Monday, December 19, 2016

"Wild Climbs in the Rocky Mountains" show in Calgary this Wednesday

Dave Cheesmond was the driving force behind most of the hard new alpine routes done in the Rockies in the 80's. He was fond of saying that if you could climb here, you could climb anywhere. You can quibble about the details ("What about high altitude?"), but not the gist of his pithy phrase. Compared to Alaska or the Himalaya, the Rockies, with their crumbling rock and modest height, are not the sexiest mountain range around. But it's likely easier to get up a big peak in Alaska, with its perfect snowpack and granite, or in the Himalaya, with porters carrying your stuff to basecamp (and sometimes higher), than to fight your way up a remote north face in the Rockies. This coming Wednesday, at the Mappy Hour YYC, I'll tell some stories from our own mountain backyard, and try to convince you that if you want adventure, there's really no need to go anywhere else. I hope to see you there.

Eamonn Walsh gains the summit ridge of Mt. Alberta on his way to making the first winter ascent of the peak. Why go anywhere else?

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Afternoon alpine


Kolin was up in the Rockies for the August long weekend, escaping a sweltering Salt Lake City. He spent one day multipitching in Echo Canyon, the next on the Icefields Parkway... It made me tired just thinking about it, but it was standard fare for Kolin. After all, a weekend jaunt to the Rockies is nothing for the man who's attempted Mt. Huntington round-trip in an extended weekend.

On his last day in the Crumblies, an outing with yours truly was on the agenda, but there was a catch. Kolin's a huge Tragically Hip fan, and he had tickets to the farewell show at the Saddledome. This posed a bit of a conundrum, as he was also keen to do something with an alpine flavour. I hardly need mention that unless you're in Chamonix, alpine climbing and being home early generally don't go together. I racked my brain for something close to the city, close to the road, yet a bit out there. Then I remembered The Wedge. This small peak has long been one of my favourite after-work training scrambles, but I've also managed to find some quality adventure on its steep north side.

The "green bible" describes the Northwest Ridge in typically terse fashion: "One hard pitch on this; a party had climbed the upper part of this ridge in the early 1950's." I'd done it before and vaguely recalled a fun romp. All the same, I managed to lose us on the approach, resulting in some unnecessary bushwhacking. Never mind, soon enough we emerged from the thickets of lodgepole pine onto steep grassy slopes. A quick scramble led to the long ridge extending west from the mountain. To begin with, as we ambled along it in shorts, the route didn't feel very alpine. However, by the time we were donning extra layers in the shade of the summit block, it began to show some promise.

Unfortunately the alpine feeling was short lived. After only three ropelengths of gravelly gullies and loose blocks I pulled onto the rubble of the summit ridge. Good low-stress fun - or so I thought, until a careless step sent a volley of rocks down the corner I'd just come up. From fifty metres below, I heard the cry of a direct hit. Damn! Why did I insist on simulclimbing instead of stopping and finding a sheltered belay? Luckily Kolin's arm, which took the brunt of the impact, wasn't broken. Even so, by the time he joined me at a hastily thrown together anchor, it was already stiffening up. Over the ensuing days the arm turned a dazzling succession of yellows and purples. Maybe there's no such thing as wholly casual mountaineering after all. On the flip side, Kolin did make it to the Hip show with time to spare.

The initial grassy ridge, with the summit block of The Wedge in the distance. Photo: Kolin Powick.

Further on, the broad grassy sidewalk turns into a narrow rocky spine. Photo: Kolin Powick.

Eventually the terrain gets steep enough - or perhaps just chossy enough - to warrant a rope, and maybe even some shiny toys. Photo: Kolin Powick.

From the summit, the Kananaskis Range unfolds to the west out in all its dry summer glory. Photo: Kolin Powick.

Upon returning to the Wasatch, Kolin was understandably psyched to still have use of his arm. Photo: Kolin Powick.

He also took great glee in sending me graphic updates. Photo: Kolin Powick.


