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.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Murdering the Impossible

""Impossible": it doesn't exist anymore." - Reinhold Messner

Saddam's Insane

As I hooked and stepped up the cauliflowered pedestal at the top of the first pitch, the dagger at the start of the second hung over my head like the sword of Damocles. From lower on the pitch, it had been distant enough that I worried more about blunting my picks on the thinnish ice at the breakover than about the tons of frozen water looming overhead. But now that I stood right below the dagger, and saw that it failed to connect with its base by mere centimetres, I took great care not to bump it. I tried to pound in some pitons for a belay safely off to the side, but the notorious Kananaskis rock, which somehow manages to be both compact and chossy at the same time, wouldn't take even a knifeblade. In the end, I had no choice but to place a couple of screws directly below the dagger, and to call this unsatisfactory arrangement the anchor.

I read somewhere you should never climb a piece of ice you're afraid to stand under. It sounds obvious and reasonable, but it's funny how easy it can be to ignore this simple piece of wisdom. After I'd belayed Rob up to our stance under the dagger, we turned our attention upward. And the most obvious thing to do was to hop on the dagger. After all, it was almost all there: it wouldn't take extreme gymnastics, just a gentle touch, to get established on the hanging ice. But nearly twenty years ago I'd been lucky to walk away when the giant fang of Suffer Machine collapsed, with me riding it like Captain Ahab the whale. It's not the kind of experience you forget easily, and recalling it helped the voice of reason prevail. Sort of, anyway.

In his 1971 essay The Murder of the Impossible, Messner writes that he's "... ready for anything - even for retreat, if I meet the impossible." Well, the sun was shining, the day was still young, and I didn't want to bail just yet. I began by exploring some options to the right, but nothing looked very appealing. After twenty minutes of fruitless poking around, I rejoined Rob below the dagger. Now it so happened that Saddam was our plan B. Plan A had been an icy chimney I'd spied a couple of years earlier and hoped might be in this season. It wasn't but as a result, in addition to a useless rack of cams and nuts, I'd also brought my courage in the form of a handful of self-drives. I did feel a twinge of guilt as I prepared to add bolts to what was, after all, an established route. However, hanging uncomfortably from a tool driven behind a creaky flake, tap-tap-tapping away, I soon forgot my misgivings.

Four bolts and a pin later, I figured I had enough of a life support system in place in case the dagger decided to do anything untoward. Ever the sport climber, I lowered back to the belay, pulled the rope, and went for the pinkpoint. It wasn't very hard, as after just a few dry moves you could snag the ice. The dagger vibrated slightly as I swung gingerly into it, but it was obviously more solid than my imagination had made it out to be. Soon I was safely past the likely fracture line, cruising the chandeliered ice above. Rob had the worst of it on the follow, his hands freezing repeatedly after a long, chilly belay.

The first flurries of the incoming cold front swirled around as I stood tethered to a couple of screws just below where the ice ran out. As I retreated into the hood of my belay jacket, I thought again about Messner. In his essay he offers that "... if anyone wants to come with me, we'll go to the top together on the routes we can do without branding ourselves murderers." Four protection bolts were nothing next to the bolted aid direttissimas he was railing against. Still, good old Reinhold had a point: not every bit of the vertical world had to be made climbable in reasonable safety. Sometimes, out of self-respect if nothing else, we ought to leave a line unclimbed. Did I enrich Saddam's Insane by adding a mixed variation to it, or did I mar the severe beauty of a serious ice climb with my bolts? I wasn't sure.

Aladdin Sane, M4 WI5
FA: Raphael Slawinski and Robert Smith, December 3, 2016
This is a minor mixed variation to the second pitch of Saddam's Insane. Climb rock behind the dagger past 4 bolts and a fixed pin. The climbing will be harder if the pillar's broken off, while in fat years the bolts will likely be covered in ice.

A beautiful, complex peak, Mt. Kidd hides all kinds of icy bounty in its bowls and gullies.

Rob enjoys December sun at the base of the first pitch of Saddam's Insane...

... and looks on from below the icicles at the start of the second, as I search for alternatives to the hanging dagger. Photo: Robert Smith.

