Monday, December 25, 2017

A Hyalite Adventure

The plowed road ended in a large parking lot. The cleared expanse was more reminiscent of a suburban Walmart than of a backcountry trailhead. That was where we'd been told to park my low-suspension wannabe-sports-car and start hiking. But the road went on further: no longer plowed, but well traveled all the same. Tempted by the prospect of saving an hour's walk - each way - I drove on with barely a second thought.

And for the first couple hundred metres continuing seemed like a reasonable course of action. Other than the deep drifts just beside the tracks, the hard-packed snow beneath the tires didn't feel all that different from the plowed road we'd left behind. But then the ruts got deeper, and the undercarriage started dragging on the ridge between them. At first it was only an occasional touch, but soon we were scraping loudly along the bottom. Juan and I exchanged worried looks. We could well imagine how this adventure could end: in the car getting hopelessly stuck, and us spending the rest of the day trying to get it back to plowed pavement.

I coasted to a stop. There was nowhere to turn around, so I shifted into reverse and slowly started back down the tracks. A curve in the road, a steering wheel insufficiently turned, and two of the tires settled into the deep snow outside the ruts. Was this it, the foreseeable and inevitable outcome of a harebrained idea?

Our dumb luck held: a slight downhill and some aggressive back-and forth bouncing got the car back on the tracks. After that close call Juan walked backwards, his arms waving and directing me left or right as needed. All he needed was a reflective vest and those orange luminous wands, and he could've been guiding a 737 to its gate. A tense 10 minutes later we were back at the gloriously plowed parking lot. Walking an extra hour now struck us as a downright appealing prospect.


The night before I'd asked around for route suggestions. "A must-do, a classic." Winter Dance wasn't in, but the Big Sleep was. A Doug Chabot and Alex Lowe first ascent, it was supposed to have a bit of everything: just enough of an approach to give it a backcountry feel, some rotten cobbles to let you know you were in Hyalite, and a burly pillar for some good, clean fun. In keeping with the route's name, we went to sleep early and didn't set the alarm. After all the 4-am wake-ups in November to slog into Protection Valley, sleeping my fill before a day of climbing seemed downright decadent.

And we could've slept even longer, as an earlier-rising team was just finishing the crux pillar when we got to the base of the route. We took our time changing into dry shirts and socks, munching on bars and sipping hot tea. Eventually we judged we'd given the others enough of a head start. We racked up, tied in and began the familiar ice-climbing dance: swing, kick, kick, swing, kick, kick.

The swinging and kicking ended where the ice did. Some twenty metres of what looked like dried mud with river stones embedded in it separated us from the ledge where the ice resumed. A cam went in behind a loose block. There was nothing better to be had, so I put it out of mind. A pick scraped into a sandy hole, bare fingers wrapped around a cobble, crampons breaking footholds, I mantled onto a fridge-sized block. A wire went into a crack between two dusty rocks. If you can't have quality protection, you might as well have lots of it. Fortunately the rest of the traverse was a shuffle on big, if suspect holds, and soon I was anchoring to a solid tree.

Ice, even steep ice, almost always feels a lot more solid than mixed ground. It's especially true of mixed climbing on a badly-built stone wall, the cement between the stones dry and crumbling. We ran up the remaining two pitches of pillars and curtains to where the ice disappeared beneath faceted snow. Back down at our packs, we thought about checking out Narcolepsy, another Doug Chabot and Alex Lowe creation around the corner. In the end though, between our late start and other shenanigans, we decided to call it a day. On the way down, a pickup truck stopped and gave us a lift back to the parking lot. Sitting on our packs in the back of the truck, swaying as it bounced around corners, we inhaled clouds of weed smoke wafting from the cabin.


That evening, over chili and cornbread, I told Doug about our day: stuck car, cobbles, rednecks and all. "A classic Hyalite adventure", he summed it up.

A fatter-than-usual Big Sleep from the approach. Note the climbers on the crux pillar.

Juan Henriquez starts up while another party climbs the crux pillar. Fortunately the two sections of the climb are offset by a rock traverse, and all the bombs land harmlessly 20 metres away.

Juan Henriquez hopes that the boulder he's holding on to remains attached to the wall...

... and hooks up the crux pillar.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Falling into Winter

Elbows resting on the car roof, I eyed the distant smear through binoculars. “I hate to say it, but I don’t think it’s worth the hike,” I sighed, passing them to Steven. After glassing the melting ice, he wasn’t chomping at the bit either. We drove down the gravelly road for another twenty minutes, looking for a consolation prize, but nothing really caught our eye. It's also possible that after a couple of hours of driving and the disappointment of finding Plan A out of condition, car lassitude had set it, keeping our asses firmly rooted to the seats. Pulling a U-turn, we headed back to town for espressos. Once re-caffeinated, we briefly considered going rock climbing - it was certainly warm enough - but with the cold season approaching, decided on drytooling instead.

