Goals can be gifts and they can be curses. For me, once a goal enters my brain and has enough fuel to survive, it can be quite the pain in the ass. Its fuel comes from training, experience, belief, and a lot of uber-optimistic fantasizing.
This was the start to my goal of linking the three Phobia climbs in the Waiporous cirque: Hydrophobia: WI 5+ 500 ft, Cryophobia: WI 5+ M8 750 ft and Nophobia: M10+ WI3+ 500+ ft. The combination of the three climbs encompasses all the forms of winter climbing: steep ice; ice and rock transitions; and steep drytooling. If I could climb all three in a day, I would prove to myself that I was a competent ice climber.
Last year was the worst year of my life. I lost a close friend of 15 years in an avalanche during my women’s camp. I responded to the scene after witnessing it from the car and I spent the following days in the hospital with her grieving family. This incident revealed the darkness that exists in my passion for climbing. After this day, I lost all confidence in my relationship with the mountains. Twenty-plus years of experience, judgement, efforts, trials, lessons and joys were erased from my memory. I felt like an untrusting hermit, suddenly timid in a world where I used to roam with ease and strength.
At some point along my journey towards recovery and healing, I recognized the lifesaving value of three hugely important things: community, compassion and resilience. I needed support from my peers and community more than I ever had in my life. I learned that having compassion for myself was difficult, but critical. I was hopeful that my horrible experience could potentially make me a better person, instead of the angry, shameful and hugely fearful one I was becoming. For all these reasons, I tapped back into a vague memory of a goal I had in the back of my mind: the Phobias.
All three routes exist in a beautiful, hard to reach valley in the remote Waiporous region of Alberta, Canada. Hydrophobia (the fear of water) was first climbed by Frank Campbell and Karl Nagy in 1986. The first route done in the area, it has a reputation for offering a solid and challenging day out on pure ice.
Cryophobia (the fear of cold) was put up by Sean Isaac and Shawn Huisman in 2001. The first ascent took 10 days over two years to finally complete. It is now one of the most sought-after and rewarding mixed routes in the Rockies. It offers seven pitches of vertical-to-overhanging solid rock and ice transitions that truly are the best of their grade.
Finally, Nophobia (fear of not having a phobia) was established by Will Gadd, Will Mayo, John Freeman and Pat Delaney in 2013. The route was initiated in 2008 and required several trips and arduous efforts, due to its overhanging nature and less-than-immaculate rock quality. The route has only seen a handful of clean ascents and usually loses its last piece of ice early in the season. I had climbed all the routes before, but it had been years. It would be a solid goal after a year of minimal climbing and a severe lack of confidence.
Most ludicrous climbing goals also require optimistic and resilient partners. Luckily, I had this in Tiffany; a friend who I had quietly bounced the idea off of and who was willing to help me scout for the mission. The first problem was that road access had recently changed in the Waiporous and where we used to be able to get to with creative 4 wheeling, we now had to cover on foot. Our second problem after a 2-hour drive and 2.5-hour ski in, was the mind rattling loose rock on Nophobia. I battled my Basophobia (fear of falling) and eventually managed to get the rope up the first pitch, well, almost. My unpracticed climbing brain felt shaky and fearful and we resigned ourselves to top roping the almost ascended first pitch a couple times and then retraced our 4.5-hour journey back out with our tail between our legs. A full day spent, not sending, a single pitch of a 16-pitch mission
Days later, I managed to convince my partner Will to come out to try Cryophobia. Problem three reared its head that day, as the valley expressed its propensity for swirling winds and spindrift. Ancraophobia (fear of wind) on my part, resulted in us once again on the first pitch of Nophobia with our big boots and ice tools and a rack of unused screws. Once more, I sessioned the first pitch, but this time the whole pitch. Success! 2 days, 6000 calories, 10 hours of skiing, 1 pitch sent.
I went back two more times with Tiffany. Once to attempt the second pitch, only to get my ropes stuck and spend quality time and energy ascending 60-meters of free hanging ropes with cord and webbing.
The final time we pulled sleds and thought we would bravely camp and stash our gear in an effort to increase the efficiency and energy for future trips. After a heinous ski with heavy sleds and a rather cold, sleepless night with hours of melting water, and nightmares raised by my Panophobia (the fear of everything) we dragged all our gear back out the next day without even trying to climb. Obviously, my actions were saying “this is not going to happen”. My brain, however, had already regained its optimism by the end of our retreat. Back in the truck, I was brainstorming my next return.
With a few laps on the first pitch and two half-ass burns on the second crux pitch, I again convinced my amazing partner to ski in with me on a -28 Celsius day. Sold as quality time together and a good calorie burn, he reluctantly, but supportively, made the journey with me. We brought another static rope to fix on Nophobia and through aiding techniques in puffy pants and multiple layers, he helped fix the rope from the 3rd to the 4th pitch. True love at its finest.
By mid-January, when I had scheduled my attempt at the linkup, I had climbed hardly anything at all. I did, however, know the 9-hour approach and return trip all too well. Problem four then came into play: January cold snaps. Unfortunately, that week ended up being the worst one we would have all winter. With temps down around -30 Celsius, I knew it was impossible to do anything outside, so I stayed home to train in the gym and chop wood.
More promising temperatures revealed themselves later that month. This would be my last try. After this my winter was booked with trips and I wouldn’t have any more time. I also realized that trying to do all the routes with one partner would take too long. I needed a team.
On the 19th, Scott, Tiffany, John, Heather and I headed out. We went straight for Cryo. I knew I had to learn some of this route again if I were to be able to do them all in a day. I climbed the first four pitches with Scott jugging and cleaning. I decided that was good enough and went over to Nophobia to gain confidence there. I had the first pitch dialed, but struggled again on the second pitch with no send.
