Sunday, May 18, 2014

Timing and hormones

A few stars have to line up to get up (or down) something cool in the mountains. And the bigger the something, the more stars it takes. Thus, as long as you're fit and coordinated enough to ride a bike, you'll do fine on Professor Falls. You need somewhat bigger quads and a slightly better swing, all on top of a decent weather forecast, to climb Nemesis. However, to make Slipstream a reasonable proposition, you'd better have put in enough miles earlier in the season that you can run up the route - and have waited for bomber snow conditions. But I might be overcomplicating matters. In the end, success in the mountains comes down to "timing and hormones," to borrow Choc Quinn's memorable phrase. The sky might be blue, the ice plastic (or the snow fluffy, if down and not up is the goal), but if your body - or mind - are not up to the task, you're going nowhere. Conversely, you might be champing at the bit, but if the ice you dreamed about turns out to be slush, or the powder you hoped for has been replaced by avalanche debris, you're not going far. Last month I had a couple of days like that, days when desire and reality clashed. Still, it might've been for the best. If you never fail, the occasional successes don't taste as sweet.


The thermometer on the dashboard dipped down to -15 C as Juan and I drove up the gravel road above Canmore. With not quite enough room in the back of the Impreza, the tips of my skis poked me insistently in the arm. Then I looked up at EEOR and forgot all about skiing. An intermittent ribbon of ice stretched down the line of Dropout, a summer rock route. We didn't have even an ice axe between us, but as we continued on our way toward perfect corn snow, we made plans to return.

A few days later we were back. The high pressure of the previous weekend had given way to largely cloudy skies, which made for a warm night. Still, there had been enough of a freeze that - some of the time, anyway - we were able to walk on top of the snow. Most of the time, though, we'd punch all the way through the hollow snowpack to the scree underneath.

We were dripping with sweat by the time we kicked steps to the base of the wall. From where we stood, craning our necks to look up at the hundreds of metres of cliff overhead, the line of ice appeared less substantial than it had a few days earlier. Neither did the sound of a steady stream of meltwater inspire confidence. But, having come this far, we had to at least try. 

Apart from a few small patches of snow, the first pitch appeared to be bare rock, and I said I thought it'd go more easily without crampons. Unfortunately Juan followed my advice, which caused his heart rate to spike repeatedly, as his boots would sketch off of snow-covered holds and he'd slam onto handjams or drytool placements.

I'd forgotten how much more snowy a cliff appears when you're looking down it rather than up. Balancing on a small ledge, I dug out my crampons while managing to drop only one glove. Having spikes on my feet made what was in fact a mixed pitch much more enjoyable. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

I'm not not sure why I kept my crampons on for the next pitch, which was mostly dry rock. I suppose I optimistically assumed I'd need them higher up, where the ice streak started. Unfortunately, where we stood tethered to some rusty pins, it was nothing more than a wet streak. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

In the end monopoints did turn out to be nice on edges and in shallow divots too small for boots. However, I never did need them for ice. When, from where the corner ended below an overlap, I reached over to the white stuff, the pick merely sliced ineffectually through wet slush. All around us the face was warming up and what ice there was was turning to water. It was time to go down.

By the time we'd rappelled off, the snow in the scree bowls had turned isothermal. We didn't relish the prospect of reversing the long traverse below the cliff, so we postholed straight down a rib: though wet cotton candy, soggy avalanche debris and finally dry junipers. It was barely afternoon when we drove back to the city.


A couple of weeks passed. The sun grew stronger each day, and the ice down Dropout retreated further and further up the cliff. I put it out of my mind, at least for this season. Instead, with the mountains still slumbering under a heavy mantle of of snow, I tried to make up for a winter of almost no skiing.

On another cold morning under a perfect blue sky Juan and I skinned up to Chester Lake. Juan had been touring in the area just a couple of days earlier and saw people enjoying perfect powder down the classic Chester Lake Couloir. We wanted in on the fun, which is why we got up long before sunrise on a weekday and drove out to the mountains for a ski hit before work. 

From across the valley I saw what looked like debris in the couloir. Hmm, could they just be large sloughs from the Sunday skiers? Somewhat disconcerted, we continued. Unfortunately, once we got closer, the debris turned out to be just that - debris. Sometime in the last thirty six hours some cornices fell off of the right wall of the couloir and cleaned out the powder. We bootpacked halfway up the icy bed of the gully before giving up.

The skiing was as unpleasant as we'd expected. Most of the time we stayed in four-wheel mode, bumping down hard avalanche debris. Only occasionally, where the couloir widened out, did we manage a few fun turns in soft snow.

