Look up on Wilson. No, not all the way up to the pale quartzite towers on the summit ridge, which always make me think of Minas Morgul, the city of wraiths. No, just halfway up the mountain. There, guarded by a first tier of cliffs that turn back all but the most obsessed, all manner of enticing curtains and daggers drape over a second tier. This past winter (and as I write this it's been officially spring already for more than a week), I had an especially hard time tearing my eyes away the bounty of frozen water up there, like a thirsty astronaut on a cold dry moon. Back home, while outwardly engaged in everyday tasks, I'd fantasize about the steep ice and the even steeper rock. What made the prospect even more enticing was that just about every one of the daggers lay in a giant avalanche gully. Where's the adventure if you can go someplace anytime you feel like it? No, the faraway ice on Wilson had to be saved for a special occasion, and then savoured like a fine Scotch. I feel fortunate to have managed a couple of such tastings in the last month or two.
Last December Juan and I added a mixed start to the rarely formed Hypertension. Actually, truth be told, on this particular occasion the bottom pillar was formed but I lacked the cajones to climb it. At the top of the route I untied and breathlessly slogged up the snow bowl above, to get a closer look at the curtain dangling from the next cliff band. The limestone below the ice was overhanging and featureless, and looked unlikely to go on traditional gear. Yet in a perverse way the thought of putting up a bolted mixed climb halfway up Wilson appealed to me. I filed the prospect away for future reference.
February brought the usual spell of good weather and stable snowpack: in other words, good conditions for Wilson. I was torn between a linkup I'd attempted once before and the ice above Hypertension. In the end, for reasons I can't quite remember anymore, the latter won out. Jerome and I left Calgary early on a Saturday morning, determined to devote the entire weekend to the project. The first order of business was to get up Hypertension with a pack loaded down with drill, bolts, pitons and cams (I still hoped the rock might go at least partly on trad gear). The first pitch of Hypertension was a rude awakening: with the pillar snapped off, getting established on the ice took more power than I could muster without a warmup. Consoling myself that what really mattered today was getting up the route as quickly as possible, I continued up sun-affected ice. The redpoint would have to wait until tomorrow.
By early afternoon we stood below our objective. After a deceptively tricky step of mushroomed ice out came the drill. I knew we didn't have the time, hardware or battery power to correct any route finding mistakes, so I took my time choosing a line. A couple of hours later I was lowering from an anchor tucked immediately below where the ice bonded (or so I hoped) to the water-worn rock. With light fading, we ran down the snow slope below and slid down the rappels on Hypertension.
After a good dinner and an even better night's sleep at the Rampart Creek hostel, we were up and hiking before dawn. With the pressure of a redpoint for added motivation, I gasped my way onto the broken dagger. The rest of Hypertension was a formality, and soon we were hiking up the snow bowl above, following in yesterday's footsteps, already partly erased by wind-blown snow.
Once again I knew we didn't have time to waste, this time to mess around figuring out sequences, and so was determined to send the rock first try. Fortunately the drytooling up here proved easier than down below, and it wasn't long before I was tapping my way up a vibrating freehanger. The top pitch was everything we'd hoped it'd be: long and sustained, with ice that was fragile enough to require our complete attention, but solid enough to yield good screws at regular intervals. From the top of the route we gazed at the next snow bowl and the next rock band, this one decorated with delicate strips of what we could just about convince ourselves was climbable ice. But it would have to wait for another day - or season.
"A long sustained curtain 100 m above [Hypertension] may form in some years and would offer a great challenge." - Joe Josephson, Waterfall Ice, 3rd edition.
Now you see it - Hypertension back in December, with the bottom pillar still intact...
... and now you don't - the mixed start to Hypertension in February, after the pillar fell down. Photo: Jerome Yerly.
Getting established on the ice on the first pitch of Hypertension... Photo: Jerome Yerly.
... and stepping out between the pillars on the third. Photo: Jerome Yerly.
The wall above Hypertension, with Engel right of centre and an unclimbed dagger further right.
Engel: a step of funky ice, a bit of steep drytooling, and then the goods: a long, sustained pitch of chandeliered ice to the lip of yet another avalanche bowl - and yet more dreams of ice on the next tier of cliffs. Photo: Jerome Yerly.
