Monday, December 28, 2015

Tainted Love

November 2014. Ian and I were gunning for The Hole, a natural arch in the middle of the north face of Mt. Lawrence Grassi, a prominent yet obscure wall above Canmore. But we missed the break leading up to it and instead found ourselves below The Gash. The thin ice dribbling out of the giant chimney looked innocent enough. It was only when I was halfway up the twenty-metre flow, picks wobbling in shallow placements, that I began to think I might have strayed over the line separating scrambling from soloing. Pulling onto a steep snow ledge, I spied faded cord connecting two bolts: relics of previous attempts on The Gash. But we hadn’t come for The Gash. Tying into the rope, we took off on a rising traverse in search of The Hole.

December 2014. The Hole route ended up being fun in an alpine kind of way, but the sport climber in me was drawn to the project on the wall. A couple of weeks later Ian and I, joined by young Sam, slogged back up to The Gash. This time, instead of traversing away from the plumb line, we continued straight up. Water-worn rock, frozen moss, unconsolidated snow – and more old bolts. After a couple of pitches they ran out. A slabby rock step, a short snowfield, and we entered the guts of The Gash. With Ian and Sam bundled up at the belay, I started up the overhanging back wall. Hooking frozen choss, hanging from tools, drilling bolts: an altogether too familiar anything-goes dance to get up the pitch.

In the grey light of dawn the wind washed over the bare scree on the ridge like a river. “Reminds me of the north side of Everest,” Steve shouted into my ear. “Not so cold maybe but feels cold with the wind.” Ian, always more of an alpinist than a sport climber, declared himself uninterested in my newest construction project. Instead, I convinced Steve and Juan that shivering for hours at a belay for while I aided and bolted would be a fun way to spend a dark December day. I forgot to mention the belay would be barely sheltered from all the rocks I’d be trundling. After all, who would’ve expected the shattered, overhanging fault line that’d become the crux pitch to have any loose rock?

Ian might’ve lost interest in The Gash but he stoked my obsession with it. “Pete’s from the UK, working at a climbing shop in town. He couldn’t believe when I told him The Gash was unclimbed and he’s thinking of heading up to check it out.” Once I got over feeling possessive about my project, Pete and I made plans for Friday. The day was forecast to be cold, but I was leaving for Hawaii on Sunday, and figured I would’ve plenty of time to warm up there. Racing fading daylight, I pulled on bolts to my previous highpoint. Then, with the terrain ahead merely vertical, I headed up armed only with cams and pins. Standing below a rock outcrop in the snow gully above, I pulled up the drill and made an anchor. On the way down I cleaned my rattly pins and drilled bolts. Next time I wanted gear that’d hold a fall.

January 2015. I fully intended to finish the job when I got back from Hawaii but weather and conditions conspired against me. Either it was too cold or too warm or too windy or avalanche hazard was too high. And when stars finally lined up, I’d lost my motivation for drytooling choss, preferring to carry it uphill instead to train for an upcoming Himalayan trip. Spring, then summer, came and went. Once again mornings dawned frosty and fresh snow powdered Mt. Lawrence Grassi.

October 2015. It was becoming clear that redpoints of my latest Echo Canyon projects would have to await the following year and hopefully stronger fingers. Shivering for a purpose is one thing, but shivering just to squeeze in another day of rock climbing didn’t appeal. My thoughts turned to unfinished business in The Gash. I considered finishing the job honestly, I really did: climbing from the bottom, hauling up an optimistic rack of gear and a realistic drill, and getting up what appeared to be the last steep pitch. But the prospect of dragging all that junk up the route only to run out of daylight, or to find the necessary ice wasn’t there yet, was too depressing. Thus it was I came over to the dark side. One sunny fall day, Wiktor and I scrambled to within a stone’s throw of the summit of Lawrence Grassi, and then dropped in to bolt the last overhanging pitch on rappel. On the bright side, the trundling, with no one below, was tremendous.

November 2015. “The route’s rigged, it just needs to be sent.” I thought it more likely Juan would be interested if he knew it wasn’t another aiding, bolting and standing-around mission. Young Colin was also in the Rockies from Colorado and we’d talked about going climbing. “How about this project I need to finish? Sport mixed in the alpine, should be good fun.” They were both game. For once it was a mild, windless day. The snowpack in Miner’s Gully and in the couloir below the route was also reassuringly solid. Perhaps I’d earned a treat after all the blustery, snowy days spent working on the route. Now all that was left was to climb it.

