Monday, February 28, 2011

Peak bagging

Perhaps as a result of the current La Niña episode, it has been a cold and snowy winter in the Rockies. This, combined with generally lean ice conditions, had me looking for mountain adventures that would keep me warmer than hanging around at a belay for an hour. Ski mountaineering was the obvious choice. Below are some impressions and snapshots from a few recent outings.  

Cathedral Mtn (3189 m)

A few minutes into the skiing I glance at the temperature display on a watch clipped to a pack strap. I do a double take at the -46 C reading. It takes me a few moments to realize that the watch is in difference mode, and is reading the temperature difference between the inside and outside of the car.

An unsupported snow slope gives us pause, visions of being carried over the cliffs below dancing in our heads. We bypass it by booting straight up to a level bench. However, on the way down we carve turns down the slope we avoided on the way up. What has changed in the meantime?

The sight of the summit not far above drives us on, lungs and legs burning. Imagine our disappointment when we pop out onto a plateau and see the true summit still quite distant at the far end of a graceful ridge. This feels like alpine climbing: wanting to be done, but more mountain still remaining. But the way down feels nothing like the usual slog down the backside; it is fast and fun.

Eamonn going into ski mountaineering mode: carrying the damn things!

It is not hard to find untracked snow in the Rockies.

The spectacular summit ridge. Photo: Eamonn Walsh.

Eamonn having trouble swallowing, with Mt. Stephen and the Great Wall of China behind.

Looking west toward the Goodsirs; and are those the Bugaboos in the distance?

Eamonn finding some excellent snow on the way down.

Storm Mtn (3161 m)

Over the years I have been up Storm Creek a bunch of times, sampling the fine ice and mixed climbing on a smaller but more remote version of the Stanley Headwall. I associate climbing up Storm Creek with being cold, as the ice smears lie on the shady side of a high valley. And so I catch myself being grateful that we are not about to stop and freeze, as we ski past the frozen waterfalls, intent on the summit of Storm Mtn.

My least favourite part of ski mountaineering: carrying the damn things! We totter up a long scree slope, skis wobbling on our packs and throwing us off balance, our big boots stiff and clumsy on the uneven ground. But higher up we are rewarded with being able to skin all the way to the summit cairn, and then with a fantastic run down that has us back at the car just over an hour from the top.

Eamonn emerging into the sunshine, with the ice climbs below deep in the shade.

Yep, we ski all the way to the summit cairn, but the bases of our skis do not thank us for it.

Looking west from the summit: the Goodsirs on the left, Mt. Temple on the right, and the Ten Peaks in between.

Looking east from the summit: Mt. Ball in the middle distance, and Mt. Assiniboine on the horizon.

Coming down from a mountain does not get much better than this.

Mt. Hector (3394 m)

 An icy haze hangs in the air, and we hesitate to venture much above treeline. We picture featureless whiteness, to say nothing of the biting cold. But then a sucker hole of blue sky appears over Mt. Hector, and together with the yerba mate we have been sucking on through the drive, propels us up the Icefields Parkway, out of the warm car, and up Hector Creek.

Above the last stand of trees we are met by a vicious wind. Why does my lower lip feel numb? You cannot freeze your lips, can you? (Yes, you can.) We ski on, neither of us wanting to be the first one to suggest turning around. Fortunately once off of the moraines and onto the glacier the wind dies down, while a wan sun tries its best to make things more pleasant. Still, we do not feel like hanging around. A quick scramble to the top, then we strip off the skins, lock the heels, and point the boards down the hill. Three quarters of an hour later, back at the car, I unbuckle my boots and feel blood rushing back into my toes.

The wintry sun does not lend much warmth to the proceedings.

Juan contemplates the debris of a rather large slide left over from the last avalanche cycle.

Minus 25 and windy: "Quick, take the summit shot, then let's get the hell down from here." Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Classic Rockies skiing: some boilerplate, some breakable crust, even a bit of windslab thrown in for variety. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Off the couch

I find that these days my interest in drytooling waxes and wanes. What a contrast to the golden age of putting metal to stone! In the late 1990s and early 2000s, along with a crew of similarly dedicated friends, I spent my winters first figure-fouring and later heel-hooking across cave roofs, arguing about whether the latest test piece was M11 or only M10+, traveling to Colorado and Quebec to compete... It was a lot of fun but it could not last.

Drytooling as it was practiced back in the 1930s or so, before colour photography was invented. Learning to figure-four on Power to Burn, Waterfowl Gullies. Photo: Robert Rogoz.

For me, the fire went out on a late-winter day in 2003, ironically one of my best days of drytooling. I had been spending a lot of time at the Cineplex, unlearning the figure-fours that had been such a staple in the dark ages of leashes and big boots, and learning the fine art of hanging from heel spurs. On the day in question, having freshly redpointed Musashi, I turned my attention to the neighbouring Rocky Mountain Horror Picture Show. Expecting a multi-day battle working the route into submission, I surprised myself by beta-flashing it. Later that day, I re-redpointed Musashi, in spite of dropping a tool and having to haul it back up while hanging on in the middle of the big roof. But after the initial euphoria wore off, I realized that no club that would have me as member is worth belonging to. There was no way I was strong enough to be walking these routes like that. Rather, I had brought them down to my level, reduced them to a series of moderate boulder problems interspersed with perfect no-hands rests, hanging upside down from my heel spurs. With its reliance on equipment, drytooling had always walked a fine line between free and aid climbing, but with the new gear it had clearly moved into aid-climbing territory. I did not go drytooling again that season or the next one.

