Christmas! A time filled with family, feasting, sitting by the fireplace, cosy slippers, watching movies and sharing presents.
Keeping this in mind I decided to spend my Christmas in the Canadian Rockies camping in sub zero temperatures, eating boil in the bag meals and hanging off of frozen waterfalls.
Well that was the plan at least.
The Canadian Rockies are somewhat of a Mecca for ice climbers, and so I made it an objective of mine this year to experience some of the best ice climbs on the planet.
A trip like this required a great deal of planning and investment of money to survive the harsh conditions the Rockies would throw at us. Identifying areas to camp, climb and survive in was time consuming and things like sleeping bags were very costly.
Ice climbing is usually a sport which requires a great deal of suffering in order to experience it’s benefits. For example having to wake at 3 am to hike in horrible conditions for hours to the base of a climb just to find that it’s not in the right conditions to climb that day, or having my eyelids frozen shut to being benighted on a mountain side in the middle of winter. Then there is every winter climbers worst enemy of crying/vomiting on the side of a mountain from hot aches. I’m not trying to make myself out to be some kind of hardened mountain man immune to fear or pain (I’m not). I’m just identifying the fact that it definitely requires a certain type of person to enjoy it’s rewards. But the rewards are great.
So after finding another exchange student at UBC from Manchester and contacting a member of Glasgow Uni Mountaineering Club who was on exchange in Calgary we all set off for The Rockies to climb so ice.
Our first day of climbing was Christmas Day itself. We were all excited to be spending Christmas in such a bizarre way together. We were out for 8-10 hours climbing in temperatures as low as -26 C. Not the type of temperatures the human body is able to cope with.
And this is where the title of this blog begins to make sense… Firstly, I should have known better! I should have realised. Secondly, if you are squeamish, maybe read another one of my blog entries…
‘John… remember your wee toes? Are they feeling cold? Nope? Are they feeling at all? Not that either? Ahhhh it’ll be FINE! Don’t worry, just keep climbing. It’s fun, isn’t it? You are having so much fun! Great job there John.’
So after a wonderful day climbing, on what was the best ice I have ever swung an ice axe at, we all made our way back. Thankfully it was only a short 30 min walk back to the car because it felt like I was walking on stumps. Once in the car I immediately got my boots off to warm my toes up.
‘Oh would you look at that, the bit underneath your toenail is black, oh and that doesn’t feel like a toe either at all. It feel more like a really cold rock. Hmmm.’
Five of my toes had received a lovely dose of frostbite. My right big toe being the worse effected. When trying to squeeze the toe there was no spongy flesh like bounce. What I can only imagine is that I froze everything in my toe completely solid, including the blood that should have been circulating around it. I think if I was to take a hammer to it, that it would shatter. All toes had lost sensation, all sensation.
We drove to the nearest hospital which was around an hour away. The journey began with us all laughing at the fact that I had gotten frostbite. This steadily descended into a realisation that my time in The Rockies had already come to an end, and then putting on a brave face whilst crying inside.
Christmas night was then spent in Canmore hospital with my then swollen feet in a basin of lukewarm water eating a microwave chicken pasta feeling like a bit of an idiot. I waited hours to see a doctor, and for most of this wait I had a nurse come into the room to check up on me. Each time the nurse appeared she would walk in, put her index finger in the basin then look up at me with a concerned expression only to say ‘what’s done is done’. This was great at making me feel right at home and not concerned at all.
So the doctor gave me his diagnosis. No more winter climbing for several months and no more freezing my toes ever again or they will fall off next time. Thankfully I get to keep my toes but I will unfortunately be saying goodbye to some of my toenails and possibly never fully recover sensation in those toes. They will be more susceptible to the cold now also, but it’s ok, he said that should only last a mere 80 years.
Lessons learned. I’m an idiot. -26 C is very cold. Canadian Rockies has some great ice to climb. Shame I won’t be able to this year.
After this highly successful trip it was time to say goodbye and head back to Vancouver.
But this was not after trying to hitch hike back in Canmore waiting 5 hours in -12 C on someone picking me up. The full time the doctors words in my head ‘don’t get those toes cold again’. Thankfully another Glasgow Uni Mountaineering Club member was staying at Lake Louise an hour away and was able to rescue me and drop me in Vancouver the following day as he was also heading that way.
In conclusion this was the best experience of my life, I achieved everything I wanted to and more and can’t remember a single moment where I wasn’t overwhelmed with joy. A Christmas I will never forget.
And one month on….