Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Everest bound

The night sky to the north, over the Bering Straight, was the surreal blue of another planet – perhaps the methane-rich atmosphere of Neptune, with all the red sucked out of the light. I was halfway through a fourteen-hour flight, itself only the second of three. Step by step, they were transporting me from the familiar surroundings of Calgary to the alien chaos of Kathmandu. It’s on the plane that a big adventure first becomes alarmingly real. For months we dream, plan, train and organize. Then one morning we wake up, make one last espresso, load bulging duffels bugs into the car trunk and head for the airport. The future becomes the present.

What was still in the future, but a very near one now, was my first experience of the highest mountain on the planet. Everest? Really? How is it that after saying for years that I was too much of a climber to have any interest in that massive, graceless peak, I was headed there? What had changed?

Photo: Gunther Goberl.

Everything is change. For many years I’d remained contentedly local in my beloved Rockies. Some friends had even started calling me a Rockies rat. But, I argued, why bother going to Alaska or the Karakoram, when you could get a lot more climbing done within a few hours of home? Then, ten years ago, something changed, and I went on back-to-back trips to Alaska and Pakistan. I found out I’d been right: if I’d stayed home, I’d have climbed a lot more. But I also realized there was something in those faraway places I couldn’t find in the Rockies. I’m still not quite sure what it is. It might be the violet Alaskan twilight, or maybe a porter caravan snaking up beside a rubbly glacier. It’s probably not the gurgling bowels on a twenty-four-hour drive up the Karakoram Highway.

And so, last summer, when a friend suggested a Himalayan double header, I was intrigued. Perhaps here was a chance to experience the surreal world above 8000 metres, a world I’d been especially curious about since Ian and I’d gotten a taste of the air above 7000 metres on K6 West two years ago. A chance to experience that world at least partly away from normal routes, fixed ropes and crowds. In the end the double header got distilled to just one peak – Everest. Why Everest? I’m still not sure. It wasn’t my idea, but it seemed like a good one. It didn’t matter now. Daniel, David and I would acclimatize on the north ridge, the normal route from the Tibetan side, then try a new variation on the northeast face.

Photo: Gunther Goberl

My training for K6 West consisted of hiking really fast on my way up to sport-climbing projects at the Lookout. The thought of trying to go almost two kilometres higher must have had me worried, as for the first time in my life I drew up a training plan. It was the real thing: a spreadsheet with activities planned for each week three months in advance. It was squats and pull-ups instead of plastic bouldering after work; solitary hikes with a pack full of rocks instead of drytooling with friends on weekends. The temptation to go play was strong at times, but any lapses would have left glaringly obvious gaps in the spreadsheet. Besides, I was curious to see if structured training would make me fitter than the usual just-go-climbing approach. I suppose I’ll find out in the coming weeks.

*** 

An expedition, even a relatively small one, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Many people are involved: people who, one way or another, help us pursue our passion. Before I disappear into a world without readily available wifi, I want to especially thank some of them.

Louis R.: Thank you for the very idea of this trip. I look forward sharing one of your dreams with you sometime.

Laura F., Nathalie M. and Tony R. at Arc’teryx: Thank you for believing in this project, and at times making it your own.

Kevin L. at Scarpa North America: Thank you for helping to make this trip happen from the start.

Doug H. and Kolin P. at Black Diamond: Thank you for your friendship. I look forward to getting out with you next winter.

Grant D. at Feathered Friends: Thank you for helping Daniel and me stay warm on the mountain.

Jim P. at Elevate Me Bars: Thank you for tasty energy food for all three of us.

Evin C. at Suunto: Thank you for a great training and climbing tool.

Scott J. and Steve H.: Thank you for patiently explaining to me the basics of training for alpinism.

Janusz M. and Artur M.: Thank you for giving me the benefit of the hard-won wisdom of Polish Himalayan climbers.

Robert S.: Thank you for generously sharing your high-altitude medical expertise with a stranger.

Jeff G. and Manuel D.-A. at Mount Royal University: Thank you for supporting this rather non-academic passion of mine. 

*** 

Wifi might not be readily available on the north side of Everest, but this being the 21st century, we won’t be completely without it. While I might find it hard to update this blog, I will be sending updates to my sponsors, as well as simply pushing the button on my Spot. The links are on the right side of this webpage. Namaste.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Headwall

"Let's go to the Headwall tomorrow."

And that's all that needs to be said. When Rockies' ice climbers talks about the Headwall, there's only place they could be talking about. In the twenty-odd years I've been ice climbing (has it really been that long?), I spent a lot of time in its cold, blue shadow. Some seasons it seemed like I did half of my climbing there. A couple of years ago I put in seven days just on The God Delusion: stumbling over snow-covered scree in December, skiing up loaded down with rack, drill and avy gear in January, either way coming out by headlamp. But this year, February was already more than half gone and I still hadn't been to the Headwall. I began to feel an unease, a feeling of guilt almost, as if I'd neglected to visit an old friend. All the same, I needed a reason to go; otherwise I'd just be going through the motions.

