Mt. Edith Cavell, North Face, Canada
(Chouinard/Beckey/Doody Rte., attempt)
Author: Gary Clark
Climbers: Gary & Lynn Clark
"It is not unusual for a climber to become obsessed with a certain peak or route."
Steve Roper, "Fifty Classic Climbs of North America"
One of our prime objectives for "Road Trip '99" was this Roper & Steck classic on the North Face of Edith Cavell. We have a considerable history with this route:
August '94: We arrived in Jasper to see that a recent storm had eliminated any chance of our getting on the route in the near future. The face was plastered impressively with snow. We returned a week later to find it looking much more promising. However, on the "low 5th class" approach, we wasted time looking for the route through the lower cliff bands to the right of the Angel Glacier. Before committing to an unprotected 5.9 move, I backed down, saying "this can't be right!", and we spent the next hour or so searching for a better way. We thought we found it, but then it began raining. We retreated, but not before taking notes and photos for future reference.
August '97: It had stormed during the night, but we went up to have a look anyway. We didnt get past the approach moraines. We couldn't see the upper half of the face for the fog, the rock was wet, and spindrift avalanches were coming off the upper face
August '98: We had only two days at the end of "road trip 98" due to an unexpectedly long stay in the Bugaboos. With another 4:30am start, we reached the first real difficulties of the approach just as it began raining. We were getting the first bit of the approach wired. We repeated the drill the next day, with the same result. Lesson learned: we need more time to wait for the good conditions and weather
August '99: We had a month allocated this year, with this route high on our list of priorities. With the drive from New Mexico and a side trip into the Wind Rivers subtracted, however, we realistically have less than 3 weeks. Still, if this isn't adequate, maybe we should be looking at other objectives. I'm not getting any younger.
The Web has matured to the point that we knew the conditions well before arriving in Canada: a big winter and late spring led to unusually high snow loads over the entire range. The question was, what would this mean on Edith? We asked in Calgary on passing through, then again in Lake Louise, and learned that melting has been progressing rapidly with an unusually warm late summer. We eagerly drove North to find the face looking really good - not too much snow, and not too little! We checked in at the "Gravity Sports", the local climbing shop. They guessed that the face was pretty much OK. They were not aware of any attempts this year though, and neither were the Park Wardens. I checked my e-mail at the Jasper library, and amazingly there appeared a nice long trip report from Guillermo Baron, who climbed the route in early August. The report was sobering. Our plan had been to climb the approach cliffs late on the first day, bivouac at the edge of the Angel Glacier, then begin the upper face from an alpine start the next day. Guillermo used the same strategy, and summitted wet and exhausted at 2:30am!
We decided to add additional insurance by starting even earlier on the first day and putting a bivouac as high on the face as possible. The first ascensionists had two bivouacs on the first ascent, so we knew it was possible. We had a new plan, but there were still two problems: first, it was much too warm to want to be on the face at all, a problem that plagued Guillermo and Jon as well. Second, the weather was unstable - a few hours of sunshine each day, the rest showers and fog. We decided to do the East Ridge instead and come back for the North Face if and when the conditions improved. This climb went well, and confirmed that the decision was the right one. The face was highly active with melt and rockfall while we were safe and happy on the ridge above. (The E. Ridge trip report is available on the web site)
We went south towards other objectives, then with vacation time dwindling, rang up Jasper to ask again about conditions. Although they had no direct reports from the North Face, the Warden's office said conditions on most of the routes were "excellent". The best news was that it had begun to freeze at night. By the time we could get there, the face might be in the best shape we'd ever seen it! We arrived in Jasper to a good weather report, and I checked once again at Gravity Sports, the owner of which had done the route a few years ago, and was one of our best sources of 'beta'. He patiently showed me possible bivy sites on the route photo, I bought a couple of last minute items, and went off to register for the climbs with the Park Service. I gave a "past-due" time of noon on the third day of our attempt, figuring that if we hadn't gone over the top or retreated by then, something must be seriously wrong.
Another nice thing about our strategy was that we didn't have to do a 4:00am departure from the Whistler campground in order to reach the parking lot at first light. We got up at a civilized hour, then drove up the now too-familiar road to finally start up the moraine around 10:00. Much more pleasant than the headlamp routine. It felt good to pass our previous high point and confirm that the route I had picked out with binoculars was probably the best available. There was some serious but not desperate climbing, but it was clear that the guidebook didn't give this the attention it deserves. I was happy to have rock shoes and a rack. (A full description is on the web site.)
