Saturday, September 29, 2012

Good from afar, far from good


“[T]he vast majority [of routes in the Rockies] are piles of crap that have few, if any, redeeming features.” – Sean Dougherty, Selected Alpine Climbs

You’d think I’d have learned my lesson by now. After all, I’ve been climbing in the Chossies for over twenty years. And yet a few times every year I manage to convince myself that, somehow, this buttress or that face will be different. I envision clean corners soaring upward, splitting acres of solid limestone. In my fantasies I’m not scared, pulling on loose rock above questionable gear, but merely pleasantly challenged. Unfortunately reality rarely bears much resemblance to such optimistic dreams. Most of the time that reality is loose rock, bad protection and shitty climbing. But there’s one thing I find up there every single time: adventure.

By the time August rolled around I’d done nothing but clip bolts for over two months. Sport climbing is addictive: it’s fun, athletic, and the occasional success keeps you persevering through otherwise nearly constant failure. I’d managed to send a few projects and was getting close on a few others, so it was tempting just to keep at it. But I knew that eventually I’d regret it if I didn’t head up into the bigger hills at least a few times. After all, August comes to the Rockies only once a year. And so I resigned myself to losing some hard-earned rock climbing fitness, and went off choss wrangling. Below are the stories and photos from three such adventures.

South Ridge of Mt. Alberta

Mt. Alberta is one of my all-time favourite peaks. For a few years I had a streak going where I’d climb it at least once a year. I was shocked to realize this summer that it’d been five years since I’d last slogged over Woolley Shoulder. It was time to remedy this situation.

On a pleasant afternoon in early August Jay and I forded the muddy Sunwapta River and headed up Woolley Creek. The forecast was for a hot, sunny day, so it was an unpleasant surprise a couple of hours later to find ourselves hiking through freezing horizontal rain. I consoled myself with the thought that it could’ve been worse: we could’ve been climbing. Fortunately the rain and lightning let up while we crested the Shoulder, only to return with fresh violence as soon as we shut the door of the hut behind us.

But at five o’clock the next morning the sky was full of stars. We choked down our oatmeal, washed it down with black tea, and stepped out into the predawn chill. I was keen on the north face, but every single one we’d seen on our drive up the Parkway had been a mess of lingering winter snow and wet rock. That, plus Jay had already done it. Instead, we hatched a plan more in keeping with the midsummer heat: we’d climb the steep south buttress and follow the entire ridge all the way to the summit. Fun in the sun on good rock and all that.

Our first reality check came as we stood below the south buttress, craning our necks in search of a likely line. Every one looked overhanging, blank or loose – or all of the above. In the end we settled on the least unlikely possibility, geared up, tied in and started up. Two pitches higher, we stood on a gravelly ledge and once again craned our necks, wondering which way to go. Getting to this point had been harder than expected, the black limestone proving both looser and steeper than it appeared. But now it looked like the still relatively easy going had come to an end. Lacking better options, we headed up the overhanging dihedral straight above – at least there was protection to be had.

Jay had the first charge, but after battling halfway up the unrelenting pitch, pumped out and lowered off. I toproped to his highpoint back cleaning as I went. Promptly after I got out on the sharp end a handhold crumbled, and I sailed off for a spectacular but clean winger. This wouldn’t do! Back on the rock, I continued stemming and jamming with a little more discrimination. The climbing was actually proving to be surprisingly good; but unfortunately this was the Rockies, not the Bugs, and the corner soon degenerated into loose blocks. Making a hard-to-reverse move out left, I headed off into no-man’s-land. The remainder of the pitch was frightening and I’d rather not talk about it. When I finally hung back on the anchor, the sights and sounds of the icefalls, moraines and streams rushed back in, filling the silent void of complete concentration.

