Saturday, March 18, 2017

Field follies, part II: Blob Blob Blob

Eamonn Walsh and I thought we'd save weight on the boring ski up the Moraine Lake Road, and instead of bringing a tent, bedded down on the tables in the picnic shelter beside the lake. With dinner out of the way, we were leisurely packing for next day's climb when Graham Maclean and Rob Owens showed up. They had skied in that morning, climbed the notorious Gimme Shelter, and were on their way out to complete a one-day ascent of the route. They also brought some bad news.

"Barry [Blanchard], Steve [House] and Rolo [Garibotti] are up the valley, and they're getting on your route!"

The news was as surprising as it was unwelcome. And the unclimbed thin white line on the east face of Mt. Fay belonged to us, dammit! Having failed the previous fall a couple of kilometres out of the parking lot, when our bikes ground to a halt in the few centimetres of fresh snow on the road that was already closed for the season, we believed we had a unique claim to it. After a quick discussion, we decided we'd get up extra early, sneak past the others' camp in the dark, and start up before they realized what hit them. We weren't looking to start a fight, but it was only right and fair, no?

And the plan might've worked had it not been for Rolo. We were already well past the stand of trees where the others had camped, and felt safe in turning our headlamps back on. Down on the valley floor, three headlamps appeared in pursuit but we had a comfortable lead on them. But then one of the lights detached itself from the others and began gaining on us faster than seemed possible. Soon it was passing us and leaving us far behind.

By the time Barry, Steve, Eamonn and I got to the base of the route, Rolo was already halfway up the rope they had fixed the day before. It was clear our gambit had failed and there was nothing for it but to laugh, wish the others good luck, and ski out for pastries at Laggan's. After all, as the song says:

"You've got to know when to hold 'em,
Know when to fold 'em,
Know when to walk away..."

The obscure object of desire, the line that became Sans Blitz.

Barry Blanchard joins the predawn gathering at the base of the coveted line.

***

Why do we care so much to be the first ones on a particular piece of vertical real estate? Why do we seek out unclimbed drips and drabs of ice, often many hours from the nearest road, up obscure, trackless valleys? Is it, Star Trek like, to boldly go where no one has gone before? Is it to draw our own lines on the blank canvases of cliffs and mountainsides? Or is it for the "awesome!!!" and "amazing!!!" comments on our Facebooks and Instagrams? I'm not sure I have the answers.

***

Sarah Hueniken had a few days off from guiding while I had my reading week. It was time to play.

"Got any ideas?"
"A potential new route..."
"Those blobs left of the Nasty Habits finish?"
"That's it!"

Our objective being a roadside line in Field, I insisted on a casual start. Sarah wasn't too impressed but deferred to my extra hour of driving from Calgary. Field greeted us with low cloud and wet mist. We traversed below two parties already on the ice sheet of Twisted, another one on the skinny pillar of Nasty Habits, and made for a low-angled gully further right. It might not have been overly inspiring but at least it was unoccupied. A couple of easy ropelengths got us to a drippy stance below the blobs.

Now here too some drama ensued, all the more dramatic for being unexpected, with two parties finding themselves at the same point of our four-dimensional spacetime, intent on more or less on the same objective. But fortunately, upon closer inspection, there turned out to be more than one way up the ice-spattered wall above, and at the end of the day (figuratively speaking), everybody went home happy. But enough drama already. Let's go climbing.

***

Heading for an arĂȘte adorned with ice blobs the size of beach balls, I grovel up a chossy slot to a ledge. A perfect knifeblade crack appears. A bodylength higher I could probably stretch and place a cam in some exfoliating rock. I hesitate, but with the prospect of a ledge fall, I pull up the drill. The bolt placed, I clip the drill to my harness and commit to the blobs. A good blue Camalot is just what's needed before the mantle onto the highest blob.

Going left would be the most direct way but the dry, flaky rock looks uninspiring. I place an upside-down blade and have a shufty to the right. It looks like more blobs and maybe a crack, but first I have to pull onto a ledge stacked with loose blocks. I eye the blocks, I eye the blade, the blocks again, and finally replace the pin with a bolt. A red Camalot crack does materialize above the blocks. It's only a bodylength or two long, but it's the Rockies and you take what you get.

