Saturday, 12 December 2015

Caution: Fresh Coconut Juice, Tropical Temperatures, and Tigers can be Hazardous to Your Mental Health

For years, the object of my desire.

I truly believe that if you haven't seen this view, you are wasting your time in the Canadian Rockies.

My wife was sleeping with another man. It was not a situation I could liberally turn a blind eye to. She told me she was falling in love with him, her married-with-kids boss at the fancy heli-ski lodge where he'd wanted her as more than an employee. She told me not to come back. How it had come to this I had no idea. I'd left the mountains two weeks earlier to head to the coast on my seasonal migration for work. I was faced with months of straight labour and my reality was shattered. Something had to be done to change my mental state. As before, I turned to the mountains for peace and solace.

At work on the remote west coast of B.C. my mind raced looking for a solution. I would wake with a heart rate of 120. Like an animal caught in a trap, I manically searched for something new to give my life meaning. Always attracted to alpine climbing for the deep spiritual experience it offers, my mind took me back to the next most intense experience I could recall, to the North Face of Twins Tower in the Canadian Rockies

The most impressive spot in the range.
I had met my wife in the days following my first attempt to climb the Twin. I returned to my climbing partner's rental home with a hand the size of a softball and a new respect for rockfall. It had made an impression on my psyche, bailing down that face with a broken arm. My jalopy van was parked at my buddy's. The owner of the rental future wife. I guess there are some benefits of being an addicted alpinist. That was 5 years or so earlier.

Early on any Twin adventure you realize you are entering a special zone.
By the end of the summer I finished a purgatorial 110 days of coastal tree-planting. My new reality as a divorced man was about to begin. My coping mechanism was simple; head straight to the spiritual well, the Black Hole of Mounts Alberta, Stutfield, and the Twins. After moving my stuff out of her house I would avoid contact with anything that would remind me of my ex and head into the mountains to meditate. Trip after trip had me hiking the short 3 hours to the MacKay hut, and then further in to the Black Hole to stare at the North Face of the Twins. Could I find renewed meaning on that dangerous limestone canvas?

It gets more real as the sun rises.
She had told me she was attracted to me because I was pursuing my passion. We dated, went to the climbing gym, went ski touring, did all the middle of the road activities most couples can do together. None of which were as exciting as attempting the North Face of the Twins. But really, I hear Kevin Thaw dragged his girlfriend up The Wild Thing for its third ascent, but that wouldn't have worked in our case. I grew to accept and began to revel in the idea that I was beyond taking absurd risk, that I had matured and grown into my true self.
The rockfall relents once you exit the gully.
Slowly, as before, the mountains of the Rockies began to bring me peace in my heart. Little by little I began to relearn that there is joy in the mountains. They serve more than to be a place to challenge one's existence. One day I saw massive spontaneous rockfall explode from one of the vertical walls mid way up the Twin. Anyone anywhere on the lower half of the Blanchard route would have been instantly killed. I abandoned any idea of climbing the wall. With a renewed lust for life I realized there was a more moderate option, the North West Ridge, the unrepeated Abrons route. It was a perfect compromise for my older, wiser, mature self. It fit the person I knew I had become, rather than the impossible caricature my ex had taken me to be.
 Not many established routes take you to this vista.
She had told me she had jumped ship for her older, established ACMG boyfriend because she felt secure with him. I scared her because I took too many risks. What? I was the guy who'd broken my arm on the most notorious North Face in North America, and she was surprised I took too many risks? Well, forget about that, I had a new life to live.
Some absolutely abysmal Rockies choss. Takes a  special person.
Returning to town after my mountain seclusion I rediscovered the warmth and magic of making climbing plans with new climbing partners. By the second attempt with the second new partner we got it right. On the rope was the editor of this magazine. I'd always made fun of Brandon for being so boisterous about his climbing, so psyched and loud and jazzed about it. He made lighthearted company up a serious route. Laughing at the rock quality was the only thing to do. As the rockfall floated by some of my stress and worries of the summer fell off my shoulders too. Years earlier on the North Face I had not understood what Steve House meant when he wrote of the “mind of the observer”. Now I accepted the rockfall for what it was. I accepted Brandon for who he is. I accepted my ex for whatever it is that makes her tick. And I accepted myself for whatever risk I choose to take and whatever mountain I want to climb.
The famous Black Hole.
That night saw the most amazing meteor shower I have witnessed. Many wishes were made.
We crossed the Columbia Glacier having made the 5th ascent of the Twins from the Black Hole. Getting lost and sleeping on the glacier in the early morning, we returned to the highway to make a two day trip highway to highway. It wasn't the most rad climb ever, it wasn't the North Face, it wasn't “world class”, but it sure was fun and adventurous. It brought peace to my mind and new friends to my life. And as a younger wise friend put it to me after, “That's what it's about anyway”.
If climbing doesn't make you smile why do it?
6 months ealier:
 Caution; Fresh coconut juice, tropical temperatures, and tigers can be hazardous to your mental health.

