Friday, March 30, 2018

Wilson Adventures II: Suntori Sit Start

The steep gully, hemmed in by walls of featureless limestone, opened up into a small snowfield, but higher up it necked down again. As the beam of my headlamp swept up the nearly vertical chimney, instead of the hoped-for snow bowl, it revealed nothing but blank, bulging rock walls. I'd led us into a dead end.

Traversing to a snow arete bordering the gully on the right, crampons scratching on rock under a thin covering of snow, I looked down into another couloir. It seemed more open than the one I'd been following. Maybe it was the right one? I traversed back into the dead-end gully and pounded in a knifeblade. Adding a stubby screw, I shouted down, "Secure!"

A few minutes later a headlamp appeared below, and soon thereafter Alik himself. After a brief discussion of our options, he tensioned over and down into the other gully. Removing the screw and leaving a 'biner on the piton, I followed, the jury-rigged toprope cutting into the faceted snow of the arete separating the gullies. After pulling the rope and retying in, I continued my lead block. Some hard snow, a step of thick ice, and a vast snow bowl opened above me, more guessed at than seen in the darkness.


Mt. Wilson is to Rockies ice climbing what Grotto Mtn is to its rock climbing. You can spend a whole winter season (or several) on its flanks, and still have more ice to dream of. One of the finest routes on the entire south face has to be Suntori: a pencil-straight line leading to the base of the white quartzite towers crowning the summit ridge. It was first climbed in a three-day effort by Cory Balano, Dave Edgar and Dave Marra. Treating it like an alpine route, they took it all the way to the summit ridge and descend the huge avalanche funnel of Lady Wilson's Cleavage back to the road.

The formidable team of Jay Mills and Eamonn Walsh made the second ascent. Not only did they free the mixed crux, but after an early start from the road, they topped out with daylight to spare. I didn't think Alik and I could match their speed. However, I had another plan in mind.

A drop of water falling from one of the bone-white towers on the summit ridge would flow down the discontinuous ice of Suntori, here and there dropping through thin air to splatter on an ice pedestal. It would then percolate through the avalanche slope below the route, before dripping from the lip of the snapped-off dagger of Stairway to Heaven and free-falling for an entire ropelength. Tired now after all the excitement higher up, it would meander down the rolling ice of Midnight Rambler, before coming to rest among the trees broken by the huge avalanches that, once or twice in a winter, roar down the from nearly a vertical mile above.

I'd always thought retracing the drop's path in reverse would be the best way of climbing Suntori: scrambling up Midnight Rambler in the dark; arriving at the base of Stairway to Heaven at first light; above its overhangs, walking straight up to the start of Suntori; and finishing through the quartzite towers, likely once again in the dark. Planning an early start, Alik and I drove up the Icefields Parkway the night before. A warm wind whooshed through the evergreens on the valley bottom. It wasn't quite the high pressure we'd have liked, but conditions seemed good enough to try. Walking a hundred metres into the darkened forest, we spread out our mats and sleeping bags, and settled in for a few hours of restless sleep.

The pencil-straight line of Suntori from the Icefields Parkway. Stairway to Heaven is behind the treetops.

The south face of Mt. Wilson from a couple of kilometres up the road. Stairway to Heaven is the right-hand dagger (the left-hand one is another story, and hopefully the subject of Wilson Adventures III). The ice above Stairway to Heaven is Living in Paradise (and hopefully the subject of Wilson Adventures IV). Suntori is hidden in the gully to its left. Lady Wilson's is the funnel on the far left.

Alik Berg links the first two pitches of Stairway to Heaven. Anything to save time; the days are short in January.

Sporting an outfit to match the azure ice behind, yours truly starts up the top pitch of Stairway to Heaven. Photo: Alik Berg.

Alik Berg walks up the slope above Stairway to Heaven, as flurries swirl in from the west. Nothing to worry about (or so we hope).

The upper south face of Mt. Wilson. Suntori is on the left, the daggers in the middle are unclimbed, and the crux first pitch of Living in Paradise is hidden behind the rock buttress on the right.

Murky weather on the slope between Stairway to Heaven and Suntori.

Anticipating a long haul, we stop at the base of Suntori to rehydrate.

