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.