This story first appeared in Gripped Magazine. See

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Now You See it, Now You Don't.

Notice the blue rope tied around the snowy pillar.
“Do you think we should untie the anchor from the pillar?”

“Hey Alik, the pillar's unsupported at the bottom”

A few taps and Alik manages to reduce the foot wide pillar to a dagger. Chris and I are sandwiched into a tiny alcove behind the most solid ice we have seen yet on the route. I glance around and take in two tied off knifeblades, a small C3 cam with one of its three lobes fully expanded, and the ropes tied around the now freehanging dagger. I try not to portray my concern, but I'm looking around for gear. The simplest way to escape the consequences of the dagger peeling off and loading the anchor is to untie. It's only the second time I can remember doing so when unhappy with how we are all anchored to the mountain. We're 5 pitches up the unrepeated mixed route Zeitgeist, and I figure my chances are better just huddling in this little alcove while Chris and Alik figure out what they're going to do next.

WI4 usually implies some ice.  Are we in the right place? It's storming, why are we here?

We'd started the first pitch in the dark. The route description says it's WI4, but Alik only finds slick waterworn quartzite, which makes for slow movement.We're not sure if we are in the right place as we skied in to Taylor Lake at 4:30 a.m., but when we all regroup we are at two fixed nuts.

150 meters of bottomless snow excavating makes me insanely sweaty. Have you ever been in a gully where it is easier to drytool the sides and campus your legs out of the snow that to try to break trail up the slope? Above Chris gets an easy looking ice lead, which turns out to be unconsolidated, narrow, and tricky.

Why does ice always look so easy while belaying?
“I wanted more gear, it just wasn't there”.

The Scottish snice gully.
The same is no doubt true of the anchor.

Tap tap at the pillar/dagger.
I never know how to react in these situations. Am I just overly worried? Untying the loop around the dagger is definitely a good start though. How much does a foot round tube of ice 5 feet high weigh? Would two tied off pins and a tipped out micro cam hold that impact? Why is it Alik is so calm about the situation?

Alik spots a cam in a crack just above the anchor, and asks if we've investigated. We had discounted it as it's got ice and munge in it, which is typical of limestone cracks on alpine routes. I can only speak for myself, but once one of the lead lines is running through it everything seems a bit more reasonable.

Spot the difference.
A light swing at the top of the dagger, a body height above the belay ledge. And it's gone down the gully. About the size of a falling climber's body, but seems more dense.  Good thing we untied that loop of rope that was around it. Alik is not at all flustered. Something about soloing A4 in Yosemite when you are 15, calms the nerves. He does a great job of stemming the steep moves out of the cave. I try to talk myself down after the dagger debacle. I tie back in to my end of the rope.
Route description says, "Drytool around pillar". Not an issue now.
By my lead on the next pitch I've begun to clue in to the fact that the ice is not as fat as when Rob and Steve put the route up. Alik tries to talk me into going up a thin veneer which follows the path of first ascent. After unconsciously considering his risk tolerance and mine, I decide to go for a steeper chimney system which promises protection. It's 3 pm, we've already mentioned that we are not going to make it up the route today, so I don't even care if it takes me off route. I jam myself hard into the corner, determined to make myself feel secure on the pitch.

