Sunday, July 24, 2016

Talking and climbing in Squamish

Earlier this month I spent a week in Squamish, taking in and taking part in the Arc’teryx Academy. The event kicked off with a slide show by Peter Croft. The adjective “legendary” is overused but it applies to Croft. I’d never seen the man in person before, and while cragging in the Bulletheads that afternoon we kept an eye on the time so as not to miss his show. As it was, he was already being introduced when we squelched our way through wet grass and tried to squeeze in under the crowded awning to escape the rain. Mixing humour with wisdom, Croft told stories of his early days in Squamish, from false starts on Sentry Box, his first 12a, to multi-hour soloing circuits. The soaked Chief rising above the town provided a fitting backdrop.

My own contribution to the festival was much more prosaic, consisting of teaching a clinic on alpine systems with Tim McAllister and a seminar on expedition planning with Steve Swenson. What are alpine systems, you ask? Before the clinic I asked myself the same question and tried to distil ways of thinking and doing that have worked for me in the mountains. In a very small nutshell, here’s what I came up with:
  • Not every alpine climb is a race with shadows, but on many mountain routes you do want to get up and down reasonably quickly. As such, whatever you do should be done with an eye to efficiency.
  • Faced with a stretch of terrain, you have three options: pitch it out, simul-climb it or solo it. Chances are on any big route you’ll find yourself switching between these techniques several times through the day.
  • Use the terrain wisely when belaying pitches. Sometimes cutting a pitch short can be faster, if it means taking advantage of an easily gotten anchor and/or avoiding brutal rope drag.
  • When simul-climbing, make sure the rope is actually protecting you. Don’t fall into the trap of being roped together if all the rope’s doing is ensuring everyone will fall together.
  • Get good at retreating off of routes lacking established rappel anchors. There’s nothing as confidence inspiring when starting a big, adventurous climb as knowing you can get off of it safely and efficiently if you have to.
  • In many mountain ranges, but especially in the Canadian Rockies, that means knowing how to pound pitons. When venturing off the beaten track, consider bringing a hammer and a small selection of pins. And learn how to place a pin before you need to rappel from one. 
In the expedition-planning seminar, while we did talk about the nitty-gritty of putting together an expedition to Alaska or Pakistan, we focused on the bigger picture:
  • Are expeditions for you? If what you really want is to do a bunch of climbing, you’re better off staying in your home range or going on a climbing trip to an established destination.
  • Make sure you and your partner(s) have similar levels of skill, fitness, patience and risk tolerance. A mismatch in any one of these categories can make the experience a miserable one for everyone.
  • Choose your objective wisely. Be ambitious but realistic. Accept that you’ll go through a learning curve and, unless you’re exceptionally lucky, probably won’t do the climb of a lifetime on your first expedition.
  • Dig beneath news flashes and do some research: comb through journals, pore over maps and talk to people who’ve actually been where you want to go.
Talking about climbing is fun, but actually climbing is even more fun. And so, as soon as the talking was done, I went climbing. It being Squamish, it rained nearly every day, but I still managed to touch dry rock every single day. Below are some snapshots from what felt, to a visitor from the dry side of the mountains, like climbing in a rain forest.

The north walls, with the pale scar of the Sheriff's Badge. Conveniently, it stays dry in the rain.

Robert Rogoz, aka Polish Bob, approaches the Sheriff's Badge.

Yours truly on pitch 1 of Daily Planet, a fantastic ropelength of stems and finger locks. Photo: Robert Rogoz.

A stem provides a convenient no-hands rest before the crux, which is where it should be, right before the anchor. Unfortunately the combination of fingertip cracks and smeary feet spelt the end of my OS attempt. Photo: Robert Rogoz.

Bob shakes out as he approaches the crux...

... and liebacks the thank-god flake above it.

The second pitch starts with some squeeze-chimney action.... Photo: Robert Rogoz.

... and finishes with a surprisingly burly hand crack.

A Squamish slug epitomizes the wet coast.

Yours truly contemplates a short but cryptic route on Nightmare Rock. Photo: Laurel Fan.

Me: "I can't believe how humid it is. I'm sweating just standing around."
Laurel: "This isn't humid."
Photo: Laurel Fan.

An unusual perspective on Nightmare Rock. Photo: Laurel Fan.

The Grand Wall, the centrepiece of Squamish climbing.