The first pitch looks trivial, but the rotten, detached ice requires some non-trivial gymnastics. Photo: Alik Berg.

On the other hand, the second pitch proves surprisingly straightforward, with good gear and short cruxes. Even the sun puts in an appearance. Photo: Alik Berg.

A few ropelengths higher, Alik Berg starts up what is probably the best pitch of the route. A short icicle leads to a near-vertical ice hose, almost reminiscent of an Alaskan goulotte.

Alik Berg battles brittle ice at the start of the pitch.

A couple of ropelengths higher the headlamps come out. Fortunately it is the last "hard" pitch - unless, that is, you leave the main drainage and go questing up another gully to the left.

After slogging up the snow bowl below the quartzite towers, we pull into a sheltered cave at their base. Photo: Alik Berg.

At this point we've been going for fifteen hours or more. We stop to have some soup and regroup before facing the last few pitches through the towers and the descent. While waiting for the water to boil, Alik Berg amuses himself by levitating an ice tool.

After finishing the soup, we step out of the cave and into the steep gully above. Climbing between bone-white walls, pulling over chockstones, we're not sure if the gully isn't going to dead end in overhanging rock until we see it roll over into the gentle humpback of the summit ridge. Photo: Alik Berg.

We plunge down the other side: downclimbing steep snow around walls of glacial ice, and rappelling here and there when the ground below seems too steep to downclimb. Eventually we reach the low-angled trough of Lady Wilson's Cleavage. After changing batteries in our fading headlamps, we continue: walking, downclimbing, rappelling. Eventually we find ourselves walking in our crampons down the snow-covered Icefields Parkway, almost twenty-four hours after we left it.

Summary: An ascent of the Midnight Rambler-Stairway to Heaven-Suntori linkup on the south face of Mt. Wilson by Alik Berg and Raphael Slawinski, January 7, 2018.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Wilson adventures I: Tupperware Tea Party

I'm afraid I've let my blog slide. Not that it matters much, given how these days lengthy blog write-ups are out and insta-posts are in, but I can't help feeling a bit guilty. My excuse is that since I last wrote about Juan's and my misadventures in Hyalite, I traveled to 3 more ice climbing festivals, giving clinics and slideshows. In between these extended weekend trips, I tried to get out as much as possible back home in the Rockies. All the while, the elephant in the room was something called a full-time job. It didn't leave much time for blogging. A matter of priorities, I suppose.

To begin catching up, I thought I'd start by going back to last December, and the story of an abandoned mixed project. Tom Ballard was in the Rockies for a few weeks, living up to his reputation as one of the strongest winter climbers around. After we made plans to go climbing, I tried to think of something that would keep young Tom amused. An unrepeated Simon Anthamatten-Ueli Steck route seemed like a good choice, at least the night before. Unfortunately I got up uncharacteristically early, and dawn was still a ways off when we pulled off the Icefields Parkway opposite the route. I wasn't sure it was actually in, so between the prospect of festering in the car until it got light, and all the fresh snow blowing around, I suggested driving on toward Plan B instead.

Years ago (and we're talking about the past millennium here), Kefira Allen, one of the pioneers of multi-pitch M-climbing in the Rockies, invited me to check out hers and Dave Thomson's latest project. Nightcrawler, as they were calling it, connected two ice pillars by climbing out stacked rock roofs on a sunny cliff band on Mt. Wilson. Sporting leashes and 3-ply Goretex, somehow I managed to hold on and scratch my way up the crux pitch without falling. I lowered off and we headed down. I don't believe Kefira and Dave ever went back. Almost 20 years later, as Tom and I sat by the side of a snowy Icefields Parkway, I remembered the long-abandoned line.

I wasn't sure if Kefira and Dave ever finished bolting their project so just in case, in addition to ropes, screws and draws, we also dragged a full rock rack and a power drill up the rolling ice of Midnight Rambler. As it turned out, we'd be taking most of that technology for a walk.

