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The Lighter Side of Climbing: Cold Solo and Poop on the Hand

It was a cold and snowy night in the Nor’Wester Mountains of Lake Superior in January 2001 when a free-soloing ice climber got stuck on a ledge and put his hand in his own poop

Photo by: Aric Fishman of White Lightning

Jonny, my roommate at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., was a leading ice and mixed climber at the time, with a dozen bold new winter routes to his name, like Stone Cold Cowboys M5R WI5 60m at Kama Bay. Throughout the winter, we’d make nightly visits to climbs for headlamp sessions.

One January evening, Jonny and I were joined by Adam and Danny for laps of the 50-metre White Lightning WI3. We drove through town to the old bridge over the Kaministiquia River and up to Mount McKay. From the car, a 10-minute hike in deep snow and up a short slope led us to the base. It was dark and cold, and the wind was blowing our way from the Resolute paper mill.

We emptied packs and roped up. I was to lead and rig the left line and Jonny was to do the same on the right. The temps were -20°C, but water flowed behind the ice.

White Lightning WI3 in Thunder Bay

Just as I was about to lead, using DMM Fly tools and DMM Terminator crampons, Jonny, who was known for his impulsive behaviour, decided to attempt a new mixed route far left of White Lightning. It looked steep, loose and with little ice; but Jonny was the best of us.

He soloed 15 metres up a mossy crack. Snow dropped with shifts of his tools. He looked as solid as you could. He stopped on a ledge below a steep wall where thin ice broke from his picks.

“Shit,” Jonny said, after looking for a way up; his headlamp dotting back and forth. “I’m stuck.”

Downclimbing wasn’t an option, so Danny grabbed a rope and aimed for the top. We knew the waist-deep snow would slow the 15-minute hike.

It started to snow as Jonny sat, perched on a ledge with no way up or down.

“Hey guys,” he said, “I gotta shit.”

So, Adam and I went for a walk, not knowing how far Danny had made it. It wasn’t anything new, Jonny had an active bowel and he was often forced to get creative on climbs. His current ledge was sloping, snowy and small, but he had no problem.

Jonny gave the O.K. to return, so we hiked back. On the way, we were met by a local ice climber who was out to check conditions. We told him about Jonny’s predicament, and he was keen to help.

Derrik Patola on a White Lightning night lap

“Jon, check over to your right,” said the visiting climber. “I seem to recall a chimney-ish break you might be able to wiggle down.”

The visiting ice climber didn’t know that Jonny had just taken a shit on the ledge.

In his exctement to maybe find a way down, Jonny went to look, but in doing so put his hand directly into his own poop. His glove was off, so the poop worked its way into wherever it could.

“Shit!” Jonny said. The smell overpowered that of the paper mill, and Jonny now had two problems.

Adam and I fell into the snow laughing, but Danny calling “rope” brought us back up.

He rappelled to Jonny, who was still wiping poop from his hand, with a harness and an ATC. They rapped and thankfully the 60-metre ropes pulled.

Danny was exhausted and sweating through his layers, and Jonny was dealing with the poop issue, so we called it a night. “Poop M4,” Jonny called his unfinsihed proj.

Back in the car, we realized the lights were left on when we arrived.

We were stranded in a parking lot with a dead car, cold to the bone, a buddy who smelled like poop, a 30-minute walk to the nearest house and no phones, because it was 2001.

Luckily, another climber pulled up and gave us a jump, so we cracked a Lucky lager and laughed it off.

I climbed with Jonny for two years before he fell in love with his future wife, Sarah, and gave it all up. He inspired me to climb big, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without him. Thanks, Jonny.

Jonny and me at Pass Lake in 2001, a few months before he fell in love

For a story about climbers trying to drive a Land Rover up to the base of Yamnuska visit here.

Lead photo: Aric Fishman of White Lightning