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In this video, ice climber and mountain guide John Freeman is climbing a free-hanging ice pillar in Canada when it collapses. Freeman had not yet placed a screw, which world-renowned ice climber and friend Will Gadd credits with saving his life. Gadd is a proponent of protection-free pillar climbing, saying on his blog, “If you can’t lead a piece of free-hanging or free-standing ice without putting screws into it, then you shouldn’t be on it.” We spoke with Freeman about his experience and how it’s affected him.
Where did this take place?
On the Icefield Parkway #93N in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.
What route is this? Was it established, or would this have been the first ascent?
This dagger was at Ice Nine, touching the ground and separate from where that route forms. It formed over a mixed route called “Bacon” that tops out to the left of pitch one of Ice Nine I had the mindset that it was an unclimbed line or variation, but maybe that’s splitting hairs. Either way, it was a beautiful piece of ice. I would estimate it at WI7 X if it hadn’t collapsed. It required all of my climbing skill and technique just to get on it and climb for the first 20 feet.
Any estimate on how high were you at the point when the ice broke?
I would estimate that I was 15 to 18 meters (50 to 60 feet) above the ground that I landed on. There was a good steep angle to the area directly below the ice that deflected me and the collapsing ice down the slope. I was spun onto my back and traveled about 200 feet down that slope before I came to a stop.
Has this experience changed your approach to climbing ice?
For sure! The possibility that a large, unsupported feature of ice can collapse is more than just theory for me. The sound of the collapse is what really invades my mind when I’m climbing. I just finished three days of guiding work in temps nearing -30°C, and the ice was making all kinds of noises. Tension releases in the ice scared the hell out of me the whole season after this incident. I’ve worked through that now. That’s why I do so much mixed climbing now… I have also become more attuned to the ice and how I climb it.
Do you still climb freestanding pillars?
I do. I would have to say that this thing was more of a dagger since it only just touched down. There was no support from the ground. I actually felt the climb flex in the first third. I am very selective when climbing pillars. I’m way more likely to walk away than before. I’ve read a few comments on the internet today, and some folks have made assumptions about the conditions. The reality is that these type of features are challenging to gauge since there is a lot at play and we will always have incomplete information. My climbing partner and I spent some time trying to assess the route. For this type of feature, the uncertainty factor is high! A challenging part for me to deal with at first (besides nearly killing myself), was that I believe that my lapse in situational awareness was at play and contributed to the collapse. Watching how hard I was swinging at the end, compared to the rest of the climb, is amazing. The intensity of the climbing pushed me to forget that I was at the most crucial point in the climb and needed to keep the gentle technique going. That being said, I had no illusions about the fact that I had accepted a very high level of risk while climbing this dagger. This shit is dangerous. I’m thrilled to get the chance to live and learn from this.