Yet it was only two days earlier that a friend had emailed me: “I took a photo this morning that you may be interested in. Is there an established ice/mixed route on [Peak X]? Scott”. In the attached photo, a line of ice dripped tantalizingly down a steep rock wall and petered out over a roof. But that was on Friday. On Saturday, a chinook howled over the mountains, while in the city people walked around in t-shirts. As Choc says, climbing’s all about timing and hormones. And on this particular Sunday morning, our timing sucked.

A distant smear, melting away in the November heat.


A week later, five of us stood beneath a black-and-gold, ice-streaked cliff. We’d left the road before dawn, trudging uphill through trackless forest, trying to glimpse the bulk of Castle Mountain between the trees to make sure we weren’t hiking in circles. We weren’t, and three hours later we were kicking steps up frozen dirt and snow-covered scree to the base of the wall. But now that we were here, no one seemed in a hurry to climb. To our bodies still more used to summer, the first touch of winter cold felt arctic. Instead, we retreated inside belay parkas, trying to wrap our minds around the idea of climbing in below –20 C temperatures in what was, after all, only early November.

Eventually Dave stirred from our collective lethargy. “The sun’s coming round”, he piped up optimistically. As a matter of fact, the distant sun-shadow line wouldn’t reach us for at least another hour, but it was all the encouragement we needed. Putting on harnesses and snapping on crampons, slowly we made ready to climb.

The right fork of the hanging valley between Protection and Castle Mtns. From left to right, the formed routes on the south face of Stuart Knob are Mon Ami, Arian P'tit Grimlin and Dirtbag Dreams.

Dave and Steven went for the Dirtbag Dreams on the right, while Maia, Landon and I set our sights on Arian P'tit Grimlin on the left, a twenty-year-old Guy Lacelle and Godefroy Perroux route. Tragically, both Guy and Godefroy have since died while ice climbing.

A rock roof topped with dagger gave direct access to the route, which was originally climbed by traversing in from Mon Ami. However, overhanging gymnastics on a –20 C morning didn't hold great appeal. Instead, we chose a more reasonable dangler further right. Photo: Landon Thompson.

Movement kept us warm... 

... though belays could get a bit chilly. Photo: Landon Thompson.

Occasional flashes of sunshine helped too. Unfortunately, by the time we started up the final pillar, the sun had dipped below Castle Mountain across the valley. Suddenly the air had a renewed bite to it. It was time to climb and then get the hell down! Photo: Landon Thompson.

By the time we'd rappelled off and packed up, daylight had all but faded away. Chilled, wearing all our layers, we started down, the beams of our headlamps picking out the house-sized boulders littering the floor of the hanging valley. After all the standing around at belay and rappel stances, it felt good to move. We'd warm up soon.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Extreme Camping

This past spring Rob Smith and I spent five weeks in the Alaska Range. We arrived in Talkeetna with ambitious plans: in a perfect world, we'd warm up on the French Route on the north buttress of Mt. Hunter before moving on to the Slovak Route on the south face of Denali. I knew the world isn't perfect though, and would have been ecstatic had we gotten up just one of these. In retrospect, even that seemingly realistic outlook now appears wildly optimistic, as we didn't manage so much as to stand at the base of either wall.

Still, it'd be wrong to say that the trip had been a waste of time. At the risk of rationalizing failure, it'd be sad if my sole measure of success in climbing was whether I'd sent this or that "hard" route. During the five weeks I spent in the land of eternal daylight (as is Alaska in late May and June), I had some fantastic experiences. I got to know Rob, with whom I'd only spent a few days ice climbing before. We lived through some of the worst weather I'd ever experienced at the 14k camp on Denali. We shared that camp with Tom and Uisdean, two irreverent Brits. When the storm cleared, Tom and I did yoga in the middle of camp. On a sunny day, all four of us hiked up the West Buttress to Denali's summit. We had fun, we came back safe, we came back better friends. What's so bad about that?

A few weeks ago I made a rough video of my Alaskan experience for the annual Cognac and Cheese party that some friends have put on for well over a decade now to celebrate the end of the long days of summer. If you want to see what a camping trip to Denali's like, click on.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Before The Snow Flies

The crunch of shoes on frozen mud in the morning; yellow aspen leaves fluttering to the ground; and warm afternoon sunshine on rough limestone. But also: north faces dusted with fresh snow; dripping water stilled into icicles by nights growing longer and colder; and bright larches on the valley floor far below.

