There was a moment this weekend – as I found myself 300m up, hanging from a chockstone, feet dangling and acutely aware that I was getting a belay from a partner with no anchor other than being seated in a scree pile above – that I found myself extremely, extremely thankful.
I’m afraid of heights. Really afraid.
It’s an issue I’ve grappled with for my entire life and it’s why I’ve never thought of myself as a climber. I’m the skier who climbs. Every single moment climbing is accompanied by the omnipresent threat of crippling terror. Even on top rope, pendulum potential can bring about those short quick terror gasps as I try to think about what I’m doing, not imagine what feels in the moment like an inevitable fall to my death. If I can’t sit down and have the rope immediately catch me, I’m scared.
Thanks to years of effort to desensitize myself, I’m less afraid than I used to be – but I’m still fucking scared. Doesn’t matter how irrational I know it is, as soon as I get above that last bolt, damn near the only thing that goes through my head is that I’m going to fall and hit a ledge, or that some piece of gear is going to fail and I’ll deck, or some other awful thing. I’m perpetually just a stray thought away from those terror gasps.
So how do I climb?
Incredibly awesome people.
The people who show up in these trip reports are how I get to climb. Christine put up every single rope when we were in Spain. Katherine has put more ropes up for me than I can count. Nearly countless friends have helped me climb cool things by putting ropes up or being patient with my phobia. When I can’t get past the headspace issues, there always seems to be a friendly rope gun ready to drag my sorry ass up something cool.
Maybe a terrible fear of heights doesn’t have to be a deal breaker.
Friday night I found myself with plans to ski a bucket list line falling apart – my partner for the mission wasn’t feeling well. Legit bail reason, but less than ideal.
Just as I began to wallow in wasted-weekend despair, salvation came in the form of a phone call. David and Marie-Eve, wanted to know if I was interested in joining them in climbing Dirrettissima on Mount Yamnuska.
I’d never climbed anything on Yam before. It’s legendary for grades being ‘old school’ (sandbagged by modern standards) and that’s coupled with extremely difficult route finding and super rotten rock. Quite simply, classic routes like Dirrettissima are out of my league. Way out of my league. Being comfortable on mid-tens doesn't count for shit on Yam.
But David and Marie-Eve are strong climbers who I figured could probably keep me alive so despite a vague (massive) sense of apprehension, I started making plans to meet them in the morning.
Leaving Calgary at 7am had us hiking up the trail by about 9 (stopped for coffee) and after some faff at the bottom of the route, David was climbing by 10:30, belayed by Marie-Eve. The climbing looked pretty reasonable so I wasn’t freaking out too badly – just taking photos while I tried to wrap my head around the sheer scale of the wall.
I really don’t think I’d ever fully comprehended how BIG Yam is - the scramble route up the mountain just doesn't capture it. The front face is a huge, imposing piece of choss, er, rock.
Direttissima goes at 9 pitches of up to 5.8+ (ha - I've climbed easier 10a routes) totaling 325m of trad climbing with bolted anchors. The first and last pitches are known to be the cruxes and when I got through the first pitch pretty comfortably, I thought I was more or less home free.
Each pitch, David would climb, find an anchor and then Marie-Eve and I would follow. Marie-Eve would climb just ahead of me, cleaning gear from both ropes so all I had to do was climb and try to not be too painfully slow. Honestly, they should start a business doing this – it’s like luxury climbing, I’ve never had so little to do on a climb. Instead, I just got to focus on some of the most fun and varied climbing I've experienced in the Bow Valley. I started to get lulled into a sense of confidence as the climbing really wasn't too hard.
As the day wore on, we worked our way farther and farther up the route and the scale of the place grew in my mind. I’ve climbed longer routes – but what makes Yamnuska so incredible is both the breadth of the face, and sheer number of routes that crisscross up the face.
While my pace meant we weren’t going to be setting any speed records, we were making steady progress. On our fifth pitch, we didn’t find the station, so David climbed until he was out of rope and then built an anchor. We figured we were about half way up the 6th pitch so David decided he’d climb the remainder of 6 as well as the 7th pitch.
Back on track, it was smooth sailing to the bottom of the 9th.
For this last pitch, our second crux, I took my big SLR camera bag off my harness and stowed it in my pack. Fatiguing after 6 hours on the face, I wanted to be as unencumbered as possible. David got to the top of the pitch and yelled down that there was no anchor so he was going to look around and see if he could build anything. Shortly after, he yelled down that there was simply no way to build an anchor and instead he’d give us a seated belay and that we should give him two minutes and then start climbing.
My terror level immediately cranked a few notches. A bucket seat belay in the scree – I was pretty sure he was going to be on the other side of the ridge so we’d have lots of friction and gravity to help hold us in a fall – but I’m also the guy who thinks we should use screw gates for quickdraws.
Marie-Eve and I started up and initially the climbing was the type of fun, rambly climbing we’d had all day. But then we got to the crux. The crux starts from a nice stable position out along a super positive handrail with not much for feet. Once you’ve traversed the handrail, you need to smear your feet as you mantle up into a slot. The slot starts with some slippery feet but positive crimpers before once again gaining stable(ish) position within the slot but with a large chockstone overhead. From here you reach up and get a good hold on the chockstone and stem your feet up somehow without smoking your head off the chockstone.
If you’re me, you now blow your feet out and find yourself where we started this story – hanging from a chockstone you’re bear-hugging, 300m up a climb and trying not to wonder if your scree-based bucket seat belay will hold you if you blow it.
But here’s the thing and what makes this all possible for me. I wasn’t alone. I was hanging there – absolutely and unequivocally shitting myself – and then through that terror, came Marie-Eve’s seemingly angelic voice – assuring me that I had this, giving me beta on a super positive hold and how to get to it and helping me stay focused not on the fear – but on the fact that I did have this. These were moves I could make and thanks to the patient help of so many other climbing partners, I would get through this – just like I get through it every time I find myself fighting off shaking legs and terror gasps.
And I did.
Through the crux we were literally just a couple of easy moves away from the top of the route. On top it was high fives, jokes about the 5.8 grade of the route and a rest to take some photos, refuel and take a breather.
As I sat there, basking in the high of completing getting dragged up my first route on Yam, I kept coming back to that moment at the chockstone. Yea, I was hanging there, fighting down panic, but I was also thankful. Thankful for the amazing people I get to share the mountains with and who help make these experiences possible.
Grumpy, cantankerous, wildly opinionated and so much more! Getting really tired on skis is what makes me happy.