Monday, March 9, 2015

The Headwall

"Let's go to the Headwall tomorrow."

And that's all that needs to be said. When Rockies' ice climbers talks about the Headwall, there's only place they could be talking about. In the twenty-odd years I've been ice climbing (has it really been that long?), I spent a lot of time in its cold, blue shadow. Some seasons it seemed like I did half of my climbing there. A couple of years ago I put in seven days just on The God Delusion: stumbling over snow-covered scree in December, skiing up loaded down with rack, drill and avy gear in January, either way coming out by headlamp. But this year, February was already more than half gone and I still hadn't been to the Headwall. I began to feel an unease, a feeling of guilt almost, as if I'd neglected to visit an old friend. All the same, I needed a reason to go; otherwise I'd just be going through the motions.

While hanging out on an unloved face above Canmore that was Ian's latest obsession, he told me he'd been to the Headwall a few days earlier to have a look at Rhamnusia. Classy mixed climbing, thinnish ice, loose but bolted rock, he said. It was good enough for me. Even better, I hadn't climbed the route before, a rare treat at the Headwall.

"What do you want to do on the weekend?" Bob asked. Polish Bob, a long-time friend, was in the Rockies for a week, and we were both looking forward to climbing together.

"There's a route left of Nemesis that could be interesting." Living in the warm, wet Pacific Northwest, Bob hadn't done any mixed climbing this winter, so I kept my answer deliberately vague. After all, he might decide that chossy M8 halfway up the Headwall wouldn't be the best choice for the first mixed route of the season. My ploy worked.

"Are you walking or skiing?"

"Skiing. See you at the edge of town at six."

I packed the rock and ice gear, set the alarm for five and went to sleep. It felt like old times.

The Headwall seen from where the summer trail enters the hanging valley, with French Reality, Nightmare on Wolf Street and Acid Howl visible. And that's only the beginning.

There more - much more - up the valley: Man Yoga...

... Suffer Machine, Nemesis, Killer Pillar...

Rhamnusia, a fine Sean and Shawn creation, follows the obvious discontinuous line of ice left of Nemesis.

The first pitch offered real mixed climbing: one tool tapped into a veneer of ice, the other torqued in a crack.

The ice at the start of the second pitch was a bit on the thin side. Fortunately intermittent cracks gave great protection.

On crux fourth pitch, overhanging choss...

... lead to a gravity-defying dagger.

"I've got to start drytooling again!" a pumped but psyched Bob gasped as he topped out on the fourth pitch.

The last pitch of steep, blue ice was a fun formality. Soon I was standing on flat ground, pulling my hood on against the wind sweeping down from the glacier above. The scoured slopes across the valley shone yellow in the afternoon sun. Yes, it was just like old times at the Headwall. The following weekend I was back for more.


  1. Hi Raph, would like to get in touch with you re: an ice route I climbed in Kananaskis this past weekend. It is 4 hours up Galatea Creek. Would like to know if it has been climbed and has a name. Thanks!

  2. Steven,

    I think I know the ice you mean. I've seen it over the years when I've been up Galatea Creek. I always thought it looked really cool and alpine, but could never psych myself up for the approach. Good on you for having the gumption to go all the way back there and climb it! I haven't heard of it being done before, and while it's possible it'd been climbed, I think it unlikely. In other words, I'd say go ahead and name it! And either way I imagine you had a cool adventure on it, which is all that matters in the end.


  3. Hey Raph,
    Good work on Rhamnusia! I was with Ian on his attempt and you certainly vlipped my leaver biner on the M8 pitch. That sweet looking dagger has been haunting me since. Great looking piece of ice.

  4. Jazz,

    Thanks! Yes, I did grab a couple of leaver biners from the pitch. They're yours if you want them, otherwise they'll end up getting fixed at El Dorado. And speaking of choss, I thought there was karmic justice in me complaining on the M8 pitch that it could've been cleaned better. Still, fun route!