The route description says to go up the "ice" in the corner in the left of the photo.  I had had enough of trying our luck.

View of the same pitch on the first ascent.

From the comfort of my living room I reconsider the day. On Rob's old blog I see a photo of the ice on the crux pitch, described as WI5. It is, no surprise, fatter than when we were below it. His blog also reminds me that he is a strong and bold climber. I'm glad I decided to give it a pass. We turned around just below the photographer's viewpoint. We didn't make it up the route, but I feel some “good learning” took place.

Maybe I was making myself overly secure in the chimney.  

Friday, 27 November 2015

Above Canmonix

Sitting down mid pitch to appreciate the surroundings. Photo Alik Berg

“There are no routes on the face of Lawrence Grassi”, my well informed buddy mentioned at our lazy downtown coffee hang.

Really? It's the tallest alpine peak above Canmore. There is a road, a school, and the most popular tourist spot in town named after this famous climber, trail builder, miner, guide, and local hero of the 20s. And not one of town's climbing population had thought fit to go see what the face offered?

“Want to go drytooling at the Playground?” It was 11 am.

Bring your warm jacket.  The Playground on a slow day. Positive pulling on drilled holes.

“Nah, I can't get motivated for that hike. Let's go to the Elevation Place, get a better workout anyways”.

Dragging myself out of the leather seat and away from my 4th coffee I stepped out onto Main Street. I turned my gaze past Ha Ling to the easy looking mixed face above town. Hard to believe that the man himself hadn't soloed it on one of his days on strike from the local coal mines back in the day. These days, however, if it wasn't tweeted and hashtagged and filmed it wasn't fact, so I set my mind to exploring this crag.

Red is Perpetual Spring, yellow The Gash (unclimbed) and blue is The HOle. Photo John Price
When I'd first moved to Canmore I'd heard through the rumor mill that the face of Lawrence Grassi had seen an attempt. Two of the top dogs of the day, Rob Owens and Sean Isaac, had been up there in the winter. The route had already informally been named, The Town Gash, and it's reputation had grown. It had to be formidable if it had turned those two around. Both those guys have now reverted to a more normal lifestyle replete with kids and successful businesses. I figured young blood was the best bet for this mission.

At the local climbing store it wasn't a hard sell to young Sam Eastman. I'd heard Sam could crimp with the best of them, and he sure was itching for some alpine action. He wanted to get past his Ontario background of single pitching, and I could use a partner who could make up for my climbing.

“Hey, come over to the window”

“Really, we could climb that?”

“Yeah, and no one's ever climbed anything up there, so we'll be famous. You'll be able to point it out to all your friends when they visit.”

After an hour and a half of hiking from the trailhead , a shorter hike than to the local drytooling crag I might add, we were below the face. I got us in position through some whiley old-guy choss chimneying and pointed Sam up a blank wall. Soon he was lightheartedly chatting over his shoulder about fine chert crimping before the 20 foot run-out off the piton had him downclimbing to me. The youth was ready to head down when I suggested,

“Why don't we just walk along this grass covered sidewalk here and see where it leads”.

Sam crimpin and pimpin on chert, which he seemed to enjoy.

From Mark Twight I've taken to the suggestion that when in the alpine and in doubt...traverse. Sam later said he was impressed with my amazing alpine intuition. Our talents were overlapping nicely. After that there was some “overglamorized scrambling” as one of town's better known crushers has called what I like to do. It was solely for Sam's future benefit in town and with sponsors that I Facebooked from the face. I should know better as this method has only ever gotten me cold shoulders at the local supermarket but I couldn't resist. “Miner's Waltz in C (choss) with a Minor” is a better route name than our scramble deserves. Having moved on from Ontario, Sam was even legally quaffing a pint at the end of the day.

