Friday, March 29, 2013

High on Wilson

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.

***

Engel

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.

***

Cythonna

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.

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.