Above us, Naomi slowly untangled her skis, poles, and limbs, and picked herself up from a snowy crash high on the east face of Single Cone. Below in the distance, the lifts had closed on the Remarkables ski field. The sun was setting, and the cold wind that had hounded us all day had begun howling again. She carefully skied down to us.
“I think I tore something in my knee,” she gasped out.
I had plans with my friend Niall to skin up the Remarkables on opening day before the lifts opened for glorious untracked morning powder turns. These plans quickly morphed into climbing Single Cone with a good friend of his, Naomi, and two friends of hers neither of us had met. He said the climb was easy, straightforward, most of it on skins with just one gully that got a bit steep. He’d done it a dozen times.
I watched while Niall coiled a rope and harness into his bag next to his skins. I actually hate climbing because I’m afraid of heights. Or rather—as my new friend Alex Honnold clarified for me—I’m not afraid of heights, I’m afraid of falling to my death. This is a rational fear, in my opinion
As Niall handed me an ice ax and crampons—two pieces of gear I’ve never used in my life—I wondered what I had gotten myself into. But I stupidly said nothing, not wanting to be the one too scared to climb an easy mountain, hoping that if I pretended I could handle it, then I would magically be able to.
As Clara, Stefan, Naomi, Niall and I set out skinning up the ski field, we joked about our less-than-alpine start. Niall assured us it would only take a couple hours.
“We’ll see about that – I have no climbing experience!” I joked.
“And I have no touring experience!” Clara said.
What could possibly go wrong?
Cue the moment when we ditch our skis near the top to walk across a steep face above a high cliff band. It’s no different than what we’ve been skinning on, but my nerves instantly kick in. I get a quick explanation on using an ice ax to self-arrest, and we’re off.
At the base of the gully, I see that Niall has used that word loosely. It’s not a gully. It’s a 20-meter 80-degree chute the width of my outstretched arms.
As Stefan and Clara set up a belay and Stefan starts up the chute with his ice ax, sending tiny avalanches onto us, I keep reminding myself to breathe. I’m silent as the other three banter, and when Niall asks if I’m doing okay, I smile and pretend I am, tell him I’m just a little nervous. Because, god, I wanted to be only a little nervous.
Eons later (which was likely only 10 minutes, but when you’re standing at the bottom of a steep narrow chute on a dodgy layer of snow that sends you over cliffs if it releases, a minute feels like a year), Stefan gains the top and sets the anchor, and Niall and Naomi head up. Clara and I are tied together and start climbing last, her ahead of me. We’re tied too close, I can already tell, but it’s too late now.
The first time I slip just a few steps in, I panic. I can’t do this. What was I thinking? Clara talks me through it, calm and encouraging, and I remember to breathe, try to focus on the rhythm of kicking my boot into the snow, stepping up on it, placing my ice ax in the snow, stepping up, repeat. I make it to the top without pulling Clara and me to our deaths (I know, I know, we were on belay, but that’s all too easy for me to forget), and congratulate myself on my accomplishment.
Then Niall pulls out the crampons. I look up, and there’s another 10-meter face of ice-covered steep rock that drops off into space before the true summit. I exhale and finally listen to my nerves, and tell them I’m happy here – I’ve gone far enough. They’re all surprised, which I find funny—I’ve never used crampons, I don’t know how to self-arrest, I’m afraid of heights, and they think it’s a good idea for me to navigate this icy death slide? No thanks.
I take in the view while they summit. And on the way down, I have to remember to breathe again to rappel over snow-covered rocks. While most people think leaning back into nothing is fun, I find it terrifying.
Finally, I click back into my skis. I’m instantly confident. Now the fun really starts. The turns down the face are glorious, some of the best I’ve had all season. I stop at the bottom of the first pitch laughing, and turn to watch Naomi hit an errant patch of ice and go down. She stays down too long.
I tore my MCL a year ago, and I know that she has about ten minutes before she’s in too much pain to move. My WFR training kicks in, and as the sun sinks behind the mountains, I guide her out on a traverse with as few turns as possible.
We don’t make it out in our ten-minute window. Just a quarter mile from the ski field, she can’t put weight on it anymore (we were impressed she made it as far as she did). Niall goes for ski patrol, hoping they’re still there and that they’ll make the trip out. The rest of us hunker down against the wind and plummeting temperatures, wrapping Naomi in our arms to keep her warm. We get lucky—ski patrol takes pity on us and rescues us in the gathering dark.
If anything went wrong on this adventure, I had expected it to be because of me and my silence about my fears and comfort level—I’m only lucky it wasn’t me. It was a good reminder about why it’s so crucial to communicate with your adventure buddies when you’re in the backcountry, taking risks together, trusting each other.
It was also a good wakeup call that I’m not a mountaineer. Don’t get me wrong—I’ll climb any mountain… as long as I can keep my skis on.