Monday, September 9th.
Visibility is next to nothing, it’s cold and snowy. Suddenly the humbling sound of the helicopters’ rotor returns. They’ve come back, and this time they fly directly over the bivy site. I think to myself “this is it, they can land, we’re going home.”
The thought, however, is quickly thwarted when I notice the backpack. Hanging from an old climbing rope, the backpack releases from the heli and slams into the ground fifteen feet in front of me. As the heli disappears back into the clouds I run to the bag and see a note, it reads “Radio in left side, channel 25 to talk”. I look at my partners with mixed emotions, happy to have communication, but also devastated they couldn’t land knowing we may have another night on the mountain, or worse.
Friday, September 6th.
On my way to work I call my parents back in BC. Nearly every week I call on Friday morning to discuss where everybody is going for the weekend. My parents are avid outdoors people as well, and from a young age they taught me to always leave a trip plan. My dad did nearly two decades in volunteer search and rescue. Early in my adulthood I did a few years of search and rescue myself. We are the kind of people that are typically over prepared.
I told them I was going to attempt Deltaform Mountain with my climbing partners Scott and Patrick. My mom asked me to text the names to her so she wouldn’t forget. To put her at ease I text her the information immediately.
After work I loaded up my gear and set out for the Lake Louise area. I pulled into the meeting spot at exactly 10PM with five hours left until departure time.
Saturday, September 7th.
3AM, my alarm goes off and I see headlamps at Scott’s Jeep. I greet Pat and Scott as we transition from friends to climbing partners once again. We finalized our group gear and hit the road to Moraine Lake. Even at 4AM the parking lot is half full.
Geared up, packs on our backs and boots on our feet we set out for Wenkchemna Pass. A few switch backs later and we make our way around Eiffel Lake as the horizon starts to glow. We look at Deltaform and imagine the climbers that have come here before us. Picturing the true badasses of alpine climbing committing to the infamous Super Couloir we traverse to the shoulder of Neptuak.
The face of Neptuak glows gold as we don our harnesses and helmets. We immediately jump into the first pitch, I lead the 5.6 pitch and I am instantly reminded of the horrendous rock quality in this area.
Scott and I switch off leads intermittently as we make our way up and over Neptuak. This was by far the most full on climbing we have done just to approach the mountain we were after. By mid afternoon we were rappelling down to the Deltaform/Neptuak col. A place that would become more than familiar by the end of this journey.
With the shorter days we decided we were too late to make a successful summit bid that afternoon and we would set out first thing Sunday morning.
If you’re not familiar with Deltaform, it is steep, exposed, loose and dangerous on the best day. Navigating the difficult terrain in the dark seemed near suicidal.
After melting snow for water and eating our dehydrated meals, we watched a rain storm pass through the Valley of Ten Peaks, with sun rays painting a rainbow above Moraine Lake. When the show ended we opted for an early bed time, hoping to tackle Deltaform with fresh bodies and minds the following day.
Sunday, September 8th.
Our alarms ring and one by one we unzip our bivouacs, we say good morning and begin to organize our gear for a hopeful summit bid. Fuelled by coffee and adrenaline we begin the first pitch of climbing on the imposing Deltaform, only ten meters from our bivy site.
Following the ridge higher and higher, we sing and joke our way through 3rd, 4th and 5th class terrain. The ceiling is slowly dropping as we gain elevation until we enter the clouds.
The shattered limestone and black shale keeps us awake as the mountain gets increasingly steeper. Route finding through the cloud we hit the rightward traverse to the ascent gully, landmarking is nearly impossible and we pass the proper gully. A short detour to a cliff out on black shale brings us back to the drainage and we start our way up. TR’s claim the gully is mostly 3rd and 4th class with one short pitch of fifth on solid quartzite. This years weather has left the centre of the drainage full of snow and ice.