October in the Rockies presents altogether too many choices. For years, I used to spend it chasing one last summery adventure on sunny summits, or the first wintry one in shaded couloirs. But more recently, a growing obsession with rock gymnastics saw me spending my Octobers chasing this or that elusive redpoint, until the days grew just too short, too grey and too miserable to contemplate bare-handed crimping. When I'd finally trade sticky rubber for crampons, I'd realize it was November, and that deep snow and winter cold had already come to the high country. And so I'd tell myself that, the following year, I wouldn't miss that bittersweet interlude between summer and winter in mountains. But then another October would roll around, and there'd still be unfinished business at The Coliseum... So this October, even though the weather for much of the month was mild and sunny - perfect rock climbing weather - on a few occasions I did pack my ice tools instead of rock shoes, and set the alarm for four in the morning.

Mt. Fay

The road to Moraine Lake was closing in few days. With that looming deadline, and the threat of snow in the forecast, Juan and I made plans to run up the north face of Mt. Fay. Well, to say "run" might be an exaggeration - after a summer spent rock climbing, neither one of us would be mistaken for Killian Jornet.

Our timing with the season was impeccable, as the trail and the rock on the Perren approach were both dry. It wasn't until we hit the glacier below the face that we were faced with anything resembling trail breaking.

We opted for the seracs of the Chouinard route on the left side of the face. The wave of glacial ice halfway up the route had been made famous by photos in Jeff Lowe's Ice World, and it seemed like an apt place to swing tools for the first time of the season.

From the cold, blue shade of the face, we looked out at sun-drenched screes and forests, still bare of snow for another few days. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

We avoided the overhanging ice in the centre and opted for the merely vertical terrain on the right. Even so, it wasn't hero ice, this serac stuff, with dinner plates exploding from every tool placement. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Higher up, the ice did change consistency to something resembling meringue - not so good for protection, but great for climbing.

Within the space of a bodylength, we emerged from the cold shade of the face into the warmth of a windless afternoon. Without a cloud in the sky and with the forest fires extinguished by autumn rains, we could see all the way from the front ranges in the east to the Bugaboos in the west.

Tired but satisfied, we plunged back down to the valley. To our surprise, it appeared we'd actually make it home for dinner.

The Fist

For years, every time I drove down the Smith-Dorrien Trail in the fall, my eyes would be drawn to the squat shape of the The Fist. My imagination filled the dark gash in its northeast face with ice, but reality, as seen through binoculars, appeared to be the usual Rockies fare of loose snow over dry rock.

It didn't help that those who ventured for a closer look came back with tales of unprotectable, compact rock. Tellingly, none of them returned for another go. But in the middle of the month, with the weather too crappy for rock but still too warm for ice, Alik and I decided to finally make up our own minds about the infamous - if obscure - gash.

With the aforementioned compact rock in mind, we came armed with technology to tame excessive runouts. Imagine our shame when we topped out on the first pitch only to find an old gear anchor. We consoled ourselves with the thought that, whoever had left it, probably enjoyed at least a smattering of ice where we scratched up rock and moss. That, or they had bigger cojones.

On our first attempt we were joined by Nik Mirhashemi from Alpine Mentors. Strangely, he declined to join us on the next go, preferring to drive down to Indian Creek instead. There's no accounting for taste.

The second pitch started out overhanging, but bomber hooks and gear made for moderate climbing. After a few bodylengths, the rock petered out into a fat snow ledge below the upper chimney. Photo: Nik Mirhashemi.

And the chimney looked far better than expected - which perhaps said more about our low expectations than the quality of said chimney.

Be that as it may, it gave excellent climbing on blocky but not loose rock. Granted, there wasn't a lick of ice anywhere, but the snowed up rock with the occasional bit of turf had a downright Scottish flavour. Well, maybe except for the bolts.

For once, pitches that had looked desperate from below proved easier than expected on closer acquaintance. And how often does that happen? Photo: Alik Berg.

Higher up, we entered the guts of the gash, in places climbing in the twilight under giant chockstones.

The only thing that detracted somewhat from the enjoyment was the haulbag full of hardware we'd brought expecting a epic struggle, but never used.

The westerlies howled overhead, occasionally sending clouds of spindrift down the gash. In its depths, though, we stayed reasonably sheltered. And at least we didn't have a loaded snow slope overhead.

