NIPIGON EXPERIENCE CONTINUED...
"This ice is thin and I can see water running behind it," Sean yells down to a group of us gathered at the base of a climb called The Tempest. "I can't get a screw in. I'm going to keep climbing until the ice gets thicker."
Sean kicks and hacks his way up the vertical plane, as we watch calmly in the orange morning rays. He continues high above, unprotected until the ice grows thick and clouded, allowing him to place a screw.
Body in a perfect "X" position, Sean stops and pulls his left hand down to his waist where he unclips the six inch piece from his harness. Carefully, he holds the nose of the screw to the ice and begins twisting, hoping that the sharp tip and massive threads will catch the solid medium.
The screw chews at the monolith of ice, sending white shavings to the ground before grabbing hold and twisting securely back into the wall. Sean clips his rope to the anchor and I climb up to his level. On hard, brittle ice, we move toward the summit side by side. The climb is demanding, but the flow is off-vertical and has many rest ledges. I stare down at my cramponed leather boots and gently step into a thin section.
The summit ridge is beautiful, with four feet of light snow and a golden set of Aspen trees. My eyes stare out and trace the wide Nipigon River as it winds north to Orient Bay. Sean and I anchor in and belay our partners up the route.
The afternoon turns cold, as the arctic wind rips through the valley and the sun ducks behind a ridge. We climb Cascade Falls then Psyko Icyko, both amazing 200 foot flows, before trudging back to the car and heading into town.
Evening is silent in the tiny community of Nipigon. Residents are bundled in small white and yellow ramblers. Smoke pours out of the rows of homes and fades in the black sky. The city streets are empty, as we drive under the orange light of a street lamp.
Snow is omnipresent and the streets are paved with ice. We pull left over a curb and park on the sidewalk. Snowmobiles grind monotonously down an avenue as we walk inside.
Hot and stale, the pungent saloon air invades my lungs as we enter the hotel's dining area. We sit at a large wooden table with a thick coat of shining varnish and an etched design around the edge. Dinner is good and, after finishing, I am ready to sleep.
On Sunday morning, the sky is deep blue and wide open. The sun is intense and melts solid ice in -20 degree air. We drive north to the crags on the winding highway. Pulling through a curve, we see a car in the ditch. It is leaning drastically toward a steep decline, but the occupants are standing on the road waving, unharmed. After some discussion, we give them our car so they can head into town for help.
As we gear up, they pull out, leaving us alone in the January temperature. We trek into the woods, hiking straight at a 300 foot flow known as Hully Gully. I feel alone in the forest and apprehensive without our escape hatch. Without the car, we are vulnerable, stuck here until our transportation returns.
On the route, my front-points do not promote confidence. I stand high with aching calves as my axes wobble in the hollow ice. Five chops and I'm finally in-a solid ax placement. I tenuously move my feet up and then hook a protruding ice clump.
"Tie off the ice-wart." My frozen belayer, Steve, yells. Ice-wart is what he has decided to call the ugly ice protrusion that I am hooking and now depending on to bear the majority of my weight. His suggestion floats through my mind but then dissipates as the chunk creaks and shifts. I quickly move past this crux, violently hacking my way toward a ledge, and place ice screws and pound-ins where I can manage a rest.
The curtain is thick from abundant seepage, but is chunky and fragile from the recent freeze-thaw cycle. This chandeliered condition promotes difficult climbing and unstable ice. As I climb, giant crystal gobs rain onto the snow apron that cradles the base of this route and holds my patient belayer.
"I really don't know how effective this belay is," Steve again yells skyward. "My hands are stiff and frozen and I can't grip the rope very well." I don't mind, as the terrain has eased up and the belay is only 10 feet ahead. I pick carefully, then step high and tie my rope to a large cedar.
The desolation of the region occurs to me as I study a Canadian map. In Nipigon, we are above the 49th parallel and well on our way to the North Pole. The Hudson Bay is just to the north and a Provincial reserve named Polar Bear Park is closer to us than our homes in Minneapolis.
Canada is a country of forests and lakes and dense wilderness. Mountains and steep crags shoot out of thick timberlands, attractive and beautifully remote. Climbers are pulled to these remote regions, to summit spires and mountains and frozen curtains of waterfall-ice.
As a climber, I too lust for the vertical experience offered in the Canadian wilds. Throughout the past five years, I have climbed periodically on flanks of Canadian diabase and ice, summiting, falling and breathing in the exhilarating environment. I return north for more than just the physical aspects of the sport, though. It is the desolation and immaculate calmness of the region that I love. The cold winds of Lake Superior, the acid-scent of pine sap, the pure views of a high summit and the piercing stars of a velvet night keep my mind clear and my body sound.
A desolate region, a desolate pursuit yet I feel so calm. This separation from the banality of mass culture and the cosmopolitan drag of the city purifies my mind. In the stillness of the winter months, I'm satisfied with life. Now hanging from my axes, I embrace the spiritual state. I climb hypnotically up the pillar of ice, into a vertical world of peace. In this peculiar position, in this abandoned region, in this arctic air, I feel warm.
My hands freeze and thaw and feel like clamps as I desperately grip the rubberized handles of my axes. The wind is truly howling now and I'm teetering with every gust. The ice is glassy and extremely solid. I swing three times, my ax glancing off the diamond-hard surface like a dull hatchet. On the fourth try, the ax sticks and I pull my body up the plane. Wind is blowing from the south across the cliff and from above, straight down the face of the icefall. Spindrift snow and ice pellets are spastic, coming from above, my right and below.
Resting, I notice the semi-transparent and sick yellow color of the ice. My rope is vivid blue and contrasts starkly against this lifeless tint. I glance to the left and right of my life-line, carefully eyeing the indents and imperfections in the smooth medium before I swing. Then with a quick snap, I perforate the hard ice and continue.
Each ax placement pulls me closer to the summit. As I climb, the ice morphs to a frosty white color and gains a rigid texture. With each vertical foot the climb becomes more difficult as the ice thins and becomes fragile. My ax sinks through a layer and then halts in a blunt contortion as it strikes the rock cliff behind the thin sheet of ice. I stop here at an alcove 150 feet off the ground and nurse my frozen hands. As I look out at the dim horizon, the gray clouds rip in the jetstream, the pale moon hovers in twilight and I fall.
Bright stars pierce the 3-D sky and blanket the earth in a pin-prick afghan. The glowing fusion hums with life and I stand open to the wind. I blow smooth columns of gray breath into the January night and sit on a snowdrift.
Lake Nipigon spreads before me in a frozen plane. The wind, the stars and the icy horizon meet at a zenith now in front of me. I am overwhelmed with the calmness. I feel connected to this aura. In my soul, this is where I belong. Existence is detached, meaning is lost, but here in the desolation, in the land of frigid ice and black skies and pure snow, I feel content.