By Paula Corbeil
August 2022 was turning out to be a long hot dry spell with no cool weather in sight. John & I decided to brave the heat and the crowds of Lake Louise to take a 4-day climbing trip to ‘Back of the Lake’. We had several sport climbing routes we were working on and had developed a strategy to handle the logistical challenges. To resolve the camping problem, we had discovered the first come first served campground, ‘Protection Mountain’, 11 km south east of Lake Louise on Hwy 1A. To get a parking spot at Lake Louise, along with the 100’s of tourists, we’d have to get up early, an ‘alpine start’. The upside to a pre-dawn wake up this time of year is the opportunity to see the 4-planet lineup: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars and Venus.
As planned, on Aug 9, we started our day early, got the thumbs up that the planets were aligned, and we were good to go. On our drive along the Hwy 1A, we had a first-hand view of the soft colours of the alpenglow on the rugged snow- & ice-covered NW face of Mount Temple, always breathtaking. We saw our first group of tourists lined up on the side of the road with their cameras ready for the sunrise moment. It was 6:30 when we pulled into the upper Lake Louise parking lot, joining the excited tourists that were assembling for the magic of sunrise on North Victoria.
We were excited to pack our climbing gear as we had recently upgraded our cragging bags and rope. John draped our brand-new rope across the top of his new amaranth red ‘Lowe Alpine’ backpack. I zipped up the water bottles into my new, stylishly functional ‘Ortovox’ pack. Today was the christening of our ‘Sterling’ rope, it was a beautiful bright EMS green with a firecracker red crisscross pattern filled with sky blue diamonds. We typically name our ropes, the last rope which was red we called ‘rojo’, the Spanish word for red, a good fit for our SW USA tours. Today we were trying out new names for the EMS green. As we stacked the coils to set up for the first climb, the diamond pattern reminded me of the of the rattlesnakes we had often ‘rescued’ on the scenic drive asphalt road at Red Rock Canyon, just outside Las Vegas. ‘Diamond Back’ the perfect name!
For the first hour we had ‘Outhouse’ wall to ourselves for the warmup climbs. We started on the new 5.8 sport route and did a lap on the classic 10b, Turtle Island, enjoying the arrival of the sun and fellow climbers. We were pleased with how the new rope felt in the grigri, there was adequate friction for safe catches and lowering. ‘Diamond Back’ was now part of the team and we were good to go for our projects!
On our walk to ‘Air Voyage’ wall we exchanged the pleasantries of the day with other climbers, a Montreal couple we had met at Red Rock Canyon in the spring, a young lad who recognized us from the Calgary climbing gym and a new friendly face from Squamish. John offered beta to a couple who were setting out on the ‘finger crack’ 5.9 trad route we had climbed last week, ‘Exquisite Corpse’. John had learned that while it looked like a finger crack from the ground, the crux move, you couldn’t see above the roof, needed a #3 cam. Important safety tip not in the guidebook.
We arrived at John’s 11b project, ‘Mr. Rogers Smokes a Big One’ just as the sun was beginning to heat up the rock. It is a long hard ‘pumpy’ climb, a classic, on an overhanging wall of beautiful purplish pink quartzite. The combined esthetics and quality of rock are world class and draw climbers from all corners of the climbing community. John had successfully climbed the route in July and the pressure was on to make the climb more ‘efficient’ and one always hopes it will become easier the next time.
John gave it his all with multiple attempts on several bolts but when he clipped the last bolt before the anchor, we agreed that he had had enough for this go around. He used the quick link escape on the last bolt so I could lower him. It was a relief to his pumped-out arms but always a risk to trust a lower on a single bolt. Unclipping draws on an overhang is always a challenge, to reduce the excitement on the last unclip of the Ohm, I moved to a lower position to ensure I didn’t become airborne. As John stepped back onto the ground, feeling somewhat disappointed, he turned to me and said with conviction, “Mr. Rogers will be there for another day”. An important approach to adopt to be successful at pushing the grades.
Now it was my turn to lead the classic 5.9+ on Amphitheater wall, ‘Imaginary Face’. I had led the climb earlier in the summer and I felt confident to lead it again. The crux would be the final smear up to the ledge below anchor. It was tough but I had done it successfully several times. The consequence of failing to make the move up to the ledge was high as the route went about 2 meters to the right of the last bolt, this offset would create a significant pendulum effect.
I started on the route at 1:30 and my climb was going really well. My confidence was boosted by the fact that I had successfully problem solved several new hold sequences. I cIipped the final bolt and moved up to get in position for the crux move. I reached up to an excellent secure hold for both hands, smeared with my left and wedged the outside edge of my right shoe into a small vertical crack, not the most secure hold but the best option I could see on lead. My arms were starting to get pumped out and I decided I needed to make the commit ASAP and not delay any longer. I moved my right hand up onto the final ledge and I instantly remembered that unlike most of the other ledge holds, this one was a bit of a sloper not as grippy as we would like. My right foot shifted ever so slightly, and I was free falling. I have a vivid image of floating like an astronaut in space, attached to the spaceship by the bright green umbilical cord of ‘Diamond Back’. Unfortunately, back here on earth, gravity rudely interrupted my weightless space adventure. I had enough time to scream 3 times and the ride was over. It was my first lead fall, what a whipper, a 5 metre pendulum swing!
