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.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Field follies, part II: Blob Blob Blob

Eamonn Walsh and I thought we'd save weight on the boring ski up the Moraine Lake Road, and instead of bringing a tent, bedded down on the tables in the picnic shelter beside the lake. With dinner out of the way, we were leisurely packing for next day's climb when Graham Maclean and Rob Owens showed up. They had skied in that morning, climbed the notorious Gimme Shelter, and were on their way out to complete a one-day ascent of the route. They also brought some bad news.

"Barry [Blanchard], Steve [House] and Rolo [Garibotti] are up the valley, and they're getting on your route!"

The news was as surprising as it was unwelcome. And the unclimbed thin white line on the east face of Mt. Fay belonged to us, dammit! Having failed the previous fall a couple of kilometres out of the parking lot, when our bikes ground to a halt in the few centimetres of fresh snow on the road that was already closed for the season, we believed we had a unique claim to it. After a quick discussion, we decided we'd get up extra early, sneak past the others' camp in the dark, and start up before they realized what hit them. We weren't looking to start a fight, but it was only right and fair, no?

And the plan might've worked had it not been for Rolo. We were already well past the stand of trees where the others had camped, and felt safe in turning our headlamps back on. Down on the valley floor, three headlamps appeared in pursuit but we had a comfortable lead on them. But then one of the lights detached itself from the others and began gaining on us faster than seemed possible. Soon it was passing us and leaving us far behind.

By the time Barry, Steve, Eamonn and I got to the base of the route, Rolo was already halfway up the rope they had fixed the day before. It was clear our gambit had failed and there was nothing for it but to laugh, wish the others good luck, and ski out for pastries at Laggan's. After all, as the song says:

"You've got to know when to hold 'em,
Know when to fold 'em,
Know when to walk away..."

The obscure object of desire, the line that became Sans Blitz.

Barry Blanchard joins the predawn gathering at the base of the coveted line.


Why do we care so much to be the first ones on a particular piece of vertical real estate? Why do we seek out unclimbed drips and drabs of ice, often many hours from the nearest road, up obscure, trackless valleys? Is it, Star Trek like, to boldly go where no one has gone before? Is it to draw our own lines on the blank canvases of cliffs and mountainsides? Or is it for the "awesome!!!" and "amazing!!!" comments on our Facebooks and Instagrams? I'm not sure I have the answers.


Sarah Hueniken had a few days off from guiding while I had my reading week. It was time to play.

"Got any ideas?"
"A potential new route..."
"Those blobs left of the Nasty Habits finish?"
"That's it!"

Our objective being a roadside line in Field, I insisted on a casual start. Sarah wasn't too impressed but deferred to my extra hour of driving from Calgary. Field greeted us with low cloud and wet mist. We traversed below two parties already on the ice sheet of Twisted, another one on the skinny pillar of Nasty Habits, and made for a low-angled gully further right. It might not have been overly inspiring but at least it was unoccupied. A couple of easy ropelengths got us to a drippy stance below the blobs.

Now here too some drama ensued, all the more dramatic for being unexpected, with two parties finding themselves at the same point of our four-dimensional spacetime, intent on more or less on the same objective. But fortunately, upon closer inspection, there turned out to be more than one way up the ice-spattered wall above, and at the end of the day (figuratively speaking), everybody went home happy. But enough drama already. Let's go climbing.


Heading for an arĂȘte adorned with ice blobs the size of beach balls, I grovel up a chossy slot to a ledge. A perfect knifeblade crack appears. A bodylength higher I could probably stretch and place a cam in some exfoliating rock. I hesitate, but with the prospect of a ledge fall, I pull up the drill. The bolt placed, I clip the drill to my harness and commit to the blobs. A good blue Camalot is just what's needed before the mantle onto the highest blob.

Going left would be the most direct way but the dry, flaky rock looks uninspiring. I place an upside-down blade and have a shufty to the right. It looks like more blobs and maybe a crack, but first I have to pull onto a ledge stacked with loose blocks. I eye the blocks, I eye the blade, the blocks again, and finally replace the pin with a bolt. A red Camalot crack does materialize above the blocks. It's only a bodylength or two long, but it's the Rockies and you take what you get.

Above the next blob, a short bulge blocks access to a corner. With a decent blade to my right, I start torquing and hooking over said bulge, but soon the hooks turn small and slippery. I don't fancy landing on the blob below me with the drill and everything else I have hanging from my harness, so I drill another bolt as high as I can reach. The corner above ends below a roof. A meagre foot ledge doesn't promise great comfort, but it's probably the best place for a belay. I sink two bolts into the grey stone below the overhang.



There are few things more tedious than reading a move-by-move account of a pitch of climbing. Perhaps belaying said pitch comes close. Still, I suppose I wanted to explain why, given how easy it would've been to climb one of the neighbouring routes and rappel down the blobs, I never really considered rap bolting as an option. For me, going ground up has less to do with ethics (as, given a power drill, it'd be easy to put up a bolt ladder, and there's nothing bold or adventurous about that). No, I simply like the process of venturing upward into who knows what, free climbing while I can, getting in gear where I can, and where I can't, aiding off of tools and drilling as high as I can. It feels more like climbing than construction work (even if sometimes it can degenerate into that). And I like to think the resulting routes have a little more character, maybe follow a more natural line, than if they were established on rappel. But that's just me.