The dagger topping the second pitch resembled an icy missile, freehanging for over ten metres. Photo: Jerome Yerly.
We found what we came for on the third pitch. After all, as fun as the drytooling might have been, the ice above was always the real reason for coming this far. Photo: Jerome Yerly.
Looking out toward a stormy Divide from high on the climb. Photo: Jerome Yerly.
Engel, 85 m, M8 WI5+
FA: Raphael Slawinski and Jerome Yerly, February 2013
This spectacular line pours down a rockband halfway up the south face of Mt. Wilson. From the top of Hypertension half an hour of walking up a big snow bowl gets you to the base.
Pitch 1 (15 m, WI4+): Climb a short, deceptively steep step to a snow ledge and a 2-bolt belay.
Pitch 2 (20 m, M8): Follow bolts up and left to a big freehanging dagger. Gently peck your way up the left side of the dagger to a 2-bolt belay.
Pitch 3 (50 m, WI5+): Step right from the belay (locate a protection bolt over a small overlap just above the anchor) and climb steep, sustained ice to the top.
Rappel the route from a v-thread at the top and the 2-bolt station at the top of pitch 2.
At the start of the ice season another piece of frozen water high up on Wilson caught my eye. A spectacular narrow dagger, it dangled from the rock band above Dancing With Chaos, like a skyscraper with its bottom half removed. In late December Eamonn and I drove up the Parkway with enough technology (i.e. a power drill) to get up the thing; but, once we actually contemplated heading up there, we noticed just how much rock separated the broken-off dagger from the snow below. Eamonn wrangles rocks for a living, and he didn't want to spend the weekend doing more of the same. While my job is less physical, consisting largely of loudly stating the obvious, lately my weekends did in fact involve a fair amount of choss wrangling on a succession of projects. After only a moment's hesitation we dumped the bolting hardware from our packs and went ice climbing instead.
A few weeks later I read on Gery's blog about a new route he and Jon climbed on Wilson. For about a second and a half I felt a twinge of regret that we didn't head up to the dagger above Dancing With Chaos after all, before I realized that I had more on my new-route plate than I could handle. Instead, now I could just go climb the thing without doing the hard work of putting it up.
February was slipping away, and with clear skies and warm temperatures the clock was ticking for south-facing ice routes. In spite of a less than inspiring forecast I talked Ian into heading up to the route. The temperatures and the sun-crusted snow felt positively springlike as we hiked up the drainage below Dancing With Chaos. So did the bleached ice on that route, but fortunately the dagger of Cythonna a few hundred metres higher still glowed a healthy blue.
The drytooling on the first pitch wasn't especially powerful, but the creaky holds and widely spaced bolts held my interest, proving yet again that memorable climbing isn't just about pullin' down. At the top of the pitch, standing on a ledge immediately below the huge ice roof where the dagger had broken off, I realized all the bolting I'd been doing had made me soft. With no solid ice or rock gear to be had, I dubiously eyed Gery's and Jon's abalakov. It was drilled into a hump of unsupported ice and I wasn't keen to commit both Ian and me to it. Mumbling something about how I'd have put in a bolted anchor, I continued up fragile ice to a cave ten metres higher.
As is so often the case with these rock-to-unformed-ice concoctions, the rock on the first pitch may have been harder but the ice on the second was cooler. A chandeliered pillar with breathtaking exposure down to the pock-marked snow below, it provided a fitting finish to the route. From the top anchor we gazed at the pale quartzite towers on the summit ridge far above, and closer at hand at a large avalanche bowl baking in the afternoon sun. It was time to go down.
"[Dancing With Chaos] usually has a huge broken icicle on the rock cliff above." - Joe Josephson, Waterfall Ice, 4th edition.
Ian Welsted starting up a decaying Dancing With Chaos.
Cythonna resembled nothing so much as the top half of a skyscraper, with the unfinished bottom half littering the slope below.
Starting up the first pitch, with the object of our desire far above. Photo: Ian Welsted.
Nearing the end of the first pitch, with the broken dagger looming ominously overhead. Photo: Ian Welsted.
Leaving the belay... Photo: Ian Welsted.
... straight into some crazy and beautiful ice formations. In the end, isn't that the appeal of ice climbing? Not how hard it is, but how unlikely it is? Photo: Ian Welsted.
With less than a month to go until spring equinox, the sun packed a punch.