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.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

There but for the grace of a great imaginary being go I.

I like to believe I can be in control in the mountains; that if I make all the right decisions I will come through unscathed. Sure, at times I do take calculated risks. For example in 2006 three friends and I traveled to Pakistan to attempt the southwest face of unclimbed Kunyang Chhish East (ca. 7400 m). The face is both huge (it rises two and a half vertical kilometres from the glacier) and beautiful (a subjective assessment, but I for one find it intensely compelling). I might also add dangerous, as the lower part of the face is threatened by multiple serac bands. They do not calve very often, but when they do the resulting avalanches are truly apocalyptic.

A serac avalanche sweeps down the southwest face of Kunynag Chhish East.

We made two ultimately unsuccessful attempts, stopped by illness the first time and by excessive heat the second. Both times we left basecamp at midnight and scrambled over giant fields of avalanche debris in the dark. Both times we retreated in daylight and walked down through the no-man's land in broad daylight. On all four occasions we were playing Russian roulette, having judged from the relative infrequency with which the seracs went that most of the chambers were empty. But if something awful happened we would not have been too surprised.

Ian Welsted climbing up the barrel of a gun at the base of the face...

... and out of range of a few hours later.

As one of my alpine mentors once told me before I went to climb the serac-threatened Gimme Shelter, The worst of it is that if anything happens, people will say, What were they thinking?

What were they thinking?

Last Sunday a friend and I went to climb Les Miserables on Mt. Wilson. It is one of the routes in the spectacular bowl above Oh Le Tabernac. The bowl is a spooky place, with acres and acres of open, snowy terrain above. Near the bottom, just above Oh Le Tabernac, it necks down to a canyon maybe ten metres wide. As we hiked up, I commented about what it must be like inside it when the slopes above go big. But on that day we felt good about being where we were: the sky was overcast, the temperature cool, and there simply wasn't much snow around.

Starting up Oh Le Tabernac as dawn lights up the sky. The pyramidal mountain in the distance is Mt. Chephren.

From left to right: Maori Wedding (unformed), Meech Lake Memorial and N'Ice Baby (semi-formed), and Whoa Whoa Capitaine and Les Miserables.

The approach slopes on Sunday...

... and again on Tuesday. Photo: Grant Statham.

Two days later, encouraged by our report of excellent ice conditions, two friends headed up there. As they hiked up the creek below Oh Le Tabernac, they were surprised to see the debris of a massive avalanche. But they though it might be old, so they climbed Oh Le Tabernac, still intent on the upper climbs. In the end however, blowing snow and a nagging feeling of something not being right convinced them to retreat.

I heard their story later the same day, as I drove back from another climb. I thought about how two days earlier we walked up the bowl joking all the while; how we enjoyed lunch below Les Miserables; how at the top of Les Mis I climbed an extra ten metres to where the ice kicked back so I could get a better view. We knew we were venturing into a potentially dangerous place, but judged that under the prevailing conditions it was reasonable to do so. In the end we were simply lucky we did not wait an extra day. As a very experienced alpinist once wrote about climbing in the mountains: "There are too many variables. Too many things that could go wrong. The alpine architect I've aspired to be doesn't exist. You can't control it all, it's too big: it's the earth." (Mt. Fay, East Face; CAJ, 1988)