Sunday, December 29, 2013

Bigg Kidd

The relentless beep-beep-beep of the alarm wormed its way into my dreams. Surely it was still too early to rise and get ready for my morning class, wasn’t it? Slowly, reluctantly, I emerged from the depths of sleep and remembered the backpack full of gear sitting by the front door, the water bottles lined up on the kitchen counter. It was indeed far too early to get up for work, but not too early to rise if we wanted to hit the snow-covered trail below Mt. Kidd by headlamp.

It’d been a busy yet lazy fall. Classes and committees at the university seemed to claim more than their usual share of my time, while evenings and weekends were spent writing about last summer’s expedition to Pakistan. I had an uneasy feeling that I was contemplating life instead of living it. The odd thing was, it was largely by choice. When Greg and Nick, visiting from the UK, suggested I join them at the Stanley Headwall, I replied I’d rather sleep in and write, maybe go drytooling for a few hours in the afternoon. I just couldn’t bring myself to get up in the dark, drive out in the dark and, still in the dark, trudge up a trail every dip and turn of which I knew by heart. Was I burning out? Or did I just need the right kind of persuasion?

Another trail I knew well led up Evan-Thomas Creek. The hundred-metre tall Moonlight had been my first multi-pitch ice climb. And it lived up to its name, as we topped out in the dark. Since that day I’d returned many times to the parallel flows pouring down rock that was shattered and rank even by Rockies’ standards. Sadly, none of those times rivaled the intensity of the first one. But I digress. On the walk out, with the last flat stretch of trail dragging on as usual, my eyes would be drawn to the bulk of Mt. Kidd across the valley. The icy haze of a fading winter’s day blurred the sharp edges of the peak, but the exclamation mark of ice on the highest rock band was unmistakable. Then I would arrive at the trailhead, and that distant white ribbon would be forgotten in the warmth of a fogged up car. Until, casting about for motivation, I remembered it last fall.

My toes tingled inside lightweight boots as Steve and I slogged through depth hoar at the base of the big northeast bowl on Mt. Kidd. The frosty air of early morning seeped through layers of clothing like cold water. But the rising sun was already painting the highest cliffs a warm yellow, and it wasn’t long before the fresh snow around us sparkled in the bright light, making me wish I’d brought sunglasses.

The first avalanche rumbled down while we were gearing up. We rationalized the powder slough away: “It’s just the morning sun hitting the rock. The face will go into shade soon.” And we set off scrambling up snow gullies and ice steps. Pulling over a bulge, I looked up to see a white cloud charging down. “Avalanche!” I shouted to Steve ten metres lower, and sprinted for the nearest rock band. Fortunately the trainload of snow rumbled down the gully next to us, but it’d made its point. Thirty seconds later we were swinging and kicking down as fast as we could. It was only noon when I drove back to the city across the bare prairies, grasses waving in the wind like a yellow sea.

Two weeks I was back on Mt. Kidd. At the base of the northeast bowl, where Steve and I’d stumbled over snow-covered scree, Ian and I cramponed up massive piles of avalanche debris. It was hard to believe it was still November. A few hundred metres higher, I stood on a steeply tilted snow ledge and waited while Ian soloed a narrow ribbon of ice. Every few moves he’d stop and wait, hooded head down, while spindrift washed over him. Then “You’re good to go!” he shouted as he stepped off the ice and disappeared from view over the lip. I knew snow stability was good but still felt relieved to move out of the gully onto a rib of windswept scree. Twenty minutes later we dropped our packs under the overhanging rock of the highest rock band and got to work.

A climbing partner once referred to new routes you don’t just walk up to and send as science projects. Considering the short days of late November, a location a thousand metres above the valley floor and much blank rock separating us from the ice of our desire, I knew the Mt. Kidd route would fall into this category. So I wasn’t surprised to be making plans for a return visit as we drove away that evening. A few days later we were back. By mid-afternoon, after much scratching around, a couple of broken holds and as many spectacular falls, we swung our tools at the desiccated fringe of ice at the bottom of the white ribbon. Two pitches higher daylight was fading as I pulled over a bulge and gazed up into the snow bowl feeding the route. Far below car headlights crept along the highway on the valley floor. Yet even as we drilled the first v-thread, I felt an irrational urge to head up instead of down, to the darkening summit ridge a hundred metres higher. Maybe I wasn’t burnt out after all.