Above the next blob, a short bulge blocks access to a corner. With a decent blade to my right, I start torquing and hooking over said bulge, but soon the hooks turn small and slippery. I don't fancy landing on the blob below me with the drill and everything else I have hanging from my harness, so I drill another bolt as high as I can reach. The corner above ends below a roof. A meagre foot ledge doesn't promise great comfort, but it's probably the best place for a belay. I sink two bolts into the grey stone below the overhang.

"Secure!"

***

There are few things more tedious than reading a move-by-move account of a pitch of climbing. Perhaps belaying said pitch comes close. Still, I suppose I wanted to explain why, given how easy it would've been to climb one of the neighbouring routes and rappel down the blobs, I never really considered rap bolting as an option. For me, going ground up has less to do with ethics (as, given a power drill, it'd be easy to put up a bolt ladder, and there's nothing bold or adventurous about that). No, I simply like the process of venturing upward into who knows what, free climbing while I can, getting in gear where I can, and where I can't, aiding off of tools and drilling as high as I can. It feels more like climbing than construction work (even if sometimes it can degenerate into that). And I like to think the resulting routes have a little more character, maybe follow a more natural line, than if they were established on rappel. But that's just me.

Summary of statistics: First ascent of Blob Blob Blob (60 m, M6) by Sarah Hueniken and Raphael Slawinski, February 2017.

The Twisted area on Mt. Stephen on a misty morning in February.

"Hmm, let's have a shufy at those blobs over there..." Photo: Sarah Hueniken.

It's almost a given that if you bring a drill, you'll use it. Photo: Sarah Hueniken.

Sarah Hueniken nears the end of the first pitch.

Another day, another experience: Tim Banfield and yours truly on the first pitch of Blob Blob Blob a couple of days later. Photo: Crista-Lee Mitchell.

On that day, there was no uncertainty of venturing into the unknown. Photo: Crista-Lee Mitchell.

However, the sport climber in me wanted something more than the adventure of bashing in pins and looking around corners: he also wanted flow. Photo: Crista-Lee Mitchell.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Field follies, part I: Lone Pine

I don't know about you, but I find my climbing comes in waves. When I'm into sport climbing, all I want to do is session rock. When I'm into ice, all I want to do is swing tools. As a result, sometimes I have a hard time switching gears as the seasons change, and keep crimping with frozen fingers into November, or keep seeking out ice in high, shady places into May. I'm prone to a similar obsessiveness when it comes to where I climb. I won't visit a particular crag or valley for years, then on a whim I'll go there, see all the potential, and for the next few weeks go nowhere else. Take the polar pit that is Field, for example. I hadn't climbed there for years other than an occasional plan B, but now my last five outings have all been there, and I don't think I'm done with the place yet.

Lone Pine

The great Isaac Newton was an anti-Trinitarian. A what, you ask? In case you've forgotten your Catholic catechism, the doctrine of the Trinity is central to Christian mythology. It says that the one God is in fact three: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The three are distinct but are one substance. Newton thought all this fancy talk was just thinly veiled polytheism, and (privately!) took the heretical view that the Father was in fact the main man.

That's all very interesting in an obscure historical way, you might say, but what do convoluted theological arguments have to do with ice climbing? Bear with me.

There once was rock corner (a left-facing one if you want to be precise). Water dribbled downed it, and in winter the water turned to ice. Some winters there was less ice and and it just hung in space from the lip of a roof, others there was more and it'd connect with the ledge below in a skinny pillar. It was in one of the leaner winters, in February of 1998, that Allan Massin and Steve Pratt, a couple of local climbers, came and climbed the corner. Because the ice over the roof didn't connect with the ledge, and because drytooling hadn't been officially invented yet, they used some old-fashioned aid climbing to get up the rocky bits. As climbers do on the occasion of being the first ones up a piece of mountainside, they gave the corner a name, calling it Lone Pine in honour of a tree leaning out over the top.