First time through the HOle.  How is it Raph is so often on the coolest leads?  

The highlight of this first route wasn't the climbing but that we had spotted an amazing feature half way up the face, a huge hole (The HOle) puncturing the wall. It was to draw me like a warp in the space time fabric. And who better to investigate with than the astronomy prof? Raph was looking for long days of cardio training in preparation for his next trick, a new route attempt on the big E. For me, the draw was doing the first winter ascent of the face and the bragging rights it would confer to my ego. I got us lost on the starting pitches. We traversed and were faced with... a giant hole in the gully above us. A small dribble of an icicle at the start of the pitch let us pretend we were legitimately on a mixed route. The waterworn smooth topout of The HOle, above a rattly cam placement, had Raph excited momentarily. It was fairly selfish that later I argued that we had only added two new pitches to my effort with Sam, so it didn't deserve a new route name. Really, I just wanted finally to do an FA without Raph's name attached. It was the first time we had to return a call to the K-country wardens who had been advised by caring Canmorons that there were headlights from missing “hikers” on the peak.

Gets deceptively steep and waterworn smooth.

Next, in spite of being a committed married man, Raph decided it was worth paying a visit to the Town Gash. Raph is super successful at what he does best, new routing in the Rockies. As a result sometimes it is difficult to convince him that he is wrong in this pursuit. Thus we found ourselves traversing around the front side of Ha Ling peak, negating one of the prime features of our newly-loved crag, it's short approach up a well established backside trail. Sam seemed to think he was witnessing high performance alpinism, but really it was a go look see sojourn for Raph to plug in a bunch of bolts on a very steep roof and then bail back down the climb.

Trying to look cool like 18 year old Sam. and hide from the rescue forces at the same time.
As a projecting day Sam and I were battling it out trying to one-up each other in our dismissal of practicality by sporting our best skater-turned-climber style. When you are 25 years older than your 18 year old friend it's impossible to outdo him in questions of style. I tried with my used army surplus camo pants but Sam won with his triple oversized hoodies all hanging akimbo as though he were on the street corner. A second call to K-country rescue was made as they tried to guess which one of the town's likely suspects was triggering the alarms this time around.
Cool perspective on the HOle direct, with David Lussier and Jay Mills. Canmore below.

By now I was intent on sending the direct route through The HOle. A no nonsense approach was required, and who can beat ACMG guides for no nonsense practicality in the mountains? The style changed from urban/mountain to dead-bird with blue and white club patches.  No big deal for Jay Mills who was establishing a couple of new alpine routes a week in his work shoulder season. David Lussier, visiting from Nelson, did comment on the amount of “scratching” required, but there are photos to prove he had a smile on his face.
Jay sets off on the easier but run-out second pitch, the n thinks better of it and traverses left.
Third time lucky. At the top of the Town Chute ski run David started asking about avalanche conditions but Jay tipped it over the edge and started down the convex lee slope without discussion. I figure he has to know something, he's sat in those classrooms in Revelstoke and knows all of those acronyms. We found the direct start, comprising one short overhanging chimney and a second run-out moderate face pitch. After placing a stubby in the two feet of ice on the route it took me a good bit longer to commit to the crux exit of the hole than it had the prof.
It's around this time David phoned Kananaskis rescue to tell them we weren't lost hikers.
 The payback was not so much in the climbing but in the amazing photo potential of the spot. Truth be told, one can easily traverse around The HOle on a huge ramp. When Steve House and Rolo Garibotti comment favorably on your Instagram feed though, who cares what the climbing is really like. David being a very thoughtful guy phoned his wife and the wardens from half way up the face. We joked about cragging in Canmonix with the lights of town burning brightly as we topped out.

