Friday, 9 August 2013

Eighty Five Metres Of Fail

Heather is on vacation this week, and work is slow for me, so I decide I'm not going to work on Friday to free up a golden opportunity to attack the legendary climb on the Galaxy Buttress, Star Chek.

Ringing in at 5.9, ranked in the top 100 by Squamish Select, this climb has been in my head for over a year.  A big three-pitch beast, Star Chek climbs out of the Cheakamous River gorge, up to the side of Highway 99.  It's pretty difficult to imagine a more awe-inspiring backdrop to a climb, and we can't wait to get it on the tick list.

We arrive at the area recommended for parking shortly after 9AM, and start gearing up.  There are two accesses to this climb, a 1.5km hike along the river, or a short walk to the top of the climb, followed by a rappel down into the gorge.  I'm not really interested in a big rope carry, so we're rapping down.  We select minimal gear to keep the weight down, and empty pockets of unnecessary items to prevent losing anything important into the raging river.

We find the path to the top of the climb with no effort, everything matches the photos that I remember from the book quite clearly.  We left the guidebook in the car, as there is only one climb here that we are interested in, and I'm sure it won't be that hard to find, with how popular it is.  As we descend the trail, following the fixed lines, we quickly arrive at the ledge above the river.

What a view!  The torrent below is so loud we have to speak with raised voices, bringing concern about communication while we are working the climb.  We have a short discussion to set up the communication plan, and Heather decides to be the first person down to the secondary rap station.

As she's trying to descend she has a sudden change of heart, and moves herself down to what appears to be a very friendly ramp down to the middle ledge.  As she's descending she starts to spot bolts, a great sign, as it would appear that we will get a chance to scout out the third pitch as we descend.

After joining her on the ledge below, I decide to throw myself over the second ledge first, so I can be the one to find the route to a rappel station somewhere above the river that we just can't see.

As I descend the sheer face of the Galaxy Buttress, I very quickly start to get nervous.  This pitch is supposed to be easy, ranked at a 5.8 if memory serves, and looks like anything but that as I'm descending.  The bolts are a million miles apart, and the holds, when there are any, are miniscule.

Houston, we may have a problem here...  But we're in the right place, so I must just be missing something.  I continue rappelling, very slowly now, as I feel that I should have already arrived at my destination, and am missing something big.  I can't hear anything as I close in on the river below, getting nearer by the second, and I long ago lost visual contact with Heather above.

I never knew just how lonely I could feel, and there is a tiny bit of fear poking around the fringes of my mind now.  I have the end of the rope in site, but there is no second set of bolts or chains anywhere on this face to secure myself to and await Heather.  I am absolutely in the wrong place, there is no question in my mind.  Perhaps I am rappelling down 'Apollo 13' which I know exists on the buttress, but that is not described in any guide that I have.

I stop and think.  I am not going to descend the last 3 metres of rope just to confirm that I have made a mistake, and I can't secure myself and ask Heather to belay me up to her as I try to climb whatever route I find myself on.  I'm left with only one real option, and that is to ascend 27 metres of rope with just my ATC to depend on. 

A daunting task, I begin working my way back up the rope, thanking Mert again for all his work teaching us about awesome, useful things like prussic knots, which are now literally saving my life.  As I slowly and painstakingly make my way upwards, trying whenever possible to take some pressure off with whatever holds I can find, my shoulders start to protest.  Hauling my weight up this rope is going to take everything that I have.  I notice the Rocky Mountaineer passenger train crossing the Cheakamous just downriver from my position, and wonder if anyone notices this poor climber struggling his way up the thin blue line...

An eternity later I finally arrive back at the ledge that Heather is on, and I can finally relay the information that I have to her.  This is bad.  We know we don't know where we are, and that's all.  We are on an ample ledge on the Galaxy Buttress, my right elbow is throbbing, and I can't lift my left arm much past my waist. 