Rob emailed me that he'd be up in the Rockies in December guiding, and did I want to get out on the weekends? Even though it'd be getting toward final exams at the uni, with all the attendant end-of-semester craziness, I was game. The first Saturday of the month we enjoyed a good day on a rarely formed ice route on Mt. Kidd. With little snow and mild temperatures, it still felt like autumn. Unfortunately, it proved to be the last day of that gentle season. Sunday was an altogether different story: snowy and blustery, with the mercury dropping through the day as a cold front pushed into the range. Drytooling on Grotto Mtn. was more reminiscent of mixed climbing on the Stanley Headwall, with spindrift coating everything and fingers freezing repeatedly

The mercury kept dropping all week. The following weekend, with highs around minus twenty (we're talking metric here), standing around while belaying held little appeal. I suppose on days like that there's always skiing, but I'm just not a skier at heart. If anything, I'm a peak bagger. I like standing on summits, however humble they might be. And the one good thing about snow and cold is that they can transform even a modest bump into a full-sized adventure. So it was that Saturday morning found Rob and me driving down Highway 40, with little gear but lots of layers, intent on - let's call a spade a spade - a slog. It's a good thing we both enjoy slogging.

Hiking up the drainage below the north side of The Wedge was a sweaty, snowy affair, and it left us soaked from the inside out. On the shoulder above, as we emerged from the trees and the wind picked up, we covered the wet layers with more layers and ploughed on. Crampons scratching around on a snow-covered slab, I could hardly believe this was the same mountain I'd speed hike in runners and shorts on summer evenings. At one point along the summit ridge, a snowy knife edge had us shuffling along √† cheval. A knife-edged ridge on the scrambling route on The Wedge? I never knew there was one until last weekend.

We lingered on the summit just long enough to drain our thermoses and take some obligatory selfies. The weak December sunshine didn't give much warmth, and even a mild breeze seemed to cut through all the layers. Pushing the neck gaiter back up over my nose, carefully I began scrambling down behind Rob.

"Good choice, eh?"

"Yeah, fun outing."

Rob engages in what looks suspiciously like mixed climbing on the scrambling route on The Wedge.

Higher up on the summit ridge, even a mild breeze calls for more layers.

A knife edge on normal route on The Wedge? Who knew?

An icy haze covers the Kananaskis Range. What a difference four months makes!

Still, there's something about standing on even a modest summit in deep December that brings a smile - or grimace - to one's face. Photo: Robert Smith.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Talking and climbing in Squamish

Earlier this month I spent a week in Squamish, taking in and taking part in the Arc’teryx Academy. The event kicked off with a slide show by Peter Croft. The adjective “legendary” is overused but it applies to Croft. I’d never seen the man in person before, and while cragging in the Bulletheads that afternoon we kept an eye on the time so as not to miss his show. As it was, he was already being introduced when we squelched our way through wet grass and tried to squeeze in under the crowded awning to escape the rain. Mixing humour with wisdom, Croft told stories of his early days in Squamish, from false starts on Sentry Box, his first 12a, to multi-hour soloing circuits. The soaked Chief rising above the town provided a fitting backdrop.

My own contribution to the festival was much more prosaic, consisting of teaching a clinic on alpine systems with Tim McAllister and a seminar on expedition planning with Steve Swenson. What are alpine systems, you ask? Before the clinic I asked myself the same question and tried to distil ways of thinking and doing that have worked for me in the mountains. In a very small nutshell, here’s what I came up with:
  • Not every alpine climb is a race with shadows, but on many mountain routes you do want to get up and down reasonably quickly. As such, whatever you do should be done with an eye to efficiency.
  • Faced with a stretch of terrain, you have three options: pitch it out, simul-climb it or solo it. Chances are on any big route you’ll find yourself switching between these techniques several times through the day.
  • Use the terrain wisely when belaying pitches. Sometimes cutting a pitch short can be faster, if it means taking advantage of an easily gotten anchor and/or avoiding brutal rope drag.
  • When simul-climbing, make sure the rope is actually protecting you. Don’t fall into the trap of being roped together if all the rope’s doing is ensuring everyone will fall together.
  • Get good at retreating off of routes lacking established rappel anchors. There’s nothing as confidence inspiring when starting a big, adventurous climb as knowing you can get off of it safely and efficiently if you have to.
  • In many mountain ranges, but especially in the Canadian Rockies, that means knowing how to pound pitons. When venturing off the beaten track, consider bringing a hammer and a small selection of pins. And learn how to place a pin before you need to rappel from one. 
In the expedition-planning seminar, while we did talk about the nitty-gritty of putting together an expedition to Alaska or Pakistan, we focused on the bigger picture:
  • Are expeditions for you? If what you really want is to do a bunch of climbing, you’re better off staying in your home range or going on a climbing trip to an established destination.
  • Make sure you and your partner(s) have similar levels of skill, fitness, patience and risk tolerance. A mismatch in any one of these categories can make the experience a miserable one for everyone.
  • Choose your objective wisely. Be ambitious but realistic. Accept that you’ll go through a learning curve and, unless you’re exceptionally lucky, probably won’t do the climb of a lifetime on your first expedition.
  • Dig beneath news flashes and do some research: comb through journals, pore over maps and talk to people who’ve actually been where you want to go.
Talking about climbing is fun, but actually climbing is even more fun. And so, as soon as the talking was done, I went climbing. It being Squamish, it rained nearly every day, but I still managed to touch dry rock every single day. Below are some snapshots from what felt, to a visitor from the dry side of the mountains, like climbing in a rain forest.