Yours truly starts up the fun runouts of Mercy Me. Photo: Robert Rogoz.

Bob throws in the last few jams on the Split Pillar...

... before the obligatory last bit of squeeze chimney.

One of the cruxes of the Sword pitch is reaching up from a burly lieback and snagging the chain at the start of the bolt ladder.

Speaking of burly liebacks, yours truly happily clips the bolts on Perry's Lieback. We rappelled from the top of that pitch. I had a plane to catch at YVR, and Vancouver downtown traffic to negotiate to get there. Photo: Robert Rogoz.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Alaska bound

Three years ago, in 2013, Ian Welsted and I enjoyed a successful trip to Pakistan. We did a bunch of good climbing and even managed to summit what was, by Karakoram standards, a moderately big peak. Two years ago I went north to Denali with Alpine Mentors, presumably to impart some alpine experience to four talented climbers half my age. But all that June the weather in the Alaska Range was atrocious, and during the entire four-week trip we didn't swing a tool once. Then last year I got ambitious. Daniel Bartsch, David Gottler and I figured that if we were going to climb Everest, we might as well do it in alpine style by a new route. When the earthquake struck we hadn't even put our crampons on.

Ian Welsted curses the hot afternoon sun as he swings and kicks his way up a moderate ice pitch on the northwest face of K6 West.

Steven Van Sickle hikes up to the north summit of Denali. No swinging required.

Yours truly on a nameless bump in Tibet, with Everest in the distance. Even though the bump in question was taller than Denali, sturdy hiking shoes was all it took to get up it. Photo: David Gottler.

Tomorrow Juan Henriquez and I are leaving behind the warm rock and fresh greenery of spring in the Bow Valley and heading north, bound for the icy giants of the Alaska Range. There's something about the place that keeps drawing me back. I don't know if it's the endless ice runnels framed by walls of perfect granite, or the endless days of subarctic mountains as summer solstice approaches. But this time I figure the bar is set low: after my last couple of trips, I'll consider this one a success if I get to swing a tool.

If you know Juan and me, it won't come as a surprise when I tell you than we're not social media fiends. There'll be no real-time Facebook updates from the north buttress of Hunter or south face of Denali. But if you're curious if we're festering or sending, you can always check the Alaska trip links on this blog: the tracks from our inReach and the Kahiltna base camp webcams (the blue dot north of Anchorage).

See you back in the Rockies in June.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

May Day on the A-Strain

Tiles of black and yellow limestone shimmered in the late-afternoon sun as we pounded down the faint trail below the Athabasca-Andromeda glacier. A dashed line on the dirty surface of a snow patch showed where our boots had barely dented its frozen surface less than twelve hours earlier. Now we waded through isothermal slush, plunging down to scree with every step. It was only the first day of May, but the warm air had the soft, wistful touch of summer.

I felt both old and young. How many times have I walked down these moraines since an August day a quarter of a century ago, after my father had led my brother and me to the top of Athabasca? There've been so many afternoons like the one today, running down the trail worn into limestone rubble, feeling a familiar mixture of fatigue and happiness. I tried to see Andromeda, Snow Dome, Kitchener, all the big peaks clustered around the grey tongue of the Columbia Icefield below, as a wide-eyed twenty-something might've seen them. I tried and failed. The chimneys and gullies slicing through the layered cakes of the mountains were old friends now, not the strangers they'd once been. The twenty-something wasn't the same person as the sunburnt, grizzled man who'd replaced him. What hadn't changed was the need that'd driven the younger me, and that seemed to drive me still. 

The northeast face of Mt. Andromeda on a crisp May morning, with the obvious shadowed gash of the Andromeda Strain.

Juan Henriquez kicks steps up neve blasted hard by spindrift in the lower couloir of the route.

Alik Berg shuffles across a steep ledge of snow-covered choss halfway up the route.

The oldest member of the party starts up the rock pitch above the ledge. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Alik Berg makes the last few moves up the rock before it backs off into the upper couloir.

Unfortunately these days you need to tiptoe up another half a ropelength of low-angled mixed ground before you reach thick ice.

The upper couloir resembles nothing so much as a giant luge run.Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Alik Berg strikes a classic pose on the traverse to the exit ice pitch.

Leaving an ankle-wrenching belay on sixty-degree ice, Juan Henriquez steps onto the legendary traverse.

Alik Berg contemplates where the cornice guarding the summit might be the smallest.