A few hours later all three of us stood tethered to the station below the crux corner. I eyed the largely decorative icicles dripping from the dihedral. “I haven’t really tried the moves before, so first I’ll just go up a few bolts to check out the holds,” I said as Juan put me on belay. “I’ll buy you a beer if you send the pitch first try,” he replied. Good point, I thought; might as well try. To my surprise, a few minutes later I was searching for a seam, an edge, anything to take a tool over the overlap where the wall kicked back to vertical. Blindly finding a hold, I released the bottom tool. If I fell off here, they’d hear about it down in Canmore. But the hold was good. Slowly, carefully, I hooked and torqued my way up the last few metres. While I belayed my friends up, I strapped the headlamp to my helmet. We’d be finishing the route properly: in the dark.

The north face of Mt. Lawrence Grassi from near the top of Miner's Gully. To quote Monty Python: "Forbidding, aloof, terrifying. The mountain with the biggest tits in the world." Well, maybe not.

Colin and Simon approach the route on a rare windless day.

Juan gets into the drytooling section on the first pitch...

... and cleans some snow on the second.

Juan comes up the snow slope on the third pitch, with the meanders of the Bow River far below.

Yours truly starts up the fourth pitch. Photo: Colin Simon.

"I'll buy you a beer if you send it first try." Yours truly starts up the crux fifth pitch. Photo: Colin Simon.

Sunset, always a melancholy sight from high on a climb.

Colin comes up the seventh pitch by headlamp (not his own).

On top! From left to right: Raphael, Juan and Colin.

The north face of Mt. Lawrence Grassi from Canmore, with the final part of the approach marked in yellow and the route in red.

Tainted Love, 320 m, WI3 M9
FA: Juan Henriquez, Colin Simon and Raphael Slawinski, November 28, 2015 (with help from Sam Eastman, Peter Holder, Wiktor Skupinski, Steve Swenson and Ian Welsted).

Gear: 15 or so draws including some double-length ones, Camalots #0.3-1, a couple of stubbies.

Approach: Park in the Goat Creek parking lot and hike up the backside of Ha Ling to the top of Miner’s Gully. You can leave gear here for the descent. Drop down the gully to where it opens up, then traverse to skier’s right (east) to below the big gash in the north face of Mt. Lawrence Grassi. Slog up the gully past a small ice step (buried later in the season) to the start of the route. 2-3 hours. This is big terrain so take care with snow conditions.

1) 40 m, WI3 M4. Climb low-angled ice to a snow ledge. If the ice is thin, some stubbies and cams may be reassuring. Pass a 2-bolt rappel station on your left and drytool up a bolt-protected corner on the right. 2-bolt belay on the left wall.
2) 40 m, M5. Climb the left-facing corner above the belay (ignore a single bolt out left from an earlier attempt). A couple of steeper moves lead to an insecure exit. Slog up snow to a 2-bolt station at the top of the gully above. This pitch is all bolt protected.
3) 40 m, M3R. Step down and right from the belay (#1 Camalot placement) and climb a short groove. Clip a fixed pin in the back of the groove and commit to easy but runout moves left and up. Slog up a small snowfield to a deep cave. 2-bolt belay on the right wall.
4) 50 m, M7. Drytool a chossy corner on the left to a steep exit. From the small ledge above, continue up a short right-facing corner. Scramble past a 2-bolt rappel station on your left and climb some thin ice on the left wall to a lower-angled ramp. 2-bolt belay. Some cam placements complement the bolt protection on this pitch.
5) 30 m, M9. Step right from the belay and enter an overhanging corner. Sustained drytooling with bad feet leads to easier terrain. Continue to a snow gully and a 2-bolt station on the right. This pitch is all bolt protected.
6) 70 m. Scramble up snow and easy ice to a 2-bolt station at the base of an overhanging corner.
7) 20 m, M6. Drytool up and right below the big roof. From the groove above, step right to a 2-bolt belay on a small ledge. This pitch is all bolt protected.
8) 30 m. Scramble to the top. A 2-bolt station is on the right just below the lip but will probably be buried in snow.

Descent: Since all stations are bolted, it’s possible to rappel the route. However, it’s probably faster (though not completely straightforward) to descend the backside with some rappelling and downclimbing. To do so, follow the ridge west to the top of a short step. Downclimb or rappel the step on the north side from a rock thread. Scramble down to the top of a chimney and rappel it from a bolt-and-pin station on skier’s left (south). Continue scrambling down paralleling the ridgeline, then drop down a broad gully to skier’s left (south). There are a couple of rappel stations on the skier’s left wall of the gully (fixed wires and rock threads). It’s possible to scramble down this terrain, but  it would be unpleasant if it’s snow-covered and/or dark. From the scree slope below the last rappel, contour back up to the top of Miner’s Gully, with one last bit of downclimbing just before the col.