Monday, December 27, 2010

"... and keep your heels down!"

A lot of factors contribute to competent ice climbing, such as technique, endurance and boldness. None of these comes easily, at least not to me. But something else that's key to efficient ice climbing is having one's systems dialed - and that's a bit easier to come by. Over the years I've developed my own set of habits that serve me well when venturing out into the cold. They are all rather self-evident, but maybe you will find one or two of them useful. In no particular order:
  • For a full ice-climbing day I typically bring three pairs of gloves: thin ones for approaching, a favourite pair for climbing, and thick ones for belaying. That makes for two pairs on the climb. I clip the belay gloves to the back of my harness while climbing and change into them at belays, while the climbing gloves go deep inside my clothes to stay warm for the next pitch.
Count on your approach gloves getting wet.
  • If the approach is over an hour or so, I bring a spare pair of socks to change into at the rope-up spot. Dry socks make a big difference to how warm my feet stay while climbing. To make a good thing even better, I pack the spare pair next to a bottle of hot drink; that way they're already preheated when I put them on. If I expect to really sweat on the approach, I bring a spare shirt, too.
Guy Lacelle smiling at the thought of a dry shirt.
  • I am very particular about having my boots laced up just right: tightly enough to eliminate any slop, but not so tightly as to cut off circulation. To that end I find it helps to lace up my boots while standing. That way my feet are bearing weight and are in the position they'll be in while climbing.
It doesn't matter how you lace your boots when you won't be using your feet much anyway, like in the Haffner Cave. Photo: Marcus Norman.
  • I try to dress so that when wearing all my layers, I get just a bit chilled standing around. That way I don't overheat while climbing. As soon as I get to a belay stance, I put on a parka that I carry in a stuff sack clipped to the back of my harness.
Eamonn Walsh happy as a clam in his belay coat on Rectal Squirrels, Storm Creek. Photo: Pierre Darbellay.
  • Climbing in the cold, dry Rockies, I am a big fan of softshell and hardly ever wear Goretex. I find softshell usually breathes better, moves better and looks better. But there are times, on climbs that are running with water or on warm, snowy days, when only Goretex would keep me from getting soaked to the skin (if I had worn it, that is).
Scott Semple wishing he'd worn shell pants on a very wet early-season Sacre Bleu.
  • Ice climbing obviously tends to be cold and uncomfortable. But few things come close to the nauseous agony of screaming barfies, as blood rushes back into frozen hands. While getting the barfies once in a while is probably unavoidable, with a bit of discipline they can usually be avoided. I find the key is to keep moving at the inevitable long belays, to prevent the onset of a deep chill. Even so, before I break down the anchor and start seconding the pitch, I spend a minute or two vigorously swinging my arms to rewarm them some more.
"Big Wall" Pete Takeda staying warm on a snowy day on the Trophy Wall.
  • Early on in my climbing career I made a concerted effort to learn to place screws with either hand (I'm strongly right handed). These days I rack as many screws on my left side as on my right. Being able to place screws equally well with both hands allows my to take advantage of the best ice, but most importantly it lets me shake out and/or rewarm whichever hand needs it the most.
Placing gear left handed on Sails for Seniors, Mt. Murchison. Photo: Ian Welsted.
  • Ice climbing is obviously gear intensive, and having your gear in good shape makes a big difference. I make sure my picks are sharp before each outing (I don't modify my picks other than maybe bevelling the bottom teeth a bit for easier removal). The same goes for crampons (mostly the front and secondary points), and of course screws (the side of a cutoff wheel on a Dremel tools works well for minor repairs). On a long route with much thin ice I carry a small file for minor pick and screw repairs.
Dulling all points on Dirty Love, Mt. Wilson. Photo: Jon Walsh.
  • In the last few years I've started climbing with two-handled leashless tools. These work well for steep ice and mixed, but can be awkward to use on low-angled ice, where the steeply drooped pick tends to strike the ice with the top rather than the point. I find swinging from the upper grip makes low-angled climbing more efficient.
Putting prototype Fusions to the test on Comfort Queen, Stanley Headwall. Photo: Ian Welsted.
  • Speaking of leashless tools, it's important not to overgrip while hanging from them. I will often open up my hand and stick out my thumb to ensure I am not using any more force than necessary (obviously a firmer grip is needed while swinging).
Shaking some blood back into the fingers on The Replicant, Mt. Rundle. Photo: Jen Olson.
  • I've learned to be patient with my tool placements. Sure, when seconding anything goes (such as tenuous hooking), especially if it gets me up the pitch quickly and with minimal effort. But when leading I try to make every placement solid, as if I were soloing. The problem with one bad placement is that it often leads to another bad one, because I am afraid to lean out on the original one. So I take my time and work with each tool placement until I am happy with it.
Obviously tool placements are only as solid as the ice they're in. Pierre Darbellay reaching better ice on the first ascent of Rectal Squirrels, Storm Creek.
  • For technique as well as for gear, I find that simpler is usually better. Sure, I might throw in the occasional knee drop, sometimes even without a camera nearby. But 96% of the time a simple sequence of swinging tools with my feet level and leapfrogging tool placements is the way to go.
Knee dropping for the camera on the GBU, North Ghost. Photo: Josh Lavigne.

