Sunday, April 24, 2011

Playing pinball on the Spray Range traverse

I like link ups. There is something very satisfying about doing multiple routes in a day, be it ice climbing or Yammering (or sometimes both). But link ups, let us face it, are also rather contrived. On Yam, say, you climb a route, you walk back down to your stuff, you move it to the base of another route, you climb it, you walk back down... For instance one June Jon Walsh and I did what we somewhat pretentiously referred to as an El Cap day: three routes adding up to over 900 m of climbing, each route featuring much 5.10 with 5.11 cruxes. I know, for a true El Cap day the cruxes should have been in the 5.13 range; I guess ours was was a poor man's El Cap. Still, I barely squeaked through the crux on the last route, and felt wasted the following day. It was a fun enchainment, but not a very natural one.

Not quite El Cap.

An enchainment becomes more compelling when each link in the chain naturally leads to the next one, like ice flowing over successive tiers on a mountainside. Guy Lacelle and I once tried to combine Midnight Rambler (an easy ice gully), Stairway to Heaven (a bolted mixed route) and Living in Paradise (a hard ice route), the three ascending the same drainage on the south face of Mt. Wilson. Given that it was December and days were on the short side, our odds were rather long. Still, we had to try. We walked up in the dark, scrambled up the first route, broke out the half rope we had brought to save weight for the second route, and finally started up the third one. The afternoon was getting on, but it was not lack of daylight that stopped us, but lack of ice. I still remember Living in Paradise on that day as one of the most engaging pieces of ice I have ever attempted. Faced with a shitty semi-hanging belay and harder climbing above, we pulled the plug.

Guy Lacelle on the first pitch of Stairway to Heaven attempting the enchainment.

A somewhat less obvious but - at least to me - very natural kind of link up is one where the descent from one route places you at the start of the next one. Borrowing a term from masters of the genre, the Giri Giri boys, I call this a pinball link up. Ski touring lends itself very well to the kind of flow that pin-balling from descent to ascent provides. The other day I got a taste of the possibilities of pin-balling as Gery Unterasinger and I traversed the Spray Range. Starting from the Burstall Pass parking lot we ascended a giant slide path on a bulletproof crust to the saddle between Commonwealth Peak and Piggy Plus. A fabulous descent down another slide path landed us in Commonwealth Creek. A second ascent up yet another slide path, by now softening up in the sun, took us to a shoulder of The Fist. From there, a disappointingly short run down the Tryst Lake chutes led to a third valley bottom, and a third climb.

Gery approaching the Commonwealth Peak-Piggy Plus col, with Mt. Sir Douglas in the distance.

Gery hucking the cornice and plunging down into Commonwealth Creek.

A sweaty ascent below The Fist.

How many different kinds of snow are there?

Each time we plunged below tree line, we shed layers in the sweaty heat. Each time we crested a ridge, we pulled them back on against a biting wind. Yet another powder descent took us below Tent Ridge. By now I was feeling all the ups and downs in my legs, and the fourth and last ascent was by far the hardest one. But the top did not disappoint, with views down to the Spray Lakes, up to Assiniboine, and across the ridges and valleys we had crossed. A last blast down on a mixed bag of powder and sastrugi, and we popped out on the road right where we had left the second car.

Ascending for the third time, with the Tryst Lake chutes behind. Photo: Gery Unterasinger.

The third descent. Photo: Gery Unterasinger. 

Gery on Tent Ridge...

... and ripping it up on the way down.

Looking back across the traverse.

A ptarmigan clinging to winter near the top of Tent Ridge.

I am already thinking of other possibilities. Snow, ice, rock; seen from the right perspective, each medium offers vast opportunities for knocking about in the mountains. And of course beyond the relatively limited world of one-day pinball missions lies the vast universe of multi-day pin-balling. I cannot wait.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Twelve years later

April 1999. My most exciting winter season yet was wrapping up. The X-Games, Ouray, early repeats of hard routes big and small: it felt like being caught up in a whirlwind of overhanging rock and ice. Toward the end of the season I got involved in the Rockies' biggest new-wave mixed project to date, the visionary Rocket Man on Mt. Patterson. The route was the brainchild of 'Everyday Dave' Thomson, but the scale of the project meant extra manpower was needed, which was where I came in. Kefira Allen and I spent a couple of days toiling on the wall, jumaring up lines strung over the lower pitches, bolting our way toward the final icicle, pushing the high point a little higher. Dave Thomson and Eric Dumerac were the first to top out on the route: after jugging to the top of the ropes, they finished up the last two pitches of ice. From below the ice had looked continuous and so the drill got left behind. But Rocket Man had an ace up his sleeve:  the final ice did not quite connect with the snow ledge below, requiring a few metres of unprotected drytooling to start.

