We divide into rope teams and set up the ropes accordingly. Donning our harnesses, crampons, and helmets, we clip into our places on the rope, get out our ice axes and head for the glacier. I am at the head of the rope on the lead rope team and am the lucky one to test the strength of the ice bridge across the lake. There is obvious lake ice on either side of what appears to be glacial ice extending to the main body of the glacier. I proceed cautiously, probing with the shaft of my ice axe before each step. I am quite sure about the safety of what I am doing but the heart beats a little faster every time my foot sinks through the snow a bit farther than expected.
If we weren’t before, we are now completely immersed in the mountains, flanked immediately on either side by imposing peaks, rising up above us like stern guardians of a sacred land. Cloud rolls through the valley, enshrouding and then exposing different parts of the mountains, allowing us only glimpses of different aspects of rock and ice. In one break I am shown a small glacier of green ice which becomes blue in the depths of the crevasses.
Despite the somewhat haunting and foreboding nature of the scene I feel a certain connection, a special sense of belonging to this most unlikely of places. In this place of avalanches and hidden crevasses and inclement weather, I feel a sense of belonging. I feel a sacred connectedness.
ATBO Diploma students climbing a Peak on the Wapta Icefields in Banff National Park.
Photo courtesy of College of the Rockies
But it might just be low blood sugar levels and dehydration. Who knows.
We continue to charge up the glacier, slowly gaining on our peak. It is extremely hard work breaking trail. I know I should avoid pouring sweat into my gear but the guide behind me suggests we don’t break until we’ve reached a shoulder further up on the glacier. The legs are burning but I continue to plod along, sinking into the soft snow. I’ve led this far, I can’t relinquish the lead for fatigue. I glance back at the group and everyone looks like they’re feeling the exertion but are going strong. Can’t stop now. I try to focus on things other than the burn and the struggle. Keep the body moving and take the mind somewhere else.
Finally, we reach the shoulder and not a moment too soon. My quads are burning and I seriously need some food and drink. “Good leading”, someone comments. “Thanks for breaking trail.”
“No problem, it’s not that bad,” I reply. I wish that were true.
We’re not quite there but it feels pretty damn good to be off the glacier. Our lead guide has a quick debrief with our other guide, and then lets us know there is a climbable line to the summit that will involve some ice-climbing techniques and the need to short-rope this section. I am removed from the lead and placed at the very end of the last rope team. This is a bit disappointing after leading until now, but there is some consolation in that I am to clean the protection from the route as the last person across.
One member of our group, Lisey, is deathly terrified of heights and is claiming to forego the summit push. The first traverse crosses the top of a face which extends down to the glacier in the valley bottom. Even glancing over the steep side of the ridge causes her to fall to her knees and close her eyes. None of us want to see her miss the summit, however, and she is talked into making an attempt.
As the last rope team, we watch the others head off across the face. The first section is a somewhat tricky traverse directly below a vertical wall, walking over loose rock in crampons. The second leg of the journey crosses a sheet of steep ice that requires facing into the mountain and crossing with full-on three-point ice-climbing moves. Once across the ice, climbers head up a steep face, using crampons and axe to cling to the mountain and scramble up.
I can see Lisey getting nervous and we calm her down a bit, talking about things other than the mission ahead, but she falls to her knees and declares her need to retreat.
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