Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Post-solstice blues

Solstice just passed. With barely eight hour of daylight and the occasional spell of minus-thirty weather, it may have felt like winter for some time already, but now it’s official. On my last outing, while attempting a chimney system on an obscure north face, spindrift repeatedly darkened the sky. At belays, Pete and I stamped our feet and swung our arms to avoid the dreaded “hot aches” (as my English companion euphemistically called them). Booting down a snow gully, the beams of our headlamps shone across a white, untracked surface, our steps from the morning already erased by fresh sloughs. “Avalanche!” Pete shouted. Instinctively I jumped to the side. Fortunately the slab that’d cut loose was a thin one. I enjoy winter climbing, I really do, but its pleasures can be of the masochistic variety. Maybe that’s why I’ve always liked climbing in late autumn: freshly formed ice, just a skiff of snow on the ground, temperatures barely below freezing...

However, this past fall I didn’t get out as much as I’d have liked to. Sometime in the middle of October, after an unseasonably warm day of sport climbing at the Coliseum, one of my elbows blew up. Overnight, this usually bony joint swelled up to Elephant-Man-like proportions, eliciting horrified looks from my climbing partners. Clearly some rest was in order. More than a whole frustrating month went by before I even started to think about pulling down again.

The Hole

“No locking-off involved?” I asked for maybe the third time.
Ian tried to reassure me: “Nope. Just a couple of steeper steps, the rest’s all scrambling.”
“Alright then, I suppose my elbow can handle that much.” I rationalized, itching to go climbing.

For the first few ropelengths the route lived up to Ian’s billing, then we arrived below “The Hole” – the feature that would eventually give the route its name.
“I wish this corner wasn’t quite so climbable.” I grunted.
Ian was surprised: “Isn’t that a good thing?”
“Not when it sucks you into going higher and higher with no gear, it isn’t.” I explained.
Fortunately, after some rooting around I placed enough stubbies in blobs of ice, and enough cams in almost-cracks to justify attempting the overhanging moves into the gully above. Unfortunately, dragging myself onto a water-worn, snow-covered slab did necessitate several lock-offs, my elbow protesting with little pings of pain. So much for it being all scrambling. Though, to be fair, I suppose Ian did say something about a steep step or two…

The north face of Mt. Lawrence Grassi offers some fine alpine terrain right above the busy town of Canmore.

We were glad to escape the wind on the ridge down Miner's Couloir, a.k.a. the Town Chute, later in the season a fine ski run.

We missed the start of our intended line, and ended up making a rising traverse back onto it.

Ian Welsted at the belay below The Hole.

Not scrambling anymore! Photo: Ian Welsted.

Above The Hole, several ropelengths of snow and broken rock gave way to surprisingly solid stone on the last pitch.

From the summit ridge, we contoured back to the notch at the top of Miner's Couloir, and our waiting packs and poles.

Saddam’s Insane

We met at the usual parking lot at the west edge of the city. It took us a while to get back onto the highway, as we waited for a gap in the long line of cars streaming eastward. Weekday climbing: a guilty pleasure for a weekend warrior like me. With Juan at the wheel, I tried not to spill hot water onto my lap while filling the mate gourd.

From the trailhead the crux pillar looked thin, but then it was several kilometres away. It would probably turn out to be quite substantial. The snow-covered riverside trail, the dry cobbles of the stream bed draining the big bowl above, the frozen scree slope leading to the start of the ice: it was all so familiar, yet also subtly different every time.

Climbing the initial ice steps, I realized I’d barely swung an ice tool since Chamonix in April. The first few times felt awkward and self-conscious, but my muscles quickly found their old groove. We roped up in a small cave, above which the ice reared up to vertical. Following the pitch, I imagined myself as one of the beginners in the climbing gym, with plastic tubes over my arms: “Don't bend your arms, don't bend them!”

Unfortunately the pillar didn’t look a whole lot more substantial from close up than it had from the valley floor. A mess of icicles tapered down to narrow column delicately balanced on a cauliflowered pedestal.
“I’ll just go up a few moves and see what it’s like.” I offered.
A few moves up, one leg flagging into space, the screw below me loosely spinning in its hole, I should’ve been having second thoughts. Instead I hooked up the hollow ice a couple more body lengths and spun in another useless screw. Why, to borrow Jeff’s memorable phrase, did I need to hang by my arms to avoid breaking my legs? I suppose the day I really required an answer would be the day I'd no longer need to do so. But on that grey, windy November day, precariously suspended on a sliver of ice high above the valley, the question never really occurred to me.

Saddam's Insane from the riverside trail.

Juan Henriquez scrambles up the initial ice steps.

