Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Up and down the Parkway

The Icefields Parkway in winter is a special place. One moment you're driving on a slushy TransCanada Highway, fighting ski traffic and getting your windshield splashed by eighteen-wheelers; the next you're turning off onto a quiet, snow-covered road, with just the occasional car and big snowy mountains pressing in from both sides. Until you turned off the TransCanada you were just lingering on winter's doorstep; now you've entered its domain.

Still, magical as the Parkway in winter might be, until a few weeks ago it hadn't figured prominently in my ice climbing plans. It's a long drive from Cowtown, and one I've done many, many times. These days it takes something rather special to entice me all the way up there. And with several projects on the go in the Bow Valley, I had more than enough to do closer to home. But a chance one-day hit at the beginning of December revealed all manner of rarely formed drips high on the south face of Mt. Wilson. As a result other plans were shelved while I made repeated trips up the Parkway. A handful of memorable days ensued, with the promise of more to come. As Garfield once said while staring intently at a bird, "It's not the having, it's the getting."

Mixed Master

Juan, Steve and I got up early and headed up the Parkway intent on the Cosmic Messenger area on Mt. Murchison. I'd never done Cosmic Messenger, being unwilling to drive and hike all that way for a single pitch. But with a friend having just climbed a new two-pitch route to the left, there was enough to do up there to justify a visit.

Unfortunately when we skidded to a stop below the routes, they were largely obscured by clouds of windblown snow. With the alpine getting loaded even as we looked, it didn't seem terribly bright to head up a large drainage. We got back into the car and brainstormed. The very mention of the Weeping Wall had Steve gagging. Still, having come all this way, it seemed a shame to drive back to the Bow Valley. In the end we decided to have a look at Mixed Master: at least our ascents of that route numbered in the single digits.

We continued down the hill to the Crossing and on, past the mile-high south face of Mt. Wilson. That was when I started to annoy my partners with repeated requests to stop. "Pull over. No, back up, the trees are in the way. There, that's perfect. Do you see that pillar? Does it look to you like it's touching down?" And so on, every couple of kilometres.

In the end even good old Mixed Master didn't disappoint. The ice on the first couple of pitches was thin, the rock traverse on the fourth was covered in snow, and to top it off the rarely-formed last pitch was in. The weather got worse as the day went on, satisfyingly confirming our decision to pull the plug on Plan A. While rappelling we found ourselves repeatedly engulfed by snow devils that left us blind, unable to see up or down. Not bad for a route five minutes from the car!

Goliath vs. David: A big Steve approaches a lean Mixed Master.

Juan gets fancy on the first pitch, usually a casual affair. Not so when there's barely enough ice for the first couple of teeth on your picks!

Steve shuts out the elements on the second pitch...

... and Juan wallows through powder snow over rock slab to the base of the last.


One of the routes that had us stopping and and craning our necks was Hypertension. A beautiful piece of ice, in all the years I'd been climbing in the Rockies I'd never seen it touch down. I couldn't tell if it was touching down now, but it looked to have enough ice one the first pitch to warrant a closer look. As Joe Josephson wrote in the 3rd Edition of the Waterfall Ice guidebook, "[t]he pitches above have even inspired past parties to attempt aid climbing past the overhangs." In these days of power drills and and drytooling, it sounded like a perfect candidate for an M-climb.

A couple of weeks after the Mixed Master hit, Juan and I decided to make a long weekend of it and stay at the Rampart Creek hostel instead of daytripping from Calgary. The first day, loaded down with nuts, cams, pins, screws and yes, a drill and bolts, we hiked up the drainage. As we got closer, to my dismay I realized the route was touching down. Egads! Would I have to be bold after all? Somehow it seemed lame to bolt our way up the rock behind a perfectly good ice pillar. In the end, however, with the pillar looking rather fragile, I managed to rationalize the murder of the impossible to myself and we got down to work.

A short traditionally protected pitch gained a chossy ledge behind the pillar, at which point things reared up steeply. Fortunately, though steep, the roof was short, and in the span of a few hours we managed to bolt it, clean it, and redpoint it. Satisfied with a good day's work, though still with some lingering misgivings about the whole enterprise, we repaired to the hostel for burritos and Argentine beers.

