Wednesday, April 23, 2014

From the diary of a weekend warrior: Prairie Mountain

"You weren't kidding when you said you weren't in top shape these days," Ian said. I tried to think of a witty rejoinder but nothing better than "Nope" came to mind. I lifted a leg and plunged it into the faceted snow in front of me. When I weighted it, it sank in to mid-thigh. Awkwardly pulling the other leg out of the depths, I repeated the process.

Ploughing through bottomless facets to the Trophy Wall on Mt. Rundle can feel like a workout at the best of times. Yet somehow the steep trees and crotch-deep snow seemed especially trying today. At long last we crested the rib below the routes and traversed onto wind-scoured scree. Crossing one last lee-loaded slope, we contoured just below where the snow petered out into bare rock, before dropping our packs in a wind scoop. I would've liked to linger and enjoy lunch high above the valley floor but snow crystals swirled in sudden gusts around our alcove, and bare fingers quickly grew numb. In between swinging our arms, we choked down some bars and banana bread, washing them down with drink mix. Throwing the ropes on our backs, we pulled over a short rock wall onto the slope below the climbs. Another fifty metres and we'd be done with uphill walking for the day.

Ian Welsted ploughing through the usual crappy front-range snowpack below the Trophy Wall on Mt. Rundle.

The smear below the roof on Haunted by Waters, the direct mixed start to Sea of Vapours. Photo: Ian Welsted.

A solid tool cam - or at least as solid as a Rockies' limestone flake can be -  allowed a long reach to the clip. I relaxed, knowing a fall now would be just a boing in the air. Photo: Ian Welsted.

Now that's what I call mixed climbing! After a winter of lock-offs and big dry roofs, I still got pumped on a humble single-digit M-climb. It's funny the difference it makes having to swing into ice, rather than merely reaching up to a slot. Photo: Ian Welsted.

The second pitch offered more classic mixed movement: one monopoint on a rock edge, another in delaminated ice, one pick torqued in a thin crack while the other stretched for more ice. Photo: Ian Welsted.

On the third pitch we connected with the standard line of Sea of Vapours. Even in a lean season it'd seen enough traffic to create a pegboard up the ice. Come to think of if, some of the holes were of my own making

The last few metres to the top belay. Yeah, it's just the same old Trophy Wall, but what a place to ice climb!

At the end of the day, as we boot skied toward the valley and our bikes, I found myself thinking about a humble hill near my home rather than the world-class ice we'd just enjoyed. I hadn't forgotten Ian's comment from earlier in the day, and I knew he was right. I wasn't in good shape, and with the long, cool days of spring just around the corner, it was time to do something about it. And that meant running up Prairie Mountain after work.

True, I could just don my running shoes and hit the riverside trails 5 minutes from my house. And sometimes I do just that. But even though it's nothing more than rounded hill, Prairie Mountain is still a mountain of sorts. It stands at the threshold of the Rockies, and from its bald crown you can look west at the jagged ridges of the front ranges. When a Chinook sweeps in, the wind howls above the forest and whips the snow into a cornice, which always looks slightly ridiculous next to a well-worn trail. A few days later, with the sun throwing long shadows across the mosaic of melting snow and yellow grass, you can be down to a T-shirt in the warm evening air - air that still feels raw in your throat as you try to beat your best time to the summit cairn. It's on Prairie Mountain that I try to make my lungs and legs strong before trips to Alaska and Pakistan. Maybe I'll see you there this spring.

The foothills of the Rockies, a great playground for the working stiffs of Calgary a half an hour to the east. If you're a regular, you might even be able to spot Prairie Mountain. Hint: look for Moose Mountain first. Another hint: neither is much of a mountain.

A spring ground blizzard near the top of Prairie Mountain.

It's only 700 vertical metres, but depending how you play it, it can be enough to get your legs and lungs in shape.