A week later, after a big dump of snow, Juan came back and enjoyed deep powder all the way down the couloir. I was stuck in an all-day meeting, my FOMO exacerbated by his Spot updates. What can I say? It's all timing and hormones.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

From the diary of a weekend warrior: Prairie Mountain

"You weren't kidding when you said you weren't in top shape these days," Ian said. I tried to think of a witty rejoinder but nothing better than "Nope" came to mind. I lifted a leg and plunged it into the faceted snow in front of me. When I weighted it, it sank in to mid-thigh. Awkwardly pulling the other leg out of the depths, I repeated the process.

Ploughing through bottomless facets to the Trophy Wall on Mt. Rundle can feel like a workout at the best of times. Yet somehow the steep trees and crotch-deep snow seemed especially trying today. At long last we crested the rib below the routes and traversed onto wind-scoured scree. Crossing one last lee-loaded slope, we contoured just below where the snow petered out into bare rock, before dropping our packs in a wind scoop. I would've liked to linger and enjoy lunch high above the valley floor but snow crystals swirled in sudden gusts around our alcove, and bare fingers quickly grew numb. In between swinging our arms, we choked down some bars and banana bread, washing them down with drink mix. Throwing the ropes on our backs, we pulled over a short rock wall onto the slope below the climbs. Another fifty metres and we'd be done with uphill walking for the day.

Ian Welsted ploughing through the usual crappy front-range snowpack below the Trophy Wall on Mt. Rundle.

The smear below the roof on Haunted by Waters, the direct mixed start to Sea of Vapours. Photo: Ian Welsted.

A solid tool cam - or at least as solid as a Rockies' limestone flake can be -  allowed a long reach to the clip. I relaxed, knowing a fall now would be just a boing in the air. Photo: Ian Welsted.

Now that's what I call mixed climbing! After a winter of lock-offs and big dry roofs, I still got pumped on a humble single-digit M-climb. It's funny the difference it makes having to swing into ice, rather than merely reaching up to a slot. Photo: Ian Welsted.

The second pitch offered more classic mixed movement: one monopoint on a rock edge, another in delaminated ice, one pick torqued in a thin crack while the other stretched for more ice. Photo: Ian Welsted.

On the third pitch we connected with the standard line of Sea of Vapours. Even in a lean season it'd seen enough traffic to create a pegboard up the ice. Come to think of if, some of the holes were of my own making

The last few metres to the top belay. Yeah, it's just the same old Trophy Wall, but what a place to ice climb!

At the end of the day, as we boot skied toward the valley and our bikes, I found myself thinking about a humble hill near my home rather than the world-class ice we'd just enjoyed. I hadn't forgotten Ian's comment from earlier in the day, and I knew he was right. I wasn't in good shape, and with the long, cool days of spring just around the corner, it was time to do something about it. And that meant running up Prairie Mountain after work.

True, I could just don my running shoes and hit the riverside trails 5 minutes from my house. And sometimes I do just that. But even though it's nothing more than rounded hill, Prairie Mountain is still a mountain of sorts. It stands at the threshold of the Rockies, and from its bald crown you can look west at the jagged ridges of the front ranges. When a Chinook sweeps in, the wind howls above the forest and whips the snow into a cornice, which always looks slightly ridiculous next to a well-worn trail. A few days later, with the sun throwing long shadows across the mosaic of melting snow and yellow grass, you can be down to a T-shirt in the warm evening air - air that still feels raw in your throat as you try to beat your best time to the summit cairn. It's on Prairie Mountain that I try to make my lungs and legs strong before trips to Alaska and Pakistan. Maybe I'll see you there this spring.

The foothills of the Rockies, a great playground for the working stiffs of Calgary a half an hour to the east. If you're a regular, you might even be able to spot Prairie Mountain. Hint: look for Moose Mountain first. Another hint: neither is much of a mountain.

A spring ground blizzard near the top of Prairie Mountain.

It's only 700 vertical metres, but depending how you play it, it can be enough to get your legs and lungs in shape.

Thursday, January 30, 2014


Plastic climbing is hard: all those long reaches, wild swings and slippery slopers. No matter how hard I try, I never seem to get any better. But wait; how hard do I actually try? Do I really think I can spend most of my free time hanging from ice tools, then put in a few gym sessions and expect to float up C5 problems on the sculpted plywood of the Calgary Climbing Centre? No, given that kind of training regimen - or rather the absence of one - I should be happy I can grunt my way up the occasional C4. You don't get shit done by dabbling. Success takes discipline and focus.

