Monday, November 19, 2012

The Ghost in the Machine

In the end, what's climbing about? Gymnastics? Or exploration? I suspect everyone will answer differently, and maybe even differently at different times. For example, I spent most of September projecting a single route at the Lookout. Each day at the crag was much the same as the previous one: I'd warm up, get on my project and try to work it into submission. While I did make some discoveries along the way (such as that it's better to hand-wrap rather than crimp the hold at the start of the first crux), I'd be hard pressed to call what I was doing exploration. Instead, I was essentially perfecting a gymnastic routine, so that I could eventually execute it error free.

On a warm afternoon in late September, with the aspen turning yellow in the valley below, I surprised myself by floating the route almost effortlessly. I haven't been back to the Lookout since. Instead, as the days have grown shorter and shorter, I've been waking up earlier and earlier, trudging for hours only to climb a few pitches of snowed-up rock nobody's bothered to climb before. To make matters worse, I haven't even been getting up the damned things: just scratching up a little ways, noticing it's getting dark, looking up and seeing lots of hard climbing still remaining, and rappelling off. And repeating the same ritual the following weekend, hopefully getting a couple of pitches higher. So what is it that gets me out of bed every cold, pitch-black Saturday morning? It's knowing that, after passing the previous highpoint, I'll step around a corner or turn the lip of a roof, and finally see what lies ahead.

All the same, as much you might aspire to live by the cliched dictum about 'it' being about the journey and not the destination, if you never arrive at your destination even a fun journey can become tiresome. And so just as I was happy to finally send my project at the Lookout, I was happy to finally finish one of my mixed projects. Granted, it was by far the smallest of them all, but you learn to aim low if you want to succeed. Even better, the result was a route that might actually be worth repeating.

The Ghost in the Machine (70 m, M7)
FA: Ian Welsted, Jon Walsh and Raphael Slawinski, November 2012

This is a fun little route with two back-to-back pitches of solid M7. It’s found below the left end of the big overlap left of the Suffer Machine area. In spite of being put up with a bolt gun it manages to retain some soul: the first pitch is a sustained ropelength of traditionally-protected mixed climbing, while the second features bolt-protected steep pulling on thin ice that’ll have you grinning from ear to ear. A good outing for the short days of late fall; go get it before all the ice sublimates away!

Pitch 1 (40 m): The harder-than-it-looks pitch. Scramble up and left to a broad snow ledge. Move left and climb easy rock to the base of a groove leading up to an arching right-facing corner. Climb past a couple of fixed pins to an overhang, plug in some good cams overhead and make a few strenuous moves past the right side of the overhang. Continue up and right past another fixed pin to some thin ice in a chimney. Climb the chimney past two more fixed pins to a sloping ice ledge and a bolt belay.

Pitch 2 (30 m): The easier-than-it-looks pitch. Move right from the belay and climb a few metres up a thinly iced slab to the first bolt (hard to see from the belay). Continue up a right-facing corner to another bolt on the left wall. Step onto the left wall and climb steep ice-covered rock past three more bolts into an overhanging slot. Continue up the slot with great drytooling and excellent gear to easier ground and a bolt belay on a snow ledge.

Descent: It’s possible but awkward to return to the first belay. With two 70-m ropes it’s best to make one long rappel back to the base.

Gear: Cams from #00 C3 to #4 C4, half a set of nuts, 6 draws and 8 shoulder-length slings. No pins or screws are needed.

Nemesis on the left, Suffer Machine on the right, and The Ghost in the Machine in the middle.

The line of The Ghost in the Machine. The thin strip to the left is the not-quite formed route An Ideal For Living.

Jon Walsh pulling the crux on the first pitch.

The hooks in the sublimated ice are a bit marginal but fortunately the gear is good.

Jon Walsh nears the end of the first pitch while getting pummelled by spindrift.

The second pitch is all mixed climbing should be: beyond-vertical rock, thin ice, verglassed cracks... Photo: Jon Walsh.