From the summit, the entire Columbia Icefield lies spread out in the afternoon sun.

The same route, a different millenium: a wide-eyed twenty-something experiences the Andromeda Strain for the first time. Photo: Pete Takeda.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Romancing the Ghost

When I returned from Scotland at the beginning of February, I hadn’t swung my tools in a while. The climbing in Scotland was all about rimed up rock (and atrocious weather, but that’s another story). And even before I left Canada, in order to prepare myself for the fabled Scottish mixed climbing I’d eschewed fat ice in favour of rock, the more snowed up and traditional in flavour the better. By the time I got back from the land of tenuous hooking and three-hour leads, I craved fast, smooth movement. With iffy avalanche conditions deeper in the mountains, Juan and I headed into the Ghost. His expert driving and a newly bulldozed track got us to within a half-hour walk of the blue pillars of Fang and Fist. We squeezed every bit of ice out of the climb, even the rolling steps higher up. After rappelling off, we backtracked to the main drainage and boulder hopped up it for another half hour, hoping to spot some ice on the impressive rock walls looming on all sides.

“A waste of rock,” was how Juan summed up our fruitless search.

Back at the truck, we had a bite of lunch then drove a couple of kilometres back to the mouth of another drainage. We figured the free-standing pillar at the start of Going to the Sun Highway would nicely round out a day of swinging tools. It did that, but the hike up the frozen streambed, so much more pleasant than the cobbles of Malamute Valley, was memorable for another reason. As we rounded a corner, the wall at the head of the creek we were crunching up in our crampons came into view.

The cirque at the back of the valley, with the Blind Date wall low down, Bad Romance up and right and unclimbed (?) left of Bad Romance.

“Whoa! What’s that?” I stopped to get a better look. A black rock wall adorned by crazy ice blobs looked like a mixed climber’s dream. Higher in the alpine cirque discontinuous ice lines beckoned. Over the next few weeks a few friends and I explored the valley’s potential: soaking our feet after breaking through creek ice, tiptoeing gingerly across drum-tight snow slopes, having our eyes welded shut by blistering spindrift, falling out of control when a tool placement ripped. But all the while, we couldn’t think of too many other places we’d rather be. Below are our finds, with potential for more. I hope you’ll get up there to check them out, before spring arrives all too soon.


Bad Romance with the belays marked.

Bad Romance, 130 m, M7 WI4

FA: Juan Henriquez and Raphael Slawinski (with guest appearances by Seb Taborszky and Paul Taylor), February 21, 2016

Approach: Start hiking as for Going to the Sun Highway, but instead of turning into the side drainage on the right that holds that route, continue up the main drainage. Hike up the frozen creek, bypassing open pools through trees on the right. At the head of the creek, head up and right on windblown scree slopes to a rock band directly below the route (the right one of two major ice lines). Either scramble directly through the rock band (recommended) or make a long end run on snow ledges going right, then back left. The snow ledges are steep and unsupported and, unusually for the Ghost, avy hazard is a real concern. 2 hours.

Pitch 1 (30 m, WI3R): Climb a thin flow of low-angled ice to a snow ledge. Belay at a short curtain. Other than a wire placement at the start and a screw and/or thread 20 metres up, there isn’t much gear to be had but the climbing isn’t hard.

Pitch 2 (40 m, WI3): Climb the curtain to a fun narrow runnel. Where the runnel widens into a broad shield, climb up and right to where the ice runs out below a roof. A couple of dry moves gain a 2-bolt anchor. This pitch protects well with screws but there are also some wire and cam placements on the left wall.

Pitch 3 (60 m, M7 WI4): Climb bolt-protected rock with the occasional small ice blob to a hanging curtain. The first few moves from the belay are the crux, with small and slippery hooks, but the climbing quickly eases. Once on the ice, climb moderate ice to where it ends in a rock overlap.

Descent: Rappel the route. Rather than swinging into the 2-bolt station, it may be easier to make a v-thread above the hanging curtain.

Gear: Screws (including some stubbies), a few small-to-medium Stoppers, Camalots #0.4 and 0.5.

Juan approaches Bad Romance on our first attempt, soaked feet and all, as spindrift pours down the wall.

Alpine ambience from a rats' cave.

Windloaded slopes above cliffs. Spooky!

Juan taps his way up the first pitch...

... and I try to keep snow out of my hood on the second. Photo: Juan Henriquez.