A couple of winters later more water flowed down the corner, and a chandeliered pillar formed over the roof. Another couple of local climbers, Greg Tkaczuk and Eamonn Walsh, came along in December of 1999. They climbed the skinny pillar covering the rock where Massin and Pratt had hung from bits of metal, and continued to the eponymous pine tree at the top. They called their version of the corner Littlest Hobo.

Fast forward to February of 2017. Golden local and social commentator Ian Welsted enticed Okanagan organic farmer Willis Brown and Calgary physics professor Raphael Slawinski to check out a radical new line. And radical it looked, with daggers hanging menacingly from a rock roof. It all looked menacing enough that Slawinski was cowed into hanging from bits of metal hammered into cracks to hammer more bits of metal into cracks. But, being a sport climber at heart, he then lowered off and pulled the rope. They then took turns pinkpointing the rock and ice now adorned with many quickdraws.

While postholing through isothermal snow on the way down, they amused themselves by thinking up clever names for what they had just climbed. In the end, in honour of the alcohol theme of the valley and of Slawinski's Polish heritage, they settled on Wyborowa Exquisite. But a few days later, while idly leafing through Sean Isaac's Mixed Climbs in the Canadian Rockies, Slawinski came across the description of an obscure climb called Lone Pine. While there was no photo, the approach and route sounded suspiciously like what he'd just climbed. His suspicion was confirmed when he sent Walsh some photos of the day.

"That's Lone Pine alright, except we had an ice pillar where you were dry-tooling through that overhang", Walsh wrote back.

And so we come return to the idea of the Trinity. There were after all three climbs: a rock aid-climb, a more or less pure ice climb, and an exercise in drytooling. And yet, while distinct, they were the same substance. Or, like all those theologians, am I just splitting non-existent hairs?

Summary of statistics: The umpteenth ascent of Lone Pine, but the first one by a social commentator from Golden, an organic farmer from the Okanagan and a physics professor from Calgary. Also, maybe the first free ascent of the original aid-climbing line. To encourage others to also enjoy the climb, we left our pitons fixed, so all you need is a handful of screws of all lengths and a few cams to gold Camalot.

Willis Brown starts up the first pitch of Lone Pine, with the daggers of the second pitch dangling overhead.

Willis Brown embarks on a pinkpoint (technically, a beta flash) of the second pitch.

The moves may be the same, but there's a certain difference between hopping on a hanging dagger with your last piece a Lost Arrow rather than a fat bolt.

Willis Brown traverses into the forest, with the famous (?) pine tree peering down at him.

So much to do... Mt. Stephen across the Kicking Horse River from Mt. Field.

The rimed summit block of Mt. Stephen. With a crappier-than-usual snowpack, summits have seemed especially remote and aloof this winter.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Why We Climb

It was early March 2015. In a month's time I'd be leaving for Tibet to attempt a new route on the north side of Everest. My outings were a blur of runs and weighted hill hikes, with just the occasional long ice or ski day thrown in to keep boredom at bay. When out of the blue a photographer emailed me to ask if I'd be interested in doing a photoshoot for his book project, my initial reaction was to politely decline. With all the training and organizing, not to mention family and work, I had no time to spare for posing. But the photographer's name gave me pause.

When I first got serious about climbing in the early nineties, I'd devour every issue of Climbing magazine as soon as it came out. I was living in Chicago at the time, going to graduate school and acutely missing the Rockies. The bright pages of the magazine were an escape from the grey skies and slushy streets of the big city. Perversely, I'd skim over the images of lycra-clad gymnasts on sunny rock, and instead linger over those of modern knights in Goretex armour going to do battle on vertical walls of ice. The most striking photos of such living legends as Alex Lowe or Mark Twight would be credited to Chris Noble.

I think it was recalling an image of Twight on the Weeping Wall I saw years before I first laid eyes on the real thing that made me change my mind about the photoshoot. After all, how often do we get to replay our youthful dreams? I wrote back to Chris that yes, I'd be keen to get out with him.

The Weeping Wall with Mt. Amery in the distance. Photo: Chris Noble.

