Editor’s note: The Canadian climber-writer Jan Redford was raised in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and the Ottawa Valley, then moved to the Rocky Mountains to climb, kayak and ski. She earned her living tree planting, ski patrolling, and working as a climbing instructor with Outward Bound and the Banff Cadet Camp. End of the Rope: Mountains, Marriage and Motherhood, her memoir of a climbing and guiding life, will be published May 7. She lives in Squamish, B.C.
By Jan Redford
Yesterday, my friend Barb, one of the other female guides, had been crossing a glacier with her cadets when she fell into a crevasse up to her thighs. Instead of spreading out to hold her fall, all of her cadets, overwhelmed by curiosity, had kept walking toward her until they were bunched up on the same crevasse. It could have been disastrous.
. . . .
I’d been hired on for my French and my gender, not for my glowing resume—one summer as camp counselor at Camp Chief Hector, another as an assistant Outward Bound instructor, Industrial First Aid, and five years of climbing. I knew I had to prove myself.
At the base of the mountain, Doug, Niccy, Karen, and I stared straight up at the northeast face of Saint Nick. A long, steep snow slope led to the spectacularly pointy summit. There was a more obvious way to go, though. About a quarter mile farther along we could access a gentler route up the mountain by walking up to the lowest point—the col—between Saint Nick and its immediate neighbor, Mount Olive. From there we could follow a low-angle ridge to the peak. If a cadet fell, he’d land on his butt in the snow, not tumble a few hundred feet to the glacier, dragging us all with him.
The camouflage-clad boys sat in the snow, munching on chocolate bars, their laughter interrupted by their universal language—imitations of machine-gun fire and explosions.
“Hey, Benoit! Ça va mieux?” I wished I could communicate better with them. They were so young. Even if they were the cream of the crop, I was sure they were homesick and scared much of the time. Most of them had never climbed. Some had never even seen a real mountain. Few of them had slept on an inch-thick blue Ensolite pad in a tent in the snow and subsisted on foil pouches of army rations that could be mistaken for wet dog food.
Benoit looked over and grinned. “Oui, oui, madame. It is much good now. Much good.”
“So, the northeast face or the col?” Doug asked. “The face looks in good shape.”
I craned my head and looked up, way up, at Doug, like at the Jolly Green Giant. Had I heard him correctly? Why was he suggesting something that steep with this bunch?
Let’s do the face,” Niccy said. “The col’s just a slog.”
My head swivelled to Niccy. I had to clench my hands to keep from wrapping them around her neck. Was she trying to prove something to Doug? Hewas a full guide and could be the examiner on her guide course this fall, so she probably felt her every move was being scrutinized. But she was bigger and stronger than I was, and she’d had more practice short-roping. She had a better chance of holding her cadets if one of them fell.
I looked at my boys, who were now spitting wads of chocolate-bar wrapper at each other. At fourteen, Benoit was a foot taller than me, and the rest were not much smaller. On rock I’d stand a chance. I could zigzag through rock features, make sure there was something I could wrap the rope around, find spots to secure myself to belay them if I had to. On snow we would be fully exposed. If the cadet closest to me lost his balance, and if I noticed right away, I could pull on the rope to keep him upright. But if one of the other boys fell and I had to hold two bodies, or three, or four? Worst-case scenario would be if Claude at the back of the line fell and dragged Sylvain with him, who would drag Marcel, and all the way up the line.
“I’d prefer to do the col,” I said. “I don’t think these guys should be on the face.”
“Well, majority rules,” Doug said.
I stared at Doug, opened my mouth. I had to say something. That was not the way it worked in the mountains. You always went at the pace and comfort level of the weakest member. But saying that to him would mean admitting to being the weakest member. And if I told him how much I’d short-roped—a few hours with Dan in preparation for this job, and once up Mount Joffre with my Outward Bound students three years ago—he would have said, “What the fuck are you doing here then?”
I was also hoping to do my guide’s training someday, like Niccy. Doug could easily be one of my examiners too.
So I clamped my mouth shut.
. . . .
I huddled with my group and pointed out the route. When their excited cheers had died down, I looked each kid in the eye. “Tu tombes, tu meurs.” You fall, you die. They stared at me like I was a lunatic.
“Nic, you can lead us up,” Doug said.