Blind Date (in red) and Orgasmotron (in yellow) with the belays marked.

Blind Date, 90 m, M7+ WI5

FA: Jeff Mercier and Raphael Slawinski, February 16, 2016

Approach: Start hiking as for Bad Romance, but at the head of the creek head up windblown scree slopes directly to the route. 1.5 hours.

Pitch 1 (20 m, M7+ WI3): Climb steep, nicely featured rock past 6 bolts to where a step right gains the ice flow above the roof. Climb 5 metres of thin, low-angled ice to a ledge and a 2-bolt anchor on the left.

Pitch 2 (40 m, WI3): An aesthetic pitch gains a large, comfortable ledge below the upper mixed wall. Belay at a bolt-and-pin anchor. The station at the top of pitch 1 is a bit exposed to falling ice so take care while leading.

Pitch 3 (30 m, M6+ WI5): A classic pitch of mixed climbing that moves from rock to ice to rock back to ice. The climbing is mostly bolt protected, but a few screws are needed for the upper ice. Belay at a 2-bolt anchor. With another couple of bolts, this pitch could be extended another 10 metres up the last hanging dagger.

Descent: Rappel the route. With 60-m ropes, you can bypass the station at the top of pitch 1.

Gear: Screws (including some stubbies).

Jeff Mercier and I tromp up the frozen creek on our way to Blind Date. After all, we did meet for the first time just earlier that morning. Photo: Julien Ferrandez.

Jeff bolts the first pitch. It's work but the fun kind. Photo: Julien Ferrandez.

All the same, it's a lot more fun to just climb. Photo: Julien Ferrandez.

Above the crux on the first pitch. Photo: Julien Ferrandez.

A bit later, on the third pitch, it's my turn to climb with a whole load of hardware hanging off my harness. Photo: Julien Ferrandez.

Jeff styles the third pitch. Photo: Julien Ferrandez.


Orgasmotron, 100 m, M7+ WI5

FA: Juan Henriquez and Raphael Slawinski, February 28, 2016

This is a one-pitch variation to Blind Date. The last pitch is a must-do, a fantastic piece of mixed climbing.

Pitches 1 and 2 (60 m, M7+ WI3): Climb the first 2 pitches of Blind Date to the large, comfortable ledge. Move 10 metres right and belay at a blob of solid ice at knee height.

Pitch 3 (40 m, M7 WI5): Drytool past a bolt to a short ice flow. From its top, move up and left past more bolts into a corner and follow it to a rotten alcove. From the right side of the alcove, drytool over a roof and up smooth rock on small, well-spaced hooks. From an ice blob continue more easily to a hanging curtain. Another 10 metres of ice leads to a 2-bolt belay on the right. With another bolt or so, this pitch could be extended another 5 metres to a more comfortable ledge.

Descent: Rappel the route.

Gear: Screws (including some stubbies), up to 14 draws (including some double-length ones), a few small-to-medium Stoppers (optional).

Yours truly prepares to murder the impossible on Orgasmotron. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Beware expectations

I’ve been bashing ice in the Rockies for longer than I care to admit (but coming up on a quarter of a century). When you’ve slogged up a particular valley or bowl more than once (or twice or thrice), it’s hard to keep your mind free of preconceptions. The resulting experience ends up being as much about the baggage of expectations you carry up as it is about the snow, ice and rock beneath your crampons and tools. The beginner’s mind proves as elusive as it is clich├ęd.


N’Ice Baby, WI5

“… an excellent route offering a good compromise of excellent ice with difficult, but not unrelenting steepness.”
      Joe Josephson, Waterfall Ice Climbs in the Canadian Rockies

Rather than type yet another text, I decided to shortcut the exchange. I dialled Jon’s number just as he was about to dial mine.
“The forecast is for high winds, not ideal for that smear on S.”
“I was thinking the same thing. I guess we could just go ice climbing. The bowl above Le Tabernac looks good.”
“I could be into that. What time do you want to leave?”
Hanging up, I felt myself relaxing. The uncertainty of many pitches of virgin rock leading to an unclimbed dagger had been replaced by the prospect of plastic ice in spectacular yet familiar surroundings. Sleep came easily.

In the flat light of a December afternoon, all the waterfalls at the back of the bowl looked equally inviting. Mind you, Les Mis wasn’t quite formed and we’d both done Whoa Whoa before. The wide strip of N’Ice Baby was the obvious choice. My picks bouncing off the black limestone just underneath the sugary ice were the first hint we might be in for a fight. Suddenly I was glad of the rope above me, glad we hadn’t soloed the initial shield as I’d almost suggested.