Master of Puppets

Flipping through photos on the Parks Mountain Safety Facebook page, I came across one of the Weeping Wall. I hadn't been up the Parkway since May, so I paused to examine the image more closely. There was the usual ice on Weeping Pillar and the routes to its right, but what caught my eye was the line on the left. Master of Puppets hadn't formed in a dozen years. To quote from my 2004 AAJ Rockies summary:

"In December [2003 Chris] Delworth and [Dave] Marra snagged the first ascent of Master of Puppets (160m WI6). Two rope lengths of moderate ice lead to the most striking feature of the route, a slender freestanding pillar. From the top of the pillar another pitch of steep ice leads to the top of the wall. This exceptional line saw numerous ascents before the crux pillar fell off during an early February heat wave. [Guy] Lacelle said it was among the ten best ice routes he has done - high praise indeed!"

Steve Swenson and I were among the numerous parties that did the route before its premature demise. The early January sun, barely clearing the ridges across the valley, had shone through the translucent crux curtain. I had tapped my way behind it with nothing but air around me. I had felt like I was floating, weightless, the rock wall so far away that it might as well not have been there at all. But I had known this weightlessness to be an illusion, and had waited until turning the corner to where the ice attached to the rock before sinking the first screw.

This season the crux pillar wasn't there, the ice terminating abruptly in a sharp fracture at the lip of the overhang. And that's precisely what had me excited, as it promised scratching around, gymnastics and uncertainty high above the valley floor. With an iffy combination of windslab sitting on top of facets in the alpine, staying below treeline seemed wise. And so, with the unformed pillar for motivation, Juan and I made plans for a mini road trip to the Weeping Wall just before New Year's. Even though I gave Ian fair warning that this was a construction project, he decided to join us on the first day.

Fine snow sifted out of a low, grey sky. We ran up Snivelling Gully to save time, but between a mid-morning start, trail breaking to the Upper Wall and brittle ice on the approach pitches, it was already two o'clock by the time we stood below the bare rock of the crux. Giant ice blocks littering the ledge were all that remained of the unformed pillar. Making light of Ian's razzing about sticking bolts into a route on Guy's top ten list, surgeon-like, I made my preparations: blunt working pick on a tool, crampons off, aiders clipped to the back of the harness, drill on a sling over the shoulder. Less than an hour later, I was lowering from a bolt below the broken edge of what remained of the crux curtain. Juan had a run at the line, prying off loose edges and blocks ranging in size from nail clippings to toasters, before fading light told us it was time to head down.

The sun hit us at the first belay on the Upper Wall. It had cleared overnight, and the morning sky was a pale blue instead of yesterday's grey. It was also noticeably colder, and I eagerly turned my face to the east, blinking in the bright sunshine. This time it wasn't even noon when we made it to the ledge.

"We'll be home early", I thought.

And we might've been, had a sizeable edge not crumbled just below the ice roof, sending me for a whipper and nailing Juan in the shoulder. Our next few goes all ended lower, as we scraped more and more useable holds off the wall.

"On the next go, do you want to continue to the top no matter what?", Juan suggested.

I disliked the thought of leaving the pitch unsent, but with the afternoon wearing on, I could see his point. Fortunately on our failed attempts we'd cleaned enough looseness that, a few minutes later, I was reaching over the ice roof, still on redpoint. Strangely, the pillar had snapped off below where it attached to the rock, and the bottom couple of metres hung free. Hmm... I hooked up the lacy ice above, trying to decide where it might be safe to place my first screw. Perversely, a part of me was glad when I saw the fracture line and realized that, screw or not, if the hanging curtain let go now, with my rope running underneath it, things would go badly for me either way. Even with all the bolts, the climb still had some sting left.

Almost ten years ago I went on a traditional tear at the Stanley Headwall, climbing some new ground on natural gear and repeating existing lines without clipping any of the bolts. It wasn't that I was against bolts. As I wrote afterwards, "Bolts can open up fantastic terrain, allowing us to play with gravity on big overhangs and big daggers. However, bolts should add to the adventure, not diminish it." Perhaps on Master of Puppets, I hadn't eliminated all uncertainty and murdered the impossible altogether. If you head up there, let me know.