The next day, in spite of the -20 C overnight temps, we were up early and hiking by the first light of dawn. The first low-angled pitch wasn't much of a warmup, but in spite of feeling stiff and cold, I managed to pull through the burly drytooling at the start of the second on the first try. The screaming barfies did not come until I was established on the ice above the roof.

The sun hit us on the twin pillars a pitch higher. However, the ice was still hard after a cold night, and I had to swing my tools with conviction to get them to penetrate. Crack!!! The sound echoed from the rock walls, closely followed by my groan of terror. But a few seconds passed and the curtain I was nailed to was still standing. What had happened? I tapped my way carefully up the next few metres, to a fracture running across the whole climb. It would seem the curtain, having contracted after a cold night, was releasing some of the accumulated tension. Luckily, unlike the pillar below, it was well supported.

Fortunately the rest of the climb was uneventful. We followed the ice as it would its way up a gully between impressive rock walls, simulclimbing the easier bits, belaying the harder ones. Before long I was slogging up the snow bowl above, looking for a tree big enough to belay and rappel from. In the end a healthy conifer growing in the lee of a big boulder that had shielded it from the massive avalanches provided all of that, and a fine spot for a snack to boot.

A few weeks later a friend went up to try the mixed start. He brought back the news that the pillar on the first pitch had snapped off at the lip of the roof. A wave of guilty relief washed over me at having my cowardice at least somewhat justified. Had the pillar been climbable when we were there a few weeks earlier? Almost certainly. Would climbing it have been risky? Beyond a doubt. Would the risk have been reasonable? It all depends on where you draw the line.

The Compressor Start to Hypertension, M8+
FA: Juan Henriquez and Raphael Slawinski, December 15, 2012

Pitch 1 (15 m, M4): Climb up the left side of the cauliflowered cone below the pillar. Continue up cracks in the wall above to a 2-bolt anchor on a chossy ledge. A rack of cams from green C3 to green C4 and maybe a few small wires suffices.
Pitch 2 (25 m, M8+ WI5): Make a few big moves on small holds past 5 bolts to snag the ice. The difficulty of the pitch depends on how far the ice hangs down below the lip of the roof. Continue up steep ice to the snow bowl above. Either belay just below the lip of the bowl, or walk up snow and belay from any one of several small ice steps.
Continue for another 4 or 5 pitches on good ice up to WI5 to a big snow bowl. Rappel the route from a tree some distance up the bowl and from abalakovs below that.

Hypertension from the approach, with the bottom pillar delicately touching down.

Juan hooks and torques his way up the first pitch...

...and yours truly gets established on the ice on the second. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Juan climbs up to the twin pillars...

... and yours truly exits between them. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Juan tops out on the twin-pillars pitch...

... and enjoys a snack in the lee of a friendly boulder at the top of the route.

Valour Falls to the Hierophant

Valour what, you ask? I asked much the same question when Eamonn mentioned the route. We'd driven  up intent on putting up a mixed start to another unformed icicle. But when we saw the amount of rock we'd have to climb to reach the ice, we started casting about for other possibilities. That was when Eamonn suggested the obscure route in question.

It's good to get out of a day of climbing what you hoped to. For example, it would be frustrating to look forward to lots of tool swinging, but instead spend five hours approaching half a pitch of ice. However, if what you wanted was simply to spend a winter day high in the mountains, that kind of program could be just what you were looking for. Yes, it took us a solid five hours to reach the base of the route, a thousand vertical metres above the road. But except for a few stretches of character-building wallowing through bottomless facets, we enjoyed winding our way ever upward, while the solstice sun skimmed the southern horizon.

The route proved both easier and harder than expected. The guidebook grade of a full pitch of WI6+ had me anticipating a serious cerebral workout. M6+ pitches might be a dime a dozen, but pure ice pitches of that difficulty are few, and you tend to remember them afterward. Prepared as I was for a horror show, I was both pleased and disappointed to find half a ropelength of plastic ice instead. The trouble started when the ice ran out and the snow started. To paraphrase a Chris Perry quote from an old Polar Circus magazine, "Anyone can climb ice. It takes a man to climb snow." And I'm afraid I was not man enough to dig through the five-metre plug of overhanging snow topping the ice. After a few minutes of ineffectual chopping I gave up and downclimbed to my last screw. After all, I'd climbed to the end of the difficulties, hadn't I? Hadn't I?

