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Fear and Loathing in Field


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Seems every time I go to climb ice in Field, I end up in some sort of misadventure of one kind or another. The latest was my 2002 ice climbing trip to Alberta. After a slower than planned start to head up onto the icefields parkway and exacerbated by inclement weather, my partner Mark and I decided to check out Field and Carlsberg Pillar. A quick stop on the road to preview it revealed it was quite thin and barely touched down. Next door and up high, Guiness Stout appeared in excellent shape, but the 1st pitch of the gully to get there was very thin looking. We headed back in the other direction and ran into a couple climbers who reported that Cool Springs was fat this year. I was feeling pretty good and felt up for leading it so we parked the car by the train tracks and started hiking the 1.6k down the tracks.

At the first bend, a train came heading the same direction. Earlier, while stopped at the crossing, we had noted that even though the train appeared to be going slowly, it was still fast enough to be too scary to jump on, presented the opportunity. But this train seemed to be going extra slow. The idea of hopping on began to fester. Problem was that the snow was deep enough to prevent a running start. Mark was definitely not keen on the idea. But I couldn't let it go. I had never hopped a train and this was my chance. I back tracked about 50 meters and found firmer snow along side. I began to run next to the train, reached out and grabbed a rail and swung on easily. As I passed Mark, I yelled "piece of cake! Are you going to hop on?" "No" was his answer. "Well I'm going to ride it for awhile and then I'll hop off" And that was about all the time I had for conversation as the distance from he and I grew. As I rounded the next corner, I watched and saw he had made no move towards going back to the firm strip of snow where I jumped on. "Oh well I thought."

The ride was rather pleasant and I enjoyed the brief solitude. I began to think about where I should jump off. I was on the north side of the train and all the climbs were on the south side. I could see the tracks where two climbers had walked down the tracks about 15 minutes previous to us, but I felt it would be easier to scope the situation if I crossed over to that side. There was a narrow steel catwalk on the back of the car I was on for just that purpose and I crossed easily. Now I could clearly see the slopes above and a few minutes later I saw where the two climbers had left the tracks and headed up hill. A small bridge was coming up so I let it pass and then jumped off into the fresh snow. I walked back to the bridge and waited for the rest of the train to pass. For a while I tried to see if Mark was hanging on the back of any cars, but decided he was probably walking. As the last car went by, I stepped out onto the tracks, barely glancing back at the end of the train.

I began to backtrack and rounded a bend and came to where the two climbers had headed upslope. At this point I could see fairly far down the tracks and saw no sign of Mark. I broke a few branches off an aspen tree and wrote "Mark" in sticks with an arrow pointing up the hill and headed up myself.

In about 5 minutes I found myself at the bottom of Massey's with the two climbers (from Britain). Since Mark had our guidebook, I borrowed theirs to see how much further down the tracks it was to Cool Spring. It was another 1.2K so I headed back down to the tracks. As I neared them I saw not one (thinking it would be Mark) but two climbers approaching. "Where's Mark" I queried and looking at me a little confused they said "Who's Mark!" "Well, he would be the guy you must have passed walking on the tracks" I replied. "We haven't seen anyone" they insisted.

Back down on the tracks, I began to wonder if Mark had been walking far enough ahead of the two climbers and had passed my stick writing while I was up talking to the Brits. I searched for fresh footprints other than my own. But I found none. Could he have gone up a gully prematurely? Did he step into the woods to piss. Surely these two climbers could not have gotten past without seeing him. My brain went into advanced logic analysis. There had to be an explanation to the missing Mark!

And then it dawned on me! What if Mark had hopped on the train after all. Knowing I was on the same side he was, he would be watching to see where I jumped off. And if he was intent on finding my tracks in the snow, he may have just rode right past where I jumped off because I had moved over to the other side before jumping. That was the only explanation I could fathom so I began hiking east again. I swore to myself, knowing he will have beaten me to the bottom of the gully leading to Cool Springs. I began the hike east keeping an eye out for fresh tracks. As I walked along I noticed something very peculiar. There were fresh ski pole tracks along side the rail, but no footprints. That's really odd I thought. Perhaps these guys are on skis. I could see faint tracks resembling ski tracks but quickly determined they were older. Hummmm, I wonder if these local boys had invented some device that rode one rail and they just pushed themselves along. I began to re-invent the device in my mind. Bicycle parts perhaps. A sled like mono rail. It would have to be light and small to stash away at their house. As the invention began to take shape in my mind, I found myself at a point where fresh tracks headed south, up and into the woods. I must be at the base of Cool Springs I thought. But all along I had been keeping an eye out for where Mark had jumped off the train and seen no such sign. So he must have ridden past, which meant I would see his fresh prints backtracking to this point. I continued past around the next bend searching for his tracks, sure I would see him walking along if they didn't materialize. But there were no tracks what so ever and no Mark down the next straight away. I retreated to the Cool Springs approach point once again. "Where the fuck is Mark!!!" I thought. "This is bazaar!"

