Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Plan B

Sometimes all the stars line up, we walk up to our chosen line and send. But as often as not, this doesn’t happen: for one reason or another, the objective of our desire turns out to be out of reach. Now what? Suppose you came up to the Columbia Icefields from Calgary. Not exactly an expedition but still, you drove out the night before, slept somewhere in the bushes, got up before dawn and stumbled up the moraines before you realized it was either snowing or too warm or whatever. Now what? The obvious answer is to hike down to the car, drive back to Lake Louise, load up on coffee and pastries, and continue home. But while coffee, pastries and eventually the couch hold a definite appeal, it seems a shame to waste all that effort. So what to do? The answer is to come up with a Plan B.

I consider myself a bit of a Plan B master. I suspect it comes from being a wanker as well as a weekend warrior. Being a wanker, I turn around when others might have gone on. And being a weekend warrior, I still want to get up something because it is, after all, the weekend. A few years ago I made repeated trips to Mt. Andromeda, intent on climbing a new line left of the Andromeda Strain. Now the line itself was already a plan B, plan A being what a couple of years later became the Dogleg Couloir on Mt. Chephren. Turtles all the way down… But I digress. Anyway, the first weekend Scott forgot his helmet, which meant trying the new line was out. But, since it was a nice day and we were already up there, we ran up Shooting Gallery for a bit of fitness. The following weekend Scott could not make it, but since it was a nice day and we were already up there, Pierre and I went up the A-Strain for something to do. The weekend after that Scott and I finally got up DTCB. Now on the one hand you could say I was wasting my time, repeating lines I had done before instead of having coffee and pastries. But on the other hand I was spending time in the mountains, and in the end, isn’t it what it’s all about?

A helmetless Scott Semple swings away on the crux of Shooting Gallery.

The snow-choked Golovach Gash on the A-Strain. Photo: Pierre Darbellay.

The exit slab on DTCB. Photo: Scott Semple.

The reason I brought up the whole sorry episode is that recently I found myself again executing Plans B after pulling the plug on Plans A. Mark Twight once said that there are only two real excuses for not getting up a route: not brave enough or not good enough. My two most recent trips to the Icefields nicely illustrate both excuses.

Not brave enough 

It was a crisp weekend in early May, and Jay, Juan and I cast about for something fun to do in the alpine. In the end we settled on Rites of Passage, an obscure if also somewhat notorious line on Mt. Kitchener. Having sharpened our picks and monopoints in anticipation of overhanging serac ice, we drove up the Parkway. The serac turtling out of a tight chimney looked steep but about as stable as such things ever do. It was only when we drove a bit further up the road and had a look at the terrain above the crux that we saw another and rather more broken up serac overhanging the gully. We hemmed and hawed but in the end were unwilling to hang it out there for the sake of a couple of cool pitches. Now what? When I heard myself say: “Well, it’s a nice day and we’re already up here.”, I thought it sounded familiar. And so was running up Shooting Gallery for a bit of fitness the following day.

The sun sets on Athabasca and Andromeda. "It's a nice day and we're already up here, we might as well climb something."

The Shooting Gallery indeed.

J. Mills wishes for skis as he postholes toward the summit of Andromeda.

Juan Henriquez adds a bit more vertical to the day on Athabasca, with Mts. Columbia, Andromeda, Snowdome, Kitchener, North Twin, Alberta and others providing the backdrop. Spot the descent tracks from Andromeda! 

Not good enough 

A couple of weeks later Juan and I were back to try a line I had convinced myself was really there, if the light was just right and I squinted really hard. Light might well be right but our packs, weighted down with screws, pitons and cams big and small, were not. In the end the line did not look as inviting from close up as it did on photos. So now what? Once again we felt the pull of coffee and pastries, and once again I heard myself say: “Well, it’s a nice day and we’re already up here.” In the end rambling up one of the Practice Gullies saved us from walking away completely empty handed. A waste of time on an easy route? Perhaps, but then again, what is wrong with simply having fun in the mountains? And let’s face it: the coffee and pastries were never really an option.

A mixed blessing: the northeast face of Mt. Andromeda catches the sun early, keeping one warm and cowering from the rockfall.

Juan Henriquez on the way up the right-hand Practice Gully...

... and on the way down from the AA Col.

PS: Beware of Plan B! 

I think Plans B have a lot going for them. They can salvage a trip, be it a daytrip in one’s home mountains or a two-month expedition to a range halfway around the world. And being able to switch objectives but still stay motivated is not always easy. But a Plan B can be a two-edged sword. As Steve Swenson told me on my first trip to Pakistan, as we lounged around base camp while not perfect but climbable days slipped past: “Sure, we can go climbing and get up something. But it will mean that when the weather finally does come around, we might not be in position to take advantage of it and do something really cool.” And so I say, beware of Plan B.

"Something really cool": the unclimbed K6 West.