The Dry Ranges were my latest "discovery". Until last month I'd never visited any of the empty valleys north of the popular Ghost River and Waiparous Creek areas. I suppose what I needed was a good excuse to go check the place out, and a few weeks ago I got one. "I'm not much into mixed climbing," Lyle emailed, "but I thought you might be interested." Attached was a photo of a discontinuous drip: ice, then rock, then a bit more ice, then a bit more rock, then a final ice curtain. Now I enjoy drytooling for its own sake as much as the next person (and maybe even a bit more). However, I find that the classiest (if not necessarily the hardest) lines are the truly mixed ones, the ones that have you hopping back and forth between ice and rock. The line in Lyle's photo was one of those.
The thermometer in Lyle's truck remained stuck stubbornly below -20 C as we drove toward the Ya Ha Tinda ranch. When it comes to ice climbing I try to live by a -15 C rule, meaning that on days colder than that I either go climbing in the sun, go skiing or go to the gym - but I don't get on hard routes in the shade. Still, sometimes to get things done we have to break our own rules.
We wore every layer we'd brought on the snowmobile ride in. Standing on the frozen James Lake we looked up at the hanging dagger, blue and brittle in the deep shade. Dream On across the valley shone in the sun. However, having come this far, we figured we might as well walk up to the base of the line for a closer look. Once there, in spite of the modest elevation gain from the valley floor, an inversion made the idea of actually climbing appealing. It goes to show that sometimes you just have to try.
By nightfall, using an anything-goes mixture of ice climbing, drytooling and shamelessly hanging on gear, we'd stuck enough bolts into the rock to make trying to climb the line a reasonable proposition. I'm always on the lookout for crazy concoctions of ice and rock that go entirely, or at least mostly, on traditional gear. I find that having to fiddle in gear makes the climbing experience about more than just gymnastics. But, Rockies' limestone being what it is, not risking broken bones or worse usually requires bolts.
Now that the bolts were in, all that was needed was to send the thing. When Alex asked me to pick a location for making a short film, I naturally thought of the unfinished Ya Ha Tinda project. Filming on an unfinished project presents a risk, as there's no guarantee that it actually goes. By the middle of the afternoon on a thankfully mild Saturday I was getting worried I was wasting everyone's time. I'd been hanging on the second pitch for what felt like hours (and it must have felt even longer to Marcus at the belay), and I still hadn't found sufficient holds for getting over the crux roof. Eventually, many broken edges later, I figured out a sequence involving long reaches on first-tooth hooks. It would have to do.
On Sunday, with Rich dressed up as Marcus at the belay, green bouldering pants and all (continuity matters in a film!), I went for the send. A cold front had moved in overnight, and even while walking in I had a hard time keeping my hands warm. But you should never underestimate what being psyched can do. Sequences that had seemed hard when I'd eked them out move by move the previous day felt almost easy in the crystalline air. Even when Wiktor, who was hanging from a static rope next to me, warned me that I'd put on one of my crampons incorrectly and that it was falling off, I wasn't overly worried. The route was going down, crampon or no crampon. And it did.
On the walk out I felt happy about the send but also a bit sad to be done with the project, and to have no reason to return to the Dry Ranges. Then again, a month earlier I'd thought I had no reason to visit them in the first place. I expect I'll be back.
Nachtmahr as seen from James Lake.
Overhanging mushrooms on the first pitch make for surprisingly awkward climbing. Photo: Alex Lavigne.
The second pitch starts with a short pillar... Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.
... followed by some reachy and tenuous drytooling. Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.
The curtain on the third pitch offers interesting climbing on ice that seems to defy gravity. Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.
Nachtmahr, 85 m, M9 WI5
FA: Rich Akitt, Marcus Norman, Lyle Rotter, Raphael Slawinski, January 20, 2013
This is a cool (I think it's cool, anyway), fully mixed route located in a rarely visited corner of the Rockies. It sits on the northeast aspect of Maze Peak in the Dry Ranges, overlooking James Lake and the prairies to the east. More than likely you'll have the whole place to yourself. The route does not appear to come in every year, so go check it out soon - who knows when it'll be in next? A rack of 6 draws, 8 shoulder-length slings and 6 or so screws is all that's needed.
From the Eagle Lake/James Pass parking lot (see the driving directions for Dream On for how to get there), hike east on a quad trail. Easy walking across the frozen Eagle Lake, past Dream On and the other assorted Dream climbs on the left (north) side of the valley, takes you over James Pass to James Lake. Just before you reach James Lake leave the trail and hike right (south) 200 or so vertical metres to the base of the route. 2 hours.
Pitch 1 (30 m, WI4-5): A number of lines are possible, ranging from thinnish low-angle ice on the left to overhanging mushrooms in the centre. Belay from screws at the top left of the bottom ice flow.
Pitch 2 (25 m, M9): Move right to a small pillar and the first bolt. From the top of the pillar follow bolts left underneath a roof. Pull over the roof with a few big moves on small holds and continue more easily to a patch of ice. The ring-bolt station at its top is threatened by falling ice from the next pitch, so it's better to continue another few metres over a rock arch to a sheltered bolt belay on the right.
Pitch 3 (30 m, M7 WI5): A couple of big reaches on small holds gain a dagger (harder if broken off) and easier climbing up the right edge of a curtain. In spite of its large size the curtain does not appear to be very well attached to the rock. Given one of the first ascentionists' history with collapsing ice, this pitch was also equipped with bolts. Belay at a bolted station a few metres back from the lip on the right.
Rappel the route in 2 double-rope raps: the first from the top station, the second from the ring-bolt station near the top of pitch 2 (ignore a bad bolt a couple of metres to the right).
The line of Nachmahr with the first and second belays marked. The third belay is out of sight at the top.