There you have: take it for what it's worth (likely not much) and have fun on the ice!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Just ice climbing

I must be easily amused. I have been ice climbing for nearly twenty years, racking up forty or fifty days in an average season. Yet somehow, I am still not bored of it. What is it about climbing ice that holds my interest? After all, it is cold, repetitive, and let's face it, mostly easy. Take yesterday, for example. We climbed the Replicant for what was my seventh time. We got up early. We drove, biked and hiked for several hours just to get to the base of the route. We got screaming barfies and ice-cream headaches. Then we retraced our steps to go home. Why go to all that trouble just to climb two pitches?

I suspect the day I require an answer to that question to get me out of bed at an uncivilized hour will be the day I stop ice climbing. But for now, I hope the photos below provide enough of an answer.

The Trophy Wall on Mt. Rundle. How much more compelling can climbing lines get?

Barry Blanchard and Steve Holeczi trying to avoid a windslab in the grey light of dawn, with the valley floor seven hundred vertical metres below.

Steve doing what he does best: eating and looking scary.

The belay at the base of the route was unfortunately the last non-hanging one. But as much as hanging belays suck, there is something magical about a house with a roof of icicles and no floor.

Steve tapping his way up ominously booming, detached ice on the first pitch.

How does one grade ice like that? Vertical but full of bomber hooks, so it feels like steep, juggy 5.6. On the other hand, on the entire pitch, maybe only a couple of screws in the hollow ice would hold more than bodyweight (especially Steve's weight). A strange game, this ice-climbing business.

On the second pitch, upward progress was assisted by much better ice and sandblasting updrafts. Photo: Barry Blanchard.

Barry nearing the top belay wearing every last layer he brought, including the belay jacket.

Ah, the joys of relieving yourself at a hanging stance: first you have to haul it out, then stuff it back again. All this with multiple layers of clothing, a harness, and a partner complaining that you are pissing on his boot.

By the time we had rappelled back down the wind picked up in earnest, bringing the first taste of the coming cold spell, and making us appreciate the shelter of the forest below all the more. As Beavis and Butt-head once famously said, you gotta have things that suck to have things that are cool. Perhaps that is the appeal of ice climbing.

A day on the Trophy Wall is kind of like a winter triathlon: climbing, slogging and biking through snow.

PS: For lack of anything better to do, this fall I have been revistiting some old favourites. Gery Unterasinger has posted some photos from Sacre Bleu while Josh Lavigne has put together a short video from Nemesis.

