Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Spring is here. In the Rockies this means snow still lies deep over the high peaks, ice in the shade is still blue, but down in the valleys rock is baking in the sun. This is the time of choice: skiing, ice climbing, rock climbing - choose your aspect and elevation, and go for it!

A few years ago Will Gadd and I chose to celebrate spring by cramming as many different kinds of climbing into a day as we could manage. This past Easter long weekend I experienced something similar, though in a more leisurely manner. Four days, four different kinds of fun, with lots of time to sleep in and linger over the morning cafe lattes. I guess I am getting older, wiser - and lazier.

Friday: Plastic

I took a break from making East European Easter pastries and headed for a couple of hours to the gym. I find plastic to be the hardest form of climbing: no end runs around the hard stuff, no intermediates to bump off of, no prickly limestone to work your feet up on, just a smattering of taped holds on slick plywood. Make the move or go home. I suppose this is why for me any send in the gym is cause for celebration. And maybe it was the pastries, but that day I finally linked a long-standing project. You know the one: the yellow-tape problem in the back of the boulder at the CCC, with the hard moves onto the blue box. Unfortunately, as soon as I stop failing at one thing, I feel compelled to start failing at another. And so it was onto the red-tape problem with the hard move to the finishing dish. We are never satisfied.

Saturday: Snow

By this time last year I had been out skiing a bunch of times. But this year, perhaps because of a renewed interest in hanging upside down from ice tools, April rolled around and my new skis were still collecting dust in the garage. It was time to remedy this situation. And so my original partner for all manner of mountain adventures, who is none other than my father Andre, and I drove down the Radium Highway for a ski hit. Stability was decent, so we headed up to the giant slide path dropping from the summit of Vermillion Peak, over concrete sculptures of old avalanche debris.

The weather was the typical spring mix: brilliant sunshine one moment, gusty winds and flurries the next. The low point of the outing came when we stopped for a snack on the way up, only for me to discover that my old Nalgene had cracked, dumping a litre of liquid into my puffy jacket and spare gloves. Not to worry, my dad had enough to drink for both of us. Or so we thought, until he realized he had left his bottle back in the car. Fortunately the tour was not a long one, and we were feeling only slightly parched as we dropped from the summit ridge into the big gully. Yee haw!

Andre Slawinski, seventy-five-years young, powering up through the burn on Vermillion Peak.

The Radium Highway from the summit ridge of Vermillion Peak.

Looking toward Stanley Peak: so many mountains, so little time. Photo: Andre Slawinski.

The avalanche gully we followed on the way down resembled a resort run, but we still managed to lay down some fresh tracks.

Sunday: Rock

It is not easy to be a rock climber in the Rockies. Our climate, with its six months of winter - and then some if you want it - is better suited to ice tools and skis than it is to chalk and sticky rubber. But with some cunning and perseverance, and a willingness to suffer a bit, it is possible to rock climb here from March through October. Mind you, it is not always comfortable: puffy jackets for belays, shake-and-warms for chalk bags and even cliff-side fires are all standard fare during the long shoulder seasons, and are not unheard of even in high summer. However, it is deeply satisfying to crimp and knee-drop one's way to a redpoint with flurries swirling all around. And there is nothing like suffering a bit to make one appreciate the occasional treat of pulling down in a t-shirt, with bright spring sunshine reflecting off of the snow.

There is more to early-season rock climbing than simply walking up to the crag in sandals and starting to crank. For example, approaching the aptly named Dust Bowl requires biking and hiking through slush and mud. Photo: Rich Akitt.

Timing is also crucial. For once sleeping in is a virtue, as you want the day to warm up before heading out. Photo: Rich Akitt.

Early-season rock climbing means lowering your standards, both difficulty and quality-wise. As the saying goes, in Alberta you cannot argue with rock climbing in the sun.

It might be a choss pile, but it sure is fun. Ross Suchy trying not to rip holds off in the Dust Bowl. Photo: Rich Akitt.

Monday: Ice

By the time April rolls around I am usually sick of ice climbing. Not that there is not any ice left, quite the contrary. Sure, the lower-elevation and/or south-facing stuff might be falling apart, but high in shady places there is still plenty of good ice to be had. No, it is just that by this time I have been ice climbing for close to six months, and unless there is something really special on offer, I would rather play on the rocks or in the snow.

So why go ice climbing on Easter Monday? In a word (or two): fish of the day - or carpe diem if you are up on your Latin. The forecast looked too cool for rock, too warm for snow, but just right for ice on the Stanley Headwall. Having fun in the Rockies is largely about going with the flow, doing whatever the weather and conditions are best for at the moment (and sometime this might be staying home!). We had our eye on one of the more obscure mixed lines on the Headwall, but this late in the season it turned out to be was thinly snowed up frozen crud. To salvage what by then had turned into a bluebird day, we bumped over to the classic Suffer Machine.

I am not sure if it is out respect for tradition or merely laziness that no one has bothered to replace the rusty, hangerless bolts at the crux, though I suppose locking off and cinching wired nuts over ancient studs has a certain retro charm about it. Before long we were through the rock and surfing the endless frozen waves high above a still, empty valley. To top it off, the snow in the shade was still fluffy when we headed down, and even with heavy ice-climbing packs the skiing was a blast. It had been a good weekend.

Juan Henriquez approaching Suffer Machine.

The original mixed start to Suffer Machine, arguably the first major "it-don't-have-to-be-formed-to-be-formed" route in the Rockies. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Juan Henriquez biting down on the crux...

... and surfing the sea of ice high on the route.

Best of all, when climbing on the Headwall, you even get to make some turns on the way out.