Sunday, May 18, 2014

Timing and hormones

A few stars have to line up to get up (or down) something cool in the mountains. And the bigger the something, the more stars it takes. Thus, as long as you're fit and coordinated enough to ride a bike, you'll do fine on Professor Falls. You need somewhat bigger quads and a slightly better swing, all on top of a decent weather forecast, to climb Nemesis. However, to make Slipstream a reasonable proposition, you'd better have put in enough miles earlier in the season that you can run up the route - and have waited for bomber snow conditions. But I might be overcomplicating matters. In the end, success in the mountains comes down to "timing and hormones," to borrow Choc Quinn's memorable phrase. The sky might be blue, the ice plastic (or the snow fluffy, if down and not up is the goal), but if your body - or mind - are not up to the task, you're going nowhere. Conversely, you might be champing at the bit, but if the ice you dreamed about turns out to be slush, or the powder you hoped for has been replaced by avalanche debris, you're not going far. Last month I had a couple of days like that, days when desire and reality clashed. Still, it might've been for the best. If you never fail, the occasional successes don't taste as sweet.


The thermometer on the dashboard dipped down to -15 C as Juan and I drove up the gravel road above Canmore. With not quite enough room in the back of the Impreza, the tips of my skis poked me insistently in the arm. Then I looked up at EEOR and forgot all about skiing. An intermittent ribbon of ice stretched down the line of Dropout, a summer rock route. We didn't have even an ice axe between us, but as we continued on our way toward perfect corn snow, we made plans to return.

A few days later we were back. The high pressure of the previous weekend had given way to largely cloudy skies, which made for a warm night. Still, there had been enough of a freeze that - some of the time, anyway - we were able to walk on top of the snow. Most of the time, though, we'd punch all the way through the hollow snowpack to the scree underneath.

We were dripping with sweat by the time we kicked steps to the base of the wall. From where we stood, craning our necks to look up at the hundreds of metres of cliff overhead, the line of ice appeared less substantial than it had a few days earlier. Neither did the sound of a steady stream of meltwater inspire confidence. But, having come this far, we had to at least try. 

Apart from a few small patches of snow, the first pitch appeared to be bare rock, and I said I thought it'd go more easily without crampons. Unfortunately Juan followed my advice, which caused his heart rate to spike repeatedly, as his boots would sketch off of snow-covered holds and he'd slam onto handjams or drytool placements.

I'd forgotten how much more snowy a cliff appears when you're looking down it rather than up. Balancing on a small ledge, I dug out my crampons while managing to drop only one glove. Having spikes on my feet made what was in fact a mixed pitch much more enjoyable. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

I'm not not sure why I kept my crampons on for the next pitch, which was mostly dry rock. I suppose I optimistically assumed I'd need them higher up, where the ice streak started. Unfortunately, where we stood tethered to some rusty pins, it was nothing more than a wet streak. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

In the end monopoints did turn out to be nice on edges and in shallow divots too small for boots. However, I never did need them for ice. When, from where the corner ended below an overlap, I reached over to the white stuff, the pick merely sliced ineffectually through wet slush. All around us the face was warming up and what ice there was was turning to water. It was time to go down.

By the time we'd rappelled off, the snow in the scree bowls had turned isothermal. We didn't relish the prospect of reversing the long traverse below the cliff, so we postholed straight down a rib: though wet cotton candy, soggy avalanche debris and finally dry junipers. It was barely afternoon when we drove back to the city.


A couple of weeks passed. The sun grew stronger each day, and the ice down Dropout retreated further and further up the cliff. I put it out of my mind, at least for this season. Instead, with the mountains still slumbering under a heavy mantle of of snow, I tried to make up for a winter of almost no skiing.

On another cold morning under a perfect blue sky Juan and I skinned up to Chester Lake. Juan had been touring in the area just a couple of days earlier and saw people enjoying perfect powder down the classic Chester Lake Couloir. We wanted in on the fun, which is why we got up long before sunrise on a weekday and drove out to the mountains for a ski hit before work. 

From across the valley I saw what looked like debris in the couloir. Hmm, could they just be large sloughs from the Sunday skiers? Somewhat disconcerted, we continued. Unfortunately, once we got closer, the debris turned out to be just that - debris. Sometime in the last thirty six hours some cornices fell off of the right wall of the couloir and cleaned out the powder. We bootpacked halfway up the icy bed of the gully before giving up.

The skiing was as unpleasant as we'd expected. Most of the time we stayed in four-wheel mode, bumping down hard avalanche debris. Only occasionally, where the couloir widened out, did we manage a few fun turns in soft snow.

A week later, after a big dump of snow, Juan came back and enjoyed deep powder all the way down the couloir. I was stuck in an all-day meeting, my FOMO exacerbated by his Spot updates. What can I say? It's all timing and hormones.