Where do I find a climb that goes on like this for two hundred metres instead of only twenty? Photo: Jon Walsh.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Farewell to fall

Jon and I left the city on Friday afternoon, escaping for the Thanksgiving long weekend along with thousands of others. The Rockies stretched across the western horizon under a pale autumn sky. It was already two weeks past equinox, and there was a sharpness to the air that told of changing seasons. Two weeks earlier I’d hiked into the Emperor Face in shorts; now I hurriedly pulled on long underwear as we packed for the coming days in a gravel parking lot beside the Icefields Parkway. The sun had already disappeared behind the summit of Howse Peak, and any illusion of warmth fled along with it. It was a relief to be done with the finger-numbing packing and cooking, and to crawl into the back of Jon’s van for a few hours’ sleep.

We were up long before dawn. Muesli, a thick slice of banana bread, a shot of stovetop espresso, and we were off up the trail, stumbling over roots and crunching through frozen puddles. At Chephren Lake the broad hiking path gave way to an intermittent climbers’ track along the shore, and then even that petered out in a rockslide of quartzite slippery with frost. By the time we stopped to refill our bottles from a glacial stream on the far side of the lake, it was light enough to see without headlamps. The east face of Howse Peak towered above us, blocking out nearly half the sky. Gray ice dripped down it in long, tantalizing streaks. But, having tried the ice on Thanksgiving weekend five years before, we weren’t fooled into thinking it was in shape. Instead, we made across moraine and glacier toward the northeast buttress.

It was still Indian summer down low, and we gained height quickly up hummocky grass and rubbly ledges, stemming around patches of snow. But by the time we roped up below a steep chimney, we’d entered autumn’s domain: wet snow lay on all the ledges and icicles dripped from overhangs. It took us a couple of ropelengths of slipping around on slushy footholds to realize the climbing would go more easily in crampons. And, once we’d turned the corner onto the north face, the deep shade and dry snow felt almost wintry. Almost – but not quite: you only had to remember burrowing through fat rolls and mushrooms of the stuff during true winter to realize that cruel season was still a long way off.

We’d originally planned to go for the north face, but now that we could see into The Gash we weren’t so sure. Almost devoid of ice, the deep slanting gully promised tenuous scratching up compact rock thinly powdered in snow. After weighing our options for a few minutes, we decided to abandon our hardcore ambitions and to continue up the ridge instead. It didn’t help that we hadn’t exactly run up the last few pitches, and they were still supposed to be trade-route terrain. Compared to rock climbing, alpine drytooling is a slow business: dig for tool and gear placements and carefully balance on frontpoints, whereas if the rock were dry you’d just grab, smear and go.

A few more ropelengths of this kind of fun, made even more amusing by overnight packs, and daylight began to fade. Fortunately a wind scoop under an overhanging wall presented itself just in time. We set up a hand line to keep ourselves from falling off the mountain and went to work digging a ledge for our little tent. I never cease to be amazed at the difference even such a fragile shelter can make. Outside, as night fell, spindrift poured down at regular intervals. Inside, all we could hear was gentle pattering on the brightly coloured fabric as we reclined in our sleeping bags, ate freeze-dried curry, and eventually drifted off to sleep.

Getting going after a bivy, even one as comfortable as ours was, is always a test of alpine-climbing mettle: abandoning the body-warmed confines of the sleeping bag, pulling on cold boots, then stepping outside and packing up, all the while getting periodically doused by spindrift. It was a relief to finally rack up and lead out over black ice and snow-covered choss toward the skyline. A couple of pitches that’d been blown clear of snow had us putting rubber and even bare skin to stone, but then it was back to crampons and tools. The climbing itself was rather fine: never desperate but always interesting, with airy traverses, rimed-up chimneys and even the occasional welcome bit of neve. After a few hours in the shade, it was a joy to pop out into bright sunshine on the big ledge running across the whole mountain.

In keeping with our climb-whatever-looks-best approach, instead of following the summer route up the ridge we traversed into the deep gully splitting the upper east face. The guidebook calls it ugly and it might be that in July, but by October it’s an attractive snow couloir, with just enough ice to disqualify it as a ski run (and it’s always embarrassing to climb up one). After the slow going lower down it was liberating to move together, kicking into snow pounded hard by spindrift and swinging into freshly formed ice. Eventually the cornice capping the couloir came into view. I’d been thinking about it for the past hour, wondering if the mountain would throw one last obstacle in our way; as I was beginning to feel tired, I was rather hoping it wouldn’t. But the mountain was kind to us, and we were able to sneak by the overhanging snow and ice on the right.