Red is Perpetual Spring, blue is Kurihara (bolted descent). Photo Noel Rogers

By mid winter the guides were busy working, Sam was off to a future in Vancouver as a cutting edge contemporary artist, and Raph was training lungs and legs exclusively. I needed a new strong young ropegun for my next, most obvious, can't-believe-it-hasn't-been-climbed natural line above town. A little convincing was needed before Alik Berg agreed that there was an obvious winter line on the Canmore Wall, a first winter ascent to boot. Alik comes with a special pedigree. About two decades ago I met a dad and son combo who made me question what was normal. In the Grand Wall parking lot in Squamish was a cute kid with a bowl cut who was maybe 4 feet tall.

Alik Berg has done a lot of sketchy aid climbing since I first met him at the age of 10.  He laughs in the face of loose Rockies choss.

“My son just rope gunned me up the Grand Wall”, said the obviously proud father.

I wondered whether I should be contacting Child and Family Services.

This was Alik when he was 10. He only factor two-ed onto his dad once so it was considered a success, and he repeated the task once more when 12. Since then Alik has climbed 19 El Cap routes up to A5. Having that special calm demeanor that comes of hanging off tiny pieces of metal poked into irregularities in granite, one has to coax these astounding facts out of a self deprecating talent.

The start of the route showing the resevoir above town, a popular location for summer SUP yoga lessons.

Two hours uphill from Lawrence Grassi Ridge Drive we started up the natural line, again with not a scrap of ice on it. We were dubious of our chances of success. The forecast was for a five day storm arriving by noon. Waves of spindrift washed down the face, as we laughed at our worsening wet glove situation. By about two pm I was Facebooking away again only to be informed that we were next to an established bolted rock route, Kurihara. Simultaneously, Alik called out that he had spotted a bolt. Well, we had to be on route then! I missed the two bolt anchor on the next pitch but by staying on the natural line got us to the bottom of the corner we had come to investigate.

It got a little stormy on the first attempt.
Only two pitches separated the easy ground we had climbed from the upper weakness we were aiming for. I started up perfect corner cracks plugging in gear at will, beautiful and plentiful positive edges for front points everywhere. And then as though specially placed to thwart drytooling, a five foot section devoid of edges for the feet appeared. First my sidepoints were on the wall, attempting to smear, then my knees were on, attempting some unknown technique, then the inevitable happened and I was doing my best impression of an El Cap bigwaller, hanging from the gear. It is always key to have ones excuses ready at hand before starting out on a day of climbing, and the weather couldn't be overlooked as atrocious.

Paste the feet and mantle sideways at the crux.

The move that Raph pulled out of his repetoire at the crux section on our successful visit is the second most bizarre move I've seen climbing in winter, a sideways mantle with the tools only for show. Good thing Alik had his camera at the ready to capture the move. I was suddenly distracted by the popping piton no longer in the anchor, a great cue for strong laughter among some. Looking at the image I still can't figure out what Raph is standing on. I had spent considerable time hanging there investigating precisely this issue on our first attempt. Next came the easier but more adventurous pitch. Our special invitee pinch hitter cast out left for 8 meters following a series of edges with no gear beyond the corner. Alik got the glee of leading the 7th pitch and cleaning choss for trundles which could have been clearly seen from town.

By my leads it was a foregone conclusion that we would summit. In the dark I chimneyed through easy corners choked with spindrift. This was the upper snow-filled weakness that I had glassed from town, curious if the pitches leading to it could be climbed. We named the route Perpetual Spring after the winter that wasn't of 2014-2015, or alternately for the never-ending supply of first ascents of natural lines possible within sight of Canmore. An obvious ramp at the bottom of the face, a huge chimney at the top, unclimbed in winter.  Somehow Raph was flip-flopping between buying it as a great new-route experience and being unconvinced.  My case seems unassailable to me.  We put up two new winter routes in four days out.  And while the Town Gash has seen upwards of 10 days on it, and the hole count is growing, it is yet to be climbed.

Guess there are different offerings for different climbers.  To paraphrase the drunk guy from the bar in Team America, 
              Being a gear climbers isn't that bad.  In Canmore, there are three kinds of winter climbs. Peg boarders, bolt clippers, and gear climbers.  Bolt clippers think everyone can get along and peg-boarders have never seen a hole they don't want to drill.  And gear climbers just want to hammer our tools into everything.