I ran through all the logic again. It made no sense. I decided to hell with him and decided to hike up to the base of our prearranged climb. I figured if I went to the base and waited, perhaps he'd show up. Someone was up there, I knew, so up I went. But not before writing another huge "Mark" in the snow with another arrow pointing up the hill. The path followed through the woods awhile and I decided to see if he was up there by some slim chance. "MAAAAARK" I yelled. A voice yelled back. "No Mark here!" By the sound of it they were quite far up the gully. I pressed on. Eventually I broke out into a steep gully where avalanches kept the trees clear. It was steep and straight, but I could see no one ahead. I plodded up, secretly hoping I wouldn't be coming back down without doing the climb. I figured if worse came to worse, I'd ask these guys for a belay and climb it with or with out Mark. Doubt of seeing him again plagued me. I wondered if he never really caught the train after all and had just walked back to the car. Maybe he was pissed at me for hopping on when he had said he didn't want to. Screw it I thought. 20 Minutes later I arrived at the big fat Cool Springs base where two new climbers were preparing to climb. They reveled in my mystery and offered their own logical explanations. None I hadn't already thought of. I asked them if they minded if I kept yelling and they said no, by all means yell, so I did every few minutes until I didn't want to any more. Far below I heard another train go by so I just hung out while the first climber headed up. I also asked them about their peculiar tracks with the ski poles. They announced it was a tradition to walk the rail, using poles to balance. Apparently they didn't want to get creosote and other train chemicals on their boots. I mentioned my invention and they laughed. There was no such thing!

Five minutes later I stepped out into the gully and saw Mark heading up! I was pissed and happy at the same time. I tried to ascertain if he seemed pissed as he got close enough for me to see his face. He definitely wasn't happy, but that could be anything. It wasn't an easy hike up. As he got near, we both, almost simultaneously, blurted out, "Where the hell have you been!!!" And then he told me his story....

Listening, and interjecting my points to explain myself, we both quickly found the humor in the whole thing. Slightly undermined by the fact we were both a little pissed at each other, we still could only laugh at the comedy of errors that had passed. Mark had jumped the train after all. In fact he had reasoned if he jumped on the last car and slipped, there would be no serious consequences. There were no more cars to run him over. But Mark had been intent on finding my jump off tracks in the snow. Just as it had never dawned on me that crossing over to the other side would cause confusion, it had never dawned on Mark that he wouldn't see my tracks.

Mark rode the train pass the Cool Springs gulley. In fact, Mark rode the train an extra 3 kilometers and it wasn't until he went through the third tunnel that he finally convinced himself there was no need to go any further! "As he put it, "Fuck Dave, I don't care if he rode this thing back to Lake Louise, I'm off this thing!"And as Mark backtracked, he too kept a keen eye out for my tracks. At first he said he didn't see the big "MARK" I had written in the snow, but he did locate my salomon boot tracks. Only then did he see the "Mark" with the arrow. Listening to him tell all the things that were going through his head became more and more hilarious. His logic was making perfect sense except for one key factor. He never thought that I had crossed to the other side of the train before jumping off!

What really baffled us both was that we had not seen each other as the last car passed. I was almost certain I had looked at the back of the train as it went by while standing next to the bridge. I just couldn't believe that I had not. And Mark couldn't believe I was standing next to the tracks as the last car went past. He insisted he was looking back constantly as well as looking for my jump off tracks and would have seen me. How could he miss me since he was on the very end of the train. The fact neither of us saw each other at that point will always be the biggest mystery!

Of course this story is best told over beers, when the two of us are together saying what was going through our minds simultaneously as the story progresses. But that's my train story and I'm stickin' to it!

And yes we did climb Cool Springs and then returned to Massey's and did that too. It was just another great day ice climbing in the Canadian Rockies with a little mystery thrown in for flavor.

Dave ParkerMarch, 2002

[ 03-25-2002: Message edited by: David Parker ]

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