It was my left shin that took the blow, I’ll never forget that moment, the power of the impact and the incredible unforgiving hardness of the rock. My first instinct was to check to make sure there were no bones poking through, what a relief, nothing was sticking out. I gingerly checked to see if I could put weight on my left foot, it was a no go. The post impact shock set in and I started hyperventilating.
As John was carefully lowering me, the friendly face from Squamish came over immediately and we discussed options for where to lower me to. It turned out Jesse was a climbing guide from Squamish. Next came the Montreal couple we had met at Red Rock Canyon, Pat and Lea. After a brief discussion with the ‘ground crew’ they decided that the best option was set me up on the belay ledge. Jesse quickly came to my side, reassured me he had full qualifications in wilderness first aid and started to monitor my pulse, ask questions about pain points and overall health concerns the team should be aware of. He was clearly on the lookout for the possibility I might go into shock. He dutifully recorded the pulse readings on his phone.
As the ledge was about 3 feet off the ground, it was the perfect height to let my left leg hang while Pat supported my right leg. I started to relax as I felt the support and comradery of fellow climbers. We discussed exit options and agreed that the team would move me no further and we would wait for help from Parks, as luckily, we had cell coverage. While John was calling 911, another pair of climbers arrived and offered to stay to help, visitors from Spain. We certainly had a well-travelled support team. John and I were so grateful that fellow climbers had voluntarily come over to offer their assistance.
At around 3:00 the Helicopter landed at the end of the lake on the alluvial plain. Three people from Parks Mountain Safety, all fully certified ACMG guides, dressed in bright orange uniforms arrived at the crag: Brian, Grant and Erin. They reviewed the details of the incident, my current condition and overall health. They commended our decision not to move me from the ledge as further movement could have compounded the injury. Grant highly recommended I should try the laughing gas, I took a puff out of curiosity, however it did not seem to have the same levitating effect as it does in the movies. After several puffs, I decided I wanted to be fully aware of what was happening and risk the pain factor.
The Parks Mountain Safety team proceeded to expertly splint my leg in an inflatable splint, and then wrapped me up in an inflatable stretcher with handles. They organized a crew to carry me down a short but steep scree slope / path to the awaiting helicopter. The stretcher ride down was uneventful as the team navigated around trees, where Brian did a handoff to John, ‘mi novio’. I felt reassured to have him by my side. As they loaded me into the helicopter, I commented to the Parks team on how well they get along, it was clear they had worked many rescues together.
The helicopter landed on a nearby heliport by the Lake Louise fire station, and another team was ready to load me into the EMS vehicle. The transition was friendly and seamless! The EMS team, Alice and Andrew greeted me with every option for pain medication on the planet and ensured I was comfortable. Alice kindly warned me that the road was a little bumpy. Andrew rode with me in the back and let me know the next steps, the Banff orthopedic department closed for August for deep cleaning, if I needed surgery I would go to Calgary! His guess was that I had a tibia (lower leg bone) fracture. As we were waiting at the train tracks for the train to pass (always part of your National Park experience), I called John. He was in the Lake Louise parking lot and I suggested that he pack up the trailer and meet me in Banff. He agreed without hesitation as always, he is a man of duty and commitment. I had assumed that he had help with him, I found out later that while the Spanish lad & Pat had retrieved the gear for him, he had carried all the gear out – both his & my pack along with ‘Diamond Back’. Definitely a training day for John with no beer insight yet!
Upon arrival at the hospital, I was again, seamlessly transferred, to the care of the nursing staff – Erika, Heidi and Martin. They immediately got me settled comfortably in a hospital bed and within 45 minutes X-rays had been taken. At 7:30 John arrived, and we had had our first meeting with Dr Shepherd, he advised us that I had indeed fractured the tibia, just below the knee which is called the tibia plateau. He sent a request to Calgary for orthopedic follow up and by 10:00 he told me he had good news – no surgery required, and I had a referral to an orthopedist in Calgary. Hurrah! Within 5 minutes Heidi was at my side, skillfully putting on the knee brace, explaining how it worked and giving me ‘get up and go’ lessons on walking with crutches. It was all up to me and John now. We were off to a good start.
The next couple of days was a huge learning curve on just how to get around with the leg brace. In between ‘moves’ I had lots of resting moments to reflect back on the event and discussed at length, with my climbing partner what I could do differently the next time. My first lesson is to never make the assumption that just because I had climbed a route previously, that should never take for granted that I can power up the crux. The other factor, which I’m sure is true for a lot of climbers, when you get close to the anchor you feel anxious and excited to get to home base. In retrospect, perhaps if I had taken time to breathe, like the advice given by Arno Ilgner author of the Rock Warrior’s Way, and fully scan the rock like it was my first time on the climb, I may have rethought the foothold options, possibly seen an option to step back down on the ledge to rest my arms before I made the final move. With a more mindful, centred approach, the outcome might have been different. I will treat it as a learning experience that was meant to help, not hinder me on my journey as a climber. An exciting inauguration for me as a lead climber and for our new rope ‘Diamond Back’.
On a final note, perhaps most important of all, we want to acknowledge the people that were there for us in our time of need, both the fellow climbers and the professional teams. We all know that the rescue & medical systems have been stressed beyond belief and it was wonderful that their first-class services and genuinely caring approach were there when we needed it!