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Story: The Wild Thing by Barry Blanchard and Peter Arbic

The alpine route is one of the most sought-after in the Rockies

Mount Chephren is a peak in the Mistaya River Valley in Banff National Park. It was named after Chephren, the fourth Dynasty Egyptian pharaoh. The mountain was originally named Pyramid Mountain in 1897 by J. Norman Collie, but it conflicted with an identically named peak in Jasper National Park, so it was renamed in 1918 to its present name.

In 1987, Barry Blanchard, Peter Arbic and Ward Robinson made the first ascent of the east face in winter and called their route Wild Thing. The route has had around 10 ascents since it was first climbed. Here is the story written by Blanchard and Arbic after their ascent. It first appeared in Canadian Mountaineering Anthology by Bruce Fairley.

The Wild Thing

Blanchard: She is beautiful. Her face is smooth and white. She watches me climb through pale gray eyes. Her expression never changes; it is tranquil, powerful and compassionate, but mostly it is calm: detached and calm. The white mist hangs from her body like silk and the sweep of her libs is all grace and balance. The white lady can draw me up and fulfill me or she can be death’s mistress.

I lock my elbows and stare in to the mirror. Then years of climbing have reaped their tool on my body and soul. A patch of scar tissue marks the fragmented bone in the bridge of my nose; a souvenir from the north face Les Droites in 1980.

There was a full moon illuminating the Aregentiere basin that September night so Kevin and I climbed without headlamps. The next morning, 100 metres from the top, Keving sheared out a Frisbee-sized piece of ice with his left crampon. He didn’t sense it, and therefore didn’t call it,. It fell 50 metres gaining speed and rotation. I looked up and took it in the face. I saw black and then blood: red blood splashed across blue nylon. Nauseated, I hacked and staggered my way up to Kevin. “It looks bad,” was all he could say. I waded through the rest of the climb wondering if I would be scarred, ugly.

My fingers are stroking the bridge of my nose; it didn’t scar too badly. I watch as my hand moves down over the drag of two day stubble, across the nadedness of my chest to the three-inch ridge of scar below my left nipple. My knife wound from Joshua Tree, 1981. A blade was clenched in a greasy fist that slashed upwards from the asphalt and dust. I should have had stitches, but I couldn’t afford them and so I kept climbing. The cut healed up from the constant stretching.

The latest addition is still fresh: six months fresh. I look at it now. I ti part of my left hand. A 125-metre slide down a 40-degree slope left two people dead and me with a thumb that doesn’t bend much and has two pieces of wire holding it together. It is my new companion now. My old thumb doesn’t exist anymore, just this new one and how it came to be.

Don’t think about that Blanch. It will only wreck another day. Have there been two consecutive days that you haven’t relived it? Suffer machine. Thanks Christ for Jill. Those were her arms that held you, healed you after your white lady gave you a flick of her dagger instead of caress.

The beautiful whit lady with the red dagger. She’s given you the few moments of euphoria that you’ve known, but no love. Only a real women can give you love. I look into my own brown eyes reflected in the mirror. The lady is calling me again, and I know I’ll go. But I’m going to follow her hands with a sober eye. I’ll watch for the dager.

Starting: The northeast face of Mount Chephren rises for 1,500 metres above the Mistaya River. It’s a wedding cake draped over with black satin. Long ridges and gullies slice through horizontal bands of snow and rock. The face is similar to other big wall in the Rockies and the Alps but, like a human face, the union of all its parts creates a distinct pattern. There are no duplicates, it is an individual.

Arbic: Starting at Chephrern that day got me fired. It looked to be in shapre, if such a thing was possible, with a little something left of the imagination. A week later, Ward is on the phone with a promise from lying Ralph (the weatherman): cold and clear for four days. Ward has the same itch I do. The plan is set. When Barry agrees to come everything seems to click into full party mode.

Day one: I can’t recall having fallen off while mountaineering before. Nevertheless, I got sailing and a few loose holds continue on over Ward’s head. A little higher I fix the ropes, scoping the next two pitches. Then down the lines to our snow cave. God damn, those next two look ugly. Hey Bubba, deluxe digs man.

Blanchard: The gas stove hums along producing a steady blue flame. I chip pieces of snow from the sidewalls of the snow cave and stuff them into the conoured sluminum pot. Snow turns into water and the water is converted to food and brews.

Do this well I tell myself. It is important. Divide out the hot chocolate, but get more snow on before you drink. Only boil what you need. Keep checking. Make sure the water always has snow in it. Don’t waste fuel, you may need it.

Peter and I are shoulder to shoulder at one end of the cave with Ward’s feet wedged between us. We need the least amount of space this way and will sleep the warmest. Our ensolite pads overlap to form a large mat which covers the whole floor. The walls and ceiling are glazed from the heat of our bodies and the stove. Small grains of snow no longer sprinkle down on us with every movement. The musky smell of hashish oozes around us like incense burned with a lover in a sanctuary of a bedroom.

She’s here now. She hovers. She doesn’t need our technology to sustain her, but she does need us. We are important to her, her lovers. I close my eyes and a stroke of white silk caresses my face.