Dance Dictator, M7+ WI5+
FA: Juan Henriquez and Raphael Slawinski, December 30, 2016
This is the mixed variation to the crux pitch of Master of Puppets. Climb 2 pitches of moderate ice to a comfortable ledge littered with giant ice blocks. The mixed crux climbs the back rock wall past 9 bolts, with a combination of big moves and delicate hooking. Pull over the ice overhang and continue to a belay behind the upper pillar. Finish up steep, chandeliered ice to the top.

The drytooling is well protected, but if the hanging curtain were to break with you on it and your rope underneath it, the outcome wouldn't be pretty.

Master of Puppets (minus the crux pillar), with the rest of the Upper Weeping Wall behind it.

Juan tries to warm his fingers on the first pitch on our first, stormy day up there...

... and cruises sunny ice on the second pitch on our second day.

Mts. Andromeda and Athabasca framed in the V of the North Saskatchewan River valley.

Yours truly gets down to some grubby construction work on the missing link pitch on the first day... Photo: Ian Welsted.

... and reaps the rewards on the second. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Juan raps down over the ice roof, while sunset paints the sky the delicate pink of late December.

Monday, December 19, 2016

"Wild Climbs in the Rocky Mountains" show in Calgary this Wednesday

Dave Cheesmond was the driving force behind most of the hard new alpine routes done in the Rockies in the 80's. He was fond of saying that if you could climb here, you could climb anywhere. You can quibble about the details ("What about high altitude?"), but not the gist of his pithy phrase. Compared to Alaska or the Himalaya, the Rockies, with their crumbling rock and modest height, are not the sexiest mountain range around. But it's likely easier to get up a big peak in Alaska, with its perfect snowpack and granite, or in the Himalaya, with porters carrying your stuff to basecamp (and sometimes higher), than to fight your way up a remote north face in the Rockies. This coming Wednesday, at the Mappy Hour YYC, I'll tell some stories from our own mountain backyard, and try to convince you that if you want adventure, there's really no need to go anywhere else. I hope to see you there.

Eamonn Walsh gains the summit ridge of Mt. Alberta on his way to making the first winter ascent of the peak. Why go anywhere else?

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Afternoon alpine


Kolin was up in the Rockies for the August long weekend, escaping a sweltering Salt Lake City. He spent one day multipitching in Echo Canyon, the next on the Icefields Parkway... It made me tired just thinking about it, but it was standard fare for Kolin. After all, a weekend jaunt to the Rockies is nothing for the man who's attempted Mt. Huntington round-trip in an extended weekend.

On his last day in the Crumblies, an outing with yours truly was on the agenda, but there was a catch. Kolin's a huge Tragically Hip fan, and he had tickets to the farewell show at the Saddledome. This posed a bit of a conundrum, as he was also keen to do something with an alpine flavour. I hardly need mention that unless you're in Chamonix, alpine climbing and being home early generally don't go together. I racked my brain for something close to the city, close to the road, yet a bit out there. Then I remembered The Wedge. This small peak has long been one of my favourite after-work training scrambles, but I've also managed to find some quality adventure on its steep north side.

The "green bible" describes the Northwest Ridge in typically terse fashion: "One hard pitch on this; a party had climbed the upper part of this ridge in the early 1950's." I'd done it before and vaguely recalled a fun romp. All the same, I managed to lose us on the approach, resulting in some unnecessary bushwhacking. Never mind, soon enough we emerged from the thickets of lodgepole pine onto steep grassy slopes. A quick scramble led to the long ridge extending west from the mountain. To begin with, as we ambled along it in shorts, the route didn't feel very alpine. However, by the time we were donning extra layers in the shade of the summit block, it began to show some promise.

Unfortunately the alpine feeling was short lived. After only three ropelengths of gravelly gullies and loose blocks I pulled onto the rubble of the summit ridge. Good low-stress fun - or so I thought, until a careless step sent a volley of rocks down the corner I'd just come up. From fifty metres below, I heard the cry of a direct hit. Damn! Why did I insist on simulclimbing instead of stopping and finding a sheltered belay? Luckily Kolin's arm, which took the brunt of the impact, wasn't broken. Even so, by the time he joined me at a hastily thrown together anchor, it was already stiffening up. Over the ensuing days the arm turned a dazzling succession of yellows and purples. Maybe there's no such thing as wholly casual mountaineering after all. On the flip side, Kolin did make it to the Hip show with time to spare.

