Monday, March 22, 2010

Spring Equinox

Spring equinox is a great time to be a climber in the Rockies. As the Earth’s northern hemisphere begins to tilt toward the Sun, south-facing crags in the Front Ranges offer a welcome relief from the long winter. But early spring, with its crisp mornings and long days, is also a good time to venture into the high, shady places near the Divide.

On the first day of spring Eamonn Walsh and I headed up on Yamnuska. I cannot count the number of times I have hiked up the switchbacks to play on Yam's grey and yellow walls. There is something up there that keeps drawing me back: sometimes it is to push myself cerebrally on a rarely traveled, runout testpieces; sometimes it is to push myself physically on multi-route linkups; and sometime it is just to have fun. The most recent outing fit into the third category: well-protected climbing, not desperate but challenging enough to have to try at the cruxes. In spite of all the time I have spent up there, every spring it takes me a few routes to get my ‘Yam legs’ under me. Until that happens I move tentatively, unsure about that overhang of wedged blocks, or the friction of rubber on the grey, rippled limestone. I definitely felt this way the other day: trying sequences a couple of times before committing to them, paranoid about the loose rock. But I know I just have to be patient, and to spend some time with the ravens soaring and diving around me, for things to start flowing again.

On the second day of spring Steve Swenson, Ian Welsted and I were up early and on the TransCanada Highway before dawn. The forecast was for a typical spring mix: some sun, some cloud, a few flurries, even a bit of rain in the afternoon. It was not a forecast to entice one into the alpine, but it was just right for some late-season ice. A few days earlier some friends had climbed a new route on Mt. Murchison that seemed like an excellent objective for a fun (meaning: interesting but not scary) day of ice climbing. While the mountains to the west of the Icefields Parkway were plastered with snow, the ones to the east were reassuringly bare. Hell, we even had to do some scree bashing on the approach! The business was two pitches of beautiful, narrow ice tucked into a tight chimney. Where the ice turned hollow or chandeliered or mushy, there was just enough rock gear to be had on the sides to keep things reasonable. The one close call of the day came at the top of the route, when some fair-sized rocks melted out of the scree above and bounced down the funnel. Fortunately whoever was throwing them had bad aim, and by mid-afternoon we were safely back at the car. Bring on spring!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A day in the life of a weekend warrior

Being a weekend warrior means making the most of your days out. If Plan A does not pan out, it is not back to the coffee shop: it is on to Plan B, and if need be, even C. Last weekend Eamonn Walsh (not a weekend warrior, incidentally) and I were up by 2 a.m., on the road by 2:30, and at the base of the first pitch of our intended route before 6. We were a bit disturbed to find most of it had fallen off in the heat of the previous few days. We could have walked around it, but the fact that we were standing there in the predawn darkness without gloves or hats, listening to the rush of flowing water, with miles of avalanche slopes above us, did not inspire. Legend has it Bonatti would not even cross the ‘schrund unless it was minus ten or colder. Neither of us is Bonatti, but we have walked into enough stupid situations to recognize the potential for another one. We were back at the car still in the dark.

Less than virgin ice on Polar Circus.

We were psyched for a big day but the alpine did not appeal. What to do? A link-up of some classic ice routes seemed like the next best thing. Polar Circus was first. By the time we left the car it was light enough to leave the headlamps behind. We sweated our way up to the base of the Ribbon Pitch, at which point we figured we might as well break out the rope, since we had carried it that far. A few quick pitches, a bunch of rappelling, and we were back at the car before noon.

Eamonn turning the (unformed) Pencil.

Eamonn on the last tier of Polar Circus.

For no particular reason, other than the fact it is a classic, Curtain Call was next. As if to add greater variety to our day, the weather took a turn for the worse. We walked up in a snowstorm, and climbed the two long pitches of the route in gusting wind and blowing snow. The climbing offered a cool contrast to Polar Circus: while there we ran up miles of moderate ice, here we took it more slowly over crazy mushrooms and overlaps. Rappel, slip and slide down the icy trail, and be back at the car by 4.

The big, bad, beautiful Curtain Call.

Eamonn starting up the first pitch of Curtain Call.

I was happy with the day and prepared to settle in for the long drive home. But as we were passing the Weeping Wall, we realized we still had a couple of hours of daylight left: just enough for the Lower Wall. It looked sun-bleached, but underneath it was still perfect blue hero ice. I had The Count from Sesame Street urging me on the whole way up: “One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, faster, faster!” We were back at the car before dark, and this time once we started driving, we did not stop until Lake Louise for some bad gas station food. It had been a good day.

A portrait of Quasimodo as a young man.

The Count takes a break from Sesame Street on the Weeping Wall.

How did we get so far with so little?

Monday, March 1, 2010

And now for something completely different

A couple of weeks ago I flew south for a few days, to the east side of the Sierra Nevada. There was some ice climbing involved (yes, there is decent ice in California), but the highlight of the trip was the few days I spent in Bishop. As everybody knows, the sport climbing in the Owens River Gorge is really good, but the bouldering at the Happy Boulders and the Buttermilks is simply phenomenal. I gawked a lot, climbed a bit, and left psyched on rock climbing. Below are a few photos from my all-too-brief stay in Bishop.