Friday, April 8, 2011

Twelve years later

April 1999. My most exciting winter season yet was wrapping up. The X-Games, Ouray, early repeats of hard routes big and small: it felt like being caught up in a whirlwind of overhanging rock and ice. Toward the end of the season I got involved in the Rockies' biggest new-wave mixed project to date, the visionary Rocket Man on Mt. Patterson. The route was the brainchild of 'Everyday Dave' Thomson, but the scale of the project meant extra manpower was needed, which was where I came in. Kefira Allen and I spent a couple of days toiling on the wall, jumaring up lines strung over the lower pitches, bolting our way toward the final icicle, pushing the high point a little higher. Dave Thomson and Eric Dumerac were the first to top out on the route: after jugging to the top of the ropes, they finished up the last two pitches of ice. From below the ice had looked continuous and so the drill got left behind. But Rocket Man had an ace up his sleeve:  the final ice did not quite connect with the snow ledge below, requiring a few metres of unprotected drytooling to start.

I am a peak bagger, and summits - even arbitrary ones, like the transition from steep ice to low-angled snow - matter to me. But I am also a sport climber, and climbing a route in a single go from bottom to top means just as much. Because, as GNA ads used to say, style matters. And so Kefira and I crossed the thawing Mistaya River and skied toward Rocket Man one more time. Her shoulder was wrecked and awaiting surgery, but she selflessly volunteered to jumar behind me to give me a chance at climbing the route. A stiff Gore-tex suit, leashes, straight shafts: quaint technology from another century. But mixed climbing was still mixed climbing, and the yellow limestone and blue ice were the same then as they are today. Dave skied up the moraines to watch our progress and take photos. I do not remember that much from that day; after all, it was twelve years ago, and Dave is not here anymore. I do remember dodging a falling cornice on the route, and breaking through the river ice on the ski back to the car.

The mighty Rocket Man. Raphael Slawinski (climbing) and Kefira Allen (belaying) on the fourth pitch. Photo: Dave Thomson.

Raphael Slawinski moving into the M7 crux on the third pitch. Photo: Kefira Allen.

Raphael Slawinski (climbing) and Kefira Allen (belaying) on the fourth pitch. Photo: Dave Thomson.

April 2011. It was another flawless early-spring day. Jon Walsh and I met in Lake Louise, fuelled up on cappuccino, and raced up the Parkway. The outside thermometer in Jon's car dipped to an unseasonal -18 C, but skiing toward the east face of Mt. Patterson had us shedding layers in no time. Two hours after leaving the car we were changing out of AT and into climbing boots at the base of Rocket Man. With a bit of simul-climbing Jon took us up the first two pitches. Our pace slowed dramatically as I started up the third: detached ice and loose rock had me holding my breath as I gingerly weighed creaky edges. Coming to a fork in the road ahead, with more insecure drytooling but bolts up left, and ice but no gear up right, I hesitated for a few moments before heading right. A lock-off on a flexing flake, a rushed swing into thin ice, then another, and I had my feet back under me.

Jon Walsh skiing toward the east face of Mt. Patterson, with Rocket Man on the sunny wall right of the Snowbird Glacier....

... and starting up in the mid-morning sun.

Raphael Slawinski committing to the ice on the third pitch. Photo: Jon Walsh.

Jon Walsh winding up for the camera on the third pitch.

The next two or three pitches went more easily and and let us recover from all the exertion. From a fat snow ledge one more pitch of rock remained. But why was the first bolt so high and where were all the holds? Who bolted this piece of choss and sandbagged it, anyway? Some climbing physicist, I am told. After exploring his options, Jon finally committed to the least bad of the holds and started climbing. A few moves later something gave way and he was off. But why was he not stopping, with a bolt at his waist? The mystery was solved when the bolt was found still attached to the quickdraw: the yellow limestone had exploded around the hole. Jon contemplated life for a few minutes and headed back up. After all the excitement, the ice pitches at the top were pure joy: steep but solid, with breathtaking exposure all the way down to our uptrack. And then we were standing in deep snow at the top of the ice, looking at the upper mountain festooned with monstrous mushrooms and cornices. We were grateful not to be venturing among them, but to be downward bound instead.

Why is ice climbing always more difficult than it looks? Jon Walsh starting up the fourth pitch...

... and searching for holds at the start of the seventh one.

Raphael Slawinski following bolt-protected ice on the seventh pitch (for the record, there was no ice here on the first ascent). Photo: Jon Walsh.

Jon Walsh stepping up on the final pillar.

Hanging glaciers in the mist.

Downward bound.

2 comments:

  1. Saw you on the route, had to use binos to make you out and then could only just see a red jacket. Kendra got some photos but not sure how they'll come out as she only had a 90 mil lens.

    Will

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  2. As it happens, both Jon and I wore red that day, so it could have been either one of us. I am looking forward to seeing the photos. Kendra tells me you had a good day too. Hard not to, with weather like that!

    Raphael

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