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!



Monday, October 18, 2010

A Long Weekend, Part III: Monday

The cool thing about the shoulder seasons of spring and fall in the Rockies is that, depending on mood and weather, one can pick and choose between sport climbing, alpine rock, ice (OK, maybe not just yet in early October) and alpine climbing proper. I felt like I had not been up into the snowy alpine for a while, probably because as a simple matter of fact I had not. The forecast was for a cool, clear day, and I felt the urge to experience it from the summit of a mountain.

 The mountain wilderness south of Mt. Sir Douglas.

Mt. Sir Douglas is the second-highest peak in Kananaskis Country. Unlike a lot of Rockies' peaks it does not have a walk-up route. True, none of the routes on Sir Douglas are extreme, but they all require climbing. Along with the glaciated approaches and location out of sight of a paved highway, it all adds up to make it a "real" mountain.

Afternoon light on the north-west face of Sir Douglas.

Josh Lavigne had never climbed Sir Douglas, while I had already visited its summit four times, but we both thought it would make a fine fitness outing. And so it was that 7 a.m. found us biking up the initial stretch of old logging road toward Burstall Pass. Two hours later we were having a snack on South Burstall Pass, reluctantly contemplating the obligatory elevation loss into the Palliser River valley. But it had to be done, so down we went, through alpine meadows torn up by a hungry grizzly looking for tasty pikas.

Morning light on Mt. Birdwood from South Burstall Pass.

A narrow gully directly below the upper couloir gave us our first taste of tool swinging of the season. Once onto the face above we put the rope away and soloed up on perfect neve, a rare treat in the Rockies. However, the narrow, corniced summit ridge had me asking for the rope again. Standing on small, exposed ledges just below the summit, we enjoyed the sun on the south face while we ate lunch and tried to identify peaks as far away as the Purcells. And then it was back to the north side again, downclimbing the snow ramp of the original North-West Face route. Kick, kick, plant, plant: the same movements repeated hundreds of times. It would be easy to get bored and sloppy, were it not for the big drop below one's feet to encourage good form.

Looking down the initial gully, with Mt. Assiniboine in the distance.

The impressive east face of Assiniboine.

Josh in the upper couloir of the Direct North-West Face.

The summit ridge with the Royal Group behind.

Josh downclimbing the snow ramp of the North-West Face.

As we crested South Burstall Pass for the second time in the day, the late afternoon sun swung around to pick out the ribs on the face we had just climbed and descended. One last look at Mt. Assiniboine, poking up on the western horizon, and we plunged down into the shadowed valley, toward bikes and dinner. Alpine climbing: good fitness and good fun. Well, sometimes.

Below is a short video from our climb that Josh put together. Enjoy.

Friday, October 15, 2010

A Long Weekend, Part II: Saturday

One of my favourite corners of the Rockies is Kananaskis Country. I love its dry conifers, wind-swept ridges, gray crags and, in the winter, ice dessicated by Chinooks. Eamonn Walsh shares my fondness for K-Country, and so it is often with Eamonn that I explore obscure front-range peaks and routes.

The Opal Range is a 40-km long spine of dramatic if somewhat crumbling peaks. Tectonic forces have stood originally horizontal strata of limestone on end. Erosion completed the job, leaving a chain of vertically-tilted bedding planes. The result is a range of peaks with narrow ridges running north-south, and steep faces falling to the east and west. The Opals naturally lend themselves to multi-peak traverses, with the number of peaks one takes in on any given outing limited mainly by one's tolerance for scrambling on chossy knife edges with big drops all around.

A fine position on the south ridge of The Blade, with the southern Opals behind.

Since returning from the Bugs in mid-August I have focused exclusively, not to say obsessively, on sport climbing. It was satisfying to feel myself getting stronger, walking up routes I used to struggle on. But I missed getting up into the alpine - that, plus my elbow tendinitis was starting to get out of control, demanding that I take a break from pulling down. And so Eamonn and I found ourselves parking at the King Creek lot just as the sun was rising. The objective for the day was clearly outlined by dawn breaking behind it: the well-known Mt. Blane, and its obscure but dramatic satellite, the Blade.