The initial grassy ridge, with the summit block of The Wedge in the distance. Photo: Kolin Powick.

Further on, the broad grassy sidewalk turns into a narrow rocky spine. Photo: Kolin Powick.

Eventually the terrain gets steep enough - or perhaps just chossy enough - to warrant a rope, and maybe even some shiny toys. Photo: Kolin Powick.

From the summit, the Kananaskis Range unfolds to the west out in all its dry summer glory. Photo: Kolin Powick.

Upon returning to the Wasatch, Kolin was understandably psyched to still have use of his arm. Photo: Kolin Powick.

He also took great glee in sending me graphic updates. Photo: Kolin Powick.


Rob emailed me that he'd be up in the Rockies in December guiding, and did I want to get out on the weekends? Even though it'd be getting toward final exams at the uni, with all the attendant end-of-semester craziness, I was game. The first Saturday of the month we enjoyed a good day on a rarely formed ice route on Mt. Kidd. With little snow and mild temperatures, it still felt like autumn. Unfortunately, it proved to be the last day of that gentle season. Sunday was an altogether different story: snowy and blustery, with the mercury dropping through the day as a cold front pushed into the range. Drytooling on Grotto Mtn. was more reminiscent of mixed climbing on the Stanley Headwall, with spindrift coating everything and fingers freezing repeatedly

The mercury kept dropping all week. The following weekend, with highs around minus twenty (we're talking metric here), standing around while belaying held little appeal. I suppose on days like that there's always skiing, but I'm just not a skier at heart. If anything, I'm a peak bagger. I like standing on summits, however humble they might be. And the one good thing about snow and cold is that they can transform even a modest bump into a full-sized adventure. So it was that Saturday morning found Rob and me driving down Highway 40, with little gear but lots of layers, intent on - let's call a spade a spade - a slog. It's a good thing we both enjoy slogging.

Hiking up the drainage below the north side of The Wedge was a sweaty, snowy affair, and it left us soaked from the inside out. On the shoulder above, as we emerged from the trees and the wind picked up, we covered the wet layers with more layers and ploughed on. Crampons scratching around on a snow-covered slab, I could hardly believe this was the same mountain I'd speed hike in runners and shorts on summer evenings. At one point along the summit ridge, a snowy knife edge had us shuffling along à cheval. A knife-edged ridge on the scrambling route on The Wedge? I never knew there was one until last weekend.

We lingered on the summit just long enough to drain our thermoses and take some obligatory selfies. The weak December sunshine didn't give much warmth, and even a mild breeze seemed to cut through all the layers. Pushing the neck gaiter back up over my nose, carefully I began scrambling down behind Rob.

"Good choice, eh?"

"Yeah, fun outing."

Rob engages in what looks suspiciously like mixed climbing on the scrambling route on The Wedge.

Higher up on the summit ridge, even a mild breeze calls for more layers.

A knife edge on normal route on The Wedge? Who knew?

An icy haze covers the Kananaskis Range. What a difference four months makes!

Still, there's something about standing on even a modest summit in deep December that brings a smile - or grimace - to one's face. Photo: Robert Smith.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Talking and climbing in Squamish

Earlier this month I spent a week in Squamish, taking in and taking part in the Arc’teryx Academy. The event kicked off with a slide show by Peter Croft. The adjective “legendary” is overused but it applies to Croft. I’d never seen the man in person before, and while cragging in the Bulletheads that afternoon we kept an eye on the time so as not to miss his show. As it was, he was already being introduced when we squelched our way through wet grass and tried to squeeze in under the crowded awning to escape the rain. Mixing humour with wisdom, Croft told stories of his early days in Squamish, from false starts on Sentry Box, his first 12a, to multi-hour soloing circuits. The soaked Chief rising above the town provided a fitting backdrop.