Arriving at the top of the cliffs around 1:30pm, we were soon well onto the glacier. We were happy and relaxed - the face looked less intimidating the closer we got (as always), we heard no rockfall during the approach, and so we moved quickly up the steepening snow slopes toward the bergschrund. The snow was solid, but a bit soft for complete peace of mind. I'd have preferred well-frozen neve, but by now I figured I might not live long enough to find all the stars in alignment for this route. Thus, we continued, even though we knew well that arriving at the base of a major mixed face at 3:00p was pushing the envelope a bit. We were not roped, planning on tieing in just above the schrund after we found a good protected shelf of rock. Lynn was perhaps 5 m. below me and a little to my right as we moved into the firing zone just below the 'schrund. This might well be the most dangerous spot on the climb, and we were anxious to put it below us.
Lynn said "There are some rocks coming down", but I already knew it. She then asked "Should we run?" "No," I said, "just keep your eyes on them." Perhaps I should have added "and jump out of the way if you need to . . . ", but there was little time to communicate. To my horror, the first few rocks hit a ledge a few hundred feet directly above us, and each seemed to dislodge 10 more. That group initiated another chain reaction on the next ledge, and suddenly the sky was full of falling objects. I tried tracking them all, and particularly noted a big snowball coming down - no problem, it'll go well to the right. Just before the main salvo arrived, I plunged my axe shaft into the slope and leaned in to the slope. The sound of rocks hitting the snow around me was unforgettable - my mind flashed to a scene from a WWII movie in which fighter planes strafe the road as everyone jumps for the ditch.
Most of the rock was past when I called to Lynn to watch for one more missile off to the right. There was no reply, and I looked over my right shoulder to see how she was. The slope was empty. My brain refused to accept this, so I looked over the left shoulder, calling her name . . . still seeing an empty slope.
I finally spotted a form hundreds of meters below sliding rapidly down the smooth slope. At first I thought this must be a big rock, because the object was completely inert. Rocks don't have red parkas on, so the truth slowly dawned. I knew the slope ran out before reaching a section of crevasses, then the final cliff, so I had no doubt she would eventually stop. By the time she did she was so far below that I could not have distinguished a human form without binoculars. Still no motion - why hadn't she self arrested? I started plunge-stepping down. I kept my eyes on her for signs of motion, while moving as fast as I could without risking injury myself. I slipped once when my crampons balled up, self arrested, and continued a little slower. When I was about 50 meters above, she started moving one arm a little. I found her upside down on her back, wiggling about a bit, with eyes wide open. She kept saying "How did I get here?", and "Where are we?" I didn't answer at first.
I turned her around slowly on the slope, checked for fractures and bleeding, then got her pack and helmet off. Her helmet was packed solid with snow, and told the whole story: Most of the left half was smashed and the suspension ripped out inside. The "large snowball" I had watch pass to my right had in fact been a bread-loaf sized rock that had picked up it's snow coat when it first hit the slope above us. I checked her scalp to find a sizable contusion. Most importantly, her pupils were normal. I began answering her questions:
"I don't know where I am!"
"You're on Mt. Edith Cavell."
"What route is this?"
"You remember, we're on the North Face!"
"Why don't I remember where I am?"
"You took a rock on the head, and slid down the slope. You were unconscious, but it looks like you're fine. You're in shock."
"What climb is this?"
"This is the North Face of Edith Cavell - do you know you're in Canada?"
"Not really, what are we doing here?"
"OK, do you know where Canada is?"
"Uh, well, not really. What happened to me? Where are we?"
"You were hit on the helmet by a big rock . . . . "
and so on. For the next 2 hours, this was repeated as if it were a tape loop. She knew who she was and who I was, but little else, and had no short-term memory for my answers and explanations. I asked her to stand and walk a short distance toward me, which she did well. We needed to get out of the fall line, so I wasted no more time - I gently put the remains of her helmet back on her head, helped her into her pack, and told her to stay right in my tracks. At about one-minute intervals, the conversation above played again. It would have been comical if I had been in a different state of mind. As we crossed, she added "Shouldn't we rope up?", and "There are crevasses here!" as we stepped over one-inch cracks in the glacier. I replied over and over:
"We came this way this morning. It's perfectly safe, the crevasses are nothing to worry about."
"We've been here before?"
We finally reached the other side of the glacier, where I found and improved a crude bivouac site. She stood by and watched as I cleared rocks with my ice axe.
"Do you remember another time like this, when I dug a bivy site with my axe while you were sick?"
"No. Why can't I remember?"
"You were hit on the head with a rock. You're just in shock. It was in China - do you remember our trip to China?"
"No . . . What happened to my head? Something is wrong with my brain, but I can't remember why!"
"Can you tell me where China is?
"No, I don't think so, but I know I should . . . What happened to me?"
