Saturday, December 17, 2011


One of the cool things about playing in one's home mountain range is going back to familiar places and seeing them in a new light. Like, say, tiptoeing up delicate mixed ground and thin ice right next to the massive Weeping Pillar. Contrived? You could say so. Fun? You bet!

2008. Eamonn Walsh and I took a few days off and went on a little road trip up the Parkway. Our friend Dana Ruddy was away, but that did not stop us from crashing in his basement in Jasper. From there on the first day we climbed "No Use In Crying", an unlikely four-pitch line well left of the Upper Weeping Wall. On the second we took care of some unfinished business on the left margin of Curtain Call, calling the result "Cyber Pasty Memorial" in honour of a perennially untanned friend who had recently given up ice climbing. On the third we headed back up to the Upper Weeping Wall to try a line to the right of Weeping Pillar we had spotted two days earlier. The first pitch went up an intimidating crack with the occasional ice smear: more Alaska than Rockies. I was in the moment, torquing and tapping away, when from the belay Eamonn drew my attention to the increasingly large chunks of snow and ice flying overhead from the sun baked walls above. We ran away and headed home just as the Parkway was being closed for avalanche control.

Always a good time: the classic Lower and Upper Weeping Wall. Photo: Pierre Darbellay.

Attempting the first pitch of Pussycat in 2008. Photo: Eamonn Walsh.

An avalanche thunders down the south face of Mt. Wilson.

2011. "I asked my landlady about her pussycat last night. Did I say something wrong?" the ever polite Swiss asked anxiously. "No, not really. But just be sure to keep the 'cat' in there." replied the adopted Canadian. And so it went as we sped north along the snow-covered Parkway. We did not feel like freezing in the shade, and so headed to the Upper Weeping Wall. Even in deep, dark December that fine wall basks in the sun. The objective? The crack to the right of Weeping Pillar, and then whatever looked good to the top of the wall.

Bring on the Swiss! Bertrand Martenet and Pierre Darbellay running up the Lower Weeping Wall.

Approaching the Upper Weeping Wall, with the line of Pussycat obvious (?) right of the Weeping Pillar.

The crack was just as good as I remembered, even though the ice was not very user friendly, and once or twice I found myself wishing I had brought some big cams. But I was glad to have a rock hammer as I rooted around for a solid belay in a maze of snow-covered rock. We exited the second pitch on a thin veneer and slogged up and right across the big snow ledge running across the Upper Wall.

Splitter. Just like the Creek, eh? Photo: Pierre Darbellay.

Interesting mixed climbing up a classy line. Photo: Pierre Darbellay.

There is something perverse about scratching up rock next to fat ice. Photo: Pierre Darbellay.

Enjoying the December sun on the Upper Weeping Wall, with the Icefields Parkway below in deep blue shade, and Athabasca and Andromeda in the distance. Photo: Pierre Darbellay.

The ice strip enticingly marked 'Unclimbed' in the guidebook (thought who knows for sure?) petered out a few metres above the snow. So much for just running the rest of the way to the top. But the Swiss put on a fine performance, bouldering the unprotected start above a crash pad of deep powder, then gently tapping away at the ominously booming sheet of detached ice, with screws that were more Christmas decoration than protection. Fittingly, we topped out just as the last bit of daylight faded in the west. It had been a good day.

The icicles hanging from the roof were not much help... Photo: Pierre Darbellay.

... but at least the deep snow at the base doubled as a bouldering crash pad. Pierre Darbellay starting up the finishing ice strip.

Pierre Darbellay gently taps his way up an ominously booming and vibrating sheet of desiccated ice.

A figure in a landscape: the right side of the Upper Weeping Wall, with Mt. Amery in the distance.

Pussycat, 180 m, M7 WI5R. FA: Pierre Darbellay, Bertrand Martenet and Raphael Slawinski, December 4, 2011. The route parallels Weeping Pillar on the right, with interesting mixed and thin ice climbing. Climb the obvious crack some 15 m right of the fat ice for two pitches, with a belay on a narrow snow ledge on the right (no fixed gear). Slog up and right across the snow ledge to the base of the upper ice strip. Climb the strip on improving ice for two pitches to a tree on the right. Gear: cams to #4 Camalot with doubles of #1 and 2, half a set of nuts, a few pins and screws (including stubbies).

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Creeping old fartism?

You know you are getting long in the tooth when you start reminiscing about days gone by. Steve Swenson refers to this unfortunate tendency and other signs of advancing age as "creeping old fartism." I try to guard against this dreaded syndrome, but still catch myself occasionally telling some bored youth about the time my partner and I made the first (or was it the umpteenth?) ascent of the north face of Mt. Forgettable... All the same, every December 1 I cannot help thinking back to that day in 1997, when by all rights I should have gotten the chop. I wrote the following story not long after the event.


