It was a happy accident when I began climbing with Giovanni (G) last summer. Years ago, I said I would never take money for climbing and contaminate my pleasure of it, and I have been true to my word for almost 35 years, but that vies has changed a little since I met Giovanni. I confess that once I accepted a fresh blueberry pie as compensation for guiding a young couple up Bon Echo in Ontario, but no cash changed hands, and besides, I was flat broke and perpetually hungry then.
It was my viola teacher who introduced me to her husband G who eagerly wanted to try climbing and we all agreed to trade climbing for music lessons, so no money changed hands and my philosophy of no cash for climbing remains reasonably un-corrupted. With G I hijacked the late Glenn Gould’s belief that given the right student, all that could be known on the piano could be taught in half an hour.
A stonemason by trade, G is lean and fit at 52 years of age. His trowel or right hand is stronger than his mortar-board left hand, which by my crude calculation suggests that on his right side, he is easily three times as powerful as the average kid one-third his age pulling down the plastic in a climate-controlled gym. This quickly became apparent to me at the Double Cream cliff behind the local Tim Horton’s in Owen Sound, Ont. Within the span of two hours on a hot summer day G was crimping, stemming and fist jamming up overhanging limestone routes graded stiff 5.10, and I had barely said a word.
His second time out he led an awkward 5.8 with pre-placed pro and took a short fall above his last piece while fighting through the overhang. Dissatisfied, he re-lead the route clean, and spent the rest of the day playing with finger-locks, smears, lay-backing and un-puzzling dubious or “sucker” rests on steep limestone.
On our third day, I introduced G to the nuances of hard face climbing and delicate foot work on a route called Mennonite Cracks. He waltzed up the lower section but was puzzled by the delicate face climb right until I suggested he sort out the footholds visually before he launched into the forearm wasting traverse. Smearing his big toe into the shallow pocket and tenderly moving his feet with his hands, core and head absolutely still, he cruised through the hard sequence, repeating the route a few times without falling on the rope.
As I untied from the rope at the bottom of the cliff after my last effort, I explained to G that some accidents happen after the rope is off or near the bottom of a big route, when climbers get sloppy. Like any good teacher or guide, I illustrated my point about sloppiness by slipping down six inches of slippery rock and deftly breaking my left foot. Crawling around through the talus in agony, G asked what he could do to help. “Take off my boot and sock,” I groaned. He asked if that helped and I shook my head “no.” G asked what else he could do for me and I suggested he make me laugh as quickly as possible, but unfortunately he knows no jokes. In climbing circles, raw strength and good footwork are highly prized, but a sense of humour is fundamentally indispensable. Looking back now, it was the first time I had broken anything.
When my foot stopped aching almost six months later, I introduced G to climbing steep ice. His feet are small so he borrowed my Koflach boots, a rusty pair of hinged crampons with neoprene straps and two old school axes with wrist loops and plenty of oxidation. His titanic forearm and core strength made him swing the axes with the ease of butterfly nets and he walked up the vertical pillars of blue ice all afternoon long. I was greatly relieved when he lifted his heels a few times and the front points sheared out leaving him dangling from the brittle ice like a fish on a hook gasping for air. For the most part G-man was making it look annoyingly easy again.
While I was belaying him I noticed shards of grey plastic mixed among the ice he was knocking off at the base of the pillar, and when he stopped long enough for me to inspect his boots, I noticed the two apple sized holes where his toe caps used to be. I gently chided him that the boots were only 35 years old and had been up great pillars of ice in Alberta such as Polar Circus and alpine climbs such as the American Direct on the Dru in the French Alps and that he had selfishly destroyed them on his first day out. G listened politely to my gentle ribbing and then quietly asked if the ruined boots meant he had to stop climbing that day. It did not.
G’s last time out with me involved hooking up grade five pillars of chandeliered ice, chopping away flutes and daggers of overhanging ice that wouldn’t hold body weight and learning to rest and recover on the leashes as if hanging off a hand jam. He was climbing superbly again and this may be in part because G had upgraded to a pair of antique full-shank San Marco boots from the 1970s and I had generously sharpened his dull crampons and axes.
Then, while sharing a cup of ginger tea and warming our hands, we met the Ice Princesses, two teenage girls who were chosen as the “winter ambassadors” of the counties of Huron, Perth, Grey and Bruce. They were delightful and shyly asked if they could have their photograph taken with us as we were climbers and “cool.” Their overbearing mother, who was clearly enjoying her new role as stylist, stage manager, and photographer, was a lot less delightful. She yelled up to us that she was driving her girls over to the local fish fry at the Propeller Club and “would we mind posing for photographs as they had nothing else to do until then?” Robed in scarlet dresses, white sashes with blue lettering and glittering tiaras perched precariously on the tops of their coiffed heads, the two girls had some difficulty climbing off the road and over the massive snow banks to get closer for the photo-op.
Wonderstruck, I turned to G and speculated that the world’s best climbers such as Messner had yet to experience the unique pleasure of being photographed with the brightly plumaged but elusive Ice Princesses and that he was well and truly on his way up in the climbing world. And, after climbing the long pillar six times that day, G took off his crampons and the soles of both of his boots literally fell off onto the road. I pretended to be annoyed again while G wondered aloud if a little epoxy might fix them.
Recently, while studying viola at his house, I discovered G had hung a homemade finger board and that he is losing what little weight he has to climb even harder. This is bad timing for both of us, especially me as I am in a stage of life where I am gaining weight, becoming more indolent by the week and losing what strength I have left. In the privacy of my basement last week I tried to do a pull up but stopped half way when I heard the scar tissue in my arms popping and crackling. Besides, I have my music career to consider.
I have learned a lot about climbing from G in the past year, how to be excessively polite while struggling up a cliff, I have been known to swear so much that the cows in the field below soured their milk. I learned how to be grateful for open wounds and bloody sheets after epic off-widths, about gear that doesn’t fall apart, and most of all, precious time spent playing together while cementing a new friendship, old boots and older bones.
-John Kaandorp is an Ontario-based climber with a number of first ascents in the area and a writer. He is a regular contributor to Gripped.