I opt to pitch this out which would prove nearly trivial beyond the initial band of quartzite. I place 2 cams lower down and transition onto black shale, where the only option is to run it out. I find one singular crack sturdy enough for a small piton and hammer it in. This moment was pure mental relief. I climb higher yet and build an anchor, bringing Patrick and Scott up to just below my point. Scott continues on up and belays us to the next band of quartzite.
From here we scramble up climbers right of the ascent gully, finishing with a large step around a seemingly free floating pinnacle of rock. For the first time in hours we know exactly where on the mountain we are and what is ahead of us. Traversing to climbers left across some snow, we are now directly below the imposing summit block of Deltaform Mountain. Scott leads the crack to the false summit, with Pat in the middle of the rope and I follow. Topping out in the gully I reach for a stack of boulders and Scott tells me the top boulder is teetering. At a comparable size somewhere between that of a microwave and a mini fridge, this is an extremely dangerous rock that is hanging on by a thread, directly above the ascent gully.
CRACK, SMASH, CLACK. The boulder hurdles down the mountain.
Knowing we are alone on the route we choose to make the route safer for future climbers and clear this hazard. I give a slight nudge and down it goes.
We traverse the knife edge summit ridge until we are faced with the final obstacle. The notch. Knowing we are later than we had hoped we quickly set the rappel into the notch and Scott makes quick work of the final pitch.
We high five and restore a few calories, check out the sopping wet summit register and gear up to make the slow, steady descent.
Sunday, September 8th, the descent.
CRUNCH, CRUMBLE, CRACK and OH FUCK.
I’ve just realized one of my great alpine fears. The rope is cut, I don’t know how bad, but it’s cut.
I stepped onto the pillar while rappelling and in a flash the pillar collapsed, I look down off my right hip and watch the barrage of rock land directly on the rope. Stopping every foot to inspect the next length of rope I carefully note every spot of damage to the rope as I complete my rappel. I find a cut that has annihilated the sheath and cut multiple strands. I tie a knot here and come off rappel to down climb. We’ve just lost everything down the line and shortened our rope. Numerous other spots of damage would worsen through descent. As long as the rope holds up long enough to get us out, I don’t give a shit, but now for the first time on this climb I am questioning the results of this trip.
We make it safely to the bivy site and check the time. 5:30PM.
Energy levels are low, Scott still has his headache, we are at least 8 hours out, 5 of which are on treacherous terrain and we have only 3 hours of daylight left. We unanimously decide that missing one day of work is better than risking life and limb. No big deal, we will be out early enough tomorrow and have a reasonable explanation for our tardiness.
Monday, September 9th.
The alarms ring and I unzip my bivy, there was a storm last night bringing rain and snow. The zipper cover on my alpine bivy didn’t fold over properly, my sleeping bag is soaked. We are all slow to rise, as I pack up I pour about a litre of water out of my bivouac. I think to myself, I am thankful we are on our way out.
I look at Scott and notice he isn’t looking too well. Upon asking how the guys are doing it becomes evident Scott is ill, real ill. He explains he is experiencing severe nausea and dizziness, a slight turn of the head is enough to nearly vomit.
We can’t safely get back up and over Neptuak, the loose exposed terrain is risky even with a fully functional equilibrium.
8:30AM Scott presses the SOS on his emergency beacon.
We pack up and prepare for a rescue. The weather is clear but the ceiling is only a few hundred meters above us. It’s a Monday, a Monday morning, I am thinking Banff Public Safety shouldn’t be too busy and this should be an easy call. We’ve stayed at the bivy site with room to land, this should be textbook.
10:30AM The ceiling is dropping, we are intermittently in the clouds and it is starting to snow.
Two hours feels like an eternity. Every. Fucking. Noise. Sounds like a helicopter.
11:30AM It’s a blizzard, I don’t know if they can still fly this high.
We set Scott’s two man tent up and duck inside to escape the weather. I start to realize that we are very likely to have to spend another night here. Our mattresses and sleeping bags are all wet, and with the current weather we have no way to dry them.
12PM We’re going to die of hypothermia.
