A Splattering of Paint: Failure and Success in the Northwest Territories

by Jay Knower
December 8, 2001

"Do you think this is what the Eiger is like?" I look back at Yan but he isn't paying attention to the belay. Instead, he seems to be watching the helicopter fly up the valley, shuttling in rich tourists for their afternoon picnic. Now, with three pitches of loose, rather unappealing rock almost below us, a look upward reveals what we have come here for: a steep white pillar of perfect alpine granite silhouetted against the Arctic sky. The long drive, the difficulties with the approach, my rather uninspiring performance on an earlier climb—these do not matter to us. As I begin to lapse into a dreamy remembrance of the adventures that have led us to this point, I am instantly snapped back to reality, that my left foothold has just become a memory.

"Rock!" I yell with enough fear in my voice to warrant a worried upward look on Yan's face. The softball sized foothold bounces off grassy ledges, barely misses the belay, and careens out of sight into the talus.

Yan Mongrain and I are climbing a new route on Terrace Tower in Canada's Cirque of the Unclimbables; the rock is bad, the weather threatening, and we don't want to be anywhere else.

Flash back to Yosemite, 1998. I have driven from Wisconsin to test my mettle on the classic climbs in the Valley. I meet a promising climber from Montreal who is about my age and has also driven from the snowier environs of the East. In short, I found the perfect partner—like me, but slightly askew. Yan Mongrain's climbing style seems an antithesis of mine: where I grunt and use sheer power, he chalks and finesses his way up. I do have one trump card, though, as his Quebec upbringing has left his English a little lacking.

Basically, Yan has a tense problem. Not that he is tense; no, his climbing style is anything but. He tends to use the English language in ways few native speakers could imagine. Our climbing careers have run parallel, as I have climbed in Quebec and he has experienced the quartzite at Devil's Lake, I know every piece on his rack, and where he would be most likely to use them, and both of our moms are named Susan. He graciously accepts many of my annoying tendencies and I his. Therefore, it does not surprise me, or upset my grammatical sensibilities, when he tries on a pair of my sunglasses and utters, "They are really ugly, isn't it."

Three years and a few climbing trips with Yan later, rumors of a pristine and un-crowded wilderness climbing area in the Northwest Territories begin to surface out of thoughts of more accessible climbing areas. Since the approach is both difficult and expensive, I figure the area must be rife with potential first ascents. One call to Yan, and the trip is a go. We decide to leave at the end of July.

After a five-day drive and an arduous approach, Yan and I arrive at Fairy Meadows and begin to get used to life in the Cirque. We climb Lotus Flower Tower in a day and unwittingly make the first free ascent of The White Tower (III 5.11a) on Terrace Tower. Our spirits and egos run high. The Cirque to us is a blank canvas; we are itching to make our first real brush strokes. We scour the area for potential first ascents, peering through binoculars and looking for, but hoping not to find, signs of human passage—bolts, slings etc. The isolation, such an imposing force when we arrived, now seems less oppressive.

That was a week ago; since then my pride has sufficiently diminished. Yesterday dawned perfectly clear. As we exited our bivy cave, we were confronted with one of those rare days in the mountains: The sky shone a vibrant blue, the wind had subsided from the previous night's gale force intensity, and the temperature hovered in the temperate range, forcing us to question the merits of actually wearing our fleece coats. Rather than attempting a new route, we decided to attempt Club International (V 5.11b), a newly freed route on Bustle Tower. The route had gained a positive reputation as the night before, a group of Swiss climbers gushed over the steep and engaging climbing they found on the route. If the weather cooperated, we decided we would give it a go.

I find myself fully engaged with the third pitch. The rock is loose. Very loose. Perhaps when the rock was more congealed, however many eons ago, its integrity could have been compared to Kitty Litter. Today it seems like crumbling concrete, or maybe just sand. I stem in a shallow corner, feet sketching on crumbly edges, and place pro that does not inspire any confidence. I am staring at a loaded gun and I worry that fate will soon pull the trigger. Why me, why now? If I can only center my weight over the next smear, and excavate a useable handhold, everything will be alright . . .