"Mind if I try for the onsight on the first pitch?" Tom asked. Wishing to be a gracious host - and having done it before - I made ready to belay. A few minutes later Tom was alternating hands on a tool, feet pasted below a roof. He'd reach up to what seemed like a likely edge, then, disappointed, sink back down again. Eventually, with a grunt and a curse, he uttered the dreaded word: "Take!" Understandably, he wanted to lower off and try again, but having dragged the drill all this way, I insisted we continue and check out the second pitch. It was a pleasant surprise to find that, other than having to cut out strands of old rope stiff with age, dust and ultraviolet, the second pitch was all rigged and ready to go. After rapping off, we even each had time for another burn on the crux first pitch.

"What do you think, Tom, M8?"

"I never miss an onsight on an M8."

"OK, M8+, then."

Yours truly scrambles up Midnight Rambler, with the broken-off dagger of Stairway to Heaven looming above. Stairway to Heaven gains the ice from the left, Tupperware Tea Party from the right. Both routes start up a short pillar that can only be seen when you're almost standing at its foot. Photo: Tom Ballard.

Tom Ballard locks off to gain the initial ice, which never seems to quite touch down.

Both Stairway to Heaven and Tupperware Tea Party have optional belays just above the ice (on the left and right, respectively), but with a few long slings, both are easily skipped. And after all, who wants to climb 20-metre pitches when you can climb 40-metre ones?

While Stairway to Heaven skirts the roofs on the left, Tupperware Tea Party tackles them more or less directly. A mess of old fixed rope hangs above Tom's head, a reminder of the heady late 1990s, the early days of M-climbing in the Rockies.

The crux first pitch of Tupperware Tea Party (if you skip the optional belay, that is) isn't steep enough to be tempted by the dark arts of figure-4s and 9s, but steep enough that keeping your feet on takes some body tension.

The second pitch is much easier, but without it the route would be just a masturbatory exercise in drytooling. Instead, you get to swing over to a gravity-defying dagger. Photo: Tom Ballard.

From the top of the route you get a front-row view of the upper cliffs of Mt. Wilson, with the slender threads of Suntori (on the left) and Living in Paradise (on the right). But those are stories for another time (Wilson Adventures II and IV, if I get around to telling them).

The rappel from a v-thread just above where the hanging ice attaches to the rock is an exhilarating affair, especially as you swing in and out of the water streaming from the lip of the ice.

Tupperware Tea Party, 90 m, M8+ WI5
FFA: Tom Ballard and Raphael Slawinski, December 14, 2017

This is an old Kefira Allen and Dave Thomson project. It climbs the right side of the hanging ice on Stairway to Heaven. I believe Kefira and Dave were calling their project Nightcrawler, I hope they wouldn't mind Tom and me renaming it. Given Dave's and Tom's English origins, the tea-themed name seemed more appropriate.

Approach as for Stairway to Heaven by climbing Midnight Rambler (WI3). The only gear needed for Tupperware Tea Party is a bunch of quickdraws (including some long slings) and a handful of screws, though some small-to medium cams (purple to red Calamot, say), can be useful to protect the transition to the ice on the second pitch.

Pitch 1: 40 m, M8+ WI4+: Climb a stubby pillar, which often doesn't quite reach the ground. From its top, trend right past an optional belay station to a series of stacked roofs. Lock off and reach through these to gain a good stance at a foot ledge. Judicious use of long slings keeps the rope drag reasonable.

Pitch 2: 50 m, M5+, WI5: Step left from the belay and follow the line of bolts to where you can bust left toward the hanging ice. Climb vertical ice to where it kicks back to a mellow gully. Belay from ice screws, trees up and left, or bolts on a ledge on the right.

To descend, make a short rappel to the lowest reasonable stance on the ice, then a long one (2 x 60 m) to the ground.

Monday, December 25, 2017

A Hyalite Adventure

The plowed road ended in a large parking lot. The cleared expanse was more reminiscent of a suburban Walmart than of a backcountry trailhead. That was where we'd been told to park my low-suspension wannabe-sports-car and start hiking. But the road went on further: no longer plowed, but well traveled all the same. Tempted by the prospect of saving an hour's walk - each way - I drove on with barely a second thought.

