As I scanned underneath the chairlift for fresh turns a sweet little chute caught my eye. “I want to ski that one!” I thought to myself. I was in the middle of my second day skiing in Utah at Salt Lake City’s own Solitude Mountain Resort. I hopped off the chairlift and proceeded down to the entrance of the line I had spied. I took the top turn throwing up a cloud of the classic Utah fluffy stuff, dropped in, caught the transition perfectly and aired out the bottom of the chute. Wow, that was smooth! I took the exit turn, a nice arcing left-hander fully expecting to be deposited into the all-too-familiar white room. Too late, I was not where I thought I was. A traverse track that I had not noticed during my viewing of the line appeared in front of me and I was instantly folded, my right ski ejected. I immediately knew my right knee ligaments were shot. I managed to gather my right ski, thanks to a concerned onlooker, clicked back in with a grimace and a whimper and ripped down one-footed to assess the damage at the on-hill emergency clinic. “Looks like a Grade II MCL and Meniscus tear,” the doctor told me. My knee was already the size of a watermelon, and I had to go back to work the next day. Just like that, my ski season was over. I had to hang up the skis and get on the healing train.
Flash forward three months, I’m five bolts and 60-meters up the ‘Merci Me’ slab on the lower flanks of the Stawamus Chief. This pitch is a mere 5.8, but wow here I am...runout. It had been a few months since I was lead rock climbing and today the sharp end felt a little sharper than usual. I bottled up the little demons I had, that I associate with the possibility of taking fifteen-meter-cheese-grating falls down a slab, and managed to pull over to the chains. I clipped in and put my friend Drew Hurter on belay. Whew, good morning Squampton!
I might mention this was the first time Drew and I had roped up on a committing multi-pitch climb. He had sent me a message a few days prior with interest in climbing in Squamish and I figured the last thing I could do is say no to a trip to the Great White North. We had spent the day prior running laps on the Apron of the Chief, a beautiful undulating granite slab that has an easy walk off descent. We got pretty comfortable at climbing quickly and efficiently together, climbing some twenty-odd pitches by afternoon. Getting back up on the Grand Wall was a powerful moment for me; I was doing a committing rock climb and feeling pretty good! The month after the injury, where I had my foot above my head, and the two months of intensive physical therapy that followed had paid off. I was feeling solid and stoked!
Drew cruised up the 70-meter ‘Merci Me’ pitch and then fired the next 10b traverse. Now we were both standing under the beautiful obtuse corner crack known as the ‘Split Pillar.’ Originally graded 5.9 by the first free ascensionists, the ‘Split Pillar’, is a beautiful 35-meter pitch that soars up the center of the Chief. “Wow that thing was awesome”, I breathed, as I slithered up the final squeeze chimney to the chains. Drew followed suit, enjoying the perfect hand and fist jams, finally joining me at the world-class belay ledge atop the pillar. Next up, the daunting ‘Sword’ pitch. A low crux gives way to some exposed climbing on the outside of a corner before being forced back into the corner for a foot-smearing, power-laybacking, finger-locking finish. Drew fired it, onsight. “Hell yeah, Drew!” I hollered up at him. He rested on the chains and then proceeded to aid up the bolt ladder to the base of the second crux, ‘Perry’s Layback.’
‘Perry’s Layback’ can be described as having an incredibly positive edge for laybacking, and a far-friendlier number of bolts in comparison to the slabs of ‘Merci Me.’ I had to hang in the middle of the pitch, for fear of falling and tweaking my knee, but I was stoked...and through the crux! Next up Drew cruised through ‘The Flats’ pitch; being 6’3” he didn’t notice the reachy move at the end up the pitch. He clipped in and quickly pulled up the slack and threw me on belay. I tiptoed across and then up the slab managing to get some high smears for feet and had no issue with the reachy last move. I get the last pitch yay! The ‘Sail Flake’ is just that, a classic tree start gives way to a voyage out right underneath a massive undercling flake until one rounds the end of it and climbs across the top of it in the complete opposite direction. Once done with the business section of the flake, some glorious hand jams see you through to a mantle up onto Bellygood Ledge. We had made it! I didn’t break!
For most, the journey would now be over after a heads up but completely protected ledge traverse. This traverse crosses an exposed section of the wall delivering you to a welcoming forested terrace and then back down the easy side of the gargantuan granite monolith. For us, in a nod to speed, light and fast attitudes, and stupidity we chose not to bring shoes for the descent. And, so began a journey of wincing our way back down to the water fountains in the parking lot below. What a great morning!
Looking back on my knee injury and current upward trajectory with recovery I can only say that exercising more caution while skiing new terrain will prevent some injuries. My general approach to resort skiing versus ski touring is different. I am willing to be less cautious on a resort because I know that my commitment level is different than that of backcountry skiing. I am lucky that I will make a full recovery and I have learned a good lesson. Respect yourself folks!
*Photos courtesy of Drew Hurter and myself.