I finish the pitch and everything is not alright; I just want to go down. The ground seems very appealing now, as a stare upward promises more of the same fear and anxiety. This is not why I am here, I tell myself, to follow someone else's path. Though the path is decidedly difficult, my heart is not into it. Nothing is created; we are simply viewing someone else's masterpiece, and a good one at that. Since Lotus Flower, however, we have selfishly wanted our own. Maybe I am just rationalizing. Maybe I am just scared.

The decision is made to go down, despite perfect weather, the perfect mountain range, and a perfect partner. All I can think about is the welcoming security of the horizontal. Yan and I exchange choice words; he lets me know that this is my decision, that I am giving up. My head is not into it, and I want nothing more than to disarm the gun and set up the rappel. We rappel without heroics, without battle wounds or a raging tempest. We rappel under blue skies, and my wounds are not visible on the outside. The rock scared me; and in dealing with the fear, I gave up.

A sullen walk back to Fairy Meadows instills me with a new resolve: I must prove myself. Not to Yan, as he is already thinking of many projects elsewhere in the Cirque. I need to silence the small but persistent voice in my head that keeps reminding me not to let this opportunity go to waste. When climbing "The White Tower" on Terrace Tower, we spied a line to the right of the prominent white pillar, a line that cuts boldly and directly up the face. Back on the ground, the chiaroscuro of the face, the subtle shadows of cracks, corners, and overhangs does not register. Despite our excitement, we see only a barren pillar of granite, reminiscent of the Rostrum in Yosemite Valley. Perhaps a more experienced team would piece together an intricate route up the shadows; we focus more on the entire face than its discreet features--daunting for sure.

Yan and I return the next day to fix ropes along the Eiger- like lower section; the movement of our ropes frequently dislodges baseball-sized rocks, inundating us with the constant clackety- clack of the rocks tumbling down the face. As storm clouds threaten, I ready myself for the first pitch of the wall proper. We realize that if we can free this section, a beautiful corner will open up to us, affording much easier climbing. This first section, however, seems very hard.

As I plant my feet on insecure smears, and attempt to lock my fingers into a flaring and muddy crack, I slowly inch upward. A grunt here, a hand-to-foot match there; the rock begins to reveal itself to me. I struggle with a blind cam placement, but it eventually finds its own secure place in the crack. Yan becomes smaller as fingerlock leads to fingerlock, smears to smears and…. I am airborne. Hanging evenly with Yan, I let loose a stream of adrenaline-induced obscenities. Sufficiently calm again, I aid up past my high point. We clean mud out of the crack and rehearse the moves on toprope. After piecing together a string of subtle, tenuous moves, we retreat for the day, pulling our ropes behind us. We will return tomorrow and give it another go.

The night passes fitfully for both of us; we labor under the thought that we are on the cusp of doing something truly good, something first. Climbers may, in social situations, say that they climb not for glory or recognition, but for a feeling of oneness with the environment. Yan and I like that feeling too, though we are both eager to leave our mark, to exert our will on a hostile environment. Terrace Tower reflects the late evening sun back to us, the white granite as stark and naked as a blank canvas. Our masterpiece, something that will forever be ours, is simply a few bold brush strokes away. We fall asleep thinking not of the canvas as a whole, but which color paint to use. Should we bolt? Should we bring pitons?

Arriving at the beginning of the difficulties again, we take our time racking up and coiling the ropes. Whatever bravado felt the night before becomes replaced by a realization that above us lies a long stretch of difficulty. The not knowing, the uncertainty, is the hardest part. I shout encouragement as Yan adeptly hikes his feet up and forges past our high point. If he can just make it to the ledge, the climb is in the bag. As he slows, my shouts become more intense. I wonder if he notices the inflection in my voice, the slightly audible yet sincere desire for him to succeed. After what seems like forever, the word "Secure" falls down to me. Yan has sent the pitch, and I smile as I begin to second.

