Monday, May 23, 2011


Spring in the Rockies is an interesting time. It can suck, as the monsoon descends and turns rock into a seeping mess and snow into desperate mush. But it can also be brilliant, with dry rock in the front ranges and crisp conditions in the alpine. Right now we seem to be entering the monsoon phase (though the Lookout was pretty good this weekend), but last week was a different matter.



Going up on Yam for the first time in the season feels like coming home: the sorting of gear in the parking lot, the hike up the switchbacks below the face, the hours spent navigating the maze of grey and yellow rock, the quick run down the backside, and then one more route because it is spring and there is still lots of daylight left. There is a reassuring familiarity about the whole affair but also some anxiety, as befits a big limestone cliff. Last weekend Gery Unterasinger and I inaugurated the Yam season with two of my favourites: Yellow Edge, and Jimmy and the Cruisers. Some might dismiss Yellow Edge as a pile of (yes, yellow) choss festooned with aging gear, but to me that is where much of its appeal lies. Sure, the route might be a bit rough around the edges, with its loose blocks, rat shit and rivet ladders, but it is those things that make it a (Yam) classic. And it climbs really, really well, with committing liebacks, delicate faces and lots of air below. Jimmy is a somewhat different proposition, sporting some of the better grey rock around, but the traverse on the penultimate pitch, with its sparse bolts and big exposure, always gets my attention - especially if the clouds have moved in, the wind is howling, and my fingers are going numb. Yes, it felt good to be back on the old Yam pile.

Yam soaking up the morning sun.

Navigating the third pitch of Yellow Edge, which is more solid than it looks. Trust me! Photo: Gery Unterasinger.

Take it for granite? Maybe not, but the fourth pitch of Yellow Edge is one of the better crack pitches on Yam.

Looking down the devious fifth pitch of Yellow Edge...

... and up the same pitch. Photo: Gery Unterasinger.

Starting up Jimmy and The Cruisers...

... and sorting out the rope on the crux. Photo: Gery Unterasinger.

Yam: good for the soul but hard on the hands.



My obsession with the mountains began in 1989, when my father and I climbed Mt. Joffre, a big glaciated hunchback of a mountain in the Kananaskis backcountry. The afternoon before we hiked to Aster Lake, camped, then got up before dawn and made our way up first moraines, then bare glacial ice, then summer neve to the highest point of K-Country. My life was never the same again. Last week, twenty two years later, I thought it would be fun to revisit old Joffre on skis. And so it was that a couple of days after basking in the sun on Yam, Steve Holeczi, Andrew Wexler and I met at a cruel hour of the morning and dodged wildlife on Highway 40 all the way down to the Kananaskis Lakes. A grey dawn broke as we skied around the thawing Upper Lake. We continued through steep trees above Hidden Lake, across the white expanse of Aster Lake, and around the corner onto the moraines of the Mangin Glacier. Low cloud hid the peaks while a keen wind whipped snow into our faces. Given the shitty weather I do not think any of us expected to actually get up what was after all a sizeable mountain, but we had nothing better to do and so continued into the whiteness. After a while the rockbands of the north face materialized out of the mist. We thought we could follow them up and right, and not get too lost. When the slope steepened we booted straight up to the summit ridge. Fear of cornices overhanging the west face had us looking for the rope none of us had brought. In the end, roping up with some cordelette gave us the courage to grope our way to the highest point. To make things even better - and much to our surprise - on the return trip the snow in the valley bottoms had not turned into isothermal mush. Funny how little it takes to make one happy sometimes.

Emerging from the trees above Hidden Lake...

...traversing to Aster Lake...

... and slogging up moraines below the Mangin Glacier.

"Are we done resting yet? I'm cold."

May in the Rockies can seem an awful lot like winter.

On the north face (slope? hillside?).

The view from the summit left something be desired, but the company was good.

Is this the skiing equivalent of drytooling?

Almost there. And not a minute too soon.

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