Solstice just passed. With barely eight hour of daylight and the occasional spell of minus-thirty weather, it may have felt like winter for some time already, but now it’s official. On my last outing, while attempting a chimney system on an obscure north face, spindrift repeatedly darkened the sky. At belays, Pete and I stamped our feet and swung our arms to avoid the dreaded “hot aches” (as my English companion euphemistically called them). Booting down a snow gully, the beams of our headlamps shone across a white, untracked surface, our steps from the morning already erased by fresh sloughs. “Avalanche!” Pete shouted. Instinctively I jumped to the side. Fortunately the slab that’d cut loose was a thin one. I enjoy winter climbing, I really do, but its pleasures can be of the masochistic variety. Maybe that’s why I’ve always liked climbing in late autumn: freshly formed ice, just a skiff of snow on the ground, temperatures barely below freezing...
However, this past fall I didn’t get out as much as I’d have liked to. Sometime in the middle of October, after an unseasonably warm day of sport climbing at the Coliseum, one of my elbows blew up. Overnight, this usually bony joint swelled up to Elephant-Man-like proportions, eliciting horrified looks from my climbing partners. Clearly some rest was in order. More than a whole frustrating month went by before I even started to think about pulling down again.
“No locking-off involved?” I asked for maybe the third time.
Ian tried to reassure me: “Nope. Just a couple of steeper steps, the rest’s all scrambling.”
“Alright then, I suppose my elbow can handle that much.” I rationalized, itching to go climbing.
For the first few ropelengths the route lived up to Ian’s billing, then we arrived below “The Hole” – the feature that would eventually give the route its name.
“I wish this corner wasn’t quite so climbable.” I grunted.
Ian was surprised: “Isn’t that a good thing?”
“Not when it sucks you into going higher and higher with no gear, it isn’t.” I explained.
Fortunately, after some rooting around I placed enough stubbies in blobs of ice, and enough cams in almost-cracks to justify attempting the overhanging moves into the gully above. Unfortunately, dragging myself onto a water-worn, snow-covered slab did necessitate several lock-offs, my elbow protesting with little pings of pain. So much for it being all scrambling. Though, to be fair, I suppose Ian did say something about a steep step or two…
The north face of Mt. Lawrence Grassi offers some fine alpine terrain right above the busy town of Canmore.
We were glad to escape the wind on the ridge down Miner's Couloir, a.k.a. the Town Chute, later in the season a fine ski run.
We missed the start of our intended line, and ended up making a rising traverse back onto it.
Ian Welsted at the belay below The Hole.
Not scrambling anymore! Photo: Ian Welsted.
Above The Hole, several ropelengths of snow and broken rock gave way to surprisingly solid stone on the last pitch.
From the summit ridge, we contoured back to the notch at the top of Miner's Couloir, and our waiting packs and poles.
We met at the usual parking lot at the west edge of the city. It took us a while to get back onto the highway, as we waited for a gap in the long line of cars streaming eastward. Weekday climbing: a guilty pleasure for a weekend warrior like me. With Juan at the wheel, I tried not to spill hot water onto my lap while filling the mate gourd.
From the trailhead the crux pillar looked thin, but then it was several kilometres away. It would probably turn out to be quite substantial. The snow-covered riverside trail, the dry cobbles of the stream bed draining the big bowl above, the frozen scree slope leading to the start of the ice: it was all so familiar, yet also subtly different every time.
Climbing the initial ice steps, I realized I’d barely swung an ice tool since Chamonix in April. The first few times felt awkward and self-conscious, but my muscles quickly found their old groove. We roped up in a small cave, above which the ice reared up to vertical. Following the pitch, I imagined myself as one of the beginners in the climbing gym, with plastic tubes over my arms: “Don't bend your arms, don't bend them!”
Unfortunately the pillar didn’t look a whole lot more substantial from close up than it had from the valley floor. A mess of icicles tapered down to narrow column delicately balanced on a cauliflowered pedestal.
“I’ll just go up a few moves and see what it’s like.” I offered.
A few moves up, one leg flagging into space, the screw below me loosely spinning in its hole, I should’ve been having second thoughts. Instead I hooked up the hollow ice a couple more body lengths and spun in another useless screw. Why, to borrow Jeff’s memorable phrase, did I need to hang by my arms to avoid breaking my legs? I suppose the day I really required an answer would be the day I'd no longer need to do so. But on that grey, windy November day, precariously suspended on a sliver of ice high above the valley, the question never really occurred to me.
Saddam's Insane from the riverside trail.
Juan Henriquez scrambles up the initial ice steps.
November: fresh ice and barely any snow.
Why do we need to hang by our arms to avoid breaking our legs? I suppose because it's fun.