In my defence, I don't always dabble. Last summer in Pakistan Ian and I were determined to finally climb something big. After a couple of trips on which we'd puked, gasped and exhausted ourselves into failure, we thought we knew what it took to succeed: staying healthy while surrounded by Asian microbes, acclimatizing on boring snow slogs and pacing ourselves on big pushes. And it worked. When a giant high-pressure system settled over the Karakoram, we were ready. Five days after leaving base camp we stood on top of the biggest and coolest peak we'd yet climbed.

But just as we couldn't stay on the summit of K6 West forever, we - or at least I - can't be single-mindedly working toward a goal all the time. Once in a while it's fun to dabble. And last weekend provided the perfect opportunity for some high-quality dabbling. With clear skies and temperatures in the valley bottoms rising above freezing, you could choose between ice on the shady aspects and rock on the sunny ones. But I didn't want to have to choose; I wanted it all. There've been times when, asked whether I wanted ice cream or crème brûlée for dessert, I'd been tempted to reply, "Yes". And that's how I answered last weekend.

Day 1: Ice Cream

Cole Steinbrenner taking a break on the approach to the Terminator Wall on Mt. Rundle, with the January sun rising on Cascade Mtn across the valley.

Rounding a rock rib an hour later, to be confronted with some of the most spectacular ice in the range.

Yours truly stepping out in more ways than one on Sea of Vapours. Well, not really, but who can resist throwing a coin into Fontana di Trevi - or posing on the famous traverse? Photo: Cole Steinbrenner.

Cole Steinbrenner on the way down, with the meanders of the Bow River almost a thousand metres lower.

From left to right: Terminator, Replicant (both unformed) and Sea of Vapours. 

Against the backdrop of a pink sunset, the snow-covered mountains resemble a stage set more than an actual landscape.

Day 2: Crème Brûlée

Seen from the cold shadows of Echo Canyon on Grotto Mtn., the cliffs of the Lookout glow in the morning sun.

With no snow in sight, you could be forgiven for thinking it was summer. That is, until you noticed the different shadows cast by the low winter sun - and yours truly's blindingly white back. Photo: Bonar McCallum.

Alpenglow over Canmore and, from left to right: Mt. Lougheed, Rimwall and the Three Sisters.

A different place, a different time but the same sun, setting on the north face of K6.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Bigg Kidd

The relentless beep-beep-beep of the alarm wormed its way into my dreams. Surely it was still too early to rise and get ready for my morning class, wasn’t it? Slowly, reluctantly, I emerged from the depths of sleep and remembered the backpack full of gear sitting by the front door, the water bottles lined up on the kitchen counter. It was indeed far too early to get up for work, but not too early to rise if we wanted to hit the snow-covered trail below Mt. Kidd by headlamp.

It’d been a busy yet lazy fall. Classes and committees at the university seemed to claim more than their usual share of my time, while evenings and weekends were spent writing about last summer’s expedition to Pakistan. I had an uneasy feeling that I was contemplating life instead of living it. The odd thing was, it was largely by choice. When Greg and Nick, visiting from the UK, suggested I join them at the Stanley Headwall, I replied I’d rather sleep in and write, maybe go drytooling for a few hours in the afternoon. I just couldn’t bring myself to get up in the dark, drive out in the dark and, still in the dark, trudge up a trail every dip and turn of which I knew by heart. Was I burning out? Or did I just need the right kind of persuasion?

Another trail I knew well led up Evan-Thomas Creek. The hundred-metre tall Moonlight had been my first multi-pitch ice climb. And it lived up to its name, as we topped out in the dark. Since that day I’d returned many times to the parallel flows pouring down rock that was shattered and rank even by Rockies’ standards. Sadly, none of those times rivaled the intensity of the first one. But I digress. On the walk out, with the last flat stretch of trail dragging on as usual, my eyes would be drawn to the bulk of Mt. Kidd across the valley. The icy haze of a fading winter’s day blurred the sharp edges of the peak, but the exclamation mark of ice on the highest rock band was unmistakable. Then I would arrive at the trailhead, and that distant white ribbon would be forgotten in the warmth of a fogged up car. Until, casting about for motivation, I remembered it last fall.

My toes tingled inside lightweight boots as Steve and I slogged through depth hoar at the base of the big northeast bowl on Mt. Kidd. The frosty air of early morning seeped through layers of clothing like cold water. But the rising sun was already painting the highest cliffs a warm yellow, and it wasn’t long before the fresh snow around us sparkled in the bright light, making me wish I’d brought sunglasses.

