It's been a while since I spent an entire summer in the Rockies. For the past three years the pull of exotic places like Alaska and the Karakoram had prevented me from experiencing the whole of the season in my favourite mountain range. And so I was understandably excited at the prospect - at least until the June monsoon arrived. As day after day dawned grey and sodden, I remembered why I often arranged to be somewhere else during this, the wettest month of the year. Even overhanging cliffs became unclimbable, as rainwater percolated from above and turned crimpers, slopers and sidepulls into a seeping mess. Then I remembered one cliff that (almost never) seeps: Yamnuska. In particular, I remembered a route that I had played on some years ago: Yamabushi.
It was around the end of the last millenium that Will Gadd and I walked up to Yam intent on leaving our mark on the cliff. We scanned the cliff for the steepest rock we could find, and quickly zoomed in on the bulging buttress immediately right of the Balrog gash. After following Balrog for a pitch we veered right, straight into the first set of roofs. We mixed free and aid climbing, with a power drill swinging awkwardly over one shoulder. I think from the start Will had a clear vision of what kind of a route he wanted, namely a hard sport climb. For myself, I had a rather more difficult time letting go of my old-school hangups. After all, Yam had long been a bastion of traditional climbing, and even the more recent routes still mixed nuts and cams with bolts. But after placing just one token wire on the second pitch, I began to realize that given the nature of our chosen line, my original insistence on only placing bolts when absolutely necessary was a bit silly. After all, what is so traditional about clipping a dozen bolts and placing one wire?
Putting up the route was hard work, and as a weekend warrior I wanted to play on the weekends, not work. As a result we made slow progress, only going up on the line once or twice a year, laboriously adding pitch after pitch. We even experimented with rap bolting, then still somewhat anathema on Yam. But while going top down gave us the last two pitches on a shield of wildly exposed vertical limestone, it did not help on the stacked roofs halfway up the buttress. It was also around that time that I realized that, given how little I was sport climbing, the line was simply too hard for me. When other people volunteered to help Will with the project, I gratefully withdrew from the enterprise and headed off into the snowy mountains. Freed of the ball and chain of a reluctant partner, Will raced impending winter to fire the line and establish what quickly became a hard (a relative term) classic.
It might be a sign of advancing age, but in recent years I've found myself enjoying rock climbing - safe, athletic, unencumbered movement over stone - more than ever before. Hell, I've even become a regular visitor at my local gym. Perhaps not surprisingly, rock climbing a lot has been good for my rock climbing. Who knew? And so last month, with every cliff in the Bow Valley and Kananaskis Country either rained out or seeping, I thought, "Why not Yamabushi? At least it will be dry." And it was. I'm not done yet, but with first individual moves, then sequences, and then entire pitches starting to come together, I am having a blast playing with the ravens on old Yam like I haven't in years. Not that it's all fun and games. Just the other evening, due for another session on the route the following day, I typed "climbing with split tip" into Google. Dave MacLeod's advice seemed best: "don't get them in the first place!" In the end my index fingers looked like miniature mummies, as I crimped, smeared and stemmed my way up pitch after pitch of some of the best climbing on Yam. I'm looking forward to reaching my destination, but I'm having a great time on the journey.
The Yamabushi buttress wreathed in June monsoon clouds.
After the recent rains the Yam approach, usually a dry affair, resembled a walk through a rain forest.
Juan Henriquez heading up the first pitch (5.10), with the rest of the route looming overhead.
"Right undercling, left long reach to horn, feet up, right to crimp..." Working out the crux second pitch (5.12+) in the rain. Photo: Juan Henriquez
Another, altogether more sunny day on the fourth pitch (5.12-). Photo: Jen Olsen.
Jen Olsen stretches up the fourth pitch...
... and crimps on the fifth (5.12-).
"I think we can rap straight down from here and swing into the cliff..." Rappelling from the top of the fifth pitch. Photo: Jen Olsen.
Marcus Norman grabs a handful of prickly limestone on the sixth pitch (5.12).
Puzzling out the intricacies of the seventh pitch (5.12) after blowing the onsight. Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.
A reminder that good old Yam can be a serious place: an evening helicopter rescue on a nearby route.