Normally I don't especially enjoy ice climbing when temperatures dip below -15 C or so. But all through the exceptionally mild winter of 2015, as I sweated in high-altitude boots up muddy trails, I kept hoping for some real cold to prepare my body for the windswept north flank of Everest. And so for once I was happy when I stepped out of the warm car in the Stanley Headwall parking lot and felt cold air wash over me like a liquid. With the thermometer reading well below -20 C, I'd get in some cold weather training.

In the end I didn't have the worst of it. I stayed warm all day, first lugging a pack of full of climbing gear and static line to the base of the wall, then climbing, rappelling and reclimbing pitches high above the valley floor. Chris, on the other hand, other than short bursts of jumaring, hung on the rope for hours, struggling to keep his hands warm enough to operate the camera. Even though days get longer in March, it was already dark by the time we touched back down on the exposed snow ledge below French Reality.

Yours truly starts up the crux pitch of French Roast, the finish to the rarely formed French Toast on the Stanley Headwall. Photo: Chris Noble.

Wiktor Skupinski, usually the man behind the camera, on this occasion generously agreed to endure a long, chilly belay, while I went up and down, and up again. Photo: Chris Noble.

Thin ice with the occasional bit of rock gear to keep things reasonable. It doesn't get much better than that. Photo: Chris Noble.

A few days later, Chris interviewed me in the more comfortable confines of my living room. When he mentioned some of the other climbers he'd be profiling in his book on Why We Climb, I experienced a mixture of conflicting emotions. On one hand, I was certainly flattered to be included in the same table of contents as some of the most inspiring climbers on the planet. On the other, I couldn't help wondering what I was doing in such company. I'm still not sure. I didn't fool myself I played in the same league as the other people in the book. Still, maybe I could offer some musings on balancing a climbing obsession with a full-time job; and, as I inexorably drew nearer to the half-century mark, on downclimbing gracefully.

"But there will come a point within the next decade or so, when I'll inevitably start down the other side of the hill. And that will be a hard process, because a good part of the appeal of climbing for me is the fact that I can push myself and get better."

Nobody said downclimbing was easy.

The cover of Chis Noble's Why We Climb.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Murdering the Impossible

""Impossible": it doesn't exist anymore." - Reinhold Messner

Saddam's Insane

As I hooked and stepped up the cauliflowered pedestal at the top of the first pitch, the dagger at the start of the second hung over my head like the sword of Damocles. From lower on the pitch, it had been distant enough that I worried more about blunting my picks on the thinnish ice at the breakover than about the tons of frozen water looming overhead. But now that I stood right below the dagger, and saw that it failed to connect with its base by mere centimetres, I took great care not to bump it. I tried to pound in some pitons for a belay safely off to the side, but the notorious Kananaskis rock, which somehow manages to be both compact and chossy at the same time, wouldn't take even a knifeblade. In the end, I had no choice but to place a couple of screws directly below the dagger, and to call this unsatisfactory arrangement the anchor.

I read somewhere you should never climb a piece of ice you're afraid to stand under. It sounds obvious and reasonable, but it's funny how easy it can be to ignore this simple piece of wisdom. After I'd belayed Rob up to our stance under the dagger, we turned our attention upward. And the most obvious thing to do was to hop on the dagger. After all, it was almost all there: it wouldn't take extreme gymnastics, just a gentle touch, to get established on the hanging ice. But nearly twenty years ago I'd been lucky to walk away when the giant fang of Suffer Machine collapsed, with me riding it like Captain Ahab the whale. It's not the kind of experience you forget easily, and recalling it helped the voice of reason prevail. Sort of, anyway.

In his 1971 essay The Murder of the Impossible, Messner writes that he's "... ready for anything - even for retreat, if I meet the impossible." Well, the sun was shining, the day was still young, and I didn't want to bail just yet. I began by exploring some options to the right, but nothing looked very appealing. After twenty minutes of fruitless poking around, I rejoined Rob below the dagger. Now it so happened that Saddam was our plan B. Plan A had been an icy chimney I'd spied a couple of years earlier and hoped might be in this season. It wasn't but as a result, in addition to a useless rack of cams and nuts, I'd also brought my courage in the form of a handful of self-drives. I did feel a twinge of guilt as I prepared to add bolts to what was, after all, an established route. However, hanging uncomfortably from a tool driven behind a creaky flake, tap-tap-tapping away, I soon forgot my misgivings.