My own contribution to the festival was much more prosaic, consisting of teaching a clinic on alpine systems with Tim McAllister and a seminar on expedition planning with Steve Swenson. What are alpine systems, you ask? Before the clinic I asked myself the same question and tried to distil ways of thinking and doing that have worked for me in the mountains. In a very small nutshell, here’s what I came up with:
  • Not every alpine climb is a race with shadows, but on many mountain routes you do want to get up and down reasonably quickly. As such, whatever you do should be done with an eye to efficiency.
  • Faced with a stretch of terrain, you have three options: pitch it out, simul-climb it or solo it. Chances are on any big route you’ll find yourself switching between these techniques several times through the day.
  • Use the terrain wisely when belaying pitches. Sometimes cutting a pitch short can be faster, if it means taking advantage of an easily gotten anchor and/or avoiding brutal rope drag.
  • When simul-climbing, make sure the rope is actually protecting you. Don’t fall into the trap of being roped together if all the rope’s doing is ensuring everyone will fall together.
  • Get good at retreating off of routes lacking established rappel anchors. There’s nothing as confidence inspiring when starting a big, adventurous climb as knowing you can get off of it safely and efficiently if you have to.
  • In many mountain ranges, but especially in the Canadian Rockies, that means knowing how to pound pitons. When venturing off the beaten track, consider bringing a hammer and a small selection of pins. And learn how to place a pin before you need to rappel from one. 
In the expedition-planning seminar, while we did talk about the nitty-gritty of putting together an expedition to Alaska or Pakistan, we focused on the bigger picture:
  • Are expeditions for you? If what you really want is to do a bunch of climbing, you’re better off staying in your home range or going on a climbing trip to an established destination.
  • Make sure you and your partner(s) have similar levels of skill, fitness, patience and risk tolerance. A mismatch in any one of these categories can make the experience a miserable one for everyone.
  • Choose your objective wisely. Be ambitious but realistic. Accept that you’ll go through a learning curve and, unless you’re exceptionally lucky, probably won’t do the climb of a lifetime on your first expedition.
  • Dig beneath news flashes and do some research: comb through journals, pore over maps and talk to people who’ve actually been where you want to go.
Talking about climbing is fun, but actually climbing is even more fun. And so, as soon as the talking was done, I went climbing. It being Squamish, it rained nearly every day, but I still managed to touch dry rock every single day. Below are some snapshots from what felt, to a visitor from the dry side of the mountains, like climbing in a rain forest.

The north walls, with the pale scar of the Sheriff's Badge. Conveniently, it stays dry in the rain.

Robert Rogoz, aka Polish Bob, approaches the Sheriff's Badge.

Yours truly on pitch 1 of Daily Planet, a fantastic ropelength of stems and finger locks. Photo: Robert Rogoz.

A stem provides a convenient no-hands rest before the crux, which is where it should be, right before the anchor. Unfortunately the combination of fingertip cracks and smeary feet spelt the end of my OS attempt. Photo: Robert Rogoz.

Bob shakes out as he approaches the crux...

... and liebacks the thank-god flake above it.

The second pitch starts with some squeeze-chimney action.... Photo: Robert Rogoz.

... and finishes with a surprisingly burly hand crack.

A Squamish slug epitomizes the wet coast.

Yours truly contemplates a short but cryptic route on Nightmare Rock. Photo: Laurel Fan.

Me: "I can't believe how humid it is. I'm sweating just standing around."
Laurel: "This isn't humid."
Photo: Laurel Fan.

An unusual perspective on Nightmare Rock. Photo: Laurel Fan.

The Grand Wall, the centrepiece of Squamish climbing.

Yours truly starts up the fun runouts of Mercy Me. Photo: Robert Rogoz.

Bob throws in the last few jams on the Split Pillar...

... before the obligatory last bit of squeeze chimney.

One of the cruxes of the Sword pitch is reaching up from a burly lieback and snagging the chain at the start of the bolt ladder.

Speaking of burly liebacks, yours truly happily clips the bolts on Perry's Lieback. We rappelled from the top of that pitch. I had a plane to catch at YVR, and Vancouver downtown traffic to negotiate to get there. Photo: Robert Rogoz.