Young Men on Fire - Big Walling in the Bugaboos!
The wind roars all around us and I feel sick inside. We scramble back towards the bivi ledge, crampons skittering on dry rock, 1,000m of exposure dragging at us from both sides of the knife-edge ridge. The storm is going crazy all around us and there are splashes of lightning flying in all directions. Some hit the rock right in front of us and explode in a fountain of sparks, the sharp smell of burning filling our heads with fear. I feel like I'm running across a battle field with an unseen enemy firing directly at me.
The adrenaline pulsates through our bodies as we collapse onto the snow ledge, terrified of the unknown and sensing danger in the darkness that surrounds us. We know we have to get under some sort of shelter fast and tear at the portaledge flysheet to gain protection.
BANGGGGGG! There is a loud ringing in my ears and I feel my whole body lifted upwards and then slammed back down onto the deck. I look back at myself and feel totally numb and outside my body. I feel my heart stop and my body shudder to a halt and then re-start, like I have just been sledge hammered. I fall backwards onto the snow, winded, paralyzed and in pain. The flysheet is torn away by the wind, revealing a large smoke cloud from our burnt bodies and clothing. The first thing that I am really aware of is Warren screaming – he is yelling at me to see if I am still alive. We have just experienced a direct hit by lightning. We lie paralyzed and in pain from third degree burns across our bodies. We cannot move, at the mercy of the storm that thrashes around us.
Watching the alpenglow drift across Le Bonvoisin, the 3000m peak at the end of our valley deep within The Southern French Alps, I reflect on a climb already 10 years old and one that cemented my relationship with Warren Hollinger, a great friend and world class Big Wall climber. We teamed up on a whim in America’s Yosemite National Park after an all-night party in April 1994. Our aims were the same – Big Walls in the Greater Ranges; large sheets of rock anywhere between 500 and 1400m. in vertical height. We agreed that to disprove the beer and bullshit we should meet again that same summer and try the biggest, meanest face we could think of to see if we could work as a team. The Bugaboos was Warren’s idea, I merely consented, and the plot was hatched.
In the mid-nineties, the largest alpine wall in Canada offering new route potential was the S.W. Buttress of North Howser Tower in the Bugaboos- a remote range of granitic spires in the Canadian Rockies. The reality was, as is always the case with climbing, very different from the dream. After a hardcore 3 day approach carrying haul bags in excess of 50Kg we found our wall and our line. The SW Buttress is over 900m. vertically but then you have at least 300m. of crenellated ridge to navigate before the elusive summit. A vast expanse of technical death-grey granite – a seemingly impenetrable obstacle that lay between me and my family.
The route went in 4 days of extreme technical aid and free climbing – improbable overhangs composed of loose hanging blocks – perfect right-angled dihedrals seamed by a splitter finger sized crack - slabby face climbing on chicken heads - and a bivvy ledge that jutted clean out into the void – a narrow diving board of rock that Warren and I only discovered we had been lying on when we woke up!
I recall no summit elation only fear. I remember throwing away my ropes in disgust on reaching safe ground, and the anger in my head at so nearly losing it, with my wife Jackie lying pregnant and in pain back home. I remember the startled people in the Conrad Kain hut as we piled in burnt, ragged and mad hungry. But then there were the good bits – the drive out of The Bugs to the strains of Metallica in Warren’s beat up VW camper – how amazing was that – hard core testosterone-fueled boy beats - the huge burgers and cold cold beer - and then the call to parents a million miles away in the middle of their night. We’d done it; we were on top of the firkin World and we had had the mother of all epics.
Warren and I said our goodbyes at Calgary airport a week later, still battered and burnt, and crispy round the edges, Warren said our relationship would either endure for ever or we would never touch base again. I remember my climbing partner on the Eiger North Face gave up alpine climbing soon after our traumatic 4 day epic and we never even exchanged photos. Would this one go the same way and would I finally be able to quit this game of provocation?
I arrived home and for 2 weeks I was in heaven. I could look a guidebook squarely in the face and not want to be there. Jackie and I talked about every topic under the sun except the C word and I could be normal for a change. Then Warren called me from Hawaii and said “Hey, check out this article in “Climbing” – there’s a photo essay on this wild place they just found - The North East Fjords”.
“Where is it?” I asked, already feeling the excitement rising.
“Baffin Island”……..the silence was short lived. The title to the next chapter had just been written. Warren and I were an item once more and our friendship remains to this day.