I started to prepare my rope, thinking, He picked her, not me! Years ago I used to lead her up routes she could barely climb. Now she was Doug’s protege. Niccy started up the snow slope, her cadets and Karen following behind, the rope now set so they were only a few feet apart. Doug led his cadets up next, and when I followed with mine, it occurred to me that maybe Doug was doing with me what I was doing with Benoit, keeping the weakest link close. We kicked our boots into the footsteps, sank our axes to the hilts, and moved slowly up the slope. The snow was deep, to my thighs and to Doug’s knees, but the slope was no steeper than a black diamond run at the Lake Louise ski hill. It wouldn’t last long, though. After a short snow wallow, the angle would begin to tilt. Behind me, the boys laughed and blathered so quickly I only understood the occasional word. Every few seconds I barked orders over my shoulder: “Attention! La corde! Ton hache!” as I indicated sinking the shafts of their axes deep in the snow before taking a step, and keeping the rope tight. If they fell here, they could self-arrest. I’d made them practice the technique for hours over the past few days, sliding on their bellies, then sinking the picks of their axes deep in the snow, throwing all their weight on them to stop their slide. But we wouldn’t be able to self-arrest farther up. If they slipped on the steep section, we wouldn’t just slide.
We’d fall. We’d be fini. The wall of snow kept getting steeper. I twisted around to see Benoit ten feet below me with his axe only halfway in the snow, looking out at the view. “Benoit!” He started and looked up. “Ton hache!” I pointed to my ice axe, then made the motion of slitting my throat. He sank his axe to the pick, his eyes as wide as Frisbees. As the face got steeper, the cadets grew quiet. Each time I looked back, all four of them were methodically planting their axes, then step, step, with their mouths set in tight lines, their eyes looking straight ahead at the imprints in the snow, trying not to look down. I could hear Benoit breathing noisily, a combination of exertion and fear.
. . . .
Off to our right, a sharp ridge delineated the northeast face from the southwest face, which was a two-thousand-foot rock wall. One by one my boys paused and looked over into the abyss as though they were at a viewing in a funeral parlor. I clamped my glove down on the rope between me and Benoit. Marcel whistled, the same long, eerie dropping sound that accompanied Wile E. Coyote when he fell off a cliff chasing the Road Runner. Whistle, whistle, whistle, splat.
Benoit looked up at me, his mouth drawn down. He probably wanted his mother, like I wanted Dan. We’d both risk death before admitting it.
. . . .
I slipped my ice axe into the side of my pack, stuffed my gloves down the front of my jacket, then dropped a few loops of rope, getting ready to climb by myself. I’d belay them from the top. The cadets leaned into the slope, exhausted, listening to my instructions. They probably wished they were on six-foot-four Doug’s rope, already sitting on the summit eating gorp.
“Touchez pas la fucking corde.” If they accidentally pulled on the rope, or stepped on it, I’d get dragged off the climb. They all nodded like a row of bobbleheads on a dashboard.
I placed my foot on the rock, stepped up. The holds were big, but the angle was steep. I moved carefully, trying not to knock the loose rock off, trying to keep my thoughts fully focused on my task. If I could survive a few more hours, by dinnertime tomorrow, I’d be snuggled up with Dan at home in Banff. Maybe I’d bake some banana bread.
I kept looking down at the boys to make sure they weren’t moving, that their axes were deep in the snow, and that they weren’t near my coils of rope. My neck-slicing gesture must have done its job. They stood still as plastic soldiers until I reached the comfort of the soft snow again. It had only been five or six moves. Easier than I’d expected, and if I hadn’t been attached to four gangly, testosterone-flooded, heavy army cadets, it would have been fun.
The slope leveled off. I followed the footsteps up to the anchor, a mound of snow that Niccy and Doug had built to secure themselves to the mountain while their boys had climbed the rock. Niccy and Karen raised their arms in the air in triumph from the top, about thirty feet above me. Doug sat a few feet apart from his cadets. He lifted his hand in a wave and grinned. I lifted my hand nonchalantly, then let it drop. I tucked my chin into the collar of my jacket to hide my huge grin. I turned and sat in the impression Niccy’s and Doug’s butts had made, sank my boots into their steps. With my rope wrapped around the snow anchor and clipped into my harness, the boys could no longer drag me off the mountain. I was secure. I put my head between my knees for a few seconds to savor my stay of execution.
I pulled up the slack in the rope, looped it around my waist. Mountains and glaciers stretched out as far as I could see in every direction. Bow Hut with our tents clumped around it looked like a tiny Monopoly house. Off to the north, three strings of cadets inched toward Mount Gordon, a long, safe hike up a snowfield. That’s where we could have gone today, but we hadn’t. We’d done the northeast face of Saint Nick. I couldn’t wait to tell Dan.
I leaned over and yelled to my cadets, “Okay, Benoit! You can climb! Grimpe!”
End of the Rope: Mountains, Marriage, and Motherhood is published by counterpointpress.com.
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