The first avalanche rumbled down while we were gearing up. We rationalized the powder slough away: “It’s just the morning sun hitting the rock. The face will go into shade soon.” And we set off scrambling up snow gullies and ice steps. Pulling over a bulge, I looked up to see a white cloud charging down. “Avalanche!” I shouted to Steve ten metres lower, and sprinted for the nearest rock band. Fortunately the trainload of snow rumbled down the gully next to us, but it’d made its point. Thirty seconds later we were swinging and kicking down as fast as we could. It was only noon when I drove back to the city across the bare prairies, grasses waving in the wind like a yellow sea.

Two weeks I was back on Mt. Kidd. At the base of the northeast bowl, where Steve and I’d stumbled over snow-covered scree, Ian and I cramponed up massive piles of avalanche debris. It was hard to believe it was still November. A few hundred metres higher, I stood on a steeply tilted snow ledge and waited while Ian soloed a narrow ribbon of ice. Every few moves he’d stop and wait, hooded head down, while spindrift washed over him. Then “You’re good to go!” he shouted as he stepped off the ice and disappeared from view over the lip. I knew snow stability was good but still felt relieved to move out of the gully onto a rib of windswept scree. Twenty minutes later we dropped our packs under the overhanging rock of the highest rock band and got to work.

A climbing partner once referred to new routes you don’t just walk up to and send as science projects. Considering the short days of late November, a location a thousand metres above the valley floor and much blank rock separating us from the ice of our desire, I knew the Mt. Kidd route would fall into this category. So I wasn’t surprised to be making plans for a return visit as we drove away that evening. A few days later we were back. By mid-afternoon, after much scratching around, a couple of broken holds and as many spectacular falls, we swung our tools at the desiccated fringe of ice at the bottom of the white ribbon. Two pitches higher daylight was fading as I pulled over a bulge and gazed up into the snow bowl feeding the route. Far below car headlights crept along the highway on the valley floor. Yet even as we drilled the first v-thread, I felt an irrational urge to head up instead of down, to the darkening summit ridge a hundred metres higher. Maybe I wasn’t burnt out after all.

Summary: First ascent of Bigg Kidd (150 m, WI5 M7+), Raphael Slawinski and Ian Welsted, November 27 and 30, 2013.

The big bowl on Mt. Kidd: a cool if somewhat spooky place. Bigg Kidd tackles the obvious discontinuous ribbon through the highest rock band.

The low November sun barely cleared the summit of The Wedge as Steve Swenson slogged up through fresh snow into the northeast bowl of Mt. Kidd.

Snow, wind and sun make for a bad combination. After a couple of heavy sloughs rumbled past us, Steve and I decided getting the chop on humble Mt. Kidd would be embarrassing for a couple of alpine veterans. We quickly downclimbed while keeping a wary eye out in case anything else came down, and ran away toward the safety of the trees on the valley bottom.

An avalanche cycle later, Ian Welsted was able to enjoy fast and safe travel up snow slopes pounded by massive slides. It's all timing and hormones, as Choc Quinn once quipped.

After all the early - and sometimes false - starts, I was psyched to round a rib of windswept scree, and finally see the object of our desire just a couple hundred metres away.

The ice on the first pitch gonged ominously, while screws either hit rock or spun into air. But in the proud tradition of Cesare Maestri we'd carried our courage in our rucksacks, and so were spared the cold need for boldness - but also denied the warm rewards of it.

With the belay tucked in under a bulge, the mixed business was hidden from the eye and camera of the belayer. But as is usually the case with unformed icicles, while the drytooling might have been harder, the dry, brittle ice above the rock was the real reason for coming this far. Photo: Ian Welsted.

Another morning, another sunrise over The Wedge from high on Mt. Kidd.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

You can't always get what you want

A year ago J. and I made the long drive from the Bow Valley to pay a visit to the King of the Rockies. On a crisp, cloudless late September day we climbed Infinite Patience on the Emperor Face, bivied high on the Emperor Ridge, and continued up the gargoyles to Robson's summit in the morning. It was a nearly perfect alpine climbing trip. After all, how often do we get to run up a line on one of the Rockies' biggest faces without dodging a single falling stone? And how often do we get to spend a windless evening camped right on the spine of the mountain. and to top it off, climb squeaky neve up and down and around the feared gargoyles? But however much we get, we always want more. While climbing Infinite Patience, I kept stealing glances toward the centre of the face. There, cutting through a sea of snow-covered rock, a slanting ice couloir beckoned: the line of the Cheesmond-Dick route. The following day, while walking the highwire of the upper ridge, I looked down ribbons of grey ice snaking up from the depths. Now that was a proper climb. I filed it away for future reference.