While hanging out on an unloved face above Canmore that was Ian's latest obsession, he told me he'd been to the Headwall a few days earlier to have a look at Rhamnusia. Classy mixed climbing, thinnish ice, loose but bolted rock, he said. It was good enough for me. Even better, I hadn't climbed the route before, a rare treat at the Headwall.

"What do you want to do on the weekend?" Bob asked. Polish Bob, a long-time friend, was in the Rockies for a week, and we were both looking forward to climbing together.

"There's a route left of Nemesis that could be interesting." Living in the warm, wet Pacific Northwest, Bob hadn't done any mixed climbing this winter, so I kept my answer deliberately vague. After all, he might decide that chossy M8 halfway up the Headwall wouldn't be the best choice for the first mixed route of the season. My ploy worked.

"Are you walking or skiing?"

"Skiing. See you at the edge of town at six."

I packed the rock and ice gear, set the alarm for five and went to sleep. It felt like old times.

The Headwall seen from where the summer trail enters the hanging valley, with French Reality, Nightmare on Wolf Street and Acid Howl visible. And that's only the beginning.

There more - much more - up the valley: Man Yoga...

... Suffer Machine, Nemesis, Killer Pillar...

Rhamnusia, a fine Sean and Shawn creation, follows the obvious discontinuous line of ice left of Nemesis.

The first pitch offered real mixed climbing: one tool tapped into a veneer of ice, the other torqued in a crack.

The ice at the start of the second pitch was a bit on the thin side. Fortunately intermittent cracks gave great protection.

On crux fourth pitch, overhanging choss...

... lead to a gravity-defying dagger.

"I've got to start drytooling again!" a pumped but psyched Bob gasped as he topped out on the fourth pitch.

The last pitch of steep, blue ice was a fun formality. Soon I was standing on flat ground, pulling my hood on against the wind sweeping down from the glacier above. The scoured slopes across the valley shone yellow in the afternoon sun. Yes, it was just like old times at the Headwall. The following weekend I was back for more.

Monday, March 2, 2015

All talk

Last November, in a dark studio in the bowels of the Banff Centre, I had the chance to talk for an hour with the English climbing journalist Ed Douglas. I'd long been a fan of his lively yet careful writing, so it was a real treat to speak with him in person. He rose even further in my estimation when I found out that, being from Manchester, he knew some members of New Order. For a while Ed had a hard time steering the conversation away from that band's history and music, and those of its ill-fated progenitor. However, eventually we did get around to other things - like alpinism. By rights my friend Ian Welsted should've been there too, but he was actually climbing at the time.

Recently the Banff Centre started releasing on its YouTube channel the wealth of material it had collected over the years. There are some real gems there, like Geoff Powter's conversation with the quirky duo of Rick Allen and Sandy Allan. For the record, here's Ed's and my chat. I hope you find some bits interesting.


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Post-solstice blues

Solstice just passed. With barely eight hour of daylight and the occasional spell of minus-thirty weather, it may have felt like winter for some time already, but now it’s official. On my last outing, while attempting a chimney system on an obscure north face, spindrift repeatedly darkened the sky. At belays, Pete and I stamped our feet and swung our arms to avoid the dreaded “hot aches” (as my English companion euphemistically called them). Booting down a snow gully, the beams of our headlamps shone across a white, untracked surface, our steps from the morning already erased by fresh sloughs. “Avalanche!” Pete shouted. Instinctively I jumped to the side. Fortunately the slab that’d cut loose was a thin one. I enjoy winter climbing, I really do, but its pleasures can be of the masochistic variety. Maybe that’s why I’ve always liked climbing in late autumn: freshly formed ice, just a skiff of snow on the ground, temperatures barely below freezing...

However, this past fall I didn’t get out as much as I’d have liked to. Sometime in the middle of October, after an unseasonably warm day of sport climbing at the Coliseum, one of my elbows blew up. Overnight, this usually bony joint swelled up to Elephant-Man-like proportions, eliciting horrified looks from my climbing partners. Clearly some rest was in order. More than a whole frustrating month went by before I even started to think about pulling down again.

The Hole

“No locking-off involved?” I asked for maybe the third time.
Ian tried to reassure me: “Nope. Just a couple of steeper steps, the rest’s all scrambling.”
“Alright then, I suppose my elbow can handle that much.” I rationalized, itching to go climbing.