Canadian Alpine Journal 2015

Blue is Perpetual Spring.  Red is Kurihara, used for descent.

Route photo The Hole: Red is original line with Raphael, yellow is direct start , orange is unclimbed Gash.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Soloing and Roped Climbing; Both Fun, but Different.

Juan Henriquez high on the ridge, on a hot, low snow year.  When I had visited the upper ridge years earlier, the gargoyles were rather larger.

The Emperor Ridge was calling one summer. With more desire and spare time than climbing partners, I decided to climb it alone. It was an intimidating prospect but the idea was fuelled by my history which gave me an understanding of the mountain. The magical display of the thin red line of sunrise I saw while soloing the easier Kain Face had begun my infatuation years earlier. I came as close to dying as one would like on one of three attempts to solo the North Face when the entire face avalanched above me. Bold though the idea seemed, the Emperor Ridge as a ridge was safe from rockfall and avalanche danger which threatened the face routes. And what a route the ridge was. It was arguably the longest feature on the highest peak in the Rockies. The Berg Lake approach trail I would follow is justifiably renowned: the scenery is Alaskan in scope with huge glaciers pouring into the lake gained after 22 kilometers and two spectacular waterfalls. For directness the line could not be rivalled as it rises straight from the western foot of the mountain as a knife-edge to the summit. And it was said to be a perfect training ground for the greater ranges for which I pined. The route was technically easy enough to solo predominantly unroped. Of course there were the famous gargoyles of the upper ridge which sounded dangerous. I had to go and see for myself.

One of the bigger routes in the Rockies.  As Juan, a former Aconcagua guide, noted, it's like climbing a technical route on Aconcagua in a day.

Making the decision to attempt the route was the most difficult part. Once in motion, the beauty of the activity drew me on. At 3:20 am I took a photo of my wristwatch at the parking lot. The idea was to complete the route and descent in 24 hours so as to claim a one day ascent. I jogged full of anticipation to Kinney Lake through a floating blanket of knee high morning fog. Crossing the icy braided fan of the river below Berg Lake I left the tourist trail behind. From there to the foot of the ridge lay interminable scree slopes. Two steps up one back , but I was so enraptured by the immensity of the terrain that I hardly noticed the effort. Too engrossed and distracted by the looming ridge, I missed my last opportunity to get water and spent the rest of the climb without liquid. I arrived at the foot of the ridge at 10 am. Ominously, the rock had changed from steep but passable scree to nearly vertical scree.
Almost a decade after my solo I did the route again, with Juan Henriquez and Raphael Slawinski.   Not as scary as soloing it, and more laughs.

Route finding was easy. Left, right, avoid anything difficult. My mind raced ahead, bounding up the blocky and ledgy terrain of the lower ridge. It slowly got more solid and narrower. At one point my doubts got the better of me and, hauling my backpack, I self-belayed up a ten metre step using the minimal 15 metre piece of rope I had brought for tricky sections. Being alone made for fast movement and intuitive decision making. I felt the solitude which was both exhilarating and disconcerting. At mid height on the route I took a step left onto the vast expanse of the famed Emperor Face itself and into the shade. A roughly-bounded ice gully was coldly dark and gloomy but afforded speedy passage. Suddenly I was 600 metres up the face. Retreat would be difficult.

At various points you actually have to climb.

The extreme exposure here hit me. After once glancing past my crampons I made sure never to look below me again. On the ridge proper a fall was conceivably non-lethal but here one would stop falling only at the flats at the base of the face. Time slowed and my scope of vision narrowed to focus on each swing, each step into the old and brittle grey ice which shattered with every movement. The mental aspect of such a climb seemed tantamount with action following unconsciously. Doubt battled desire and I drove on.

