In this funny and gritty debut memoir, praised by Outside, Sierra, Alpinist, and more, Jan Redford grows from a reckless rock climber to a mother who fights to win back her future.
As a teenager, she sets her sights on the improbable dream of climbing mountains. By age twenty, she’s a climber with a magnetic attraction to misadventures and the wrong men.
Redford finally finds the love of her life, an affable Rockies climber. When he is killed in an avalanche in Alaska, a grieving Redford finds comfort in the arms of another extreme alpinist. Before long, they are married, with a baby on the way. While her husband works as a logger, Redford tackles the traditional role of wife and mother. But soon, she pursues her own dream, one that pits her against her husband.
End of the Rope is Redford's telling of heart-stopping adventures, from being rescued off El Capitan to leading a group of bumbling cadets across a glacier. It is her laughter-filled memoir of friendships with women in that masculine world. Most moving, this is the story of her struggle to make her own way in the mountains and in life. To lead, not follow.
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The snow had been trampled flat by dozens of ice climbers over the past couple of months, and my plastic mountain boots crunched with every step. Dan’s steady crunch crunch ahead of me sounded out of sync with my quick crunch-crunch-crunch-crunch. If I moved my legs any faster I’d be jogging. The Bow River, partially locked in ice, flowed beside us, and Mount Rundle rose above the trees to our right, streaked with vertical lines of frozen ice. No time to stop and enjoy the scenery. We had slept in, snuggled up in Dan’s bed, not wanting to go out into the crispy winter, so we were off to an “alpine start” at ten in the morning.
“Here we go!” Dan called back over his pack as he turned off the path and followed some footprints into the trees. The trail angled uphill here and soon we broke out into a gully, where we stood for a moment on snow-covered ice, water trickling deep below our feet. A hundred metres ahead we could see the first three tiers of the waterfall. The Professor Falls, named for the University of Calgary professor who had kept falling on the first ascent. We trudged to the base of the rock and stood under the first tier. Forty metres of blue frozen water, as though a fairy had waved a magic wand and turned it to ice mid-splash. It was steep. But I knew it wasn’t as steep as the pitch at the very top, the one we couldn’t see from here.
I’d had only one real season of ice climbing, mostly with Jim, and that was almost three years ago.
“Looks pretty steep,” I said.
“Ah, you’ll cruise it,” Dan said. “I solo this all the time. Best time was two hours and forty-five minutes from my door.”
“Jesus!” I looked at my watch. We’d left over an hour and a half ago.
“That was on a mountain bike,” Dan added.
We threw down our packs and pulled out the gear. I slipped into my harness and strapped my crampons to my boots. Dan clipped half a dozen ice screws to his harness and uncoiled the rope, then snapped on his foot fangs in half the time it took me to do up the leather straps on my metal crampons. Foot fangs were the new rage in the ice climbing community: metal points on a plastic base. They didn’t adjust to the size of my boots, though, because the outdoor industry still hadn’t twigged to the fact that women climbed mountains.
Dan had had a near-disaster with them the first time out. He’d come up here to solo Professor on early-season ice, “a web of icicles and air,” as he’d described it, so thinly formed it barely held a person’s weight. Partway up, one of his new foot fangs popped off and he’d struggled to get it back on without falling. He knew he should have gone down, but he wanted to just look at the last crux pitch, and on the way, his foot fang had fallen off a second time. Another little hint that maybe he should retreat. But no, he’d decided to do the crux after all. The foot fang stuck it out for that pitch but fell off a half dozen more times on the descent. “Good thing it didn’t come off on the crux, though,” he’d said.
That had been only three months ago. He’d let me read the pages in his climbing journal: “I was going to dance my own ice dance by myself, a reflection of my personal state: climbing alone and sleeping alone.” His former girlfriend had moved in with that “tubby bald-headed dude,” and at that point I was still turning down his offers of dinner, or an ice climb, or a ski together at Lake Louise.
I unhooked my ice axes from my pack, old tools I’d bought second-hand a few years ago.
“I have a present for you.” Dan was vibrating with excitement, as though I’d just told him I had a present for him. He reached into his pack. “Your birthday present.”
“My birthday’s not till the end of the month.”
“I know. I’ll get you another one then.”
He handed me a brand new Stubai ice axe. It was made for technical ice, a huge improvement over my two clunkers. It was much shorter, with a steep, serrated pick that could dig easily into the ice, and a bent handle so you wouldn’t bash your knuckles. Big, ugly, bruised knuckles were the sign of an avid ice climber.
“I set the wrist loop up like mine,” he said. He’d slid an extra rainbow-coloured sling over the wrist loop to keep it from biting into my skin.
“Oh my God! These are over a hundred dollars!” My last paycheque at the restaurant had been $175 for two weeks and tips had barely doubled that. I grabbed the tool and swung it above my head. “It’s beautiful!”
“I get a good discount.” Dan had given up his milk route for a job as manager of an outdoor store in Banff. “Do I get a kiss from my girl?”
My girl. I still felt like Brad’s girl, six months after leaving Fernie. But Dede was Brad’s girl now. I stood on my front points with the hand holding my new ice axe wrapped around Dan’s neck and gave him a noisy kiss on the lips, then shoved one of my old axes into my pack. It would be a good spare.