I second 100 feet of pure granite joy: tenuous fingerlocks, power laybacking, and the token wet section to remind us that we are actually in the mountains. This is one of the hardest pitches either of us has climbed; after an impromptu spewing session on the cramped belay ledge, we proclaim the pitch 5.12-. The aesthetics of Yan's pitch seem to extinguish by the next pitch. I embark on the kind of climbing, the memory of which tends to elicit the same feeling one gets when being pulled over for speeding. Not pleasant. The fingercrack widens to chimney size. Not your run of the mill chimney, however, instead a flaring overhanging monster of a chimney. Each upward movement carries with it an unnerving outward movement. We rate the pitch 5.10 with a snicker.

"Every climb," I pant, attempting to force air into my fatigue addled lungs "should have a sandbag pitch, a pitch that makes you want to cry."

Always one to bring me back down to reality after my headstrong moments, Yan replies, "Who cares? No one, I think, will repeat her anytime soon."

Above us, if we continue to the right of the white pillar, the rock becomes less steep and we could top out without much more difficulty. To the left, a beautiful hand crack forges up the pillar proper. It seems both steep and intimidating. In an attempt to set things straight after my Bustle Tower incident, we decide on the left option. Hand cracks to the Western climber represent an opportunity to practice skills developed by miles of granite crack climbing. Not so for the midwestern climber. Hand jamming at Devil's Lake, my home crag, inevitably degrades into a graduate course in geology; the climber learns first hand the rudimentaries of friction, or lack thereof, on the slick quartzite. Therefore, being as I am skilled in the art of crimping on the outside of cracks, I tentatively rely on jam after jam and grumble at the dearth of cheater face holds. My confidence builds, though, and I soon resemble a deranged fan at one of those Atlanta Braves games, pumping my tomahawk-like hand into the rock.

The pitches fly by, and we flop onto a large grassy ledge one pitch below the summit. Yan and I wearily congratulate each other; the next pitch looks relatively easy and we assume the ascent is in the bag. The sun begins to dip below the granite bulk of Mount Proboscis; the summit awaits us. In one pitch, we will be able to splash that masterstroke of paint onto the blank canvas of Terrace Tower. We will be forever linked to the rock, to our particular swath of granite; all we have to do is take out the pen and sign our name. This should be the easiest and most rewarding part; this is what we came here for. Yan, paintbrush in hand, leads the final ledgy section and suddenly slows down.

"Hurry up man, we don't have all day." I figure some good-natured ribbing should coax Yan to the end of his pitch. I worry less about his climbing and more about the fact that I am selfishly devouring the last Powerbar.

"I, you know, can't figure her out!" My interest in eating fades, as I see the move Yan attempts. We both struggle at this section, the last move on our climb. Why can't Terrace Tower just give in, have we not respected her? We have not placed any bolts or pitons on our climb, and beside for the rocks we have knocked down, we have left her flanks intact. Ok, we did chalk quite a bit, but this shouldn't anger her.

Arriving at the problematic section, I soon realize the reason for Yan's grumbling. After much difficulty and many expletives, the 5.10 final move is accomplished by a dynamic lunge into a moss filled crack, fingers buried in mud and moss, and the adept use of a knee. Our climb has become a reality, and Yan and I wholeheartedly celebrate our new route. The canvas is no longer stark and uninteresting, but now suffused with color. Yan, noticeably gazing toward the snowy distance, or perhaps toward nothing at all, flashes a weary but gracious grin. The rappels can wait; we must first take a minute to step back and admire our work. We christen our creation "Light in August" (IV 5.12-) and try not to think of the long drive back to Wisconsin.

(*) Reproduced with permission from The Canadian Alpine Club (CAJ 2002)