"Rumour had it that Dave Thomson had put up an M8 on the Stanley Headwall: Teddy Bear’s Picnic, the direct start to the unformed pillar of Suffer Machine. I had no clue about M-grades, but an eight sounded exciting. I had to have a go at it. And so the morning of December 1 found Dave Campbell and me hiking up to the Headwall. There was little snow, but it was cold, at most –12 C. We geared up and scrambled a few metres up to the belay ledge, from where a friendly line of bolts lead up to the huge hanging dagger.

Suffer Machine on that fateful day in 1997. Photo: Dave Campbell.

Right from the start the drytooling was overhanging, but tool placements were bomber and I was clipping a bolt every second move. Below a small horizontal roof I paused to rest. A piece of tat hung from the last bolt, after which the route went onto the dagger. I clipped the tat, leaned out and felt over the roof. Nothing here, blank rock there, but here was a good edge. I released the lower tool and swung backhanded into the ice hanging in space behind my head.

Getting onto the hanging dagger. Photo: Dave Campbell.

The ice was lacy and aerated, and my frontpoints kept shearing through. Above where the dagger attached to the back wall, I placed a screw. A few metres higher I placed another one to protect the moves onto the front of the curtain. Once around to the front, I looked up to see smooth ice quickly easing in angle. I started placing my tools more forcefully. Then there was a dry crack and my stationary world blurred into free fall.

I fell for a long time, long enough for thought. There was sound and fury of ice breaking up around me, and then all was quiet. I was hanging at the end of the ropes, a few metres below the belay and a couple of metres above the ground. My crampons were dangling from my boots by their straps, one of my tools was some way downhill. The screws I had placed were hanging on the ropes in front of me, with the Screamers still intact. On both ropes the core was exposed twelve metres from the ends, where they had abraded against the edge of the rock roof. With rope stretch, I must have fallen more than twenty five metres. Looking up, I could see that the curtain had fractured across its entire width far above where it had appeared to attach to the rock.

By the time we pulled into Canmore, I was so stiff I could barely climb of out the car and hobble into the hospital. The immediate diagnosis was that nothing was broken. It later turned out that I had damaged nerves in my right arm. It was a few months before I regained sensation and full function. But I always knew I would climb again. Two weeks after the accident I scrambled up Mt. Rundle with my arm in a sling. Another two weeks went by and I tried leading Wicked Wanda. Having almost no control over my right arm made placements difficult, and I realized my mind would have to give my body time to catch up."


I like to think I have gotten smarter with age. It is probably even mostly true. Mostly - but not entirely. In fact, just the other week my partner and I found ourselves cowering under an overhang while... On second thought, not all stories need to be told.

Not all stories need to be told.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Just sport climbing

A casual reader of this blog might get the impression that its author is an alpinist. Such an impression would be largely mistaken. Sure, I might scramble up the occasional peak, but if the amount of time spent doing something is any indicator, I am first and foremost a sport climber. In fact, since coming back from my last foray into the Bugs in mid-August, I have done nothing in my free time but clip bolts.

There is a kind of uncompromising honesty about sport climbing that sets it apart from other, more forgiving forms of climbing - such as alpinism. Take the Dogleg on the northeast face of Mt. Chephren, a route Pierre Darbellay and I climbed in late winter 2008. It stands out as one of the most intense experiences I have had in the mountains. On the first day we climbed high up a mostly easy couloir, bivied, then the next morning started up the vertical chimneys that top the line. As our second day on the face wore on, blue skies were replaced by driving snow. With nowhere to bivi and the gullies below us running with avalanches, we continued into the night. One pitch from the summit ridge we hit a dead end. The first exit we tried blanked out, while the second turned into an overhanging offwidth. Luckily the third and last option went, releasing us from the face, but not before the combination of storm, darkness and weakness had me dangling from knifeblades to get past an impending wall. Now as an alpine climb the Dogleg was a success: a big new route climbed in bad conditions. But had this been a sport climb, having to yard past the crux on quickdraws would have meant I was still a long way from a proper redpoint.

The sun rises on the northeast face of Mt. Chephren. Photo: Pierre Darbellay.

Snow mushrooms and thin ice under clear skies on the first day. Photo: Pierre Darbellay.

More snow mushrooms but no ice and no blue skies on the second day.

As the second days draws to a close, Pierre Darbellay emerges from a maelstrom of swirling snowflakes.

