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Starquake

January 7, 2013
Brian Bottan cruising up Starquake in December 2012.  Wes Bender Photo.

Brian Bottan cruising up Starquake in December 2012. Wes Bender butt shot.

Some people like to tick routes and never go back.  Others climb them more than once.  I know many have local routes they return to again and again.  There’s more than a few ice routes in particular I will confess to returning to multiple times.  The beauty of ice climbing is that they offer a different adventure nearly every time.

Starquake is one of the last (or first, depending which end you come from) climbs you see driving through Orient Bay.  Most years it offers a single long pitch of WI5 cauliflowers, curtains and pillars.  Some even do a second short pitch of WI2 or 3 when the ice is thick enough to cover the shrubs making it worthwhile.  The yellow and sometimes blue ice of the first pitch, like all good ice climbs, forms a bit different every season; some years the left side of the curtain touches, some years the right, which is usually a notch harder.  In fat years, a devious line up featured cauliflowers forms on the left edge offering a bit of relief from the sustained upper curtain.  If you can get past the familiar highway noise and occasional honks from spectators or other climbers (whom you may have scooped) that dogs many of Orient Bay’s ice routes, you’ll no doubt agree the climb is among the finer pitches in Orient Bay.

My first encounter with Starquake was during my first season of ice climbing…more than a few years ago now.  Straight-shaft ice tools were the norm, save for those radical black and yellow things that Charlet-Moser put out.  Too radical for me I remember thinking.  I had just spent a very long eight months working in the forests of northern Saskatchewan as a forestry summer student, about as far away from ice and climbing as one could get.  Sure, I’d found ways to get outside but there is not much for vertical relief in that province…funny how Saskatoon has one of the most active Alpine Club of Canada Sections.  They must drive a lot.  Getting outside there, at least with people I knew from work, meant hunting and fishing, a throwback to my childhood.  And an opportunity for something new, my first buck (they grow big deer there), complete with a gang of Grizzly Adams types.

Still, a long time spent working for a Big Company meant decent pay, and living in the remote north meant not much to spend money on, so I’d saved more than enough for tuition and rent that year and had plenty left to buy a complete set of ice gear for the second half of that winter – too bad I’d forgot about groceries in my budget planning.  I ended up having to subsist on Kraft Dinner for months.  It was definitely straight-shafted Black Prophets for me though, not those radical Quasars.

Back in Thunder Bay, I was a newcomer to the close-nit ice climbing community.  I’d gotten out a few times but could never find enough partners and so landed at the Nipigon Icefest in March partnerless.  No problem though.  Within minutes I’d secured a partner, Stein Erik from Norway, with about the same experience as me on waterfall ice (nearly none), but much stronger.  Off we went, climbing different routes until we climbed Starquake’s easier neighbour, Andromeda Weeps.  It was a helluva route for a couple of beginner ice climbers, and that was enough to leave us with much to bullshit about, telling everyone what we’d climbed.  At least until we found out others had climbed Starquake.  Unroped.  That shut us up.

A few years later, having climbed nearly all the local routes of lesser grades (and a few in the Rockies by then) I finally climbed Starquake, seconding Randy in the early season.  Perfect plastic, and the first day of the season for us to boot.  Randy had a set of those too-radical-for-me black and yellow tools – but they definitely worked a tad better on the cauliflower ice of the crux pillar.  We were definitely legends in our own minds after that one.  In the bar that evening I tried my best to impress a particular girl with stories of my climbing prowess.  She lasted about as long as my cash did to buy her drinks, which wasn’t long.  And to think the first time I encountered that route a few years prior I’d rented a car for the whole weekend for the price of just the gas for Randy’s truck cost this time.  But all of that paled in comparison to her bar tab.