The north walls, with the pale scar of the Sheriff's Badge. Conveniently, it stays dry in the rain.

Robert Rogoz, aka Polish Bob, approaches the Sheriff's Badge.

Yours truly on pitch 1 of Daily Planet, a fantastic ropelength of stems and finger locks. Photo: Robert Rogoz.

A stem provides a convenient no-hands rest before the crux, which is where it should be, right before the anchor. Unfortunately the combination of fingertip cracks and smeary feet spelt the end of my OS attempt. Photo: Robert Rogoz.

Bob shakes out as he approaches the crux...

... and liebacks the thank-god flake above it.

The second pitch starts with some squeeze-chimney action.... Photo: Robert Rogoz.

... and finishes with a surprisingly burly hand crack.

A Squamish slug epitomizes the wet coast.

Yours truly contemplates a short but cryptic route on Nightmare Rock. Photo: Laurel Fan.

Me: "I can't believe how humid it is. I'm sweating just standing around."
Laurel: "This isn't humid."
Photo: Laurel Fan.

An unusual perspective on Nightmare Rock. Photo: Laurel Fan.

The Grand Wall, the centrepiece of Squamish climbing.

Yours truly starts up the fun runouts of Mercy Me. Photo: Robert Rogoz.

Bob throws in the last few jams on the Split Pillar...

... before the obligatory last bit of squeeze chimney.

One of the cruxes of the Sword pitch is reaching up from a burly lieback and snagging the chain at the start of the bolt ladder.

Speaking of burly liebacks, yours truly happily clips the bolts on Perry's Lieback. We rappelled from the top of that pitch. I had a plane to catch at YVR, and Vancouver downtown traffic to negotiate to get there. Photo: Robert Rogoz.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Alaska bound

Three years ago, in 2013, Ian Welsted and I enjoyed a successful trip to Pakistan. We did a bunch of good climbing and even managed to summit what was, by Karakoram standards, a moderately big peak. Two years ago I went north to Denali with Alpine Mentors, presumably to impart some alpine experience to four talented climbers half my age. But all that June the weather in the Alaska Range was atrocious, and during the entire four-week trip we didn't swing a tool once. Then last year I got ambitious. Daniel Bartsch, David Gottler and I figured that if we were going to climb Everest, we might as well do it in alpine style by a new route. When the earthquake struck we hadn't even put our crampons on.

Ian Welsted curses the hot afternoon sun as he swings and kicks his way up a moderate ice pitch on the northwest face of K6 West.

Steven Van Sickle hikes up to the north summit of Denali. No swinging required.

Yours truly on a nameless bump in Tibet, with Everest in the distance. Even though the bump in question was taller than Denali, sturdy hiking shoes was all it took to get up it. Photo: David Gottler.

Tomorrow Juan Henriquez and I are leaving behind the warm rock and fresh greenery of spring in the Bow Valley and heading north, bound for the icy giants of the Alaska Range. There's something about the place that keeps drawing me back. I don't know if it's the endless ice runnels framed by walls of perfect granite, or the endless days of subarctic mountains as summer solstice approaches. But this time I figure the bar is set low: after my last couple of trips, I'll consider this one a success if I get to swing a tool.

If you know Juan and me, it won't come as a surprise when I tell you than we're not social media fiends. There'll be no real-time Facebook updates from the north buttress of Hunter or south face of Denali. But if you're curious if we're festering or sending, you can always check the Alaska trip links on this blog: the tracks from our inReach and the Kahiltna base camp webcams (the blue dot north of Anchorage).

See you back in the Rockies in June.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

May Day on the A-Strain

Tiles of black and yellow limestone shimmered in the late-afternoon sun as we pounded down the faint trail below the Athabasca-Andromeda glacier. A dashed line on the dirty surface of a snow patch showed where our boots had barely dented its frozen surface less than twelve hours earlier. Now we waded through isothermal slush, plunging down to scree with every step. It was only the first day of May, but the warm air had the soft, wistful touch of summer.