Dan had shown the same persistence courting me as he had climbing this waterfall with a faulty foot fang. He would come into the Rose and Crown while I was waitressing, and the cook would say, “Your milkman’s here again,” and there was Dan, sitting on a blue milk crate at the back of the kitchen, his Alpha Milk truck parked outside. I’d finally agreed to dinner at Georgio’s in Banff, which led to too much wine, which led to my inability to drive home to Canmore, which led to spending the night, which led to us becoming an item. Jan and Dan. He was tickled pink. I was conflicted. Waffling. One foot in, one foot out. He’d said, “Come on. If you don’t end up with me, you’ll end up with some other guy anyway.” Which was probably true.
As I slipped the rope through my belay device, Dan swung his tools above his head, sinking them with a dull thud into the ice. “It’s in good shape,” he said.
He stepped up the ice, pulled out his tool and swung again, first one, then the other, dancing his way up the waterfall. He climbed the way he skied. In complete control. Expending only as much energy as he needed to.
A vapour mushroom billowed from my mouth as I breathed out the glacial air. I pulled my neck tube over my face, breathed through the old saliva-smelling nylon. Stamped my feet to keep my toes alive. Fed out the rope. Belaying was the worst part of ice climbing. Standing in one spot, trying not to freeze to death. It was also hard on the back. I bent over sideways, trying to stretch it out.
Dan pulled over the lip at the top and disappeared onto the flat section between tiers, off to find the bolt anchor. He hadn’t put in one ice screw as protection. He was only tied into the rope so he could bring me up.
“I’m off belay,” he yelled, and started pulling up the slack. He’d used most of the 150 feet of rope. When it went tight on my harness, I started climbing.
Stretching high, I swung my new ice axe with a flick of my wrist. The dull thunk meant a secure placement. Then with my old ice axe I swung one, two, three times before I got a good placement. Kicking my front points into the ice, I stepped up, keeping my feet flat, trying to hang off straight arms to conserve energy. I’d learned some technique from a three-day ice climbing course with the Yamnuska Mountain School four years ago, back when I’d had big plans to become a bad-ass female ice climber. It hadn’t taken long to figure out climbing rock in the sunshine was a more pleasurable way to go.
Tap tap tap. Tap tap tap, tap tap. It took several tries to get each axe in this time. To me, the ice was brittle. To Dan, because it was more than a few inches thick, it was “primo.” I scrabbled instead of danced my feet up, forgetting to drop my heels. The waterfall was so steep I could have stuck out my tongue and licked it. The higher I got, the more difficult the axe placements, and I sent off cascades of shards as I dug for a secure hold. My calves felt like they were being branded and my hands were numb from my death-grip on my tools. The only upper-body strength training I’d done since my fall trip to Yosemite had been holding a tray full of food over my shoulder, and that had exercised only my left arm.
“This is fucking steep!” I yelled up. No response. He either couldn’t hear me, or he was choosing not to. He had a tendency to ignore me at times, which was irritating. I knew he couldn’t figure me out. Hot and cold. One day, willing to fall in love, staying over at his place in Banff; the next, retreating to my loft bedroom in Canmore, curled up with my book, The Cinderella Complex, and yellow highlighter pen, half hoping he’d given up on me.
Finally, at the top, I pulled myself over the lip onto flat ice. Dan was at the base of the next tier, another steep bulge of ice, about the same height as this one. He was stamping his feet, trying to keep warm.
“There’s my sweetie!”
He was grinning a full-face grin, hunched over slightly, probably trying to keep his core warm but it made him look like he was taking a little bow. He was so open about his feelings for me. On our first unofficial date I’d made him a breakfast omelet at my place halfway through his milk run. We’d kissed, just a little peck on the lips on the porch before he left, and he’d run all the way back to his milk truck, jumping and hooting.
My roommate Sharon had said, “He’s a really sweet guy, you know. You should give him a chance. And he’s beautiful too. You’d be nuts to pass that one up.”
Table of ContentsAuthor’s Note
Prologue: First Climb
Chapter 1: On the Rocks
Chapter 2: Lion’s Layback
Chapter 3: The Rescue
Chapter 4: Speed Ruts
Chapter 5: Learning to Roll
Chapter 6: Bugaboo
Chapter 7: World’s Toughest Milkman
Chapter 8: Fragile Ice
Chapter 9: We Gather Today
Chapter 10: Aberdeen
Chapter 11: Show No Fear
Chapter 12: Climbing Girlfriend
Chapter 13: The Final Last Straw
Chapter 14: The Memo
Chapter 15: In the Arms of a Mountain
Chapter 16: The Underwear Drawer
Chapter 17: Teetering on the Edge
Chapter 18: Pink Wedding Dress
Chapter 19: The Waiting
Chapter 20: Miracles
Chapter 21: Into the Shadows
Chapter 22: Back on the Sharp End
Chapter 23: Yodel Village
Chapter 24: You Lead, I’ll Follow
Chapter 25: Carsick
Chapter 26: Die Young, Stay Pretty
Chapter 27: Grant’s Lunch
Chapter 28: Fractured
Chapter 29: Playing Dead
Chapter 30: Mama Spiders
Chapter 31: Remember the Lilac
Chapter 32: Power Surge
Chapter 33: Leaving Chaba
Chapter 34: Only Four Years
Chapter 35: One Little “Non”
Epilogue: Second Chances