a chock and called back.
Safely, Mike was belayed through the gap and down a length of deep snow. He used the last chock again on a rock to belay me down two lengths. Within several line-lengths we were off the face and on level ground. It was mid-day over the Columbia Icefield.