I felt both old and young. How many times have I walked down these moraines since an August day a quarter of a century ago, after my father had led my brother and me to the top of Athabasca? There've been so many afternoons like the one today, running down the trail worn into limestone rubble, feeling a familiar mixture of fatigue and happiness. I tried to see Andromeda, Snow Dome, Kitchener, all the big peaks clustered around the grey tongue of the Columbia Icefield below, as a wide-eyed twenty-something might've seen them. I tried and failed. The chimneys and gullies slicing through the layered cakes of the mountains were old friends now, not the strangers they'd once been. The twenty-something wasn't the same person as the sunburnt, grizzled man who'd replaced him. What hadn't changed was the need that'd driven the younger me, and that seemed to drive me still. 

The northeast face of Mt. Andromeda on a crisp May morning, with the obvious shadowed gash of the Andromeda Strain.

Juan Henriquez kicks steps up neve blasted hard by spindrift in the lower couloir of the route.

Alik Berg shuffles across a steep ledge of snow-covered choss halfway up the route.

The oldest member of the party starts up the rock pitch above the ledge. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Alik Berg makes the last few moves up the rock before it backs off into the upper couloir.

Unfortunately these days you need to tiptoe up another half a ropelength of low-angled mixed ground before you reach thick ice.

The upper couloir resembles nothing so much as a giant luge run.Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Alik Berg strikes a classic pose on the traverse to the exit ice pitch.

Leaving an ankle-wrenching belay on sixty-degree ice, Juan Henriquez steps onto the legendary traverse.

Alik Berg contemplates where the cornice guarding the summit might be the smallest.

From the summit, the entire Columbia Icefield lies spread out in the afternoon sun.

The same route, a different millenium: a wide-eyed twenty-something experiences the Andromeda Strain for the first time. Photo: Pete Takeda.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Romancing the Ghost

When I returned from Scotland at the beginning of February, I hadn’t swung my tools in a while. The climbing in Scotland was all about rimed up rock (and atrocious weather, but that’s another story). And even before I left Canada, in order to prepare myself for the fabled Scottish mixed climbing I’d eschewed fat ice in favour of rock, the more snowed up and traditional in flavour the better. By the time I got back from the land of tenuous hooking and three-hour leads, I craved fast, smooth movement. With iffy avalanche conditions deeper in the mountains, Juan and I headed into the Ghost. His expert driving and a newly bulldozed track got us to within a half-hour walk of the blue pillars of Fang and Fist. We squeezed every bit of ice out of the climb, even the rolling steps higher up. After rappelling off, we backtracked to the main drainage and boulder hopped up it for another half hour, hoping to spot some ice on the impressive rock walls looming on all sides.

“A waste of rock,” was how Juan summed up our fruitless search.

Back at the truck, we had a bite of lunch then drove a couple of kilometres back to the mouth of another drainage. We figured the free-standing pillar at the start of Going to the Sun Highway would nicely round out a day of swinging tools. It did that, but the hike up the frozen streambed, so much more pleasant than the cobbles of Malamute Valley, was memorable for another reason. As we rounded a corner, the wall at the head of the creek we were crunching up in our crampons came into view.

The cirque at the back of the valley, with the Blind Date wall low down, Bad Romance up and right and unclimbed (?) left of Bad Romance.

“Whoa! What’s that?” I stopped to get a better look. A black rock wall adorned by crazy ice blobs looked like a mixed climber’s dream. Higher in the alpine cirque discontinuous ice lines beckoned. Over the next few weeks a few friends and I explored the valley’s potential: soaking our feet after breaking through creek ice, tiptoeing gingerly across drum-tight snow slopes, having our eyes welded shut by blistering spindrift, falling out of control when a tool placement ripped. But all the while, we couldn’t think of too many other places we’d rather be. Below are our finds, with potential for more. I hope you’ll get up there to check them out, before spring arrives all too soon.


Bad Romance with the belays marked.

Bad Romance, 130 m, M7 WI4

FA: Juan Henriquez and Raphael Slawinski (with guest appearances by Seb Taborszky and Paul Taylor), February 21, 2016

Approach: Start hiking as for Going to the Sun Highway, but instead of turning into the side drainage on the right that holds that route, continue up the main drainage. Hike up the frozen creek, bypassing open pools through trees on the right. At the head of the creek, head up and right on windblown scree slopes to a rock band directly below the route (the right one of two major ice lines). Either scramble directly through the rock band (recommended) or make a long end run on snow ledges going right, then back left. The snow ledges are steep and unsupported and, unusually for the Ghost, avy hazard is a real concern. 2 hours.