For the first few ropelengths the route lived up to Ian’s billing, then we arrived below “The Hole” – the feature that would eventually give the route its name.
“I wish this corner wasn’t quite so climbable.” I grunted.
Ian was surprised: “Isn’t that a good thing?”
“Not when it sucks you into going higher and higher with no gear, it isn’t.” I explained.
Fortunately, after some rooting around I placed enough stubbies in blobs of ice, and enough cams in almost-cracks to justify attempting the overhanging moves into the gully above. Unfortunately, dragging myself onto a water-worn, snow-covered slab did necessitate several lock-offs, my elbow protesting with little pings of pain. So much for it being all scrambling. Though, to be fair, I suppose Ian did say something about a steep step or two…

The north face of Mt. Lawrence Grassi offers some fine alpine terrain right above the busy town of Canmore.

We were glad to escape the wind on the ridge down Miner's Couloir, a.k.a. the Town Chute, later in the season a fine ski run.

We missed the start of our intended line, and ended up making a rising traverse back onto it.

Ian Welsted at the belay below The Hole.

Not scrambling anymore! Photo: Ian Welsted.

Above The Hole, several ropelengths of snow and broken rock gave way to surprisingly solid stone on the last pitch.

From the summit ridge, we contoured back to the notch at the top of Miner's Couloir, and our waiting packs and poles.

Saddam’s Insane

We met at the usual parking lot at the west edge of the city. It took us a while to get back onto the highway, as we waited for a gap in the long line of cars streaming eastward. Weekday climbing: a guilty pleasure for a weekend warrior like me. With Juan at the wheel, I tried not to spill hot water onto my lap while filling the mate gourd.

From the trailhead the crux pillar looked thin, but then it was several kilometres away. It would probably turn out to be quite substantial. The snow-covered riverside trail, the dry cobbles of the stream bed draining the big bowl above, the frozen scree slope leading to the start of the ice: it was all so familiar, yet also subtly different every time.

Climbing the initial ice steps, I realized I’d barely swung an ice tool since Chamonix in April. The first few times felt awkward and self-conscious, but my muscles quickly found their old groove. We roped up in a small cave, above which the ice reared up to vertical. Following the pitch, I imagined myself as one of the beginners in the climbing gym, with plastic tubes over my arms: “Don't bend your arms, don't bend them!”

Unfortunately the pillar didn’t look a whole lot more substantial from close up than it had from the valley floor. A mess of icicles tapered down to narrow column delicately balanced on a cauliflowered pedestal.
“I’ll just go up a few moves and see what it’s like.” I offered.
A few moves up, one leg flagging into space, the screw below me loosely spinning in its hole, I should’ve been having second thoughts. Instead I hooked up the hollow ice a couple more body lengths and spun in another useless screw. Why, to borrow Jeff’s memorable phrase, did I need to hang by my arms to avoid breaking my legs? I suppose the day I really required an answer would be the day I'd no longer need to do so. But on that grey, windy November day, precariously suspended on a sliver of ice high above the valley, the question never really occurred to me.

Saddam's Insane from the riverside trail.

Juan Henriquez scrambles up the initial ice steps.

November: fresh ice and barely any snow.

Why do we need to hang by our arms to avoid breaking our legs? I suppose because it's fun.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Summer's Almost Gone


"Summer's almost gone,
Summer's almost gone.
We had some good times,
But they're gone.
The winter's comin' on,
Summer's almost gone."

- The Doors


Steve Holeczi’s name appeared on call display.

“There’s a cool-looking corner system just left of Homage to the Spider. Wanna go check it out on Tuesday?”

I thought briefly about the sport-climbing fitness I’d lose by going into the mountains, but in the end adventure won out. I even agreed to meet at five in the morning.

***

After just a few minutes of wading through long, wet grass in the grey light of dawn, our shoes and pants were soaked. The sky might’ve been clear now, but the night’s downpour lingered in the mud on the trail and in the dark streaks on the rock faces above.

“The north side of Edith is completely wet. Think it’s worth walking all the way to Louis?” Steve wondered.

I’m a believer in Steve DeMaio’s saying, that no matter how a route looks, you just gotta go rub your nose in it.

“We’re already here. We might as well check it out,” I suggested.

We left the trail where it descended into Gargoyle Valley and traversed below the east side of Mt. Louis, awkwardly sidehilling across steep slopes of grass and shale. Pushing our way through a patch of small, dense trees left us soaked to the skin. However, we were elated to see the vertical corner of our desire was unaccountably dry. Maybe not altogether dry, as the bottom ten metres were a glistening black streak, but it looked climbable. A stretch of scrambling, made unpleasant by slick damp coating seemingly every foothold, and we were emptying our packs on a gravelly ledge below the streak.

I pulled on a few pieces as I splashed up the corner, rationalizing that what mattered today was getting as high as possible, before inevitably rappelling off. Higher up, where the crack turned gently overhanging, I was rewarded with dry, prickly rock. Arriving at a stance I pulled up the drill and sunk a couple of bolts into perfect grey stone. We were on our way.