Having spent the last few hours in a canyon-like gully, it wasn’t until we topped out on the summit ridge that we realized the weather had changed for the worse and our peak was enveloped in cloud. Still, it couldn’t be all that bad, since every once in a while the mists would part and reveal the headwaters of the Howse River, and once or twice even the distant Bugaboos. Nightfall found us pitching our little tent in the lee of a big boulder at treeline. Flat ground and running water: this wasn’t bivying anymore – this was camping.

It rained hard during the night, and it being October we woke to fresh snow not far above camp. Our third day started with a scree slog up to the White Pyramid-Epaulette col. The col itself was whited out, and with the gaping crevasses we could glimpse on the far side, we thought getting down might prove exciting. In the end, though, the worst part of the descent turned out to be the endless rubble on the moraines below the rather diminutive glacier. The last obstacle to be overcome, already within earshot of the road, was the Mistaya River. We didn’t even bother removing our boots, but strode fully dressed into the water. Sadly, given our sodden state, even with the holiday traffic it took us close to an hour to catch a ride back to the van.

The following week it snowed far below treeline all the way out to the foothills. With the mountains this snowy and the days this short, it was time to forget about big alpine adventures, at least for a while. But fortunately, as temperatures dip and water dripping down gray limestone turns to ice, it won’t be hard to find other adventures closer to home. And soon enough, the days will start growing longer again.

Summary: An ascent of the lower Northeast Buttress to the M-16 gully on Howse Peak, October 6-8, by Raphael Slawinski and Jon Walsh.

The sun disappears behind the north face of Howse Peak. Time to pull on the long johns!

A gibbous moon over the east face of Howse Peak.

Jon Walsh scrambles up the slopes below the northeast buttress.

In the fourteen years since I first climbed the northeast buttress, I'd forgotten just how rank some of the rock on it is. Photo: Jon Walsh.

Jon Walsh enjoys the last bit of sun, with White Pyramid and Mt. Chephren behind...

... and traverses to the shady side of the buttress.

What shall it be? The northeast buttress on the left and the north face on the right.

Jon Walsh tiptoes up tricky mixed ground right off the belay.

"This is alpine climbing. Complicated work and never feeling solid." - Barry Blanchard, CAJ '88.

The setting sun lights up the summit of Mt. Chephren.

It could be a whole lot worse; home for the night. Photo: Jon Walsh.

The cozy confines of the tent.

Jon Walsh belays the first pitch of the second day from the tent platform.

Dry rock on the prow of the buttress... Photo: Jon Walsh.

... and rimed-up stone on its north side.

Jon Walsh starts up the M-16 gully on the upper east face...

... and comes to the last belay, with Chephren Lake far below.

Raphael Slawinski avoids harder climbing on the last pitch of the gully.

The obligatory goofy shot on a whited out summit.

The headwaters of the Howse River. My feet hurt just thinking about walking out that way!

Alpenglow on Howse Peak, with the descent route down the north glacier clearly visible.

Now that's what I call camping! The Epaulette-White Pyramid col is in the upper right corner of the photo. Hiking over the col and down the other side, it took us just over five hours from our camp to the road. Definitely the way to go! 

Jon Walsh slogs up into the clouds.

The glacier on the east side of the col isn't as bad as it looks.

It's a long way down to Epaulette Lake. On the far side of the valley storm clouds envelop Mt. Murchison.

Fall colours on the valley bottom.

