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Ever race to the base of a climb?

Submitted by stymingersfink on 2006-03-20 | Last Modified on 2008-02-25

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by Sty Mingersfink

Sometime about a year ago, I saw a forum thread with a title similar to the one above. It got me writing what you will read next, but before I could finish the site went down and the project was forgotten. Now I am unable to find the pertinent thread, but I would like to share with you what I finally finished writing yesterday. Bear with me, it's a long story, but worth it if it saves a life.

Race for a climb? Oh, I may pick up the pace a little and use any shortcut or P1 variation I'm aware of, but out-n-out race? Nah, and let me tell you why…

The one time I was most tempted to race was heading up to climb Frankenchrist in Maple canyon on leap-day, Feb '04. Talking on the drive down, my partner was willing to give me first crack at it. We had brought some skis to skin up the road, and unfortunately had a fresh skin track to follow. Hoping to see them on one of the climbs in the lower canyon or perhaps they would turn off into Box canyon, we pushed on by the lower climbs without even stopping to check them out.

As we approached the forks junction, through the falling flakes I caught a glimpse of their backs turning into the Right Fork. Damn! If only we had been ten minutes earlier! The only climb worth hiking that far to get on was the one I was gunning for. I didn't want to crowd them, so we decided to see if Get Whacked was in.

A fifteen-minute slog brought us to the base of the climb. Unfortunately the entire thing lay on the ground at our feet. Dejected and rejected, we set off back down to the Box Canyon to see if Maple Syrup was still in climbing shape. Along the way we hit up Cobble Cruncher. As I got prepared to pull over the lip at the top, the clouds parted and the water started flowing as though a fire hydrant had been cracked.

We pulled the rope, and Matt re-lead the thing, commenting “Let’s get the hell out of here before it comes crashing down around our ears.” Brent, the third in our party, was slightly let down to miss his opportunity to TR it, but was good-natured about the situation. I don’t think he was too bummed to miss an opportunity for a frozen shower.

Working our way farther up the Box, we encountered a snow-filled choke. After getting less than 10 feet in 20 minutes of trying to swim through it, we decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Of course, being completely wiped out due to our swim was a big part of it too. As we began to hike back to the main canyon we heard the sound of something big come crashing down. The nearest approximation I can provide is the sound of ski patrol doing avalanche control the morning after a big Pacific storm, the rumble reverberating off the tight canyon walls for several seconds.

“Must have been Cobble Cruncher,” I surmised “Good call to get us out of there, Matt.” We were slightly perplexed when we discovered it still standing on our walk by it. The noise had been so loud it had seemed to come from within the very canyon we were in. What could it have been?

We finally gained the road, the Box Canyon depositing us at the base of a sheet of yellow ice. Running Man is a short WI3 climb that faces due north, shaded by the terrain it forms in. I had lead it the previous season and had no reason to get on it again, but if this was all that was available at the moment, it was going to be better than getting into the truck and driving home.

As the ropes were being flaked and I was racking up, we heard the sound of snowmobiles coming up the main canyon.

The ‘bile was being piloted rapidly up the snow-packed road with a rider straddling the back, a litter in tow. The driver stopped momentarily, asking us for directions to a party somewhere in the canyon with an emergency.

“Follow the skin track up, and when they split take the right side. There’s only one party up there, so they shouldn’t be too hard to find,” Matt offered. “What’s going on…?”

The last fell on the sound of the snow machine speeding away. We wondered among ourselves what was going on, and whether we should skin up the road to help, or continue with gearing up for our climb. Before we could decide, the decision was made for us. Two more snow mobiles came screaming up the road, stopping just feet away from us.

“We’re looking for a party in trouble, can you point us in the right direction?” they queried.

“What’s going on? “ countered Matt.

“There was an accident, someone may have been injured. We’re trying to locate them, but all we know is that they were up in Maple Canyon climbing on some icicle,” they replied.

“Well, do you guys need any help? Is there anything we can do?” Matt offered.

“No, we’re handling it. Now, could you point us in the right direction?”