Mt. Blane on the left with The Blade on the right.

I had tried The Blade a few years earlier with Rich Akitt. It was fall, too late for rock climbing but too early for ice. We scrambled up scree ledges, sketched up verglas-covered rock, and busted hard-feeling 5.7 moves onto the final ridge leading to the summit, only to turn around when faced with slabby rock covered in fresh snow. This time the mountains looked much drier, but a keen wind ensured that it was not any warmer. Soon after gaining the ridge we donned the last of our layers, and kept them on for the rest of the traverse.

Chilly climbing on an earlier attempt on The Blade.

We started by following the old Pat Morrow-Chris Perry route up the south ridge of The Blade, retrieving the rappel anchors from my earlier attempt as we went. There was some scrambling and a pitch or two of roped climbing getting up to the col below the south ridge, but the ridge was definitely the main attraction. Once again I was reminded of how hard 5.7 can feel when your hands are freezing, you are wearing boots, and the protection is less than perfect. Fortunately on the last bit of ridge we climbed mainly on the lee side, and so were able to enjoy moving over good rock in a spectacular position.

A stairway to heaven on the last bit of the south ridge of The Blade.

From just below the summit we made two steep rappels down the north side of The Blade into the gap between it and Mt. Blane. We scampered easily up the south ridge of Blane and were rewarded with a sheletered lunch spot just below the summit. I fondly thought back to the last time I stood here, in the depths of winter. The descent down the standard North-West Ridge went quickly, with the wind blowing the rope into a graceful arc over the drop to the east. A last downclimb in a short chimney, and we hit the scree gullies leading down to the valley. It had been another good day in K-Country.

Windy downclimbing on Mt. Blane, with the northern Opals beyond.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Long Weekend, Part I: Friday

A fine morning finds us once again hiking up the familiar trail to The Lookout. Our packs are pleasantly light; the ropes are stashed at the crag, and our projects are already equipped with draws. It is shaping up to a beautiful day. Who knows, we might not even need a fire to stay warm today.


I go through my usual ritual: a long 5.11on big holds to limber up; a short bouldery 5.11 to warm up the fingers; and a 5.12a that I have wired to get into pulling-down mode. All too soon it is time to get down to work and start doing redpoint burns on my month-old project, Spicy Elephant Extension. The first section to the halfway anchor goes quickly. How many times have I climbed it by now? It must be at least fifteen, maybe twenty. Even though I am not really pumped, I stop at the no-hands rests; I will need the extra energy higher up.

The business begins a couple of bolts above the halfway anchor. I take my time at the stem rest, alternating hands and gripping positions until my breathing and heart rate slow down. A couple of deep breaths to get psyched, and I move into the crux sequence: gaston, crimp, crimp, undercling, a slap to a textured sloper, another undercling, a big sidepull, and then the clip. The clip feels desperate and I fight the temptation to grab the draw. But the rope clicks into the 'biner and I continue: a slap to a good sidepull, a lurch to a poor undercling, highstep left, try to highstep right... and I roar powerlessly in an iron-cross position before dropping into space. I get back on and climb through to the anchor, but as I lower off, the gap between a one-hang ascent and a redpoint looms bigger than ever.

I rest, eat, do belay duty, and try yet again. The crux moves feel much the same as before, but this time the clip seems downright easy. The left foot goes up, then surprisingly so does the right, and I am standing up into the big undercling. Shit! I might just send this thing! I take great care not to rush the remaining ten metres: focusing, breathing, using each foothold and each kneebar just so. And then I am clipping the anchor and lowering off, elated and yet strangely disappointed that the process is over. But of course it is not; Diamonds on the Inside just to the right beckons.

Places and actions have no intrinsic significance; they are only significant if we think they are. Kurt Albert's red dots have invested inert pieces of rock with a significance that has the power to make us scream in frustration and whoop in delight. It is rather funny when you stop to think about it, and yet why not?

Another time, another place, but just as much fun.