Pitch 1 (30 m, WI3R): Climb a thin flow of low-angled ice to a snow ledge. Belay at a short curtain. Other than a wire placement at the start and a screw and/or thread 20 metres up, there isn’t much gear to be had but the climbing isn’t hard.

Pitch 2 (40 m, WI3): Climb the curtain to a fun narrow runnel. Where the runnel widens into a broad shield, climb up and right to where the ice runs out below a roof. A couple of dry moves gain a 2-bolt anchor. This pitch protects well with screws but there are also some wire and cam placements on the left wall.

Pitch 3 (60 m, M7 WI4): Climb bolt-protected rock with the occasional small ice blob to a hanging curtain. The first few moves from the belay are the crux, with small and slippery hooks, but the climbing quickly eases. Once on the ice, climb moderate ice to where it ends in a rock overlap.

Descent: Rappel the route. Rather than swinging into the 2-bolt station, it may be easier to make a v-thread above the hanging curtain.

Gear: Screws (including some stubbies), a few small-to-medium Stoppers, Camalots #0.4 and 0.5.

Juan approaches Bad Romance on our first attempt, soaked feet and all, as spindrift pours down the wall.

Alpine ambience from a rats' cave.

Windloaded slopes above cliffs. Spooky!

Juan taps his way up the first pitch...

... and I try to keep snow out of my hood on the second. Photo: Juan Henriquez.


Blind Date (in red) and Orgasmotron (in yellow) with the belays marked.

Blind Date, 90 m, M7+ WI5

FA: Jeff Mercier and Raphael Slawinski, February 16, 2016

Approach: Start hiking as for Bad Romance, but at the head of the creek head up windblown scree slopes directly to the route. 1.5 hours.

Pitch 1 (20 m, M7+ WI3): Climb steep, nicely featured rock past 6 bolts to where a step right gains the ice flow above the roof. Climb 5 metres of thin, low-angled ice to a ledge and a 2-bolt anchor on the left.

Pitch 2 (40 m, WI3): An aesthetic pitch gains a large, comfortable ledge below the upper mixed wall. Belay at a bolt-and-pin anchor. The station at the top of pitch 1 is a bit exposed to falling ice so take care while leading.

Pitch 3 (30 m, M6+ WI5): A classic pitch of mixed climbing that moves from rock to ice to rock back to ice. The climbing is mostly bolt protected, but a few screws are needed for the upper ice. Belay at a 2-bolt anchor. With another couple of bolts, this pitch could be extended another 10 metres up the last hanging dagger.

Descent: Rappel the route. With 60-m ropes, you can bypass the station at the top of pitch 1.

Gear: Screws (including some stubbies).

Jeff Mercier and I tromp up the frozen creek on our way to Blind Date. After all, we did meet for the first time just earlier that morning. Photo: Julien Ferrandez.

Jeff bolts the first pitch. It's work but the fun kind. Photo: Julien Ferrandez.

All the same, it's a lot more fun to just climb. Photo: Julien Ferrandez.

Above the crux on the first pitch. Photo: Julien Ferrandez.

A bit later, on the third pitch, it's my turn to climb with a whole load of hardware hanging off my harness. Photo: Julien Ferrandez.

Jeff styles the third pitch. Photo: Julien Ferrandez.


Orgasmotron, 100 m, M7+ WI5

FA: Juan Henriquez and Raphael Slawinski, February 28, 2016

This is a one-pitch variation to Blind Date. The last pitch is a must-do, a fantastic piece of mixed climbing.

Pitches 1 and 2 (60 m, M7+ WI3): Climb the first 2 pitches of Blind Date to the large, comfortable ledge. Move 10 metres right and belay at a blob of solid ice at knee height.

Pitch 3 (40 m, M7 WI5): Drytool past a bolt to a short ice flow. From its top, move up and left past more bolts into a corner and follow it to a rotten alcove. From the right side of the alcove, drytool over a roof and up smooth rock on small, well-spaced hooks. From an ice blob continue more easily to a hanging curtain. Another 10 metres of ice leads to a 2-bolt belay on the right. With another bolt or so, this pitch could be extended another 5 metres to a more comfortable ledge.

Descent: Rappel the route.

Gear: Screws (including some stubbies), up to 14 draws (including some double-length ones), a few small-to-medium Stoppers (optional).

Yours truly prepares to murder the impossible on Orgasmotron. Photo: Juan Henriquez.