Summary: First ascent of Bigg Kidd (150 m, WI5 M7+), Raphael Slawinski and Ian Welsted, November 27 and 30, 2013.

The big bowl on Mt. Kidd: a cool if somewhat spooky place. Bigg Kidd tackles the obvious discontinuous ribbon through the highest rock band.

The low November sun barely cleared the summit of The Wedge as Steve Swenson slogged up through fresh snow into the northeast bowl of Mt. Kidd.

Snow, wind and sun make for a bad combination. After a couple of heavy sloughs rumbled past us, Steve and I decided getting the chop on humble Mt. Kidd would be embarrassing for a couple of alpine veterans. We quickly downclimbed while keeping a wary eye out in case anything else came down, and ran away toward the safety of the trees on the valley bottom.

An avalanche cycle later, Ian Welsted was able to enjoy fast and safe travel up snow slopes pounded by massive slides. It's all timing and hormones, as Choc Quinn once quipped.

After all the early - and sometimes false - starts, I was psyched to round a rib of windswept scree, and finally see the object of our desire just a couple hundred metres away.

The ice on the first pitch gonged ominously, while screws either hit rock or spun into air. But in the proud tradition of Cesare Maestri we'd carried our courage in our rucksacks, and so were spared the cold need for boldness - but also denied the warm rewards of it.

With the belay tucked in under a bulge, the mixed business was hidden from the eye and camera of the belayer. But as is usually the case with unformed icicles, while the drytooling might have been harder, the dry, brittle ice above the rock was the real reason for coming this far. Photo: Ian Welsted.

Another morning, another sunrise over The Wedge from high on Mt. Kidd.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

You can't always get what you want

A year ago J. and I made the long drive from the Bow Valley to pay a visit to the King of the Rockies. On a crisp, cloudless late September day we climbed Infinite Patience on the Emperor Face, bivied high on the Emperor Ridge, and continued up the gargoyles to Robson's summit in the morning. It was a nearly perfect alpine climbing trip. After all, how often do we get to run up a line on one of the Rockies' biggest faces without dodging a single falling stone? And how often do we get to spend a windless evening camped right on the spine of the mountain. and to top it off, climb squeaky neve up and down and around the feared gargoyles? But however much we get, we always want more. While climbing Infinite Patience, I kept stealing glances toward the centre of the face. There, cutting through a sea of snow-covered rock, a slanting ice couloir beckoned: the line of the Cheesmond-Dick route. The following day, while walking the highwire of the upper ridge, I looked down ribbons of grey ice snaking up from the depths. Now that was a proper climb. I filed it away for future reference.

A couple of weeks ago, on another perfect September afternoon, Ian, Juan and I walked up the trail toward Berg Lake, intent on - what else? - the Cheesmond-Dick. As we rounded the corner of the Emperor Ridge and the face slowly revealed itself, I was shocked to see how dry it was. Where there should've been veins and fields of ice was an ugly, brown choss pile. The summer Rockies are going to be a sad place a hundred years from now, when they've lost much of what permanent snow and ice still remains. But I digress. The initial couloir of Infinite Patience was reduced to a sad strip of dirty ice, while the lower icefield of the Cheesmond-Dick no longer merited a name with "ice" in it.