And for the first couple hundred metres continuing seemed like a reasonable course of action. Other than the deep drifts just beside the tracks, the hard-packed snow beneath the tires didn't feel all that different from the plowed road we'd left behind. But then the ruts got deeper, and the undercarriage started dragging on the ridge between them. At first it was only an occasional touch, but soon we were scraping loudly along the bottom. Juan and I exchanged worried looks. We could well imagine how this adventure could end: in the car getting hopelessly stuck, and us spending the rest of the day trying to get it back to plowed pavement.

I coasted to a stop. There was nowhere to turn around, so I shifted into reverse and slowly started back down the tracks. A curve in the road, a steering wheel insufficiently turned, and two of the tires settled into the deep snow outside the ruts. Was this it, the foreseeable and inevitable outcome of a harebrained idea?

Our dumb luck held: a slight downhill and some aggressive back-and forth bouncing got the car back on the tracks. After that close call Juan walked backwards, his arms waving and directing me left or right as needed. All he needed was a reflective vest and those orange luminous wands, and he could've been guiding a 737 to its gate. A tense 10 minutes later we were back at the gloriously plowed parking lot. Walking an extra hour now struck us as a downright appealing prospect.


The night before I'd asked around for route suggestions. "A must-do, a classic." Winter Dance wasn't in, but the Big Sleep was. A Doug Chabot and Alex Lowe first ascent, it was supposed to have a bit of everything: just enough of an approach to give it a backcountry feel, some rotten cobbles to let you know you were in Hyalite, and a burly pillar for some good, clean fun. In keeping with the route's name, we went to sleep early and didn't set the alarm. After all the 4-am wake-ups in November to slog into Protection Valley, sleeping my fill before a day of climbing seemed downright decadent.

And we could've slept even longer, as an earlier-rising team was just finishing the crux pillar when we got to the base of the route. We took our time changing into dry shirts and socks, munching on bars and sipping hot tea. Eventually we judged we'd given the others enough of a head start. We racked up, tied in and began the familiar ice-climbing dance: swing, kick, kick, swing, kick, kick.

The swinging and kicking ended where the ice did. Some twenty metres of what looked like dried mud with river stones embedded in it separated us from the ledge where the ice resumed. A cam went in behind a loose block. There was nothing better to be had, so I put it out of mind. A pick scraped into a sandy hole, bare fingers wrapped around a cobble, crampons breaking footholds, I mantled onto a fridge-sized block. A wire went into a crack between two dusty rocks. If you can't have quality protection, you might as well have lots of it. Fortunately the rest of the traverse was a shuffle on big, if suspect holds, and soon I was anchoring to a solid tree.

Ice, even steep ice, almost always feels a lot more solid than mixed ground. It's especially true of mixed climbing on a badly-built stone wall, the cement between the stones dry and crumbling. We ran up the remaining two pitches of pillars and curtains to where the ice disappeared beneath faceted snow. Back down at our packs, we thought about checking out Narcolepsy, another Doug Chabot and Alex Lowe creation around the corner. In the end though, between our late start and other shenanigans, we decided to call it a day. On the way down, a pickup truck stopped and gave us a lift back to the parking lot. Sitting on our packs in the back of the truck, swaying as it bounced around corners, we inhaled clouds of weed smoke wafting from the cabin.


That evening, over chili and cornbread, I told Doug about our day: stuck car, cobbles, rednecks and all. "A classic Hyalite adventure", he summed it up.

A fatter-than-usual Big Sleep from the approach. Note the climbers on the crux pillar.

Juan Henriquez starts up while another party climbs the crux pillar. Fortunately the two sections of the climb are offset by a rock traverse, and all the bombs land harmlessly 20 metres away.

Juan Henriquez hopes that the boulder he's holding on to remains attached to the wall...

... and hooks up the crux pillar.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Falling into Winter

Elbows resting on the car roof, I eyed the distant smear through binoculars. “I hate to say it, but I don’t think it’s worth the hike,” I sighed, passing them to Steven. After glassing the melting ice, he wasn’t chomping at the bit either. We drove down the gravelly road for another twenty minutes, looking for a consolation prize, but nothing really caught our eye. It's also possible that after a couple of hours of driving and the disappointment of finding Plan A out of condition, car lassitude had set it, keeping our asses firmly rooted to the seats. Pulling a U-turn, we headed back to town for espressos. Once re-caffeinated, we briefly considered going rock climbing - it was certainly warm enough - but with the cold season approaching, decided on drytooling instead.