November: fresh ice and barely any snow.

Why do we need to hang by our arms to avoid breaking our legs? I suppose because it's fun.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Summer's Almost Gone

"Summer's almost gone,
Summer's almost gone.
We had some good times,
But they're gone.
The winter's comin' on,
Summer's almost gone."

- The Doors

Steve Holeczi’s name appeared on call display.

“There’s a cool-looking corner system just left of Homage to the Spider. Wanna go check it out on Tuesday?”

I thought briefly about the sport-climbing fitness I’d lose by going into the mountains, but in the end adventure won out. I even agreed to meet at five in the morning.


After just a few minutes of wading through long, wet grass in the grey light of dawn, our shoes and pants were soaked. The sky might’ve been clear now, but the night’s downpour lingered in the mud on the trail and in the dark streaks on the rock faces above.

“The north side of Edith is completely wet. Think it’s worth walking all the way to Louis?” Steve wondered.

I’m a believer in Steve DeMaio’s saying, that no matter how a route looks, you just gotta go rub your nose in it.

“We’re already here. We might as well check it out,” I suggested.

We left the trail where it descended into Gargoyle Valley and traversed below the east side of Mt. Louis, awkwardly sidehilling across steep slopes of grass and shale. Pushing our way through a patch of small, dense trees left us soaked to the skin. However, we were elated to see the vertical corner of our desire was unaccountably dry. Maybe not altogether dry, as the bottom ten metres were a glistening black streak, but it looked climbable. A stretch of scrambling, made unpleasant by slick damp coating seemingly every foothold, and we were emptying our packs on a gravelly ledge below the streak.

I pulled on a few pieces as I splashed up the corner, rationalizing that what mattered today was getting as high as possible, before inevitably rappelling off. Higher up, where the crack turned gently overhanging, I was rewarded with dry, prickly rock. Arriving at a stance I pulled up the drill and sunk a couple of bolts into perfect grey stone. We were on our way.

A slightly damp Mt. Louis rises above Gargoyle Valley.

The east aspect of Mt. Louis, with the Diamond on the left and the Homage area on the right.

Steve Holeczi and Sam Eastman scramble toward the start of Homage - and of our proposed line.

Homage to the Spider starts up the big corner on the right. We tackled the corner to its left, capped by an overhanging ear.

Wet but still good climbing on the first pitch. Photo: Steve Holeczi.

The left-hand variation to the offwidth on the third pitch. Photo: Sam Eastman.


A month and another visit later we were back for the send. There was a sharpness to the early-morning air that, along with red leaves underfoot, spoke of changing seasons. A month earlier I’d sweated in a T-shirt and swatted mosquitoes on the approach trail, as it wound upward through tall conifers; now I wore fleece gloves. But the initial corner was dry, the holds and smears crisp in the yellow sunshine streaking over the ridges to the east. Unfortunately, by the time we were hanging below the ear capping the corner system, grey clouds had veiled the sky. As I started up the pitch, a snowflake landed on the sleeve of my windbreaker.

“Watch me,” I grunted down to Steve. “I can’t feel my toes.”

At least my fingers were warm as I squeezed and palmed my way across the underside of the ear. It helped that the driving graupel held off until we were changing into approach shoes on the huge platform above. Wearing every layer we’d brought, we scrambled toward the summit.

“Holy shit, check it out!” As the summit cross came into view, so did five figures just below it. The prospect of lineups on the rappels had us nearly running across the final stretch of ridge. I suppose I don’t always live up to the ideal of detachment and equanimity I aspire to. I clipped the chain of the first station mere seconds ahead of the French guide with two clients in tow.

“Vee have a hundred tventee meeter rope,” he said, dubiously eying our single cord.

“If we end up holding you up you can go ahead,” politely but firmly I stood my ground. But they were nowhere to be seen as we coiled the rope below the last rappel and happily skidded down toward the valley. Our project was finished – and so was summer.

Having a much dryer if colder time on the first pitch. Photo: Steve Holeczi.

Steve runs up the second pitch...

... and yours truly grovels up the third. Photo: Steve Holeczi.

Looking down the fourth pitch. Photo: Steve Holeczi.

Interesting climbing on the fourth pitch. Photo: Steve Holeczi. 

Moving around the ear on the fifth pitch. Photo: Steve Holeczi.

Easy but spectacular climbing up the fin on the fifth pitch.

Snow flurries blow down Forty Mile Creek.


Holeczi-Slawinski (250 m, 5.11-)
FA: Steve Holeczi and Raphael Slawinski (with help from Sam Eastman), September 1, 2014

This route climbs the corner system climber’s left of Homage to the Spider.