We topped out from the gully just in time to enjoy the last rays of the sun, setting over the early-winter Rockies. Like alpinists of old, we didn't immediately start down the other side, but scrambled up to the summit proper. It helped that it was only five minutes away. The headlamps didn't come out until we'd returned to our packs at the base.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Continuing Saga

"The sun, just now dipping below the mountains to the west, sends out lines of gold threaded with orange and purple hues. God, this is beautiful - should have a camera. No! This wouldn't look any different from any other sunset on film. Even the memory will fade in time. We climb for the moment, and the special enjoyment gained from that moment. Looking back and remembering will never be the same as the original experience. If it were, we should just sit by the fire for the rest of our lives; sipping beer, smoking and just remembering. Instead we climb on and on, searching out those most precious moments, wherever they may be found."

   - Billy Davidson, after making the first ascent of CMC Wall, Yamnuska, 1972.


In a binder on a dusty shelf, I've got some slides from the first time I climbed Riptide. I haven't looked at them in years. I don't think they're very good - it was a grey, murky day, and those don't make for great photos. Not that it'd make much difference if they were bright, striking images. In the end, looking at even the best photos we've ever taken is still just sitting around, reminiscing. But I do smile every time I remember that while Bill was a seasoned alpinist, it was James' first multipitch ice climb.

I don't think I even took a camera the second time I did the route. Maybe I figured Bob and Eamonn would take theirs. Either way, I don't seem to have any photos from the day. I do remember standing tethered to a cluster of pins at the top of the ice. While I belayed my friends up, I kept glancing across a slab of near-vertical limestone to where some ice had tried to form. Maybe if we'd brought rock gear... We didn't, though, so we threaded the ropes through some tat and headed down from the pins.


"A rare final pitch has been climbed above the usual end to Riptide. Alone, it would be one of the hardest single pitches in the range. When climbed on top of Riptide it becomes legendary. Led by Guy Lacelle in continuous spindrift and alpine conditions, this pitch traverses right on mixed rock and continues up a full pitch on an overhanging, delicate and icicled pillar."

   - Joe Josephson, Waterfall Ice Climbs in the Canadian Rockies, fourth edition


It was late April, and spring had arrived even to the usually frigid Stanley Headwall. The ice was melting, delaminating from the warming rock and weeping long black streaks down the grey walls. But I wasn't quite ready to hang up the tools yet, and tried to think where else good ice might still be lurking. Earlier in the winter, while driving up the Icefields Parkway, I'd noticed Riptide looked unusually blue. Even more enticingly, the ice appeared to reach all the way to the top of the wall. And Jon hadn't done it, so he was keen.

I started the fourth pitch by traversing down from Jon's belay in a drippy cave. Topping out on a hollow curtain, I saw the familiar nest of pins and tat up and left. But instead of making for the anchor, I tiptoed across to the right, careful not to smash my picks on the rock just beneath an icy veneer. From the end of the traverse, I took off up a column of glassy blue ice. The ice rolled over and disappeared beneath a gentle snow slope just as the ropes came tight. In the conditions we found it, the pitch wasn't the epic battle I'd been half dreading, half hoping for. I suppose I'll have to come back for that experience.

The Patterson bowl, the ultimate ice and mixed arena. From left to right, some of the routes are The Shadow, Riptide, Tsunami (unformed) and Rocketman. Photo: Jon Walsh.

Just another hundred metres! Jon in the steep couloir below Riptide.

Sustained weirdness. The ice was bluer and fatter than usual, but there was still much hooking in hollow curtains, and much trial and error before screws bit into solid ice.

On the second pitch, we resisted the temptation of lower angled, fatter ice straight up. Instead, to avoid bombarding the belayer, we traversed left onto a funky crust. Photo: Jon Walsh.

The forecast had been for cloud and snow, to the point that we'd asked ourselves if it was even worth getting up early and driving out. It goes to show that it's (usually) worth trying.

The third pitch looked straightforward, and I wondered why Jon was taking so long - until it was my turn to follow the ropes up the snowy weirdness.

The thick blue ice on the last pitch was a nice change from the usual Riptide fare, and the position on the exposed column hundreds of metres above the approach slopes was outrageous.

By the time we drilled our first v-thread, the skies had clouded over, finally threatening the snow that'd been forecast.

The wind kicked up too, sending waves of spindrift down the climb as we rappelled. Fortunately it wasn't until we were wallowing through isothermal snow by the Mistaya River that the first fat flakes swirled down.


A week later I ventured up into the Patterson bowl again, but it was getting just too warm. Perhaps fittingly, Riptide with the Continuing Saga finish would be my last ice climb of the winter. Instead, in a couple of days I'll be getting on a plane bound for Alaska and its endless daylight. I have lots of photos of the icy giants of the Alaska Range, but in the end they're just that - photos. And so I climb on, "searching out those most precious moments, wherever they may be found."