We discuss options. I tell the guys we have to stay put, we committed to pressing the rescue button and now we are committed to waiting.
Neptuak is getting increasingly more covered in snow, if we couldn’t safely get Scott over it before we don’t have a hope in hell now. We are here until someone comes, the power of the mind is agonizing, will it be hours? Days? What if it snows for a week straight.
12:30PM Patrick presses the SOS on his emergency beacon.
It’s been four hours and we just want to ensure the signal has gone through. Both devices are one way devices and we have no way of confirming delivery of the SOS calls.
1PM We receive confirmation in the form of an undoubtable fly by of the heli.
We run from the tent hoping to signal the safety specialists. I. Can’t. See. Shit.
The helicopter passes below us, out of site through the white out. I hear the heli fly away. Fuck.
“It’s coming back, this side!!” Pat shouts across the bivy.
Another blind fly by and they are gone.
1:20 The heli returns.
Another no vis fly by. My heart is wrenching at the thought that they can’t reach us.
1:30 The heli returns, this time we see it through a break in the clouds.
Pat and I wave our arms like mad men, to get the specialists attention, and then we signal for help. Bright green and orange Goretex jackets, I knew the colour choice would pay off one day.
A sharp pitched siren rings out through the clouds and I tear up, knowing they have spotted us. “We’re not out of the woods but they know where we are, they know we need help!” Scott and Pat look as relieved as I feel. We watch the heli disappear back into the clouds.
2:00 The heli returns.
We have once again accepted the fate of being stuck for at least one more night, and then we hear the heli again. We see the blinking light and the red and black decaling, but why are they up there.
They have lost us in the clouds again, heart broken we wave our arms frantically. We see them, they don’t see us. The clouds close in again and we hear the heli disappear.
2:30 The heli returns.
They’ve come back, and this time they fly directly over the bivy site. This is the closest they have been to us. I think to myself “this is it, they can land, we’re going home.”
The thought, however, is quickly thwarted when I notice the backpack. Hanging from an old climbing rope, the backpack releases from the heli and slams into the ground fifteen feet in front of me. As the heli disappears back into the clouds I run to the bag and see a note, it reads “Radio in left side, channel 25 to talk”. I look at my partners with mixed emotions, happy to have communication, but also devastated they couldn’t land.
I radio in and inform the safety specialists of our situation and that one in our party has fallen ill. The voice over the radio is warm, like a campfire on a cold night. They are going to attempt a rescue.
3PM The time is NOW.
I hear the call over the radio and I am filled with hope again. “Here they come boys!!”
The heli flies in between snow squalls without hesitation and we get the signal. Keeping low we run to the helicopter, ducking around the front end we load in. A minute long eternity later and we are in the air.
3:10PM We land in Lake Louise.
There is an RCMP officer waiting, she approaches after we load out and the helicopter takes off. “Who is the son of Rick?”
“Your dad is the one that called in the rescue.”
“What about the two emergency SOS calls we put through?”
The last question was met with silence and raised eyebrows, we inform the rescue crew that we called first at 8:30 and again at 12:30. Neither SOS came through. What the fuck. Even with the redundancy of two devices the system failed us.
Monday, September 9th, Vancouver Island.
My parents drink their morning coffee, they ask each other if I have checked in. I have not.
My dad calls my work office out of Edmonton, dispatch confirms I haven’t checked in for the day. He speaks with my boss in Calgary and they GPS my work vehicle. It’s still sitting at home, my foreman drives to my house and confirms my personal vehicle is not there.
The next call was to the RCMP and they initiate a search. A lot happens throughout this process and Banff Public Safety sends a heli up to check the routes on Deltaform and attempt to locate us. They show up half hour after the second SOS call, solely by coincidence.
Sunday, September 15th.
My brain is starting to make sense of the situation, but the thought that we were so close to having everything go catastrophically wrong is still soul crushing. Don’t trust technology, don’t trust one way devices. Alpine climbing is dangerous and every micro decision you make has potential to change or end your life.
Always, always leave a trip plan.