It's all aid anyhow, might as well get comfortable. Sticking the bolts into Malcontent, North Ribbon Creek. Photo: Pierre Darbellay.

Since that day, I seem to get psyched on the winter version of sport climbing once every two or three seasons (I am not talking about alpine mixed climbing here, which other than using some of the same equipment, such as a helmet, might as well be a different sport). After getting pumped on some routes I used to barely break a sweat on, my wounded pride had me heading back into the canyons. At the same time, bareback style brought climbing back into mixed climbing. The last time I was psyched on drytooling was in the winter of 2009, when I decided I would actually climb an M12 (Piltdown Man in the Haffner cave) as opposed to bat-hang my way up one. It turned out to be way harder, way more fun, and way more like rock climbing than I remembered. From the moment I left the ground the clock was ticking, and it took some serious screaming to propel me to the chains; in other words, just the way "hard" (a relative term) redpointing should be. Incidentally, the moment I sent my project I lost interest again and headed up into the alpine. As Liz Taylor once said, "It's not the having, it's the getting."

Once we got rid of heel spurs, it turned out we had to remember how to figure-four again, except this time actually holding on to the tools. Working Piltdown Man, Haffner cave. Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

The other week I spent a fun afternoon in the Haffner cave, the first time in two years I had been back there. I had no intention of getting on the harder routes, which, coming off the couch as I was, would hurt my pride along with my shoulders and elbows. But I like to reacquaint myself with old friends in the M10 range once in a while: to remember what the whole drytooling thing is all about, and to make sure I do not suck too badly. It was gratifying to see I could still get up routes like Caveman - sans the original log - without dogging, and this made me remember a few things. First, that drytooling is actually kind of fun. Second, that it is not that hard - up to a point, anyway. And third, that there some tricks that make the whole thing a lot easier. I thought I would share a few of these.

The vast sweep of the Haffner cave. Photo: Juan Henriquez.
  • Relax on the tools. I am always surprised to find I can hang on to tools much longer than friends who can climb circles around me on rock (I mean the kind you use slippers and a chalkbag for). Since they are obviously far stronger than me, I can only conclude that I must be using my limited strength much more sparingly than they are. In particular, I almost never squeeze a tool handle. On the contrary, I try to maintain as light a grip as I can get away with, often opening up my hand - kind of like open-handing as opposed to crimping on a hold. As a result I get less pumped while climbing, and recover better while shaking out.
  • When climbing, move it. It is common to see people 'gerbiling' on mixed routes, their brains racing like a gerbil on its wheel, but not going anywhere. Eventually they pump out and fall off. As as soon as my pick hits a good hold, I relax on the tool and move on. Rather than looking for a placement for the other tool, I shoulder it and simply match on the tool that already is on a good placement. (Having said that, I match far less on traditional mixed routes, where committing to a single tool and having it pop could bruise more than one's ego.) On really steep routes, where I hang far below the tools, I often hook the upper grip of the placed tool with the pick of the other one, so I can use both arms to pull up to the next hold.
  • Use body tension. Unlike in rock climbing where one can feel oneself spooging off a hold, in drytooling there is often no warning before a tool skates off. An especially common scenario is to have the bottom tool pop off just as the top one hits a hold. The problem is lack of body tension. After falling off unexpectedly once or twice, I remember to keep the direction of pull the same as I move past a placement, and to involve the whole body in moving around a suspect placement to keep it still - kind of like locking off on a sloper.
  • Control swings. On big horizontal reaches, where an uncontrolled body swing often causes cause the tool to walk off the hold, I try to control the swing as much as possible by keeping a foot on. But, where a swing is unavoidable, I minimize it by lowering out into a cross-iron position before shrugging the trailing tool off.
  • Rock climb. Rock climbing fitness helps with drytooling fitness, but much less so the other way around. I find I can go from pulling on plastic to drytooling at a reasonable (?) standard, but if all I had been doing is hanging off tool handles, the first time out sport climbing is a humbling experience.
And there you have it, all you ever wanted to know about going straight from the couch to the mixed crag, and not embarrassing yourself. Oh yes, one last thing: stick to routes you have got wired. Familiarity is a great substitute for strength.

Who knew this was actually fun? Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Skiing? Really?

I have always said self-righteously that I am saving skiing and aid climbing for when I am old and decrepit. I suppose I must be hitting that certain age, because recently I found myself skinning uphill with not much more than a thermos of hot drink in my pack, only to turn around at the top and ski back down. Even worse, I caught myself having fun. Who would have thought it would ever come to this? Hanging from gear and calling it climbing cannot be far behind.

Mt. Whymper along the Radium Highway. By the time eponymous Edward made its first ascent, he was far less fit and drank far more than when he made the first ascent of the Matterhorn that made him (in)famous.

Juan Henriquez putting his head down on the way up, with the delights of Haffner Creek far below.

I have heard it said that ski mountaineering begins when the skis come off. If so, then Eamonn Walsh is a ski mountaineer par excellence.

Scott Withers skinning across the sastrugi on the summit plateau.

Juan having a blast on the way down. Who says there is never good snow in the Rockies? I suppose though that "good" is a relative term. 

Another time, another place. On a late-spring attempt on the Moonflower Buttress on Mt. Hunter in Alaska, at one point we ran out of ice  and gumption and resorted to a tension traverse. Such tactics are best reserved for a ripe old age.