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Battling With Turret’s Syndrome

Part of a new generation of bold Canadian climbers, Will Stanhope and Andrew Boyd risk it all and bag a free ascent on the South Face of the Turret in the Adamants.

A 2011 story by Will Stanhope about his and Andrew Boyd’s time on the South Face of the Turret in the Adamants.

It’s 3 a.m. early August in the Adamants, Northern Selkirks, B.C. Ten of us are camped in a tight little cirque, ringed by giant fangs of rock:  the Turret, the Black Friar, the Ironman Buttress. When I get out of the tent, the sky is still gun-metal black. Every so often, I can see a star or two poking out of the blackness. Last night, I had trouble sleeping. At around mid-night I took a big slug of Grants Blended Scotch and that helped. At night, there is nobody to joke around with or bounce ideas off. It’s just an endless mental ferris wheel of fear and desire. Like always. At a certain point, the scotch kicks in, everything turns warm and fuzzy, and before I know it, the alarm starts beeping.

Andrew Boyd joins me at the stove, propped up on a rocky nook against the glacier. The espresso maker is gurgling and Andrew punches a hole in a can of condensed milk. Sonnie Trotter always said that Andrew reminded him of a rockstar. In the beam of my headlamp, I can see the resemblance: stark, pronounced facial features, baboon arms and a damn-the-torpedoes attitude. I’ve always appreciated his gritty determination. When I was 17, I repeated his route, 69, in Murrin Park. This 5.13b gear line ignited my interest in trad climbing.  Last year, Andrew and I got it into our heads that we could free the East Face of Slesse in a one push. This 3500 foot beast-of-a-face schooled us and we only made it up five pitches. But despite the failure, I knew I had found a partner with a good headspace and a risk tolerance similar to my own.

Anybody who has climbed with Andrew can’t argue that he possesses talent. He moves like a wildcat with laser precision interspersed with punchy movements. He’ll knuckle down on crimpers 30 feet above the talus, eyeball the microscopic crystals and make it happen. As the late Mike Mott once said, “I’ve seen a lot of good climbers in my life, and Andrew is one of them.”

After the second shot of rocket-fuel coffee, it’s time to start hiking. It feels like it might rain at any minute but we march off onto the glacier. As Jon Walsh says, it never hurts to “take the gear for a hike.” Plodding up to the base of the wall, the Turret menaces over us like some unholy stone cathedral. The features reveal themselves to us one-by-one as light creeps over the face.

Andrew starts the leading. He navigates the overhanging choss, hop- scotching the corner systems at a steady pace, placing gear at intermittent intervals and never hesitating or second-guessing himself. Then he hands over the rack and it’s my turn to live up to the bargain.

The crack above widens out to an overhanging offwidth.  I try to weasel myself in, but that technique only leaves my legs pedalling in space. Instead, I stuff a bunch of gear in the crack and switch to laybacking. Pumped and scared, I hang on a piece. Lowering down to a no-hands stance, I manage the pitch on my second try.

After plowing through the lower dihedrals, we arrive at a halfway ledge delineating the lower-angled rock from the steeper upper half. The rock here is excellent: laser cut corners, arêtes and face edges. I peer up into the corner above me. It looks too thin for fingers so I slam a couple pins and boulder out left, gambling that the next corner is a bit wider. It is.

From here I motor up a beautiful singular corner praying that it doesn’t run out.

Andrew follows the corner pitch as storm clouds engulf the cirque. He scratches his fingers in the back of a finger crack, seeking any sort of jam. “I don’t know how you did this.” he yells into the wind. I try to smile through chattering teeth and belay him up to my stance consisting of a few nuts and an under-cammed TCU shoved sideways into a horizontal crack. Nobody has ever been to this little cave before and I get an eerie feel from it. I’ve pushed us up into an impasse with loose, steep rock to the right and left and a roof above. The weather, that’s been threatening all day, has now morphed into a full-fledged hail storm. We are a stone’s throw from the top of the Turret, and I am scared.

As Andrew leads the next pitch in the storm, I consider this little crystal cave. Maybe somebody else has seen it, but I highly doubt it. Through the wind, snow, rain and sun, this cave has been here for eons. And for a brief speck of time, we got to be a part of it – this geological anomaly, magical hangout and desperate dead-end. Experiencing places like this is one of the biggest reasons I go alpine climbing. And when I get past the fear, I feel very lucky.

“Tag me my waterproof.” yells Andrew, ripping me out of my daydream. I open the bag and delicately fish around for his jacket with wooden fingers. Andrew has found a way to escape the crystal cave by venturing down and left. His movements, characteristically smooth and calculated, have turned frantic. He has that hell-bent look in his eyes. We are now in a whiteout.
I can’t hear much when Andrew finishes the pitch: Just vague murmurs in the wind. I need to lower out about 30 feet or face a hideous horizontal pendulum. I’m cold and not thinking very fast. I take the cam out of the crack and lower off a couple sideways nuts in the strange crystal rock. If they rip I’ll go for a terrible whip. Now out of the cave, I’m completely in the storm. I clean the pitch and meet Andrew at the belay. I’m a jabbering mess and gear hangs from my harness in disarray. Andrew’s eyes are gleaming.

From here, the angle lessens and I throw on a fleece and burrow into a chimney for warmth. “We can stay here until it calms down!” Andrew yells at me from a foot away. I’m nodding, or shaking – I can’t tell which. The storm looks to be holding off and 20 minutes later we are on top of the Turret. We trace the edge of the south face for a rappel line but find nothing. It looks like our only option is to rap the north-west face and hike down 1000 feet of snow in rockshoes. We’re unbothered. The storm has finally relaxed long enough for us to escape.
We’re back on the glacier at dusk and Andrew punches up the snowcone at the base of the route to retrieve our boots. I take off my climbing shoes and sit down on a rock. Clouds are rolling in. We trudge back to camp as the rain starts to spit.

At the stove, we brew up some tea, mixing in some Grant’s whiskey. “How long do you think we could’ve stayed up there waiting out the weather?” we ask each other, between sips. The storm doesn’t relent for four days; nobody else manages to climb anything. We walk from tent to tent, share stories and booze, and shiver the days away. The peaks turn into popsicles.  Finally, our helicopter pilot nails a gap in the visibility and flies in to retrieve us.

The chopper lands on the shore of Kinbasket lake and we sift through a mountain of wet gear steaming in the afternoon sun. Across the lake, clouds are still spiralling around the Adamants. So much of climbing is luck. We threaded the needle and had a chance to dance with that secluded beauty: a rare gift. Turret’s Syndrome V 5.11+  600 m

Based in Squamish, Will Stanhope is one of Canada’s top climbers.

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