Yet it was only two days earlier that a friend had emailed me: “I took a photo this morning that you may be interested in. Is there an established ice/mixed route on [Peak X]? Scott”. In the attached photo, a line of ice dripped tantalizingly down a steep rock wall and petered out over a roof. But that was on Friday. On Saturday, a chinook howled over the mountains, while in the city people walked around in t-shirts. As Choc says, climbing’s all about timing and hormones. And on this particular Sunday morning, our timing sucked.

A distant smear, melting away in the November heat.


A week later, five of us stood beneath a black-and-gold, ice-streaked cliff. We’d left the road before dawn, trudging uphill through trackless forest, trying to glimpse the bulk of Castle Mountain between the trees to make sure we weren’t hiking in circles. We weren’t, and three hours later we were kicking steps up frozen dirt and snow-covered scree to the base of the wall. But now that we were here, no one seemed in a hurry to climb. To our bodies still more used to summer, the first touch of winter cold felt arctic. Instead, we retreated inside belay parkas, trying to wrap our minds around the idea of climbing in below –20 C temperatures in what was, after all, only early November.

Eventually Dave stirred from our collective lethargy. “The sun’s coming round”, he piped up optimistically. As a matter of fact, the distant sun-shadow line wouldn’t reach us for at least another hour, but it was all the encouragement we needed. Putting on harnesses and snapping on crampons, slowly we made ready to climb.

The right fork of the hanging valley between Protection and Castle Mtns. From left to right, the formed routes on the south face of Stuart Knob are Mon Ami, Arian P'tit Grimlin and Dirtbag Dreams.

Dave and Steven went for the Dirtbag Dreams on the right, while Maia, Landon and I set our sights on Arian P'tit Grimlin on the left, a twenty-year-old Guy Lacelle and Godefroy Perroux route. Tragically, both Guy and Godefroy have since died while ice climbing.

A rock roof topped with dagger gave direct access to the route, which was originally climbed by traversing in from Mon Ami. However, overhanging gymnastics on a –20 C morning didn't hold great appeal. Instead, we chose a more reasonable dangler further right. Photo: Landon Thompson.

Movement kept us warm... 

... though belays could get a bit chilly. Photo: Landon Thompson.

Occasional flashes of sunshine helped too. Unfortunately, by the time we started up the final pillar, the sun had dipped below Castle Mountain across the valley. Suddenly the air had a renewed bite to it. It was time to climb and then get the hell down! Photo: Landon Thompson.

By the time we'd rappelled off and packed up, daylight had all but faded away. Chilled, wearing all our layers, we started down, the beams of our headlamps picking out the house-sized boulders littering the floor of the hanging valley. After all the standing around at belay and rappel stances, it felt good to move. We'd warm up soon.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Extreme Camping

This past spring Rob Smith and I spent five weeks in the Alaska Range. We arrived in Talkeetna with ambitious plans: in a perfect world, we'd warm up on the French Route on the north buttress of Mt. Hunter before moving on to the Slovak Route on the south face of Denali. I knew the world isn't perfect though, and would have been ecstatic had we gotten up just one of these. In retrospect, even that seemingly realistic outlook now appears wildly optimistic, as we didn't manage so much as to stand at the base of either wall.

Still, it'd be wrong to say that the trip had been a waste of time. At the risk of rationalizing failure, it'd be sad if my sole measure of success in climbing was whether I'd sent this or that "hard" route. During the five weeks I spent in the land of eternal daylight (as is Alaska in late May and June), I had some fantastic experiences. I got to know Rob, with whom I'd only spent a few days ice climbing before. We lived through some of the worst weather I'd ever experienced at the 14k camp on Denali. We shared that camp with Tom and Uisdean, two irreverent Brits. When the storm cleared, Tom and I did yoga in the middle of camp. On a sunny day, all four of us hiked up the West Buttress to Denali's summit. We had fun, we came back safe, we came back better friends. What's so bad about that?

A few weeks ago I made a rough video of my Alaskan experience for the annual Cognac and Cheese party that some friends have put on for well over a decade now to celebrate the end of the long days of summer. If you want to see what a camping trip to Denali's like, click on.