Wednesday, June 19, 2013

In praise of April


“On the street where I live
Every day is garbage day,”

sang Montreal sludgeabilly rockers Deja Voodoo back in the eighties. Luckily on my street only every Tuesday is garbage day. Still, the seasons might come and go, but every Monday night without fail I roll out the black and blue bins into the alley behind my house: swatting at mosquitoes one month, pushing the bins through deep snow another.

On a Monday evening in early April a light snowfall had blanketed the city. The previous week’s unseasonal heat had melted much of the winter’s snowpack, and bare ground and yellow grass showed through the thin white caul. As I was rolling out the bins, I bumped into my next-door neighbor. “This is terrible,” he blurted out, meaning the snow, not the garbage. I’m afraid I found it hard to be sympathetic. Sure, winter’s return meant going back to the gym after a couple of days of climbing in a t-shirt at the Lookout, but it also meant good skiing in the hills.
And so there was more than a little poetic justice in my mumbling the same complaint on a Monday evening in late May, as I rolled out the bins through a steady rain. It had rained all weekend, and the forecast called for more of the watery same as far as it went.

“Too cool to live,
Too smart to die,”

sang Deja Voodoo in another song. They might as well have sang about it being too wet to climb, too warm to ski. As I splashed back to the house, I found myself wistfully thinking back to the long, cool days of April. Days when, if it was clear, you could go rock climbing on the sunny side of the valley or ice climbing on the shady side; or, if there were snow squalls in the forecast, you could skin up a mountain and have some serious fun on the way down. Now, having said that, I love playing in the Rockies every month of the year. But there’s something special about the times of transition, the Octobers and the Aprils, when the choice of mountain adventure seems wider than ever. And so, while summer slowly, hesitatingly, comes to the Rockies, here are some images from a couple of my more enjoyable April outings.

The Shadow
The northeast cirque of Mt. Patterson has got to be one of the most spectacular places to ice climb in the Rockies. Riptide is the shady classic on the left while Rocketman is the sunny one on the right, but there are other, more obscure but equally impressive routes to get scared on.

With our forearms still sore from a Saturday spent pulling down at The Lookout, on Sunday J and I packed our ice gear and pointed our skis toward The Shadow, a rarely formed (whatever that means) line left of Riptide.

Passing under the brittle chandeliers of Riptide, we headed up the lower-angled but thin ice on The Shadow.

Higher up, where parties in other seasons reported run-out mixed climbing, we followed a blue streak tucked into an obtuse corner. Running up thick ice on secure sticks was a guilty pleasure: having fun where by rights we should've been getting scared. Photo: J. Mills.

To assuage our (or at least my) feelings of guilt and to inject some uncertainty into the day, we didn't stop at the top of the ice (and the proverbial ''end of the difficulties'') but continued for another pitch of snowed-up rock to the glacial bench above.

Emerging from the shadowed wall below the glacier, we were rewarded with bright, warm sunshine. After all, it was already officially spring.

Unfortunately the deep snow on the glacier, even after much digging, didn't yield anything in the way of an anchor, forcing us to downclimb to the top of the rock.

The rest of the rappels went quickly, except for the last one. The streak grew thinner and thinner the lower we got, and building the last anchor required repeated stabs at snowy ice before finding a spot thick enough for a decent v-thread.

White Pyramid

A couple of weeks later Juan and I headed up the Parkway again, this time with blissfully light ski packs. Unfortunately the advancing season meant the Mistaya River was wide open, necessitating some barefoot wading. On the way back, no longer caring to keep our boots dry, we strode across fully dressed.

Our objective was the White Pyramid, a slog in summer, guarded as it is by endless moraines, but an altogether more pleasant experience on skis.

On the White Pyramid-Epaulette col I experienced a sense of deja vu. I'd slogged up to it from the Howse River side fifteen years earlier and again just last October, both times while descending from Howse Peak. On both occasions I'd already been out for a couple of nights, my back and feet were sore, and I just wanted to be done. But this time, just a few hours out of the car, there was an eager spring in our step.

While the lower ridge looked an unlikely place to ski, the upper ridge opened up into some fine slopes, proving Gery right yet again: you always gotta take your skis up with you.

The clouds kept moving in and out, and we were granted a fine view of Mt. Wilson, with the climbs on its south face slowly turning to slush...

... and closer at hand, of the giant fang of Howse Peak.

We skied right from the summit. While the powder on the north glacier looked enticing, we stuck to the ridge, fearing hidden crevasses.

Doing so gave us a chance to practice an unglamorous but essential ski mountaineering technique: side-slipping!

Postscript: Some things to do in the Rockies in June.
I don't want to give the impression that there's nothing to do in the Rockies in June. For instance, if you're taking off to Pakistan for the summer and need to get your heart rate up, you can always go hill running in the rain. And sometimes (though not always) you'll get lucky and the sun will come out just as you tag the summit of Prairie Mtn.

Other times, in spite of a dubious forecast, you might head out to check out the newest multipitch offering on Grotto Mtn., figuring you can always rappel off if the skies open up. And again, you might get lucky and sneak in a fine day of climbing, while watching rain clouds unload on the Bow Valley just to the west. Photo: Sarah Hueniken.

As an extreme measure, you can always fly around the world to a different mountain range altogether. And on that note, I'm off to find some milk tea and whatever else people have for breakfast in Islamabad.

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