At this point, I was having the most incredible muscle cramps I’ve ever experienced. Everything was cramping: hamstrings, forearms, biceps, calves, toes. I couldn’t hold on to my tools or lift my leg without freezing in place and looking like a clay Gumby that was stuck in tortuous positions. The day ended in laughter over the sad state of my body and there was an obvious unspoken concern from the entire crew that I was still very far from being ready to try this goal.
The next day was very hard. It was Laura Kos’s memorial, another friend of ours who had died recently in a skiing avalanche. We all went with somber emotions, and the weight of knowing this environment we find joy in can also take everything away. Community came together and shared in the sorrow and pain of another amazing soul gone far too early. That night we armed our helmets with stickers that celebrated Laura’s veracity for life: Just Be Kos.
The next morning, we were out of the house at 3am. I had slept a mere hour, and was still feeling the weight of a huge emotional hangover. This was, however, my last foreseeable day to try. As much as I wanted to succumb to Atychiphobia (the fear of failure), by not even getting out of bed, I had a team of friends that I didn’t want to let down.
We were the first there, which was no small feat since warmer days got everyone quite excited to do Cryophobia. We skied in, in record time, which cost me serious blisters on my heels. I couldn’t quite make this a good enough excuse to call it a day, but I considered it until I saw John feverishly getting ready. We started up Cryo by headlamp with John Price jugging like a mad man and shouting at me like an excited team of cheerleaders. How could I not succeed with this determination on the other end of my rope? By 11am, I topped out after leading the entire route clean.
On the ground, I picked up my Nophobia gear, and postholed over to the route’s amphitheatre, stuffing cold Safeway samosas in-between heavy breaths. I got my gear sorted and started up the first pitch with Scott belaying. Luckily, this was the one and only pitch I knew very well and it gave me the perfect confidence boost. I got to the anchors and pulled my rope through, so Scott could keep belaying me on the ground as I started the steep second pitch. I had trained for this in the gym, simulating an ascent of Nophobia. In reality, though, I still had not redpointed the crux this year and I wasn’t sure how it would go. Again, it was the cheering from John shouting beside me and Scott belaying that brought me back to the realization that I wasn’t alone in this - it was a team effort - and I better do my part!
Eventually, I landed at the top of the second pitch, stoked to have persevered and starting to believe that I was having a good day! John gave me a hug, Scott started to ascend the rope and we found our flow over the next three pitches. Nothing came easily, but being surrounded by my buds kept me focused and optimistic. I rapped quickly and continued on my way to Hydro with Scott.
Walking to Hydrophobia, I found myself somewhat in disbelief and wondering how I was going to have energy for a Grade 5 ice climb. Leading four more long pitches of ice was the last thing I felt like doing. I didn’t give myself time to mentally discuss, and certainly didn’t verbalize it, but instead continued in robotic motions. I re-racked and choked down Clif Bloks and random cookie scraps. It was about 4pm, Scott and I exchanged fist pumps and off we went. Ice climbing is relatively easy after hard mixed climbing, but it is still dangerous and real. I made sure to place more screws then I normally would and analyzed my every move with scrutiny.
After three long pitches I was on a decent ledge, looking up at the final 16th pitch of the day. It looked easier than the previous pitches. I was feeling tired but focused in the fading light. Scott was jugging up to me when the crack of a sudden roar of water broke the silence of the encroaching dusk. I looked up, and the entire left side of Hydrophobia was cascading with water. Luckily, we were on the right side. Rooster tails of water were flowing and drenching the climb. I was getting wet when the wind blew ever so slightly, and I had never experienced anything like this before. Clearly, this was how the climb got its name.
I yelled down to Scott to stop and build an anchor and I rapped back to him cleaning my screws. We made a rapid descent leaving gear behind in an effort to get off the ice as quickly as possible. The unknowns of what could happen to the ice, or what would happen to us if we got super wet while being far from help, was too great to finish the final pitch and the dream of the link-up.
When I returned to the ground, I burst out in my own flood of tears and emotion. I wasn’t upset that I couldn’t or didn’t finish. Instead, I was relieved it was done and we were all safe. The tears came from an overwhelming sadness for my friend. I felt the finale of this goal in that moment, and knew that it would never bring Sonja back. Nothing would. Despite my ability to return to the mountains and regain my confidence and my trust, I would never be able to reverse time.
To climb all three routes in a day was the goal, but to listen to my curiosity that wondered if it was possible, was perhaps the larger goal. I’ve never been one to say I’ve done something I haven’t, or say “I’ll get the route next time”. I always disliked that sort of almost-is-good-enough mentality. Somehow, with this one, though, it really was good enough for me. I can’t actually claim the trilogy, but it was a process worth striving for. This day was a culmination of a year of learning and growth. It was a test to ask for help when I needed it and to trust that my friends would be there for me. It was a way to reconnect with Sonja and learn to trust myself again. It was a reminder that I am capable in the mountains, and I got there with the knowledge that only human fallibility can teach.
To learn more about Sarah and her story you can watch the Not Alone film trailer, full feature coming in May 2022. Admire more of Heather Mosher's photos at @heathermoshermedia.
About the author
Sarah has been a sponsored mountain athlete and ACMG Alpine Guide in the Bow Valley for 20 years. An avid climber she's established new routes in Canada, China, Japan, Africa, Iceland and North America, and worked full-time running a business focused primarily on teaching, guiding and empowering women in the mountains. She also teaches and examines future guides for the ACMG TAPProgram. Currently her focus is directed towards the Mountain Muskox Program (for mountain trauma and grief) as the Executive Director, as well as creating the Ice avalanche atlas as the current Ice climbing Ambassador for Avalanche Canada.