The angle kicked back above, and for a while we were treated to some spectacular but moderate travel up Alberta’s spine. Our enjoyment came to an abrupt end a short way before where the Japanese Route gains the crest. A blank overhanging step blocked further progress up the ridge. A couple of diagonal rappels landed us on the normal route. To our dismay it was already six o’clock. Three hard pitches had taken us an embarrassing eight hours to climb. We contemplated ditching the packs and making a dash for the top, but neither of us relished the prospect of stumbling down in the dark. And so we threaded the ropes through the bleached tat and continued toward the valley. We even made it back to the hut and a freeze-dried dinner before dark. But the creature comforts, while initially satisfying, soon gave way to gnawing regrets – regrets of cheating ourselves out of skipping along the summit ridge while the sun disappeared in the west.

Summary: First ascent (incomplete) of the South Buttress of Mt. Alberta (IV 5.10+R), J. Mills and Raphael Slawinski, August 9, 2012.


J. Mills looks for the shallowest crossing across the braided channels of the Sunwapta...

... and nears the hut during a lull in the storm.

An otherworldly light bathes the Black Hole  and no, I don't mean the pit outhouse.

J. Mills laces up below the first pitch of the South Buttress...

... and carefully climbs said pitch.

Looking up at the crux third pitch...

... and down it, with some rather scary climbing in between.

Fun scrambling on the long summit ridge.

A typical anchor on the Japanese Route: as if adding another sling would make the shitty pins any less shitty.

J. Mills near the bottom of the rappels.

Evening sun on North Twin.

An aerial photo of the south end of Mt. Alberta with the line of the incomplete South Buttress route marked. Photo: Jim Elzinga.


Northeast Face of Windtower

Never underestimate FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) as a motivating force in climbing. You might be lukewarm on an objective, but the moment someone else proposes to climb it, all of a sudden it becomes attractive. Jay and Steve were off to try a new route on the northeast face of Windtower. Having climbed the two existing routes on the face, I had certainly thought about trying to put up something new on the acres of untouched rock to the left. Thought about it, looked at photos, but never actually got around to doing anything about it – until now. I had a meeting scheduled that Monday afternoon, but I emailed my regrets and arranged to meet the boys at five in the morning.

The rainclouds made for a spectacular sunrise, but fortunately only amounted to a few drops. Steve led off up a crappy ramp and corner system. I continued up moderate but loose ground. Jay actually found five metres of decent climbing on his block, though it too was marred by having to pull on suspect flakes. Five pitches up, having done all of five metres of good climbing, we decided to pull the plug. Looking across the Bow Valley at the sunlit south side of Grotto Mountain, I regretted not going to the Lookout instead.

But ten days later we were back on the Windtower. Steve was looking after his newborn daughter, so it was only Jay and I who walked over West Wind Pass to the base of the northeast face. This time our plan was much more modest: instead of striving for a whole new line, we’d settle for a new direct finish shortcutting the devious traversing and downclimbing of the Homer-Wood Route. It was good to be on a classic for a change: the rock was good and the climbing interesting. It was not long before we came to the parting of the ways. Where the regular route traversed off to the right across a big slab, we’d hoped to continue straight up one of several dihedrals. Unfortunately they all looked like they’d take a bunch of time and bolts, not to mention balls. So, this being the Rockies, we traversed to the left instead.

A chossy ledge led to a promising-looking chimney/corner system. The first pitch of the direct finish would have made for excellent jamming, had it not been for the edges liberally sprinkled on the face to the left. No wonder Rockies’ climbers have a hard time learning to jam! Still, had the following two pitches been of a similar quality, we could’ve called our variation a future classic with a straight face. Unfortunately large exfoliating flakes and mossy cracks detracted from the classic quality of the climbing. Maybe they’ll clean up after a dozen ascents or so. Then again, whom am I kidding? Who’s going to head up there once – let alone a dozen times?

Summary: First ascent of the Direct Finish (aka the Fathers and Daughters variation) to the Northeast Face of Windtower (III 5.9), J. Mills and Raphael Slawinski, September 8, 2012.


Red skies in morning, climber's warning? The northeast face of Windtower at sunrise.

Steve Holeczi leads up the first of several crappy pitches on an attempt on a new route on the northeast face.