Leaving Jon tethered to a couple of shortish screws in ice blobs, I traversed back to the centre of the waterfall, where the ice looked to be the most solid. More screws into blobs – not ideal but the thickest ice around – and I arrived at the bottom of the opaque streak I’d envisioned climbing. Picks rattled disconcertingly in the desiccated ice. Instead of the blue plastic I'd been expecting, I looked up at vertical curtains thinly draped over rock. “I can climb this but any screws will be crap,” I thought. I considered retreating but I pride, stubbornness, call it what you will, wouldn’t let me.

A few metres to the left a slight corner promised ice that'd be less detached. Unfortunately it was directly above the belay. “Jon, any chance you could move a bit left?” Given that the belay was hanging it wasn’t a very reasonable request, but Jon managed to find some shelter. Taking a deep breath, I started upward: hitting rock, knowing there’s nothing better so keeping the tool steady, locking off and reaching for the next shallow hook. So much for the “excellent ice” we’d been promised – or rather, expected. The climb fell down a few days later.

Slogging up into the bowl above Oh Le Tabernac, with the confluence of the Saskatchewan, Howse and Mistaya Rivers in the distance. Photo: Jon Walsh.

From left to right: N'Ice Baby, Whoa Whoa Capitaine and Les Miserables. Photo: Jon Walsh.

Yours truly starting up the second pitch of N'Ice Baby. Photo: Jon Walsh.

Striving for beginner's mind on N'Ice Baby. Photo: Jon Walsh.


Dead Eye Dick, WI5+ R/X

“… ice of variable thickness ranging from thin to very thin.”
      Sean Isaac, Mixed Climbs in the Canadian Rockies

“We were belayed to a thin pillar.” Chris’ eyes got wider as he got to this point in his story. “If it’d broken as I climbed it, both of us would’ve gone all the way to the ground.” Chris loved danger: runout pitches, manky belays, dancing along the fine line separating control from chaos. I, on the other hand, was bold only reluctantly, when ambition and conditions forced my hand. I didn’t do Dead Eye Dick that season.

“I had three stubbies but I wish I’d head more,” Jon texted. “The first pitch is R-rated for sure, but you get decent gear where you really need it.” Walking up to the base I had definitely more than three 10-cm screws in my pack. And even though Jon said rock gear wasn’t especially useful, I also packed a full rack of cams.

Craning my head, I climbed the first pitch in my mind. Ten metres of thin but lower-angled ice led to a small pillar. The ice turned vertical for a few metres then backed off again. Seen from the parking lot, the thin strip had looked dead vertical. Now, from the deep snow at its foot, the angle of the wall revealed itself to be much more reasonable.

I didn’t bother with screws until I got to the small pillar. Once there, I threw a long sling around it. Bomber. I could afford to fall off now – not that I was planning to. I expected to have to run it out on the vertical curtain above, but the ice looked solid just below where the angle eased. I stopped, got in a good stubby and relaxed. I came expecting to teeter on points sunk only a centimetre or two into the ice, while facing an unthinkable fall. But my tools struck rock only rarely, and protection was sparse but solid.

Almost out of rope, I pulled up beside a slender pillar. A horizontal fracture bisected its base. No matter. I spun in a couple of solid screws below it and added a sling around a tree-root-like icicle for good measure. “Secure!” I yelled down to Juan. I looked up at where the pillar connected with the rock roof. It was probably thicker than when Chris had climbed the route all those years ago. But what really mattered was that the pillar was much, much thicker than the fragile stalk my imagination had conjured up.

The Weeping Wall complex, with Dead Eye Dick on the left.

The rarely formed Dead Eye Dick.

Yours truly bouldering out the start of Dead Eye Dick above a comfortingly deep crash pad of snow. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

A long sling around a thin pillar. Bomber. Photo: Juan Henriquez.


I suppose one way to recapture beginner’s mind is to climb somewhere we’ve never climbed before. Maybe that’s why I’m writing this from a train station in Edinburgh, on my way to discover the pleasures and miseries of Scottish winter climbing. I’ve heard stories and seen photos of rimed walls and corners, deep snow and driving rain. But truth be told, I really don’t know what to expect. And it’s probably for the best.