A slightly damp Mt. Louis rises above Gargoyle Valley.

The east aspect of Mt. Louis, with the Diamond on the left and the Homage area on the right.

Steve Holeczi and Sam Eastman scramble toward the start of Homage - and of our proposed line.

Homage to the Spider starts up the big corner on the right. We tackled the corner to its left, capped by an overhanging ear.

Wet but still good climbing on the first pitch. Photo: Steve Holeczi.

The left-hand variation to the offwidth on the third pitch. Photo: Sam Eastman.

***

A month and another visit later we were back for the send. There was a sharpness to the early-morning air that, along with red leaves underfoot, spoke of changing seasons. A month earlier I’d sweated in a T-shirt and swatted mosquitoes on the approach trail, as it wound upward through tall conifers; now I wore fleece gloves. But the initial corner was dry, the holds and smears crisp in the yellow sunshine streaking over the ridges to the east. Unfortunately, by the time we were hanging below the ear capping the corner system, grey clouds had veiled the sky. As I started up the pitch, a snowflake landed on the sleeve of my windbreaker.

“Watch me,” I grunted down to Steve. “I can’t feel my toes.”

At least my fingers were warm as I squeezed and palmed my way across the underside of the ear. It helped that the driving graupel held off until we were changing into approach shoes on the huge platform above. Wearing every layer we’d brought, we scrambled toward the summit.

“Holy shit, check it out!” As the summit cross came into view, so did five figures just below it. The prospect of lineups on the rappels had us nearly running across the final stretch of ridge. I suppose I don’t always live up to the ideal of detachment and equanimity I aspire to. I clipped the chain of the first station mere seconds ahead of the French guide with two clients in tow.

“Vee have a hundred tventee meeter rope,” he said, dubiously eying our single cord.

“If we end up holding you up you can go ahead,” politely but firmly I stood my ground. But they were nowhere to be seen as we coiled the rope below the last rappel and happily skidded down toward the valley. Our project was finished – and so was summer.

Having a much dryer if colder time on the first pitch. Photo: Steve Holeczi.

Steve runs up the second pitch...

... and yours truly grovels up the third. Photo: Steve Holeczi.

Looking down the fourth pitch. Photo: Steve Holeczi.

Interesting climbing on the fourth pitch. Photo: Steve Holeczi. 

Moving around the ear on the fifth pitch. Photo: Steve Holeczi.

Easy but spectacular climbing up the fin on the fifth pitch.

Snow flurries blow down Forty Mile Creek.

***

Holeczi-Slawinski (250 m, 5.11-)
FA: Steve Holeczi and Raphael Slawinski (with help from Sam Eastman), September 1, 2014

This route climbs the corner system climber’s left of Homage to the Spider.


Approach:
As per Homage to the Spider in Banff Rock. In that description there are two single-bolt “rappel” stations marked to access the start of that route. At the second bolt traverse climber’s right and up into the alcove above the Homage start in the big gully (prone to rockfall early in the season from snowmelt up high). There is a single bolt marking the start. The bottom 10 metres are often wet until early August but still climbable.

  1. 25 m, 5.10. A gently overhanging crack with good gear leads to a 2-bolt station.
  2. 50 m, 5.8. Climb the V-notch corner plugging cams into the crack in the back. After reaching a small ledge continue up the corner to a 2-bolt station below a short off-width.
  3. 40 m, 5.10. Sling chockstones or plug in the 5” for the wide section above the belay. Upon reaching a ledge, climb a stunning dihedral that turns into a “better than it looks” chimney leading to a 2-bolt station with a blank wall straight above and a chossy gully up and right. Note: An alternate 5.9R start to this pitch climbs around the offwidth on the left (fixed piton) but isn’t recommended.
  4. 50 m, 5.10+. An airy step left into the adjacent corner system leads to face climbing past bolts to a ledge. Continue past a mix of bolts and gear to a cruxy bulge, which leads to a 2-bolt semi-hanging belay below the overhanging “ear”. A single rack up to 4” suffices for this pitch.
  5. 35 m, 5.11- Climb slightly friable rock past bolts up and left around the “ear”. Once past the overhang, the crack starts to widen into a loose chimney/alleyway. Unless you enjoy groveling, don’t get into it. Instead, once past the last bolt, look to gain the fin on the right. Great rock with intermittent cracks for pro leads to a stance and a gear anchor. Only small-to-medium cams are needed for this pitch.
  6. 50 m, 4th. Climb along the exposed fin until it is easy to step left into the alleyway. Continue to  a huge ledge, which marks the top of Homage.

Continue to the top as per Homage to the Spider.

Rack:
1 set TCUs, cams to 4” with doubles in 0.5-2” (optional 5” for 1 section)
15 draws (many extendables)