Ascent of Koroc Ridge to Mt Caubvick
Sunday, August 8
Early morning reflections
Early morning hiking on lower Koroc
The next morning we make another 5am start. This time it is decided to give Tom a shot at the summit, and we offer to have him join our (Francois / Roland / myself) team. We climb a steep couloir not far from camp to gain the lower mass of the Koroc ridge. It is another glorious day, perfect for an ascent. Roland's feeling a little pooped from 3 days of continuous hiking activity and all of the trip planning before that, and Tom is going a little slower as well, and so Francois and I are often far ahead. I could hear that the helicopter in the distance flying around, and I wondered how things were going. Greg and Billie had formed their own team and, because of our team's frequent rest stops, have pulled far ahead up the Koroc ridge. We'd given them the rope for the Koroc step because we figured they'd be ahead of us. They would set up the rope and then leave it there for us to rappel on when we got there.
Always capturing the moment!
I am a fair ways ahead of the rest of our group, so I decide to sit and wait until they caught up. They take what seems like forever to catch up, and when they do, it is Francois first, who tells me that Roland has something to say and that he is going to film it. I didn't think about it at the time, but in retrospect I guess I should have guessed : Roland had been on the horn with Parks Canada - they had found Susan! While scanning some of the cliffs we had wanted to start searching, they spotted Susan. She is partway down one of the three cliffs that surrounded the upper football field, not more than a hundred metres from where her harness was found. (the particular cliff is the one that forms the headwall of the Minaret Glacier). She is about 50 metres down from the top of the cliff, on a ledge. How on earth did she get there? Did she fall? Did she manage to climb down there and get stuck? Was she looking for the way to Katherine and Jim? Or was she trying to find the way down to her own base camp.... Many questions. Apparently Luc is at that spot when Sue was being retrieved, and is capturing much of what is happening there.
Wide-angle from lower Koroc
Upper Koroc Ridge and Summit
Scrambling along the Koroc
Parks Canada says farewell to Roland
We are now just a few hundred metres from the Koroc step. I must admit, I find this part of the Koroc ridge to be airier and scarier than I was led to believe by reading Jack's book. I guess it all comes down to what your "base reference" is for this kind of thing. In my opinion, this makes it very important to state your base reference when you describe climbs to people. I carefully pick a route near the ridgecrest, almost always on the Quebec side. The rock was loose and the exposure great, so it was wise to tread carefully and not make anything move.
The Koroc Step
Tom is quite unsure of himself on this terrain; it becomes clear that he has little experience on this sort of thing, which is not a good sign. Roland, too, is pretty nervous about this ridge, stating that he's not been on something like this before. I slow down so that the two of them can follow the path I had chosen, which hopefully gives them a measure of comfort.
The summit block
Due to our even further reduced rate of speed, we take nearly an hour just to reach the Koroc step. Then, we have to get everyone into their harnesses, and rappel down the step. A very airy and exciting place, this notch was. I simply could not imagine doing this thing in high winds, snow, and slippery rocks. Nuts! Dan and Sue must have really wanted this summit.
Rapelling down the Koroc Step
Not being far away now, I can see a whack of our team on the summit. I can make out Luc, and Jim, and Katherine and many other members of the north team. It is very cool that we are all managing to summit together. Or rather, most of us, as our little sub-group is still stuck on the Koroc step. I wave and shrug my shoulders at those on the summit, since I could see they are all waiting for us, but there is little that can be done about that. Safety is the first order of the day, and if some of us need to go slower to be safe, then so be it.
Parks Canada contacts Roland on the radio to say their good-byes. They have to leave, and, having managed to locate and extract Dan and Sue, their duties are done anyway. Roland thanks them for their professional work and then they are off, briefly circling the summit with the helicopter and waving goodbye to everyone. A nice touch. (update, December 2005 - You can see a few of photos they took as they circled just below this paragraph)
Aerial view of us on Koroc
Most of the team on the summit
I help Roland and Tom down the step with a braking hand on the rope, followed by Francois. Yelling back and forth with Greg and Billie on the summit, we decide to haul the rope down and head down later on via the Minaret ridge.
