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Day of the Dagger

The difference between luck and misfortune is as thin as a crack in the ice.

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This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 206 (December 2012).

Illustration by Katie Dalzell.

The older I get, the more I realize that I miss a lot despite how much I think I know. A person might feel sure to have taken all into account—but there is always something, some little detail I’ve overlooked. Humans are tiny, with a limited perspective in the grand scheme of things, after all.

Glenwood Falls is a south-facing ice climb, 500 feet tall, near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Like a glittering carpet unfurled over the granite wall, a trickle of water freezes and fattens in winter above Interstate 70. The formation is wide, with several lines to choose from after climbing 200 feet through a bottleneck at the bottom. A large roof at the top of the wall forms a steep curtain of WI 5 that glistens in early sun.

In December 2006, one morning before work I set out with a local legend, Tony Angelis, merely to “check conditions.” I was 23 and Tony was in his 40s. It was our first time out for the season and also our first time roping up together. I was tentative. On my last day of the previous ice season, I’d fallen free soloing (that’s another story).

Tony, on the other hand, is an ice-climbing machine. I’d become acquainted with him while working in Glenwood’s gear shop during high school and college. He once soloed the Maroon Bells in a winter blizzard. Search parties were sent to find him and couldn’t, but he made it out on his own after a bivy or two. A yellowed newspaper article about the epic included a self-portrait of a hooded, frozen face, which looked out from a spot under the glass at the climbing counter. Tony continued to climb the baddest ice in the state every winter while living out of his car. He still climbs as hard as ever.

At 8 a.m. it was 0 degrees. Our intent was to tap our way up the first two pitches and see how things were forming. He figured we were safe to do that, and Tony’s intuition is sharp when it comes to ice. It was hard to imagine the fat ice thawing in such frigid temps.

Following the first pitch, I crested the top of the chimney below the face, and a little voice told me to book it. For some reason I started to feel, with urgency, the weight of the cubic water suspended above. I hurried upward, huffing, barely racking gear to my harness as I cleaned it. I told myself it was only the foreboding aura of the previous fatalities there that was getting to me. Two names of the deceased are on a plaque near the parking lot.

The ice was dreamy. Solid and plastic. Tony belayed from a little cave formed by a hole in a steep flow. The vertical ice slabbed out a bit after 50 feet. Two hundred feet above us, the final curtain yawed across the skyline. A small dagger dangled from the corner of the roof, illustrating the steepness of our surroundings. Blue sky beckoned.

Tony smiled from the little cave. It was my lead, one way or the other.

“What do you think? It’s pretty good,” he said, grinning.

It was. I leaned back from a stance for a long moment, looking up. Traverse off as planned? Why? The inner voice piped up again. I felt like a coward but opted for the traverse.

I placed a screw halfway across and looked up again, unsure of my decision to go sideways rather than upward. I looked down at my feet and resumed the traverse.

There was a thunderous crack. Suddenly everything was rumbling. My gaze shot up, nerves on electric fire. The ground shook like a collapsing world. A white cloud of tumbling ice, spanning the face, billowed down.

I tried to dive for the cave less than 10 feet away but the ice screw held me in place and I fell, splayed horizontally across the slab at the base of the curtain. Tony’s eyes were wide with horror. We screamed for each other.

The cloud was already over me. I braced for impact. The first ice brick nailed me between the shoulder blades. It was more painful than anticipated but the second and third were already pummeling me. In an instant, separate impacts blurred into a steady stream of pain, and I could barely hear my own screaming voice. I waited for the giant block that would dash me to a stain.

Instead, silence returned. It hurt to breathe but I could still move, which also hurt.

Adrenaline had me sprinting for escape with Tony in tow. We couldn’t rappel and hike out fast enough. Nowhere felt safe, even as I stared at a steaming cup of coffee an hour later.

I tried to shake the fear off like a bad dream before going to the office. Did it happen? It still hurt to breathe.

From the debris at the bottom, we surmised that what had appeared to be a relatively small icicle at the lip of the roof was actually more like 30 feet long and several feet in diameter. It was the only part of the formation missing after the icefall. The rest of the ice was stable but we had dismissed a detail, the instability of a heavy dagger that turned out to be huge.

We also learned later that the water source of Glenwood Falls comes out of the ground directly above at approximately 50 degrees—explaining why it melts so fast.

Tony and I have roped up many times since, forever bonded by that terrifying moment we met eyes. I continue to learn a lot from him, especially that even the best can miss a detail that steers the day toward life or death.

Had we been a little lower or higher on the route—five minutes faster or slower—at least one of our names would have surely joined those on the memorial plaque. The short, steep curtain below the slab caused the bulk of the debris to shoot over the top of us.

Were we unlucky or lucky? I count myself fortunate.

It’s true what Mark Twight wrote, that a person has two jars. In the beginning one jar is full of luck and the other is empty. The second jar is experience. Eventually, the jar of luck empties as the other one fills.

If you’re lucky, you get a lifetime of experience.

Derek Franz lives in Carbondale, Colorado, where he spends most of his time sport climbing.

Also read My Epic: Flying off the Grand