Jon Walsh fords the Mistaya River five minutes from the road.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Exterminator

Winter's coming. A gorgeous indian summer ended abruptly a few weeks ago with thick snow falling on yellow leaves still clinging to branches. It was time to shelve projects at the Lookout until next spring and to start scratching up snowed up rock; time to experience the mountains in their wintry guise.  Last Saturday night Jon and I bailed from yet another attempt on a big new mixed line. All day clouds of spindrift engulfed us at regular intervals, turning something as simple as rummaging inside the pack at a stance into a carefully timed operation. After five rappels by headlamp we finally touched down on a steep snow slope. Our approach tracks were all but obliterated, erased by heavy sloughs from the wall above. What two months ago was scree crisscrossed with sheep tracks had suddenly become ominous avalanche terrain. After postholing back across gully after lee-loaded gully, we breathed a sigh of relief upon finding ourselves again among dense, friendly trees. Winter had indeed returned to the Rockies.

And speaking of winter, I'm reminded of a new mixed line some friends and I established on the Trophy Wall last season. At the time, with spring in the air, I didn't think many people would be interested in yet more ice after already nearly six months of it. But now, with wide-eyed climbers looking for fresh icicles everywhere, the information below might be of interest. Bring on the ice!

The Exterminator (4 pitches, M7+ WI5+)
FA: Eric Dumerac, Juan Henriquez, Simon Parsons and Raphael Slawinski, winter 2012.

The Exterminator is a variation to the ultraclassic Terminator. It joins that route halfway up its second pitch, and as such should be climbable most seasons. The mixed climbing is mostly bolt protected, but a small rock rack comes in handy.

Pitch 1 (M6+): Locate a line up bolts up a right-facing corner some 10 metres left of the Terminator dagger. Climb the corner for a few metres, then exit left onto some ice splatters. Continue to a small stance and belay from one or two of the protection bolts and/or some small gear.

Pitch 2 (M7+): Follow bolts up and left toward a V-groove with thin drytooling. Climb the groove and right-facing corner above past a pin, a bolt and some gear placements to a small stance and a ring-bolt belay.

Pitch 3 (M7+ WI5+): Climb the crack above past a few fixed pins and some gear placements to a bolt-protected overlap arching back right toward the ice of the Terminator. Continue up funky, mushroomed ice to a cave belay left of the last pitch of that route.

Pitch 4 (WI5): Climb the last pitch of the Terminator.

Gear: A dozen draws (including some shoulder-length slings), cams from green C3 to gold C4, and screws for the Terminator.

The Bow Valley on the beautiful late winter day from the Trophy Wall approach. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

The Trophy Wall. It doesn't get much more classic than that!

Juan Henriquez pulling onto the mushrooms on the first pitch...

... and getting off of them a few metres higher.

Raphael Slawinski starting up the second pitch... Photo: Juan Henriquez.

... and Juan Henriquez coming up the V-groove higher up on the pitch.

After some technical torquing and fancy footwork, the fat ice on the third pitch provides welcome relief. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Juan Henriquez nears the belay below the last pitch of the Terminator, with the Bow River far below.

The Trophy Wall with the line of The Exterminator marked in red.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Infinite Patience


Time flies. It had been ten years since I first climbed Robson with my father and Peter. We took the long way: driving from Calgary, biking to Kinney Lake, then hiking past Berg Lake all the way to the toe of the Robson Glacier. That whole day, as intermittent rain fell, we got only occasional glimpses of the lower slopes of the mountain. But we put our trust in a good forecast, and we weren’t disappointed as morning dawned clear. Noon on our second day found us in the labyrinth of seracs and crevasses that is the Mousetrap. After much up and down and around, we finally emerged onto the Dome. In spite of the early hour we decided to stop where we were, in deference to the snow streamers flying from the ridge atop the Kain Face. The following morning we were up well before dawn, frontpointing where Conrad Kain had chopped hundreds of steps. The rising sun and a keen wind met us as we crested the ridge. Dropping our overnight packs, we continued the last few hundred metres to the summit. To the north the Mist and Berg Glaciers tumbled into the milky waters of Berg Lake; to the west the gargoyles on the Emperor Ridge marched off in a ragged file; and to the south the highway beckoned far below. And then down it was, across the Roof and toward the Schwarz Ledges of ill renown. For some strange reason we thought it better to rappel through the seracs rather than to walk under them. As a result we spent what felt like hours making many short rappels with our single rope through an alien landscape of precarious ice walls. Then it was down again: first down rubble slopes, then through a rain forest that grew thicker with every step. The last daylight faded as we crunched onto the gravel fan below the Great Couloir. Midnight found us at a greasy pizzeria in Jasper, and by daybreak we were back in Calgary: some thousand kilometres of driving, fifty horizontal ones of biking and hiking, three vertical ones of ascending, and seventy-two hours later.