I can see the spot where Dan had been, and it is strange to think that this little razor sharp edge of stone had been his home for almost exactly one year. The rope they had used was still tied into the rock pillar.
Roland examines the area very thoroughly, taking pictures, looking around. A pair of blue gloves, fingers worn out, are on the rocks here. They had belong to Susan. A lidless nalgene bottle marks the precise spot where Dan was. Roland sits on a stone block next to this spot and looks eastward, just staring. It is hard to describe the look on his face, but I imagine it is a mixture of bewilderment and sadness. He is probably thinking... what the hell happened to you, Dan, and what a shitty place to be stuck. I cannot begin to imagine what it is like to be in his shoes, sitting there, next to the final resting place of your best friend.
Another view of Dan's spot
Wondering what happened....
The knot that tied the rope
Annotated view of the Koroc Step
The day is drawing on and we are burning up time at an alarming rate. We gather up all of the items and put them into my pack. I then turn and started routefinding again, choosing a right-facing and then a left-facing path around some rock pinnacles in the step. Roland, Tom, and Francois didn't much like my left-facing choice around the second rock pinnacle, saying they thought I'd been a bit bold to make that move unroped. To me, it wasn't really any different than many of the other moves so far on the ridge - maybe the extreme exposure to the north made it seem worse than it really was. In any case, they all do not want to go any farther without a rope and belay, and so out the rope comes.
It takes a long time to set up the rope, and three people on a rope (Francois, Tom, and Roland) in this type of situation is usually pretty awkward. I realize that I also now have a rope in my pack - Dan and Sue's rope, and I figure, rather than just stand here and wait, I should be useful and use the rope to belay Tom, while Francois belays Roland. Soon I am sitting-hip-belaying Tom up to my locations on the ridge, which actually does speed things up a bit.
Tom being belayed
A few pitches of this and we are on the summit, finally, and Billie whisperes me a quiet "thank you" for having helped Tom up. Apparently those on the summit had been worried by the difficulty some of us were having on this section. John, Tom's son-in-law, had been practically biting his nails watching his Father-in-law tackle an exposed ridge he probably should not have chosen as his first alpine climbing experience! In fact, after a while he had said "I just can't watch anymore" and had headed down the Minaret ridge with his summit team.
It was now 2:30pm and we'd finally reached the summit. Everyone except for Billie and Greg had left (I had missed meeting all of the North team members). It was so nice of them to have stayed around to help out. We go about taking summit pictures and admiring the view, visiting first the Quebec side (Mount D'Iberville) and then the Labrador side (Mount Caubvick). This didn't take much effort, as the two were about 20 feet apart!
Andrew and Roland on Caubvick
Roland goes to the Labrador
cairn, which contains the summit log, and found the note that proved
that Sue and Dan had reached the summit: "August 11, 2003,
Daniel Pauze and Susan Barnes, in a wicked snowstorm
They had made it, alright. There it was, Dan's handwriting, using
a half-broken pencil it looked like. What must have it been like
that day one year ago, with the wind whipping snow sideways and
with nothing but blank white cloud all around them?
We talk about what to do with the summit note. Take it, leave it?
Roland is firm. The right place for that note is in the summit cairn.
He then soberly sts down and writes an addendum on the back of it:
"Dan and Sue
were both killed here within hours of writing this note. Be very
careful on descent, please. Both have been recovered. Signed,
Labrador Search Expedition, 19 members, August 8, 2004 - R. Hanel".
Roland read's Dan's entry
Sue and Dan's summit note
Minaret ridge from summit
It is now getting pretty late - it is well after 3pm and we are still on the summit. The other team members (with the exception of Billie and Greg) had long since left. We have another knife edged ridge to traverse, this one longer than the Koroc's knife-edge, and none of our group have been on it before, so we don't know precisely what to expect. And since we are belaying Tom and Roland, we know it is going to take a long time. The weather forecast is indicating that rain might come overnight, and we certainly don't want to be up on these ridges in any kind of bad weather.