A couple of weeks ago, on another perfect September afternoon, Ian, Juan and I walked up the trail toward Berg Lake, intent on - what else? - the Cheesmond-Dick. As we rounded the corner of the Emperor Ridge and the face slowly revealed itself, I was shocked to see how dry it was. Where there should've been veins and fields of ice was an ugly, brown choss pile. The summer Rockies are going to be a sad place a hundred years from now, when they've lost much of what permanent snow and ice still remains. But I digress. The initial couloir of Infinite Patience was reduced to a sad strip of dirty ice, while the lower icefield of the Cheesmond-Dick no longer merited a name with "ice" in it.

Maybe I'm being unreasonable, but I want climbing to be good. Let it be hard, let it be intense, but let it be classy, too. After a six-week heatwave there wasn't much on the Emperor Face that looked good or classy. And so we started casting about for a consolation prize. We thought about Whitehorn but didn't know how to approach it. We thought about the Fuhrer Ridge but weren't keen on the broken glacier we'd have to cross to get to it. In the end I suggested the Emperor Ridge. Sure, Ian had soloed it a decade earlier and I'd been up the interesting bits last year after climbing Infinite Patience. But what else were we going to do? Walk out and drive back empty handed? We reminded ourselves that we stood below the tallest peak in the Rockies with a perfect forecast. And until earlier in the day Juan had never even seen Robson, much less set foot on it. It was decided, then. We took off our boots and strode into the numbingly cold waters of the Robson River.

Twenty four hours later we were slowly but doggedly approaching the summit. To get to this point we'd slogged up endless scree at the base of the ridge, frontpointed an ice gully, scrambled along exposed ledges and chimneys, and even roped up a couple of times when it looked like some actual climbing might be required. Now we were finally negotiating the sadly diminished gargoyles. Small they might have been, but what they lacked in stature they made up in attitude. Instead of swinging into perfect neve we plunged our ice tools into insubstantial snow. The occasional screw into honeycombed ice didn't inspire much confidence, so we tried to weave the rope between the gargoyles as much as possible; now venturing into shade on the north side of the ridge, now into the low sunlight on the south.

And right now, I'd been traversing on the north side for far too long. The rope looped down the face, clipped into a suspect screw more than thirty metres back. "Once the guys climb up from the other side, that screw'll be the only protection left," I realized. "I need to get back on the ridge and traverse along the south side for a bit." Making for the nearest gap between gargoyles, I pulled myself onto the crest. It looked narrow and precarious but not impossible. "I just needed to shave a bit off the top," I thought. The next thing I knew I was flying through fortunately clean air, fortunately down the south side of the ridge.

I bounced to the end of the ropes without touching anything. Getting back on the ridge involved some overhanging snow climbing, though fortunately on toprope. And with the sharp crest gone, the way ahead was clear. Still, the sun had set and it was nearly dark by the time I pulled the ropes across the highest point, the boys emerging onto the summit plateau sixty metres back. We'd hoped to sleep at the hut, but always knew that hope to be a long shot. As it was, we settled for spending the night in a palatial crevasse a couple of hundred metres below the summit. You can't always get what you want. But if you try, you just might find you get what you need.

The lower Emperor Face in September 2012, with the diagonal ice couloir of the Cheesmond-Dick clearly visible.

A much drier Emperor Face in September 2013.

Juan Henriquez (left) and Ian Welsted share some dinner at a bivi near the Robson River.

Slogging up the initial scree slopes with Berg Lake still in shadow below...

... enjoying a gully filled with alpine ice for a change of pace...

... and carefully negotiating some steep and exposed choss above.

Conrad's Column: Well worth a winter trip to the Valley of a Thousand Falls.

Ian and Juan rounding the corner onto the west face...

... with the sadly diminished gargoyles coming into view.

Ian comes up the last dry section of ridge...

... while Juan follows the still dry ridge higher up, the gargoyles only remarkable through their absence.

Finally some white stuff! Juan traverses on the north side of the ridge...

... and Ian heads off into the small but nasty gargoyles decorating the last stretch.

The last rays of the setting sun cast a warm glow on the gargoyles...

... while a cold-looking moon rises over the summit.

The last light of day from the summit.

Juan (in front) and Ian at home for the night...

... and downclimbing The Roof in the morning.

Juan traverses the Schwarz Ledges: definitely the least pleasant, though mercifully short, part of the Robson experience.

High cirrus over the summit from the Forster Hut presages the coming bad weather, and the end of summer.