by Gerald Brunckhorst

Murphy’s Laws came to mind as we drove through the park gate at five A.M. I wondered what else could go wrong as I reflected upon the previous four attempts of the Silver Cord. Failing equipment, bad weather, and lack of daylight hours seemed to combine in multiples to deflect any forward progress. The air was clean and crisp when we arrived at the trailhead. I was very happy that the park roads had been plowed early. This enabled us to drive 45 miles of park road in a warm pickup. (Loading everything on a snowmobile and braving frostbite conditions at three A.M. had proven in itself unbearable in prior attempts.)

I remember being ahead of schedule and it paid off. Ron’s ski bindings failed again (time to invest a few dollars in new equipment) and we finished two of the three-mile approach “kick skiing”. (Kick skiing is a technique we dreamed up on the spot and put to good use.) I recall wondering how sore my right knee would be the next morning. The technique required gliding with one ski and pushing with one boot.

An hour behind schedule, at the canyon rim, we abandoned skis and poles, down climbed to a large tree and prepared to break new ground. I’m sure that neither one of us wanted to pull the ropes after the scary rappel. In hindsight we really should have left a fixed rope as an escape route.

As we waded through deep snow on a ramp covered with avalanche debris, a nervous tension began building. The potential energy stored in the tons of snow and rock 750′ above whispered secrets. Soon my eyes followed a ribbon of ice up and up and up. Serious, very serious climbing presented itself, as well as hammocks of snow in steep amphitheaters above. I knew those bowls above held the secret in the air and I began to wonder what was going to happen. Why did I feel so nervous?

I recall Ron being nervous as well; he encouraged me to quickly organize gear and solo the first pitch. The first belayed pitch was a continuous 165′ 80° sweep to a precarious stance. I volunteered. That narrow, dark slot 200′ above looked to be vertical, if not overhanging, and I prayed leading now would help me escape facing that lead above.

By the time we reached the steeper section, Ron’s face showed nothing but serious contemplation. Small slides sifted by on the left and rock fall became obvious on the right. Snowballs and spindrift rained on our belay stance. The bowls above no longer had a secret, now they seemed to laugh and throw debris at us. The day had warmed too quickly and the accumulated snow threatened to become a kinetic mass.

Watching Ron struggle above indicated that the threat of an avalanche pried as much mentally as the climbing did physically. Moments after Ron yelled to be ready for an upcoming fall; rock fall and swooshing snow helped the adrenaline finish my nervous system off. Ron didn’t fall (thank God) and

I managed belaying while buried to the neck. Three more slides threatened to destroy us, but our helmets and the pack hung on the screw above me diverted damage by rocks and ice chunks. Ron still hung on and in a quiet moment between slides he pulled over the bulge. Now I really worried, as the bulge had neatly helped debris clear his critical placements, and he was in a bowling alley. I stopped holding my breath when the cry “off belay” echoed down.

Fatigue set in and following the pitch and cleaning screws zapped all remaining energy. The grade 3 ice above gave way slowly as leading with fatigue-induced dizzy spells threatened me as much as thoughts of another slide. Trees and stable snow provided security at the rim and we rested in the last light of the day.

We found the single set of skis a half mile up the rim and kick skied our way past hellish hot pots and gleaming animal eyes. I didn’t care too much about the eyes that followed us in the dark. Bears, buffalo, who knows -I really didn’t have enough energy to worry about it. All I wanted was my bed back in Bozeman. At the pickup I realized we had been at this game more than 24 hours and it wasn’t a dream, we had really climbed the Silver Cord.

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