Descending the minaret ridge
Roland fuels up with Snickers
As it turns out, the Minaret ridge, although quite spectacular and with a completely vertical northern side, is actually not too bad. Billie serves as routefinder for quite a while, scrambling with skill and ease up and down and around pinnacles; sometimes along the crest of the ridge, and sometimes somewhat down below on the south side of it. She and Greg belay Tom, while I belay Roland. The rock on this ridge is much firmer, less loose, and generally more enjoyable to climb on. As we climb on, I could tell Roland is becoming more comfortable with the whole idea, and after a while the belays I give him become more of a formality and less of actual use. After a while we simply ditch the rope (yay) and he free-scrambles along with us. I could tell that Tom as well is getting better at the climbing, even though he elects to stay roped.
Spectacular view to the north
Thus freed from my belaying duties, I offer to go ahead and scout the route, which Billie [now tired from all the routefinding and belaying] agrees to. What a fun little ridge! Scrambling up and over blocks and down narrow defiles, all the while with fantastic views and exposure to the north, all the way down to the crevassed L-1 glacier and beautiful Ice-Blue Tarn.
While climbing along, I get a call from the documentary producer, Andy, on the satellite phone. He is full of questions about the day's events and about Sue and Dan's recovery, in general. I then call down to our base camp, to let them know that we are ok but very late. John answers and we reassure him that his father-in-law and the rest of us are ok, and we are making our way slowly down.
The ridge seemed to go on a long ways, and we are getting a bit tired of it when finally we make it to the upper football field - the spot where Susan's harness had been found. From here on it is just hiking! Unfortunately it was now almost 8pm and it is going to be dark soon. We tell Tom, who is visibly very tired now, to continue on down, and Greg and Billie escort him. Francois, Roland and I stay behind and go over to the [actually very nice] Inukshuk that Parks Canada has built on the eastern edge of the upper football field, above the Minaret Glacier headwall. It is directly under this spot, 110 feet down, that Sue was found.
Roland against setting sun
into the Inukshuk is a beautiful little note from Katherine, written
earlier in the day:
2:17pm. Dear Roland: Parks Canada built this wonderful Inukshuk
above where Susan's body was located, 50 metres below. They used
these rocks to anchor their rope to locate here. She was on a
wide ledge. They carried her to Saglek and will take her to Goose
Bay or Nain depending on weather. I wonder if she was blown off
this point. We wanted to wait for you, and to talk with you, but
with the weather turning, thought it best to move on. Please have
a safe trip down. Katherine".
As mentioned earlier, Tom, Greg and Billie go on ahead and start hiking down back to camp. We knew that we'd be faster and catch up, so stopping to do some examination of Sue's resting spot is not going to be a problem. Francois wants to capture the moment and starts filming. Roland edges his way over to the edge, on his stomach, until his head is poking over the abyss. He looks straight down and says he thinks he can see the ledge where Sue was. Then, silence. I think Roland is having a wave of grief come over him, and he lies there for a long time, quietly crying. It is a poignant moment and I can't help crying a bit myself.
Roland looking over cliff
Side view of Minaret Headwall Cliff
: a little less than a year later, George
Luste and friends climb to this spot to install a memorial plaque
for Dan and Sue. You can read a brief writeup and see a couple
of pictures of the plaque here
We start down the long and tedious boulder field of the south-central ridge. Ahead we can see Tom and Greg... Greg is walking just ahead of Tom, finding the best path to make it as easy on Tom as possible. Billie is a bit farther ahead of them. It doesn't take us long until we are within earshot, and Greg calls back, in the growing twilight, saying that he thinks we may have to bivouac up here for the night. I myself don't really fancy the idea, what with the forecast predicting rain and with the night being so nice and warm. It wasn't like we needed shelter from the elements, so why not continue? Plus... we had all budgeted for a 12-hour day at most, not a 24-hour one, and we were all practically out of water - and there was no water at all to be found anywhere except down low in the cirque valleys, where there was plenty. Another reason to head down, I think. I had stuffed a bottle with snow earlier, and was now holding it against my body to help melt it, but anyone who has done this knows that it is a maddeningly slow process.