Nemesis from Joshua Lavigne on Vimeo.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Faux Alpinism

What is alpine climbing, exactly? At what point is one no longer just rock or ice climbing, but alpine climbing? For me, it comes down to a number of things. Any one of them does not make an outing alpine; rather, a few combine to push one over the threshold and into the alpine. In no particular order, here are some things that help make alpinism what it is:
  • Slogging. Most alpine climbing, especially in the Rockies, requires some.
Slogging up the east face of Mt. Alberta in the winter of 2005. Photo: Scott Semple.
  • Heavy packs. Sure, sometimes you get away with a daypack, but most alpine-climbing packs make you wish you'd never picked them up.
Climbing with an overnight pack on the Dogleg Couloir on Mt. Chephren in the winter of 2008. Photo: Pierre Darbellay.
  • Summits. Not all alpine outings have to end on a summit, but they should at least pretend to try. This often involves slogging (see above) past the end of so-called difficulties.
"Past the difficulties" on the Drip at the Centre of the Universe on Mt. Birdwood in the winter of 2009... Photo: Jen Olson.

... and on the summit of said mountain.
  • Difficulty. Speaking of difficulty, you should have to bust a gut somewhere along the way, otherwise you're just peak bagging.
  • Being miserable. Let's face it, if at no point you didn't wish you were somewhere else, you were probably not alpine climbing.
Dreaming about being somewhere else on a single-push ascent of the Wild Thing on Mt. Chephren in the winter of 2009. Photo: Eamonn Walsh.
  • Getting up into some of the coolest places imaginable. This, to me, is the essence of alpine climbing: wild climbing in wild places.

Why am I going on about alpine climbing and raiding my photo collection for old images? First, I needed content for my blog. As such, empty drivel and gratuitous alpine imagery are not to be discounted. But what got me thinking about the subject in the first place was last Sunday's outing. With the northern hemisphere approaching winter solstice, days are too short to try to squeeze in a big outing without excessive headlamp use. To deal with this situation, Simon Parsons and I simply made up an alpine outing. It involved climbing Spray River Falls, then continuing up to the ridgeline and walking off along it. Contrived, you say? Ah, but how often does a simple ice-climbing day end with a free gondola ride down?

The sun rising over Mt. Rundle.

The ice was surprisingly cold and hard. OK, maybe it was not that surprising, given the -17 C overnight low.

When faced with depth hoar, no holds are barred.

Looking up the Bow Valley from Sulphur Mountain.

Now that's what I call civilized!

Sunday, November 21, 2010


My friend Ian Welsted has a rule of thumb about -15 C being the cutoff temperature for getting on interesting ice. It sounds arbitrary, but is actually amazingly spot on. Any colder than that and already fragile chandeliers turn into brittle crystal, smooth curtains into armour plate, and one's extremities into useless clubs. Of course like most rules, this one has exceptions to it. If the sun is shining, then even -30 C can feel downright reasonable. Just make sure to be down from the climb when it dips below the horizon.

Ian pushing the temperature envelope while looking for a new way onto the ephemeral ice of French Toast on the Stanley Headwall. By the time we had rappelled off, the forecast storm had moved in, bringing cold, wind, and snow, and turning the usually casual walk off into a bit of an epic.

That's more like it. Ian on a much more pleasant day, attempting a new route on the wall left of Polar Circus. We made the mistake of naming the unclimbed line Polish Sausage in advance, thereby ensuring failure.

It does not take bare hands to ensure screaming barfies if you break Ian's rule. Eamonn Walsh enjoying the feeling of blood rushing back into his digits on the first ascent of the Great White Fright on EEOR.

When it's cold, it's all about the sun. Guy Lacelle happy at -30 C on the Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

With Ian's rule in mind and daytime highs hovering around -20 C, ice climbing this weekend didn't appeal. However, it was a perfect opportunity to go hiking. Winter hiking has a few things going for it. It still gets one out of the house. It helps to keep off the winter fat. And it also prevents one from getting into an ice-climbing rut, whereby a day's outing amounts to a grand total of a pitch or three below treeline. Even if it's merely walking, I like to tag a summit every once in a while during the cold months. I find it helps to keep my head in the right place for when the stars line up to allow for a winter-alpine hit. But perhaps most important of all, getting up high when it's cold and snowy is simply good fun.