“Yeah, just go up to where the trail forks, then follow the skin track to the right. There’s only one party up there, so they shouldn’t be too hard to find in all this fresh snow.”

They threw a quick “Thanks” over their shoulders as they sped off up the canyon.

“Well, that does it. Fuck this climbing shit, lets go back to the truck and stay handy in case they need some assistance.”

We all agreed it would be the prudent thing to do, so we stowed the gear and began the walk back to the truck parked at the trailhead 400 yards away. Several more snow machines passed us on their way up the canyon before we arrived at the lot. It was filled with random 4x4’s, several deputy sheriffs, an ambulance and a flat-bed trailer now empty of its snow machines.

We threw our gear into the back of the truck and began asking questions. The distraught fellow leaning against the flatbed was a sorry thing to see. His hulking frame shuddered, a quiet sob escaped his lips. The tears on his face were enough to know that whatever had happened it hadn’t been pretty. We huddled around him, an arm over his shoulder in sympathy and encouragement. The story slowly and painfully became clear.

His partner had been on the sharp end, leading up the climb known as Frankenchrist. The David Black guide “Ice Climbing Utah” describes it thusly:

    Length: 150 ft
    Approach: Walk west 300 yards up the canyon from the pullout. The route is located on a crag to the left and can easily be seen from the road.
    The Climb: Climb chandeliered and curtained ice to the rim.
    Descent: Rap from bolts near a small tree.

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He had placed several screws during his ascent, including a couple in the main dagger hanging just below the top of the climb. As he approached the top, he had discovered a horizontal crack in the ice. I believe he was going to try to gun it for the chains a dozen feet away, but before he could do anything the fracture finished its evil work. The dagger came crashing to the ground, dragging the climber with it. His belayer was pulled 30 feet up to the first screw placement, his belay device slamming into the draw clipped to the screw. This may be the very thing which saved the belayers life, for when this happened he was yanked out of the region where the monstrous piece of ice would come to rest.

He quickly lowered himself and ran to his partner, checking his vital signs. No pulse… No breath… His eyes were glazing over, a blank stare looking up to the sky above him and the remains of the climb that would prove to be his last.

The belayer quickly began CPR, hoping against all hope that this wasn’t happening... couldn’t be happening… shouldn’t be happening… FUUCCCKK! His partner had a wife and kids at home, the youngest only 8 months old. How was he going to explain this to them…?

After 15 minutes of CPR, it was obvious that all effort was futile. The belayer quickly made his way down canyon to grab his cell phone from their vehicle, calling Juab County SAR for assistance. When they arrived, he pointed them in the general direction of the incident. [/list] When he had finished his story, it wasn’t ten minutes before a procession of snow-machines made their way out of the canyon. Behind one of them drug the litter, its occupant wrapped in blankets, his split-board and pack lashed to the top. We dumped his gear into their Cherokee as his body was loaded into the ambulance. It left quietly, neither lights nor siren clearing the way.

I ended up driving the belayer and his vehicle home that afternoon, as he was in no condition to drive. It was a somber commute, with few words exchanged between the two of us. I have not spoken with him since that day, though I hear through the grapevine that he is climbing again.

I think about that incident often, though more so as the end of February approaches. In fact, every time I go into Maple Canyon I think about that day; sometimes it comes to the front of my mind when I climb ice, but without fail it always comes to mind when I see another party and mine converging on the same route. Oftentimes my reaction is "Ok, if you really want it, you can have it, but I'm not going to be hanging around to see if you can do it." Sometimes we chat and agree that I will probably be the faster party.

Last week I was chatting with Granny Goose (Dr. D, but with commandos in tow), finding him in the parking lot after having summited Stairway to Heaven for the third time in as many weeks. The topic was the warm weather approaching, the negative effects it has upon the ice, and the chances of getting to the top again the following weekend. I related my experience that day two years ago in Maple Canyon, saying that the conditions of the day hadn’t indicated impending doom, rather a typical Maple day with flakes falling in the cool, crisp air.

He reminded me that conditions can change quite rapidly, and that at the time of the incident mentioned above Frankenchrist hadn’t killed anybody in at least five or six years.

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