Summit Twilight Silhouette
Roland calls down to camp and asks for bivouac gear in his best authoritative SAR voice. We just finish communicating that when our phone batteries go dead. Hmm.. that probably sounded dramatic on the other radio! Looking back at the summit, I see it silhouetted against the dying twilight. Its jagged profile looks somewhat menacing now.
Soon it is completely dark, and we get out our headlamps. Tom has forgotten his, but fortunately Roland also has a hand-held LED flashlight, and gives it to Billie, who in turn gives her headlamp to Tom, so he can see while still having his hands free. Off in the valley we see the twinkle of a headlamp, and figure it must be John coming up to us with the stuff.
Hiking at night
The night is surprisingly warm, and we can see that although it is getting cloudy, it doesn't look to menacing yet. We elect to continue down, slowly, stopping when necessary for rests. A few hours later, at the 4500-ish foot level, we suddenly see the headlamp, but right in front of us... and it turns out to be a very sweaty Jack Bennett. Amazing! He has really motored up to us, and I am quite impressed. He takes off his pack and presents us with a wonderful array of goodies, and some water: devilled Vienna sausages, Pita bread, canned fish, tasty gummy worms, and other good stuff. Yum!
While snacking, Billie tells us about the concept of the Epic Potential. This is a term she has coined in her outdoors-teachings that answers the following question: "For any particular trip, what is the nature and depth of the problems that can be encountered if things go wrong?". She explains that each outdoor trip or outing has a different Epic Potential depending on the terrain, the people involved, the weather forecast, and many other variables. One can then know, in advance, how bad to expect things if things do go wrong. An interesting concept, and like most such things, is simply a nice defined way of looking at something that you kind-of-sort-of knew about in your head, but hadn't really thought through thoroughly.
Finding much needed water
I am now really parched - and so is everyone else. Ahead in the dim glow of the headlamps, we spot a snow field, and we think about the tedious task of trying to body-melt yet more snow. I have an idea, though - the night is warm and the temperature is still above freezing. If we're lucky, there may be liquid water somewhere around the snowfield, so I scoot down ahead and tramp onto the snowfield. The snow is still quite soft - good sign. I make my way down to the lowest part of the field, and I hear gurgling. Another good sign. I take my pack off, and, at the lowest corner of the snowfield, I use my helmet to dig, and soon I hit a bowl-like lens of ice, which as I remove the overlying snow, gets filled in with a stream of ice-cold water. Heaven! I fill a bottle and have a good, long swig, then call over to the others. It's like finding an oasis in the desert!
After the watering frenzy is over, and we are nicely re-hydrated, we continue our descent. It is now after midnight and we are still far up the ridge. This is tiring and frustrating work! I am getting pretty tired now and am quite looking forward to crashing in the tent. I can visualize drifting off to sleep now... ahhhh.
Down near the bottom of the ridge, Greg and Tom indicate where they located a shelter of sorts under a boulder. They had initially thought that it might have been a shelter Dan or Sue built, but we now know that wasn't the case. Perhaps it was an archeological site.
We are now in the floor of the valley, and the going is a little faster. Up in the sky, we see the beginnings of twilight, and, through the thickening clouds, a sharp bout of northern lights. By the time we reach the easy grassy section of the valley, it is light enough to dispense with headlamps. I am so looking forward to my sleeping bag... I know it is only minutes away.
Billy and Mitch are dozing in their tents and are waiting for us to arrive, and ask how we all are. John gets out of his tent and does the same. We've made it back, trudging zombie-like, really tired but safe-and-sound. And we've managed to dodge the rain! It is now after 4am. 23 and a half hours from start to finish. As Billie would say, the Epic Potential of this trip was [at least partially] realized!
Interactive trackmap with photo points - Day 3 - Koroc Ridge Climb of Mt Caubvick - click map to view
Day 3 - Caubvick Ascent via Korok, Descent via Minaret - Climb Data
* : +/- 75 feet
Total Elevation Gain:
Total Elevation Loss:
* : +/- 75 feet