The south face of Mt. Wilson, with Valour Falls to the Hierophant circled. Who knew it was up there? Until a couple of weeks ago, I sure didn't.

Eamonn climbs a pleasant ice gully low on the approach...

... and hikes up a mercifully firm avalanche gully higher up.

A few hours into the approach, another ice step offers a welcome change of pace. Photo: Eamonn Walsh.

This is what we came for: that alpine feeling. And slogging. Or are they the same thing?

It's not often you get to venture into terrain like this and not have it feel like imminent death. Photo: Eamonn Walsh.

Yes, I'm afraid the climb is as short as it looks. Photo: Eamonn Walsh.

Still, we didn't manage to top out, did we?

A late December sunset from high on Mt. Wilson.

Lacelle Qui Reste

During the winter of 2004 Guy and I made repeated trips up the Parkway, where in spite of the -30 C lows we enjoyed some excellent days out. We simu-soloed Damocles and The Seven Pillars of Wisdom above (except for the crux pitch of Damocles, which Guy graciously suggested a rope for, saving me from asking for it); made the second ascent of a beautiful, rarely formed line in the next drainage to the north; and got up a barely formed Shooting Star, scratching our way up rock for first two pitches (after I frostbit my face on the approach).

With all this coming and going we couldn't help but notice a spectacular pillar high up on Mt. Wilson, in the bowl left of Les Miserables. We speculated about the massive approach, the rock climbing below the pillar, the integrity of the column itself - but never got around to trying it. The pillar didn't form again, and on December 10, 2009 Guy died in an avalanche.

This winter the pillar was back, dropping over a rock band halfway up the mountain, gracefully tapering toward its base. I thought about how much a pure ice line like this one would have appealed to Guy. It seemed appropriate to attempt it with Eamonn, another pure spirit.

A chilly wind greeted us at the base of Le Tabernac. It would have been nice to sit and wait for the sun to come around, but we were on a schedule. And so up the brittle curtain I went: whack, whack, kick, kick, crash! as I cleaned an icicle to avoid having it whack me over the head. Down at the base of the climb Eamonn edged his way left, toward the bright line of sunshine swinging across the hillside.

Looking at a distant climb, it's not always the hard rock and ice that worry me. No, often it's the dense forest leading up to it, and the prospect of postholing for hours through unconsolidated, bottomless snow. I knew the steep trees on the approach could stop us just as effectively as blank overhanging stone below the pillar. But luck was on our side, and a ledge system below the upper rockband made for an almost painless traverse to the base of the route.

The rest was pure fun. We gained the ledge that gave access to the pillar by some easy if runout mixed climbing from the left. Looking up at the pillar, I thought about sneaking up its left side as high as possible, but quickly gave up on the idea. This route deserved my best effort, and that meant climbing the proud line up the front. And it didn't disappoint. The porcelain-blue sky above; the late-afternoon shadows on the mountains across the valley; the familiar grey and yellow limestone on either side; and the Roman candle of ice I was on. Guy would have liked it.

Lacelle Qui Reste, 40 m, WI6
FA: Raphael Slawinski and Eamonn Walsh, December 30, 2012

Climb Le Tabernac. Above, follow the often well-worn trail toward Les Miserables before veering off up the avalanche path below Maori Wedding. Hike almost to the base of that route before making the traverse into the next bowl to the left skirting the very bottom of the cliff where the going is easiest. Keep traversing below a usually unformed icicle to a low-angle break well to the left. Moderate mixed climbing up this gains a steep snow ledge, which is traversed back right. Belay at solitary crack left of the pillar (purple to red C4s) or behind the pillar. Climb the pillar to the lip of the large avalanche bowl above.

PS: Yes, I know there's already a route of that name in the Alps. Still, it's a good enough name that I thought we could use it on this continent.

Lacelle Qui Reste from the Icefields Parkway.

Eamonn tops out on Le Tabernac.

Morning sunshine on the confluence of the Howse and Saskatchewan Rivers.

Eamonn hikes up friendly avy debris below Maori Wedding.

"Thar she blows!"

Eamonn scratches his way up to the traverse ledge.

The traverse ledge with Mt. Forbes in the distance. Photo: Eamonn Walsh.

Eamonn enjoys the sunshine at the belay next to the pillar.

Blue sky, yellow limestone and brilliant white ice. It doesn't get much better than that. Photo: Eamonn Walsh.

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