Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ice Is Nice

Chasing the elusive ice this winter has been rather stop-start. Continuing earthquakes, sinking homes, near misses, injuries, and now a one in 50 year storm has kept the team edgy for more.
But I can't help but love the medium. It's so finicky, so ephemeral, so beautiful. That is, until it falls on me, and then I want nothing to do with the stuff. Thinking shifts to a surf swept tropical beach paradise, sipping pina colada, and enjoying having warm extremeties.
Of course, that wears off. The bad memories fade, or at least glob together in the bottom of the scroggin bag: like when all that crystalized ginger pretends to be pineapple and gangs up on your taste buds. You spit it out in disgust, and quickly dive for the chocolate-coated raisins.
Here's a small montage of a couple of recent ice climbing trips into some of my favourite valleys in the Southern Alps.

And just posting this has got me reaching for my ice axes again, just to run my hands across the worn grips, maybe give them a wee swing.
Yep, weather permitting, we'll be heading off again.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

My Friend My Helmet (or how to break the new New Zealand Mountaineer of the Year in less than a week)

My father called the other night. He had heard through the Hersey grapevine about my recent close call in the mountains.
I braced myself for another of those talks, but it never came. Instead he sympathised with my 'go for it' attitude, before going on to discuss his latest plans for chasing wild horses again in the Far North. I braced myself to give another of those talks...
Without trying to sound too melodramatic, I guess I've had two brushes with death in the last six months. The February earthquake was an experience I'll never forget. Metres and seconds were the difference betwen life and death for so many Cantabrians.
As the ground continues to shake in Christchurch, I am reminded of the transient nature of our lives. As societies, we build these protective walls around ourselves, convinced that we can control the weather, ocean, earth and even our own destinies. And, to a point, we succeed. Everyday life brings a sense of sameness, a monotony that sometimes leads us to forgetting the value of what we have. Maybe a good shake-up now and again is exactly what we need.
Which is ironic, because this sameness is what I yearn to escape when I head for the mountains. Being prepared to let go of what you've got in order to recognise it again is a philosophy I believe in (though not always at the crux pitch).
Of course, this risk for reward approach comes unstuck from time to time - which leads me to my second recent incident.

Graham Zimmerman is a good mate. A Kiwi-American in his mid 20s, Zim has already learned to pursue life with an intensity that most of us only dream about. I was stoked to hear that he had won the latest New Zealand Mountaineer of the Year award, but more stoked to see him and get the opportunity to go climbing together again.
The day after Zim received his award, he, Shell and myself headed down country in search of winter delights. Despite average weather, we found an unclimbed frozen waterfall four pitches high. Excitement levels rose.

Sometimes things just go wrong. I don't know whether to acknowledge that we were unlucky to get caught by the falling ice, or lucky that things didn't turn out a lot worse.
At the top of the second pitch, I had just built my anchor, clipped in, and was belaying Zim up to me. Shell was still clipped to the anchor at the top of the first pitch, about 40 metres below.
The ice came - 5-10 seconds of brick-sized blocks slamming into us. Driven against the snow by the blows, I thought it was all over.
I don't remember the end of it, so must have blacked out for a few seconds. Everything ached and there was blood over the snow, but only one thought developed: 'Get the fuck down!'
I yelled down to the others, but could only hear muffled replies. Abseiling down, I saw Zim slumped on a low angled snow slope, and Shell staring at me with huge eyes.

Zim mumbled that he wasn't good. He thought that the impact of the ice had broken his shoulder and maybe his leg. I offered to abseil together, but decided to lower him straight away as that would be quicker. Small things, like checking and rechecking knots and threaded ropes, took on new significance.
I followed Zim down, and checked his injuries while Shell abseiled. After slinging his arm, Zim thought he could walk; which was a relief, as my ribs hurt and my left hand wasn't working. The three of us shuffled slowly downhill to the nearest hut. I then walked out to the road, found a family with a 4-wheel-drive who were holidaying nearby, and asked them to drive in to pick up the others.
By the time we all reached the road end, Shell was feeling a bit better and said she could drive. We headed for Timaru, making a quick detour to Burger King. The staff at BK's gave us a funny look, not surprising given that three smelly, blood-stained, down jacket wearing individuals were standing at the counter asking directions to the hospital while ordering double whoppers.

Zim broke his fibula and scapula. He will need to get the scapula operated on, and is bummed to be missing out on climbing time. Shell and I escaped with cuts and bad bruising. For the time being, our training entails quiet ambles along the beach.
Of course, the weather is perfect. The fattest high all winter is currently parked over the Southern Alps. We are supposed to be at Pioneer Hut. Instead, we are at home drinking coffee and taking anti-inflammatries.
Life reminds us, once again, why we live.