Mt Helen in the dark

Highway 11 along the Nipigon River, looking South.

On a recent work trip to Thunder Bay Ontario, I had spoken with my friend Brian early one morning,  to arrange a climbing date. He had a board meeting that morning and a family hike planned afterward with his family. He really liked the objective I had in mind though, and suggested we speak later in the day.

To make use of the down time after our initial conversation, I went to a laundromat near an outdoor store a friend manages. After doing my laundry and catching up online via the in house Wi-Fi, I visited Mia at Wilderness Supply.  She told me that my friend Rod had just left, and that he had bought a new carbon paddle. This set the stage to call Rod, and see what he was up to.

A brief call with Rod, and we quickly planned a short bike ride. Then I heard from Brian, who was heading out with his family, but was interested in  a climbing Mt Helen, which I suggested we do in the dark.  Brian wasn’t sure how long he would be with the hike. We made a plan to talk after the bike ride.

I rode with Rod for an hour and a bit at a new mountain bike trail network called Shuniah mines. It has some  very hilly sections mixed in with  some root covered, rocky twisted single track sections, all linked up by older quad track connector trails. It was fun to push really hard, feeling completely gassed and breathless at the top of long steep hills. On the longest hill, I spun out, lacking traction with my nearly bald narrow gravel tire. In another spot, a boulder in the middle of the trail stopped me in my tracks as the trail kicked up even more vertically. It would have been so much easier on a mountain bike!

That ride didn’t last long, and by 4:00 pm I had left Rods, with the ride finished. As I continued to wait for Brian to reach out, I took a side trip to a bike shop to look for a new tire. Brian called as I walked into the bike shop.

I learned from Brian that  they had gone for a hike to the Kama Hills, a beautiful cliff, an hour and a half east of Thunder Bay.  He had already formulated a plan, which involved my picking him up somewhere between Kama Hills and Thunder Bay as I drove East to meet them. The only catch was that Brian had forgotten to bring clothes or climbing gear with him. I had to make a little detour and pick up his stuff from his house, including his headlamp from the bedside underwear drawer. “Oh my, what are friends for, right?” I thought as I retrieved his gear.

As the plot unfolded, I met them in Nipigon. The Brian family were slightly delayed as they stopped to change a flat tire. So it was, I met them at the Husky restaurant, everyone stuffing their faces except Brian!  He would have to make do with a clementine or two, and some potato chips I provided from my truck cab grocery depot.

We proceeded just North of Nipigon, to a local feature called Mt Helen. This was a spot my girlfriend Christine and I climbed last summer.  I was  confident of my ability to climb it, which was important since the light was fading fast. Brian, however had no first hand knowledge of the climb, and had wanted to get up it for some time!

It was obvious the sun was disappearing as we quickly sorted our bags from the parking spot. There was close to a kilometer to walk to the climb, in order to avoid parking on the busy number 11 highway servicing Northern Ontario. As we walked along the shoulder on our final approach, Brian was looking in a guidebook and scaring himself by reading route descriptions and grades. When we started to unpack my bag at the base of the easy route on the left side of the crag,   I realized I had forgotten the rope in the truck!  “Dammit all!” I cursed, though only jokingly, because I did want to climb this route in the dark and the delay would certainly assure a greater darkness factor to our adventure.

We started to climb as the twilight of dusk descended. The twin, new, visually stunning  bridges spanning the Nipigon river South of us began to reveal their illuminating splendour. In the failing light, I began leading the longer first pitch. There was just enough light to set the anchor without the aid of my head lamp. Brian followed the pitch, and tied in just as our shadows blended fully into the endless darkness of the steep slab ahead.

The ledge Brian and I stood upon was very comfortable. To see the bolts, the holds and even my fingertips, it was now utterly essential to use the head torch. It was brilliant, yet  so incredibly eerie! I consciously realized my dependence upon the amazing device artificially illuminating my way, and pushed the thought of its failure out of my mind. As I approached the first bolt, I realized my error! In my lethargic haste to depart the comfort of our ledge, I forgot to get the draws Brian cleaned on his way up. After I clipped the first bolt, I took inventory. I had a total of 5 draws on my harness, plus an anchor, so decided to continue. “I may have to downclimb or miss a bolt at some point” I thought aloud, with enough volume for Brian to hear. He commented “that sounds positive”.

Summit of ‘Mt’ Helen

The top came all too soon. In full on  black darkness, the milky way shone over head. The feeling was amazing, as there was no sense of exposure.  With all verticality hidden completely in the shroud of night, only the knowledge of the steep abyss behind gave cause for pause.

I set an anchor from the pair of bolts set into the rock about an arms length back from the face. The top isn’t nearly as comfortable as the ledge ending the first pitch. To use the word ledge to describe this stance is a contrived use of the word. There is more of a diagonal fold on the face that requires one to weight the anchor and hang if they wish to experience any comfort.

I enjoyed the lights on the bridges and the stars overhead as Brian made his way up. The easy climbing of the slab below my feet was hidden in a veil of darkness, only to be revealed under the fleeting gaze of Brian’s head lamp. Occasionally he commented on the apparent difficulty, artificially enhanced by the absence of sight. What a wonderful way to see a puzzle, no? Moves revealed one at a time. When my ego heard Brian’s voice question his ability to lead the pitch in the dark, it was pleased. My ego selectively forgot that it had the benefit of experiencing this climb in daylight a year earlier.

 It was totally dark. I think the time was about 9 pm, but neither of us had looked at our watch. I normally rap on an extended device, and use a Purcell prussic. My prussic was laying in a hedge beneath our first belay station. I had dropped it while fumbling with a carabiner I had thought was locked.  I had to improvise and use a sling from an alpine draw to extend my rappel device and provide a tether while untying the rope and preparing the rappel.

Overhead, the stars shone brilliantly, in a clear dark moonless sky. To the south, the bright blue triangular glow of the Nipigon river bridges illuminated the sky and provided a breathtaking landmark. Below us, there was only darkness and the certain  air of our soon to be descent path. Dropping down was amazing, as there was no sense of exposure beyond what was in our imagination.

We regrouped at the first station. Brian had left the anchor set up at my direction, so the transition at this station was very quick. I rappelled ahead of him, though with him fully set up to rappel as soon as I stopped moving. First though, I made a brief stop to retrieve my prusik. Then it was down the rope I went. I was surprised when reaching the bottom I found my device hitting one of the stopper knots. On the other strand, there was a foot of spare. Note to self: the first pitch is very close to 30m, do NOT do this with a 50 m rope!

What an amazing climb in the dark though, both Brian and I were jubilant on our walk back to the truck. Our only risk remaining was to dodge the steady flow of transports whizzing down the northern leg of the Northern Ontario section of the trans Canada highway.

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