The following winter seems a bit more of a blur, but I still had another encounter with the climb.  Climbing steeper ice had gotten easier, at least until the Club secured exclusive use of a cabin at the north end of Orient Bay.  Even though I had upgraded to a set of those funky bent-shaft tools (but not too bent, 1st-gen Cobras), they weren’t much help when I had to climb through the haze another hangover.  The original idea behind what became known as The Royal Windsor Academy of Higher Learning and Other Cool Stuff had been to be able to avoid the treacherous drive to Nipigon and climb more by staying close by; instead, the cabin itself became the focal point of most trips and a great many antics and happenings occurred, most of which should never be mentioned in print.  I’m sure the camp’s former history as a vacation destination for British Royalty, and it’s current status a moose-hunters’ camp, meant those cabin walls had already witnessed a few happenings in their day, but we made sure they saw a bit more.

Knowing the usual nightly pattern, a then-new friend, Bryce, and I jetted across the highway. The Academy was within sight of, and a 25 min walk from Starquake.  We were bagged from a long, cold January day knuckle-bashing with the rest of the boys (men?), but we wanted to get another route in and so trudged back into the cold before too many beers and bottles of scotch found there way into our hands.

Starquake faces northwest, overlooking Orient Bay proper and providing a glimpse into the great dark expanse of Lake Nipigon proper.  It forms right on the northern battlement of the Orient Bay cliff line.  Why we thought heading up there on that particular night, with the prevailing 25 km/hour northwest wind and -40C windchill would be a good idea is beyond me, but we did.  Bravado perhaps?  Hubris?  Wouldn’t be the first time.  No doubt we wanted to have one up on the rest of our friends – most of whom were sufficiently into the cheap single-malt by then that they probably forgot we were even there in the first place.

Thinking about it now, that sort of decision making (biting off more than we can chew, not the bit about trying to impress others – we’re long past that!) has been and continues to be a pattern for us.  We need to change that.

Regardless, an epic yo-yo ascent ensued.  I can vaguely remember certain details.  Perhaps out of necessity, an ice climber’s memory is a wonderful thing that way – short and poor when it comes to suffering I think.  My mind recalls a less pleasant side of climbing – the sounds and sensations of Orient Bay ice in January:  the unsettling sound of squeaking ice screws turned into dense ice with an ice tool for leverage (like fingernails on a chalk board), the complete loss of feeling in my feet due to a particularly ill-fitting pair of boots (it took me 10 years to understand well-fitting boots equal warm feet), multiple episodes of the screaming barfies, frightening sounds and fracture lines on the crux free-standing curtain, world record dinner plates, a couple of broken picks, and each taking turns lowering off the sharp end after one or two more screws.  I cannot even recall if we were successful.  Probably not.

But Leo did make a successful ascent of the shitter later that evening.  In his underwear.  That I do remember clearly.  The scotch must have kept him warmer than any amount of fleece and polypro could have.

I know it was at least a couple of years before I was back on the route, one year because of the epic conditions and all the first ascents we were racing for – no time for established routes when there were new ones literally everywhere all season long.  Another year because of the opposite, and the golden-yellow route remained despairingly void of ice all winter long.  Somewhere in there I separated a shoulder on another route, and missed my annual ascent.

A year later I did get back, again with different tools.  This time I had a set of the latest deer antlers, and though expensive, their cost paled in comparison to what gas prices were doing.  The route was not quite formed, but that didn’t matter.  Now I was a mixed climber, I thought.  I’d spent most of the season in venues closer to home, developing new mixed crags with more new friends and and mentors and dramatically honing my skills.

I explained to Dom, my less-experienced belayer on this occasion, that the route would be no problem despite his misgivings.  No, I wouldn’t climb the verglas on the left side.  “Mixed climbers avoid that easy stuff Dom!”  Instead, I’d come in from the right and climb the little rock cave then step out to the hanging curtain.  A few screws up the lower ice, and my deer antlers were already failing me.  Damned things didn’t swing worth shit – though I had yet to admit it at the time.  Great for rock, but you’re mixed climbing, you idiot – you still have to climb some ice too.

