Thursday, January 12, 2012

Nasty habits

The expression could refer to any number of things. For example, it could refer to a fine if rather obscure route on the right side of the Upper Weeping Wall. I suppose it could also refer to the obvious culprits: cigarettes, drink, religion... Or, it could refer to some of the SNAFUs on the list below. It being the start of a new year I found myself thinking of things I could do better on ice. The accompanying stories and photos are all from the current ice climbing season. Two months down, four more to go!

Swinging away on Nasty Habits, Upper Weeping Wall. Photo: Steve Holeczi.

Dressing too lightly in November.

A warm chinook wind buffeted Jen, Richard and me as we rode our mountain bikes along the Banff golf course access road. It promised to be a warm day on T2, the mixed version of the classic Terminator. But when we emerged from the forest below the T-Wall, we were met by a howling gale that, in spite of the moderate temperatures, felt anything but warm. Only a few days earlier I had been rock climbing in the late October sunshine, and I thought a light softshell would do the trick. Sure, had it been March, this weather would have felt tropical. But unused to the cold as I was at the tail end of a beautiful indian summer, I froze my butt (but especially my hands!) all the way up the climb.

Approaching Cuckoo's Nest in Kicking Horse Canyon in unseasonably warm late-December conditions. No screaming barfies today! Photo: Gery Unterasinger.

Who said you could not use your knees while mixed climbing? Photo: Gery Unterasinger.

Gery drytooling his way out toward the final ice pillar.

It just does not feel right to climb ice in temperatures well above freezing, as the climbing medium reverts to its liquid state. Photo: Gery Unterasinger.

Getting up too late in December.

I like sleeping in. Maybe I am just getting old, but unless the objective for the day is something out of the ordinary, I have a hard time getting out of bed early. Thus, whenever my partners and I are trying to decide what time to start, I am usually the one voting for the later hour. And so when Gery suggested meeting in Canmore at seven to head up to Man Yoga, I did not argue. I did feel a twinge of guilt when we did not even need headlamps as we skied away from the car, but hey, how long could five pitches take? Well, it turned out that if they involved snowed-up drytooling, they could take quite long indeed. As a result it was with a sense of urgency that I started up the last pitch. At least it was all ice, and so it went faster in the fading light. Luckily in the end we were able to find the key rappel station at the lip of a giant overhanging arch, and we gratefully slid down free-hanging ropes into the night.

No need to get up early to go climbing in Opal Creek. Josh rappelling Whiteman Falls...

... and heading back up Red Man Soars.

Belaying in climbing gloves.

Steve took the first block up the Lower Weeping Wall, while I grabbed the second up the Upper. Climbing in blocks is great for staying warm, as you spend only half as long at belays. It did not seem that cold anyway, and I did not want to slow us down by changing into my belay gloves. And so it was that when I started up again, the sweat of the previous pitch had turned my climbing gloves into clammy compresses. Halfway up the mushroomed curtain I knew that there was no avoiding the screaming barfies. Ah, if only I had taken the time to slip my climbing gloves deep inside my clothes where they would have stayed warm, and put on proper belay gloves!

You would not think of belaying in your drytooling gloves, would you? With its familiar routes and fixed draws, the Haffner cave is not far from being an outdoor gym: the red route (a.k.a. Caveman)...

... and the purple one (a.k.a. Fire Roasted). Photos: Gery Unterasinger.

Starting climbing cold.

I dislike hanging belays: they are cold and uncomfortable. I certainly did not mean to stop at the one at the top of Postscriptum, but intended to continue across the traverse onto Sea of Vapours and another fifteen metres to a cave belay. But Postscriptum turned out to be rather more demanding than expected, and by the time I got to the top of the pillar I had used up all my quickdraws clipping all the shaky screws I placed. As a result I hung there, like a piece of tat whipping in the wind, while Steve seconded the pillar and led on through to the cave. I tried to escape the furious updrafts by making myself small and retreating inside the belay jacket but it was no good. I lacked the discipline to keep moving to stay warm. As a result, by the time I unclipped from the belay to follow Steve's lead, I was nearly hypothermic. I could barely hold on to the tools as I hooked my way across the traverse onto the thick but surprisingly crappy ice of the Vapours. At that particular moment, ice climbing seemed rather less than fun.

Climbing at the Stanley Headwall involves lots of wistful looking at sunlit slopes from the shady side of the valley.

Success! No screaming barfies at any point on the pitch. Photo: Jon Walsh.

Jon exploring tenuous new ground on THE Headwall (there is only one capital-H Headwall in the Rockies).

Using ropes shorter than 70 metres on long climbs.

The December sun had gone down behind the ridge across from the Weeping Wall by the time I started up the last pitch. It had a been a good day: we sneaked up Snivelling Gully, postholed to the base of the Upper Wall and climbed three fine new pitches, including a hard mixed crack and a cerebral thin smear. One more pitch and the route would be complete. I tiptoed up a short pillar and then took off running up moderate ice. I was topping out on the final bulge, I could already smell the dark forest at the top of the wall, when the ropes came tight. No amount of yarding could persuade my eminently reasonable partners to start simul-climbing as a threesome. There was nothing for it but to set up a hanging belay on literally the last couple of metres of vertical ice. No matter how much we have, we always want more - especially rope.