Four bolts and a pin later, I figured I had enough of a life support system in place in case the dagger decided to do anything untoward. Ever the sport climber, I lowered back to the belay, pulled the rope, and went for the pinkpoint. It wasn't very hard, as after just a few dry moves you could snag the ice. The dagger vibrated slightly as I swung gingerly into it, but it was obviously more solid than my imagination had made it out to be. Soon I was safely past the likely fracture line, cruising the chandeliered ice above. Rob had the worst of it on the follow, his hands freezing repeatedly after a long, chilly belay.

The first flurries of the incoming cold front swirled around as I stood tethered to a couple of screws just below where the ice ran out. As I retreated into the hood of my belay jacket, I thought again about Messner. In his essay he offers that "... if anyone wants to come with me, we'll go to the top together on the routes we can do without branding ourselves murderers." Four protection bolts were nothing next to the bolted aid direttissimas he was railing against. Still, good old Reinhold had a point: not every bit of the vertical world had to be made climbable in reasonable safety. Sometimes, out of self-respect if nothing else, we ought to leave a line unclimbed. Did I enrich Saddam's Insane by adding a mixed variation to it, or did I mar the severe beauty of a serious ice climb with my bolts? I wasn't sure.

Aladdin Sane, M4 WI5
FA: Raphael Slawinski and Robert Smith, December 3, 2016
This is a minor mixed variation to the second pitch of Saddam's Insane. Climb rock behind the dagger past 4 bolts and a fixed pin. The climbing will be harder if the pillar's broken off, while in fat years the bolts will likely be covered in ice.

A beautiful, complex peak, Mt. Kidd hides all kinds of icy bounty in its bowls and gullies.

Rob enjoys December sun at the base of the first pitch of Saddam's Insane...

... and looks on from below the icicles at the start of the second, as I search for alternatives to the hanging dagger. Photo: Robert Smith.

Master of Puppets

Flipping through photos on the Parks Mountain Safety Facebook page, I came across one of the Weeping Wall. I hadn't been up the Parkway since May, so I paused to examine the image more closely. There was the usual ice on Weeping Pillar and the routes to its right, but what caught my eye was the line on the left. Master of Puppets hadn't formed in a dozen years. To quote from my 2004 AAJ Rockies summary:

"In December [2003 Chris] Delworth and [Dave] Marra snagged the first ascent of Master of Puppets (160m WI6). Two rope lengths of moderate ice lead to the most striking feature of the route, a slender freestanding pillar. From the top of the pillar another pitch of steep ice leads to the top of the wall. This exceptional line saw numerous ascents before the crux pillar fell off during an early February heat wave. [Guy] Lacelle said it was among the ten best ice routes he has done - high praise indeed!"

Steve Swenson and I were among the numerous parties that did the route before its premature demise. The early January sun, barely clearing the ridges across the valley, had shone through the translucent crux curtain. I had tapped my way behind it with nothing but air around me. I had felt like I was floating, weightless, the rock wall so far away that it might as well not have been there at all. But I had known this weightlessness to be an illusion, and had waited until turning the corner to where the ice attached to the rock before sinking the first screw.

This season the crux pillar wasn't there, the ice terminating abruptly in a sharp fracture at the lip of the overhang. And that's precisely what had me excited, as it promised scratching around, gymnastics and uncertainty high above the valley floor. With an iffy combination of windslab sitting on top of facets in the alpine, staying below treeline seemed wise. And so, with the unformed pillar for motivation, Juan and I made plans for a mini road trip to the Weeping Wall just before New Year's. Even though I gave Ian fair warning that this was a construction project, he decided to join us on the first day.

Fine snow sifted out of a low, grey sky. We ran up Snivelling Gully to save time, but between a mid-morning start, trail breaking to the Upper Wall and brittle ice on the approach pitches, it was already two o'clock by the time we stood below the bare rock of the crux. Giant ice blocks littering the ledge were all that remained of the unformed pillar. Making light of Ian's razzing about sticking bolts into a route on Guy's top ten list, surgeon-like, I made my preparations: blunt working pick on a tool, crampons off, aiders clipped to the back of the harness, drill on a sling over the shoulder. Less than an hour later, I was lowering from a bolt below the broken edge of what remained of the crux curtain. Juan had a run at the line, prying off loose edges and blocks ranging in size from nail clippings to toasters, before fading light told us it was time to head down.