Summary of statistics: First ascent of Blob Blob Blob (60 m, M6) by Sarah Hueniken and Raphael Slawinski, February 2017.

The Twisted area on Mt. Stephen on a misty morning in February.

"Hmm, let's have a shufy at those blobs over there..." Photo: Sarah Hueniken.

It's almost a given that if you bring a drill, you'll use it. Photo: Sarah Hueniken.

Sarah Hueniken nears the end of the first pitch.

Another day, another experience: Tim Banfield and yours truly on the first pitch of Blob Blob Blob a couple of days later. Photo: Crista-Lee Mitchell.

On that day, there was no uncertainty of venturing into the unknown. Photo: Crista-Lee Mitchell.

However, the sport climber in me wanted something more than the adventure of bashing in pins and looking around corners: he also wanted flow. Photo: Crista-Lee Mitchell.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Field follies, part I: Lone Pine

I don't know about you, but I find my climbing comes in waves. When I'm into sport climbing, all I want to do is session rock. When I'm into ice, all I want to do is swing tools. As a result, sometimes I have a hard time switching gears as the seasons change, and keep crimping with frozen fingers into November, or keep seeking out ice in high, shady places into May. I'm prone to a similar obsessiveness when it comes to where I climb. I won't visit a particular crag or valley for years, then on a whim I'll go there, see all the potential, and for the next few weeks go nowhere else. Take the polar pit that is Field, for example. I hadn't climbed there for years other than an occasional plan B, but now my last five outings have all been there, and I don't think I'm done with the place yet.

Lone Pine

The great Isaac Newton was an anti-Trinitarian. A what, you ask? In case you've forgotten your Catholic catechism, the doctrine of the Trinity is central to Christian mythology. It says that the one God is in fact three: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The three are distinct but are one substance. Newton thought all this fancy talk was just thinly veiled polytheism, and (privately!) took the heretical view that the Father was in fact the main man.

That's all very interesting in an obscure historical way, you might say, but what do convoluted theological arguments have to do with ice climbing? Bear with me.

There once was rock corner (a left-facing one if you want to be precise). Water dribbled downed it, and in winter the water turned to ice. Some winters there was less ice and and it just hung in space from the lip of a roof, others there was more and it'd connect with the ledge below in a skinny pillar. It was in one of the leaner winters, in February of 1998, that Allan Massin and Steve Pratt, a couple of local climbers, came and climbed the corner. Because the ice over the roof didn't connect with the ledge, and because drytooling hadn't been officially invented yet, they used some old-fashioned aid climbing to get up the rocky bits. As climbers do on the occasion of being the first ones up a piece of mountainside, they gave the corner a name, calling it Lone Pine in honour of a tree leaning out over the top.

A couple of winters later more water flowed down the corner, and a chandeliered pillar formed over the roof. Another couple of local climbers, Greg Tkaczuk and Eamonn Walsh, came along in December of 1999. They climbed the skinny pillar covering the rock where Massin and Pratt had hung from bits of metal, and continued to the eponymous pine tree at the top. They called their version of the corner Littlest Hobo.

Fast forward to February of 2017. Golden local and social commentator Ian Welsted enticed Okanagan organic farmer Willis Brown and Calgary physics professor Raphael Slawinski to check out a radical new line. And radical it looked, with daggers hanging menacingly from a rock roof. It all looked menacing enough that Slawinski was cowed into hanging from bits of metal hammered into cracks to hammer more bits of metal into cracks. But, being a sport climber at heart, he then lowered off and pulled the rope. They then took turns pinkpointing the rock and ice now adorned with many quickdraws.

While postholing through isothermal snow on the way down, they amused themselves by thinking up clever names for what they had just climbed. In the end, in honour of the alcohol theme of the valley and of Slawinski's Polish heritage, they settled on Wyborowa Exquisite. But a few days later, while idly leafing through Sean Isaac's Mixed Climbs in the Canadian Rockies, Slawinski came across the description of an obscure climb called Lone Pine. While there was no photo, the approach and route sounded suspiciously like what he'd just climbed. His suspicion was confirmed when he sent Walsh some photos of the day.

"That's Lone Pine alright, except we had an ice pillar where you were dry-tooling through that overhang", Walsh wrote back.

And so we come return to the idea of the Trinity. There were after all three climbs: a rock aid-climb, a more or less pure ice climb, and an exercise in drytooling. And yet, while distinct, they were the same substance. Or, like all those theologians, am I just splitting non-existent hairs?

Summary of statistics: The umpteenth ascent of Lone Pine, but the first one by a social commentator from Golden, an organic farmer from the Okanagan and a physics professor from Calgary. Also, maybe the first free ascent of the original aid-climbing line. To encourage others to also enjoy the climb, we left our pitons fixed, so all you need is a handful of screws of all lengths and a few cams to gold Camalot.

Willis Brown starts up the first pitch of Lone Pine, with the daggers of the second pitch dangling overhead.

Willis Brown embarks on a pinkpoint (technically, a beta flash) of the second pitch.

The moves may be the same, but there's a certain difference between hopping on a hanging dagger with your last piece a Lost Arrow rather than a fat bolt.

Willis Brown traverses into the forest, with the famous (?) pine tree peering down at him.

So much to do... Mt. Stephen across the Kicking Horse River from Mt. Field.

The rimed summit block of Mt. Stephen. With a crappier-than-usual snowpack, summits have seemed especially remote and aloof this winter.