I had to decide whether to go for help immediately or wait to see how she progressed. The worst point was when I told her I might have to go down. In her bewildered and terrified state, she begged me not to leave. My biggest concern was that she had inner-cranial bleeding, which could build pressure quickly and be fatal. I finally went against the standard advice of keeping head injury patients awake, and after a final check of her pupils, treated what I could - the trauma. She went to sleep immediately after I got her in the bag. I sat next her head shielding it from the sun while I watched for any irregularities in breathing. After a bit I packed for a quick solo descent which I planned to do via the north side of the ice-fall. I wrote a note to leave with her, explaining where she was and what had happened, which I ended with "DO NOT LEAVE HERE!!!". I had 5 screws and double 60m ropes and estimated I could rap the icefall in about an hour on single screw placements. From there it was only 15 minutes of down-climbing and a final short run down the moraine to the tourist-filled parking lot. This path is never done due to regular serac avalanches, but it would have been the quickest. The regular route would have taken 3 hrs or more. Fortunately, I didn't have to do either.
She woke in about an hour. She was on her side, looking directly at the North Face, now in dramatic late-afternoon light.
"We didn't even get over the bergschrund!"
"Maybe we can stay here tonight and start up in the morning after it freezes."
I had my wife back.
The rest of the story should have been routine. We slept well through the night, although I woke in the early hours with a sore back, and could barely turn over from the pain. I had given Lynn all the padding, so I was right on the ground. In the morning she had only a mild headache and a stiff neck as we woke to a light shower. We waited for the rocks to dry during a period of sun, then began packing for a slow, careful descent via the normal route. I was leaning over to pick up a rope when my lower back muscles went into spasm. This has happened about 3 times over the past 8-10 years, so I'm familiar with it. The prognosis was that I would be unable to even stand for at least the next 24 hours. Suddenly, we had a reversal of the patient and care-provider roles. Lynn had to help me even roll over in my sleeping bag for the rest of that day. About the only entertainment was studying my altimeter watch inside the bivouac bag to see if I could predict the rain showers. It seemed to be working - each time the apparent altitude rose, rain would come down for 30 minutes or so. The barometer would rise, and the sky would clear. Finally it snowed, and I thought about how much fun it would be to keep from getting buried while I could barely move. We ate very little of our small reserves of food, and finally settled down for another night. Frequent rockfalls on the face and the weather made me rather glad that we weren't up there.
Mid morning the next day I experimented with standing, and made it with two ice axes and Lynn pulling from in front.
"It's good we're practicing this, you'll be doing it full time in another 20 years!"
"Oh, shut the f --- up!"
She doesn't think my aging jokes are very funny.
It was now only a few hours before "past-due" time. It made no sense to complicate things by attempting to go down on our own and ending up in the middle of the approach face somewhere when the helicopter came to look. We resigned ourselves to a rescue, the first I've ever needed in 35 years of climbing, and waited for the sound of helicopter blades. By the time it flew up the glacier at about 4:00p, I could walk around well enough to move to the most visible spot in anticipation. It flew right on by as we both waved our parkas over our heads. For the next hour and a half, we tried to get the copter's attention, but it was looking in all the wrong places. We finally lost hope and unpacked for our third night in the bivy sacks. We had one energy bar left and a handfull of hard candies. Just before dark, we looked up to see the helicopter coming for a second pass over the glacier. We ran for a snow patch to improve our visibility, and they spotted us waving our parkas wildly over our heads.
The amazing thing about helicopters is their efficiency. It had taken us about 3.5 hours to get to the bivouac site on the way up. Lynn timed the descent at 2 minutes flat. By 7:00p, we were showered and in clean clothes, and having a fine meal with wine at one of the local establishments. I've always said that a big part of the attraction of this sport is the contrasts.
The next morning saw us at Park Headquarters writing an official account of the accident and rescue with the help of Sylia, a warden who had been on the helicopter. I concluded the report with these observations:
We should not have been below the face mid-afternoon no matter how badly we wanted to finally put this route in the bag after so many attempts. (the Everest syndrome in action). We should have stuck to the original plan of a dawn start, or abandoned altogether when it turned out warmer than predicted.
Since we registered for a possible evacuation, we should have had better signalling materials such as small flares.
Our first aid kit should have had more serious pain killers than Ibuprofen. Usually it does, but we had not replenished it.
We made a last visit to Gravity Sports for a "show and tell" with the helmet and to shop for a replacement. Then, with resignation, we began the long drive home. This time there would be no intermediate stops at climbing areas. Just 31 hours to look through the bug-splattered windshield, reflect on the lessons learned, and wonder what might have been.