Sunday, January 24, 2016

Beware expectations

I’ve been bashing ice in the Rockies for longer than I care to admit (but coming up on a quarter of a century). When you’ve slogged up a particular valley or bowl more than once (or twice or thrice), it’s hard to keep your mind free of preconceptions. The resulting experience ends up being as much about the baggage of expectations you carry up as it is about the snow, ice and rock beneath your crampons and tools. The beginner’s mind proves as elusive as it is clichĂ©d.


N’Ice Baby, WI5

“… an excellent route offering a good compromise of excellent ice with difficult, but not unrelenting steepness.”
      Joe Josephson, Waterfall Ice Climbs in the Canadian Rockies

Rather than type yet another text, I decided to shortcut the exchange. I dialled Jon’s number just as he was about to dial mine.
“The forecast is for high winds, not ideal for that smear on S.”
“I was thinking the same thing. I guess we could just go ice climbing. The bowl above Le Tabernac looks good.”
“I could be into that. What time do you want to leave?”
Hanging up, I felt myself relaxing. The uncertainty of many pitches of virgin rock leading to an unclimbed dagger had been replaced by the prospect of plastic ice in spectacular yet familiar surroundings. Sleep came easily.

In the flat light of a December afternoon, all the waterfalls at the back of the bowl looked equally inviting. Mind you, Les Mis wasn’t quite formed and we’d both done Whoa Whoa before. The wide strip of N’Ice Baby was the obvious choice. My picks bouncing off the black limestone just underneath the sugary ice were the first hint we might be in for a fight. Suddenly I was glad of the rope above me, glad we hadn’t soloed the initial shield as I’d almost suggested.

Leaving Jon tethered to a couple of shortish screws in ice blobs, I traversed back to the centre of the waterfall, where the ice looked to be the most solid. More screws into blobs – not ideal but the thickest ice around – and I arrived at the bottom of the opaque streak I’d envisioned climbing. Picks rattled disconcertingly in the desiccated ice. Instead of the blue plastic I'd been expecting, I looked up at vertical curtains thinly draped over rock. “I can climb this but any screws will be crap,” I thought. I considered retreating but I pride, stubbornness, call it what you will, wouldn’t let me.

A few metres to the left a slight corner promised ice that'd be less detached. Unfortunately it was directly above the belay. “Jon, any chance you could move a bit left?” Given that the belay was hanging it wasn’t a very reasonable request, but Jon managed to find some shelter. Taking a deep breath, I started upward: hitting rock, knowing there’s nothing better so keeping the tool steady, locking off and reaching for the next shallow hook. So much for the “excellent ice” we’d been promised – or rather, expected. The climb fell down a few days later.

Slogging up into the bowl above Oh Le Tabernac, with the confluence of the Saskatchewan, Howse and Mistaya Rivers in the distance. Photo: Jon Walsh.

From left to right: N'Ice Baby, Whoa Whoa Capitaine and Les Miserables. Photo: Jon Walsh.

Yours truly starting up the second pitch of N'Ice Baby. Photo: Jon Walsh.

Striving for beginner's mind on N'Ice Baby. Photo: Jon Walsh.


Dead Eye Dick, WI5+ R/X

“… ice of variable thickness ranging from thin to very thin.”
      Sean Isaac, Mixed Climbs in the Canadian Rockies

“We were belayed to a thin pillar.” Chris’ eyes got wider as he got to this point in his story. “If it’d broken as I climbed it, both of us would’ve gone all the way to the ground.” Chris loved danger: runout pitches, manky belays, dancing along the fine line separating control from chaos. I, on the other hand, was bold only reluctantly, when ambition and conditions forced my hand. I didn’t do Dead Eye Dick that season.

“I had three stubbies but I wish I’d head more,” Jon texted. “The first pitch is R-rated for sure, but you get decent gear where you really need it.” Walking up to the base I had definitely more than three 10-cm screws in my pack. And even though Jon said rock gear wasn’t especially useful, I also packed a full rack of cams.

Craning my head, I climbed the first pitch in my mind. Ten metres of thin but lower-angled ice led to a small pillar. The ice turned vertical for a few metres then backed off again. Seen from the parking lot, the thin strip had looked dead vertical. Now, from the deep snow at its foot, the angle of the wall revealed itself to be much more reasonable.

I didn’t bother with screws until I got to the small pillar. Once there, I threw a long sling around it. Bomber. I could afford to fall off now – not that I was planning to. I expected to have to run it out on the vertical curtain above, but the ice looked solid just below where the angle eased. I stopped, got in a good stubby and relaxed. I came expecting to teeter on points sunk only a centimetre or two into the ice, while facing an unthinkable fall. But my tools struck rock only rarely, and protection was sparse but solid.

Almost out of rope, I pulled up beside a slender pillar. A horizontal fracture bisected its base. No matter. I spun in a couple of solid screws below it and added a sling around a tree-root-like icicle for good measure. “Secure!” I yelled down to Juan. I looked up at where the pillar connected with the rock roof. It was probably thicker than when Chris had climbed the route all those years ago. But what really mattered was that the pillar was much, much thicker than the fragile stalk my imagination had conjured up.

The Weeping Wall complex, with Dead Eye Dick on the left.

The rarely formed Dead Eye Dick.

Yours truly bouldering out the start of Dead Eye Dick above a comfortingly deep crash pad of snow. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

A long sling around a thin pillar. Bomber. Photo: Juan Henriquez.


I suppose one way to recapture beginner’s mind is to climb somewhere we’ve never climbed before. Maybe that’s why I’m writing this from a train station in Edinburgh, on my way to discover the pleasures and miseries of Scottish winter climbing. I’ve heard stories and seen photos of rimed walls and corners, deep snow and driving rain. But truth be told, I really don’t know what to expect. And it’s probably for the best.