As per Homage to the Spider in Banff Rock. In that description there are two single-bolt “rappel” stations marked to access the start of that route. At the second bolt traverse climber’s right and up into the alcove above the Homage start in the big gully (prone to rockfall early in the season from snowmelt up high). There is a single bolt marking the start. The bottom 10 metres are often wet until early August but still climbable.

  1. 25 m, 5.10. A gently overhanging crack with good gear leads to a 2-bolt station.
  2. 50 m, 5.8. Climb the V-notch corner plugging cams into the crack in the back. After reaching a small ledge continue up the corner to a 2-bolt station below a short off-width.
  3. 40 m, 5.10. Sling chockstones or plug in the 5” for the wide section above the belay. Upon reaching a ledge, climb a stunning dihedral that turns into a “better than it looks” chimney leading to a 2-bolt station with a blank wall straight above and a chossy gully up and right. Note: An alternate 5.9R start to this pitch climbs around the offwidth on the left (fixed piton) but isn’t recommended.
  4. 50 m, 5.10+. An airy step left into the adjacent corner system leads to face climbing past bolts to a ledge. Continue past a mix of bolts and gear to a cruxy bulge, which leads to a 2-bolt semi-hanging belay below the overhanging “ear”. A single rack up to 4” suffices for this pitch.
  5. 35 m, 5.11- Climb slightly friable rock past bolts up and left around the “ear”. Once past the overhang, the crack starts to widen into a loose chimney/alleyway. Unless you enjoy groveling, don’t get into it. Instead, once past the last bolt, look to gain the fin on the right. Great rock with intermittent cracks for pro leads to a stance and a gear anchor. Only small-to-medium cams are needed for this pitch.
  6. 50 m, 4th. Climb along the exposed fin until it is easy to step left into the alleyway. Continue to  a huge ledge, which marks the top of Homage.

Continue to the top as per Homage to the Spider.

1 set TCUs, cams to 4” with doubles in 0.5-2” (optional 5” for 1 section)
15 draws (many extendables)

Friday, August 8, 2014

Mentoring on Denali


Humble Horse on the north face of Diadem Peak was my first “hard” alpine route. Or at least it was the first route I’d ever done where you couldn’t sit down anywhere. Stopping for a drink and a bite meant kicking out a foot ledge in the ice, hanging the pack from a screw, and carefully fishing out bottle and sandwich. Anything you dropped, be it a piece of ice or a snack, would end up in the ‘schrund hundreds of metres below. Still, given all the gear I dragged up and over the route, it couldn’t have been that hard. Empty, my pack weighed nearly three kilos. A board-stiff Gore-Tex suit, plastic boots, Footfangs, a Canadian Tire sleeping bag, a bulbous Peak 1 stove: today I wouldn’t like to hike with that kind of weight, much less climb vertical pitches with it. Luckily twenty years ago I didn’t know any better.

Cody Wollen on the first roped pitch of Humble Horse.


The night before the climb we slept comfortably, if briefly, in Jim Sevigny’s Eurovan. We were up long before the sun: balancing on wet logs across a stream, cramponing up hard snow below the face while unseen rockfall echoed from the walls, sparks lighting up the night. Dawn found us stepping across a gaping moat and onto the rock. As the sun rose higher in the sky and the shadows of the mountains on the valley floor grew shorter, we scrambled across loose ledges and up gritty slabs. Finally, butting up against a steep quartzite rib, we pulled out the ropes. Reaching between incut edges on a purple, vertical wall, I reveled in an unaccustomed lightness, the straps of my nearly empty pack barely tugging at my shoulders. My older partner liked to say that the only bivi gear you really needed were spare headlamp batteries. It seemed like a fine way to climb the big faces of the Rockies, and I tried to make it my own.

Jim Sevigny low on the east face of Mt. Chephren. 


I like the mountains up north. I like the endless days of late spring, the glaciers filling the valleys from wall to wall – and the massive blueberry pancakes at the Roadhouse in Talkeetna. When Steve House asked if I would join him as a mentor on a June trip to Denali, visions of the Alaska Range filled my head. But mentoring? What could I offer to twenty-something climbers who were probably stronger and fitter than me? Then I thought back to the long, long days Jim and I’d shared on the Rockies’ shattered rubble (Jim also liked to say that most alpine routes are day routes, provided you keep in mind that a day has twenty four hours). I might've been the stronger rock and ice climber, but without Jim’s experience to lean on I would’ve never launched up something like Chephren. Steve started Alpine Mentors to connect successive generations of alpinists. His idea struck a chord in me. Like Jim all those years ago, perhaps I also had something to offer to the youths.