A glimpse of the Emperor Face from the approach.

Peter Smolik (left) and Andre Slawinski set up camp below the Robson Glacier.

The Robson Glacier lies deep in shadow, while the rising sun lights up the Helmet and Mt. Robson.

In the Mousetrap...

... and above the Kain Face.

Peter Smolik (left) and Andre Slawinski on the summit of Mt. Robson.

Rappelling through the seracs above the Schwarz Ledges is probably not the best idea.

Andre Slawinski pushes his luck under one last serac.


I suppose all those kilometres were the reason why, for an entire decade, I never once turned west from the Icefields Parkway onto the Yellowhead Highway leading to Robson. There was just so much to do before you ever got to that turnoff: the roadside Chephren, the nearly roadside Andromeda and Kitchener, Alberta lurking on the far side of Woolley Shoulder… But for some reason this summer I found myself thinking about Robson again; maybe in a season without expeditions I simply hankered after a big mountain. Whatever the reason, Jay and I made plans for Infinite Patience on the Emperor Face in middle of September. On a cloudless afternoon we rounded a corner on the highway and suddenly there was Robson, filling the sky to the north. We had hoped to hit the ground running (or rolling, to be precise), but ran into an unexpected snag in the form of road construction. Damn it! Precious daylight slipped away while we lollygagged around the information centre, waiting for the road to the trailhead to reopen. We felt a distinct sense of urgency when we finally shouldered our packs and hopped on our bikes. In the end we made it to the river crossing below the Emperor Ridge with just enough daylight to see that the face looked disconcertingly bare, but not quite enough to avoid losing ourselves in the wet slide alder on the other shore. There was nothing for it but to pitch our tent in the middle of the gravel flats, wolf down a freeze dried meal, and go to sleep.

The following morning we were off well before dawn. With the face looking so dry we didn’t think the ice pitch though the first rock band would be in, so we started further right, groveling up scree and scrambling up wet gullies below the Emperor Ridge. After a few hours of this, the sun having risen in the meantime, we stopped to eat and gear up. Harnesses and crampons on, we rounded a corner, and within a few steps went from a gentle scree slope on the ridge to an exposed ice ledge on the face. Acutely aware of the sudden drop that had opened up below our boot soles, we shuffled across carefully. Before long an ice slope loomed up above us. Jon had mentioned perfect neve when he and Josh climbed the route in the spring, but we found ancient gray ice instead. No matter, it still went quickly, and soon we were running out of ice in the lower gully and traversing blocky limestone toward the upper one. Then it was back onto snow and ice, interrupted here and there by a rocky step. As it neared the ridgeline, the route swept up to just under vertical, with a strip of ice tucked into the back of a groove. And not far above, rather sooner than expected, we found ourselves blinking in bright afternoon sun on the ridge.

In spite of the early hour we could not resist taking a break in the sunshine, making soup and drying the sleeping bags still wet from morning dew. Eventually, with the sun sinking toward the smoke-filled horizon, we shouldered our packs and continued upward: scrambling up chimneys and over ledges, belaying a few pitches up ice gullies and rock walls, then coiling the rope again where the angle of the ridge eased. With light fading, we kicked a platform out of frozen dirt and pitched our tent a mere metre away from the abyss of the Emperor Face. But even on this exposed perch there was hardly any wind and we lounged in front of the tent, cooking, watching the last light go out in the west and the first stars come up. When at last we crawled into the cozy yellow confines of the tent, sleep came easily.

In the morning we traversed straight onto some downsloping rock that had us roping up in a typically awkward spot. Why is it that we never see these things coming? Fortunately after just a couple of ropelengths we were back onto snow and ice, and we picked up our pace as the rope went back into the pack. But before long it came out again, as the weird shapes of the infamous gargoyles began to appear along the crest. Mind you, there was not much in the way of rock or ice protection to attach the rope to, but the styrofoam snow made even nearly vertical walls feel secure. And the roar of a serac avalanche far below, sweeping across the glacier at the base of the north face, made us doubly glad to be high above the world on this crystalline morning. Overcoming a last snowy gendarme, the broad summit opened up before us just in time for lunch.

