Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Trying to Climb with the Big Boys

Jeff making the key chossy moves to the right

I'm sitting on the couch licking my wounds after spending a week trying to climb with the big boys, Jeff Mercier and Marc Andre Leclerc.  It has been a while since I have been so obviously outclassed, but it's good to get a harsh reality check once in a while, and good to get out with such humble and naturally talented senders.  The highlight was Jeff's first ascent of an awful new variation in the Whiteman Falls chasm, a mini venue which packs a mighty punch.

Jeff was at Glenmore lodge a month ago when Raphael Slawinski and I were at the BMC International Winter Meet.  In the question and answer period after a slideshow he gave, Raphael was asked about the future of climbing in the Rockies.  I interjected that I thought climbing was advanced by the injection of fresh blood when visitors came to our home range, giving the example of Ueli Steck putting up the unrepeated Cock Fight, and Josh Wharton rampaging around the range.  To top it off I said, in an off hand challenge, "Now we just need Jeff Mercier to come and visit."

It was only a brief week later that I received an email from Jeff asking if I would want to get out as he was headed over.  I'd really put my foot in it.  For years I've associated with the type of climber who can win Ouray and enchain multiple routes in Kandersteg in a day.  Now Jeff was on his way over and I was going to have to step up to the plate.

The perfect storm came together at Jesse Huey's condo in Canmore, when Marc Andre Leclerc, fresh back from Scotland, also happened to be in the Rockies.  Jesse's buddy David was only on his 5th day using tools and didn't seem to have any problem with the mixed game, and I'm a local, so again I thought I'd better step up.

Jeff was eager to come along as Marc and I avoided terrible avalanche conditions by going to the Real Big Drip.  Marc onsighted the first mixed pitch, and admitted that there were some "powerful moves", the secret to which I couldn't quite grasp.  With Jeff as the second party I had to motor along after falling off, just in time to fix the static line for his photographer.  It was quite revealing that neither of the world class athletes along that day seemed to have much trouble with a pitch that seems to spit off most of the local senders, leading to significant griping on conditions forums.
Marc was kind enough to wait til I wasn't hanging to take the photo.

The safety conscious wouldn't be on the Real Big Drip anyway.  Alex Lowe climbed with no helmet, and it seems like Marc is the one having the most fun, so he's doing something right.

Maybe what I enjoy about climbing with total crushers is that they don't seem to mind my minor foibles of self doubt in the face of failure.  Marc did have a certain note of surprise in his voice when I quietly asked for a take on my lead when I couldn't see how to proceed after about 5 minutes of hanging about.    Neither Marc nor Jeff seemed too bothered by my effort. Jeff even encouragingly noting that I was "only a few moves away" on the RBD.  Well, a few moves and about ten minutes of hanging on the bolt.  Maybe I like the fact that the rope goes up in record time when climbing with world class athletes, and that I get to climb outrageous things, but it's also nice when people don't make fun of you for not being as good as they are. It often seems the best are comfortable with their abilities, while it is those struggling to keep up who make the most noise about how good they are

The same went for the next day when we headed in to Whiteman Falls. I kept asking Jeff what he thought of the climb, and he kept things positive by noting what an incredible venue it was, what amazing ice formations, and how impressive the ice was. I've lapped the icefall a load of times by now, but seen through fresh eyes it was fun to hear Jeff's appreciation for it.  It was a good thing too that he was in a good mood once again, as it was the second day in a row I had forgotten my helmet. 

Down on the ground I mentioned that Steve House had an unrepeated variation connecting the top of Redman Soars with Whiteman Falls, named Whiteman Soars.  It's interesting how Jeff refused to be baited by any challenges I threw out, rather choosing to follow his own intuition.  For example, I had mentioned that Will Gadd had a few standing hard cave routes. I thought Jeff might be just the man for them.  Seemed he hadn't traveled half way around the world to drytool drilled pockets as they have loads in Chamonix. He'd eyed up a new natural line. I couldn't believe I'd never noticed, it was staring everyone straight in the face.

The red route line is Redman Soars, The White line from the top of Redman's to the top of Whiteman's is Steve House's Whiteman Soars.  And the tricolor, the red white and blue is in honor of the nationality of the ropegun on that day.  

I was enjoying watching Jeff's skilled climbing as he started up the initial layback thin crack, making it all look so easy.  But even Jeff had known what yellow rock usually means in the Rockies, and the fine thin crack led only to a chossy roof.  Suddenly a stream of rock came cascading down as he made the most athletic moves of the day.  He had the presence of mind to take out the piton hammer and swing away at the choss, clearing the way to pull over the roof.  Balancy crampon smears gave way to a bit of burliness.  I prepared a joke about super strong Frenchmen who tag up half the rack mid pitch and are sponsored by Totem cams, but the climbing was obviously too serious for that.

I loved the first 20 meters of the crack on top rope.  Just enough feet and some techy pick torques.  At the traverse the feet blanked out, but there were amazingly mouldy patches which accepted steel, fed by the sand coming out of the chossy roof.  It was a sandy "hold" which defeated me as my pick dragged through as I made the crux pull.  Joining Jeff I had to admit he'd done a great job linking about 10 meters of rope into enough gear to make a solid belay.

Now, Jeff works as a secouriste in Chamonix.  Usually he is rescuing tourists, though he has mentioned that some of the rescues are a little more daring.  So it was really not my intention to back off my lead on the second pitch. I really should have trusted the 000 that I put upward in a chossy crack, but I just couldn't.  The ice which would have made Steve's traversing pitch appealing was useless, and the rock it left behind was abysmal, even by Rockies standards.  I went right, I went left, and almost found a neat escape route back to Whitman's, but I just couldn't commit to the moves given the pro.

Not only did Jeff have to take over, I had to give him back his helmet.  With a hop skip and a jump he took a quick glance at the rock, judged it correctly to be horrible, and took off hard left on the traverse around the arete I had balked at.  At the end of the day I had to admit that I was too scared to do it.

"I was just too scared to do it given the pro".

"Well, I didn't look at the pro and I just didn't think about it".

One of the most endearing things about Jeff was that he would race down from the climbs in the evening to get news from his family.  His three sons are at various levels of involvement with their hobbies, and Jeff just couldn't wait to hear their news every day.  So, how you manage the risk when you have a full fledged family I don't know.  I guess the simple truth is that if you climb M14, a short unprotected 5.6 traverse is no big deal.  Still, impressive mind control.

If the cam had come out there would have been about 10 meters of slack in the system, enough to cause some serious problems.  At Jesse's that night I looked up the guidebook description of Whiteman Soars.  It reads in part, "If the ice half way across the traverse is not thick enough for screws, then the pitch gets an X rating because rock gear potential is minimal."  

The ice wasn't in, I wasn't in, and that I guess is what differentiates me from the big boys in this game.

A big thanks to Jeff, and an apology for making him work on his vacation.  As he muttered as I apologized for my performance, "This is what we do for work".  I'm not sure if he meant as a sponsored climber or as a securiste, but it was none the less very impressive to see, and fun to participate, if only with the rope safely above my head. Seems the police in Cham know how to have fun.

The next day I did something I have never done before; I hung on a screw.  By the top of Drama Queen my arms were useless.  Rather than fall on ice, I took the safe way out, again.  Poor Jeff, I'd been hoping to get him onto a genuine Rockies dagger, but he was so cold after my molasses paced lead that he declined the delight.  

I was done, done like dinner as they say.

Thanks to Leonhard Pang for some of the photos he took while on Whiteman's.