“Nope.  I’m almost there” I responded to Dom asking if I’d lake to trade tools.  An hour later I was in that cave feature, and quickly discovering all the rock “holds” sloped downward.  All the cracks did the same.  Hanging in there was strenuous but I managed to bash a less-than-bomber knifeblade in – pointing down.  Better back that up, I thought.  The second piece was a thicker blade in the same crack.  As it went in, the crack expanded and the first one fell out.  I was not all that happy.  Definitely not a real mixed climber.  I forced a bugaboo into the crack, this time liking the sound a lot better.  Unfortunately it also expanded the crack, and the little constriction higher up that my pick was torqued into also opened.  Just enough to add to my despair.

My tool popped and I fell backwards – against the curtain.  My shoulders and helmet bashed the curtain hard (I can’t believe to this day it didn’t just break) and my feet remained pressed against the rock, crampons skating quickly.  I hadn’t actually fallen off!  Holy shit!  Holy shit!  Holy shit!  Dom said nothing – not even sure he saw it, sore neck and all after a 2 hour belay, he was looking down and probably wondering why he’d gotten up so early and if he’d even get to climb anything that day.  Somehow I got established on the curtain and topped out, pumped and scared out of my mind.

Dom seconded in all of 15 minutes.  “Really not all that bad, this mixed thing, is it?”  I had nothing to say.  Bloody ropes even got stuck after the rap.

A few years later a friend inquired about the sport-mixed possibilities on that stretch of rock.  “Not even close to worth your time pal!”

A couple more seasons went by, and Starquake was witness to one of the biggest acts of bravery I have ever seen.  Wes told my wife she was fat.

Water levels were high that year and the three of us crossed the mostly-frozen ditch to access the approach trail carefully.  Wes and I made it.  Both 200-pounders naked.  Jenn barely weighs 100 pounds soaking wet.  Maybe 120 with clothes and climbing pack loaded.  In a cruel twist of fate, she went through the ice, to which Wes remarked:  “Way to go, Fatty!”  Somehow, laughter ensued.  I’m not sure what my marital and general health status would be today had those been my words.  Brave man, brave man…

Wes of course was a total gentleman the rest of that day – no doubt feeling a bit like when one has gotten away with a close call on a big, dangerous solo and feels the need to overprotect the easier climbs done in the days afterwards.  He and I coaxed Jenn into a lead of Andromeda Weeps, a big step up for her at the time.  Then he put on his usual “clinic” and climbed Starquake displaying flawless technique.

A bit later, conditions were prime and two friends and I took turns climbing Starquake ropeless.  A day later I repeated the feat as part of a large soloing effort enchaining 13 classic routes in the corridor.  I had intended to stop at 12, 13 being an unlucky number.  I’m glad my mistake in counting did not occur to me until I was at home that night, rather than during the 13th climb.  Fortunately my mind had been engaged in the task at hand, and climbing sans rope does not allow much time for arithmetic.

Another couple of years passed, until one weekend this December when I was out with Bryce, now an old and very close friend.  Both just back from the Himalaya, and enjoying the lung and leg fitness on the approach, but not so much the skinny forearms.  The day before, our first of the season, had been humbling.  Though Bryce knew better, I’d been forced to accept I’d have some work to do to get back into shape, and backed off my first lead of the season.  Still, ratcheting down our expectations we’d had an excellent day afterwards on easier routes.

This day, Duncan accompanied us and we decided to get back after it, starting with Starquake.  Besides, Duncan would ropegun it if I backed off the lead.  At least that was what Bryce and I were thinking – I’m not sure how Duncan felt about that though.  I was slow, climbing craftily to take advantage of every rest, but got it clean and without help in the end.

I knew I would though.  After all, that climb has been witness to my entire evolution as an ice climber.  I was just visiting an old friend.  And I took that devious easier line up the left.

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