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Goat Footed Boys Get Gear

 

The first time I met Tim, I was walking the five or so blocks from my off-campus room over to the student lounge on the Montana State University campus, in Bozeman, where I was a national exchange student for the year. It was a sunny, polar-cold afternoon with a near gale blowing down from the north, and we wanted to talk about spring break. For weeks I had been trying to figure out how not to go back home to Massachusetts for break. I played with the idea of Newport Beach, California, or anywhere warm that was not home, until the day I visited the Outdoor Recreation Program’s bulletin board. I was a member of the program, and had helped two other fellows lead a backpacking trip for twenty-one students up into the Grand Teton mountains in Wyoming the previous October. I thought I might find a high adventure trip to use as an excuse to stay out west.

 

My folks had wanted me home in March but had come around to accepting my backpacking adventures. As a kid, I had grown up with my sister playing in the woodlands behind our house, and as a Boy Scout I had learned the wilderness and leadership skills that I needed when backpacking above tree line. They had, over time, come to expect that at the drop of a rag wool hat I would head into the mountains of New England to backpack for days or weeks at a time, and that I might even hitchhike to get there and back. I had just turned twenty-one and felt independent and invincible.

 

I was in luck—tacked on the bulletin board outside the recreation office was a colored flyer that read: Ice Climbing and Back Country Ski Partner Wanted.

 

Experience a necessity. Join me for eight days of snow caving in Canada’s Mount Assiniboine Providential Park, followed by a day of ice climbing on the world famous Lower Weeping Wall. I am an experienced lead climber. You are experienced in winter camping, backcountry Nordic skiing, and in technical climbing. Call Tim at . . .

I tore off a tab with his name and number and pocketed it. Visiting the Canadian winter wilderness sounded like a good time to me. From his note, Tim seemed organized and seasoned, and I decided to give him a call when I got back to the Men’s Co-op a few blocks from campus where I had a room. The co-op was a relatively clean boardinghouse with a big front porch, which was a great place for leaving skis or bicycles without fear of them being stolen.

 

I shared a room with a theater troupe friend with whom I planned to travel after spring break on a national tour to fourteen western states. That tour would take us over 24,000 miles, to perform in sixty shows with Montana State University’s Theater of Silence, a company of performers who spoke in American Sign Language and annually presented performances to the western deaf community. The fifteen performers in our troupe had been in rehearsal for months, and we were leaving to tour in early April. Originally, I had intended to stay at Montana State only through January and then return to UMass; but after auditioning for this theater troupe and landing a role, with my parents’ blessing and encouragement, I had stayed out west.

 

I called Tim, and he agreed to meet me in the student lounge in the comfy chairs for an interview. Backcountry skiing, backpacking, and technical climbing in the remote Canadian Rockies in the dead of winter was easily twice as dangerous as summer simply because cold weather can kill. Tim had to be sure I could handle it.

 

While we sat in the student lounge, I told Tim about my backpacking trips and my years on the National Ski Patrol. I was experienced and had the necessary skills, but more than that I wanted Tim to know he could trust me with his life. For his part, Tim told me about his skills in the high country backpacking and climbing on rock and ice.

 

Tim was an experienced lead climber. This meant that he was skilled at picking the right routes up a rock or ice face and had mastered the techniques of climbing itself—most importantly, placing protection like chocks or ice screws on rock and ice for safety in case of a fall. I enjoyed technical climbing and had been doing it for about three years. I had a natural capacity for it. I liked the mental focus of climbing, the coordination needed, and the physical fitness it required. I climbed everything that looked like it could be climbed.

 

Tim said that he wanted to spend one of our days in Canada ice climbing. I had never ice climbed before, and had never thought much about it. Tim described the unique equipment involved in ice climbing. It sounded exciting, technical, and dangerous—just perfect for me. Ice climbing would be a new challenge, and I loved challenges, so I said, “Yes, let’s go ice climbing and backcountry winter camping.”

By the time we’d hashed everything out, we decided that we could trust each other. It was apparent that we could get along with each other, too. The one area where we differed was that I was a spiritual person and Tim was an atheist. We agreed not to talk about religion or God.

 

We began to plan our trip to spend seven days in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park backcountry skiing and snow caving, with one day climbing the world-famous Lower Weeping Wall along the Icefields Parkway in Alberta. It would be a ten-day trip overall, including driving time. Tim had the topographic maps we needed, and we pored over them as we planned our skiing route. Over the next few weeks, we gathered our deep winter gear.