It’s my turn on the Walkman and although I can’t hear Peter and Ward, I catch occasional glances from vibrant eyes as they putter about arranging their wombs for the night. She’s been good to us today. We climbed four fifth-class pitches and 600 metres of third-class ground. I’m excited and content. This is how humans were meant to be.

Day Two: Somewhere high in the atmosphere, air is converging and descending: high pressure. A stable, cold airmass creates a cloudless sky over the Rockies. In the human zone it is calm and crisp. The air is like cold water. Clear and refreshing, you can taste it on your teeth when you breathe.

Arbic: Ward is out there trying to be delicate across a slab on front points. His tool searches for something to hook across into the corner. Three metres up the corner a piece ulls. Barry and I giggle as Ward swings. Scary business eh. Ten metres up and Ward comes slamming down to the base of the corner in a flurry of pin popping. His axe goes winging off in the general direction of the truck. A very real moment.

Blanchard: The motion stops and Ward screams, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, how did I pull so many pieces?” We don’t answer. Ward pulls it together and starts back up the pitch. I turn to Peter: “God, I’m shaking, man. I think I’m more scared than Ward is.” “I don’t think so,” Peter replies. Over the valley, I see the lady’s dagger slicing away.

Arbic: I swing around in my harness to get my face out of the way. Barry scrapes around for something to stem. He gets scrunched up under the roof of our little alcove. Working for some gear to move out on. A couple of tie offs, a couple more maybe, and he’s gone. I turn up The Clash, strum a few bars and grin at Ward. You gotta love it, this kind of situation.

Blanchard: Performance time Blanchard. So the last two years have been tough. So what? Everybody suffers. Maybe you’re not as good as you were four year ago, but you’re here now. Do what you can do. It’s no one’s fault but your own that you’re not climbing as well as you used to. Yeah, no one but injury, failure and death.

Cut the shit; you’re hesitating. No asking Peter or Ward to take the pitch. Ward’s shattered. Shattered like you were in 83. Same fall, same fear, same burn. We all have only so much to give. Do what Kevin did for you then: grab the rack, jump in and fire.

I bridge out my left foot and hook my front points onto a small ledge. Snow falls and Peter shifts his face away from it. I reach for her hands and step into the dance. Be nice darling, be kind.

Two hours later, she leaves me. It’s been intense. I’ve trembled and reached and hauled. She drew me on through my fear. Those gray eyes; that long and perfect body. I wanted her. She’s gone now and I’m standing on the small horizontal island a thousand metres up. The ground falls away before me. Behind, I’m anchored to ta system of pitons around me. I’m immersed in silver water.

Where is she? Why has she left me? I risked for her. Ward arrives, then Peter. Ward pulls up onto the snow ledge. He runs the rope to an anchor at the base of a steep chimney. Peter goes at the chimney and I rap down to dig the cave. I hack out squares of frozen snow and think of her.

Arbic: Somewhere below, I must be beaning somebody. Barry has wisely retreated to dig a cave. Ward is stuck at the base of the corner holding me. The spindrift separates us and makes it easier to chuck off the loose holds. Waves pound over for the longest time. I imagined what various sizes of rocks will feel like. I finish the pitch howling at the stars. Ward cackles back.

Day Three: The last pitches were magic. I marveled, jugging the lines and cleaning. Up into Ward’s niche, another screw in and clip. Barry comes up and I stem out over the stance as he tries to jam himself out of harm’s way. A polished tongue of clear ice hangs above. I can hardly believe how good it is. At the top a long blade rings into the sound rock. Somebody laughs again, it seems to ring a little longer here.

Shit, it took a long time to get this anchor. Half-a-dozen pins shift as Barry starts to jug. I add my weight behind them. I’m a bit freaked, with 20 minutes of light left and maybe one pitch to true love. I pin my heart on my sleeve, hand over the rack and shoo him off. By the time Ward arrives, I am beginning to suffer a little. Barry calls down that he doesn’t think it will go. We poke around for a bivy, but prospects are gloomy. Look Bubba, get up that thing right fucking now. As he works we suffer a little harder.

Blanchard: This is hard. It’s dark now and I’m alone. My hip is cramping and my calves have turned to stone. I know I’m tearing muscle tissue. Where are you? I’m afraid. I’m going to fall. If I fall I will die.

The cold, sterile blade of the dagger is pressing against my flesh. The flat of the blade is searing into me from breast to groin. The edges are hungry. One more pulsation and they will bite. My strength is being devoured. My heat is being conducted from me. I want out. Please. I want to wait for the sun. I want to be with you. I need you.

Ward and Peter shout to me from the darkness below. We must finish tonight. I can’t quit. I press my fingers into the shafts of my ice tools, my forearms vibrate and I strive upwards.

The ice vein is thin now. I’m bridged between snow and rock trying to hook my right tool above the chocstone. Dust falls into my face and I am blind.

The pick holds and I pull into the final alcove. A number three Friend bites securely behind a frozen block. One more hard press and I step out on the south slopes of the summit of Mount Chephren.

She’s out there waiting for me. Wind pulls the white dress tight to her body. I strain against the ropes of my mortality. I enter her embrace. She is power and benevolence. She has let me in and the dagger is sheathed for now.

The Wild Thing with the direct start (red) and the original start (green), and The Dogleg Couloir

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