Friday, March 31, 2017

Field follies, part III: The Chase Is Better Than The Catch

From Luka to Raphael:

Hi Raph,

Ian suggested that I should ask you about your new route in Field.




From Raphael to Luka:


Here’s a photo of it. It's a couple hundred metres right of Twisted. The pitches go something like this:

Pitch 1: 50 m, WI4. 2 bolts then thin ice getting thicker. A few screws for protection and a screw belay.
Pitch 2: 20 m, M4. Move right then up over chossy rock to ice. Small cams and some screws. Screw belay.
Pitch 3: 25 m, M7. Move right up some small pillars, then follow a few bolts up and right. Screws to start, cams to #2 Camalot to finish. Bolt belay.
Pitch 4: 30 m, M8. Move right then up past many bolts. Not physical but sustained. 15 draws and #1 and #2 Camalots to finish. Bolt belay.
Pitch 5: 10 m, WI3. Easy ice to finish.

If you have 2x70 m ropes, you can probably get down in 2 long raps. There’s a bolted rap station straight down from the belay on pitch 3.

Let me know if you go do it.



From Luka to Raphael:


We did the route today, but it was really warm and I think its time is coming to an end. The picture you sent me is not from few day ago or is it? However we had great fun on this hard and steep dirty wall, the last hard pitch is really sustained as you said. We agree with the grades.

Does it have a name yet?  



From Raphael to Luka:


I’m psyched you went and did the route, and that you had fun on it. Yes, it’s a dirty wall, but then again, the whole Rockies are dirty! Good to have the grades confirmed, too.

The photo I sent you is from almost 2 months ago. As you say, it’s very different right now. I guess spring’s here. The route is called The Chase Is Better Than The Catch, after the Motorhead song.



Day 0

On a chilly day in February, instead of joining the crowds on shady Mt. Stephen, Ian Welsted and I hiked up to WWF on sunny Mt. Field.

We found good mixed climbing with a strong traditional flavour. But as fun as WWF was, I couldn't stop staring at the smears across the valley.

Day 1

On another chilly day in February, Ian and I, joined by young Fred Giroux, hiked up to have a closer look at said smears. Photo: Ian Welsted.

The first two pitches might have shared some ground with Fat Tire, an obscure mixed and thin ice route. Then it was off into virgin territory: climbing, aiding, bolting, and uncomfortably squeezing three people at a hanging belay. Photo: Ian Welsted.

Day 2

A few weeks later, Fred and I came back to try to finish the line. Unfortunately snow conditions had turned sketchy, and where before we had romped around unroped, now we tiptoed roped up, hearts in our throats.

An approach that should have taken less than an hour took over two. But eventually we made it to the base, and started up the thin ice of the first pitch.

The second pitch was much as we remembered it: easy, loose and surprisingly engaging.

After largely aiding my way up the third pitch the other day, I was curious how it'd actually climb. And it climbed well, with delicate ice columns leading to thin drytooling. I even managed to place a few cams to keep it from being a complete clip-up.

Unfortunately by the time I'd aided and bolted my way up the fourth pitch, it was getting late in the day. We'd have to come back for the send.

Day 3

For a while, it looked like the send would have to wait until next season, as temperatures turned springlike and the rock turned black with water streaks. But a crisp forecast had me texting Fred at eight o'clock on a Saturday night: "What are you up to tomorrow?"
Photo: Jon Walsh.

On this occasion, Jon Walsh joined us to sample the climbing and take photos. Photo: Jon Walsh.

The thin ice on the first pitch had retreated up the slab, and much of the icy glue holding the choss together on the third had evaporated. No matter, though, it all still went. Photo: Jon Walsh.

The fourth pitch was a different matter. Starting up it, I wasn't sure if there were sufficient edges and divots in the blank open book to make it go. There were - barely. Photo: Jon Walsh.

Even though we were only a few ropelengths up, the position was outrageous, with the undercut rock disappearing out of sight and the icy slab of the first pitch far below. Photo: Jon Walsh.

The last pitch, if ten metres of easy ice could be called that, was a formality. However, like many formalities, it was an important one. In a way, this little lick of ice at the top of the wall justified the route's existence. Still, there was no question that the chase was better than the catch. Photo: Jon Walsh.

Summary of statistics: First ascent of "The Chase Is Better Than The Catch" (135 m, WI4 M8) on Mt. Stephen, Yoho National Park, by Fred Giroux and Raphael Slawinski, March 26, 2017, with help from Jon Walsh and Ian Welsted.