How I came to have a zombie leg in Canada

In late March, after days of anxiously watching the temperatures warm up for weeks in Canmore, I headed back for one last ice climbing trip of the season with Ryan. How on earth was I going to Canada – again?!?! Well, we had a couple of years of Delta miles and I happened to find a ticket that was only 25,000 miles each, so off we went! Our plan was to climb a classic the first day there with Sarah Hueniken, climb on our own the next two days, then hook up with Jen Olson for the last two days for some more Canadian Rockies classics.

So psyched to be climbing in Canada!

The first day out we went with Sarah to Moonlight, which was in full-on sun the whole time we were climbing – it was not cold. As a result, the ice was definitely plastic-y, which I was more comfortable with thanks to all of my Ice Park climbing, but made it a bit more work for Ryan to get his tools out after every bomber swing he was sinking. The first pitch of Moonlight was long and steeper than it looked from the base, but it was a good exercise in how to climb relaxed. Despite the fact that I was on top rope during the middle of the pitch I started feeling anxious. I’m not sure what it was about though…maybe thoughts of leading for the next two days started filtering through my mind. As I got to the TINY (and very wet) ice cave with Sarah I confessed my anxiety and she helped get my mind in check by telling me to just focus on the climbing I was doing TODAY, which was just what I needed.

Sarah leading pitch 1 of Moonlight

Leaving the ice cave for the second pitch felt weird, or maybe it was just awkward I suppose!  I was glad I wasn’t doing it on lead – first Sar thought she’d go right, but ended up going left, all the while getting soaked from the melting ice. This pitch I saw not one move of her climbing and just heard her talking about CrossFit and thrusters until she got too high and out of ear-shot range. A CrossFit WOD a few days prior had left her with some residual soreness, which I could appreciate 😉 ! Thankfully, pitches two and three seemed a lot easier – perhaps because I was more relaxed – and we topped out and rappelled down to a team of two ready to hop on the climb. I took the opportunity with Sarah to make sure my EDK skills were good to go since I was going to be the team leader for the next two days.

Making my way into the teeny, tiny ice cave. Photo by Sarah Hueniken.

That night in the shower I noticed a “bug bite” I’d had for a few days on my left calf was really getting red and swollen – I was sure I’d been bitten by some poisonous spider here in the south before I left. Ryan assured me it was nothing. However, that night it began absolutely throbbing with pain – even the sheet touching it in bed felt excruciating. It hurt to bear weight on that foot and sitting down with a bent knee put a tremendous amount of pressure on the quickly swelling red area! By Thursday morning when Ryan woke up (since I’d been awake) he realized there was definitely something wrong. Some phone calls for insurance checks back home led us to the ER where it was diagnosed as Cellulitis – a staph infection. Sweet. I got a prescription for some antibiotics but didn’t want the day to be a total wash, so we decided to head up to Grotto, which was a super easy climb in February, and one that I was sure would not be too taxing on my zombie leg.

Creepy snowman spotted on Lake Louise after we climbed Grotto and before we ate some AMAZING nachos!

The creek was definitely really wet, and we actually saw a few sport climbers out thanks to the nice temperatures. “His” was totally out, and I don’t think anyone would be trying to send “Hers” anymore this season. We had Grotto all to ourselves. The second pitch was in full-on sun but since the bottom ice still felt pretty good, we decided to give it a go. I led up to the chains with no problems, where it was almost blinding thanks to the sun on the second pitch. Ryan came up and I headed out on the second pitch where – about halfway up – I started feeling like I was climbing a snow cone. I placed screws despite feeling that they wouldn’t probably hold a fall, and really took my time testing each tool placement to make sure it wouldn’t “slush” out when I weighted it. Luckily everything went fine – Ryan coming up confirmed my feeling that this climb was probably on the last days of being in, as he commented on how quickly the screws had melted out by the time he removed them. Two quick rappels down to the base and my zombie leg, which had shut up while climbing, began complaining loudly, as I gimped back to the car.

Zombie leg!

Friday morning the swelling on my zombie leg had more than doubled from the day before. I started wondering if my antibiotics were even working! It was pretty painful and difficult to straighten. However, I didn’t want to waste a day, and so we headed out to climb Chantilly, which has an hour-long mellow approach that got my leg warmed up and ready to climb. It had snowed several inches the night before so half the work of climbing Chantilly was clearing snow to swing tools. It was a very different ‘feeling’ climb than the last time I went up, thanks largely to the drastic change in temperature (first time it was -21 C, this time it was probably between 2-4 C). I also led this climb in two pitches, something we had not done in February (as we were working on our anchor-building skills and such) so it was fun for me to try and figure out where the best belay stations were, based on which line I wanted to climb. I was psyched that the climb FELT so much better than it had in February – it made me feel like I was definitely making positive progress.

