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The Theft

Eric Hirst © 1996

The route had been formed since December, and Lee and I first saw it in early January on our first trip into the Bridge River area. An amazing and intimidating line, it had looked far too serious for me, a bonafide ice bumbly still backing off of a lot of the grade 4 ice pitches I was attempting. Apparently, it had looked to serious for a lot of better climbers as well, as it seems only one party had reached the top of the first pitch by the time Tuan first attempted the route in February. And the free standing pillar which they had climbed to get that far was unsafe by February and gone by March.

Tuan, of course, is a much better ice climber than I am. I suspected that this prize would be worth his while, and I had invited him up to join myself and some other WA and BC climbers for a weekend of ice and a chance to attempt the route in February. Through greater ambition and better timing, Lee Purvis and Adrian Burke were fortunate enough to follow Tuan up the first 2/3 of the route, while I contented myself with saner times on the nearby routes Synchronicity and French Foreign Lesion. (Lee also picked up a relatively big lead on this outing, climbing the narrow ice choked chimney on the second pitch, which went at WI4+ with a single aid move off a pin to clear a large chockstone.) But they turned back after their second day on the route (they had fixed the first thin ice pitch on the first day, then climbed the chimney and part of the final 130m WI6 curtain the next), and Tuan had been obsessed with the route ever since.

It was the first weekend in March, and Tuan was back with a very strong partner, Kevin Normoyle. They had invited me up to share their motel room, and I had headed up with my friend Julie for a laid back weekend of spectating and a bit of climbing.

When Julie and I saw Kevin and Tuan at the base at 9AM, the pillar on the first pitch had broken off, and we didn't think much of their chances. We headed off, and spent much of the day puttering around on the much less serious Night N' Gale, a kilometer upstream.

Returning to look again at dusk, we were thrilled to see them rapping off the second to last pitch. I was certain that they had finished the route, as I knew Tuan had fought hard to get that high and would not turn back so close to the finish.

(Actually Kevin had fallen while drafting Tuan's hook placements and was swinging back onto the route. They would start up the final pitch several minutes later, with headlamps. But I would not learn this for some time.)

We figured that they would be back at the hotel by 9 or 10, so we stopped in town and picked up a bottle of the best champagne they had, some really scary looking Canadian spumante stuff. We started to worry at around 10PM, but decided to get some sleep and set the alarm for midnight in case I needed to go out and check up on them.

Beep. Beep. Beep. Damm.

I packed a stove, pad, and sleeping bag and dressed for the cold. At 12:30 I told RCMP I was preparing for a search. I did my best to let them know this was a yellow alert only, and that I only wanted to get the communication lines open in case there was going to be a real rescue at dawn. But it was a slow night in a small town, and I got a bigger response than I had hoped for.

The local cops got to take a break from busting drunks and check the bars for the guys, and I met them at the cop shop before heading for the Bridge. They had also woken up Mark Ando and partner, Washington climbers camped out at Seton Lake by a car that looked a bit like Tuan's rental. (Sorry guys, I tried to tell them that Tuan and Kevin had a motel room and no camping gear!)

About 45 minutes and a bunch of donuts later, the cops agreed to loan me a fancy ($7500 fancy!) cop radio and send me off down the 50km dirt road to the Bridge. I was at least able to persuade them not to get local climber Lyle Knight out of bed until I was sure something was really wrong.

So at around 1:30, cop toy in hand, I started heading down toward the Bridge. Constable Matt followed a few minutes back in his Suburban. Fifteen minutes into the drive, headlights appeared from the other direction. It was Kevin and Tuan, both sleeping peacefully, heading directly toward me at 40mph.

I stopped, flashed my lights to wake Kevin up, honked a few times as they went by, then backed up to congratulate them and warn Kevin that Constable Matt was just down the road behind me. Kevin had been following the second to last pitch when I saw him swing, and Tuan had started up the final pitch in the dark. They had finished the route at 8PM, after a 4:00AM departure from the Jay-Gee. 6 pitches, with the upper ice pitches supposedly more difficult than the ice pitches Tuan led on Sea of Vapors. Tuan and Kevin will have to fill in the details, but it's definitely the hardest west coast route yet.

OK, I made up the part about the donuts.

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