I am a peak bagger, and summits - even arbitrary ones, like the transition from steep ice to low-angled snow - matter to me. But I am also a sport climber, and climbing a route in a single go from bottom to top means just as much. Because, as GNA ads used to say, style matters. And so Kefira and I crossed the thawing Mistaya River and skied toward Rocket Man one more time. Her shoulder was wrecked and awaiting surgery, but she selflessly volunteered to jumar behind me to give me a chance at climbing the route. A stiff Gore-tex suit, leashes, straight shafts: quaint technology from another century. But mixed climbing was still mixed climbing, and the yellow limestone and blue ice were the same then as they are today. Dave skied up the moraines to watch our progress and take photos. I do not remember that much from that day; after all, it was twelve years ago, and Dave is not here anymore. I do remember dodging a falling cornice on the route, and breaking through the river ice on the ski back to the car.

The mighty Rocket Man. Raphael Slawinski (climbing) and Kefira Allen (belaying) on the fourth pitch. Photo: Dave Thomson.

Raphael Slawinski moving into the M7 crux on the third pitch. Photo: Kefira Allen.

Raphael Slawinski (climbing) and Kefira Allen (belaying) on the fourth pitch. Photo: Dave Thomson.

April 2011. It was another flawless early-spring day. Jon Walsh and I met in Lake Louise, fuelled up on cappuccino, and raced up the Parkway. The outside thermometer in Jon's car dipped to an unseasonal -18 C, but skiing toward the east face of Mt. Patterson had us shedding layers in no time. Two hours after leaving the car we were changing out of AT and into climbing boots at the base of Rocket Man. With a bit of simul-climbing Jon took us up the first two pitches. Our pace slowed dramatically as I started up the third: detached ice and loose rock had me holding my breath as I gingerly weighed creaky edges. Coming to a fork in the road ahead, with more insecure drytooling but bolts up left, and ice but no gear up right, I hesitated for a few moments before heading right. A lock-off on a flexing flake, a rushed swing into thin ice, then another, and I had my feet back under me.

Jon Walsh skiing toward the east face of Mt. Patterson, with Rocket Man on the sunny wall right of the Snowbird Glacier....

... and starting up in the mid-morning sun.

Raphael Slawinski committing to the ice on the third pitch. Photo: Jon Walsh.

Jon Walsh winding up for the camera on the third pitch.

The next two or three pitches went more easily and and let us recover from all the exertion. From a fat snow ledge one more pitch of rock remained. But why was the first bolt so high and where were all the holds? Who bolted this piece of choss and sandbagged it, anyway? Some climbing physicist, I am told. After exploring his options, Jon finally committed to the least bad of the holds and started climbing. A few moves later something gave way and he was off. But why was he not stopping, with a bolt at his waist? The mystery was solved when the bolt was found still attached to the quickdraw: the yellow limestone had exploded around the hole. Jon contemplated life for a few minutes and headed back up. After all the excitement, the ice pitches at the top were pure joy: steep but solid, with breathtaking exposure all the way down to our uptrack. And then we were standing in deep snow at the top of the ice, looking at the upper mountain festooned with monstrous mushrooms and cornices. We were grateful not to be venturing among them, but to be downward bound instead.

Why is ice climbing always more difficult than it looks? Jon Walsh starting up the fourth pitch...

... and searching for holds at the start of the seventh one.

Raphael Slawinski following bolt-protected ice on the seventh pitch (for the record, there was no ice here on the first ascent). Photo: Jon Walsh.

Jon Walsh stepping up on the final pillar.

Hanging glaciers in the mist.

Downward bound.