Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Ephemeral

Spring has come to the Rockies with a vengeance. Just now we're changing rock climbing plans for tomorrow and thinking of shady Acephale or Planet X, fearing the sunny Coliseum might be too hot. Yet not so long ago it seemed winter would never end, and we'd never trade ice tools for chalk bags.

I love the transitions between the seasons. They don't last very long: one day there's a white ribbon of ice snaking down a cliffside, the next afternoon there's nothing but a dark wet streak. Or, six months hence, that same wet streak can turn overnight into a dangerously enticing veneer. It's during those times of transition that some of the wildest, most unlikely ice lines can form. I have a list of them in my head and come October, I start eying certain cliffs, knowing that if I blink, I'll miss my chance. But there at least one of these ephemeral of lines you need to keep your eyes peeled for in April.

The East End of Rundle, affectionately known as EEOR, is one of the best big rock climbing crags in the Rockies. A sunny exposure, a short approach, routes a dozen pitches long, better than average limestone: what's not too like? The vertical rock ends in scree bowls, bowls that in the winter fill with snow blown over the summit ridge by the westerlies. On occasion these bowls release in spectacular fashion, sometimes with a nudge from the Kananaskis safety people, and avalanche debris cover the gravel road below. More rarely, the melting snow runs down corners and chimneys and freezes into narrow white lines hundreds of metres long.

Over the years I've experienced some memorable days ice climbing - yes, ice climbing - on EEOR: Balzout, The Great White Fright... But Dropout continued to elude me. It wasn't for lack of trying. The first time I attempted it, years and years ago, with Ben and Rob, the ice was all there, but our timing was off. A snowstorm the night before had covered anything less than vertical with a thick white coat. We took hours to climb a pitch and a half - and didn't even make it to the hard parts. We bailed.

The second time, a few years ago, Juan and I were also just a day too late.  The cliff was clear of snow but the ice still looked good - at least until midmorning. As the day started warming, the ice literally melted before our eyes, while increasingly large chunks rained from above. We ran away.

This past April I came back for a third time, with Alik. It had been unseasonably cool all week, and the ice still looked to be - mostly - there. There was a snowfall warning in the forecast - if it's not one thing it's another - but it was supposed to stay clear until at least midday. It seemed worth trying. Besides, with iffy avalanche conditions on the Divide, there was nothing else we were excited about.

The East End of Rundle, with the line of Dropout in the centre as it looked on my second attempt. On that occasion we were in the right place, but at the wrong time.

Third time lucky? Alik Berg nears the top of the second pitch. It's one of the cruxes of Dropout as a mixed climb, with tricky footwork on smooth, waterworn rock. Fortunately a corner crack offers perfect protection throughout.

The intermittent line of ice started just above, tempting us with direct access to the upper half of the route. Unfortunately the translucent veneer looked unprotectable at best, and unclimbable at worst. Casting wistful glances at the tantalizing smear, we deviated right for a couple of pitches onto the summer line.

Alik Berg comes up the third pitch, with the avalanche paths descending to the gravel road a reminder of the lee-loaded bowls at the top of the wall.

The fourth pitch gave some excellent climbing, almost reminiscent of Alaska: solid rock, ice-filled seams and good cracks for protection. Of course it finished with marginally-protected, insecure scratching. After all, we were in the Rockies.

On the fifth pitch we finally traversed into the vein of ice, which by then had thickened enough to be climbable.

Following it, I was reminded of Repentance on Cathedral Ledge: one hand on a tool in thin ice, the other arm-barring across the squeeze chimney.

But no, we were in fact halfway up a much bigger cliff back home in the Rockies.

The sixth pitch, which took us to the base of the crux chimney, proved the key to the climb. Deviating from the corner climbed in summer, we ventured out on the slabs to the left, following the sometimes barely-there line of ice wherever it took us. A step of thin, detached ice had Alik questioning the reasonableness of what we were doing. Fortunately a wire placement appeared, tipping the scales for up instead of down.

There was a snowfall warning for the day, but luckily it wasn't until late in the afternoon that the first flakes started swirling around us. I was glad: mixed climbing is hard enough without a white shroud hiding every edge and crack. Unless you're in Scotland, that it. There, it's only when the cliff's coated in white stuff that it's in "good nick".

I was glad the weather held off long enough to let us enjoy the crux chimney without being deluged by spindrift, funnelling from the bowls and gullies above.

And the chimney, with its veneer of ice on the left wall, is the main reason for doing Dropout as a mixed climb. Still, the chimney wouldn't be the same if, looking down between your crampons, you weren't looking at hundreds of metres of cliff below you.

The forecast snow finally arrived when we were climbing the easier pitches above. Easier but not easy, with a deep layer of snow on smooth limestone slabs.

We topped out just as it was getting dark. We tiptoed up the thankfully stable bowl above the route, and plunged down the windblown screes on the backside. We were both pleased with the day: Alik with his first mixed route on EEOR, me with the conclusion of a long quest.