Upon exiting the gully and regaining the sunny ridge, I encountered a perfect bivouac circle of stacked rocks. What a relief it was to encounter a touch of civilization, a perfect time to rest, eat, and recuperate away from the huge exposure. No longer mentally gripped by the action my mind leapt to the idea that the mountain gods were showing their pleasure with my passage by providing this sign of previous human activity here in this lofty eyrie. I reflected that the bivi circle was probably the work of the man many consider to be THE Rockies mountain god, Barry Blanchard. By an incredible coincidence of fate, years earlier I had witnessed Barry, Eric Dumerac, and Phillip Pellet on the first day of establishing their new route which I had shared since the gully, Infinite Patience. At the time, sitting in the meadows below the Emperor Face, I had succumbed to severe FOMO ( fear of missing out). A familiar lonely, self-pitying jealousy had gripped me. As a new arrival in Canmore and a bit of a loner, I felt myself to be outside the crew of people who climbed at such a level. Now, by foregoing the need for a partner and practicing self reliance, I felt like I was sharing in the pantheon at that moment on the ridge.

The upper ridge with very little snow.

The gargoyles beckoned above. It was the hottest part of the day when I was in the midst of them. A magical fantasy land of snow sculpture enwrapped me. My worries about the hazards of soft snow did not materialize. Styrofoam-like snow made each axe placement as secure as a belay. With no partner to act as counterweight, the usual advice to weave the rope through as many formations as possible did not apply. I did not think it hazardous though. The features were so large that I was never forced to peer over the Emperor Face itself but climbed on the highway side of the ridge or on the crest itself with perfect snow the whole way. Enchanted, I wandered and weaved and climbed until the last mushroom flattened out into the mellow grade of the summit plateau.

Arriving at the summit was stereotypically anticlimactic. The summit plateau was broad and featureless in contrast to the unique forms of the upper ridge. As I had already summitted previously, there was no special elation. Parched by the effort, I would have given anything for a sip of water but made do with sucking on icicles. Realizing just how alone I was, my solitude suddenly struck me as a potential problem and I was only half way through my journey. Due to the time of day, 6 pm, as the air and my body cooled my mind turned to the descent. As much thought had gone into the descent as the climb. The known terrain of the Kain Face was topped by a cornice for much of its length and, from above, finding the correct spot to begin descending would be tricky. I had decided to downclimb the normal south face route instead. In the cooling temperatures of late afternoon, a misty whiteout had formed on the glacier just below the summit with not a breath of wind to clear it. With no visibility, I feared falling into one of the few crevasses. By 9pm I was getting decidedly cold but had no option but to take the decision to sit down and rest. In a small wind trough, I climbed into the black garbage bag that I had brought as an emergency bivi bag. The inevitable sleep was not restful.

Older, wiser, and glad to be on the summit with friends and a sleeping bag.

I woke from a dream of helicopters and rescuers flying up to my position. I was on my own on the summit of the Rockies and I had no one to look to but myself. No one even knew where I was, part of my man-on-a-mission ethos of the time. Far removed from the established Squamish-Canmore axis of the Canadian climbing scene, the summit of Robson felt very "real" and far from the madding crowd. I was learning that it truly is a stand-alone world. Lights on the Yellowhead Highway 3000 metres below made me realize my situation and that the whiteout had cleared. The watch read 3am and I was convulsing involuntarily from the cold. Time to get a move on!

Face out down the slopes of the south face I heel plunged gulping the massive open air at my toes. It crossed my mind that if I fell I would end in a heap at the flats by Kinney Lake. As I ran below threatening blue-green seracs, a strangely intense wind kicked up tossing stones, not just pebbles, through the air. Everything above my elevation was capped suddenly by a thick summit cloud. Crawling on my knees had not been part of the plan for a speed ascent but it was the only safe way to proceed toward the Ralph Forester hut. Finally sipping water, I resisted the urge to sit down.

Spot the climber.  Undoubtedly the most dangerous part of the outing , on the Shwartz ledges. As Raph said, "At times you just have to shut your mind off". At least when you have partners you only have to turn it off briefly.