With a 70-metre rope, Virtual Reality (on the right) breaks up conveniently into just two pitches.

Good hooks, bad screws: steep fun on the crux of Virtual Reality. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Not bringing stubbies on thin climbs.

For the umpteenth time my blunt picks bounced off the gray limestone under the windowpane of sublimated ice. I tried again and only succeeded in knocking off more ice. But I simply needed to get a solid stick, something I could lean out on and walk my feet up over the bulge. The string of 13-centimetre screws hanging out of the ice all the way down the pitch did not exactly inspire confidence. Mind you, I had only myself to blame. It was my fourth trip to the T-Wall this season, and I had ample opportunity to have a good look at Postscriptum and realize that a good supply of stubbies was in order. I suppose I had optimistically assumed the pitch was thicker and more plastic than it looked. But all that did not change where I was. In the end, running out of options, I committed to shallow hooks and, my heart in my throat, crawled over the bulge.

Descending into the cul-de-sac below the T-Wall, with the unformed La Goutte in the middle distance.

Arguably the greatest concentration of steep ice in the Rockies. From left to right: T2, Replicant, Troubled Dreams and Sea of Vapours. Bertrand Martenet climbing.

No need for stubbies on the Replicant. Photo: Pierre Darbellay.

Not bringing pitons on mixed climbs.

The short pitch to the base of the crux corner on Uniform Queen looked innocuous enough, and so I left the pins at the belay. Fifteen metres up the pitch I was regretting that decision. Thin ice for the picks, water-polished limestone for the monopoints, and the last cam five metres below: in other words, high potential for broken ankles. A Lost Arrow or even better, a Spectre, would have done the trick, but our wealth of iron was not doing me any good at the bottom of the second's pack. Risk is often an essential part of the complete climbing experience, but it seems silly to increase it through poor judgment. Yes, I know, poor judgment leads to experience and experience leads to good judgment, but just how much poor judgment does it take?

Juan Henriquez getting high on early winter in Kananaskis Country.

Unfortunately some Kananaskis rock is so crappy that not even pins do much good. In such situations treating the choss like ice and swinging and kicking into it seems to do the trick. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Allowing familiarity to breed contempt.

"You can ski toward Nemesis and traverse along the top of the slope to the base of Suffer Machine." "French Reality, Acid Howl and all those climbs at the mouth of the valley only have avalanche hazard below, nothing but spindrift comes down from above." I have lost count of the number of times I have been up to the Stanley Headwall. Some seasons it felt almost like a second home. I know it can be a serious place, with plenty of avalanche slopes and sublimated ice. But I thought I had the place figured out. That particular illusion was severely shaken this season.

Daylight was fading and I had already donned my headlamp. I was inching my way toward the maw of overhanging icicles that capped the new line we were attempting, when my focus was shaken by what sounded like an approaching train. Peering over my shoulder, I watched wide eyed as an avalanche of nearly Himalayan proportions billowed up somewhere below Acid Howl. For a moment it seemed like it might have punched its way through mature timber and reached the summer trail, but in the end it was only a huge powder cloud that engulfed the valley. As Donald Rumsfeld infamously yet brilliantly said, "there are known knowns. There are also known unknowns. But there are also unknown unknowns."

A beautiful but serious place: the Suffer Machine complex on the left and Man Yoga on the right are threatened by avalanche slopes both below and above them.

One of the best mixed pitches in the Rockies: the crux pitch of Uniform Queen. Photo: Jon Walsh.

A waxing gibbous moon rises over the windswept slopes across from the Headwall.

Letting desire overrule better judgment.

Snowflakes carried by a warm wind swirled around Josh and me as we set off up the familiar trail. Spindrift poured off the Headwall, and a couple of times we heard more than we saw something more substantial rumble down. But we were seriously psyched, and it would take more than a few sloughs to turn us around. It was not like there was enough snow on the approach slopes to avalanche, and there is not that much terrain above Man Yoga, right?

We were gearing up below the route and I was just reaching for the banana bread when Josh shouted "watch out!" I looked up and saw him flatten himself against the wall; impelled by the urgency in his voice I did the same just as our world went dark. The avalanche pounded the ground less than a metre away from us. As the flow increased, I fought being sucked into it. But finally it stopped. Our gear littered the slow below. "Let's get the hell out of here!"

Josh approaching Man Yoga on that fateful day. At least we were marginally sheltered and not scrambling up the initial gully when the avalanche hit.

Another, altogether finer day: Gery torquing and stemming up the first pitch of Man Yoga, with the final ice pitch looming high above.

Gery scratching for holds under the snow on the second pitch...

...and racing impending darkness on the penultimate fourth one.