As we look around we spot lots of bolt lines, but nothing that looks promising.  We discuss the possibility of climbing out via the route we came down, which looks pretty reasonable, but has a distressingly high first bolt.  Any other day and this would be the right answer.  Right now, however, I'm hurt and my confidence is shattered.  Heather volunteers to take the lead and get us out, but I just can't let her go.  I'm eyeing up a bolt line above our position that looks much more challenging, but has a first bolt I can almost reach, and I try to convince myself that this would be a good option, but no.

Here we sit on one of the best-travelled routes in the Sea to Sky corridor, and after an hour we haven't seen another living soul.  Any other day and this would be cause for celebration, but not today.  I'm starting to think crazy thoughts, and something is going to have to happen soon.  I'm pretty much married to the idea that down is the only safe direction of travel, and we concoct a plan that might make this happen.

There is an belay position about 2M below and 4M beside us which doesn't seem to have any bolts associated with it, but we agree that there appears to be another pair of chains about half way to the base of the cliff that will allow us to escape the ledge.  The sketchy part will be the 'traverse' to get over to this other line.  The potential for a major swing-fall is significant, to say the least, and Heather and I go through all the possible options thoroughly before deciding to move ahead on this hare-brained scheme.

I set up to rappel again, confident that our reasoning is sound.  There appears to be a solid ledge underneath this belay station, and it extends across most of the face towards a tree 4M below our position.  I'm going to work my way down and over to the tree and try to move across to the belay point from there.

I set out with my back to the goal, and my left side flat against the wall to provide as much friction as possible to fight gravity's desire to swing me back to oblivion.  I slowly let more rope through my ATC as I move diagonally down from our position, seeing the potential for injury increase with every inch.

I have never felt so relived as I did when I got my right foot resting underneath the trunk of this hapless sapling, Quickly rotating my body to face the wall, my left foot slid comfortably into a huge, mossy, crack underneath the overhang that I had been aiming for.  Finally some good luck, I had solid purchase for both my feet, and I used this as a great thoroughfare to move closer to the promised land. 

When I got to the end of the crack I was within striking distance of the prize.  There was decent formation to the rock here, and now I was just one move away from getting my hands on the rappel rings.  Looking over to where I started I felt a jolt through my stomach.  What a huge 'traverse' to screw up.  If I slip, this will be disaster.  Focusing on the goal, I chalked up for the first time today to prepare for my first climbing move of the day.

Left foot way out and up, right hand on a decent knot in the rock, poised and ready, I shot upward from my right foot, aiming a big dyno at the ring.  My left hand easily reached, and my right followed with a mighty death-lock that would have made the hardware cry, I clenched so tight.  I quickly secured myself in and secured the rope to my harness so Heather wouldn't have to worry about the deadly swing.

She handily made the traverse over to our new location, and we abandoned one locking carabiner on the ledge at Star Chek.  Small loss, I couldn't possibly care less.  Ready to be out of here, we set up and I rappelled down to the next station, a mere 6M above the valley floor.  Heather was beside me in moments, and we were down to the rocks in no time.

Upon arriving at the base of the buttress, we saw a fixed line proceeding down to the river, and a suggestion of a trail heading in the other direction.  In no condition to climb, we started upriver, hoping to find a clear path back to the highway, and eventually back to the car.

We passed many routes bolted to the sides of the gorge below the highway, but the temptation to stop and explore simply did not exist as we trudged upriver, our feet throbbing in our tight climbing shoes.

The path become more clear the farther we went, and soon we were back at the side of highway 99, happier than ever before to see asphalt.  Once we recovered our flip-flops and made our way back to the car we looked at the photos in the guide book again.  My heart was crushed.

We had indeed rappelled down the final pitch of Star Chek, but from there had I had likely descended Apollo 13.  The route that we traversed to and rappelled down is an unknown, and somehow we completely missed the bolts for the bottom two pitches of Star Chek, which would have been obvious if we had followed the fixed line down towards the river.

If we had taken the book with us, we probably would have successfully completed our mission and avoided near-tragedy.  We now humbly go in search of beer.  Lots of beer.  What a challenging day!

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