Some parties fly in to Berg Lake or out from the hut. I had more adrenaline than money and so continued jogging down the gravelly trail. Eventually I got off route and ran down the belly of a massive avalanche gully to the blessedly flat valley. How sweet and easy normal, everyday terrain seemed after my mountain circuit. Thirty-three hours of adventure had elapsed when I returned to the parking lot having experienced hallucinations, delusions, unforgettable climbing, self doubt, and visions of what is possible with a little self-confidence. It was a highpoint of my time climbing in the Rockies, a joyful day of adventure which still fuels my love of the "King" to this day.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

The Times are Changing

I love getting away from roads, phones, and coffee. Managed to do this a couple of weeks ago, with Maarten Van Haeren and Jay Mills. Came back, put it n Facebook, and within two days it was online at the American Alpine Journal.

Maarten is relatively new to the first asscent game, and wanted to know why the story was getting so much attention for such an easy climb.  Big fish, little pond?  Slow news day?  Who knows.  Sure was fun.

What have we here?

Travel a thousand miles by train and you are a brute; pedal five hundred on a bicycle and you remain basically a bourgeois; paddle a hundred in a canoe and you are already a child of nature.
-Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada (1968-79, 1980-1984)

Times were changing in Canada. We were celebrating the end of the ten year reign of Canada's Conservative party and their fear based policies. They'd been trounced by Justin Trudeau, the son of one of Canada's most revered leaders. It was October and the mountains were dry. Things were headed in the right direction.

Jay and I spent a day approaching, then a day and a night getting high above Moraine Lake, featured on the old twenty dollar bill. . The road was closed. We road our bikes in ten kilometers and had the valley to ourselves. That's the amazing thing about alpine climbing in Canada; you don't even have to go anywhere obscure to have the first ascents to yourself. There are only three alpine routes on the side of the valley we were interested in, and the last one was established 30 years ago.

We didn't make it up our objective in the Valley of the Ten Peaks. But it couldn't be beaten as a backyard adventure There is nothing more Canadian than a trip into nature, no matter how brief. It seems to have been put aside in climbing circles, this need to commune with the natural world. A friend has challenged her mixed sport climbing friends to try establishing one new non-sport route each this winter.

In 1988, just down the range, Ken Wallator had spent 4 days out on Storm Mountain. He and Tom Thomas were getting chased around by wardens for pirate camping, so they figured they might as well spend the time up on the mountain. It was a route that had grown to mythical proportions, partly due to Ken's widely reputed hardman abilities. I had been talking about going for a look see at the face for at least five or six years, the same period I and all of my friends had been wishing for a change back to a more Canadian attitude in our national politics. We'd managed to get rid of the might-as-well-be-Texan Alberta politicians; maybe we could get up Ken's route?

Jay was chatting with our new team member, Maarten, about whether Alaska or Cham is better. Maarten works in a wilderness centre for addictions recovery, helping troubled young men find solace in nature. He had spent the last 6 nights camping out.

“Come on, look at where we are, we've got it the best”, I interceded, “where else do you have the entire trail to yourself as soon as you step off the highway?”

We'd just managed to climb an easy gully up the center of the Northeast Face of Storm in 13 hours camp to camp. We hadn't revisited Ken's fierce looking effort from the 80s. Instead we'd shocked ourselves with how easy it was to get up this face we'd all looked at so much. It seemed like we had created an insurmountable problem in our minds, rather than just going for a look. Like how Canada had veered into scary xenophobia from the Conservatives as they tried desperately to hold onto power. We'd voted the fear-mongers out of power, just as we'd faced our doubts and found a path of little resistance. Sometimes the way ahead is just staring you in the face if you'll only take it.

“Can I name it 'Canoeing to Cuba' after Pierre Trudeau? You know, he tried to canoe from Florida to Cuba to visit Castro. He worked in the cane fields there when he spent a year traveling the world when he was young”, I recounted.

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