J. Mills engaged in the five metres of good climbing we found in five pitches.

The existing routes on the northeast face of Windtower follow the clean corners on the right side of the face.

J. Mills climbing low on the Homer-Wood Route...

... and on the first pitch of the Direct Finish. It's actually better than it looks. Really!

Raphael Slawinski starts the second pitch of the Direct Finish...

... and then the third. Photos: J. Mills.

J. Mills enjoys the sun at the top of the northeast face...

... and pointedly ignores a gratuitous bolt on the Northeast Ridge. WTF?!

Fall colours in the Front Ranges.

The line of the Direct Finish (in yellow) to the Homer-Wood Route on the northeast face of Windtower. Photo: Bow Valley Rock.



Northeast Face of Haddo Peak

Thursday afternoon I skipped work early and motored out to Canmore to meet Ian. Ian is an alpinist, not a sport climber, so the walk up to the Lookout took us under an hour at a conversational pace. A 5.10, a couple of 11s, a 12, and I was ready to play on my long-time project. I hadn’t been on it for a while and expected to have to relearn the harder sequences, but I surprised myself by climbing it with one hang on my second burn. So, being so close, what was I doing on the weekend going off alpine climbing instead of taking care of unfinished business? The truth is, the perfect Indian summer weather had me hankering after being deep in the blue shadows of a north face somewhere, looking down on the larches turning yellow in the sunlit valleys below. A silly reason, I know, but there it is.

I’d always thought the Northeast Face of Haddo Peak would make an interesting winter objective. I’d even tried it once in early spring with Josh, but bus-sized snow mushrooms in the initial gully scared us down. Now it was technically still summer, but the north faces of the Lake Louise group looked to have enough snow on them to lend them a mixed feel.

Juan and I left Calgary at an ungodly hour of the morning, and a couple of hours later were hitting the trail up to the Saddleback by headlamp. The sun lit up the face while we sidehilled into Surprise Valley. Still, it was cold enough to hold the face together as we scrambled up the initial snow couloir and the mixed steps above. And a good thing, too, as the lower half of the face was (de)composed of some of the finest choss to be found in the Rockies (and that’s saying something!). Eventually we got tired of fourth-classing above an ever increasing drop and got the rope out.

The corners straight above were draped with just enough ice to make the prospects of both rock and ice climbing equally unappealing, so we trended up and right where things looked drier. We rather hoped something there would go, as the prospect of bailing down all the choss we’d ascended with a single rope was rather unappealing. In the end the corner we chose looked dry and hard enough that I took both my gloves and crampons off. Then it was back on with both in the upper break, which was plastered with snow and freshly formed ice. Near the top we left the main gully, which was becoming more and more plastered the higher we got, and veered left hoping for easier – and faster – climbing. Instead we were faced with the hardest moves yet, up a steep face into a thinly iced chimney. At the time it was a bit concerning, though in retrospect it was rather fine climbing. I suppose it goes to show that under the right (or wrong!) conditions even a humble chosspile can serve up a good adventure.

And then, none too soon, we were exiting the face onto the rubbly east flank. In spite of the late hour we couldn’t resist racing up to the summit and taking in a golden sunset. Maybe I’d learned my lesson on Alberta after all – though not the one about staying away from choss.


The Direct Northeast Face of Haddo Peak follows the more or less the obvious break in the centre of the face.

Juan Henriquez frontpoints up frozen mud low on the face....

... while Raphael Slawinski tried to avoid the ice a little higher. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Juan Henriquez engaged in some rather challenging scrambling in the initial gully...

... and roped up a couple of pitches below the big midway ledge.

The upper break as seen from the big midway ledge.

Raphael Slawinski mixes it up in the upper break. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

"And then this big block pulled out on top of me..." Juan Henriquez reenacts a hairy moment on the climb....

... and smiles on the last few steps to the summit.

A golden sunset on the north face of Mt. Temple and the Valley of the Ten Peaks.