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.

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.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Why We Climb

It was early March 2015. In a month's time I'd be leaving for Tibet to attempt a new route on the north side of Everest. My outings were a blur of runs and weighted hill hikes, with just the occasional long ice or ski day thrown in to keep boredom at bay. When out of the blue a photographer emailed me to ask if I'd be interested in doing a photoshoot for his book project, my initial reaction was to politely decline. With all the training and organizing, not to mention family and work, I had no time to spare for posing. But the photographer's name gave me pause.

When I first got serious about climbing in the early nineties, I'd devour every issue of Climbing magazine as soon as it came out. I was living in Chicago at the time, going to graduate school and acutely missing the Rockies. The bright pages of the magazine were an escape from the grey skies and slushy streets of the big city. Perversely, I'd skim over the images of lycra-clad gymnasts on sunny rock, and instead linger over those of modern knights in Goretex armour going to do battle on vertical walls of ice. The most striking photos of such living legends as Alex Lowe or Mark Twight would be credited to Chris Noble.

I think it was recalling an image of Twight on the Weeping Wall I saw years before I first laid eyes on the real thing that made me change my mind about the photoshoot. After all, how often do we get to replay our youthful dreams? I wrote back to Chris that yes, I'd be keen to get out with him.

The Weeping Wall with Mt. Amery in the distance. Photo: Chris Noble.

Normally I don't especially enjoy ice climbing when temperatures dip below -15 C or so. But all through the exceptionally mild winter of 2015, as I sweated in high-altitude boots up muddy trails, I kept hoping for some real cold to prepare my body for the windswept north flank of Everest. And so for once I was happy when I stepped out of the warm car in the Stanley Headwall parking lot and felt cold air wash over me like a liquid. With the thermometer reading well below -20 C, I'd get in some cold weather training.

In the end I didn't have the worst of it. I stayed warm all day, first lugging a pack of full of climbing gear and static line to the base of the wall, then climbing, rappelling and reclimbing pitches high above the valley floor. Chris, on the other hand, other than short bursts of jumaring, hung on the rope for hours, struggling to keep his hands warm enough to operate the camera. Even though days get longer in March, it was already dark by the time we touched back down on the exposed snow ledge below French Reality.

Yours truly starts up the crux pitch of French Roast, the finish to the rarely formed French Toast on the Stanley Headwall. Photo: Chris Noble.

Wiktor Skupinski, usually the man behind the camera, on this occasion generously agreed to endure a long, chilly belay, while I went up and down, and up again. Photo: Chris Noble.

Thin ice with the occasional bit of rock gear to keep things reasonable. It doesn't get much better than that. Photo: Chris Noble.

A few days later, Chris interviewed me in the more comfortable confines of my living room. When he mentioned some of the other climbers he'd be profiling in his book on Why We Climb, I experienced a mixture of conflicting emotions. On one hand, I was certainly flattered to be included in the same table of contents as some of the most inspiring climbers on the planet. On the other, I couldn't help wondering what I was doing in such company. I'm still not sure. I didn't fool myself I played in the same league as the other people in the book. Still, maybe I could offer some musings on balancing a climbing obsession with a full-time job; and, as I inexorably drew nearer to the half-century mark, on downclimbing gracefully.

"But there will come a point within the next decade or so, when I'll inevitably start down the other side of the hill. And that will be a hard process, because a good part of the appeal of climbing for me is the fact that I can push myself and get better."

Nobody said downclimbing was easy.

The cover of Chis Noble's Why We Climb.