The plan was to acclimatize to the summit on the West Buttress, then send the Cassin Ridge. In the end, an unusually stormy June didn't allow us anything more than repeated jaunts to the top by the normal route. Even so, we had a good time: skiing, camping and running up and down the mountain. The following photo essay offers some snapshots of our trip, beginning with an introduction of the dramatis personae.

The Alpine Mentors team: Buster Jesik,

Colin Simon,

Marianne van der Steen and...

... Steven Van Sickle.

Steve House, the main man of the Alpine Mentors program.

Every Denali expedition starts with a shopping trip. In a garage in Anchorage, Buster, Colin and Steve try to inject some order into a pile of food.

While we frantically pack for the flight to the mountains, Beaver the TAT cat relaxes on the tarmac of the Talkeetna airstrip.

The Susitna River, swollen by snowmelt, rolls away from the Alaska Range.

Two giants of the range: Mt. Hunter on the left and Denali on the right.

After the warmth and greenery of sea-level Talkeetna, the first night on the glacier feels unreasonably cold. Mt. Hunter peeks over the east ridge of Mt. Frances.

Carrying enough food and gear for a nearly three-week trip makes for heavy packs and sleds. It's still early in the day, and so Colin and Buster are still smiling.

As cold shade swallows up the eleven-thousand-foot camp, Mt. Foraker glows golden in late-evening sunlight.

Snow and cloud greet Buster at the fourteen-thousand-foot camp.

Having installed ourselves at the fourteen-thousand-foot camp, we start going on acclimatization hikes. On the spine of the West Buttress, Steve demonstrates efficient movement at altitude for Buster, Colin and Steven.

Heavy traffic on both the up and down fixed lines. Avoiding the lineups, Steven downclimbs.

On a sunny morning at the fourteen-thousand-foot camp, Marianne enjoys a precious fresh grapefruit.

More typical weather at the fourteen-thousand-foot camp.

Steven, Marianne, Buster and Steve (on kitchen duty) escape the weather in the kitchen Megamid.

After a spell of snowy weather, Steve doesn't let a bad-hair day get in the way of his enjoyment of a cloudless afternoon.

With Foraker over her shoulder, Marianne goes on an after-lunch hike to the seventeen-thousand-foot camp.

The sun sets over the West Buttress and tens of lakes in the tundra far below.

Not yet acclimatized, Steven, above Denali Pass, feels the effects of altitude on our first trip to the summit.

At the base of Pig Hill, the final rise to the summit ridge, Steven, Colin and Steve find some shelter from the wind to have a bite and a drink.

Steve and Steven take the last few steps to the top.

"We're acclimatized but the weather sucks. Now what?" Steven, Marianne, Colin, Buster and Steve make plans for the coming days.

Steven ventures off the beaten track and makes for the rarely visited North Summit.

An unusual perspective of the Main (South) Summit from near the North Summit.

Steven on the North Summit with the Pioneer Ridge disappearing into the clouds below.

Steven walks back down to Denali Pass over rock reminiscent of the finest Canadian Rockies' rubble.

Steve keeps up with his yoga practice at the fourteen-thousand-foot camp.

The final weather window isn't long enough for the Cassin Ridge, so Buster, Colin and I decide to run up to the summit one last time.

The summit ridge of Denali with Mt. Foraker in the distance.

Yours truly keeps up with his yoga practice on the summit.

The North Summit seen from near the Main Summit.

Buster descends the West Buttress below the seventeen-thousand-foot camp.

The following day we pack up and head down through clouds toward the lower Kahiltna Glacier and basecamp. We're lucky to catch a flight out during brief clearing, and later that same evening we're eating huge desserts and drinking beer in Talkeetna.

Steve psyched about real food in Talkeetna.

After a few days of the dolce vita in Talkeetna, the youths go home and Steve and I fly back onto the mountain, hoping for some climbing. The sight of Mts. Foraker, Hunter and Denali under cloudless skies has us fired up and feeling optimistic.

Unfortunately, the closest we come to climbing is glimpsing the southwest face through the murk from the top of the West-Rib Cutoff.

"I wonder what's going on: it's dark, quiet and I can't breathe." A couple of days we wake up to the tent buried to the roof. 

Blowing snow reveals the shortcomings of our open-air kitchen.

When the storm finally clears, the mountain lies under a deep mantle of snow. At least the decision's easy: down! 

Steve ploughs a trench (downhill, on skis) around the (for once) poorly named Windy Corner.

Lower down we bump over car-sized avalanche debris.

Fortunately nothing slides above or beneath us, and a few hours later we celebrate the end of our not-quite-climbing trip with beers in basecamp.

Thirty minutes later we leave snow behind for good. It's time to embrace summer.