The sun hit us at the first belay on the Upper Wall. It had cleared overnight, and the morning sky was a pale blue instead of yesterday's grey. It was also noticeably colder, and I eagerly turned my face to the east, blinking in the bright sunshine. This time it wasn't even noon when we made it to the ledge.

"We'll be home early", I thought.

And we might've been, had a sizeable edge not crumbled just below the ice roof, sending me for a whipper and nailing Juan in the shoulder. Our next few goes all ended lower, as we scraped more and more useable holds off the wall.

"On the next go, do you want to continue to the top no matter what?", Juan suggested.

I disliked the thought of leaving the pitch unsent, but with the afternoon wearing on, I could see his point. Fortunately on our failed attempts we'd cleaned enough looseness that, a few minutes later, I was reaching over the ice roof, still on redpoint. Strangely, the pillar had snapped off below where it attached to the rock, and the bottom couple of metres hung free. Hmm... I hooked up the lacy ice above, trying to decide where it might be safe to place my first screw. Perversely, a part of me was glad when I saw the fracture line and realized that, screw or not, if the hanging curtain let go now, with my rope running underneath it, things would go badly for me either way. Even with all the bolts, the climb still had some sting left.

Almost ten years ago I went on a traditional tear at the Stanley Headwall, climbing some new ground on natural gear and repeating existing lines without clipping any of the bolts. It wasn't that I was against bolts. As I wrote afterwards, "Bolts can open up fantastic terrain, allowing us to play with gravity on big overhangs and big daggers. However, bolts should add to the adventure, not diminish it." Perhaps on Master of Puppets, I hadn't eliminated all uncertainty and murdered the impossible altogether. If you head up there, let me know.

Dance Dictator, M7+ WI5+
FA: Juan Henriquez and Raphael Slawinski, December 30, 2016
This is the mixed variation to the crux pitch of Master of Puppets. Climb 2 pitches of moderate ice to a comfortable ledge littered with giant ice blocks. The mixed crux climbs the back rock wall past 9 bolts, with a combination of big moves and delicate hooking. Pull over the ice overhang and continue to a belay behind the upper pillar. Finish up steep, chandeliered ice to the top.

The drytooling is well protected, but if the hanging curtain were to break with you on it and your rope underneath it, the outcome wouldn't be pretty.

Master of Puppets (minus the crux pillar), with the rest of the Upper Weeping Wall behind it.

Juan tries to warm his fingers on the first pitch on our first, stormy day up there...

... and cruises sunny ice on the second pitch on our second day.

Mts. Andromeda and Athabasca framed in the V of the North Saskatchewan River valley.

Yours truly gets down to some grubby construction work on the missing link pitch on the first day... Photo: Ian Welsted.

... and reaps the rewards on the second. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Juan raps down over the ice roof, while sunset paints the sky the delicate pink of late December.

Monday, December 19, 2016

"Wild Climbs in the Rocky Mountains" show in Calgary this Wednesday

Dave Cheesmond was the driving force behind most of the hard new alpine routes done in the Rockies in the 80's. He was fond of saying that if you could climb here, you could climb anywhere. You can quibble about the details ("What about high altitude?"), but not the gist of his pithy phrase. Compared to Alaska or the Himalaya, the Rockies, with their crumbling rock and modest height, are not the sexiest mountain range around. But it's likely easier to get up a big peak in Alaska, with its perfect snowpack and granite, or in the Himalaya, with porters carrying your stuff to basecamp (and sometimes higher), than to fight your way up a remote north face in the Rockies. This coming Wednesday, at the Mappy Hour YYC, I'll tell some stories from our own mountain backyard, and try to convince you that if you want adventure, there's really no need to go anywhere else. I hope to see you there.

Eamonn Walsh gains the summit ridge of Mt. Alberta on his way to making the first winter ascent of the peak. Why go anywhere else?