Maybe I'm being unreasonable, but I want climbing to be good. Let it be hard, let it be intense, but let it be classy, too. After a six-week heatwave there wasn't much on the Emperor Face that looked good or classy. And so we started casting about for a consolation prize. We thought about Whitehorn but didn't know how to approach it. We thought about the Fuhrer Ridge but weren't keen on the broken glacier we'd have to cross to get to it. In the end I suggested the Emperor Ridge. Sure, Ian had soloed it a decade earlier and I'd been up the interesting bits last year after climbing Infinite Patience. But what else were we going to do? Walk out and drive back empty handed? We reminded ourselves that we stood below the tallest peak in the Rockies with a perfect forecast. And until earlier in the day Juan had never even seen Robson, much less set foot on it. It was decided, then. We took off our boots and strode into the numbingly cold waters of the Robson River.

Twenty four hours later we were slowly but doggedly approaching the summit. To get to this point we'd slogged up endless scree at the base of the ridge, frontpointed an ice gully, scrambled along exposed ledges and chimneys, and even roped up a couple of times when it looked like some actual climbing might be required. Now we were finally negotiating the sadly diminished gargoyles. Small they might have been, but what they lacked in stature they made up in attitude. Instead of swinging into perfect neve we plunged our ice tools into insubstantial snow. The occasional screw into honeycombed ice didn't inspire much confidence, so we tried to weave the rope between the gargoyles as much as possible; now venturing into shade on the north side of the ridge, now into the low sunlight on the south.

And right now, I'd been traversing on the north side for far too long. The rope looped down the face, clipped into a suspect screw more than thirty metres back. "Once the guys climb up from the other side, that screw'll be the only protection left," I realized. "I need to get back on the ridge and traverse along the south side for a bit." Making for the nearest gap between gargoyles, I pulled myself onto the crest. It looked narrow and precarious but not impossible. "I just needed to shave a bit off the top," I thought. The next thing I knew I was flying through fortunately clean air, fortunately down the south side of the ridge.

I bounced to the end of the ropes without touching anything. Getting back on the ridge involved some overhanging snow climbing, though fortunately on toprope. And with the sharp crest gone, the way ahead was clear. Still, the sun had set and it was nearly dark by the time I pulled the ropes across the highest point, the boys emerging onto the summit plateau sixty metres back. We'd hoped to sleep at the hut, but always knew that hope to be a long shot. As it was, we settled for spending the night in a palatial crevasse a couple of hundred metres below the summit. You can't always get what you want. But if you try, you just might find you get what you need.

The lower Emperor Face in September 2012, with the diagonal ice couloir of the Cheesmond-Dick clearly visible.

A much drier Emperor Face in September 2013.

Juan Henriquez (left) and Ian Welsted share some dinner at a bivi near the Robson River.

Slogging up the initial scree slopes with Berg Lake still in shadow below...

... enjoying a gully filled with alpine ice for a change of pace...

... and carefully negotiating some steep and exposed choss above.

Conrad's Column: Well worth a winter trip to the Valley of a Thousand Falls.

Ian and Juan rounding the corner onto the west face...

... with the sadly diminished gargoyles coming into view.

Ian comes up the last dry section of ridge...

... while Juan follows the still dry ridge higher up, the gargoyles only remarkable through their absence.

Finally some white stuff! Juan traverses on the north side of the ridge...

... and Ian heads off into the small but nasty gargoyles decorating the last stretch.

The last rays of the setting sun cast a warm glow on the gargoyles...

... while a cold-looking moon rises over the summit.

The last light of day from the summit.

Juan (in front) and Ian at home for the night...

... and downclimbing The Roof in the morning.

Juan traverses the Schwarz Ledges: definitely the least pleasant, though mercifully short, part of the Robson experience.

High cirrus over the summit from the Forster Hut presages the coming bad weather, and the end of summer.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Seven summits

Whether it's stamps, bottle caps or back issues of Alpinist, people like collecting things. When it comes to summits, there are many lists for an aspiring collector: the fifty-odd eleven-thousanders - we're talking feet here - of the Canadian Rockies, the fourteen eight-thousanders - metres now - of the Himalaya and Karakoram, the Fifty Classics of North America... And if you don't like any of these lists, just pick a mountain range, a unit of height or some other criterion, and come up with your own. Another list popular among peak baggers with a world travelling bent is that of the Seven Summits: the highest peaks on the seven continents. The facts that Eurasia is really one continent or that the high point of Australia is an uninspiring bump poses some problems, but nothing that an arbitrary definition or two cannot take care of.