 

Tim owned a lot of the climbing gear that we would use on our trip, including rope, ice screws, nylon webbing, carabiners, crampons, thin line, ice axes, an ice hammer, and ice climbing boots. I did not own any technical climbing gear. I had always rented gear from my outing club at UMass, and I certainly did not own any ice climbing gear. “We’ll use my rope, ice screws, carabiners, and webbing to make a harness for you,” Tim said. “You’ll need to find axes, a hammer, ice climbing boots, and crampons of your own.”

As a penniless college student working in the school’s food service flipping pancakes, I was unable to afford any more gear beyond my Epoke 900 skis, backcountry Nordic ski boots, gators, and a backpack I had bought in Bozeman using some of my student loan money. I had my gas stove (an Optimus 8R), a sleeping pad, a mess kit, water bottles, a compass, and everything else needed for safe winter camping and wilderness backpacking, except for a deep winter sleeping bag, rated to –30°F. I borrowed one from a generous friend, along with her backpacking shovel for digging out snow caves.

 

Eventually, I gathered all the gear I needed except for a second ice axe, climbing boots, and crampons, spikes worn on the boots necessary for ice climbing. You cannot ice climb without them. I had rented a pair once before for a backpacking trip in the Grand Tetons where we traversed and went glissading on a glacier, a very fun technique of sliding down a glacier using an ice axe to slow the descent and to stop.

 

I rented one axe, a hammer, and crampons and so solved most of my equipment problems, or so I thought. I still had to buy, borrow, or rent ice climbing boots. These are specially designed for ice climbing; they are constructed of stiff plastic with insulation to keep your feet warm and have ridged soles that have no flex. They are expensive; a new pair was way beyond my reach. Not having a pair nearly scuttled our trip. “Try finding a used pair of old-time stiff leather alpine ski boots from the sixties,” Tim suggested. “They’ll be as flat-soled, inflexible, and warm as fancy ice climbing boots.” So one snowy afternoon after classes, I walked over to a Bozeman thrift shop where I had purchased wool pants and a wool shirt for our trip. The shop also carried old ski gear. Among the shoes and boots, I found what I was looking for—a pair of old, black leather, buckle-style ski boots in my size. With the boots acquired, that left one last piece of essential equipment: a second ice axe.

 

In those days, ice axes had straight shafts (today the shafts are more Z-shaped). The shaft is a couple feet long. At the top of the shaft is a serrated bird beak called the pick that, when swung, is used to bite into the ice. The beak sets into the ice and holds there. The shaft, with its spike at the bottom, is then leaned toward the ice so that the spike also sets firmly into the ice. The axe forms a right triangle against the ice wall. Partway up the shaft is usually an O-ring or a hole drilled through the shaft. Through this O-ring or hole a narrow ribbon on nylon webbing is tied in a loop, called the leash. My leash had a bead on it, so that when my hand was through the leash, the bead could be slipped toward my wrist, tightening it. This meant that when the axe was set properly into the ice, I could let go of the shaft and dangle safely by my wrist. It sounds much scarier and more dangerous than it actually is. Also, the leash prevents the possibility of accidentally dropping the axe.

 

Ice hammers look and function almost exactly like ice axes, except for a few important factors. Ice hammers are smaller, and they have much shorter shafts/handles. The nylon leash is affixed directly to the bottom of the handle instead of the middle. Ice hammers are primarily used to chip at the ice and to use as an ice screwdriver. In the latter function, the hammer is used to spin ice screws into the ice and set them firmly; here, the mechanics are actually more like a wrench than a screwdriver. Ice hammers can also bite into the ice just like ice axes; they can, just like ice axes, be set in such a way that they can support the full weight of a climber. I know this firsthand. The problem with using a hammer instead of an axe is that the climber can never let go of the hammer and dangle on the leash. A person attempting to dangle on a hammer leash causes the bottom of the hammer shaft/handle to pull away from the ice wall, causing the “beak” to release from the ice. I learned this firsthand, too.

 

Once we had all our gear collected, we packed for our trip. To lighten our loads while backcountry Nordic skiing, we bought expensive freeze-dried food for the week; between us, we carried enough white gas for our stove to last the duration. Our backpacks weighed about twice what we normally carried on our backs for a week walking in the high country since winter backpacking requires additional, heavier gear. In spring, summer, and fall, I carried about thirty-five pounds in my backpack. Our winter packs weighed about seventy pounds each by the time we gathered and packed everything we needed to survive and enjoy the subzero winter weather in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, British Columbia. I knew that this would be the most difficult wilderness challenge of my life, and I couldn’t wait for it.