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.