Friday, March 1, 2013

The God Delusion

Familiarity breeds contempt. I found that out last season, when I got nearly taken out by an avalanche at the base of Man Yoga. After more visits to the Headwall than I could count, I'd forgotten the place still had a few tricks up its sleeve. Ancient Greeks had a word for this kind of thing: hubris (closely followed by nemesis).

Familiarity also breeds familiarity. On my first few times to the Headwall I had eyes only for the obvious lines: Nemesis, Suffer Machine, French Reality... But as I returned time and again, I started noticing the subtle details between the bold strokes: ephemeral, discontinuous drips, like dotted lines hinting at what might - just might - be possible.

To the right of Suffer Machine two giant arches rise one above the other, like the eyebrows of some space alien. Each time I'd ski up the valley I'd glance up and briefly fantasize about climbing through them, before turning away and heading toward more reasonable prospects. And so one season followed another, with the ice high above the arches remaining terra incognita.

In the fall of 2011 Jon and Jon (Simms and Walsh) completed Man Yoga. Their route weaves a devious path up the wall left of the arches to tag the ice topping it. Like Drama Queen, their other creation at the Headwall, Man Yoga is a route with character, using a smattering of bolts to link natural features. I had a blast repeating it: barely making it up the snowy slabs on the second pitch, locking off through the exposed roof on the fourth, and repeatedly swinging blunt picks into hard ice on the fifth. I also got inspired to finally go check out the direct line through the arches.

Last fall, on a snowy November day, loaded down with ropes, screws, cams, pitons - and a power drill - Juan and I plowed up to the base of the wall. A thick layer of crusted snow coated the slab below the arch, hiding any features. I picked the first likely groove through the steep rock at the bottom and started up. Arriving at the base of the slab, I was excited to find a miniature corner splitting the blankness. The vertical overlap, plastered with snice, gave great climbing if not exactly great protection. And so, after a few token pins at the start to satisfy my inner traditionalist, out came the drill.

By the end of the day we'd completed the first pitch. With the giant arch looming ominously above our highpoint, we stashed some gear in the snow at the base and went home, happy to be over the crux - starting the damn project! A couple of weeks later we were back and added the second pitch through the arch. Though still back-achingly steep for bolting, the giant roof was split by an overhanging corner that provided a natural passage through an otherwise blank ceiling. On the third visit we added the third pitch, up ice that turned out to be thin and hollow rather than fat and plastic, and altogether not the stroll we'd been expecting. On the fourth visit, racing shadows, we broke out left around a wildly exposed arete and connected with Man Yoga. With the route equipped, we could now get down to trying to climb it.

Otto von Bismarck is reputed to have said that "to retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making." He might have added mixed climbs to this list. Before going for the send I'd first have to find sufficient holds, and doing so on soft limestone with an arsenal of pointy steel tools at my disposal, I'd be treading a fine ethical line. No, I'm not talking about damage to the rock. By its very nature drytooling is hard on stone (although in the end all the pick and crampon scratches on the Headwall do not come close to the environmental impact of the paved parking lot at the trailhead, to say nothing of the highway used to access it). No, I'm talking about bringing the climb down to my level rather than rising to the challenge.

The previous winter I attempted Tim Emmett's and Klen Premerl's masterpiece Spray On Top behind Helmcken Falls. I felt strong and hoped for a redpoint, but was unequivocally denied at the drytooling crux high on the route. Even going bolt to bolt I could barely find the widely spaced, tiny edges. My respect for the first ascentionists grew when later I read about how Klem, "just 2 meters [...] from easier ground, [was] unable to find any hooks [and] spent more than one hour in that particular spot, looking for the right sequence..." He did find it the following day, but he was willing to risk failure rather than to drill a couple of pockets.

On the God Delusion, on the second-pitch roof, a bodylength of blank rock would have been more than enough to put an end to my free-climbing ambitions. On the fifth visit, however, after a couple of hours of hanging - and with a bit of persuasion from an ice tool - I found what I needed. A few days later, with a light but steady snowfall blanketing the valley, I launched up the familiar opening groove. By late afternoon I was donning a headlamp and starting up the last pitch. It was thinner than it'd been a year ago when I climbed Man Yoga, but it seemed only fair that after getting off easier than expected on the second pitch, I should have to try harder than expected on the fifth.

It was pitch black when at last I pulled into the small cave the ice poured from. The route was now complete. I thought it was good, quite good in fact, but not perfect: not hard enough, not natural enough. I'd have to keep looking.

