Thursday, January 27, 2011

Winter, interrupted

Otto von Bismarck, the founder of the German Empire, was fond of saying that "The less people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they'll sleep at night." Had the iron chancellor been an ice climber, he might have added, "and the less they know what lies above the routes they climb."

It has been an interesting start to the new year. After a protracted cold spell (which, however, never saw temperatures dip below -30 C), warmer weather arrived together with long-overdue snow. The fresh snow overloaded a horrible, thin snowpack that seemed to consist mostly of depth hoar, and initiated the biggest avalanche cycle in decades. Two of the many, many slopes that went big were the ones above the Bourgeau ice climbs (the Right Hand with a bit of help from Banff Park safety specialists). I climbed these routes most recently last winter, when Katsutaka "Jumbo" Yokoyama and I had enjoyed a day of climbing up and down and up and down. Of course, it is all about being in the right place at the right time. On that particular day it was reasonable to head up on the Bourgeaus, with the temperatures cool and the avalanche hazard low. But I find it worthwhile to see the nightmare such places turn into on a bad day, lest familiarity breed contempt. 

Our tastes in climbing snacks might have differed, but Jumbo and I shared a hunger for ice - the more, the better.

From the approach, Bourgeau Right Hand does not hint at what lies above. 

Jumbo topping out on Bourgeau Left Hand.

And so, with the mountains avalanching left and right, and temperatures in the foothills rising above freezing, a break from ice climbing seemed in order. In fact, now that I think about it, my last three outings were for rock climbing. And I mean the real thing, with slippers and chalk, not that drytooling nonsense. Take yesterday, for example. Juan Henriquez and I biked on a snowy road into the chossy jungle gym known as the Dust Bowl. The crag lived up to its reputation as the chinook howled around us, but the wind was warm, and when the sun came out we even belayed without gloves (Really? In Alberta in January?). There is still a lot of winter ahead, and I am looking forward to whacking my way up a whole lot more ice before it melts, but secretly I am also counting the days until it is rock climbing season again.

The Dust Bowl: Not as bad as it looks. Really!

Juan psyched on the crag, choss and all. The ominous-looking figure in the background is not death contemplating its next move. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Juan starting up The Ostrander, the classic (!?) of the crag.

Stemming in a sea of choss. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Still, it could be a whole lot worse - we could be wallowing in snow across the valley.

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