Above the clouds.

The Alaska Range? Nah, just K-Country.

Sunset from a windswept ridge.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Of wild wind, wild cats and wild men

Over the years I have shared many fine adventures with my friend Eamonn. Lately a few common threads seem to run through these outings: virgin ice, early starts, long approaches, and sandblasting spindrift. Last Saturday was no exception.

Eamonn enjoying a brief windless interlude...

... that of course was too good to last.

A fine position on the edge of the range.

At times the wind was so strong (gusts of over 160 km/h were recorded on ridge tops), the spindrift did not even make it down.

On the approach we followed the tracks of a mountain lion.

A fondness for ice climbing and good looks seem to go together. Photo: Eamonn Walsh.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Mt. Cromwell

Thanksgiving weekend had whetted my appetite for alpine climbing, so Josh Lavigne and I made plans to get out again the following weekend (can you tell I am a weekend warrior?). I tried to think of something I had not done before, but that was not so far from the road that it would not fit into a regular weekend. In the end we came up with the Elzinga-Miller route on the north face of Mt. Cromwell.

The north face of Cromwell from the Icefields Parkway.

This would be my second trip up the north face. Ten years ago Jim Sevigny, my alpine mentor, and I walked up Woolley Creek in early September to attempt the Robinson-Arbic. The weather was far from splitter: a light drizzle fell as we waded across the Sunwapta River and low-lying cloud hid the face, so that we had to sit on our packs and wait for a couple of hours before we could even see the start of the route. The face looked to be in great shape, with white streaks coming down all over the place, but upon closer inspection the white stuff turned out to be slush. No matter, we could still drytool around the non-existent ice, but it took time. Sunset found us chopping into an exposed snow rib and setting up our bivy tent (you see, we had a notion that between a late start and iffy conditions we might end up bivying). I slept well, in spite of Jim next to me shivering and rubbing warmth into his limbs all night. The following day we topped out around noon and got back to the car just as the skies opened up. As Choc Quinn once famously said, alpine climbing is all about timing and hormones.

Jim discovering the white stuff is not ice.

Wakey wakey, hands off snakey!

This time around we planned to send the face in a day car-to-car. It sounded like a reasonable enough plan, especially since it meant we would sleep in a warm van and carry light packs. Josh took the fast-and-light philosophy one step further by forgetting his helmet, but he figured that between his hard head and soft toque he would be all right. The early-morning cold in the glacial cirque below the north face chilled our bodies, more used to shirtless sport climbing at The Lookout than to early winter in the high country. The waves of spindrift pouring down the route did not make things any more pleasant, either, but we had come to alpine climb and some suffering was to be expected. In deference to the spindrift and snowy ice we pitched out the first few ropelengths, before switching into simul-climbing mode on the snowfields in the middle of the face.

Starting up the Elzinga-Miller.

Josh engulfed in spindrift on the third pitch...

... and smiling again in the middle of the face.

Winter is coming to the Columbia Icefields.

In the past the summit serac sported overhanging ice that had some people aiding off of screws, but thanks to glacial recession we were able to bypass it on moderately-angled ice. A few ropelengths of glacial ice, an easy cornice, and we broke onto the summit ridge. The cornice just below the summit was a little more substantial, but after carving a tunnel through the wave of snow we popped out into the sunshine on top. Beautiful, beautiful mountains stretched to the horizon in every direction: Mt. Alberta just across the valley, Mt. Clemenceau in the middle distance, and far to the north, Mt. Robson. It was only midafternoon, so in spite of a brisk wind we lingered and took it all in. After all, how often do you get to sit on an island in the sky, surrounded by the most impressive peaks in the Rockies, having just climbed a north-face route, knowing you have plenty of daylight to get down?

Josh approaching the serac near the top of the face...

... and chillin' on the summit.

The mighty Mt. Alberta.

Waxing gibbous moon rising.

Here is a short video from our outing, courtesy of Josh. Enjoy!