Here we are at the top of Chantilly!

Saturday & Sunday we were psyched to climb some classics with Jen Olson, who was just at the end of her recovery from a broken back this January. She was feeling strong and healthy, which was fantastic! By Saturday morning the swelling and redness of my zombie leg still hadn’t decreased, but it wasn’t as painful so I began feeling like it actually *was* getting better. We drove out to Field to climb Guinness Gully. We met up with Sarah and her client who headed up just ahead of us. There were about five pitches of climbing, and an equal number of snow walks in between. I got the opportunity to lead a short pitch towards the top (as well as some snow walks), which I was totally psyched about, of course! It is always fun to do so under the watch of a guide who can offer guidance and tips on how to be more efficient. A long series of rappels led to a steep down climb which was when the zombie leg really started to hurt again, so really it was great timing!

Placing my first screw on Guinness Gully lead. Photo by Jen Olson.

Sunday we had big plans to head into the Ghost. Ryan had never been and Sar and her client were also heading in so we’d have a team to help us out if things went sideways, and vice versa. As we went into the Ghost we made it past vehicle crux No. 1, then No. 2, and No. 3. It was looking good! We were fairly close to hitting up Beowulf when Sar & Stefan’s vehicle got stuck. And I mean STUCK. We spent several hours digging, pushing, pushing and digging until we finally got it turned around and out of the snow. At this point we needed a shorter objective since all five of us wouldn’t get up Beowulf and out at a reasonable hour, so we headed to the south Ghost to climb Wicked Wanda.

It’s not a real Ghost experience without getting stuck – right? Photo by Jen Olson.

If you’ve never seen Wicked Wanda it is a sight to behold! It has just a wildly crazy formation of ice at the top that looks ridiculously overhanging from the bottom. We still didn’t have a ton of time so Jen & Ryan wasted no time getting up pitch one so she could lead up pitches two and three, tying a rope together so we could all climb it on top rope, rather than multi-pitching it which we simply didn’t have time for. While they did that I led up pitch 1 and brought up Stefan, then watched Jen beautifully lead what is pitch three of Wicked Wanda – very difficult to protect because of all the features, but a super-fun climb once you are in them. We were each given a ‘time limit’ of sorts to do this climb so we’d get out at a reasonable time, and unbeknownst to me I totally blew past that. I climbed up the steep center of the first pitch and rather than fight the pull of the rope by traversing to the (easier) left side, decided to climb up some crazy mushrooms. These were not like Ice Park mushrooms though – they were absolutely hollow! It was a good learning point for me, as I ended up going way far right (and simply fighting the rope in the other direction) to go left again. I wonder how much climbing left and right I did just to move up. Sometimes it just happens!

Leading up pitch 1 of Wicked Wanda on some junk ice. Photo by Sarah Hueniken.

Oh yeah, Wicked Wanda!

Finally I got to the fun stuff – tons of wild features inside the top pitch of Wicked Wanda before you make an exit from a feature as similar to an ice cave as you can get, and climb up a short steep section to the very top. I cannot describe in words just how fun this pitch was, and what an AMAZING end it was to the awesome ice climbing season for me. Psyched doesn’t even begin to describe it!

In the heart of the fun stuff on Wicked Wanda. Photo by Jen Olson.

After we got home I realized my zombie leg had started draining fluid that day, so I was relieved it was my last day in those pants 🙂

All in all, I don’t know if I will ever have as fun of an ice season as I did this year. I really wanted to focus on the mind game – which I did especially during “The Complete” at Chicks this year under the guise of Kitty – and it resulted in SO much growth. I am really excited to see what next year brings! Now, if only I can keep up the mental mind game on rock as well, Indian Creek is just over a week away (eeeeekkk!!!!) 😀

Thanks to Sarah & Jen for making it such a fun & productive trip! Ryan and I are looking forward to heading to the Bugaboos this summer with Jen for some high alpine granite climbing!

The amazing & fun Sarah and Jen!

Oh, and that old zombie leg – well it has almost completely healed! I was lucky it didn’t really hinder the trip at all, other than making me slower than normal on approaches, which I’ve never been particularly speedy at.

Maijaliisa Burkert is the Marketing & Social Media Chick for Chicks Climbing. Learn more about her work at High Altitude Media here.