I don’t know why I decided to solo White as a Sheet, a 300-meter ice route on the slopes of Mt. Crosscut in the Darran Mountains. It was possibly the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. The idea came to me in a flash, probably for the usual blunt reasons: ego, naivete, a feeling of wild comfort in the mountains, the need to prove myself, the desire to do something no one else had done before, the yearning to experience total commitment, and the fact of simply being a young man.
Back then, I was generally a shy, mild-mannered person who apologized all the time–not the most technically adept climber–but when the ice got hard, another identity, one I refer to as “the alien,” emerged. It was something so far from my normal demeanor that it frightened me. The alien first appeared during a squash match when I was eighteen. I yelled and threw myself across the court. I might have just been overly competitive that day, but it felt like the eruption of an uncontrollable violence. Afterward, I stopped playing squash. The mountains were a better place to express that much passion–vast enough to soak it all up.
And White as a Sheet was the perfect arena. Seen in profile, the climb looked like the tongue of some great mythical ice dragon, a white line slobbering down a granite slab, surrounded by a semicircle of black stone buttresses. Like other Darrans cirques, this one is steep and U-shaped, with no safe zone free from avalanches–you feel as though you’re in a dead-end alleyway on a dark night, pursued by a fast-walking stranger. Up close, the climb drapes at an average eighty degrees, seemingly without ledges. I didn’t know it then, but it has the added hazard of never fully forming–the ice on the upper pitches will just barely support body weight.
When Dave Vass and Richard Thomson made its first ascent in 1989, they named it for the pallor of Richard’s face after he fell off a three-meter vertical icicle. Richard later told me that finishing that pitch was a “small point of pride. But I was fried after that–psychologically and also physically.” Since then, the climb has only had six or so known ascents.
In August 1992, Phil Penney, Clinton Beavan and I had just climbed Cul de Sac, a 1500-meter ice route on the buttress of Crosscut. After Phil and Clinton went home, I remained alone at the Homer Hut. Before I knew it, I’d stepped off the Milford road and crossed the Hollyford River, lurching from boulder to boulder in my bare feet, on my way to White as a Sheet. The waters were so clear that they seemed invisible; I only knew they were there by the rushing sound they made and by the agony of my cold skin. On the other side, boulders covered in brilliant orange lichen poked out of the snow. Soon the only color came from the moss, frozen in great green-brown carpets and blobs. An earthy smell rose from a small patch of bush–a last vestige of softness. Beyond it, avalanches had gouged deep, unstable ruts in the rocky ground, covered with dry powder. Crampons didn’t help. I kept moving.
Once below the route, I didn’t feel any fear. The slides had formed grey, easy-looking smears that led to the upper section where the “Sheet” proper intersected with thicker, chandeliered ice. But mountain routes always appear shorter and less steep than they really are. Even now, after thirty years of mountaineering, I still get it wrong. Maybe my high school science teacher was right when he wrote on my term report, “Allan has trouble grasping new concepts.”
I started climbing on the right-hand side where the snow-ice was thickest. The angle was only seventy degrees, and I didn’t encounter any of those typical Darrans “seemingly good” axe placements that end up piercing a thin crust into depth hoar. I paused beside an aluminum conduit rappel anchor and felt smug. I’m not going down, I thought. Soon I realized I couldn’t descend: fifty more meters and rotten ice patches began to break with my passage, leaving large, toothless gaps of smooth black slab that made it impossible even to traverse off. One hundred and fifty meters up, I finally reached a ledge.
To my right, the Sheet looked like steep bitumen covered in a skiff of new snow. In places, you could see a change in texture and color that indicated ice, but it was difficult to know if it was consistent. Once I stepped off the ledge, I felt as if I were walking out across a barely frozen lake, afraid that at any moment I could plunge into the depths. Some fifty meters wide, the Sheet had a spooky, spacey sense of omnidirectional exposure–up, down and sideways. Dinky toy cars inched along the Milford road far below. No one could have made me out in that vast expanse of mountain. If I waited for help, an avalanche would most likely have hit me before anyone reported me missing.
Without a crease or ripple to ease the strain, my calves began to burn. Oddly enough, I was enjoying myself. Untethered from the world, I had a powerful sense of freedom. I tapped on the thin ice lightly, like a mayfly alighting on a river, to keep it from shattering. I was still going up.
Richard’s icicle drew closer. Now it appeared steeper and twice as large as it had from the ground. I finally grasped the concept that what I was doing could kill me. At the juncture of the Sheet and the chandelier ice, I clung to my tools and kicked my points in to try to create a comfortable stance. Water dripped onto my helmet as I rested my head against the ice. The plastic amplified the noise, augmenting my panic. The fucking thing is rotten, I thought. Melting. “No, no, no!” I moaned. I could already feel the moment of weightlessness that would envelop me as I plummeted. Nausea welled up, and I began to sob. I didn’t want to die. On the squash court, the alien had been a raging, unfocused mutation. But now it had matured into something else, something that could focus intense energy and manage fear and self-doubt to the point that it could easily lead to my demise.
It wasn’t a conscious choice to move–my decision-making powers had been reduced to their most basic. I made the first placement in the icicle and sank, as the soloist must, into a place of absolute calm and confidence where the fear of falling is no longer considered. My tools felt buoyant. Thunk, thunk, thunk. Kick, kick, kick. I was still going up.
The next small patch of ice was the only thing that mattered.
I floated up the final 100 meters oblivious to the shower of ice from the snowfield above. The beginnings of a small avalanche? Who cared? All that mattered was that I was still going up. Unconsolidated snow in the standard exit gully forced me out onto steep blobs of ice. I talked to myself: “Come on, Allan, you can do it, that’s a good placement, drop your heels. Keep doing that, you’ll be fine.”
I topped out. Pinned on the snow by disbelief, 300 meters up a mountain, I faced a descent nearly as dangerous as the ascent had been. Why had I left my harness and rope behind? Did I really think I was that good, that in tune with the mountains?
For months after I climbed down those steep, avalanche-prone slopes, ever aware of the menace that remained above me, terrified that a bluff would trap me in the dark, I had flashbacks and nightmares. I don’t remember even looking back up at the route when I finally walked, once more, beneath it. Down at the road, I hitched a ride with a Korean family who’d been sightseeing at Milford Sound. I sat in the back of their camper van with their two little boys. They stared at me with that directness that children have, wondering what this wild-eyed man had been up to and why his face was white as a sheet.