Monday, January 11, 2010


I like scrambling: moving fast high above the valleys, almost but not quite climbing. Climbing, the real thing, can be so tedious sometimes: all that fighting for each metre of upward progress, all that belaying. I suppose free soloing would fit the bill for moving fast and still having it feel like climbing, but I am too chicken for the real solo thing. So when I want to cover a lot of ground in the mountains, for training, fun or whatever, scrambling it is.

Katsutaka "Jumbo" Yokoyama on Mt. Baldy

These days I have an additional reason to go scrambling. A shoulder injury (I have a related piece of advice: listen to your body and stop doing something if it hurts. Obvious, I know, but apparently it was not obvious to me.) has forced me to take a few weeks off from pulling down on ice tools. So, if the real thing is out, what does one do for a climbing fix? Go scrambling, of course.

Yesterday visiting Japanese hardman Katsutaka "Jumbo" Yokoyama and I went scrambling up Mt. Blane in the Opal Range. I like getting out with visiting climbers: you get to see familiar places through their eyes, and you get to do things people who know better would not want to do. I also like Mt. Blane: I have been on it a bunch of times, in summer on the northwest ridge and the west face, and in winter on the ephemeral ice drips that sometimes form on the west face. I had also tried the northwest ridge in winter before. It always seemed like a reasonable enough Plan B, but invariably something would go wrong. With Valery, we got halfway up the ridge before being forced down by a blinding snowstorm. With Steve, we did not even get to the base of the ridge, after we set off a sizeable slide on the approach.

Valery Babanov above a sea of clouds on the approach to Mt. Blane

The author retreating from the northwest ridge of Mt. Blane

Yesterday, for once, everything went well (maybe because we finally made Blane our Plan A). We slogged up through deep but stable enough snow, all the same trying to avoid crossing too many loaded gullies. Three hours after leaving the car we were at the Blane-Brock col, buffeted by the chinook. We simulclimbed the northwest ridge, with my attempts at weaving the rope between outcrops along the knife-edge crest being constantly thwarted by the wind. It would lift the cord and suspend it in a graceful arc (a catenary, I suppose: over the drop to the east.

Fun scrambling on Mt. Blane

Katsutaka "Jumbo" Yokoyama a cheval on the northwest ridge of Mt. Blane

After two hours of very fun scrambling we arrived on a very cool summit. The exposed summit of Blane is a cool place in summer but in winter, with snowy mountains to the west and chinook-blasted foothills to the east, it is doubly so. It is also a mildly committing place, as going down is no easier than going up, the ridge being too low-angled to rappel. But after a further two hours of reversing the spectacularly exposed crest we were back on the col, basking in the afternoon sun. An hour after that we were back at the car, with the kind of big smiles you cannot always get from a day of ice climbing. Sometimes nothing beats scrambling.

Looking south from the summit of Mt. Blane

Katsutaka "Jumbo" Yokoyama enjoying a summit snack of rice

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Saying no

I find it hard to say no, especially to myself. The twin forces of desire and pride have a way of propelling me into occasionally dubious situations. Desire is wanting to get up the pitch and complete the route. Pride is not wanting to go down, because to do so would show weakness.

1996. It was already September but a warm front was moving in, and in spite of the early hour the temperature was well above freezing. Polish Bob and I were on Shooting Gallery, a short alpine route at the Columbia Icefields, and one of my first "hard" routes. At the crux we were presented with a choice: a sorry excuse for an ice strip straight up, or a steep crack on the right. I figured the ice would be faster, and without giving the matter further thought made for the direct variant. Even when I discovered that the strip was wet snow stuck to the rock more than actual ice, I did not consider retreat. Without a single piece of protection between me and the belay, I continued upwards, hooking rock edges beneath the slush. Bob’s only comment afterwards was that I was lucky I did not get much higher before pitching off. A factor-two fall onto the belay and a couple of missing teeth later, I went up the crack I should have climbed in the first place. Come to think of it, why did we not go down after the initial fiasco? You might well ask.

Loking down the crack and Bob at the belay, with the slush direct visible in the top right corner.

The author, wise after the fact.

2007. It was a crisp, clear February morning. Cory, Eamonn and I were standing at the base of The Fine Line, a pretty ice climb west of Yoho. The avalanche hazard was rated "low," but as the sun started hitting the rock walls above us, heavy sluffs began running down the route's initial gully. Pooh-poohing my partners' concerns, I pulled my hood on and started up. It was only when a mass of wet snow rumbled past while I cowered to the side of the narrow gully that I realized the sluffs were actual avalanches, not merely spindrifts as I had tried to convince my partners. Simulclimbing, we started running from one sheltered spot to the next. I was nearly at a safe belay when the biggest slide yet thundered overhead, and slammed into Cory at the other end of the rope. An irresistible force yanked on my waist and sent me pinwheeling down the gully, while Cory plunged into the chimney below. Once we had escaped from the route, Cory proceeded to reenact Doug Scott's heroic crawl down from The Ogre, his ankles being too messed up to bear weight.

Cory at the screw that held both our asses.

Cory imitating Doug Scott.

2009. A few days ago Reuben and I decided to work off our Christmas fat by linking the classic ice climbs Bourgeau Left and Right-Hand. In deference to the shortest days of the year we started up the Left-Hand by headlamp, and were back down in the now overflowing parking lot by mid-morning. After a quick snack we headed back up, breaking trail through knee-deep facets towards the Right-Hand. At some point during the approach we broke into the sun. In a matter of minutes the sunshine and the temperature inversion had us shedding layers. We also began noticing the debris of wet slides from the previous day, though still frozen after the long night. Reuben was the first to voice his discomfort. At first I was still keen to continue: after all, it was December, not March, much too early in the season for isothermal releases. But then I thought of my friends: Guy, swept to his death in Hyalite Canyon; Colin, on Mt. Sparrowhawk; Tony, on Mt. Inflexible. I realized that continuing meant ignoring the alarm bells that were going off in my head too. An hour later, with no regrets whatsoever, we were enjoying double espressos in Canmore.