Or take the southwest face of “Lunda Sar”, an obscure 6300-metre peak in the wilds of the Karakoram. Starting from a bivi below the face, Eamonn Walsh, Ian Welsted and I soloed serac-threatened ice slopes to the base of the business, a wall of ice-streaked granite. There, in the thin air, were climbed eight long pitches of some of the classiest mixed climbing any of us had ever done in the mountains: thin runnels interrupted by overlaps, with mostly good gear but also the occasional mind-focusing runout. Sometime in the early evening we hit the summit ridge, only a hundred metres below the virgin summit. But though the summit was close, it was not close enough. With a metre of unconsolidated snow overlying black ice on a corniced ridge, we ground to a halt after less than a ropelength of this nonsense. Though the lack of a summit was disappointing, we were psyched about the fantastic climbing, and simply relieved to be back at our bivi nearly twenty-four hours after leaving it. But again, had this been a sport climb, lowering from the last draw before the anchor, because after all "we had already done the crux," would have never done.

"Lunda Sar" ("Second-Hand Peak") glows in the evening sun. Photo: Eamonn Walsh.

A checkerboard of granite and ice. Photo: Eamonn Walsh.

Cracking the technical (but definitely not the redpoint) crux. Photo: Ian Welsted.

Ian Welsted follows a pitch high on the face. Photo: Eamonn Walsh.

And so it is that even as the days are getting shorter and colder, translucent grey ice is growing fatter and bluer in shady nooks, and high on the Divide winter snows have already come, I still find myself holding on to the sport-climbing season gone by: shivering by a cliff-side fire, stuffing shake-and-warms into a chalk bag, and punching for the chains. Hopefully the photos below, taken at what is arguably the best sport crag in the Rockies, show why one might be willing to go to such lengths just to rock climb for another couple of weeks.

Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Postcards from the Bugaboos

As soon as I got back from Alaska I headed out on the rocks. Three weeks on a glacier does not do much for finger strength, and I wanted to be ready when summer hit. I need not have hurried. July was cold and wet, with a deep snowpack lingering up high. I suppose walking around in the rain and trying to keep my digits warm, be it in Echo Canyon or in the Bugaboos, made me appreciate real summer when it did finally arrive.

I was not always big on the Bugs. In the four or five hours it takes to drive from Calgary to the trailhead one passes so many fine objectives it is easy to get sidetracked. But as years passed and I ticked off routes on Yam, Windtower and Temple, I found myself increasingly looking for adventure among those granite spires. This summer alone I have already made the short but steep approach four times, and I might not be done yet. Two very different routes have been the highlights of my Bugs season thus far: one shorter but more technical, the other longer but, well, also not altogether casual.

The Power of Lard

When climbing in the Bugs I always used to go into alpine mode, picking routes I could simply walk up to and send without much ado. I reserved sieging routes, and the whole business of hangdogging and redpointing, for Acephale and the Lookout. But I realized that if I wanted to get better at the (for me) black art of crack climbing, I needed to get in over my head in the Bugs as well. I picked the Power of Lard on the east face of Snowpatch Spire as my granite university: long but not that long, and hard but not that hard. In the end weather and conditions turned it into more of a project than I had anticipated. On the first trip we did not get beyond the fourth-class scrambling at the base, as rain and snow enshrouded the spires. On the second trip the weather was better but the second pitch was desperately wet. Finally on the third trip I managed to put together the first six pitches for a baby version of the climb (the Power of Tofu?). I dogged my way up the crux seventh pitch, but a redpoint of that spectacular overhanging splitter will have to await better crack technique. Still, I had a blast playing on what must surely be one of the most aesthetic climbs in the Bugs.

Take 1

It rained a lot in July: good for flowers, not so good for climbing. 

The Power of Lard is just one of many fine routes on the right side of the east face of Snowpatch Spire. You cannot really argue with steep rock, splitter cracks and a twenty-minute approach from Applebee. Things are even better if it is not raining and snowing.

"This weather sucks, let's stash the gear and go home." Photo: Jerome Yerly.

Take 2

"You expect me to climb in this weather?" Marcus Norman looks less than thrilled with intermittent flurries while gearing up for the first pitch. Photo: Wiktor Skupinski. 

"Hmm, I'm not sure about hangdogging in the Bugs." Raphael Slawinski sorts our the second pitch while Marcus Norman looks on (disapprovingly?). My beta at the crux overlap? Throw a heelhook on the jug below the bolt and pull. Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

Delicate stemming and palming on the fourth pitch... Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

... and sustained jamming on the sixth. Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

Good times but still no redpoint. Stashing the gear in anticipation of yet another kick at the can. Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

Take 3

Juan Henriquez takes great care preparing his yerba mate on a gorgeous morning at Applebee. 