As my Pakistani summer holiday winds down and I hang around Islamabad exploring its dining options and waiting for my flight back home, it occurs to me that with some creative redefining of just what constitutes a mountain, Ian and I can claim to have climbed seven summits on our trip - though of course not the Seven Summits. In chronological order, here they are.

1. Skardu Rock (ca. 2700 m)

We'd been in Pakistan for ten days and we had yet to climb more than the stairs to our hotel room. First we spent several days in Islamabad waiting to fly to Skardu. Then, when catching a plane looked unlikely, we gave in to the inevitable, got into a van and started up the Karakoram Highway. Two hours into the drive we got word of the murders in the Nanga Parbat basecamp. Shocked, uncertain, we turned around and headed back to the city. The next day, with a heavy heart, Jesse decided to return home while Ian and I got on a small prop plane and flew over the site of the massacre to Skardu. From previous trips we knew that once there we'd be completely safe. The Baltis are altogether different from "those Chilas fuckers", as many of them call the people from the tribal lands near Nanga Parbat.

Skardu hadn't changed much in the four years since out last visit: it was still dusty, noisy and friendly. But after another few days of waiting for an obligatory but useless meeting with a local official, and for PIA ("Perhaps I Arrive" airlines) to deliver one of our bags, we grew tired of its charms. We longed to stretch our legs and to breathe clean mountain air. Unfortunately we timed our scramble up Skardu Rock, the slag heap above the town, to coincide with a vicious dust storm. We did our best to shield our faces from the stinging dust carried on the wind, but by the time we got back to the Indus Motel we had sand in our eyes, ears, noses and teeth. Still, while climbing a short wall of dried mud, we'd felt like alpinists again. Our expedition - supposedly a climbing one - was finally underway.

The hour-long flight from Islamabad to Skardu took us past the Diamir flank of Nanga Parbat, now tragically  associated with the murders at its foot.

A rainbow appears over the dusty main street of Skardu.

Ian negotiates the crux on Skardu Rock, hoping the rock he's grabbing stays put...

... and walks up a scrubby slope to the top in a vicious dust storm.

2. The Flame (ca. 5000 m)

With all the delays and false starts, we felt like we were behind schedule. After all, we planned to go to seven thousand metres, requiring some serious acclimatization. To get the show on the road, the morning after arriving in basecamp we headed up the hill immediately behind it, nicknamed The Flame for the spectacular pinnacles along its crest. I felt fine for the first few hundred metres: this altitude thing is not as bad as I remembered, I thought. Then, a couple of hundred metres below the hills's rounded summit, the thin air hit me. The last stretch, up talus and isothermal snow, had me breathing hard and slowing to a pace more appropriate to somewhere two or three kilometres higher.

From the top of what amounted to an insignificant bump, we gazed at the spectacular mountains all around: the triple-summitted Farol to the north, the orange ramparts and blue seracs of K7 to the east, and the giant, convoluted bulk of K6 to the south. We realized we had forty days to play among these peaks and we smiled at the thought.

Ian walks up the hanging valley south of basecamp, with K6 hidden in the clouds behind...

... and points out some of the peaks there, such as the spectacular Beatrice.

All around the hillsides are in bloom, as life takes advantage of the brief alpine summer.

3. Sulu Peak (5950 m)

The first few times I went to altitude (everywhere is at some altitude, but you know what I mean), I tried to rush things. I tried to go too high too fast; even worse, I tried to sleep there. Few things are as unpleasant as sleeping at an altitude you're not acclimatized to. If you manage to fall asleep, it's only to wake up a few minutes later in a panic, unable to get enough oxygen into your lungs. I've since learnt that it's far better first to daytrip to, say, six thousand metres, before dragging your sleeping bag up there.