Mountain ranges upon mountain ranges stretched out in all directions as far as we could see. We sat in a sheltered scoop in the sun, ate, drank, and took it all in. Eventually, growing chilled, we started down. It had been ten years since I last came down the south face, and I’d forgotten how nasty and unpleasant it really was. A traverse below the ice cliffs of the Roof was but a taste of the ugly Schwarz Ledges to come. Narrow, snowy sidewalks ran in and out of steep chutes overhung by giant, shattered seracs. We shut our brains off, scrambled down into the maw and out the other side. Further down we watched as another serac vomited tons of ice across our intended path. Fortunately there was a saner way around this final obstacle, and before long we were finally out of harm’s way, lounging in the sun in front of the decrepit yet friendly hut.

We had sufficient daylight to continue, and could have hit the bars in Jasper for a Saturday night celebration, but why would we have rushed? We had the entire mountain to ourselves, a roof over our heads, and rat-chewed foamies to stretch out upon. We didn’t even bother setting an alarm, but slept until we’d had our fill. After a sadly modest breakfast we set off on the last stage of our journey: past the weird bolts peppering the fourth-class rubble below the hut, down through a forest steep enough to be fourth class were it not for the dense trees, and at long last onto our bikes: the saviours of our beat up feet for the last few kilometres of trail. The trail itself was crowded with the Sunday-stroll set, and we had to watch our speed around corners as we rolled down beside the emerald waters of the Robson River, carrying the great mountain at our backs grain by grain down to the Pacific. All the same, I’m sure it’ll still be there in a year – or ten.

Summary: The third ascent of Infinite Patience (V M5 5.8), Emperor Face of Mt. Robson, and the first without helicopter assistance and finishing up the Emperor Ridge, by J. Mills and Raphael Slawinski, September 21-22, 2012.

Thursday, September 20:
   5 pm: Start from the trailhead.
   9 pm: Camp in the riverbed below the Emperor Ridge.
   5 am: Leave the valley bottom.
   9 am: Traverse into Bubba's Couloir on Infinite Patience.
   4 pm: Hit the Emperor Ridge.
   7 pm: Stop to bivi.
   8 am: Leave the bivi.
   Noon: Summit.
   5 pm: Stop at the Ralph Forster Hut.
   9:30 am: Leave the hut.
   1 pm: Arrive back at the trailhead.   

J. Mills packs up while waiting for the road to reopen.

The rising sun lights up Whitehorn Mtn.

J. Mills scrambles through a rock band below the Emperor Ridge...

... and traverses onto the Emperor Face, with Whitehorn Mtn. behind.

The lower ice couloir on Infinite Patience.

The traverse between the lower and upper couloirs.

A sharp arete at the base of the lower couloir, with Berg Lake far below.

Jay slogs up steep snow in the upper couloir...

... and climbs an interesting but short chimney.

Raphael Slawinski tries on his blue-steel north-face look. Photo: J. Mills.

J. Mills brews up where Infinite Patience hits the Emperor Ridge...

... and follows a nearly melted-out ice couloir higher up on the ridge.

Evening sun on the upper section of the Emperor Ridge from our bivi site.

"Hmm, shall it be Kathmandu  Curry or Pad Thai?"

Evening light paints the Emperor Face gold while Berg Lake lies deep in shadow.

The following morning J. Mills frontpoints across the southwest face...

...and crosses over to the north face to avoid the gargoyles. 

Raphael Slawinski celebrates on the summit. Photo: J. Mills.

The obligatory summit shot, with the Manitoban-Canadian on the left and the Polish-Canadian on the right.

J. Mills shuts off his brain as he heads down toward the Schwarz Ledges.

One of several gullies to be crossed on the Schwarz Ledges.

One last sprint below the seracs awaits just before the hut. Photo: J. Mills.

J. Mills relaxes in front of the Ralph Forster Hut.

Sunset over Kinney Lake from the hut.