Redpointing is ultimately the art of cheating and a bringing a route down to one's own level. Like hanging a long draw from the bolt at the crux on the second pitch, or avoiding the ledge-fall potential on the third by an end run on the left.

To lieback or to stem, that is the question on the fourth pitch.

The crux seventh pitch overhangs by a good five metres in thirty five, as evidenced by the free-hanging rope. It also marks the difference between the Power of Tofu and the Power of Lard.

All Along the Watchtower

A key (perhaps the key) ingredient of adventure is uncertainty: the uncertainty of attempting an on-sight at one's limit, of setting out on yet another redpoint burn on a month-old project, or of committing to a big alpine route. In each case the outcome is in doubt, and just to have a shot at success requires that one put forth one's best effort. But uncertainty, as is its wont, can spring from the most unlikely sources.

We were still ten kilometres from the trailhead when the tire blew. No problem, we had a spare. Our confidence evaporated when we saw that it was both tiny and nearly flat itself. Would the old Honda Civic, with its already low clearance, make it the rest of the way? Or would it suffer shipwreck on one of the many rocks on the rough dirt road?

Later that evening, with my bladder close to bursting, I extricated myself from our tent at Applebee. Half asleep, I stumbled across the starlit campground. The next thing I knew a boulder rolled underfoot and dropped me on jagged granite. I felt blood trickle down a skinned shin, and why did my knee hurt so much when I bent it? Would it be up to the long day ahead?

I was wide awake when the alarm went off at 2:30 am. A mug of black tea, a bagel spread thickly with Nutella, and we were off. I limped with every step on the trail leading down from Applebee, but luckily the knee felt fine on the uphill to the Snowpatch-Bugaboo col. Well, we were going climbing, and isn't climbing about going up? By the time we were scrambling across the spine below the Beckey-Chouinard it was light enough to see. A quick jaunt across the neve below the Central Howser, and we stood on the spur overlooking the glacier below the west face of the North Howser. We knew that once we rappelled into the basin below the face, the most pleasant way back to our sleeping bags was up and over the summit. Without hesitation, under a cloudless sky growing lighter by the minute, we threw the ropes down the first rappel and committed to the climb.

The Civic, before the flat, along the Bugs road. Snowpatch Spire is poking up above the intervening ridges.

Jerome Yerly crosses below Central Howser as the sky grows pink in the east...

... and traverses deep in the blue shade below the west face of the North Howser.

The lower half of the route is not especially difficult but has some tricky routefinding. After following a left-trending corner system for a couple of pitches, we moved right under a roof and up to the base of a long chimney/offwidth. Photo: Jerome Yerly.

Jerome and pack emerge from the said chimney/offwidth.

Another routefinding decision has to be made above the offwidth. Low-angled ledges tempt one to the left but lead nowhere. Instead, a hard step to the right gains a fun if somewhat vegetated left-facing corner crack.

From the ledges above, instead of trending left right away, we continued up Armageddon before climbing a steep ramp up and left. Photo: Jerome Yerly.

Jerome one pitch below the crux dihedral, in short sleeves in the early afternoon sun.

The point of the whole exercise: the crux corner. It looked short from below (at least to me), but it took us four pitches to get up to the overlap where the route jogs left. Photo: Jerome Yerly.

No single move in the corner was especially hard, but after making the same palming/stemming/liebacking manoeuvre a hundred times, it all started to add up. Photo: Jerome Yerly.

Breathtaking exposure down the corner. Photo: Jerome Yerly.

We had a bit of excitement at the crux traverse. I thought I would aid across it and check things out before trying to free it. Instead, just as I neared the end of the horizontal section, the TCU I was hanging from blew. Its siblings below the overlap also blew one by one, sending me for a nasty swing back into the corner. Ouch to say the least! After that, I am afraid I lacked the gumption to attempt the pitch free, and shamelessly yarded across it. Photo: Jerome Yerly.

It was dark by the time we topped out on the hard climbing. As such, there was no longer any rush, and we settled in on some ledges to eat and drink and layer up before moving on.

Climbing the summit ridge under a starry sky was a magical experience, with friendly granite under our gloved hands and huge drops on each side guessed at rather than seen. We tagged the summit around 2 am and promptly started rappelling the east face. We strolled back into Applebee as the sky grew light for the second time since we last slept, some twenty six hours after we set out.

PS: Last but not least, I would like to thank Ulysse Richard and his partner Eric, with whom we shared the route: for pointing us the right way, and for graciously letting us pass. I hope we did not hold you up too much!