***

The following photos were taken during the five days it took us to prep the route. Each time we'd reclimb the pitches we'd established before, then add another one: drytooling, ice climbing, aiding, bolting - over and over.

From left to right: Nemesis, Suffer Machine, and The God Delusion.

The God Delusion from the gear-up spot.

Wallowing toward the first belay... Photo: Jerome Yerly.

... and starting up the first pitch earlier in the winter, with still lots of ice on it. Photo: Jerome Yerly.

Starting up the second pitch, power drill in tow. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Climbing thin ice below the big arch on the second pitch... Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

... and aiding through it. Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

A change of pace on the third pitch: low-angled, snowy ice. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Bolted ice climbing? For shame! The approximate locations of the bolts on the third pitch. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Avoiding the second arch on the fourth pitch by breaking out left toward Man Yoga. The start of this pitch has the only bad rock on the route (with 'good rock' being a relative term in the Rockies). Photo: Jerome Yerly.

Coming home late from yet another session. Photo: Jerome Yerly.

***

We sent the route on the sixth visit. We didn't take a camera that day, not even a point-and-shoot. Occasionally it's rewarding not to look at the world through a viewfinder but to simply enjoy the moment. Still, we did want some decent shots of the line, and so we came back for a seventh time. This time Juan and I climbed while Wiktor jugged and shot. The following photos were taken that day.

Entering the mini-corner that splits the slab on the first pitch... Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

... and getting established on the snice just before the belay. Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

The overhanging corner through the roof on the second pitch offers surprisingly moderate climbing... Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

... though exiting from it to the slab above does require a lock-off or two. Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

Getting ready for the crappy, slabby ice on the third pitch. 'Slab' seems to be a recurrent theme here... Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

Breaking out left toward Man Yoga on the fourth pitch... Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

... and pulling through the crux of that route. Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

Just about there! Juan nearing the fourth belay. Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

The fifth and last pitch (shared with Man Yoga) isn't too hard, but it isn't a formality, either. Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

At last! Pulling onto actual thick ice halfway through the final pitch. Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

***

The God Delusion, 175 m, M8+ WI5+
FA: Juan Henriquez and Raphael Slawinski, with help from Wiktor Skupinski and Jerome Yerly, winter 2013.

The God Delusion climbs directly through the lower big arch right of Man Yoga, joining that route halfway up pitch 4. Most of the climbing is on thin ice, with just the occasional section of pure drytooling. However, the ice being either too thin or too hollow for screws (in a good year!), the climbing is mostly bolt protected (though finding the bolts might require some clearing of snow and ice). In fact pitches 1-4 are completely fixed with bolts (and a few pins for that traditional flavour), requiring only 8 quickdraws and 6 shoulder-length slings. Pitch 5 (the pitch in common with Man Yoga) is the exception, being naturally protected. A rack of cams from green C3 to red C4, half a set of wires and 6-8 screws, including a couple of stubbies, works well on it. All belays are bolted. With 70-m ropes (and maybe even 60-m ones) you can rappel the route from the anchors at the top of pitches 5, 4 and 2. The route is best earlier in the season, before the thin ice ablates away.

Approach as for Man Yoga. Scramble and wallow up to a steep snow ledge and locate a 2-bolt anchor on the right.

Pitch 1 (35 m, M6+): From the belay traverse a few metres left into a corner. Climb the corner past a few fixed pins and a couple of bolts to a small ledge. Traverse left around an arete into another corner and climb it to the slab above. Follow a right-facing vertical overlap up the slab. The tenuous crux comes just below the anchor, where the overlap runs out.

Pitch 2 (20 m, M8+): Climb over a couple of thinly iced overlaps to below the big roof. Traverse left on more thin ice to an overhanging right-facing corner that is the only weakness in the roof. Climb the corner to the slab above the roof. Trend up and right on poor footholds but solid tool placements to a belay on a good ledge.

Pitch 3 (40 m, WI4+): Thin and snowy ice leads past widely spaced bolts to a right-facing corner on the left margin of the ice. Finish up the corner past a fixed pin and Spectre to a belay on a small sloping ledge.

Pitch 4 (30 m, M8): Climb the loose corner above the belay past a couple of fixed pins and more bolts. Trend up and left around an arete to a hanging slab. Make a tricky traverse left into the crux of Man Yoga and pull through that to a belay on the left.

Pitch 5 (50 m, WI5+): Climb ice that is thin and narrow to start, but gradually thickens toward the top, to a belay in the small cave the ice pours from. A few fixed pins protect some of the thinner ice.

Man Yoga in yellow and The God Delusion in red, with belays on both routes marked.

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