Unfortunately my first attempt on Sulu Peak was cut short by nothing as glorious as altitude sickness, but by a humble cold. It's amazing how weak your body becomes when it's busy doing something else - like fighting a sinus infection. While Ian continued on to the summit through a murky morning, I headed down to the tent and collapsed gratefully into my sleeping bag. A few days and a course of antibiotics later, I tried again. This time around I felt fit and strong, and even took a perverted pleasure in pushing the pace while my lungs burned in the thin air. Mindful of cornices overhanging the north face, I made my way carefully to the highest point before retracing my steps to a wind scoop a few metres lower. There, I unrolled my foam pad, pulled on my parka and insulated pants, fired up the stove, and settled in to breathe some thin air.

Sulu Peak and its south couloir, a classic acclimatization objective.

The couloir would be a great ski run if it wasn't for all the avalanche debris and runnels - and if you had skis.

Enough of this sitting around, I'm getting cold, let's go down!

4. Farol West (6150 m)

When asked how to get better at alpine climbing, Barry usually replies, baby steps, baby steps. The same could be said for acclimatizing. We couldn't hope to skip from six to seven thousand metres and expect to perform. No, we'd have to put in the time and let our bodies get used to functioning with only half as much oxygen as back home. So we shouldered heavy bags holding everything from a tent to an iPod and headed up the familiar hill behind basecamp. Once in the hanging valley above, we made for the giant seracs spilling down between the West and Central Farol Peaks; but, just before we got under them, we hung a left up a safe snow slope.

That night we slept on a small ledge we'd hacked out from the crest of a narrow ridge a few hundred metres below the summit. The following day we continued below cloudy skies that soon degenerated into snow flurries. I suppose no one had told the local weather Allah about the forecast high pressure system. Like crabs we scuttled sideways on sixty-degree ice, first along a knife-edged ridge then below some steep rock, until we hit a couloir that took us straight to the summit. A wind scoop some twenty metres below the highest point made for a comfortable home. For the next two days we ate, slept, lounged, read, listened to music and gawked at distant giants: that's Masherbrum to the west, just a couple hundred metres shy of eight thousand; that must be Saltoro Kangri to the east, deep into that silly high-altitude battleground that is the Siachen Glacier area; and that's Chogolisa to the north, where Hermann Buhl's body still lies entombed somewhere in the ice; but it's too bad we can't see K2...

The triple-summitted Farol Peak (quadruple, if you count Farol Far East on the far right). We climbed Farol West on the left.

Ian settles into our first bivi...

... and follows a narrow ridge on the second day.

A spectacular view of Chogolisa from our summit bivi.

5. K6 West (7040 m)

The tricky thing about the Charkusa valley is that there's just so much to climb. There are granite spires, ice couloirs, fluted faces and crenellated ridges; in other words, all manner of excuses from venturing onto the truly big rigs. And we'd come to get on the biggest one of them all: K6. A few days' bad weather gave us the chance to rest from our latest acclimatization outing. It also coated the bare grey ice on northwest face of K6 West, the reason why we'd traveled this far, with a friendly layer of neve. So when Hanif, our forecaster extraordinaire, predicted a seven-day window of good weather, we had no more excuses. I tried not to think about what we were getting ourselves into as I sorted cams and packets of soup. I knew that the coming days would push both my body and my mind. I also knew that it was better not to contemplate the whole climb all at once. My pack ready, I found a flat sandy spot to do some yoga and tried to clear my mind.

The morning sun already sparkled on the snow slopes above but we were still in deep blue shade. For being at almost seven thousand metres we felt surprisingly good. All the same, in spite of wearing every single layer we had, we couldn't climb fast enough to stay warm. Every few minutes we'd stop and swing some circulation back into our arms and legs. It was not unlike being high up on Denali. Finally, slowly, we emerged into the sunshine. The top wasn't far now. With a huge cornice jutting over the Charkusa valley two and a half kilometres below, maybe a raven could have trod on the highest point. We'd have to settle for respectfully stopping a few metres away. Overhead, the dome of the sky was a blue so dark it shaded into black. Silent, ice-clad mountains marched off to the north; on the southern horizon, brown lowlands merged with a hazy sky. We sat on nearly empty packs and took it all in. We couldn't stay on top forever; we never can. But we could try to remember the moment more deeply that anything our cameras could capture would ever let us.

K6 from basecamp, with the main summit (climbed once) on the left and the west summit on the right. The northwest face drops down and right from the west summit.

The face is guarded by many obstacles, including a convoluted bergschrund.

Before starting up this pitch, I casually mentioned how it looked like Guinness Gully. Somehow, though, I never got this pumped on that climb. Photo: Ian Welsted.

Fortunately most of the climbing was lower angled, though the never-ending ice fields took a toll on our calves.

On a brilliant but cold morning, Ian walks up the last few steps to the summit.

6. Nayser Brakk (5200 m)

If there's one absolutely iconic peak in the Charkusa valley, it's the perfect rock pyramid of Nayser Brakk. And now what we'd taken care of business on K6, we felt free to indulge in some low-stress rock climbing. Leaving basecamp at the un-alpine hour of ten o'clock, we could have been in the Bugaboos, going out for a casual session on Crescent Spire after too much coffee and talk at Applebee.

I'd climbed Nayser Brakk before, but it was long ago and I'd forgotten just how wet, chossy and generally unpleasant the approach gully was. But no matter; it was soon behind us and we were donning rock shoes and starting up the initial slabs of the northeast ridge (a.k.a. the British Route). And it did remind us of that other famous northeast ridge, that of Bugaboo Spire. The one in the Charkusa might be a bit harder, a bit shorter and get you a bit higher, but both are equally classic.

It was late afternoon by the time we hand traversed the final ridge and stepped onto the summit. Shafts of sunlight slanted through storm clouds that had been making empty threats all day. We snapped a few photos, balanced on the highest point for a few more, then headed down. Rasool would be getting dinner ready and we didn't want to be late.

The classic Nayser Brakk reflecting in "the pool of shrinkage", a swimming hole near basecamp.

Ian starts up the first pitch in threatening weather...

... and follows a sharp ridge near the summit in warm afternoon sunshine.

The mountains at the head of the Charkusa Glacier from the summit of Nayser Brakk. From left to right, Hassin Peak, K6 and Kapura Peak.

7. The Dog's Knob (5400 m)

Some mountains have sex appeal just by virtue of their names. After all, who wouldn't want to have The Shark's Fin, The Ogre or Devil's Head on their climbing resume? On the other hand, who'd want to climb Kapura (Goat's Balls) Peak or The Dog's Knob? In the end, though, mountain names are just that: arbitrary labels people hang on inanimate chunks of rock. And TDK happens to be a very pretty granite spire that, yes, does have a slightly phallic appearance. Then again, what spire doesn't?

We were anchored in a notch ten metres below the highest point. To get here we'd climbed six pitches of sometimes gritty, sometimes steep, sometimes runout, but always fun granite. Now ten crackless metres separated us from the place of our desire. Chalking up, we took turns bouldering up to the top and then back down to the belay. Even though we still had to rappel back to our packs and hope that the ropes didn't get stuck, even though we still had a couple of days in basecamp to pack and relax, there was a certain finality about the moment. This point of perfect granite would be the last summit we'd climb in the Charkusa. I felt satisfied, yet sad.

The Dog's Knob, the object of Ian's desire.

Ian jams some steep cracks...

... and makes a delicate a traverse a couple of pitches higher.

It could be argued that a perfect summit requires climbing up and down.


And there you have it, our seven Pakistan summits. Summits are a small part of climbing, and an even smaller part of an expedition. A great deal happens between the short moments spent on top. But summits are also a hugely important part of climbing, and an even more important part of an expedition. These seven punctuated ours.

Late summer colours in the Charkusa.

Our expedition was supported by the Goretex Shipton-Tilman Grant, the Lyman Spitzer Award and the Mugs Stump Award. We thank them for making our trip possible.